Thursday, 21 June 2012

Frederick by Leo Lionni

Step aside modern picture book writer/illustrators and pay homage to one of the masters, Leo Lionni. Lionni was an ad man (pre Mad Men era) who in 1959 gave up his New York City career and turned his hand to creating children's books.  He's quoted about this move saying, I reached the conviction that all human acts have social and political consequences....You must feel responsible for every line you draw, for every decision you make.  His strong conviction is a clue to the nature of the characters he created and the gentle, wildly imaginative and abstract books that he wrote for children. One of my favorites has always been 'Frederick' and I'm happy that this title is now known as the second mouse book in our house. 

Frederick lives in a large family of field mice who make their home in an abandoned farm and granary.  They are busy storing food for the winter and we meet Frederick in the midst of this activity.  While the rest of the family is working to gather nuts, grain and corn, Frederick can be found sitting on his own - still, quiet and pensive. The other mice are working their little tails off and naturally question Frederick about his idleness. Frederick responds by saying, 'I do work ... I gather sun rays for the cold dark winter days.'  His family remains unconvinced and ask again what he's doing sitting on his own.  Frederick replies with one of the most beautifully simple lines I've read in a children's book, 'I gather colors.' This response is wholly unsatisfactory and his family continue to press him to explain himself.

When winter comes the mice eat through their stores of food and it's only when resources are depleted that they remember Frederick's contribution.  They ask him to recall the things that he had gathered and he talks them through an imaginative process to feel the warmth of the sun and visualize all the colors of spring.  Lastly, he recites a poem to relieve their minds of the winter boredom and finally he receives the approval he'd been denied but never sought.

To accompany the tale is a collection of marvellous illustrations and collages from Lionni. They feel almost storyboard style in how they capture the action across each two page spread. The shapes are simple yet effective and the use of color captures the essence of each season.

Frederick is a story about being different, being yourself and being accepted for who you are.  It's about nature, imagination and looking at the word that little bit differently from the rest of the crowd.  I'd like to find Frederick a patron or an Arts Council grant and let him get on with following his passions.  He's a very loveable little mouse.

I could go on and on about the merits of Leo Lionni but instead I'll direct you to the Random House website that's packed with information and discoveries Go now!  

'Frederick' was first published in 1967 and is a Caldecott Honor Book.

Tuesday, 12 June 2012

Apple Pie ABC by Alison Murray

I give credit to the Book Nook in Hove for turning me on to Apple Pie ABC and the ever so lovely creations of Alison Murray. Murray has adapted a traditional ABC verse for the story and the result is a modern picture book with a vintage feel. She uses a natural color palette and a clever narrative to make this title stand out from the crowd of more obvious alphabet books available.

A young girl and her canine sidekick are baking an apple pie.  An apple pie so tempting and tantalizing that the pup risks some serious scolding as he sniffs, tastes and finally gobbles the whole thing. We follow him through each menacing moment until, exhausted, he collapses in his bed providing the necessary 'zzzs' to conclude the story.

Part of the real success of this book is the integration of the alphabet lesson and the story.  Each letter of the alphabet drives the story forward without overpowering it.  Some letters are linked to just one word, such as 'M' for 'miserable' when the pup is scolded, and other letters are linked to complete phrases such as 'F' for 'find a crumb of it.' By varying the patten the story has a rhythm of its own and stands up well alongside the alphabet lesson.

There is plenty of space within the pages to pause and talk to your reader about what's happening in the pictures.  It's also very successful in its pacing.  First time around I wondered if E would actually sit through the whole alphabet.  Thanks to Alison Murray the answer was a resounding yes.

Apple Pie ABC is published by Orchard Books in the UK.  Alison Murray has a fantastic website for this book and another great website for her other creations

Friday, 1 June 2012

The Aminal by Lorna & Lecia Balian

Originally published in 1972, The Aminal is a much loved title from my childhood. I think the copy in our house actually belonged to my older sisters but I remember it distinctively because of the funny title.  Oddly, the twist at the end (we'll come that later) is not the part that stuck with me.  It was the build up that I can recall most and I think that's really the key to this book.

Patrick is having a picnic alone in a field when he befriends a creature to keep him company.  There are no illustrations of his friend so we can only guess what Patrick has found.  He calls it an 'Aminal' and decides to take it home in his lunch sack.  On his way home Patrick runs into his friend Molly and tells her that he's caught an Aminal. It's 'round and green and blinky-eyed with lots of pricky toenails' he tells her. And so begins the rumor mill that makes up the crux of this story.

Molly then runs into another friend, who in turn runs into another friend and another until the story of Patrick's Animal has been retold several times over. Each child has their own idea of what the creature looks like and the Aminal grows bigger and scarier with each page. By the time the rumor has made its rounds the unidentified creature is thought to be over 100 feet long with green fur and snakes on its tail!

Patrick's friends convince themselves that he's in real danger as clearly a little boy shouldn't be left on his own with a giant, hungry, green monster. They run to rescue him and at first the Aminal is nowhere to be seen. The collective panic rises as the children wonder where it's escaped to.  Patrick, however, remains calm and crawls under his porch to find the Aminal and show it to everyone else.  I won't spoil the end completely but it turns out he's brought something home that indeed is green with pricky toenails...only it's not scary at all.

The target reading age for this title is indicated as 4 years and older.  E was happy to flip through the pages with me and enjoyed looking at all the different pictures, but the story is too long for this 2 year old's attention span.  I found a great suggested reading exercise online to accompany this story: describe an unnamed object or an event with a limited amount of detail and ask each child to draw their impression of it.  It will prompt them to listen and use their imaginations whilst also learning about differences.

One note, if you can find a copy of the original edition then it's well worth the money.  The illustrations in the re-issue (2005) have been colored in and it looks and feels less mysterious than the original.