Monthly Archives: March 2012

A Porcupine Named Fluffy, by Helen Lester, illustrated by Lynn Munsinger

A Porcupine Named Fluffy

A Porcupine Named Fluffy, by Helen Lester, illustrated by Lynn Munsinger
(1986, Houghton Mifflin, ISBN 0-395-52018-5)

After much deliberation over names they find to be overused, too fierce, or otherwise not quite right, proud parents Mr. and Mrs. Porcupine choose the name Fluffy for their little baby porcupine. As he gets older, Fluffy realizes that he’s not (fluffy, that is). He does everything he can think of to make himself fluffier (including acting like a pillow and covering himself in whipped cream), but everything fails. One day while taking a walk to try to come up with more ideas, he comes upon an aggressive rhinoceros who demands to know his name before he gives him “a rough time.” When he hears Fluffy’s ironic name, the rhinoceros breaks down laughing, and he is laughing so hard he can barely choke out his own name when Fluffy politely asks for it. It’s Hippo. Fluffy and Hippo enjoy a good laugh about their inappropriate names and become good friends.

Helen Lester and Lynn Munsinger are perhaps best known for their collaborations on the Tacky the Penguin and  Wodney Wat books, but this book is definitely worth reading as well. The humorous text by Lester is well-supported by Munsinger’s detailed illustrations. Her anthropomorphic characters are half realistic, half cartoonish; for instance, when we first meet the rhinoceros, his body shape and the wrinkles and lines of his horns are quite real, but his eyes are expressive and cartoon-like. The porcupines have the very long quills and bulbous bodies of real porcupines, but Mr. Porcupine wears a sport jacket and tie, Mrs. Porcupine a lovely flowered dress, and Fluffy a pair of yellow overalls. The backgrounds–which include the inside of the porcupines’ house and rural fields and paths–are full of small details like the mitered corners on the front door, a fluffy armchair with a doily across the back, and the rough bark and feathery leaves of a tree by a brook edged by reeds.

GirlChild’s Reaction: GirlChild picked this one out at the library when I made her get out of the Arthur books aisle. (There are only so many of those I can stomach in a row!) She has had her daddy and me each read it to her several times since we got it two days ago. This is one I don’t mind reading over again because it is clever and relatively short, and the lessons that can be learned are gently and amusingly handled. GirlChild is at a perfect age to understand that it’s silly for a porcupine to be called Fluffy and to try to make himself fluffy (just retelling the story to me makes her giggle), but the coming to terms with his name at the end doesn’t really impact her or leave a lasting lesson because she doesn’t yet question her identity or understand feeling like she doesn’t fit in (thank goodness!).

Additional titles:

Tacky the Penguin (Book and CD)

Hooway for Wodney Wat book and CD

Hurty Feelings

Author: A True Story (a selective autobiography of sorts that tells about her journey into authorhood–illustrated by the author)

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Mathilda and the Orange Balloon, by Randall de Sève, illustrated by Jen Corace

Mathilda and the Orange Balloon

Mathilda and the Orange Balloon, by Randall de Sève, illustrated by Jen Corace
(2010, Balzer + Bray, ISBN 978-0-06-172685-9)

Mathilda is a young sheep whose mundane world is suddenly changed by the appearance of an orange balloon that inspires Mathilda and her flock to imagine life beyond the ordinary.

Mathilda starts out as a perfectly content young sheep who is part of a perfectly ordinary flock on a perfectly ordinary farm. The appearance of an orange balloon that has apparently drifted away from a nearby carnival (you see a tent and some rides far in the background of one illustration) suddenly awakens her sense of wonder. The other sheep–who are older and more experienced–barely notice it, but Mathilda starts dreaming about being that orange balloon. The other sheep argue with her that she is not an orange balloon–she is just a sheep–but Mathilda wants to know the definitions of “balloon” and “orange” and is satisfied that she meets the requirements: round, ferocious, warm…and happy. As they watch Mathilda’s joyful imagination transform her, the other sheep soon realize that “anything [is] possible. Especially with an orange balloon like Mathilda.”

The illustrations by Jen Corace have a somewhat vintage feel…and I could imagine the characters in a line of whimsical greeting cards or nursery decor. (I know that description doesn’t do the artist justice, but I am clearly no student of art, so I often have a hard time putting into words the “feel” I get about illustrations!) Her sheep have exaggeratedly large, round bodies with comparatively small, rectangular heads and tiny, wide-set eyes. Mathilda stands out because she wears a bell around her neck and has a white face and rosy cheeks compared to the brown faces of the others. The sheep are surprisingly expressive for sheep; Mathilda in particular is partially anthropomorphized in some of her poses, but you can often tell their emotions just from their very sheepy faces. The background is excessively minimal, and several smaller images are often combined on one spread. Perspective and depth of the image change frequently to better convey the events and ideas of the text, and the pictures alone tell parts of the story that the words alone could never accomplish.

GirlChild’s Reaction: Doesn’t just looking at the cover of this book make you happy? GirlChild says her favorite illustration is the one with the “gray sheep, gray sheep” and Mathilda’s head poking up from amongst all the monotonous gray backs, but mine is definitely the one with Mathilda as the orange balloon on the “Happy” page. All throughout the book, however, just looking at Mathilda and reading about her irrepressible spirit (which sounds very dramatic, I know!) is uplifting and encouraging…even though I have no desire whatsoever to be an orange balloon. Definitely a cute book to read, but it would also be useful in a classroom to use when teaching metaphors and imagery.

Additional titles:

The Duchess of Whimsy (by the author and illustrated by her husband)

Toy Boat

Little Pea(from the illustrator)

Hansel and Gretel

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Little Parachutes: picture books to help children with life’s challenges

I stumbled across this website when I was searching for an image of the Topsy and Tim birthday book to share with a friend…what an awesome resource! This free online catalog of themed picture book summaries and reviews is staffed (on a volunteer basis, I believe) by professionals ranging from a librarian to a psychotherapist who have compiled this collection of books to help children cope with or learn about different difficulties or new experiences they may encounter in their lives, like moving, allergies, bullying, and many more. Books are searchable by keyword or by preselected themes, and there is a way to submit reviews of the books featured or ideas for new books for inclusion on the site as well. As this project is UK-based, it appears that most of the books are of British origin, but I know that some of the books at least (such as those by Lucy Cousins and the Usborne First Experiences series) are readily available here in the United States as well. Although you can always do a web search for collections on specific themes since many blogs (like this one!) do periodic themed posts and reviews and issue-specific associations and support groups often include children’s book lists on their topic, I don’t currently know of an American equivalent of this broad coverage of “life’s challenges” for children, but anyone with any knowledge of something similar is welcome to share in the comments!

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Themed Third Thursday: The Berenstains

Jan Berenstain passed away on February 24th at age 88, and when I read the news I was reminded once again of my childhood love of the Berenstain Bears. (Please don’t pronounce it “burn-steen” as I’ve so often heard–it’s “bear-en-stain”!) Little did I know as I scanned the book order pamphlets and book fair shelves that Stan and Jan Berenstain had been publishing books and cartoons since my mother was an infant (in 1951) and that they have been continuously publishing since then, with Jan and their younger son Mike (who joined the team by 1992) publishing the most recent Berenstain Bears story in January 2012! In 2004 publication was moved to HarperCollins, and, at Mike’s suggestion, they started a new sub-line of Berenstain Bears books (called Living Lights) which focuses on spiritual themes and is published by Zondervan. Stan passed away in 2005 before the first four books in this line were published in 2008. Their book credits range from coloring books to the traditional Berenstain Bears books to Berenstain Bears chapter books to parenting books and more!

The Big Honey Hunt, 50th Anniversary Edition (The Berenstain Bears)

The Big Honey Hunt (1962): Their first children’s book, this title was published by Dr. Seuss himself (as editor-in-chief of Beginner Books, a then-new division of Random House), without whose editing skill and influence we might not have ever gotten to know the Berenstain Bears. Papa Bear and Small (Brother) Bear go on an errand to get some honey.

'C' Is for Clown (Bright & Early Books)

“C” is for Clown (1972), rereleased as The [Berenstains’] C Book (1997): The third letter of the alphabet gets a lot of use in this book with alliteration to spare! (There is also The B Book (1971) and The A Book (1997).)

The Berenstain Bears Visit the Dentist (Berenstain Bears First Time Books (Prebound))


The Berenstain Bears Visit the Dentist (1981): I’m beginning to think that these books are the Topsy and Tim of America! (Still, again, with animal characters, and these are less basic.) This book is a part of the First Time Book series.

The Berenstain Bears Accept No SubstitutesThe Berenstain Bears Accept No Substitutes (1993): This book is in the Big Chapter Book series and takes place when Brother Bear and his classmates go a little too far in the pranks they pull on their substitute teacher.

The Berenstain Bears and Baby Makes Five

The Berenstain Bears and Baby Makes Five (2000): Honey (the only Berenstain Bear I didn’t realize existed prior to researching for this post!) joins the family, and Sister Bear isn’t too happy about it at first…but (as always) Mama Bear helps make things right.

The Berenstain Bears and the Easter Story (Berenstain Bears/Living Lights)The Berenstain Bears and the Easter Story (2012): This is the most recent book published, and it’s one of the Living Lights titles. Although the cubs are all wrapped up in the sweet trappings of Easter, their Sunday school teacher Miss Ursula manages to teach them about Jesus’ resurrection and the sweetness of salvation. It comes with stickers, too! (Can you guess what GirlChild’s getting in her Easter basket this year?)

Down a Sunny Dirt Road: An AutobiographyDown a Sunny Dirt Road: An Autobiography (2002): After browsing the website and discovering bits and pieces about this family, I am intrigued to give this book a try! This was published three years before Stan’s death.

So there you have it! This list has one book from each decade of the Berenstain Bears’ existence (plus a book about the authors, a real bonus!), and there are still MORE THAN THREE HUNDRED MORE BOOKS to explore! I’ve only scratched the surface of the titles and series-within-a-series available with this list, so get to your library and get reading!

(All information that is not opinion was gleaned from the Berenstain Bears official website or from the individual product descriptions on Amazon.com. Most of these books are available either new or used from Amazon, and many Berenstain Bears books are also available for Kindle!)

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Press Here, by Hervé Tullet

Press Here, by Hervé Tullet (2011, Handprint Books, ISBN 978-0-8118-7954-5)

From the very beginning, I did not know what to expect from this book, and each page left me anticipating the next. This book has no plot, no characters, no setting, pretty much no conventional book parts…but the directions must be followed and the pages turned to satisfy curiosity!

Hervé Tullet is a French artist and the father of three children…and he appears to know his stuff! Called the “Prince of pre-school books” in France, he published his first children’s book in 1994. Meandering about his website (which can be viewed in English, although the text in the images is still in French, and the translation appears to be computer-generated), you can find photographs of him doing workshops with small children and interacting with them in much the way you would expect a favorite uncle to do. I imagine it is this part of him that enables him to create such unique and engaging works for children.

Press Here features an assortment of bold, painted dots in primary colors on backgrounds that are white and/or painted black. The reader is instructed (through brief sentences at the bottom of the right-hand page) to do something relating to the image. For instance, one of the first pictures is simply a yellow dot, about an inch in diameter, in the center of the right-hand page, and the text (translated from the original French) says “PRESS HERE AND TURN THE PAGE.” (The text is possibly hand printed and is in distinctive uppercase writing with only the letter “i” being done in lowercase.) Turning the page reveals the supposed result of following the instruction; in this case, a second yellow dot appears to the left of the first. Instructions throughout the book include pressing, rubbing, tapping, shaking, tilting, blowing, standing, and clapping, often with an adverb to modify the verb. Readers also have to identify right and left and a deviation from a pattern. As for the dots, they multiply, move, grow, and overlap (causing some secondary colors to emerge) in a “response” that seems to follow logically from the action the reader is supposed to perform.

GirlChild’s Reaction: GirlChild was mesmerized by this book! She followed the directions fastidiously (I had to help define “press” for her so she’d take her finger off the page so I could turn it!) and at the end–where it says “Want to do it all over again?”–she was ready to start over, and she asked for it again as soon she she got up from her nap and saw it on my desk. When I wasn’t available to read it to her, she sat with it and tried to do all the actions herself by what she remembered from the pictures and reading it before, and she was ready to read it again by bedtime. Very obviously, this book was intriguing to her (and to me!), and the way that it drew her in and invited interaction reminded me of a printed cross between a smart phone app and a sophisticated touch-and-feel book! I would highly recommend this book for a one-on-one reading session with a preschool or early elementary aged child.

Additional titles:



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I Am the Dog, by Daniel Pinkwater, illustrated by Jack E. Davis

I Am the Dog

I Am the Dog, by Daniel Pinkwater, illustrated by Jack E. Davis
(2010, HarperCollins, ISBN 978-0-06-055505-4)

It was story time at the library today. My son was the one with the sock hanging out of his mouth. On the one hand, that’s disgusting. On the other, it made this book just that much more realistic to me.

This is the story–told in first person–of Jacob, a boy who voluntarily switches places with his dog, Max. This is not in any Freaky Friday sort of way…no, the actual boy takes a fancy to sleep on the floor and eat kibble and run around the yard on all fours. Max the dog–in Snoopy fashion–walks on his hind legs, gets dressed, and attends school. (He even does homework at the end of the day which Jacob eats so he has to do it over again.) Jacob speaks to his parents and wears clothes despite doing everything else like a dog. Max never appears to speak despite doing everything else in human fashion. Jacob’s family, friends, and various acquaintances seem to have no problem whatsoever with a boy who eats kibble and sniffs things at the park or with a dog who attends school and eats at the kitchen table. In the end, boy and dog agree…it’s better to be a dog. (There goes the thought that there might be a moral to this story!)

The illustrations are bright paintings with attention to offbeat detail such as the fish-themed curtains on the bedroom windows and various strange lamps (penguin, super hero, silver pig, etc.) throughout the house. You see outlets and plugs, random cars parked on the street outside the window, and the tassels on the bedspread. Shadows and highlights are strong–his mom’s glasses (hanging around her neck) cast a shadow on her shirt, and even noses have shiny highlights. The little birds kind of look like Pink Pearl erasers on legs. Needless to say, the art is pretty quirky, but I think it is probably very appealing to the likely intended audience: weird children. Oh, wait. I meant kids (mostly boys) ages 4-7.

As a note, it appears as though neither the author nor illustrator intends to be taken very seriously. Not only are all their book titles slightly outrageous (The Hoboken Chicken Emergency, The Artsy Smartsy Club, and Marsupial Sue, for example), but the book appears to be dedicated to their family pets and their jacket bios are full of silliness. Sounds like the perfect team, doesn’t it? 🙂

GirlChild’s Reaction: GirlChild thinks this book is pretty funny. When I asked her what her favorite part was, she responded, “The part where he pretends to be a dog.” (Um, that’s the whole thing.) “[GirlChild], that’s the whole thing!” “Well, I *like* the whole thing!” This is one of those books that we groan inwardly and drag ourselves to read because it’s just ridiculous but that GirlChild loves and asks for over and over while we have it checked out. (This is also the third time she’s chosen it to check out. Any book with a dog on the cover draws the attention of this future veterinary neurologist!)

Additional titles:
(by the author–apparently it was made into a movie(!?))

(by the author and illustrator)

(by the illustrator with John Lithgow)

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