Children's books spring into action
"They didn't have books like this when I was growing up!" wailed a friend as she sorted through some of this season's selections. She's right. For decades, children's books have been getting more sophisticated, more diverse - and maybe more beautiful. Here's an armload of spring offerings for your inspection.Skip to next paragraph
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For centuries, alphabet books have been the quintessential concept books - those volumes that teach basic educational skills to youngsters. It's a jam-packed genre, but Kipper's A to Z: An Alphabet Adventure, by Mick Inkpen, is a welcome addition because it's entertaining as well as instructional. Inkpen provides plenty of clear and appealing illustrations. Kipper, a sweet-faced little pup, is already a familiar character to many children. More than 5 million Kipper books are in print, and they've been translated into more than 20 languages.
Here, Kipper and his piglet friend Arnold set off through the pages collecting animals and items to represent each letter. It's a charming and humorous adventure, as the subtitle suggests. They start with "a is for ant," but it won't stay in the "b for box," so eventually we get "e for empty." Those kinds of connections make this a fun and satisfying book.
Originally published in France, Lisa's Airplane Trip arrived stateside this month. C'est manifique! It's the start of a new series about two fuzzy doglike critters, Lisa and Gaspard. In this delightful volume, Lisa tells about her first airplane ride - the seats, the food, and the in-flight entertainment. Illustrator Georg Hallensleben's art is bold and bright enough to engage kids while sophisticated and painterly enough to please adults. Anne Gutman's text is also equal to the task of amusing both child and parent. For example, after Lisa has a bit of a mishap, "the airplane lady" washes her clean and gives her a tour of the cockpit. When one of the pilots comments that Lisa smells nice, she wryly observes: "It was the soap."
The book's overall design is pleasing: It's a slim square of springtime green with little Lisa (safely buckled into her airplane seat) staring unblinkingly from the cover. Colorful endpapers teem with airplanes and airport activity. And the back displays six small pictures, which serve as a traveler's photo album and as a reader's introduction. A winner? Mais oui!
Not all travel requires airplanes. In the case of A Journey, by wife-and-husband team Sarah Stewart and David Small, the trip is accomplished by a horse and buggy and a bus. Hannah, a young Amish girl, boards a bus to Chicago for her very first visit. She records her thoughts and experiences in a diary - her silent friend - and these entries become the text of the story. Stewart's tale captures Hannah's awe of and interest in the big city, and at the same time chronicles her longing for home. Small's loose ink-and-watercolor illustrations depict each day's busy activities, but every one of these pages is followed by a large, wordless double-page spread of Hannah's farm life. The visual pacing is superb, and it creates an affectionate balance between exciting travel and a comforting home.
The Stray Dog, by Marc Simont, was 15 years in the making - and well worth the wait. It's based on a true account of a family that finds a dog they can't forget. When they discover the authorities consider it a stray, the family adopts the little pooch and saves him from the dog catcher. This heartwarming story comes alive in Simont's lean, expressive text and his engaging illustrations. Despite its simplicity, the tale evokes a range of emotions that will feel genuine to any young reader.
Books for Older Readers
The Sketchbook of Thomas Blue Eagle is an elegant and intriguing book. Written by twin sisters Gay Matthaei and Jewel Grutman, it is a fictional account of a young Lakota brave in the late 1800s. When the US government relocates Plains Indians to reservations, the traditional Lakota ways begin dying out. Thomas Blue Eagle and some of his friends are given an opportunity to profit from their hunting skills by joining Buffalo Bill Cody's Wild West Show. There, they meet such western greats as Annie Oakley. Blue Eagle's riding and bow-and-arrow talents make him a star of the show as he travels throughout the United States and Europe. All the while, though, his thoughts are back home with Echo, the young woman he hopes to marry. (Ostensibly, he makes this sketchbook for her so he can bring back images of all he's seen.)
The illustrations by Adam Cvijanovic are a stunning part of this book. He starts by using a flat pictograph style that changes to a more three-dimensional look as Blue Eagle encounters European artists. This fascinating volume is a sequel to the award-winner "The Ledgerbook of Thomas Blue Eagle." Both are grounded in historical research and include comments from a native-American historian.