“Here’s what he likes

Here’s what I like
(Kay Thompson’s Eloise)

In writing about Eloise, I am aware that I am only adding my name to a long, long list of completely devoted fans. But I must say that the scantily illustrated picture book won my heart and soul almost immediately, as only George and Martha ever has. Since so much has been said about this cheerful little book over the years, I’ll spend my two cents talking about a seemingly insignificant point: grammar.

After writing down the quotation for this post, I started to notice that Eloise is simply above the use of grammar. In a cursory look over the text, I found only one period in the book. Even though I would turn my nose up if someone merely told me a book existed without the benefit of grammar, not only do I hardly noticed it in Eloise, but I love it. Kay Thompson forms a visual, intuitive grammar by placing all of her poetic sentences next to the accompanying drawing, like a careful blend between a traditional picture book and a graphic novel. Thompson’s breaking of grammatical rules parallels the literal rules her imaginative character also breaks, which, I think, forms an essential part of the charm of Eloise.

Beverage: Champagne.

Reminds me of… although Eloise is completely original, her temper tantrum scene reminds me of Don’t let the Pigeon Ride the Bus by Mo Williems.


George and Martha

“George was fond of peeking in windows.” (George and Martha, James Marshall)

This year I used Christmas cards as yet another opportunity to spread the word about good books. The bookstore where I work had some discounted cards illustrated by none other than James Marshall. Once I had them, I couldn’t resist putting in some juicy tidbits and personalized recommendations in each card because the lightness and humor of George and Martha should spread cheer and delight the whole year through.

I simply can not get enough of these two friends; the sentences are simple, almost to the point of poetry, the drawings are bright and sunny, and the stories about friendship never fail to make me laugh aloud. I know that critics and book-cover-reviewers are overly fond of the phrase ‘for all ages’ but James Marshall’s work truly does have two (if not more) distinct levels. Not only can the humor be read in two different ways, but the stories themselves are deceptively profound examples of healthy relationships.

Beverage: Unless you get all of the works of George and Martha together, the book will only take a few minutes to peruse, but it is still probably worth making a cup of hot chocolate (maybe with the smell of a pot of split pea soup boiling in the background.)

Reminds me of… Jeeves and Wooster in a way because both have that smiling, light-hearted humor that I so prize.

The Ugly Pumpkin

“Oh my gosh, Oh my gosh, I’m a squash!” (The Ugly Pumpkin, Dave Horowitz)

Thanksgiving is an incredibly underrated holiday insofar as literature goes. Our thanksgiving display at the store was filled with happy books about the pilgrim’s inviting the Indians to lunch and the few newfangled vegetarian/vegan books where the turkey runs away or gets pardoned. Thanksgiving does not get a Newberry winner like Halloween (The Graveyard Book) or millions of classics like Christmas. It does, however get The Ugly Pumpkin by Dave Horowitz.

Every other holiday should feel a little let down that Dave Horowitz has not written a brilliant poem, illustrated in bright, lively colors for them. They should feel jealous that he has not told the story of the Ugly Pine Tree or the Ugly Egg. To be fair, Halloween does receive a passing glance, but The Ugly Pumpkin, who turns out to not be a pumpkin at all, is better suited to having a feast with his true friends, the squash. Also noteworthy is that this really isn’t a book about giving thanks, as most books about the holiday turn out to be, but it is a journey of self-discovery that is applicable year round.

Beverage: The only pumpkin beverage that I know and love is pumpkin beer (notably one by Dogfishhead), although this is indeed a kid’s book, I see no reason why a high-quality beer should be pushed to the wayside.

Reminds me of: All of the other picture books I love, especially Ghosts in the House, my favorite Halloween picture book.

The Invention of Hugo Cabret

“I like to imagine that the world is one big machine. You know, machines never have any extra parts. They have the exact number and type of parts they need. So I figure if the entire world is a big machine, I have to be here for some reason. And that means you have to be here for some reason, too.” (The Invention of Hugo Cabret, Brian Selnick)

This is a story of a boy who finds his purpose and place in life through asking questions. He has singleness of purpose and of mind – he does not give up his mysteries. He pushes people until they answer him. He does not stop trying. Is this what it takes to find out why we’re here?

Perhaps the gorgeous two-page spreads will convince you that the world is one big machine, or perhaps it will be the simplified ‘subtitles’ or between-script. Whether you’re reading 50 pages of Hugo in five-minute shots in between jobs or just sitting down on the couch for a morning, The Invention of Hugo Cabret will not disappoint. I would recommend it to any 12-year old boy I come across, as well as anyone looking for a truly unique book.

Beverage: I was definitely craving oolong tea for the duration of this work, Iron Goddess of Mercy by Rishi, to be exact.

Reminds me… of The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay because of the magician tie-ins and how the beautiful drawings almost seem like a different form of the comic book.

More Picture Books I Met and Liked

The more picture books I read, the more I find myself falling in love with the format. In what other space can art tell a story than in a picture book? It seems to be one of the last venues where illustrations can exist simply and in their own right, without being fettered down by ideas… or lack of ideas… or whatever it is that modern art does.

Spoon by Amy Krouse Rosenthal

Spoon combines an always valuable lesson, to remember your own strengths, with fantastically quirky illustrations and details, one of my favorites being when Spoon is reminded of the pleasures of relaxing in a cup of hot tea. Sometimes I try to convince myself that I bought this book as a reminder to not be ‘so blue’, but deep in my heart I know it was really because of the spooning scene at the end. I challenge you not to feel the same way after reading it.

The Surprise by Sylvia Van Ommen

The Surprise hooked me from across the room by its bold, vibrant oranges and reds. If any single page were blown up to say, a 7×7 foot poster, I would buy it in an instant, no matter what the cost. This wordless story would be a perfect gift for any child (or adult) with a penchant for unique color combinations and striking images.

Dog Loves Books by Louise Yates

If only Dog Loves Books did not star a canine, it would be the story of my life. Dog opens a bookstore (although I did not open one, I do work in one) and is disappointed when people come in to ask for food or directions (happens daily) and so reads to alleviate his boredom (hmmm…). Then someone does come in, and the last lines go something like this: “Dog loves books, but most of all, he likes to recommend them”. Fantastic. Definitely a book for book lovers of all ages.

Picture Books I Met and Liked

I recently started to work in a marvelous little children’s bookstore and in the process have managed to become quite fond of a few picture books I never read as a child. The following books have made the cut into my, as yet, hypothetical ‘baby box’:

Olivia, by Ian Falconer:

What a cultured little pig Olivia is! She goes to the museum to look at Degas and Jackson Pollock, she sculpts architecture in the sand and she reads a book about Maria Callas at bedtime. The illustrations are magnificent – the background pigs and scenery are a drab black and white while Olivia’s clothes, dinner and sun burnt skin stand out, just like her personality, in vivid shades of red and pink.

Moon Rabbit and Brown Rabbit by Natalie Russell:

Anyone who sees me try to pick out food, household objects or books will soon discover that color is the way to my heart. Both Moon Rabbit and its sequel, Brown Rabbit, have won me over through their saturated, perfectly matched color schemes. Their stories about friendship are touching and potent – a worthwhile reminder for both children and parents.

A Sick day for Amos McGee by Philip Christian Stead:

A Sick day for Amos McGee drew me in right away with its huge, gorgeous yellow stripes. They are unashamedly planted right on the cover and continue to march through most of the pages of the book. Besides the stripes, Philip Christian Stead also takes a unique, and extremely successful, risk by writing the main character not as a child or an animal, but as an old man. The illustrations are striking and beautifully drawn while the story is a lovely mix of humor and gentleness.

Blueberries for Sal by Robert McCloskey

Although Blueberries for Sal is undoubtedly a classic, I think it tends to get overshadowed by its famous sibling, Make Way for Ducklings. However lovely the later is, Blueberries for Sal definitely wins first place in my own, personal, Robert McCloskey contest. The story is so slow and in tune with nature: the four characters, Sal and her mother and a bear and its cub, find their lives intertwined one day while picking berries. The language shows the similarity of each of the species through parallel language and pictures. What could be more relaxing and simple?

Frederick by Leo Lionni

I was blown away when I first read this book – a book about the power of words drafted in the most simple and beautiful of language. Frederick is a mouse whose family is preparing for winter. Instead of gathering food, Frederick gathers sunshine, colors and words. Then, in the bleak of winter, he magically uses only his voice to reproduce these joyful effects in the minds of the other mice.

Ghosts in the House by Kazuno Kohara

Rarely does a picture book surprise an adult reader by its plot. It may shock us because of its beauty or cause our eyes to tear up out of sympathy, but a completely unique and brilliant story line is a prize indeed. Ghosts in the House accomplishes just that, and it is accompanied by simple yet stunning monochromatic illustrations. This creative book is perfect for any season – not just Halloween.

Ish by Peter Reynolds

This book is a well-illustrated and colorful lesson on the power of art and producing. I only wish that I had this book when I was teaching art to second graders. Many of them were just hitting the age when they realized that their work didn’t look exactly like what they wanted to draw, which, of course, entirely inhibited the process. It seems to me that this book would work as a balm for those self-critical feelings, gently pushing children to draw and draw, no matter what the final result is.