This week, I’m wading through my big stacks of picture books. My toddler (almost two) loves stories, and so we read several in one sitting, a couple times a day, and I’ve got a stack probably as tall as she is of picture books we’ve read through in the past month. Today I’ll introduce you to some of the funny ones, which are always my favorites.
First, though, I’ll second Jamie Greene’s recommendation last week of Hoot Owl, Master of Disguise and Orion and the Dark. I got copies of both of those as well, and they’re excellent. (It doesn’t hurt that my toddler is obsessed with owls.)
Also, before I dive into the picture books, I’ll take a detour through two of my recent non-picture book reads. I decided to check out Jumper by Steven Gould from the library, since I’d enjoyed Impulse (mentioned here) and wanted to see how the story got started. The story really hooked me and I stayed up too late a couple of nights reading it.
Davy Rice discovers as a teenager that he has the ability to teleport–or “jump,” as he calls it. The first few times it happens inadvertently as he’s escaping abuse, and he finds himself in the safest place he can think of, his local public library. He leaves behind his alcoholic father and attempts to set up a new life in New York, only to find that he can’t really get anywhere without a birth certificate, Social Security number, or other ID. He can’t even take the GED without his dad’s permission. So then he resorts to robbing a bank with his special abilities.
While the story could have shifted to one about this kid who goes around abusing his powers, instead we get a story about somebody trying to do good. He’s not a superhero by any means–he’s still a brash teenager who sometimes acts impulsively, and he gets himself into trouble. But there’s a lot in the book about social issues: the gap between the rich and the poor, the effects of US policies on foreign affairs … stuff I probably didn’t really care about when I was in high school. Davy quickly becomes embroiled in some pretty big stuff, catching the attention of the NSA.
One of the fascinating things about Jumper is the way that Gould sets up the rules of Davy’s jumping without just making it an info dump. Davy pragmatically experiments to figure out the extent of his ability, and we get to follow along. It’s incredibly frustrating to him that the NSA thinks of him as a threat, though I feel that part is probably not far from the truth. It’s also interesting that, since the book was originally published in 1992, even cell phones were not ubiquitous, let alone smartphones. A lot of the challenges Davy faces would be much easier in the world of the smartphone–but it would also have been much easier for the NSA to track him down.
I did have a few issues with the book though it’s hard to get into those without giving too much away. Suffice it to say that there are women in the book whose primary purpose seems to be to suffer tragedies that serve to propel Davy’s story forward. Overall, though, I did enjoy reading Jumper and found it to be quite different than what I would have expected from seeing the old movie trailer. I’ve put a hold on the next book, Reflex, at the library and am looking forward to that one.
Another book I read this week is Undertow by Michael Buckley, an advance proof that was sent to me. (The book will be published in May.) It’s a young adult book that takes place on Coney Island, where the residents have been dealing with some unusual visitors.
It struck me that this was a YA fiction with some fantasy elements, but for once was not set in some far-flung dystopian future. (That’s true of Jumper as well, though it takes place two decades ago and seems more removed.) Undertow takes place in today’s world: the teenagers have smartphones and text each other and take selfies. Yes, Coney Island has undergone some significant changes, but it still feels much closer to today than most of the YA fiction I’ve read recently.
It’s hard to say more without giving away some of the story–I went into the book without even reading the back cover–but there are some things you find out pretty quickly. What I will say is that the book works as commentary about immigration, but using a sort of sci-fi/fantasy premise. Seeing as it’s a young adult novel, there is of course romance involved, a Romeo-and-Juliet boundary-crossing relationship just as I expected.
SPOILER ALERT: If you want to avoid spoilers, go ahead and skip down to the next section with the picture books. The visitors in Undertow are known variously as the First Men or Alpha, but they’re basically people from the sea–some look more human than others, some are close to what we think of as mermaids. You discover this fairly early on in the book–and also that the narrator, Lyric Walker, has a connection to them, though the exact nature of that connection isn’t immediately revealed. Coney Island has become a new border war: the Alpha live in a big camp on the beach, and the only humans left are those who don’t have the means to get out. When this book begins, it’s the beginning of a new experiment: some of the Alpha are going to start attending Lyric’s high school. There are protestors and riots.
The way the government and the population react to the Alpha seems fairly realistic–as in Jumper, I have to say that humanity is not painted in the best light. I think it’s safe to guess that Buckley sides with immigrants.
Ok, now we’ll get to those funny picture books I promised you earlier.
The Glorkian Warrior Eats Adventure Pie is the second in James Kochalka’s Glorkian Warrior comic book series. I actually hadn’t read the previous book, but we’ve enjoyed a lot of Kochalka’s other kids comics, particularly Dragon Puncher. The Glorkian Warrior is a three-eyed alien who wears a talking, shooting backpack named Super Backpack and a kid? little sibling? friend? named Gonk. The problem is, the Glorkian Warrior is a bit of a dim bulb, and Gonk is even worse. Super Backpack actually seems somewhat intelligent, but, alas, it’s just a backpack and can’t really get around on its own.
Anyway, the GW is trying to defeat the space snake (pictured there on the cover) when his nemesis, the mean Buster Glark, shows up and ruins everything. Thus kicks off another thrilling adventure, in which our hapless hero lets a baby alien feed on his brains, Gonk tries to use a telephone as a backpack, and … pie. I read this one aloud to all three of my kids. My toddler had no idea what was going on, but both of my older daughters were in fits the whole way through. The book is filled with the “it’s so dumb it’s funny” sort of humor and my kids just ate it up. Like pie.
Sleepless Knight is another comic book for the wee ones. I’ve been seeing more of these, books that are almost a picture book size and shape but are comics inside. Created by James Sturm, Andrew Arnold, and Alexis Frederick-Frost (the authors of Adventures in Cartooning), Sleepless Knight features the same tiny knight and Edward the horse, going out for a little camping trip. But when the knight’s teddy bear goes missing, it’s a (brief) quest to track it down so everyone can get some sleep … maybe. It’s another book with a lot of silliness, and it’s pretty cute. The endpapers have little instructions for drawing the knight, Edward, a rabbit, and a bear. (Sleepless Knight is due out on April 7.)
I’ve always liked Jon Agee’s books–his illustrations are somehow absurd and deadpan at the same time. His latest, It’s Only Stanley, is a great example of this. In rhyming verse, we see the poor Wimbledon family as they are awoken one by one by strange noises, sending Walter, the dad, to go investigate. And each time, he returns to report that it’s only Stanley, doing things that you wouldn’t expect a dog to do: clearing the bathtub drain, making catfish stew. The pictures, though, tell a different story. What is that dog actually up to? The illustrations are wonderful, and the surprise ending is delightful.
One of my favorite picture books of 2013 was Mustache Baby by Bridget Heos and Joy Ang, and now they’re back with Mustache Baby Meets His Match. Baby Billy and his mustache meet Baby Javier and his beard, and they both try to outdo each other with feats of manliness. The book has funny visual jokes and really fun artwork, as the two boys take on the looks of famous mustachioed and bearded men during their competition. And, of course, they learn a valuable lesson about friendship.
Chris Haughton’s illustrations are visually striking: bold colors and big chunky characters with expressive eyes. His latest book, Shh! We Have a Plan, features four sneaky figures trying to capture a bird. Well, three sneaky figures. The fourth and smallest one keeps saying “hello, birdie,” thus necessitating the shushing. But of course the plan never works, resulting in plenty of visual humor. The text is minimal and even the color scheme sticks with mostly blues and blacks–except for the vividly colored birds. Cute, funny, and to the point. Shh! We Have a Plan was published last fall, and will be available in softcover on April 2.
One more: Little Rabbit and the Meanest Mother on Earth by Kate Klise and M. Sarah Klise, two sisters who apparently had to clean up their room regularly when they were kids. Little Rabbit really wants to go out to see the circus, but his mom says he can’t until he cleans up his playroom–clearly an impossible task. So he sells tickets to show the world the Meanest Mother on Earth. However, mom’s pretty clever and finds a pretty good solution.
Okay, I’ll be honest–I found this one funnier than my kids did, but that’s because we’re always trying to get them to clean up their room, too. I think maybe the irresponsible Little Rabbit was a little too close to the mark for them. Still, I think this is one I’ll keep around, as a reminder. Little Rabbit and the Meanest Mother on Earth was originally published several years ago, but will be back in paperback on April 7.
Well, that’s it for this week! Tune in next week–I’ve got a lot more picture books to share.