Review of City Dog, Country Frog, by Mo Willems, pictures by Jon J. Muth

City Dog, Country Frog

by Mo Willems
pictures by Jon J. Muth

Hyperion Books for Children, New York, 2010. 60 pages.
Starred Review

I’m sure that everyone who reads my reviews regularly knows that I am a huge Mo Willems fan. It’s gotten to the point that I resist reviewing his books — because I think I may be getting tedious telling every parent and child I know to read Mo Willems’ books. They’re consistently brilliant, and how many times should I say that? So I try to only review the stand-outs among stand-outs.

However, City Dog, Country Frog, is something new. It’s a book written by Mo Willems, but illustrated by someone else. I’ve already reviewed Jon J Muth’s book, Zen Shorts. The pictures in that book are beautiful, and the result is a quiet, meditative book.

As big a fan as I am of Mo Willems, what blew me away about City Dog, Country Frog was not the words but the illustrations. (Though both components are definitely necessary and work together beautifully.) I’m already thinking that I hope this book gets some recognition from the Caldecott Award committee.

The story is simple enough. We have a section for each season: Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter, and then Spring again. The words are on pages facing big, beautiful watercolor paintings. The first page of “Spring” explains the set up:

“City Dog didn’t stop on that first day in the country; he ran as far and as fast as he could”

On the opposite page, we see a country house with a big enormous spring-green lawn overshadowed by a tree with blossoms. City Dog is running fast down at the bottom corner of the picture, heading off the page, and printed on the picture around him are the words “and all without a leash!”

When City Dog gets to a pond, he spots something he’s never seen before, sitting on a rock.

“(It was Country Frog.)
“‘What are you doing?’ asked City Dog.
“‘Waiting for a friend,’ replied Country Frog with a smile.
“‘But you’ll do.'”

That Spring, the two new friends play together, and Country Frog teaches City Dog “Country Frog games.”

“Country Frog’s games involved jumping and splashing and croaking.”

When Summer comes, City Dog teaches Country Frog “City Dog games,” involving sniffing and fetching and barking.

I love the way the pictures show Country Frog throwing a stick and City Dog eagerly running to fetch it, but then they finish when “Country Frog was too tired to sniff and fetch and bark anymore.”

When Fall comes, Country Frog is tired, so they play “remember-ing games,” remembering together all the fun they have had during City Dog’s visits.

In winter, “City Dog didn’t stop to eat the snow; he ran straight for Country Frog’s rock.” But Country Frog isn’t there.

Finally, when Spring comes again, there’s a nice full circle as a new creature sees City Dog sitting on a rock. My one warning to parents is that your child may ask where Country Frog went, and, as they said in Horn Book Magazine, “this is not a story about hibernation.”

But the story is so simple and so beautiful. City Dog appropriately remembers his good friend and passes on his legacy — but doesn’t stop living life now. As usual with Mo Willems books, there are profound truths behind this book, conveyed simply and so much more powerfully than the most eloquent sermon could ever do.

But let me talk about the illustrations! The story is excellent, simple and profound. But the pictures carry the book into a true stand-out. Jon J Muth has done an amazing job with this book.

His watercolor work is beautiful, there’s no question about that. But he keeps the book from feeling heavy or sad or overly serious, with nice touches like City Dog’s wagging tail and cartoon-like eagerness.

So many of the paintings I just love and would happily frame and hang on a wall — City Dog with his nose in the pond wagging his tail after the friends have been jumping and splashing and croaking; City Dog swimming with Country Frog riding on his nose; the sunlight shining on City Dog’s back as he carries a stick on the section page for Spring; Country Frog flinging a stick and City Dog eagerly running to chase it, tail wagging; the glorious colors of Fall when City Dog arrives again in the country and rushes happily to Country Frog’s rock; City Dog’s ear lifted with curiosity when he arrives at the snow-covered rock in winter and looks for Country Frog; the glorious two-page spread of City Dog waiting for Country Frog on the rock in the purple and yellow winter twilight; but most especially City Dog’s face when he meets a new friend and “smiled a froggy smile.” Jon J Muth manages to make his face look just like Country Frog’s face — yet remain fully doggy.

It’s probably silly for me to try to describe all the wonderful pictures. This is a book you should check out and look at for yourself!

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Source: This review is based on a library book from the Fairfax County Public Library.

Review of Clementine, by Sara Pennypacker


by Sara Pennypacker
pictures by Marla Frazee

Hyperion Books for Children, New York, 2006. 136 pages.
Starred Review

How did I miss this book so long? I suppose it has something to do with the fact that I don’t have daughters. However, as a children’s librarian, I feel remiss at not having read this book sooner.

This book came to my attention by way of Betsy Bird’s Fuse #8 blog. After her poll of the Top 100 Children’s Novels, she did a post about the other titles that got votes, but were not in the top 100. Clementine was mentioned as a 21st Century Ramona the Pest.

When I read Clementine I was completely enchanted. When I checked it out, I was looking for something to read at the “Mother’s Day Mugs” library program. The program was for ages 6 and up to paint their own mugs, so none of the Mother’s Day picture books at the library seemed entirely appropriate — They are mostly geared for younger kids. I found a happy solution in Chapter Three of Clementine. It’s funny, kept their interest, and has a nice section with her mother when she realizes that it’s okay that her mother isn’t the sort who would ever appear in a magazine picture of a mother.

The book is narrated by Clementine. She’s in third grade and definitely means well. So why does she keep on getting in trouble?

The first page gives you a nice taste of what’s to come:

“I have had not so good of a week.

“Well, Monday was a pretty good day, if you don’t count Hamburger Surprise at lunch and Margaret’s mother coming to get her. Or the stuff that happened in the principal’s office when I got sent there to explain that Margaret’s hair was not my fault and besides she looks okay without it, but I couldn’t because Principal Rice was gone, trying to calm down Margaret’s mother.

“Someone should tell you not to answer the phone in the principal’s office, if that’s a rule.

Okay, fine, Monday was not so good of a day.”

The illustrations by Marla Frazee are absolutely brilliant, showing another perspective on things. One of my favorites is where Clementine says this:

“I knew Friday was going to be a bad day right from the beginning, because there were clear parts in my eggs.

“‘I can’t eat eggs if they have clear parts,’ I reminded my mother.

“‘Eat around them,’ she said. ‘Just eat the yellow parts and the white parts.’

“But I couldn’t because the clear parts had touched the yellow parts and the white parts. So all I had was toast.”

The picture on the page facing this picture has Clementine at the table, dramatically holding her throat and making a choking face. Her mother is holding a frying pan and does not look amused. On the floor is an untidy backpack with books and papers coming out.

I love this passage that shows how Clementine’s perspective is quite different from the adults around her. It’s from when the principal gets back to her office:

“Principal Rice rolled her eyes to the ceiling then, like she was looking for something up there. Ceiling snakes maybe, just waiting to drip on you. That’s what I used to be afraid of when I was little, anyway. Now I am not afraid of anything.

“Okay, fine, I am afraid of pointy things. But that is all. And boomerangs.

“‘Clementine, you need to pay attention,’ said Principal Rice. ‘We need to discuss Margaret’s hair. What are you doing on the floor?’

“‘Helping you look for ceiling snakes,’ I reminded her.

“‘Ceiling snakes? What ceiling snakes?’ she asked.

“See what I mean? Me — paying attention; everyone else — not. I am amazed they let someone with this problem be the boss of a school.”

I enjoyed Clementine so much, I ended up accosting a patron at the library on my last day working there. You see, for the two years I worked at Herndon Fortnightly Library, I had this thoughtful grandmother of two girls asking me for book recommendations. She likes to give her granddaughters well-chosen books. I think two years ago, the girls were two and four, so now they must be four and six. A recent big hit with the youngest was Olivia, by Ian Falconer, and the whole time I was reading Clementine, I thought that this book is the perfect follow-up, for just a little bit older girl. I definitely wanted to mention it to this grandma, so when I saw her on my very last day at the library, I had to bring her over to the Clementine books, whether she was looking for books for her granddaughters that day or not.

I got this book read after reading Half-Minute Horrors showed me that reading a children’s chapter book with short chapters was the perfect activity for waiting at northern Virginia traffic lights. I’ve already seen, from the Mother’s Day Mugs program, that it’s great fun for reading aloud to a wide age range.

Any child who’s been in school will appreciate Clementine’s perspective. With plenty of pictures, and not too many words on a page, it’s also a perfect selection for a child ready for chapter books. Definitely a winner in every way! And I agree that she carries on the legacy of Ramona the Pest. I’m going to snap up the other books about Clementine.

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Source: This review is based on a library book from the Fairfax County Public Library.

Review of Everything I Need to Know I Learned from a Children’s Book

Everything I Need to Know I Learned from a Children’s Book

Life Lessons from Notable People from All Walks of Life

edited by Anita Silvey

Roaring Brook Press, New York, 2009. 233 pages.
Starred Review

Here’s a fabulous and thought-provoking celebration of children’s books. I read it slowly and savored it, enjoying a few pages a day. I definitely want to purchase my own copy so I can go through it again many times.

In the Introduction, Anita Silvey explains what she has accomplished with this magnificent book:

“In this book 110 society leaders from various areas — science, politics, sports, and the arts — talk about a children’s book that they loved and its impact on their lives. Funny, insightful, and inspiring, these stories testify to the amazing power of the right book for the right child — at the right time.

“A single illustration from Treasure Island created by N. C. Wyeth made his son Andrew want to become a painter and inspired Robert Montgomery to become an actor. Sometimes a specific book sent an individual on a career path: Steve Wozniak of Apple Inc. read the Tom Swift books, knew he wanted to be an inventor, and eventually created Apple I and Apple II. Characters became role models; Jo March of Little Women inspired actress Julianne Moore, television commentator Judy Woodruff, and writer Bobbie Ann Mason. A book revealed a truth about the person’s character, as Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel did for Jay Leno. At times single lines from a book have resonated for a lifetime: William DeVries, the cardiothoracic surgeon who implanted the first artificial heart, has thought about a statement from The Wizard of Oz all of his career — ‘I will bear all the unhappiness without a murmur, if you will give me a heart.’…

“All of the essays reveal interesting details about the person who wrote them. Many of the people in this volume remember the name of their librarian or teacher, the bookstore they frequented, or the person who handed them a beloved book. When we give children books, we become part of their future, part of their most cherished memories, and part of their entire lives.

“Children’s books change lives. Everything I Need to Know I Learned from a Children’s Book provides insight into how they do this. I hope the essays in this book will inspire you to find great books for the children in your life and move you to read to them. The act of reading to a child is the most important contribution to the future of our society that adults can make.”

The large format of the book includes a one-page excerpt with a picture from the book that the famous person is remembering. On the page about their remembrances, there is a sidebar about the background of the book and the person who was touched by it.

The books chosen and remembered present an amazing range of titles. There are picture books, chapter books, and even books considered adult books. Given the ages of the contributors, many of the books were written long ago, but a large number of them are still in print and much beloved today.

Here’s a passage that I enjoyed from Kyle Zimmer, who talked about falling in love with The Hobbit as a child and later reading that same book to his own son. Perhaps I especially loved that essay because the same is true of me and that very book. But his summing up applies to so many more books and so many more people:

“When we read great books with our children, we teach them to turn to great books throughout their lives for comfort, humor, and for illumination of the human experience. The most influential leaders and thinkers in the world have consistently relied on literature for inspiration at their most difficult moments. Nelson Mandela turned to Steinbeck during his imprisonment and says it changed his life. Lincoln was criticized for reading novels in the middle of the Civil War; he defended himself by saying that it kept him sane.

“Whether we are called upon to govern a nation or organize a birthday party for too many children, the key to both surviving our days and cultivating our next generation of leaders is many books, well chosen.”

In many ways, that sums up why I love being a children’s librarian and think of it as more of a calling, than a job. (So I am still a children’s librarian, even though I am currently not employed as one.)

As Jerry J. Mallett says in the very last essay, “It is never too late to have your life changed by a children’s book.”

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Source: This review is based on a library book from the Fairfax County Public Library.

Review of The Short Second Life of Bree Tanner

The Short Second Life of Bree Tanner

An Eclipse Novella

by Stephenie Meyer

Megan Tingley Books (Little, Brown), 2010. 178 pages.

The Short Second Life of Bree Tanner is a spin-off from Eclipse, telling the interesting back story of a minor character. Since it’s a novella it’s short, and made for a fun afternoon read.

It’s been awhile since I read Eclipse, and I haven’t seen the movie, so I didn’t remember who Bree Tanner was until I got to where her story was intersecting with Bella’s. That was fine, but you will want to have at least read Eclipse before you read this book, to be familiar with the world of sparkly vampires.

In Eclipse, Edward’s enemy is building an army of newborn vampires to battle and defeat the Cullens. Bree Tanner is one of that army, who’s used in Eclipse to show how ruthless the Volturi are. In an introduction, Stephenie Meyer says she wishes she had ended that differently now, and the reader will agree with her in that, because this book does give the reader sympathy for Bree, a ruthless bloodthirsty hunter.

I found it kind of amusing that one way their leader controls the newborn vampires is to tell them it’s dangerous to go out in the sunlight, that it would turn them to ash. He tells them all the old tales are true, and they believe him since they are, after all, vampires.

Toward the beginning, Bree meets another vampire who actually seems trustworthy, and they discover the secret. Even though she’s used to everyone looking beautiful, they’re filled with wonder at the sparkliness, just like Bella was in Twilight.

Stephenie Meyer manages to make us care about this bloodthirsty vampire hunter and want her to learn to transcend her savagery. We enjoy the beginnings of her journey to do so, though unfortunately her second life is very short.

An enjoyable quick adventure back in the world of sparkly vampires and undying love, or rather, undead love.

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Review of Half-Minute Horrors, edited by Susan Rich

Half-Minute Horrors

edited by Susan Rich

Harper, 2009. 141 pages.

I read this book entirely waiting at traffic lights. Well, except the parts I read aloud to people when I first checked out the book. The many, many stories in here, by stellar children’s authors, are really short enough to be read in half a minute. It was perfect for reading at traffic lights, and would also be perfect for reading to a class of schoolchildren to get them interested in the library.

I have to admit, most of these stories would have scared me too much when I was a little girl with an overactive imagination. Now, they make me laugh with their delightful creepiness. Especially the first story, by Lemony Snicket, about the quiet man who watches you every time you sleep.

Since they are so short, the stories tend to be the sort of thing you’d find in The Twilight Zone, but they all tend toward the scary side, especially if you think about them too long!

Now, this isn’t for all kids. Not the ones like I was who scare easily. If I do ever get a chance to read some of these stories to a class of schoolchildren, I will have to be a little careful which ones I choose.

However, I know from working in public libraries that there are lots of kids who love scary stories and want more of them. This book is absolutely perfect for those kids. And if any such child is a reluctant reader, this book is exactly what’s needed to draw them in. The stories are so short, you can always read just one more.

A fun volume of scares in small doses.

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Source: This review is based on a library book from the Fairfax County Public Library.

Review of Will Grayson, Will Grayson, by John Green and David Levithan

Will Grayson, Will Grayson

by John Green and David Levithan

Dutton, 2010. 310 pages.
Starred Review

I confess I probably wouldn’t have read Will Grayson, Will Grayson if I weren’t such a huge John Green fan. I was won over by hearing him speak about his Printz Honor Winning book Abundance of Katherines three years ago at ALA Annual Conference, and then completely hooked when I started watching his and his brother’s daily video blog through 2007. What can I say? He’s my kind of nerd. Nerd Fighters are made of Awesome.

Of course, I also read An Abundance of Katherines, Let It Snow, and my favorite, Paper Towns. So I thoroughly admire John Green as an author. Though the funny thing about reading his books is that I always hear the main character in my head speaking with John Green’s voice, since I’ve heard him so much on the internet.

Anyway, I was four chapters into his latest book (written in alternating chapters with David Levithan), when I went to the 2010 American Library Association Annual Conference in Washington DC. The exhibits had just opened, and I was frantically grabbing free advance copies of books. I looked up, and there was John Green!

I said, “You’re John Green!” and he graciously conceded that he was. I tried to think of clever things to say. Did I tell him I think he’s a brilliant writer? No, I said I follow his blog. Couldn’t think of much to say after that. Anyway, as he was about to go off to the exhibits, I got my wits about me and asked if I could get a picture with him. He said “David can take it!” as his companions were coming to see what was keeping him — and I realized that familiar face I’d seen with John was David Levithan. So, I insisted on a picture with both of them. This was at the very start of ALA, and it made my night!

Here I am with David Levithan and John Green at ALA 2010.

On the last night of ALA, I got another picture with John Green, at the reception after the Printz Awards Ceremony. Kind of fitting, since I’d first seen him in person at the 2007 Printz Awards.

So, as you can imagine, I like the author, and of course I want to like his books. As it began, it seemed a little depressing, so I might have stopped. One of the Will Graysons is clinically depressed. The other one isn’t terribly happy.

It also turns out to be mainly about Tiny Cooper:

“Tiny Cooper is not the world’s gayest person, and he is not the world’s largest person, but I believe he may be the world’s largest person who is really, really gay, and also the world’s gayest person who is really, really large.”

If I weren’t a huge fan of the author, I would probably simply avoid a book where one of the main topics is a high school student’s gayness. But I’m glad I didn’t avoid this one.

The book is about two high school students named Will Grayson. They don’t know each other. They live in different Chicago suburbs. One Will Grayson has been Tiny Cooper’s best friend all his life. But that Will recently lost what other friends he had because:

“After some school-board member got all upset about gays in the locker room, I defended Tiny Cooper’s right to be both gigantic (and, therefore, the best member of our shitty football team’s offensive line) and gay in a letter to the school newspaper that I, stupidly, signed.”

Tiny is writing, directing, and performing a musical about his life. So naturally, there is a character named Gil Wrayson, which Tiny assures Will is a fictional character.

Meanwhile, the other Will Grayson (written by David Levithan), is in love with his internet chat friend named Isaac. He’s gay but won’t admit it to anyone else, he’s depressed, and his only friend at school is a girl who’s even more depressing.

A strange twist of circumstances brings the two Will Graysons to the same porn shop in Chicago late on a Friday night. Both Will Graysons suffer a big disappointment that night, but the other Will Grayson discovers Tiny Cooper, and Tiny Cooper discovers him.

I wouldn’t want my teenage son to take the characters in this book as role models, but I don’t think older teens read books to find role models. The characters’ language and humor are crude (which almost got me to shut the book early), but it’s also very clever. The characters do seem completely real. Tiny Cooper is larger than life, but he’s no cardboard cut-out. And the two Will Graysons have conflicting emotions and confusions that seem completely true to life. Though I wouldn’t want my son to take them for role models, I’d be happy to have him find friends like these. Flawed friends, but ultimately the kind of people you can count on, you can tell the truth to.

And though this book is about some characters being gay and coming to terms with that, more than that, it’s a book about friendship. It’s a book about real love, and a book about truth. It’s a book that shows that people are the same underneath, whether they are gay or not, and that the love of friendship can transcend all that.

As Will Grayson says in a moment of confrontation and revelation:

“You know what’s important? Who would you die for? Who do you wake up at five forty-five in the morning for even though you don’t even know why he needs you?”

This book is awesome. Like so many great books do, it helped me put myself in the shoes of someone very different from me, thus looking at my own life and my own world a little differently. I’m glad I read it.

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Source: This review is based on a library book from the Fairfax County Public Library.

Review of The Gift of an Ordinary Day, by Katrina Kenison

The Gift of an Ordinary Day

A Mother’s Memoir

by Katrina Kenison

Springboard Press, New York, 2009. 310 pages.
Starred Review

I think that Katrina Kenison’s two sons must be right in between the ages of my two sons. I remember reading her book Mitten Strings for God about being the mother of young boys when my boys were young. Now she’s written a book about being the mother of teenage sons who are growing up and finding their way in the world. It resonates with me, because my oldest son has graduated from college and moved out, and my youngest son is about to be a junior in high school.

That wasn’t the only thing I liked about this memoir. In the book, Katrina Kenison deals with so many issues of midlife. They leave their home of many years and find a dream home that needs to be rebuilt. She leaves her long time job. There are so many issues of change and meaning that a woman deals with at this time of life, and I was encouraged and uplifted to read about Katrina Kenison’s journey.

I liked this paragraph about parenting during the difficult times:

“It is always a relief to be reminded that my job is not to control, or judge, or change my son, but simply to help him remember, with words and touch, who he really is. Loving him this way, I am better able to find within myself the faith and patience necessary to survive his painful transformations. I know to hold a space for his beauty, even when it slips from sight. And I come a little bit closer to understanding his true essence, to remembering the goodness that resides just beneath the surface of even his very worst behavior, behavior that is usually rooted in fear and confusion and self-protection.”

Here’s a nice passage about the changes and growth of midlife:

“The world is filled with need. If I am to be of some use, I must first rise to the challenge of my own rebirth and growth, must engage in the gradual, demanding process of discovering the person I am meant to be now and taking up the work I am called to do.

“’Go into yourself, and see how deep the place is from which your life flows,’ the poet Rainer Maria Rilke once instructed an aspiring young writer. The advice might as easily have been written for a middle-aged woman contemplating her emptying nest. The work my friends seem compelled to undertake in their forties and fifties is no longer what they think they should do. It is what they feel, in their deepest souls, that they are meant to do. What the example of their lives suggests, what I desperately want to believe, is that once we have weathered these changes, honored our sorrows and released them, there is also great joy in moving on.”

And here’s a wonderful part about growing up as a mother:

“Now, we’re in a different place and a different time, and I need to become a different kind of mother. A mother who knows how to back off. A mother whose gaze is not quite so intently focused on her own two endlessly absorbing children, but who is engaged instead in a rich, full life of her own. A mother who cares a good deal less than she used to about what time people in her household go to bed, what they eat for breakfast, whether they wear coats or not, and what they choose to do, or not do, with their own time. A mother who, though her protective, maternal instincts run as fierce and deep as ever, manages, in all but extreme moments, to keep those instincts in check. A mother who trusts in who her children are, even if they aren’t exactly who she thinks they ought to be. Who keeps faith in their futures, even when the things they do, and the words they say, give her pause in the present. A mother who remembers, above all else, that the greatest gift she can give to her own two wildly different, nearly grown sons is the knowledge that, no matter what, she loves them both absolutely, just exactly as they are.”

I enjoyed this book tremendously. Reading it is like having a friend to talk to along the exciting and interesting journey of midlife. She makes it feel a little less uncharted and scary.

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