A Smattering of Picture Books: A Flamingo, Some Gorillas, a Bunny, and GUM
July 29, 2009
Recently, I read through a whole slew of picture books that had accumulated on my shelves. Here are mini-reviews of four that stood out for me from the pack (some other reviews to follow in the next few days):
Sylvie, written and illustrated by Jennifer Sattler (Random House), is one of those picture books that pulls you in because of the engaging cover. In this case, a flirtatious-looking ping flamingo set against a background of pastel oil-painted swirls. Sylvie the flamingo learns one day that she and her family are pink because they eat a diet of little pink shrimp. Naturally enough, she decides to see what happens if she eats, say, grapes, or chocolate, or even a flowered hat. The results are quite eye-catching. Eventually, however, Sylvie decides that it might be better to stick to being herself. Well, mostly, anyway. The text in Sylvie is minimal, one short line per page. It's the illustrations that dominate the book, and make it special. Sylvie demonstrates joie de vive on every page. Her eyes shine, and her long legs dance and stretch and flirt. I think that she's especially pretty with orange and white stripes, but every reader will have his or her favorite colorful version of Sylvie. She is a visual delight.
The cover of Gorilla Garage, written by Mark Shulman and illustrated by Vincent Nguyen (Marshall Cavendish), is also engaging, showing a group of gorilla mechanics in and around a red convertible. This is one where the premise (a gorilla garage!) draws the reader in, and the remainder of the book does not disappoint. A boy and his father go out for a drive. The boy wants to drive, but the father finds this notion ridiculous. Until, that is, they have engine trouble, and end up being helped by the gorilla garage team. A team who, perhaps, doesn't find the notion of the boy driving the car ridiculous at all. Gorilla Garage is filled with fun, whimsical elements (a banana vending machine, and his and her gorilla restroom signs, for example). The text scans well for read-aloud ("We were amazed at our wonderful luck, until a gorilla stepped out of the truck.") Nguyen's illustrations are rendered in pen and ink, with coloring via Photoshop. They are brightly colored and visually appealing, and filled with small, amusing details (a stack of "Monkey" magazines, a banana-shaped road sign, etc.). This is a book that will reward re-reading, on multiple levels.
Another fun title is This Little Bunny Can Bake, written and illustrated by Janet Stein (Schwartz & Wade). It's about a little bunny who attends a dessert cooking class, along with a variety of other animals, taught by the pretentious Chef George. The animals respond as you might expect, with Kitty wanting to make cheesecake, and a blindfolded poodle thinking that a loaf of bread smells like a bone. Only the little bunny is conventionally successful, but the others are both creative and true to their natures. I liked Stein's brush and ink illustrations. Most of the book is in shades of gray and white, except for the pink bunny, and the bunny's cake. This makes it always clear to kids who the central character is, while leaving plenty of room for visual humor surrounding the other characters. For example, Cat puts flowers into a mixing bowl, because "A dessert should smell as good as it tastes." And the chef says "The kitchen must be kept neat and orderly...", even as the students create utter chaos. One other nice thing about this book is that the end pages include delicious (and somewhat quirky) recipes, from C.G's Milk Chocolate Truffles to C.G.'s Chocolate Salami. An excellent book to read before starting a family cooking project.
Another mostly pink and gray book, this one with a few splashes of red, is Trouble Gum, by Matthew Cordell (Feiwel and Friends). One rainy day, Ruben and his little brother Julius (both pigs) are bored. Despite Mom's reservations, Grammy suggests GUM! Although Ruben agrees to be careful, well, things get a bit out of hand. (As Trouble Gum concludes: gum "tended to make a mess".) Trouble Gum effortlessly portrays the older brother/younger brother dynamic. Julius is the ever-present sidekick, with Ruben literally patting him on the head, right up until Julius takes trouble-fraught initiative. Something that I think kids will like (in addition to a wide array of mischief) is the visual variation in this book. Some pages have several sentences of text, some just a few words. Some pages are fairly busy, others nearly blank. On one page, where Ruben is balancing on his head, the text is written sideways. There are also frequent sound effects ("crinkle, wrackle, crackle," etc.) It's all in good fun for the reader. Moms might take issue with the disasters wrought by the little pigs, but kids are sure to enjoy Trouble Gum. I think this one would work best for early elementary school kids. See also Cordell's illustrations in Righty and Lefty: A Tale of Two Feet.