Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Tree of Birds

Another great book we've found for this in-between phase is Tree of Birds. Once again, this is out of print, but Amazon has a few reasonably-priced used copies available. I picked this up at a garage sale or something about a year ago, but Charlie wasn't ready for it until now.

This is a delightful story, and one that I like much better than the sappy-sweet Stellaluna. A boy named Harry finds an injured bird and takes her home to nurse her back to health, and names her, amusingly, Sally. But once Sally is all better, Harry still wants to keep her. It's getting cold out, and normally she would fly south for the winter, but he keeps her locked up indoors so she won't leave him. But there are a couple of problems. First, Sally is very lonely, gazing longingly out the window all day. But even more disturbing is that her flock refuses to fly south without her. Instead, they follow Harry around, staying in a tree outside his bedroom window, flying behind him to and from school, and even waiting for him outside the schoolroom window all day.

Harry is very concerned, because it's starting to get cold out and the birds will die if they don't fly south for the winter. He tries to convince them to go away, telling them that he is taking very good care of Sally, but he cannot convince them. Finally, it begins to snow. Harry and Sally stare out the widow, distraught. Harry finally makes the difficult decision to open the window, even though he will miss Sally very much. But in a surprise twist, Sally doesn't leave -- the other birds fly into his house instead!

I love this book because of the concern Harry shows for Sally the whole way through. His emotions are very real. So are those of the birds, who do not talk but express their feelings through very well-drawn facial expressions. I also love how Harry makes his own decisions and takes care of his own problems. His mother shows up here and there with help and advice, but Harry is definitely thinking and acting for himself. This one is highly recommended!

Sunday, November 27, 2011


Charlie is still into his bike and coloring books, but I'm pleased to report that he is finally showing interest in books again. But after a two-month break from most reading, it took me quite a while to figure out what kinds of books he would enjoy and appreciate. His capacity for understanding plot has increased dramatically, and he now loses interest in stories with simple plots or no plot at all. But at the same time, he still needs pictures to hold his attention, so books with very long text passages and few or small pictures, such as the original Winnie the Pooh stories, were not working, either. It can be quite difficult to find something with just the right balance of text and pictures.

Stellaluna is one of the first books I've found that fits the bill perfectly. I bought this at least a year ago, because it is always featured prominently at bookstores. But back then, it was much too wordy for Charlie and he couldn't pay attention through the whole thing. Now, at age three years and three months, it's just perfect.

Stellaluna is a story of a baby fruit bat who is separated from her mother and taken in by a mother bird with three baby birds. She starts to behave like a bird even though it is very difficult for her to do things like eating bugs, standing upright instead of upside-down, and sleeping during the night. Eventually she finds a flock of bats again and learns that she is one of them ... but her bird step-siblings are not! The moral is that even though we are different from each other, we can still be good friends.

The illustrations are also gorgeous. They are very realistic and detailed paintings. Many are in drab colors--white, brown, grey--with just a splash of vibrant color on the page. Others show the brilliant blues of daytime and nighttime skies. Somehow, the emotions shine through on highly realistic bat and bird faces.

There is a second, hidden story in this book, told entirely through small line drawings at the top of each page. The text and main illustrations tell the story of Stellaluna, the baby bat. But the line drawings tell the story of the mother bat after she is separated from Stellaluna. An owl chases her into a cave, but after she escapes she searches and searches for Stellaluna until finally they are reunited and the mother takes her place back in the main story. It's very clever and helps the child understand that there can be several perspectives on the same story, or several things happening at the same time.

This book is not one of my all-time favorites, but Charlie does love it and it has filled a very empty niche for us at the moment.

Sunday, October 16, 2011


I haven't updated this blog in ages, but it's not dead. The reason is that Charlie has been going through a phase where he is so focused on other things that he has very little time for books. This has not slowed down my children's book addiction at all, unfortunately. I keep buying more and more books, and Charlie just ignores them.

What is he doing? He's very interested in two things: coloring with markers and riding his balance bike. We've been taking bike rides around the block almost every afternoon after school, and he is really getting the hang of pushing off with his feet and gliding. It's amazing to watch, and I'm starting to teach him how to ride safely around cars, too.

Coloring is largely a before-bedtime activity, but he also brings it out at other times of day. He will sometimes color quietly, by himself, for up to an hour. He has dry erase markers and a couple of laminated activity books which he loves, but also a bunch of regular coloring books. He doesn't do the activities in the books. He just colors in all the pictures. His ability to control the markers has dramatically improved.

So, with all this important focused activity going on, he has been too busy to read much. I stressed about it a little bit at first, but when I saw how much attention he was giving to these other two activities, I decided to just relax and let the phase play itself out. It's not that he dislikes books, it's that he's busy learning other Very Important Things. But I think we're starting to see the light at the end of the bookless tunnel. I hope to have some more reviews up soon.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Gyo Fujikawa's A to Z Picture Book

Gyo Fujikawa's A to Z Picture Book is amazing and gorgeous. When I picked it up in the bookstore and flipped through it, I was just in awe. I expected to find a $25 price tag on the back, but lo and behold, it costs $9.95. I could not believe it! This is a steal, and it is totally worth buying in hardback and new at that price. (The book is recently back in print after the 1970s version went out of print, and I don't know how the original compares.)

I only bought this book about six months ago, but I imagine that it would be a great one for infants and toddlers. It doubles as a vocabulary book, with numerous labeled illustrations of individual things on each letter's page. A young child would be interested in the book for language learning years before the alphabet has any meaning.

The downside to this approach to the alphabet is that there is no "story" or rhyme to read through, and there is a lot to look at on each page. Charlie enjoys looking at it for a little bit, but we will just do a page or two before he loses interest. That's fine with me, but I just have to make sure to start at a different page each time.

Legible Capital and Lowercase: A. The capital letter is shown in a very large font at the top left of each page, and the lowercase at the bottom right (a few pages mix it up and use top-right/bottom-left). The illustrations do interact with the letters, which has the potential to be a little bit confusing, but I don't find that they detract from the legibility.

Filler Words: A. A few comments about the format of this book are necessary at this point. Most letters get a full two-page black and white spread, with the large capital and lowercase and a bunch of things that start with that letter illustrated and labeled. Some of the less popular letters share a two-page spread, for example E on the left page and F on the right. Interspersed with these are two-page color spreads, but when two letters share a black and white page, only one of those letters gets a color page (E, G, I, K, O, Q, U, V, X, and Z do not have color pages). All of the black and white pages use the same format, but the color pages vary widely. A is contemplative: "A is for alone, / all by myself . . . / Hi, there, frog! / Can I play with you?" The illustration shows mostly sky and empty swamp, with just a lone girl standing, looking at frog on a rock. B is an entirely different experience: "B is for busy babies!" is the sole text, and the illustration shows literally dozens of babies and toddlers engaged in all manner of activities, interspersed with animals--and there are no labels. An infant or young toddler could spend easily 20 minutes with a parent pointing out all the things and activities on this page.

So, the black and white pages have little opportunity for filler words, since they are just labeled illustrations. Even so, there are some. One picture on the C page is labeled "Clara is crawling;" another is "Cat and copycat." The color pages do use filler words, but they are so carefully chosen and poetic (not in a rhyming way, but in an evocative way) that I have trouble thinking of them as "filler." Other color pages have hardly any words, or are highly alliterative ("F is for friends, fairies, flowers, fish, and frogs.")

Cheat Words: A-. In general, the author was extremely creative in coming up with words for unusual letters (zinnia, zero, zombie, zipper, zebra, and zoom!). She does sometimes use different starting sounds for a letter, but all of them very normal alternate sounds (under vs. unicorn). I'm not a fan of the X page, however (x-ray, X marks the spot, XXXXXX is for kisses, X is for railroad crossing, xeranthemum, xylophone).

Understandable Words: A. Okay, some of them are weird (didn't I just mention xeranthemum?), but they are all understandable. The xeranthemum is clearly illustrated and labeled, and even though I'd never heard the word before, I'm quite certain now that it's that kind of flower pictured right there. Unusual flower, bird, and animal names make lots of appearances, but I think that's fine because they are very concrete. A lot of abstract words are mixed in, but they are ones that a child can easily grasp, like "pout" and "hungry" and "crybaby."

Sounding Out: B. There are plenty of good sounding-out words here (eggs, fox, fish, lark, milk), but the font is pretty small for a little kid and it would be hard to focus that well. These words are mixed in with a lot that are not phonetic.

Hidden Pictures: (none). There is plenty of detail to notice in many of the color spreads, but there is no particular emphasis on including things that start with the same letter.

Illustrations: A. I did not recognize the name Gyo Fujikawa, but apparently she was a celebrated children's author and illustrator from the late 1950s through 1990. You will immediately recognize the illustration style when you pick up the book. My immediate thought was that this looked like a sappy-sweet 1950s gender-stereotypical morality-play type of illustration. But as soon as you start looking at what is actually there, you will discover amazing talent and depth in the illustrations. Faces are expressive in innumerable ways. Contrasts in subject matter leap off the page. Composition is just gorgeous. Reality and fantasy are equally well portrayed. It's a gem.

Theme (none).

You should buy this one. It's a bargain at twice the price.

Friday, July 8, 2011

The Alphabet from A to Y with Bonus Letter Z

I desperately wanted to like The Alphabet from A to Y With Bonus Letter Z!. Partially because it's co-written by Steve Martin (yes! the actor!), partially because the title is so fun and hilarious, and partly because the inside cover has a series of great cartoons in which non-English letters like ash, thorn, and a-circumflex complain about not being included in the book. Tragically, however, the book is terrible as an alphabet book.

Legible Capital and Lowercase: F.  Each page features a very large capital letter. There is no lowercase version featured. This would be fine, except that they use a highly embellished font for the large letters, so some of them are completely unrecognizable to a child just learning the alphabet. You can see what I mean by going to Amazon's look-inside feature and scrolling down to the A page. The A has a long flag flying off to the left from the top, and the left leg of it curls into a spiral. I pointed to it and asked Charlie what letter it was, and he said, "I don't know that one." FAIL. A few of the letters are normal-looking, but with this font, Charlie had trouble identifying A, E, F, G (honestly, I had a little trouble with this one!), M, N, Q, U, and W (this one, too! it looks like an X with wings!).

Filler Words: D. There are a lot of them, and the authors seem to be intentionally putting confusing sounds together. More on this under the Cheat Words section, because in this case, they kind of go together.

Cheat Words: D. This book goes out of its way to play with unusual starting sounds. That can be fun for grown-ups, but it's just plain confusing for children. The N page, for example, is an extended play on words that start with "kn." It reads, "Needle-nosed Nigel won nine kinds of knockwurst / By winning a contest to see who could knock worst." The W page uses "weally" instead of "really" to be cute, but try reading that to a child who has trouble saying the difference. The X page not only puts X's in the middle of words, but also intersperses them with ct and ck making the same sound: "Ambidextrous Alex was actually axed / For waxing, then faxing, his boss's new slacks." They also sometimes, randomly, use foreign words.

Understandable Words: C. This book is probably written for an older audience. It has a lot of gross-out jokes going on, and the vocabulary can be pretty abstract and/or obscure at times. Words include clingy, clueless, dapper, derby, frijoles, gravlax, heaven, and hunchbacks.

Sounding Out: B. The sentences have a mix of long and short words, some phonetic and some not. If you're intent on sounding something out, you'll find opportunities for it here.

Hidden Pictures: A. This is one area where the book shines. Each letter has a full-page illustration filled with things that start with the letter. The A page, for example, shows a scene of three women eating sandwiches in a living room. Checking out all the details in the picture, you can find aces (from a deck of cards), aardvark, angel, acorn, a tube of "Acne Away," alligator, abacus, apple, axe, and books labeled "Art of Antarctica," "All About Algebra," "Asparagus Acres," "Aaron's Appendicitis Almanac," and more.

Illustrations: B+. The pictures are cartoon style and kind of ugly, but full of the rich detail described above. They also show the characters and activities listed in the sentence for each letter.

Theme: (none).

Wow. Overall, this is one of the worst reviews I've ever written. The book does have a couple of redeeming features, mostly the illustrations. Some of its humor is good, but other jokes are very potty-oriented and gross-out, so I wouldn't recommend reading it just for the adult humor value. But the main problem here is that this is not a book designed to teach the alphabet to kids. It certainly does not accomplish that very well at all.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

The Teddy Bear ABC (DK Publishing)

So many good books are out of print. I picked up The Teddy Bear ABC at a garage sale, and fortunately there are dozens of copies available on Amazon for very cheap. Finally, here is an alphabet book that Charlie and I can agree on. We both love it!

The gimmick with this book is that every letter has a different teddy bear with a name starting with that letter. This is kind of neat because the bears are cute, and because it introduces names as well as ordinary words that start with the letter. Of course, a lot of alphabet books do that just by using sentences, but this is another way to do it. Weirdly, there are two pages that combine letters and only give bear names, with no other words, for those letters. "I is for Ivan, J is for Jerry, K is for koala, kangaroo, and Kerry," and "X is for Xavier, Y is for Yo, Z is for zipper, Zack, and zero."

Legible Capital and Lowercase: A. The capital and lowercase letters are at the top left of each page, in a large, clear font, in bright colors. Very easy to see and recognize.

Filler Words: A. This book doesn't present sentences, it just gives three items starting with each letter and puts them in a sentence of the form, "A is for apple, ants, and Adelle, B is for Bruno, butterfly, and bell." The last words given for the two letters in the spread always rhyme, which is a nice touch and makes the text flow very well. The down side of this presentation method is that all of the words are nouns and names, with no other parts of speech mixed in.

Cheat Words: A-. Most of the words are fine, but they do inexplicably use Phil as a P name. They skip out on words for X and only present the name Xavier, which doesn't use the standard X sound.. Everything else is fine.

Understandable Words: A+. All of the words in this book are understandable, relevant to kids, easily illustrated, and actually illustrated. The sentences run across the tops of the pages. The bottom 2/3 of each page has photographs of the items, each labeled with its name.

Sounding Out: B. Some words are puzzlers (crumb, feather, Hugh), but there is at least one word that can be sounded out on each page.

Hidden Pictures: B. At the top of each page, there is a drawing of a cartoon teddy bear. On almost every page, the bear is doing or holding one thing that starts with the featured letter. For example, on the C page, the bear is taking a picture with a camera. However, when two letters share a page (I & J, X & Y), only one of the letters has a hidden picture, and on some pages, the hidden picture is the same as one of the things mentioned in the text. Some books have a lot more, and more clever, hidden pictures, so I'm giving this one just a B.

Illustrations: A. I love, love, love all of the DK books for their amazingly beautiful photography. This is actually one of the least impressive of the series, but it is still gorgeous. Everything is realistic and colorful and expertly placed on the page. This book also works well as a vocabulary-builder for infants and young toddlers.

Theme: A-. The theme of this book is teddy bears. Each letter's page has a photograph of a different teddy bear, and that bear is given a name starting with the letter. It's pretty interesting to see how much variation there can be among instances of a simple toy like a teddy bear. Additionally, cartoon bears appear at the tops of the pages, as mentioned above.

So, high marks in general here. I certainly recommend this book, especially for younger children and anyone who loves teddy bears.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Basher: ABC Kids

Basher: ABC Kids is a book that I love in theory, but in practice it has trouble holding Charlie's attention. He'll be interested for a few pages, maybe even half of the book, but then he'll wander off to do something else. I haven't figured out why. It's not too long, just a sentence for each letter. The illustrations are funny and attractive, with vibrant colors. Maybe the words are a bit too complex, or he's put off by the lack of rhymes. But I want so much for him to like it.... It scores very high on most of my alphabet book criteria.

Legible Capital and Lowercase: A. This is a large book (8.5 x 11 pages) with little content, so everything inside is big and bold. The individual letters are showcased in huge font on the entire bottom half of the left-hand page, capital and lowercase. The bottom of the right-hand page shows the entire alphabet in small lowercase letters, with the featured letter for that page in bold with an underline. The font is not too fancy, though Charlie did have a bit of trouble identifying the Q because of a weird tail. Some of the illustrations show characters standing or sitting on top of the letters, which can be a little bit distracting but is also really cute.

Filler Words: A+. This book has zero filler words, even though it is written in sentences! I cannot emphasize enough how rare this is. They pull off this trick by being imaginative with verbs and by writing a lot in plurals so no a/an/the is needed. "Arthur's angry ant ate apples." "Brianna bounces beautiful bugs." "Claude's crafty cuckoo collects coins." All the way through "Zack zaps zeppelins!" It's brilliant.

Cheat Words: A. They've done an excellent job picking words that legitimately start with the letters and have the correct sound. X is the hardest, of course, and they've gone with "Xavier x-rays xylophones." Not perfect, but not terrible either. I'm happy to forgive this because they did such a great job on "Queenie questions quivering quails."

Understandable Words: C. This is certainly part of what loses Charlie's interest. The book gets pretty abstract at times with words like quivering, elegant, crafty, irritable, marvelous. He has to ask what they mean, and they're not easy for me to define, either. And they can't really be drawn in the illustrations.

Sounding Out: B. Each letter gets a two-page spread. The left side has the sentence at the top and the large letters at the bottom, with an illustration of the sentence. The right side has the full alphabet at the bottom and at the top, it repeats a single word from the sentence and shows a large illustration of just that one thing. These words are pretty good for sounding out. Apple, bug, cuckoo, dog. Not all the words in the book are phonetic, but the majority of these featured ones are.

Hidden Pictures: (none).

Illustrations: A. I love the visual style of this book. It manages to be vibrant while using pastels, somehow. The characters are manga-inspired, with round faces and horizontal lines for eyes. The sentences are cleverly illustrated, even if not all of the nuances of the words can come across to a child. It's very well done.

Theme: (none).

I didn't realize until I was writing this review that Basher books are a series. There seem to be a variety about science and math topics, mainly aimed at somewhat older kids. They have great reviews on Amazon, so maybe this author is better at appealing to older kids than to the 3-year-old set. Perhaps Charlie would appreciate this book more if he were older and had a more extensive vocabulary. I suspect that he'll be well beyond alphabet books by the time he understands what an elegant elephant is, but that will not be true of all children. I love this book so much that I hope the target market manages to find it.