President Taft is Stuck in the Bath

If you are seeking a good laugh, then look no further. President Taft is Stuck in the Bath by Mac Barnett and Chris Van Dusen is a humorous interpretation of the speculative story that President Taft did indeed get stuck in his bath. Barnett’s prose is witty and comically irreverent. Van Dusen’s illustrations add another layer of hilarity to create picture book perfection.

Candlewick Press recommends this book for ages 4-8, but I believe all audiences will find great enjoyment in it. Young children will laugh at the ridiculousness of the situation and the illustrations that play out Taft’s indelicate dilemma. Older children and adults will appreciate the incorporated wordplay as government officials are brought in to help Taft out of the bath.

There is some uncertainty as to whether Taft was ever stuck in his bath, but there are two pages in the back that recount some of the theories. In addition, there is a funny historical account of Taft’s factual interactions with bathtubs. As such, President Taft is Stuck in the Bath would be an entertaining supplement when studying this president in American history.

The Cat in the Hat – Elephant and Piggie

The Cat in the Hat forever changed the stigma of “early reader” in the best way. Challenged to write an engaging story that young readers could tackle themselves, Dr. Seuss created his masterpiece to promote literacy. The book has maintained “classic” status ever since it was published in 1957. Its popularity led to a sequel (The Cat in the Hat Comes Back) and spawned a whole series of easy reader books, some written by Seuss, some written by other authors. Many of these books are also classics in their own right (Green Eggs and Ham, Hop on Pop, Fox in Socks, Go, Dog. Go!), continuing to teach newer generations of children to read.

In 2007, fifty years after The Cat in the Hat debuted, popular author-illustrator Mo Willems introduced young readers to Elephant and Piggie. In under ten years, Willems created 25 books in his series, all done in comic-book style. Text is sparse and done in dialogue. The stories are engaging, full of heart, and always served with a heaping dose of humor. Adults and kids love Elephant and Piggie, and I know I am not alone in being seriously bummed that The Thank You Book, published last year, is the final book in the series.

Just like the Cat in the Hat, Elephant and Piggie have become iconic. Go out and find first and second graders and ask – they all know Elephant and Piggie! And just like the Cat in the Hat generated a new line of early readers, Elephant and Piggie now give their stamp of approval on early readers written by various authors.

The American Library Association (the same group awarding the Newbery and Caldecott Medals) created the Theodor Seuss Geisel Award in 2004 as a way of honoring Seuss’s contributions to children’s literature. The award is given annually to “the author(s) and illustrator(s) of the most distinguished contribution to the body of American children’s literature known as beginning reader books published in the United States during the preceding year.” (For more information on the Geisel Award and to see past recipients, visit the ALA’s site here.) It’s fitting that several of the Elephant and Piggie books have either won or received honors.

A Splash of Red

I had the pleasure of listening to Jen Bryant in a recent webinar. She has a passion for children’s nonfiction and finds interesting, but less known, subjects to feature in her narrative stories. After the webinar was over, I reserved all of the nonfiction picture books that my library had available.

The collaborations between Ms. Bryant and illustrator Melissa Sweet are especially wonderful. I will cover several of their books in future posts, but I thought I would first feature A Splash of Red: The Life and Art of Horace Pippin. I appreciate art, but I was unfamiliar with Horace Pippin before reading this book. I speculate that I am not alone in this.

Horace Pippin’s story is a wonderful example of perseverance. As a young boy, he loved to draw and paint, and showed promising artistic talent. After injuring his arm in World War I, however, Horace was no longer able to create the art he so loved. He eventually taught himself to use his left hand to support his injured right arm. As Bryant writes, “Pippin’s masterful use of color, form, and composition … is considered his greatest artistic strength.” His work was discovered by notable artists and critics during his lifetime, and today his paintings are displayed in museums across the country.

A Splash of Red would be a wonderful book to supplement studies in art, art history, and U.S. history. Although picture books are usually considered for younger children, older ones will enjoy this book as well, and it would serve as a fine starting point to introduce them to Horace Pippin.

If You Give a Mouse a Cookie – When a Dragon Moves In

I’ve been highlighting a lot of books with heavy material, so I thought I’d lighten up the mood with a pair of fun books.

If You Give a Mouse a Cookie, written by Laura Numeroff and illustrated by Felicia Bond, soon became a classic after it was published in 1985. It is commonly referenced as an example for not one, but two literary devices: the use of second person point of view and circular plot structure. The title phrase initiates the sequence of events that follows, and this simple action leads to comical situations as we read of a demanding mouse who continues to want more.

If you enjoy the “If you … , then …” cause-and-effect style of If You Give a Mouse a Cookie, then you may like When a Dragon Moves In by Jodi Moore, illustrated by Howard McWilliam. This story starts , “If you build a perfect sandcastle, a dragon will move in.” We then follow a young boy’s day on the beach with his family and, of course, his dragon. The illustrations are cleverly done, and it’s left to interpretation as to whether the dragon is imaginary or real.

These are fun reads and there are others that follow. Numeroff and Bond collaborated on many more books, such as If You Give a Moose a Muffin and If You Give a Pig a Pancake, following their initial premise. Moore and McWilliam produced a sequel titled When A Dragon Moves In Again, in which our young boy copes with the arrival of a baby brother. All titles are appropriate for all ages, though the target audience is for kids 4-8 years old.

Freedom Over Me

Author Ashley Bryan used the Fairchilds Appraisement of the Estate document dated for July 5, 1828 as inspiration for his poetry collection Freedom Over Me. In this document, eleven slaves are listed for sale along with cows, hogs, and cotton. Bryan brings these eleven individuals to life with poetry. Each person has a pair of poems written from his or her perspective. The first poem describes his or her life on the plantation. The second relates personal dreams and hopes for freedom.

Bryan’s artwork is stunning. A portrait in neutral colors, along with the slave’s price and name, appears on the left with the coinciding poem describing everyday life appearing on the right. When we turn the page, we are captivated by a rich, colorful picture of the individual’s dream life, with the appropriate poem appearing on the left.

The use of poetry is profound in this book. It is a powerful way to connect us with the slaves’ humanity. Freedom Over Me would be a wonderful text to use in supplement to US History studies or in any discussion of slavery.

Owl Moon – Over and Under the Snow

Owl Moon is Jane Yolen’s story that details a young girl’s owling outing with her father. While its literary merit alone would make this picture book stand out, it solidified “classic” status when artist John Schoenherr won the Caldecott Medal for its illustrations. The story is simple and sweet, yet the language is rich and beautiful. It demonstrates the fullness of a loving parent-child relationship as the father introduces his daughter to the adventure of finding owls in the woods.

Fans of Owl Moon may likewise enjoy Kate Messner’s Over and Under the Snow, illustrated by Christopher Silas Neal. In this story, a girl and her father cross-country ski through wintry woods. They track evidence of animal life, while the father explains how the animals live and survive during the cold winter months. The illustrations juxtapose the exploration of the father and daughter against the hibernation and underground scurrying of the animals.

Both Owl Moon and Over and Under the Snow would be wonderful book selections to use in teaching poetic techniques. Owl Moon is indeed a free verse poem, and though Over and Under the Snow is written in prose, it is full of lyrical phrases. In particular, these books employ onomatopoeia, alliteration, and assonance, not to mention metaphor and simile. They both are peaceful, winter-themed, high-quality choices for younger readers, and older readers will benefit from reading them as models in writing style.

Charlotte’s Web – The One and Only Ivan

Two beloved stories with animal protagonists. Two critically acclaimed novels. And two books highlighting the value of loyal friendship and the power of expression.

One of the most read and certainly recognizable books in children’s literature, Charlotte’s Web by E. B. White tells the story of Wilbur, a runt pig who was spared an untimely death by eight-year-old Fern. He lives in the barn at Fern’s uncle’s barn, surrounded by other farm animals, yet lonely. Then he meets Charlotte, a plain but extraordinary spider. Charlotte does more than befriend Wilbur – she devises a plan to once again save Wilbur’s life. She writes words in her web, which the humans interpret as a miracle. This turns Wilbur into a celebrity, and he becomes the pride of Zuckerman’s farm. Charlotte’s Web is poignant and full of heart, affirming all the beauty found in life’s simple pleasures.

In a similar way, The One and Only Ivan by Katherine Applegate is about a small group of animals who have banded together. Living in less-than-ideal conditions in a run-down and cramped mall facility, Ivan the gorilla, Stella the elephant, and Bob the stray dog make the best of their awful situation through their relationships with one another. However, when baby elephant Ruby is added to the mix, Ivan takes it upon himself to save her from her new dismal future. Ivan paints pictures and his artwork gains much attention. As more people become aware of Ivan, the public is outraged by the inadequate living conditions for the animals, and they demand change. The One and Only Ivan demonstrates that we can all make a difference for the good of another, even when we are limited by our situation.

Although the reading level of Charlotte’s Web is a bit higher than that of The One and Only Ivan, the content of Ivan may disturb sensitive readers more than Charlotte. Both books could be read by independent readers ages 8-12, but I would suggest that ages 10-12 may be more appropriate for IvanCharlotte’s Web may be enjoyed be younger children as a read-aloud, but I would refrain from introducing Ivan to readers younger than eight.

Exclamation Mark

With the recent death of beloved children’s writer Amy Krouse Rosenthal, I’ve been going back and re-reading some of my favorites of hers. I particularly enjoy the collaborations she did with illustrator Tom Lichtenheld. Their work is full of heart, amazing wordplay, and of course, fun!

I love, love, love Exclamation Mark! Playing off the rules of punctuation, the main characters are an exclamation mark (of course), a handful of periods, and a question mark. The sparse text is incredibly clever, and somehow the fabulous Lichtenheld brings to life punctuation marks as living characters. It is a fast and fun read, and could even be used as a way of teaching punctuation to young students. This one will get a laugh out of readers of all ages.

The Snowy Day – Last Stop on Market Street

The Snowy Day by Ezra Jack Keats was truly a groundbreaking picture book when it was published in 1962. At the time, books did not feature people of color as protagonists. Children’s books typically took place in white suburbia, not in urban settings. The Snowy Day was so revolutionary for its time that the New York Public Library listed it as one of the 150 most influential books of the 20th century.

In The Snowy Day, we follow Peter as he explores his city neighborhood after a snowfall. We join him as he creates different tracks in the snow, makes snowballs and snow angels, and slides down snowy mounds. Keats’s artwork is vibrant collage, with Peter’s bright red snowsuit contrasting against the snow.

Fast forward four decades to Last Stop on Market Street, written by Matt de la Peña and illustrated by Christian Robinson, in which we spend an afternoon with CJ and his grandma in their urban neighborhood. CJ is dissatisfied, wishing he didn’t have to take the bus for his usual post-church excursion with Nana. But Nana opens his eyes to the beauty around him, helping him to really see and connect with the folks in his community.

Last Stop on Market Street also had great impact in the world of children’s literature. It won the Newbery Medal in 2016, an uncommon honor to be bestowed upon a picture book. Robinson utilizes bright colors in painting and collage, and in an interview with Horn Book, even said he was channeling Ezra Keats. (You can read Horn Book‘s review of Last Stop on Market Street here.)

Both of these classics of children’s literature are beautiful in their portrayal of urban settings and diverse characters. If you enjoyed The Snowy Day as a child (or adult!), then check out Last Stop on Market Street. 

Madeline – Olivia

Ludwig Bemelmans’ Madeline is one of the most recognized and beloved characters in all of children’s literature. We remember her pluck as she goes through her boarding-school days under the watchful eye of Miss Clavel. Even a medical emergency and a stay in the hospital cannot dampen Madeline’s spirits.

Fast forward 60 years from Madeline’s debut, and meet Olivia. Ian Falconer has created another unforgettable heroine full of energy and spunk. The bedtime interchange between Olivia and her mother best describes her lively personality. Mom says, “You know, you really wear me out, but I love you anyway.” Olivia doesn’t miss a beat and answers, “I love you anyway too.”

Both Madeline and Olivia have amazing artwork that is indispensable to the story. For Madeline, the famous Parisian scenery is one of the reasons this book is well-loved. In Olivia, Falconer creates humor and tension in the illustrations while utilizing a sparse text that is sometimes ironic when taken in context with the pictures.

Both of these strong female characters have multiple books in their series. Their large personalities have made them favorites for girls both young in age and young at heart.