Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Who Was Here? Discovering Wild Animal Tracks, by Mia Posada

My daughter and I had a lot of fun reading this book. It's like a puzzle. First there is a double page illustration of an animal track (or multiple tracks) in its natural environment, along with a little verse describing the animal (or animals) who made it. The clues are in the poetic description, the type of ground on which it's found, and of course, the size and shape of the track itself. The reader then has to try to guess "Who Was Here?"

Magda and I had just finished reading the wonderful animal poetry book, Dear Wandering Wildebeest and Other Poems From the Water Hole, so she kept wanting to guess African savanna animals for every page. I'd tell her, "Look at the snow around the tracks" but when we turned the page, she'd still be surprised it wasn't a jackal or something.

Keep reading for more, including some illustrations from inside the book...

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Mr. Zidderdeedee, by Diane Page and Bruce Bigelow (illustrated by Bruce Bigelow)

Oh my no. If there's one aspect of book blogging that I dread, it's having to write a review for a children's book I didn't enjoy. Since I receive a lot of review copies from publishers with the understanding that I will post an honest review, I don't feel like I can just skip reviewing it altogether.

I also can't sugarcoat it. If I didn't like a book, I have to be honest or else my favourable reviews of books that I DID like will be less meaningful. How would anybody believe I was being honest if I can't be honest about what I don't like, as well as what I do?

Anyway, I didn't like this book. At all. If it had been a book for adults, it probably wouldn't have been so hard for me to be blunt, but for some reason I worry about hurting the feelings of children's book authors and illustrators more than other authors. But I need to get over that because this book was terrible.

Dear Wandering Wildebeest And Other Poems from the Water Hole, by Irene Latham (Illustrated by Anna Wadham)

Huzzah! I enjoyed this book so much that I have to gather my thoughts first before I just start gushing about it.


First of all, my enjoyment was amplified by the fact that five minutes before I read it I had just finished reading a truly atrocious book with terrible illustrations and tortured rhymes, only to discover this gem immediately after. I know it's not fair to either book to let a side-by-side comparison flavour my review, so I won't mention the name of the other book (but if you're really curious, you can probably figure it out by looking at what I reviewed just before or just after this one), but I know I would have loved this book no matter what. I just happened to love it MORE because I was in need of a great book to cleanse my reading palette.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Mommy and Me Start Cooking, by DK Publishing

I've had a digital review copy of this book from DK Publishing on my computer for a while now. It looks fantastic and I love DK Books, but I've been putting off trying the recipes in the book until now. Turns out the copy I have is actually the original British version, which means that all of the measurements for flour and things are in grams or ounces instead of millilitres or cups. Now I know my British friends will insist that this is a better way to measure powder ingredients, but it's useless if you don't have a kitchen scale (which most Canadians probably don't). But as of last week, I DO!! YAY!! I'm super excited.

I know Magda is going to love trying out these recipes. Now that she's almost five, she's even more interested in cooking than ever before. She helps her dad make bread, she made a strawberry compote earlier this week (even the stove top bit) and sometimes she even makes our coffee in the morning. I can't wait to crack open my new kitchen scale and try making pancakes from scratch or cheesy rolls. If it wasn't 2 hours past Magda's bedtime I'd be tempted to get her up and try them now! No wait, what am I saying? That's a ridiculous idea.

Right, tomorrow. Tomorrow, we bake!

Keep reading for some pictures from inside the book (UK version)...

The Magic Pattern Book: Sew 6 Patterns in 36 Different Styles! by Amy Barickman

The Magic Pattern Book is a cool concept: six basic patterns (or collection of pattern pieces) that can each be adapted in six different ways, to make a total of 36 pieces. It even includes six different fabric suggestions for each style. Awesome!

The thing is, if memory serves, this is how people used to sew all the time. Or at least my mom and her friends all did. They'd get a paper envelope with a pattern in it, but each pattern could be adapted a few different ways to make very different styles. But I'm not sure many of my own friends do that anymore. We should though! Well, at least in theory...

I'm not sure I'm as good at sewing as I secretly think I am. You know how when you sing in the shower you secretly think you could totally be a professional? But then around other people you can't hold a tune? That's what I'm like with sewing. When I *think* about sewing, or when I watch a sewing show like The Great British Sewing Bee (which is GREAT btw), I'm pretty sure I could make a whole new wardrobe for the entire family. Then when I get in front of my sewing machine I'm lucky if I can sew a seam straight. Sigh. The image of myself I have in my head is a tough act to follow.

Cozy Classics: Mark Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, by Jack Wang and Holman Wang

I'm always so impressed with Jack and Holman Wang's Cozy Classics series. In general I don't love baby board books that are inspired by classic literature because I think very few of them are successful, and even fewer of them appeal to kids as much as they do to adults (sorry if you're reading this and you're one of the many friends or family members who has given my child a "classic literature board book"...I didn't mean you, obviously). But I love these ones. They're far too charming to resist!

I'm always amazed at the choices the book creators have to make in order to relay a classic (and long) piece of literature into a tiny little board book, particularly if that book is complicated or deals with serious issues. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, for example, deals with issues of racism, slavery, and moral conflict. How would they make that into a book for very young children?

I love how they interpreted Mark Twain's book! When Jim is introduced, the word next to it is simply "man." Later, there's a picture of him looking out of a window sadly and the caption says "trapped." Huck and Tom make a "plan" and later it shows Jim out in the sun with the word "free." Perfect.

Keep reading for a peak inside the book!

Cozy Classics: Mark Twain's The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, by Jack Wang and Holman Wang

I've always loved Jack and Holman Wang's Cozy Classics series. They're just so adorable! Not to mention impressive! All of the illustrations are made from felted dolls posed in a variety of sets that tell the story of a classic novel in a just a few pages, each with only one word next to it.

Some of the books have been better than others at relating the plot of the original story (it's hard! some of the classics they've done have been long and complicated novels), but the latest two, Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, are both surprisingly faithful to their sources. Maybe it's just because I remembered these books a little better than some of the others in the series, but I actually could follow the story just from the dozen or so pictures and words.

Speaking of the pictures, they've really pushed themselves this time. There are two different pages with fires on them. Are those real fires? The campfire page looks real. I'd be so nervous to put the little dolls (which obviously take a lot of work to make) next to a real flame! Maybe it's fake. There is also a cave scene which had me wondering if they built a cave out of plaster or if they actually put the dolls in a real cave-like environment. Either way, the results were fantastic. Plus, look how grumpy Tom looks on the cover! So adorable!

Keep reading to see lots of gorgeous and adorable illustrations from the book

Claude on the Slopes, by Alex T. Smith

This book was an unexpected treat. I didn't realize when I requested it from NetGalley that it was a junior chapter book rather than a preschool picture book (there are still lots of pictures, but it's about 95 pages long and the text is divided into chapters). I also didn't realize it would be so delightfully hilarious! I was hooked by the first page, but by the time I got to this line I was in love:

"He lives with Mr. and Mrs. Shinyshoes and his best pal in the whole world, Sir Bobblysock, who is both a sock and quite bobbly."

When Mr. and Mrs. Shinyshoes are at work, Claude and Sir Bobblysock go on all sorts of adventures, this time finding themselves sledding and skiing down a large snowy mountain and rescuing people from an avalanche (which they may or may not have caused in the first place).

I'm so glad there are other Claude books because I can't wait to read all of them with Magda!

Saturday, July 19, 2014

The Stratford Zoo Midnight Revue Presents Macbeth (Illustrated by Zack Giallongo)

This is all kinds of adorable. It's a graphic novel (suitable for teens and preteens) that has zoo animals performing Shakespeare at night after all the people have left. Their rendition of Macbeth may not go completely smoothly and it may not be exactly like the play, but it's delightful to watch...I mean read. The illustrations are so vibrant and expressive I sometimes forgot that it was a comic book and was picturing it as an animated cartoon. Ooh, it would make a fantastic cartoon! I'd want to see them to do ALL of Shakespeare's plays!

Keep reading for more details about the book and to get a sneak peak inside!

The Knowledgeable Knitter, by Margaret Radcliffe

I like to knit, but in many ways I still feel like a beginner knitter. I learned to knit only a year or two ago, mostly by reading books and watching videos online. Since then I've learned to make a few different things, mostly toys and bags, and it's been fun. But the thing that has frustrated me time and time again is the knitting book that insists that if I learn to do a knit stitch, a purl stitch, a cast on and a bind off, then that's "all I need." I've read this so many times it's maddening! I'll read those words and then I'll look at the rest of the book and it's filled with so-called "beginner" patterns that are confusing, intimidating or way more complicated than I'm ready for.

Thank goodness Margaret Radcliffe's got my back. She understands my frustration perfectly. The Knowledgeable Knitter is all about those "next stage after bare basics" that every knitter needs to know if they want to follow a variety of patterns, but are afraid to ask. Or maybe you have asked, but the answers have made no sense. Finally, it'll all make sense!

Film in Five Seconds: Over 150 Great Movie Moments--in Moments! by Matteo Civaschi and Gianmarco Milesi (H-57)

OMG fun!! If this book were a Facebook quiz it would go viral for sure. If it's not clear from the description, the whole book is like a game. Each page is a minimalist infographic poster that depicts a (mostly) famous movie. The fun is in figuring out the answers without looking.

My partner and I spent the better part of an evening arguing over our (mostly wrong) guesses. Actually, we did get quite a few of them, but it was the ones we got wrong that made us groan the most, because as soon as we read the answers they made total sense. Ohhh, of course! Why didn't we get that? It was a lot of fun. I wish it was a Facebook quiz actually, just so I could compare my "scores" with my friends.

And in case you're wondering, yes that is the entire book. It's not a book about movies, with lots of details and facts. It's really just a book of these picture riddles with the answers at the back (the digital copy I received does allow you to easily click back and forth between the pictures and the answers, but otherwise they're just all listed at the end of the book). Having said that, I'm not mad about that at all because I loved these pictures and had a great time going through them, especially with another person (or 'player').

Oh, but there is one other thing in the book I almost forgot about. At the back of the book, the creators included a few pages of infographic template elements that you can cut out and mix and match to make your own picture puzzles. How fun is that? I don't think they'd work in my digital copy, though, unless I was able to somehow print that page or convert it to a file I could manipulate. No matter. It's a cool idea anyway.

Wanna try your hand at guessing a few of the films from the book? Keep reading for a few samples!

Friday, July 18, 2014

Hana Hashimoto, Sixth Violin, by Chieri Uegaki (illustrated by Qin Leng)

Another fantastic children's book from Kids Can Press (they're one of my favourite children's book publishers these days). Hana Hashimoto is a little girl who is determined to show off how well she can play the violin at an upcoming talent show. Unfortunately, as her two older brothers are quick to remind her (repeatedly), she's only taken three lessons and doesn't really know how to play yet. But Hana is not dissuaded.

Inspired by a recent trip to Japan to visit her grandfather, Hana recalls the beautiful violin music her Ojichan played for her. Not only did he play classical pieces from his days in the Kyoto Symphony Orchestra, he also played lots of whimsical sound effects like the sound of rain on an umbrella or a crow calling to her babies. When the big day comes, it's the memory of those playful sounds that carries Hana through her turn at the talent show.

I really enjoyed this book. It's simple but also surprising, sweet and also delightful. And there are just enough new words (some Japanese words, some musical words) to keep young readers curious without being overwhelmed.

Pigs (Board Book), by Robert Munsch (illustrated by Michael Martchenko)

I adore Robert Munsch. I think he's a masterful storyteller and his long-time collaboration with illustrator Michael Marchenko has produced some amazing children's classics.

Sometimes, however, when his books are condensed to board book form, they lose some of their oomph. The best parts are edited out, or they're oversimplified, or the magic is somehow not there.

Pigs, however, retains all of its "Pigness" even in the shorter format. My only problem with it is that I'm not sure this particular story *needed* to be made into a board book.

The board book format is presumably so it's easier for little hands to handle, so that younger children can access the story. I'm not sure Pigs is best suited for younger kids. It's one of the Robert Munsch stories that has characters being a bit rude to each other, with the constant refrain of "Hey you dumb pigs!". This may be fine for school-age children, but a lot of parents and teachers don't like reading that kind of impolite phrase to very young children.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

First Hockey Words, by Per-Henrik Gürth

Haha! As a Canadian, I feel like I should have already known all these words. It's supposed to be a child's first hockey words, right? I'm not sure who was relying on it more for hockey term definitions--me or my four-year-old. It's not that I haven't heard words like "breakaway" and "centre" before. I just kind of forget what they mean. It's been a while since I paid much attention to hockey.

Magda liked it though. I was glad she didn't have too many follow up questions about the exact details of the game. Actually, it did lead to a discussion of other winter sports and apparently we're both going to try curling at some point. Hmmm.

One thing I did like about the book, apart from the always fantastic animal drawings from Per-Henrik Gürth (such Canadian animals!) is the fact that there are both male and female animals playing hockey in the book (as revealed by the pronouns). It's a little thing, but it matters.

The Sagebrush Singers, by Herb Kernecker (Illustrated by James Watts)

The Sagebrush Singers is an interpretation of the classic "incredible journey" type stories in which a ragtag group of animals travels together to form an unlikely musical band. Apparently it's from a Brothers Grimm fairy tale, which you can read on the book's website (here).

The thing is, the original German tale is way better than this book. Way, way better. The 'twist' of The Sagebrush Singers is that it takes place in the desert (in the Wild West?) and has a burro, a coyote, a skunk and a crow gathering together for...some reason. It's not all that clear. They do manage to scare away a bunch of cattle rustlers so that's...something.

The crude drawings, overly wordy text, Spanish words peppered in on every page (but apparently you have to go to the website to find the glossary), and nonsensical plot make for a mediocre book at best. Even Magda (the world's most generous book reviewer) gave it a "so-so". Harsh words, coming from her.

Keep reading for more, including what Magda had to say...

Anne Geddes Little Blessings, by Anne Geddes

I'm sure I'm not the only one who has a preschooler at home who is obsessed with babies and pregnancy (tell me I'm not the only one?) but it's hard to imagine anyone being MORE obsessed than Magda. She unself-consciously tells people that pregnancy is "her hobby" (what the heck?). So I can't imagine anyone enjoying this book nearly as much as she did. It's a lovely book, but you haven't really experienced it until you've heard my four-year-old cooing and squealing excitedly at every picture. Every. Single. One. I tried to record her reactions so I could play an audio track with this review, but it came out is an unintelligible collection of "oohs" and "ahhs" and high-pitched giggles.

Magda's Take:
She can't talk right now. She's still staring admiringly at the pictures of the pregnant ballet dancer and the twins who look like truffula trees.

Keep reading for more details and a whole bunch of photos from inside the book

ArtSpeak: A Guide to Contemporary Ideas, Movements, and Buzzwords, 1945 to the Present, by Robert Atkins

I agree with other reviewers who said that this book is a good reference for art students, or for artists who want to look something up quickly, or explain a concept to a non-artist.

It's a brief overview of the second half of the 20th century (or at least it is now, thanks to the updated version) in terms of art movements and the major social and political events of their respective times.

It is not necessarily a book that I would enjoy browsing through just to look at lovely art. It's definitely not a coffee table book...well, especially not my copy, since I was reading the digital version!

The digital version does have the added benefit of being hyperlinked with cross references so you can look up definitions as you read.

Maker Dad: Lunch Box Guitars, Antigravity Jars, and 22 Other Incredibly Cool Father-Daughter DIY Projects, by Mark Frauenfelder

Mark Frauenfelder has true gadget geek cred. As the founding editor of MAKE magazine, former editor of Wired, and creator of BoingBoing, he's got everybody beat in the category of "guy most likely to write a book about cool DIY projects to try at home." But as a father of two girls he also brings the added element of "guy who understands how great it can be when dads share these cool projects with their daughters. It's not that any of the projects in this book are limited to dads only, or to daughters only, it's just that it's great to see that dynamic actively encouraged.

As the parent of a little girl myself, I sometimes feel like I'm manoeuvring through a mine field of unhelpful--and usually harmful--gender messages along the lines of "construction toys are for boys" and "arts and crafts are for girls" (I saw almost that exact sign at a toy store just this week...ugh). A lot of times the message is subtle: pictures in magazines, books, catalogues and flyers that show boys and men using tools, blocks and trucks, but girls using paints, beads and dolls. This gender divide is reinforced literally everywhere. So I very much appreciated seeing so many photos of girls using band saws throughout this book (most of the pictures are of Frauenfelder's own daughters).

Daddy's Busy Day, by Miriam Cohen (illustrated by Ying-Hwa Hu)

Staying home all day with a busy toddler can be exhausting. Well, I say it can be, but I should say it is. It IS exhausting. At the end of the day you can feel like you haven't gotten anything done but you're completely wiped out.

It's nice that this book not only shows what that kind of day can be like, but also shows it from the point of view of a stay-at-home dad. He makes breakfast, sees Mommy off to work, takes the dog and the child to the playground, reads books, and even gives the child a bath and gets him ready for bed. That IS a busy day!

Magda's Take:
"We should have reviewed this for Father's Day, Mommy!"
Mom's Note: Yeah, that would have been a good idea. Shoot.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Sam's Pet Temper, by Sangeeta Bhadra (illustrated by Marion Arbona)

Sam's Pet Temper is an interesting book. Sam is a little boy who struggles with temper tantrums, particularly when the consequences of losing his cool are unpleasant. His parents get upset with him, he misses out on things he likes, and he gets sent to his room. But it's not his fault, it's his temper! In this book, a temper is a separate thing, like a little pet monster that gets out of control and ruins everything. Sort of like a cross between bell hooks' Grump Groan Growl and Maurice Sendak's Where the Wild Things Are.

My four-year-old and I both enjoyed this book and found it very memorable, though I think I enjoyed it more than she did. She claims it's because of the illustrations, but I have a sneaking suspicion that it might be because she doesn't like to think about temper tantrums. It's still something she struggles with and I'm not sure how she felt about the personification of the "temper" as a little monster. I liked it, but she seemed conflicted.

Keep reading for both of our (diverging) opinions on the book, as well as a look at the illustrations!

Mole Catches the Sky, by Ellen Tarlow (illustrated by Tomek Bogacki)

In real life, I'm not sure that moles are particularly cute, but there sure are a lot of cute and curious moles in children's picture books. Why is that? I'm not sure, but my daughter Magda sure loves them!

In this book by Ellen Tarlow, the little mole in question wants to explore the outside world, particularly in the daytime. She falls so in love with the sunny blue sky that she wants to catch it and bring it back to her home underground. This proves to be impractical for a number of reasons, but with the help of some of her animal friends, she manages something almost as good.

Although I prefer animal books in which the animals all have names (rather than just 'Mole' and 'Rabbit,' etc.), I do like the fact that Ellen Tarlow made some of her characters male and some female. I'm always shocked by how many authors choose to make all animal characters male by default. Has anyone else noticed that? What is that about? Even female authors do that! I find myself changing the pronouns back and forth between "he" and "she" just to even it up. I was happy that I didn't have to do that with Mole Catches the Sky.

Keep reading for more, including a sneak peak inside the book!

Julia, Child, by Kyo Maclear (illustrated by Julie Morstad)

Julia, Child is not strictly about the life of the famous chef, Julia Child...but it sort of is. It's a story very much inspired by the spirit of Julia Child, in the form of a little girl named--you guessed it--Julia who falls in love with food and wants to share her passion with everyone. She and her best friend, Simca (the real nickname of French cookbook author Simone Beck, a contemporary and friend of Julia Child), set out to share their buttery treats with all of the adults around them and to remind them of the joys of childhood and the joys of food.

The illustrations compliment perfectly the delicate whimsy of the story and the spirit of its inspiration. Julia Child was an English chef who introduced the world to French food. She was a formidable woman who managed to put the most reticent aspiring cook at ease. She was funny and passionate and joyful. The pictures in this book (by the very talented Julie Morstad) are all of these things. There's something delightfully English-but-also-French about the scenes she creates; they're sophisticated yet rustic, joyful yet refined. I adore absolutely everything about them!

Keep reading for more details about the book and a sneak peak at the illustrations inside!

Super Red Riding Hood, by Claudia Dávila

Super Red Riding Hood is yet another entry into the canon of re-imagined fairy tales, this one a take on the classic Little Red Riding Hood story.

While I applaud Claudia Dávila's vibrant illustrations and little-girl-as-superhero theme, I think her version teaches quite a different lesson from the original.

Gone is the message to beware of strangers (in the form of the wolf) and the warning that everything is not always as it appears (in the form of the wolf-as-grandma), to be replaced by a wolf who is easily defeated with self-confidence and the sharing of one's lunch.

I'm not sure that would work for either wolf or dangerous stranger in the woods, but for the little girl in this story the only real peril is a hungry wolf who would rather eat berries than her. So I guess the lesson is Keep Calm and Share Your Lunch. Or something.

The Mystery of the Missing Lion (A Precious Ramotswe Mystery for Young Readers 3), by Alexander McCall Smith

I absolutely adore the Precious Ramotswe mysteries by Alexander McCall Smith. Even if you're not familiar with his No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency series, these books for young readers hold up perfectly on their own. The stories of young Precious and her early detective skills are charming, beautiful and well-written. With phrases like "darkness came down like a curtain" and "the sun rose up over the tops of the trees like a great red ball," Alexander McCall Smith proves that he is as careful in his crafting of prose for children as he is with his stories for adults. I love that, because it expects a lot of the reader but it also gives a lot back. I know my four-year-old looks forward to each new Precious Ramotswe book with eager anticipation.

In this book, Precious (as you may guess) finally gets her own lion story. Her father is always telling her fantastical tales of his narrow escapes from lion attacks, but this time it is Precious who bravely encounters a pride. She finds herself face to face with Teddy, a trained "actor lion," who is very gentle but who also longs to roam free. When Teddy escapes, it is Precious who both finds him and ultimately sets him free. I love that the character's attention to detail and strong moral compass is apparent in every book, as it is in the adult series. I think my daughter will thoroughly enjoy reading Alexander McCall Smith's other books when she gets older. In the meantime, I hope he keeps writing more of these junior mysteries!

Keep reading for more, including Magda's take...

Bug on a Bike, by Chris Monroe

Based on the cover alone, this book looks adorable. Just look at the little bug with his little cute!

Unfortunately, the rest of the book does not live up to the promise of the cover. Inside the book, the illustrations are poor and the story makes no sense. It looks more like an unfinished rough draft than a finished book.

The premise is that the little bug
is riding by, on his way somewhere, and he is joined by a growing series of friends. It's sort of like a cumulative rhyme, except the rhyme is a bit tortured and it's mostly nonsense. At one point he's followed by a chimp, an "athletic pickle" and an anthropomorphic nickel. Wait, what?

Stop, Thief! by Heather Tekavec (illustrated by Pierre Pratt)

Poor Max. When the farmer tells him that somebody has been stealing the carrots, beans, berries and cherries, Max the faithful dog is sure he can catch the thief. He enthusiastically chases after the very first thing he sees hanging about the produce--a tiny blue bug.

As Max spends the day chasing the tiny bug, the rabbits, pigs, goats and crows continue to "protect" (i.e. eat) the farmer's fruits and vegetables. The result is a delightful series of misunderstandings that will have parents and children both laughing.

Magda's Take:
"Why did Max think the bug could eat all those cherries? It's probably the crows that are eating them! Silly Max!"

Bunny the Brave War Horse (Based on a True Story), by Elizabeth MacLeod (illustrated by Marie Lafrance)

My daughter and I learned a lot from this book. I was vaguely aware of the role of animals in the First World War because I had seen A Bear Named Winnie, the biopic of the "real" Winnie-the-Pooh. I knew that there were horses and veterinarians sent over to help the war effort, but I didn't realize that Canada had sent so many police horses over to Europe, many of which were killed in action, and the rest of which were adopted out to European farmers at the end of the war.
This book tells the story of one such horse, nicknamed "Bunny" because of its slightly long ears.

Bunny was ridden by two different Canadian soldiers who were brothers. One brother was killed in action while the second brother--and Bunny--survived. The book showcases the bravery of Bunny and the other horses, as well as the soldiers themselves, without being overwhelming for young readers. I'd definitely recommend it for children, particularly Canadian children. It would make a good read for Remembrance Day or other times when children are thinking about soldiers and war.