Wolves by Emily Gravett

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wolves_by_GravettNeed a gift for someone on the “naughty” list? No problem. My holiday gift guide excludes no one!

Gravett, Emily. Wolves. New York: Simon & Schuster for Young Readers, 2005. Print.

Genre: picture book

Summary: Rabbit gets a book about wolves from the library. As he reads, he gets more and more engrossed until the story actually manifests a real wolf! Snap-chomp-scarf! Rabbit is gone!

Critique: Received the Kate Greenaway Medal. Bronze runner-up for the Smarties Prize. Shortlists for the Hampshire Illustrated Book Award. This book is fabulously naughty! Rabbit is so cute, so chubby, with ears so long and flopsy! Is it any wonder the wolf turns him into a yummy snack?

Is this book likely to scare the wiz out of young readers? I doubt it. Gravett’s work operates under the premise of “safe danger.” Remember the sizzling thrill when mom or dad would transform into a hulking Frankenstein’s-monster-zombie-beast-thing, chase you, catch you, and “eat” you? That’s safe danger. Basically, this book makes me want to be Emily Gravett when I grow up enough to write picture books. I want to showcase this kind of wicked-fun danger, which is ultimately a show of respect for young readers!

 

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Spots in a Box by Helen Ward

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spots-in-boxI spotted this book a while back and have never forgotten its superb blend of crisp rhymes and powerful theme. Add this to your holiday shopping list as the perfect read-together book for little ones learning to embrace their own spots or not-so-spots.

Ward, Helen. Spots in a Box. Somerville, MA: Templar Books, 2015. Print.

Genre: rhyming picture book

Summary: What’s to be done when you’re the only guinea fowl without any spots? Well you write a letter and order some!

Critique: The rhyme schemes throughout this story are “spot on.” No, really, I’m not just waxing punnetic. War never overreaches or forces the meter with flimflam syntax or nonsensical words. (Just to be clear, syntactical gymnastics and mishmash words are allowed in creative writing, however, only a few authors have succeeded in deploying these tactics with any real skill. Seuss…Dahl…Twain…etc.) Instead, Ward keeps her language tuned up and the story drives itself!

And throughout all the guinea fowl fun had with clots, blots, inky-font dots, and i-topping spots, readers of any age imbibe a subtly conveyed powerful message about how self-expression can be the root of self-fulfillment when it is not designed to merely meet public expectation.

(Guinea fowl fun fact: a group of guinea fowl is called a confusion!)

I Don’t Want to Be a Frog by Dev Petty

Is our identity—defining it and embracing it—an avenue to an enriching existence or is it merely an evolutionary survival strategy?

Petty, Dev. I Don’t Want to Be a Frog. Illus Mike Boldt. New York: Doubleday for Young Readers, 2015. Print.

Genre: picture book

Summary: A young frog wants to be anything other than wet, slimy, and full of bugs. He wants to be a warm and cuddly kind of creature until a wise wolf shows him the perks of warts and all.

Critique: Boldt’s illustrations are wacky…or, more accurately, out-of-wacky. He uses bold strokes, bright colors stretched into dramatic disproportion. The text on the page is similarly stretched. It wasn’t clear if this style was used perfunctory (to cover more of the page) or thematically (to enhance the text with subliminal visual meanings/implications/symbols).

The narrative follows a dialogue between the young frog and his dad, whose standard answer is: You can’t be this or that; you’re a frog. Around the midpoint, poppa frog switches up the response and asks what his son does not like about being a frog. They then encounter a wolf who points out that he would never eat a wet, slimy, fly-filled frog. Bunnies on the other hand…

In general, the story felt shy of essential substance and worldbuilding. For example: wouldn’t a young frog be a tadpole/polliwog? Based on the resolution, the theme for young readers to adopt seemed to be: to become yourself or accept yourself is only an evolutionary survival strategy. Your intrinsic identity keeps you alive. I suspect it does do that, but it also does so much more.

Freckleface Strawberry by Julianne Moore

Can too much curiosity spur accidental bullying?

Moore, Julianne. Freckleface Strawberry. Illustrations by LeUyen Pham. New York: Bloomsbury, 2007. Print.

Genre: picture book

Summary: An exuberant little girl tries everything to hide her red hair and freckles. She quickly uncovers a difficult choice: either go through life alone and uncomfortable or accept her own oddities.

Critique: First off, Pham’s vigorous, lively illustrations bring the entire book to life. She crafts distinct postures rich with emotion and expression.

And if you are wondering whether the Julianne Moore who authored this book is the same Julianne Moore who played Maude in The Big Lebowski (1998), the answer is yes!

For me, the most interesting facet of Moore’s text is the way she uses excessive curiosity as a vehicle for unintended persecution. Unlike the hobgoblins I evidently grew up among, the children in this book are not outright mean. Rather than bully and tease the protagonist about the features that make her unique, they pepper her with questions.

Do freckles hurt? What do they smell like?

To be fair, they do nickname her Freckleface Strawberry and at least one kid makes a lame joke. But on the whole, Moore’s depiction of the child tribe is utterly civilized. Of course, all that may change when freckles and red hair combine with glasses, braces, boobs, and zits. Hang in there, Freckleface!

A Hungry Lion, Or A Dwindling Assortment of Animals by Lucy Ruth Cummins

Look out, creative writers! Using a list format to tell a compelling story just fell into the capable hands of a children’s author. Cue sinister guffaw: MUHUHUHU-WHA-HAHAHA!

Cummins, Lucy Ruth. A Hungry Lion, Or A Dwindling Assortment of Animals. New York: Atheneum Books for Young Readers, 2016. Print.

Genre: children’s picture book

Summary: An unassuming narrator attempts to relate the once upon a time tale of a large assortment of animals, only to be repeatedly interrupted by steady disappearances. Each time the narrator takes stock, the cast dwindles, until only the hungry lion remains…. But the tale does not end there.

Critique: Fans of the mischievous, misbehaving forms of children’s literature will no doubt root this book on their shelves alongside classic troublemakers crafted by the likes Mo Willems, Roald Dahl, E. Nesbit, and Mark Twain. Readers, after all, delight in subversion.

Writers, too, will delight in the way Cummins crafts a story around a continually revised list! Creative nonfiction writers have used this technique to great effect, but in children’s books lists tend to either accumulate or taper and the purpose is usually to assist with counting. The list in this text operates on a totally different schema. Much like Emily Gravett’s Wolves, A Hungry Lion hinges on subversion, but whereas the genius of Gravett’s work achieves its subversiveness by breaking the barriers of a complex mise-en-abyme, Cummins’s text utilizes closure.

In his seminal Understanding Comics, Scott McCloud describes closure as our natural ability to construct a whole from only the parts. Closure is how we fill in gaps in order to make sense of partial or disconnected bits of information. We rely on past experience to complete the incomplete. In other words, closure is our ability to make assumptions or leap to conclusions needing only a small diving board.

What happens to the disappearing animals? The book does not say, so the reader fills in that narrative gap. However, Cummins uses closure to brilliantly demonstrate how our assumptions can be (and often are) wrong. Truth is more slippery than soap. And injustice and justice can be easily and simultaneously swallowed whole.