Review of Orangutan Tongs, by Jon Agee


Orangutan Tongs

Poems to Tangle Your Tongue

by Jon Agee

Disney/Hyperion Books, 2009.  48 pages.

Starred review.
Sonderbooks Stand-out 2010: #2 Picture Books

This book is entirely too much fun.  I brought it home and read it to my teenage son, and, as I suspected, he couldn’t resist trying it himself.  For Dr. Seuss’s birthday, we recently had a tweetle beetle binge from Fox in Socks, so it was fun to read to each other and laugh from a new book where I didn’t have the advantage of about forty years of practice.

Orangutan Tongs (Can you resist saying that title aloud?) is a book of tongue twister poems, with illustrations.  They are all quite silly and good for fun and laughter.

My son claimed that he had not been practicing, but I found it highly suspicious that when I came home from work the next day, he was suddenly able to recite the Peggy Babcock poem:

Peggy Babcock at work.  Peggy Babcock at play.

Peggy Babcock tomorrow.  Peggy Babcock today.

Peggy Babcock, repeated, is tricky to say:

Peggy Babcock, Peggy Babcock, Peggy Babcock, ole!

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Review of The Composer Is Dead, by Lemony Snicket


The Composer Is Dead

written by Lemony Snicket

music by Nathaniel Stookey

illustrations by Carson Ellis

HarperCollins Publishers, 2009.  36 pages.  1 CD

I love these new Peter and the Wolf wannabes!  Like The Shoebird, The Composer Is Dead is a picture book story with orchestration.  The accompanying CD is narrated by Lemony Snicket himself.

The story is fun, though not particularly captivating.  However, it does serve to introduce the instruments of the orchestra, and I did find the accompanying music beautiful.

The composer is dead.  All the instrumental sections of the orchestra are suspects, but they have a wide variety of alibis.  A lot of generalities are given about the instruments, which are sometimes fun and sometimes simply stereotypical.

The Violins answered first, of course.  The violin section is divided into First Violins, who have the trickier parts to play, and the Second Violins, who are more fun at parties.

The tuba said, “I’m a confirmed bachelor.  I was home all night playing cards with my landlady, the Harp, taking sips of warm milk from a little blue cup.”  The accompanying tuba and harp duet was particularly beautiful.

I thought the closing was a bit lame — that orchestras have murdered composers for years, so this is no different.  So the mystery in the book falls rather flat.

As with The Shoebird, this adds some nice variety to ways you can teach kids about the orchestra.  This one had nicer music and a story that helps listeners notice the differences between the types of instruments.  I don’t think it’s time to throw away Peter and the Wolf yet, but this is a nice addition to the Introduction-to-the-Orchestra repertoire.

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Review of Sandy’s Circus, by Tanya Lee Stone


Sandy’s Circus

A Story About Alexander Calder

by Tanya Lee Stone

illustrated by Boris Kulikov

Viking, 2008.  36 pages.

Here’s another delightful picture book biography.  It gives you a feel for what the artist has done and makes you want to know more.  The story is told on a level that will intrigue both children and adults.  I especially enjoy the playful illustrations.

“There once was an artist named Alexander Calder.  Only he didn’t call himself Alexander.  And he didn’t call the things he made art.”

Tanya Lee Stone and Boris Kulikov beautifully capture the inventive, experimental quality of Sandy Calder’s art.  They show how he playfully created a moving, working circus out of wire.  His art was more than a static display to look at.  It was a show where things happened.

The author tells us that “even the mobiles that hang over baby cribs would not exist without Calder.”  This is the story of a man who brought a sense of play into his life’s work.

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Review of Pale Male, by Janet Schulman


Pale Male

Citizen Hawk of New York City

by Janet Schulman

illustrated by Meilo So

Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 2008.  36 pages.

Here’s a beautiful picture book true story of a red-tailed hawk that flew into New York City in 1991 and made his home on a building across from Central Park.

The building occupants weren’t too happy with a nest on their building, though the citizens of New York were thrilled.  The hawk’s pale coloring made him distinctive and easy to spot, so bird watchers avidly watched his efforts to settle in and start a family.

Lovely watercolors illustrate this gentle story of a wild creature learning to live alongside humans.  It also tells how important the efforts of humans were for him to be able to keep his home.

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Review of Abe Lincoln Crosses a Creek, by Deborah Hopkinson and John Hendrix


Abe Lincoln Crosses a Creek

A Tall, Thin Tale

(Introducing His Forgotten Frontier Friend)

by Deborah Hopkinson & John Hendrix

Schwarz & Wade Books, New York, 2008.  36 pages.

In honor of Abe Lincoln’s 200th birthday, here’s a children’s picture book telling a story of how Abe Lincoln almost died when he was only seven years old.

Yes, Abe and his friend Austin were crossing a creek.  Abe fell in, and his friend fished him out, saving his life and thus making a difference in the world for generations to come.

Deborah Hopkinson has a delightful, folksy way of telling the story, talking about what we know and what we don’t know.  The pictures of the green Kentucky valley where Abe lived and the mischievous boys add to the fun.

Here’s an endearing tale of friendship, suitable for young readers or listeners who might be tired of more straitlaced and serious stories of Abraham Lincoln.  He did a foolish thing crossing that creek, but his friend saved him.  Even Abraham Lincoln needed a friend.

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Review of In a Blue Room, by Jim Averbeck


In a Blue Room

by Jim Averbeck

illustrated by Tricia Tusa

Harcourt, Orlando, 2008.  32 pages.

Here’s a sweet bedtime storybook.

In a blue room,

Alice bounces,

wide-awake past bedtime.

“Time for bed,” Mama says,

“and I’ve brought flowers for your room.”

“I can only sleep in a blue room,” says Alice.

“Blue is my favorite.

And those —

aren’t —


“Ah. . . but smell,” Mama says.

Mama keeps bringing more lovely things that aren’t blue, but are wonderfully soothing.  Alice keeps protesting, but getting sleepier.

The lovely part is that, when the light goes out and night falls, sure enough, everything in the room is blue.

The story is told in lyrical, soothing language, just right for bedtime.  Good night!

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Review of Ghosts in the House! by Kazuno Kohara


Ghosts in the House!

by Kazuno Kohara

Roaring Brook Press, New York, 2008.  28 pages.

This simple little picture book reminds me of years ago when my landlady effectively dealt with my son’s fear of ghosts by telling him that if one bothers you, to bite it on its bottom.  We decided it would taste like marshmallow.

This book presents a similarly nontraditional way of dealing with ghosts.

A little girl moves into a house that is full of ghosts, but fortunately she’s a witch and knows how to deal with them.  She catches them all, puts them in the washing machine, hangs them up to dry, and then puts them to good use all over the house.

This whole story is played out with simple language and happy, smiling faces.

There is some initial surprise when the first ghost shows up, but soon the girl says, “How lovely!  I hope there are some more!”

This is a cheerful and cozy story, showing that things people are afraid of aren’t always so scary at all.

The illustrations are creative.  It’s all in simple black and orange, with the ghosts showing up in a somewhat transparent white.

There are very few words on a page, and this would make an excellent story for very young listeners, for a friendly, reassuring, and cozy story about ghosts.

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Review of Are You Ready to Play Outside? by Mo Willems


Are You Ready to Play Outside?

An Elephant & Piggie Book

by Mo Willems

Hyperion Books for Children, 2008.  57 pages.

Starred Review.

Sonderbooks Standout 2009:  #5 Picture Books

Geisel Award Winner 2009

Mo Willems is a genius.  I am currently reading several books that tell me it is not my circumstances that determine my happiness, but the story I tell myself about those circumstances.  I have heard sermons about contentment.  I have lectured at length to my children that complaining will only make them unhappy.

None of those things was remotely as effective as this book.  Not as funny, either!

Now, I was set up to enjoy this book.  The day before I read it, I was doing a quick run to the grocery store.  We had expected an ice storm, but instead we got nasty, cold, heavy, near-freezing rain.

I do not like rain in the winter.  I tend to think how much I would prefer snow.  Rain in winter is almost as cold as snow, but not as pretty, and not as fun.  It soaks into your clothes much more quickly, and doesn’t brighten a dark day like snow does.

As I came out of the grocery store, the fleeting thought crossed my mind that it was a shame I had to make a grocery run today.  Loading groceries into the car in the pouring, cold rain is not a fun thing to do. 

No sooner had that thought crossed my mind than I looked up and saw a mother and son walking toward the store.  The mother had an umbrella, but the little boy, about three years old, wasn’t paying any attention to staying under it.  He was positively dancing with joy at being out in the rain.  His shiny yellow boots splashed the pavement with zest, and you could instantly see how excited he was about this wondrous chance to go shopping in the rain!

Kind of put things in perspective for me!

The next day, this book, Are You Ready to Play Outside? came to the library.

Piggie is so excited about playing outside with Gerald!  They will run!  They will skip!  They will jump!  NOTHING will stop them!

Then it begins to rain.

It pours.  Piggie is NOT a happy pig.

Gerald, an elephant, first tries shielding Piggie with his ear, but it is still raining.  Piggie doesn’t see how anyone could possibly play outside with all this rain.

Then they see two worms come out, exuberantly happy, splishing and splashing in the rain.

They decide to try it.  They run!  They skip!  They jump! 

Piggie decides he loves rain!  He hopes it rains all day!

Then it stops. 

Piggie is not a happy pig.

Fortunately, Piggie has an elephant for a friend, who has a solution.

Of course, once again, what makes this book a masterpiece is Mo Willems’ amazing ability to convey emotion with his simple cartoon drawings.  For example, Piggie’s frustration over the rain is palpable.  And I never imagined that worms could look so joyful!  Elephant and Piggie turning somersaults and kicking up their heels in the rain proclaim complete exuberance.  Add to that the suspense of the early-reader language and timing, with each expression and emotion getting full page treatment, and you have an utterly magnificent book.

It’s funny.  It’s emotional.  And it conveys a life-changing lesson in a way that sticks.

What more could you ask for in an easy reader?

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Review of The Scrambled States of America Talent Show, by Laurie Keller


The Scrambled States of America Talent Show

by Laurie Keller

Henry Holt, 2008.  36 pages.

A picture book about the States performing in a talent show?  In her earlier book, Laurie Keller showed what happened when the States got mixed up and tried to find their places again.  The States had so much fun interacting, they decide to hold a talent show.

The result is simply silly, and I can’t resist laughing over it.  Along the way, all kinds of facts about the states are presented, along with lots of inside jokes.

The acts are many and varied.  Delaware names all fifty states in order of statehood while jumping on a pogo stick.  Michigan does a ventriloquist act.  Minnesota saws South Dakota in half (though alert readers will detect that the left half is the color of North Dakota), and Mississippi and Nevada dance the tango.  I especially enjoyed the State Impersonators.  Wyoming and Tennessee impersonated Oklahoma, and Colorado and Florida did a great Idaho impression.

Extra fun was found on the end panels, where Vermont goes around asking states their abbreviations, for example:

“Hi, Hawaii.  What’s your abbreviation?”


“Yeah, hello.  What’s your abbreviation?”


What can I say?  This book struck me funny.  A nice silly approach to learning facts about the states.

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Review of Ten Little Fingers and Ten Little Toes, by Mem Fox


Ten Little Fingers and Ten Little Toes

by Mem Fox

illustrated by Helen Oxenbury

Harcourt, 2008.  40 pages.

Starred review.

Sonderbooks Stand-out 2009: #4 Picture Books

I saw this book listed on more than one end-of-the-year Best of 2008 list.  I’ve loved Helen Oxenbury ever since my 20-year-old son was a toddler who memorized the text in her Tom and Pippo books and “read” the books along with me.  Mem Fox I discovered later, but have an extra-special fondness for her books, particularly Harriet, You’ll Drive Me Wild!

So I simply had to check this book out.  I was completely enchanted.  I will definitely be using this book at my very next Mother Goose Time for babies and parents.  The book is only a few months old, and already I find myself thinking of it as a classic no parent of a baby should be without.

There was one little baby who was born far away

And another who was born on the very next day.

And both of these babies, as everyone knows,

had ten little fingers

and ten little toes.

Mind you, the picture on the page with “had ten little fingers and ten little toes” shows baby hands and feet so precious you just want to eat them up!  (No one draws babies so utterly adorably yet lifelike as Helen Oxenbury.)

The book goes on, in the sweet rhyming cadence, to tell of babies from all over the world.

As each set of two new babies is introduced, the earlier babies look on as a kind of adorable chorus.

The final stanza is what clinches this book as such a delightful exploration between parent and baby:

But the next baby born was truly divine,

a sweet little child who was mine, all mine.

And this little baby, as everyone knows,

has ten little fingers,

ten little toes,

and three little kisses   [Here are the earlier babies are laughing in anticipation!]

on the tip of its nose.

What can I say?  I think this is going to get tucked in with the next baby shower gift I give.  Absolutely delightful!  Go to your library and look at the illustrations, if you don’t believe me!

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