scrounge: /skrounj/ informal verb: to actively seek [books] from any available source
The Lion and the Bird is a beautiful, contemplative story by Montreal author/illustrator Marianne Dubuc, and it was originally published in French. It tells the story of a lion who finds an injured bird in the autumn, and cares for it over the winter. But when spring comes again, the lion understands that the bird has to fly away with the other birds.
One thing I love about the way this tale is told is that it makes space for sadness. Even though the book does leave us with a happy ending, we really feel the loss the lion feels as he walks sadly back to his house after saying goodbye. We watch him wordlessly trying to go about his daily tasks as usual, with the inescapable awareness that someone special is missing. "Sometimes life is like that," we are told.
Not only is there space for sad emotions, but Dubuc gives space for the tale to be told in the first place. At 64 pages, the book manages to feel complete and well-rounded without being "long." It is not overly wordy either -- the sentences are fairly short and simple, going back and forth between the narrator and words spoken by the lion.
The story itself could be summarized quite easily in a sentence or two, but the author makes use of white space, multiple frames, and also a few wordless pages to convey a linear narrative where even the small moments are important. This also gives space for the adult reader to point things out to a child, or ask questions ("How do you think the lion feels right now?") without disrupting the flow of the story.
This story is brief, yet thorough -- succinct, yet spacious, encompassing a look at each of the four seasons, the sadness of letting go, and the beauty of friendship.
Author/Illustrator: Marianne Dubuc
Content Advisory: None
Ox-Cart Man is a book I grew up with, as did many others in my generation. Not only did it win the Caldecott Medal in 1980, but it was also featured on Reading Rainbow, a PBS show that helped so many of us to get or stay excited about reading.
It's the story of a year in the life of a farmer in the early 1800s, and describes all the things that he and his family grow, build, weave, and otherwise make, which the ox-cart man then takes to market to sell, one by one.
But rather than begin at the "beginning" of a year, the story drops us into the almost-end of the cycle, into the cool of an autumn countryside as the man loads up his ox-cart. After he sells everything, buys a few things, and walks the long way back home, we are briefly shown how all of his products came about in the first place, as the next cycle starts -- who made what, and when they did it. I suppose this goes to show that there really isn't a "beginning" -- farm life is an endless circle that works in seasons, and while one thing is ending, something else is beginning.
Once I obtained this book as an adult to read it to my kids, I began to wonder whether it would hold their attention. It just seemed so very practical and task-oriented. Not to mention there's a good deal of repetition in the middle when he's doing all the selling.
While it won't garner the excitement and laughter that many books seem to go for these days, and while it doesn't seem to be trying to be poignant, I still think it communicates something important in its way -- both as a reminder of the American past and a celebration (though subdued) of hard work, self-sufficiency, and family life.
Author: Donald Hall
Illustrator: Barbara Cooney
Content Advisory: None
Leather Shoe Charlie is a beautifully illustrated introduction to the Industrial Revolution. Set in England, it tells the story of a family that migrates to the city of Manchester to find work.
This family includes a boy named Charlie, who proudly wears leather shoes that his cobbler grandfather made for him. The family's new home is dark and cramped, and they all have to work long hours (child labor is referenced but not elaborated on in the story). Despite their difficulties, Charlie's shoes help to remind him of his dream of becoming a cobbler himself one day.
But then his mother develops a persistent cough. Charlie hears that tea is good for a cough, but tea is far too expensive for his family to afford, and so Charlie gives the only item(s) of value that he has to try and help his mother get better. The story ends there, but emphasizes that the loss of his shoes did not cause Charlie to lose sight of his dream.
At the end of the book there are four pages about the Industrial Revolution including information about working and living conditions, key terms, a timeline, and some stats.
I really love the illustrations in this book -- I'm not very proficient at artistic terminology, but I suppose one could call them a bit abstract, with lots of "brushstroke" effects. This led me to the website of the Balbusso Twins, and wow! They have some amazing stuff. I also found out that this book was originally published in Korean.
Considering all the information it contains, this book is a great way to learn about an important facet of history in a way that puts a human face to it. It's also an important reminder that difficult circumstances do not stop children from having dreams.
Author: Gyeong-hwa Kim
Illustrators: Anna Balbusso and Elena Balbusso
Content Advisory: None
Probably most of us grew up with Dr. Seuss's The Cat in the Hat, in which we meet a very bold and unique animal, though still cat-like as far as wreaking havoc and making a big mess goes. Whatever your opinion of that one now, here are five more picture books in which felines feature prominently.
1. This Caldecott Honor book by Brendan Wenzel is deceptively simple in its portrayal of a cat as it "walks through the world." They All Saw a Cat is a visual depiction of the way the cat appears to numerous different animals. When the goldfish sees the cat, it's blurry and bug-eyed as reflected through its tank glass. When the mouse sees a cat, it's a terrifying animals with an emphasis on teeth and claws. For the flea it's a forest of hair, while the bat and the worm "see" it in ways even more unique. This is a lovely introduction to the idea of multiple perspectives.
2. The Mousehole Cat (written by Antonia Barber) is a charming story about a brave English cat named Mowzer whose "pet" is a fisherman named Tom. When a long storm rages against their harbor, Mowzer envisions it as The Great Storm-Cat, and decides to see if she can help Tom calm it. This story is probably too wordy for preschoolers -- see my full review here.
3. English veterinarian James Herriot wrote many wonderful stories for children, brimming with warmth, wonder, and respect for animals' individuality. Oscar, Cat-About-Town is one such story of a unique cat who has a strong desire to always be in the middle of the action, wherever it happens to be occurring! Herriot's stories do tend to have some big words in them, so they may be more appropriate for the older end of the picture book age range. For another Herriot story about a unique cat, see Moses the Kitten, or, if you feel like bawling your eyes out, The Christmas Day Kitten.
4. The Tale of Tom Kitten is a classic by Beatrix Potter, and tells the story of three kittens whose mother dresses them all up in clothes, sends them outside, and tells them to behave themselves, which works about as well as dressing up kittens would in the real world. Their mother is a cat too, but she acts more like a human, especially in her unrealistic expectations of kittens. It's so delightfully British when she exclaims "I am affronted!" at the end.
5. The monochromatic illustrations in Kitten's First Full Moon, a Caldecott winner by Kevin Henkes, portray lovely nighttime scenes that illuminate the moon -- which a certain kitten is convinced is actually a big bowl of milk. She spends most of the book trying to figure out how to attain it without success, but manages to have a happy ending anyway. This is a simple, repetitive story that young children would enjoy.
Since we live in a Northern state with long winters and plenty of woods around, Over and Under the Snow is a very relevent book for our climate, but is still an appealing nature book for any child.
The narrative follows a child and parent skiing through the woods, and continually contrasts the visible world that is over the snow with a "hidden kingdom" under the snow, where some animals hibernate, while others eat, sleep, and even make tunnels.
From bull frogs to queen bees, and from deer mice to bears, we are shown a variety of different creatures that spend the winter under the snow, as well as others that spend it above, such as deer and foxes.
One of the best things about this book is the artwork -- lots of earth tones matched with cool wintery blues, which provide a nice contrast to the bright red fox.
At the end the book gives a brief description of each animal mentioned, as well as a list of suggestions for further reading.
Author: Kate Messner
Illustrator: Christopher Silas Neal
Content Advisory: None
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