Category Archives: Literary Reviews

Review of Carin Berger’s “The Little Yellow Leaf”

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"Yellow Leaf" Cover

The theme of this story is one we have seen many times, but a very important theme nonetheless.

It is a theme that is hard to put into words, but encompasses many things.

The best way I can describe this theme without giving too much away is:

The Little Yellow Leaf” is a wonderful story for reassuring anyone that doing something you’ve never done before is much easier when you’re not alone. To fit with the theme, this story is told in a very soothing, gentle, somewhat heavy style.
Many of the best picture books are both timeless and unique. The theme of this book is timeless. What makes it unique is both the illustrations and the subject/focus. The subject of this story is the leaves, particularly the “little yellow leaf” of the title. Leaves and their trees being the subject allows for illustrations that are relatively simple compared to those found in other children’s books, where the subject is usually a human or animal character.  This does not at all keep the illustrations from being exciting and beautiful.
Since leaves and trees are the focus of the story, they are the main subjects of the illustrations. Many of the illustrations’ embellishments are highly stylized, such as:

"Yellow Leaf" Illustration 1

The sun, beckoning the leaves to fall

"Yellow Leaf" Illustration 2

The moon and the stars

"Yellow Leaf" Illustration 3

The snowflakes

In some illustrations, trees are stylized, too. A group of trees is made to look circular, making it easier for these subjects to act as the focus.  Here is an example:

"Yellow Leaf" Illustration 4

Embellishments that are not stylized include mushrooms, apples, pumpkins, acorns, and geese flying south. The latter are very simply drawn.
At first I thought the illustrations were painted, but as it turns out, they are all created through collages made with different kinds of paper. This includes magazine paper, hence the unrelated text on some of the illustrations. This makes the illustrations even more unique. What’s more, this book is making me really want to try illustrating some of my stories with collages. I think autumn illustrations lend themselves especially well to collages, but maybe I’m biased since I enjoyed doing autumn collages so much as a child.

All in all, this is a wonderful book.  The story made me cry, and the illustrations made me want to expand my horizons.

Review of Elsa Beskow’s “Children of the Forest”

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Being written and illustrated by a Swedish author, the illustrations in Elsa Beskow’s Children of the Forest are very different from most American illustrations. Both the illustrations and the story are fanciful, while many, if not most, American stories and illustrations for children (that are not about talking animals or ordinary people) are more whimsical than fanciful. My definition of whimsical versus fanciful illustrations and stories has to do with fanciful stories and illustrations usually involving fanciful creatures the reader already knows about, such as dragons, unicorns, fairies, or other types of Little People (like the Forest People in this book). Whimsical illustrations and stories, on the other hand, usually involve fanciful creatures no one has ever seen before. Dr. Seuss’ characters are good examples of this. Well-known fanciful creatures, however, can be whimsical if drawn differently from how people normally think of them.

Another way this book’s illustrations are different from those in many American picture books is that even when there’s activity going on in the pictures, the illustrations are usually very quiet and calm. The Forest Children playing with the squirrels, for example, is a very gentle scene despite them being active.  Harriet, the older of the two forest girls riding a bat and being watched by frogs and her siblings is another example.

Though the illustrations are different from those in most American children’s books, they are no less enjoyable. I love how on every text page, there is a small black and white illustration related to the text, with a full page color illustration next to it. I also love the very vague face on the moon in one of the night scenes. My three favorite illustrations are the two forest boys being pulled in a sledge by a hare, the owl teacher with all her animal and forest child students, and the Forest Children on a seesaw with forest fairies. The only thing I’m not sure about here is the fairies being all white. Aren’t fairies colorful?

Being a relatively simple story, and a common type of story at that, the story of Children of the Forest is much more similar to American children’s stories than the illustrations. Like many other stories around the world, this story is all about a normal year in the life of its characters. Sometimes that’s all a story needs in order to be interesting, and I really like stories like that. An American children’s book like that is Charlotte Zolotow’s Over and Over. That’s a wonderful book that I hope to eventually review on this blog. Children of the Forest, though, is an excellent example of using this type of story to introduce a fantasy world and its inhabitants.

The only thing I don’t like about this story is the part where the Forest Children’s father kills the snake. Sure, the story later says to never harm a creature of the forest unless it means you harm, but I think this book should have emphasized getting away from predatory animals, only trying to kill them when you know there is no escape. By teaching their children to kill predatory animals every time they see them, I can’t help worrying that the Forest Parents are teaching both their children and the readers that the world would be a better place without certain animals. That is hardly ever the case. In fact, a book like this should try to teach children the importance of every creature in an ecosystem, including the ones that don’t seem friendly. Like I said in my The Night Fairy review, animals eating other animals is not an evil deed, and I don’t like it when authors treat it like it is.

Review of Laura Joffe Numeroff’s “If You Give a Moose a Muffin”

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If You Give a Moose a Muffin is different from its predecessor, If You Give a Mouse a Cookie, in that in this book, the animal continuously gets distracted from what he originally wanted. Unlike the mouse, who is simply reminded of one thing when he does something else, this moose is reminded of something before he’s even performed the task that reminded him of it!   Why, he doesn’t even make it to the store to buy more muffin ingredients, due to being reminded of sock puppets by a button! For this reason, the ending to If You Give a Moose a Muffin is relatively dissimilar to that of If You Give a Mouse a Cookie.

One of the things I like about the ending to If You Give a Mouse a Cookie is that its ending has a similar message to the Native American phrase “All that has happened must happen again.” I will talk about that more when I review If You Give a Mouse a Cookie. Since the moose gets distracted from just about every task he’s reminded of, though, the ending to If You Give a Moose a Muffin is less like that and more like “this distractible moose is finally being reminded of the task at hand!”

I like If You Give a Mouse a Cookie a little better for this reason, but I see a definite trade off here. Even though the moose’s being easily distracted gives If You Give a Moose a Muffin a different ending from its predecessor, it also makes the moose character even easier for children to identify with than the mouse character. The mouse character is certainly someone a child can identify with, since he is very active, but the moose is both active and distractible, two traits commonly seen in children. Laura Joffe Numeroff was probably trying to make both characters similar to children, and she may have even decided to make the moose more distractible for this very reason.

As a child, not only did I identify with the moose, I was just as distracted as he was! When hearing the book read to me, I never realized that he didn’t get a muffin at the end. Like him, I forgot that there were no more muffin ingredients! This, I think, is an excellent example of a child identifying with a character who is not a human child. While animal characters abound in children’s literature, not all of them are characters kids can truly identify with. These animal characters definitely are.

Review of Roald Dahl’s “The Witches”

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As a child, I loved Roald Dahl’s The Witches. I loved how those witches thought children smelled like dogs’ droppings. That was my favorite part of the story when I was a kid, and as an adult, it is the main reason I still like this book. After rereading it as an adult, though, I have found many problems with The Witches. I’d like to share both these problems and some of the ways I think the story could have been better.

All of the characters in The Witches should have been better developed. The boy definitely should have been. His inadequacies as a character were at their peek when he turned into a mouse. After this happened, he mentioned several reasons why being a mouse is better than being a human boy. Two of those reasons were not having to go to school anymore and not having to grow up and fight in a war, but as a boy, he never mentioned disliking either of those. The reasons he gave for liking being a mouse should have had to do with reasons he disliked being a human, reasons which were know to the reader.

Even though the boy’s parents died early on in the story, they should have been better developed characters, too. If they had had more time in the story before their untimely death in a car accident, Roald Dahl would have been able to develop them as good parents, something very rare in his books. If Roald Dahl really couldn’t have done this, they at least should have died when the boy was a baby, just like Sophie’s parents in The BFG.

The boy’s grandmother is probably the most interesting character in the story, but she, too, should have been better developed. This could have been accomplished by going into more detail on witch-o-philes, and maybe even having additional witch-o-phile characters in the story. This could have allowed some of the witches to be better developed characters, too, and more witch-o-phile characters would have solved other problems.

Additional witch-o-phile characters could have solved problems like the grandmother being the only good grown-up character in the book, magic existing, but hardly being explained, and the end of the book being way too dark. It’s kind of scary how at the end, the boy remains a mouse, meaning he’ll only live for about nine more years. He’s seven, so that would be like a sixteen-year-old dying! Not only that, but he’s glad he won’t outlive his grandma! The reason he gives is that he wouldn’t want anyone else looking after him as a mouse, and frankly, I don’t blame him. Why should he want anyone else taking care of him, especially in his mouse form, when he doesn’t know any other good grown-ups who understand what he’s been through? This wouldn’t have been the case if there were additional witch-o-philes, and they could have helped the boy and his grandma do away with the rest of those witches.

As understandable as the boy’s feelings are, however, having a child know he’s basically going to die when he’s a teenager, as well as him not wanting to outlive his grandmother, is way too dark for a seemingly light-hearted children’s book. There are other aspects of this book that I think are too dark, such as children being destroyed by witches, but this ending is by far the darkest and most problematic. If there were additional witch-o-phile characters in this book, and if they could do magic, they could have worked hard to turn the mouse back into a boy, and one of them could have agreed to adopt him after his grandma dies. That would have made this ending much less dark, and it would have given Roald Dahl an opportunity to better explain the magic in this story.

In conclusion, I see many problems with the witches, but the things I like about the book keep me coming back and thinking about how it could have been better.  I am hoping to further analyze both this book and other personal classics of mine in the future.

Review of Jerry Pinkney’s “The Ugly Duckling” Adaptation

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This version of Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale sticks to the original story enough to be heartfelt in the same way as the original, retaining the themes of finding one’s inner beauty and place in the world. Besides cutting unnecessary details from the original story (of which there are many), the only things that are changed in this version include the ugly duckling’s mother never saying anything negative about him. and the children who take in the ugly duckling never being mean. I appreciate Pinkney changing these two details, because the idea of a character who was never treated nicely by anyone in his  life is pretty rough for children. I think having most, but not all, of the characters be unkind to the ugly duckling is adequate.

I’m glad the children in this version were always kind to the ugly duckling, especially since, according to Maria Tatar’s The Annotated Hans Christian Andersen, the meanness of these children came not from Andersen’s wish to have the duckling mistreated until the end, but from Andersen’s own dislike of children. This is one example of modern authors changing classic stories for the better, I think.   However, I wish the part with these children trying to play with the duckling had been illustrated. It would have been very interesting to see a picture of the children trying to play with the duckling but him running away, thinking they were being mean.

The illustrations do show, however, that the same children see the duckling after he becomes a beautiful swan, but don’t recognize him. According to a commentator’s analysis of this story, referenced by Maria Tatar in The Annotated Hans Christian Andersen, the bread they throw to the duckling is meant to be thought of as a symbolic result of the milk, butter, and flour he jumps into when trying to get away from the children. In that case, even though the part about him jumping into these food items isn’t in Pinkney’s retelling, maybe when I retell the story, I’ll make it clear that the children admiring the swans are the same children who tried to play with the duckling, and that the bread they throw to him is made from the very same milk, butter, and sugar he jumped into. I would have him jump into these food items when the kids are trying to play with him and be nice, but he is afraid.

Another thing the illustrations don’t show that I wish they did is the other ducklings right after they hatched, when their down was still wet and ruffled. They show the ugly duckling right after he hatched, but they don’t show his brothers and sisters until after they’re dry, fluffy, and cute. This is not fair. They should have shown his brothers and sister right after hatching, too, to show that all birds are ugly right after they hatch. This would have helped the illustrations show that the duckling wasn’t really ugly; just different from the others.

The only other part I would have liked to see illustrated that wasn’t was the autumn after the duckling went back to the pond. I think Pinkney chose not to illustrate it because it is not an important part of the story, but if I retold and illustrated my own version, I would try to fit the autumn in, because autumn is my favorite season.

All in all, I think this is a pretty good retelling of “The Ugly Duckling.” The text is beautiful, and the illustrations are beautiful, too, showing lots of details in both the story and the background.  The retelling also strikes a nice balance between sticking to the original story and improving it in parts. I think it could have improved it further while still maintaining the essence of the story, but it is not at all bad the way it is.

 

 

Review of Ed Emberley’s “Go Away, Big Green Monster!”

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Ed Emberley’s Go Away, Big Green Monster! manages to say a great deal with very few words and images. This causes it to say much more than what the words and illustrations appear to say, unlike many other picture books, which say only what’s on the surface. I am not exaggerating when I say the following about this book: It would still be something substantial without its text. I don’t usually say this about picture books, since I normally focus on books for older children, and text is thus more important to me than illustrations. It is true, though, that without the text, this book would still be a fun cut-out book for children, with images that either appear or disappear on every page. Part of what makes this possible is that the pictures on their own don’t tell a story; they’re just the image of a monster.

With the text, though, Go Away, Big Green Monster is so much more than a fun cut-out book. It says a great deal about overcoming, controlling, and even taking advantage of one’s fears. The monster definitely represents a child’s fears. With no other images, it is pretty clearly an image in the child’s imagination, and imaginary monsters almost always represent a child’s fears, both in books and in real life.

Paired up with the text, the simple images of a monster tell the story of a child who is capable of overcoming his or her fears. This is made clear by the line, “You don’t scare me!” once we see the whole image of the monster. This child can also control his or her fears, hence why he can make the monster disappear whenever he wants, like he does during the second half of the book, when the image of the monster is disappearing. The very last sentence in this book proves that the child can take advantage of her fears, too. “And don’t come back!/ Until I say so” implies that the child believes she can find usefulness in a monster, otherwise she wouldn’t anticipate telling it to come back.

In terms of representing a child’s fears, an imaginary monster can represent things in the real world that scare a child, scary things the child worries will happen, or fear itself. All three of these things have uses in the real world, because sometimes scary things need to happen in life. Likewise, both fear itself and the ability to imagine scary things happening can help a child (or a person of any age) cope in the real world. Since this book manages to say so much more than what its text and illustrations appear to say, it is one of the best picture books I’ve read in recent times.

 

Review of Catherynne M. Valente’s “The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland In a Ship of Her Own Making”

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The first time I read Catherynne M. Valente’s The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland In a Ship of Her Own Making, I loved it. I loved it when September first met A-L, the Wyverary, when she was bathed by the soap golem, when September, Saturday, and A-L met Calpurnia and Penny Farthing and rode the Velocipedes, when September met the Tsukumogami (100-year-old objects), and the end, when the Marquess revealed her story and September returned home.

The second time I read it, I still liked those parts. I also felt, though, that the book dragged in places, especially when it was describing a place in great detail. Sometimes I even felt I would need a break from fantasy after rereading it, but now, after reading it a second time, I want to read its sequel!

I think I know why I felt it dragged in places, though. When I first read the book, it was new and exciting. I loved every minute of it. It wasn’t until I reread it that I found it dragged in places and I sometimes got tired of reading the chapters that weren’t my favorites. For this reason, I think this book is wonderful for anybody reading it the first time. The second time it can be a little tedious, since everything in it is complicated. Almost every chapter presents the reader with new information, which can make the story very confusing, even for someone who has read it before. It is hard to remember all that information! The first time, this confusion was wonderful and entertaining; the second time, it got tedious at times. This is why I think if the children reading this book are anything like me, they will love it the first time, but it might not become their favorite that they read again and again. Not every book can be that way for everybody.

At first I thought this book was similar to Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, since both are about an ordinary child exploring a fantasy world. Now that I’ve read it a second time, though, I can see that it’s more like Norton Juster’s The Phantom Tollbooth, since for both of those books, the fantasy world has its own abnormal events going on that the protagonist gets involved with. In Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Alice is mostly just exploring the everyday events of Wonderland. I haven’t read L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard Of Oz; I have only seen the movie (and what American hasn’t?). Please don’t give anything away about the book; I will read it. My guess is that it is similar to The Phantom Tollbooth and The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland In a Ship of Her Own Making, in that the protagonist is pulled into the unusual events going on in the fantasy world. I will read The Wonderful Wizard of Oz and find out.