Category Archives: Picture books

Your Pet Train: How to Train a Train

It’s no secret that train books are hugely popular with boys, including the many Thomas the Train titles as well as lots of other great picture books, both fiction and non-fiction.  Here’s a new one that’s unique in perspective, with excellent artwork:

train-a-trainHow to Train a Train, by Jason Eaton (lexile: NA; AR book level: 3.0; 48 pp)

“So you want a pet train?  Well, of course you do!”

So begins the pith-helmeted young narrator of this delightful new picture book, a guide to finding and training your very own pet train!  He starts with suggestions for catching a wild train (offer it some coal), continues with ways to calm a nervous train (a warm bath), help it get to sleep at night (a story or some locomotive music), and teach it tricks.  The suggestions are absurdly funny, but what really makes this book are John Rocco’s outstanding illustrations.  The trains are big, with mechanical faces that give them personality and emotion, and the kids show obvious love for their big iron pets.

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There are plenty of great non-fiction train books for young readers, but here are two in our library that I really like because the photography is so good:

steam-train-rideSteam Train Ride, by Evelyn Clarke Mott (lexile: NA; AR book level: 2.7; 32 pp)

Take a fun trip with preschooler Christopher on a steam train.  Amply illustrated with photos, the story follows Christopher as he meets the engineer, learns a bit about how the engine works and what the signs mean along the track, buys a ticket, and takes a trip through the countryside on the train.

all-aboard-abcAll Aboard ABC, by Doug Magee (lexile: NA; AR book level: NA; 43 pp)

A typical ABC book, with something about trains for each letter of the alphabet.  The excellent photos take up most or all of a page, and portray items from a variety of perspectives.  Young train enthusiasts will especially enjoy the close-ups of mechanical parts like the coupler, springs, and switches.  The text provides simple, clear explanations in an easy-to-read font.  This would be great to read with a child preparing for a train trip or visit to a railway museum.

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Three in One: Battle Bunny

Wait … is this a LIBRARY BOOK … that some mischievous kid has defaced with a pencil?  Or is it a unique new picture book that is really three stories in one?

battle-bunnyBattle Bunny, by Jon Scieszka (lexile: NA; AR book level: NA; 32 pp)

“Happy birthday, Alexander!  To my little birthday bunny on his special day.  Love, Gran Gran.”

The words penned inside the front cover suggest the supposed original book, Birthday Bunny, was a present from grandma, well-meaning but clueless.  Alex, the birthday boy, must have decided the story of a sad bunny who thinks everyone has forgotten his birthday was a bit too sappy, so he takes pencil in hand to improve it.  So Birthday Bunny becomes Battle Bunny, complete with rockets, planes, bombs, and an evil plan to take over the world.  Who can stop the wicked Battle Bunny?  Crow, Badger, and Squirrel cannot, and even the Kenji Fighting Force (with their 1,103 fighting styles) are defeated.  Finally the president must call in none other than Alex, whose special birthday powers enable him to save the day.

Scieszka is a man-on-a-mission to write stuff that boys will love to read, and he’s certainly hit another home run with Battle Bunny.  Boys who think they’re too old for picture books, or that picture books are dumb, are sure to love the premise of taking a boring story and transforming it into an outrageous battle with ninjas, robot killer bees, and mind-control helmets.  They’ll want to read both stories — the original one, still visible under the scratched out words, and all of Alex’s clever changes and additions.

Scieszka’s technique could also serve as a springboard for helping kids with creative writing.  Starting with Battle Bunny as an example, take a worn-out, dull picture book (perhaps weeded from a library, or cheaply obtained at a garage sale), and give a kid PERMISSION to mark it up (!), turning it into his own story.

Marker + Imagination: Journey

I’m a huge fan of well-crafted wordless picture books.  With an engaging story that even a pre-reader can “read” aloud, they stimulate imagination, and teach children how books work and stories unfold.  (See my review of Chalk for a great example.)  Here is another of my new favorites in that genre.

Journey_by_Aaron_BeckerJourney, by Aaron Becker (lexile: NA; AR book level: NA; 40 pp)

Aaron Becker’s debut book Journey is a captivating story of a bored girl who can’t get anyone in her family to play with her.  So, red marker in hand, she draws a door … and the door leads to an intricate fantasy world of adventure, a daring rescue, and even a new friend.

As children pore over Becker’s detailed images, they can be encouraged to tell the story that they see.  What is this city like which she has found?  Who are the people she encounters?  What are they doing and why?  How do her actions change the story?  And when you get to the end, you’ll want to go back to the beginning and look for the details you missed the first time through.

Even older children who can read (and adults!) will enjoy Journey.  In fact, the story might be too complex and even a bit threatening at one point for young preschoolers.  Though not necessary to appreciate the story, readers familiar with classic children’s literature may also find reference to a character from another book with a purple marker (or is it a crayon?).

Each year the American Library Association awards the Caldecott Medal to the artist of the best American picture book of the previous year.  I think we’ll find Journey on that list in January.

More Christmas Stories

In a recent post, I featured some of the many Christmas-themed books that I especially like.  Here are a few more, some just fun, and others more profound.

christmas_paradeChristmas Parade, by Sandra Boynton

For the littlest ones, fans of Sandra Boynton’s loveable hippos, cows, ducks, and other creatures, here is a simple, noisy, exuberant Christmas parade.  As you “BOOM biddy BOOM biddy BOOM BOOM BOOM!” with the 15 hippos drumming, count the chickens with bassoons, ducks with trombones, one trumpet-playing Santa rhino, and all the others as they march along to the little pig’s house.

santa_stuckSanta’s Stuck, by Rhonda Gowler Greene (lexile: NA; AR book level: 2.0; 32 pp)

An age-old question: how DOES Santa get up and down those chimneys?  Not always easily, it turns out, if he’s had too many sweets!  In this fun cumulative tale, Santa gets stuck going back up.  First the reindeer from the roof try pulling, then the family dog, cat, and kittens try to push from below.  Finally it’s the little mouse who comes up with an ingenious solution for getting Santa out.  The pictures are bright and fun, and the rhyming text fun to read aloud.

where_hide_presentsWhere Did They Hide My Presents? Silly Dilly Christmas Songs, by Alan Katz (lexile: NA; AR book level: 4.2; 32 pp)

Your family will laugh out loud singing these very silly Christmas songs, set to the tunes of familiar carols.  How about “At the Malls” (to the tune of “Deck the Halls”): “At the malls/ No parking spaces/ Ma ma ma ma ma/ Can’t we go home?”  Or perhaps “We’re Caroling” (to the tune of “O Christmas Tree”): “”We’re caroling, we’re caroling / What do we do this stunt for? … I do not mean to be a pain / but it’s so cold I’ll freeze my brain.”  The zany illustrations by David Catrow add to the fun.  (You can see more Silly Dilly Song books I’ve reviewed here.)

on_angel_wingsOn Angel Wings, by Michael Morpurgo (lexile: NA; AR book level: 4.4; 48 pp)

When the angels appeared to the shepherds to announce the birth of the Savior, the Scriptures tell us they eagerly rushed to Bethlehem to see the baby.  But who stayed with the sheep?  Well, in this unique and warm complement to the Biblical story, it’s the youngest, of course, who is stuck with the job.  Now as a grandfather recounting the story to his grandchildren, he tells how he lamented the unfairness of being left behind.  But then the angel Gabriel returned, and secretly whisked him off to be the first to see and hold the baby Jesus.  He was back with the sheep before the others returned, with his own special memories of that miraculous night.  Simple, flowing pen and watercolor drawings by Quentin Blake (who illustrated many Roald Dahl works) fit the story.  Well worth reading with the family on Christmas Eve.

great_joyGreat Joy, by Kate DiCamillo (lexile:680; AR book level:  3.0; 32 pp)

From their apartment above the street, Frances can look down and see the organ grinder and his monkey on the corner, and sometimes, when it’s quiet, hear his music, sad and far away.  As her mother is getting her costume ready for the Christmas pageant, though, Frances wonders where the man and his monkey go at night in the cold.  So on the way to the church, Frances offers a simple, heartfelt invitation.

The final, wordless picture spread in the book captures something of what the angel meant when he announced so long ago that the tidings of great joy would be for “all people.”  A beautiful, simply-told story, with superb pictures and a wonderful message.

orange_for_frankieOn the funny side I can also recommend Dear Santa: The Letters of James B. Dobbins, by Bill Harley, and Three French Hens, by Margie Palatini.  And one more touching historical Christmas tale, based on a true story from the author’s own family:  An Orange for Frankie, by Patricia Polacco.

From Silly to Spiritual: Tales for Christmas

We have HUNDREDS of Christmas stories for kids in our library, and this time of year many of them are checked out again and again.  Here are some of my favorites, from the funny that are sure to appeal to boys, to the inspirational that would be wonderful for reading aloud as a family.

gingerbread_piratesThe Gingerbread Pirates, by Kristin Kladstrup (lexile: 450; AR book level: 2.8; 32 pp)

It’s Christmas Eve, and Jim and his mother are making gingerbread cookies, including some to leave out for Santa.  But instead of the usual boring gingerbread men, these are pirates — including Captain Cookie, complete with cutlass and toothpick pegleg!  When Jim goes to sleep, Captain Cookie comes to life, and heads out to look for his crew and save them from being eaten by this Santa-character!  Wonderful pictures, and a delightful surprise at the end.

dinosaurs_christmasThe Dinosaurs’ Night Before Christmas, by Anne Muecke (lexile: NA; AR book level: 4.7; 32 pp)

The dinosaur fossils in a museum are the stars of this rollicking adaptation of Clement Clarke Moore’s classic poem, “‘Twas the Night Before Christmas.”  To the delight of the young boy awoken by the “unusual clatter,” the dinosaurs come to life, and he joins them for a wild Christmas party.  The illustrations are vibrant and colorful.  And the accompanying CD features Al Roker reading the story aloud, as well as several dino-versions of classic Christmas songs (“Hark, the Pterodactyls Sing”).

christmas_trenchesChristmas in the Trenches, by John McCutcheon (lexile: 520; AR book level: 3.2; 32 pp)

It’s Christmas Eve, 1914, four months into World War I.  British and German troops are spending the holiday in trenches dug into the cold ground, facing one another across what was known as “No Man’s Land.”  The quiet is interrupted: the British hear the Germans singing, the words unknown, but the tune unmistakably “Silent Night.”  The British respond with “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen”; soon a lone German soldier is approaching with a white flag and a Christmas tree.  Thus begins the true story of what came to be known as “The Christmas Truce,” when the two opposing armies set down their guns and briefly came together.  They exchanged gifts, shared pictures of their families, and even played a game of soccer.  This fictionalized account is told by a grandfather to his grandchildren years later.  The accompanying CD includes a reading of the story, the author’s song that inspired it, and “Silent Night” in English and German.

voices_christmasVoices of Christmas, by Nikki Grimes (lexile: NA; AR book level: 4.3; 32 pp)

Award-winning author and poet Nikki Grimes presents a beautiful picture of  Jesus’ birth, told in the voices of those who were there.  Listen in on what may have been the thoughts and feelings of the angel Gabriel, Joseph, Mary, a shepherd, a wise man, Simeon, and even King Herod.  The free verse monologues and realistic paintings bring each character to life.  Read for yourself, or listen to each superbly narrated on the accompanying CD.  I usually suggest borrowing from the library, but this is one you may want to purchase and read year after year.

Books to play with: Press Here

In an age when the cool toys all require batteries and computer chips, how refreshing to find simple books — just paper & ink — that invite preschoolers to play!  In France, Hervé Tullet is known as the “Prince of Preschool Books,” and he has created a series of board books that are delightfully interactive.  Quite a few have been translated into English, and I hope more are on the way.

Press Here, by Hervé Tullet

This is by far my favorite Tullet book, and the one that has taken the U.S. by storm (62 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list).  The concept is simple.  The reader (or, more likely, listener) is invited to press the yellow dot, then turn the page — hey, now there are two yellow dots!  Press again, turn the page — there are three!  As you continue through the book, you press or rub the dots, clap, tilt or the shake the book, and the dots multiply, change colors, grow, shrink, and tumble around on the following page.

I’ve used Press Here for several preschool story times, and it’s always a hit.  There are enough ways to interact with the book that each child has a chance to participate.

Here are some other Tullet books I’ve previewed, but not had the chance to use with kids.  All are available in our library system.  I’d be interested to hear from parents what your kids think of these, if you’ve read them.

The Book with a Hole

This BIG book (12.6″ x 10.8″) really does have a great big hole in the middle when you open it up.  Each two-page spread invites the reader to fill that hole with something:  food on the plate, the face of the king, an elephant’s trunk, your hand (do you dare?) into the snake’s mouth.  I’ve seen several blogs where parents and kids have made a game of posting pictures of various objects and faces in the hole.  Lots of imaginative possibilities.

The Game of Finger Worms

Yes, there’s a (much smaller) hole in the middle of this board book as well.  Draw a smiley face on your finger or thumb, put it though the hole, and voilà*, on each two-page spread you have finger worms poking their heads out.  They may be finger-worm dinosaurs, in pipes, in your cake, or at the bottom of the lake.  Probably ideal for toddlers.

*voilà: French, in honor of Mr Tullet’s nationality.

The Game of Let’s Go

This board book takes you on a journey.  Close your eyes, and with your finger trace your way through the pages, following the fuzzy green line.  It may loop and swirl, go around or through holes in the page.  As you travel along, make up a story based on what you feel.  This certainly requires concentration as the path gets more complex, so probably would not be interesting for those under 3 or so.  It could be a very neat pre-reading experience for kinesthetic (active, touch-oriented) learners.

The Game of Light

A book to be used in the dark, with a flashlight.  Shine the light through the die-cut holes in each page to create images on the ceiling: the sun, stars, flowers, fish, smiling faces.  (I tried it in my bedroom, and it worked!)

You can find details on other Tullet books in English here on Amazon, including some that sound cool but wouldn’t be in libraries because they invite the reader to doodle or color in them.

A Home Run: Randy Riley’s Really Big Hit

I LOVE Chris Van Dusen’s artwork: bright, crisp, energetic, and retro.  (You can see my earlier review of some of his work in this post.)  I was so excited to find some new picture books he’s written and illustrated, including:

Randy Riley’s Really Big Hit, by Chris Van Dusen (lexile: NA; AR book level: 4.0; 32 pp)

Randy Riley loves science, especially astronomy, planets, stars and ROBOTS!  In fact, his bedroom is full of cool robots (including some famous ones that adults may  recognize from movies of old).  He also loves baseball — but is not so good at that, and in fact has never gotten a hit.  Then one night, peering through his Space Boy telescope, Randy spies a fireball headed towards Earth.*  With careful calculation he determines it will strike his very own town in 19 days!  So while his friends keep playing ball, Randy uses his unique skills to craft a plan that will save the day and make him a hero.  I won’t spoil it by telling you what he does, but I will say that every boy is gonna say “I want one of those!”

The artwork is so much fun, and the rhyming text is perfect for reading aloud.  On his website, Van Dusen says that Dr Seuss was a boyhood hero, and I’m sure Van Dusen’s poetry would make the good doctor proud.

*Yes, all you science-y folk — I know a rogue interplanetary body would not be FLAMING in the vacuum of outer space, not until it hit the atmosphere — just go with it, OK?

King Hugo’s Huge Ego (lexile: 920; AR book level: 4.6; 40 pp)

Long ago, when people spoke
with words like “thou” and “thee,”
there lived a king named Hugo
who was only three foot three.

And though this mini monarch
stood no higher than an elf,
his ego was enormous —
he thought highly of himself.

Cocky King Hugo forces his subjects bow to him and listen to endless tales of his wonderfulness.  He meets his match, however, when he tangles with a village girl who also happens to be a witch.  The curse she puts on him causes his head to swell bigger with each boast, with comic consequences.  Will he finally learn his lesson?

AND good news for those fans of Van Dusen’s If I Built A Car — the same creative kid with the vivid imagination will be back in If I Built a House, due out October 25, 2012.  (And we now HAVE it at the Decatur Public Library!)