Boys and Their Toys: Picture Books

Boys, especially younger boys, don’t need much stuff to play imaginatively.  Give them a few action figures, and they’ll spend hours conjuring elaborate adventures with Buzz Lightyear, Luke Skywalker, a pirate, and a handful of dinosaurs all in the same story – usually doing battle, either among themselves or with “the bad guys.”

Here are some very clever, well-illustrated picture books that speak to boys’ creative play.

Shark vs TrainShark vs. Train, by Chris Barton, illustrated by Tom Lichtenheld (40 pp)

Two boys reach into a toy box, and each pulls out an icon of toughness – a shark and a train.  Who will win, as these two go fin-to-smokestack in battle?

Well, the answer, it seems, depends entirely on the competition.  Roasting marshmallows, it’s Train, with his fiery smokestack – Shark’s all wet, and just puts out the fire.  Shark wins at bowling (he eats all the pins), while Train has the height for basketball.  Neither is good at the Extreme Zombie-Squirrel Motocross video game (as Train says, “Sure would help if we had thumbs.”)  The contests get wackier, and the results funnier as the book progresses.

Shark vs. Train has been on the NY Times bestseller list, and even has its own website, with coloring pages, puzzles, and “outtakes,” page drafts that didn’t make into the book.

Traction ManTraction Man is Here, by Mini Grey (lexile: 730; AR book level: 3.6; 32 pp)
Traction Man Meets Turbodog (lexile: 540; AR book level: 3.2; 32 pp)

As narrated by the boy who receives him for Christmas, the adventures of action figure Traction Man involve everyday household objects transformed into exotic settings and evil villains.  He rescues the farm animals from the Evil Pillows that are holding them captive on Planet Quilt.  He dives into the foamy waters of the Sink, where he’s nearly suffocated by the Poisonous Dishcloth, but rescued by a brave little Scrubbing Brush that becomes his faithful sidekick. But his biggest test comes when they go to Granny’s, who has a present even for Traction Man: a very unheroic knitted green jumpsuit and matching bonnet.  With the help of Scrubbing Brush, even the green jumpsuit saves the day in a final daring rescue.

The format is somewhat comic-book, which will appeal to lots of boys, and the pictures beg to be studied for all the funny little details.  (Note the decorations on Granny’s tree, and the pictures on her walls.)

In the sequel, Traction Man and Scrubbing Brush undertake a daring climb up Mt. Compost Heap.  But then Scrubbing Brush ends up in the “bin” (read “garbage can”), and Traction Man and the annoying robot Turbodog have to rescue him.

P.S. Added in 2011: Traction Man and the Beach Odyssey (lexile: 770; AR book level: 3.8; 32 pp)

BelowBelow, by Nina Crews (lexile: 360; AR book level: 1.9; 32 pp)

Jack and his action figure, Guy, have all sorts of adventures on the tall, narrow stairs of their house – they climb mountains, visit cities, and explore forests.  But one day they find a hole in the stair – what might be down there?.  It’s too small for Jack, but Guy is willing to go alone to check it out.  Oh no!  Now that Guy is down there, what if there are dragons?  Or wild horses?  It’s up to Jack to bring his fire truck, crane, and a cast of extras to rescue Guy.

This simple story captures the world of a boy’s creative play, and the photo-collage illustrations are the best part.  Each page or two-page spread is a simple, colorful photo, with digital images or line-drawings added to reflect Jack’s imagination.  I think even little guys (3 years old) will get into this book.

And I just discovered that there’s a brand-new sequel: Sky-High Guy!  Jack and his little brother, Gus, return, and Guy’s adventures land him in a parachute stuck in a tree.  We just got it at the Decatur Public Library!


3 responses to “Boys and Their Toys: Picture Books

  1. Wow! What a fantastic blog! Can’t wait to read your next postings; congrats on creating an outstanding resource in a sorely needed area!

  2. Told my Mom about Shark vs. Train and she ordered two copies as Christmas gifts for my six-year-old nephews. These close-enough-to-be-brothers cousins are as different as night and day. One of them adores all things Train. The other is more aggressive (let’s say “shark-like”). The books arrived today and Mom said “They are the cutest!!! Thanks for that suggestion.”

  3. Kristy — Hey, great to hear it! I hope your nephews love the books. John

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