Picture Book Report

Stack Overflow: Picture Book Report

Books Columns Stack Overflow

As it turns out, it’s a lot easier to read books than to write reviews when you’re holding a small baby, so I find myself once again with a few piles of books to review. To that end, I’m resurrecting my Stack Overflow series, where I’ll give you brief reviews of several books at once. Today’s topic: picture books!

First, here’s a little slideshow of 10 of my favorite picture books from the stack, showing the covers and one interior page of each:

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1. Battle Bunny – written by Jon Scieszka & Mac Barnett, illustrated by Matthew Myers

I’ve been a huge fan of Scieszka since the Stinky Cheese Man days, and Barnett writes some of the funniest kids’ books I’ve read, so I was sold as soon as I saw this in the bookstore. Battle Bunny is ostensibly a book entitled Birthday Bunny, given to Alex by his Gran Gran for his birthday. But Alex has taken a pencil to the book, making the bunny an evil mastermind bent on taking over the forest. You can still read the original text underneath the markings, and Myers’ illustrations are spot-on, perfectly evoking Golden Books–era pablum. (Okay, not all Golden Books are bland. The Monster at the End of This Book is a classic, I tell ya.)

2. Carnivores – written by Aaron Reynolds, illustrated by Dan Santat

I recognized Santat’s illustration style from books like Oh No! and Sidekicks. This one is about the timber wolf, the lion, and the great white shark. Oh, sure, they’re at the top of the food chain, but that doesn’t mean they don’t have feelings. Carnivores chronicles their funny attempts to deal with their public image.

3. The Art of Clean Up: Life Made Neat and Tidy – by Ursus Wehrli

You may have seen Wehrli’s TED Talk about on Tidying Up Art or his book of the same title. In it, he takes famous paintings and straightens them up, making things more organized. In The Art of Clean Up, Wehrli applies his organizational skills to real-life objects: clothes on a clothesline, a bowl of alphabet soup, people at the pool. To be sure, there are still some that are more like clever image editing (like tidying up a subway map) but most of them involved actually wrangling things and taking photos of them. The perfect book for the OCD kid (or adult) in your life.

4. Crabtree – by Jon & Tucker Nichols

Speaking of neat and tidy, Crabtree is another picture book about getting organized … sort of. Alfred Crabtree can’t find his false teeth, so he decides to organize everything he owns in order to look for them. It’s a bit like a Richard Scarry word book gone bonkers—he sorts out his ducks and decoys, his hats and helmets, all of his yellow things, his collection of small yapping dogs. The oversized pictures include little funny things throughout, and my kids couldn’t stop giggling. As a bonus, the dust jacket doubles as a two-sided poster.

5. The Day the Crayons Quit – written by Drew Daywalt, illustrated by Oliver Jeffers

Jeffers is another favorite illustrator (check out The Incredible Book Eating Boy), and here he’s a perfect fit for Daywalt’s story about crayons. It seems Duncan’s crayons all have their own grievances: Beige is tired of being called “dark tan” and relegated to coloring wheat. Gray is exhausted from coloring really big animals and suggests mice and pebbles instead. Orange and Yellow bicker over which one is the real color of the sun, and Black wants to do more than just outlines. Each page of The Day the Crayons Quit includes a letter from one of the crayons and a crayon-y rendering of their complaints.

6. The Ghastly Dandies Do the Classics – by Ben Gibson

The Ghastly Dandies are a strange sort of beast that reminds me of Allie Brosh’s alot, though with antlers instead of horns. Here, they re-enact various classic books—like The Great Gatsby, Pride and Prejudice, and Moby Dick—in double-quick time. Each classic only takes a few pages, but they’re pretty funny. I can’t say that it will necessarily teach your kiddos to appreciate the source material, but The Ghastly Dandies Do the Classics is “alot” of fun.

7. Standing in for Lincoln Green – by David Mackintosh

Lincoln Green has a neat trick: he has a double who lives in his mirror, and when there’s something that he just doesn’t want to do right away, his double comes out and takes care of it for him. After all, Lincoln Green has swimming to do and radio shows to listen to; he can’t always be bothered to water the plants and mow the lawn. But, like Calvin’s duplicates, eventually the double realizes that he wants to have some fun, too. Mackintosh’s artwork has an old-timey feel to it, and fortunately Lincoln Green learns his lesson before things get too out of hand.

8. Moonday – by Adam Rex

You know when you were a kid and you thought the moon was following you as you rode along in the car? What if it actually followed you home? Moonday plays with that idea, and Rex’s images of a big glowing moon in the backyard are delightful. But, of course, having the moon in your backyard can wreak a little havoc, too.

9. Stardines Swim High Across the Sky and Other Poems – written by Jack Prelutsky, illustrated by Carin Berger

Prelutsky is known for his silly poems about mash-up animals, and Stardines is his latest creation. From the poor, sticky Gloose to the annoying Tattlesnake to the slovenly Slobster, this collection of misfit creatures is witty and amusing. Berger’s photo montage illustrations are a fun fit as well. (I’m also a big fan of Prelutsky’s Scranimals, illustrated by Peter Sis.)

10. Unicorn Thinks He’s Pretty Great – by Bob Shea

Goat is pretty irked. Ever since Unicorn moved into town, all of Goat’s tricks fall flat. Goat rides a bike; Unicorn flies. Goat makes marshmallow squares; Unicorn makes it rain cupcakes. Like Goat says, Unicorn Thinks He’s Pretty Great. But, as it turns out, there are things about Goat that Unicorn envies, too. A fun little book that shows how the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence (or the rainbow).

Disclosure: GeekDad received review copies of all these titles except Battle Bunny.

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12 thoughts on “Stack Overflow: Picture Book Report

  1. Hi Jonathan,
    This is a great list. I’m on the judging panel for the Fiction Picture Book category of the Cybils Awards this year, and so I’ve had the privilege of reading about 200 of the best picture books of the year in the past few months, so I feel like I have a little authority when I say – you’ve picked a great bunch of books.

    I bet you didn’t notice, though, that 100% of the books you picked were written by men. All but one of them were illustrated by men. MANY of the other year-end best-of picture book lists are similarly dominated by male creators.

    It’s such a weird thing. Reading all the books nominated for the Cybils in my category, I began to notice that a large number of the ones I liked were by male authors or artists. I’d say maybe it’s just a good year for the guys, but the “medal gap” is well-documented: http://oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2012/01/30/american-library-association-to-little-kids-women-are-second-best/

    And when you look at the people who create picture books in general, the gender split is close to 50/50.

    It is hard to say what’s going on, and I am certainly not accusing you of gender bias. I *might* be accusing the industry of gender bias – picture books by men are more likely to get premium printing treatment (I did some analysis), and male picture book authors and illustrators are definitely more likely to get sent out to events than the ladies. For example, I have personally met more than half of the creators on this list – at BEA, at ALA, at regional book festivals. I wouldn’t be surprised if you could say the same thing. Does this make us more likely to appreciate their books? These are charismatic guys – of course it does.

    Children’s publishing is a female-dominated industry, and It feels like we women reward the shit out of the guys who participate in it. It reminds me of the lone dad on the playground, and how all the moms think he’s so damn sexy because he knows how to push a swing.

    On the other hand, I would watch Oliver Jeffers push a swing any day. So I guess we’re doomed.

    1. Hi, Paula,

      Thanks for the comment! I may try to write an article about this, but here’s a partial reply.

      I actually did get an email from a reader about this very thing. I should note that, despite the timing, this isn’t intended to one of those “end of the year” posts—it’s just the first in my attempts to catch up on long-overdue book reviews. I have another 30 picture books or so sitting in a pile next to my desk (not to mention comic books, kids’ books, adult fiction, and so on), and these are just the first ten.

      However, after getting the email, I went and looked through the list, and it does feel like there are more men than women in the stack. I’ll admit that I tend to pay more attention to the gender of the characters than the gender of the creators: I want my daughters to identify with the characters and I want fun stories that they can put themselves into. For them, that happens more easily when the main character is a girl, not when the author is a woman. I did an entire series on “Stories About Girls” a couple years ago—there are probably more women authors and illustrators represented there, but there are certainly still a lot of men on the list as well.

      The books I review are largely those that I get sent, and a few that I pick up myself. I actually haven’t been to many book events myself—a Comic-Con several years ago, and the Wordstock Book Festival here in Portland—so I can’t really comment on a trend of who gets sent to events. I do feel like there were more women YA writers than men at the last Wordstock. What I can tell you is that nearly ALL of my PR contacts in the book industry are women, so it is somewhat surprising that my picture book list ended up being all male.

      I also looked at my next stack of books—this time a motley assembly of books that all have to do with aliens—and it’s also entirely men.

      So … this is certainly a topic worth exploring. I’ll give it some more thought as I review my next batch of books.

      1. Hi Jonathan,

        I really appreciate your willingness to engage with this question Paula has raised. I’ve been compiling a list of 2013 titles by women authors and illustrators, in response to your post. In case you’re interested in checking out some books by women.

        http://laurelsnyder.com/?p=2117

        Thanks and best, Laurel Snyder

        (who was the grateful recipient of a review from you a few years back, btw: http://www.wired.com/geekdad/2009/11/the-geekly-reader-any-which-wall-by-laurel-snyder/)

        1. Hi, Laurel! I remember Any Which Wall!

          Several of the books on your list are in my pile here, so they’ll be in future Stack Overflow lists. I should mention that this list isn’t meant to be complete—the idea of “Stack Overflow” is that it’s a semi-regular thing, where I list a bunch of books and give a short synopsis of each. But it’s the first one I’ve done in a long time, due to being tied up with new baby duties for much of this year.

          Another site I really like is A Mighty Girl, which has tons of books (of all genres) that feature girl characters. I haven’t looked closely at the gender ratio of the authors and illustrators, though—that might be an interesting study, too!

          Here’s their picture books category:
          http://www.amightygirl.com/books/fiction/picture-books

      2. Hi Jonathan – thanks for your thoughtful response to my comment. You mention that “The books I review are largely those that I get sent,” and sadly, I think this may be the crux of why a disproportionate number of the books on your stack are by guys.

        I think that men who participate in female-dominated industries get star treatment BY the women in those industries. It’s a depressing, depressing thing – find a male elementary school teacher and ask him how often people assume he’s on the administrative track; I’m a librarian, and oh baby do male librarians get promoted, and fast.

        I get sent picture books in the mail too, but I kind of try to ignore them. (Whoops, goodbye excellent boxes from McMullens 🙁 Most of the books I review come from the New Picture Books shelf at the library. Laurel’s list is fantastic, and I have a few more to add: http://pinkme.typepad.com/pink-me/2013/11/cybils-picture-book-reviews.html.

        Lastly – you’re the dad of girls, I’m the mom of boys. I NEVER notice character gender in picture books. What does that tell us? Hmm!

        1. Not to cut the discussion short, but since I’m prepping for a busy Thanksgiving week, I’ll plan to address this more fully next week in its own post! At this point I have so many books on my shelves that I don’t usually go looking for more, honestly.

          As for why you never notice character gender as a mom of boys, my theory is this: you probably haven’t had to worry about your kids growing up thinking that their primary purpose is to be rescued by somebody of the opposite sex, because those were the stories they were fed. I’ve also been told by many people (teachers and librarians) that girls often read books about boys or girls, but that many boys (especially middle schoolers) won’t read books that feature girls as main characters. Not having boys myself, I’m not in a position to evaluate that.

          Lately a lot of the books I’ve been reading aloud to my kids have featured boys as main characters (and, often, as most of the secondary characters, too). Some of them are great books, but many of them wouldn’t pass the Bechdel Test.

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