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  • Children's book reviews by Jennifer Sykes

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The Book with No Pictures

nopicturesThe Book With No Pictures

by B.J. Novak

My friend Tom recommended a picture book that has no pictures.   It is actually called The Book with No Pictures.   Tom has his wits about him all of the time and has remarkable taste in children’s literature, but still I paused.  And then I noticed the author’s name.  B.J. Novak — the guy who played Ryan on NBC’s The Office.   This was going to be good… but was it going to be good for kids or just a bunch of inside jokes for grownups (i.e. booooring for kids)?  Spoiler alert:  It’s awesome for kids.

Given Novak’s smart sense of humor and excellent delivery as an actor, it’s not exactly shocking that he has created a funny, funny read.  But he really shows how much he understands kids and writing and read aloud text.  The book captures kids’ attention and pokes their curiosity with the first words.  He begins by flat out explaining that there are no pictures in the book and acknowledges that a book without pictures might sound boring, but he very quickly hooks the audience by explaining, “Here is how books work:  Everything the words say, the person reading the book has to say.” [ominous doomsday music here]

Kids LOVE seeing adults make fools of themselves.  Is there anything better to a first grader than getting to laugh at grownups?  Maybe some of them love kittens or hugs more, but laughing at grownups ranks really high for most of them.  And they immediately sense that they will get to do just that when they hear how this book works.

And guess what?  The reader has to say things like, “I am a monkey who taught myself to read.”  Cue the laughter!  “My only friend is a hippo named Boo Boo Butt.” Their sides will be aching!  It goes on and on; the grownup reading the book saying ridiculous things against his/her own will.  It’s really genius and fun.

Aside from the slightly evil embarrassment factor that all kids will love, Novak is really smart about the humor in this book.  He draws the reader in.  Kids will love the not-so-subtle stuff, but the subtle stuff is where there is really magic.  It’s interactive in ways that many read-aloud books are not.  Kids are not recipients of the story, they are part of the story because they are giving reactions that Novak predicts and responds to with the next blurb the sucker/reader has to say immediately following silliness.

It’s really a joy to read, and kids will be laughing nonstop and just waiting for the next page and its text.  Granted, this is not a book for children to read to themselves the way that some picture books or read aloud books are.  But it is a gem of a book to read to children as a guest reader, teacher, or funny parent.  Reader = hero!

If you’re looking for a real life testimonial, check out this video of Novak reading it to a group of children.  That laughter is the proof in the puddin’.

Ruth and the Green Book

ruthRuth and the Green Book

by Calvin Alexander Ramsey

Teaching children about America’s history of racism is challenging.  While we discuss current events and historical figures like Martin Luther King, Jr., we look for age-appropriate resources to tell more personal parts of our history in a way that a child can understand.  Ruth and the Green Book by Calvin Alexander Ramsey is one perfect example of an important story from a child’s point of view.  It’s historically accurate and a work of fiction, allowing concepts to be educational and also relatable.

The story begins in Chicago in the 1950s.  Ruth’s father buys a new car, and the family plans a road trip to visit relatives in Alabama.  Ruth and her parents are turned away from gas stations, hotels, and restaurants because they are black.  They are warned about Jim Crow, which Ruth understandably confuses as a person’s name.  They are able to stay with a friend in Tennessee, and he gives them helpful advice on how to finish their journey safely.  They find an Esso service station, where they purchase a Green Book.  The Green Book is a travel directory of black-friendly businesses.  Ruth’s parents give her the task of finding resources in the book through the rest of their travels, and they have a safe trip.

The specifics of the story are important because they are realistic and true, but also wonderful is the way Ramsey shares the story.  Ruth is a child, so her observations are child-like.  She feels embarrassed when she is forced to relieve herself in the woods because she’s not allowed to use a restroom, but her mother reminds her that the only ones who should feel ashamed are the people who made those rules.  Ruth notices how different things are once they’ve left Chicago.  She notices, too, how the Green Book is so helpful to her family, and she appreciates the sense of community that created it.  No adult editorializing is necessary because children are very skilled in recognizing injustice.  Ruth’s emotions are clearly explained in very familiar ways, and children reading the story will have strong natural empathy for her and her family.   It’s also affirming to see Ruth notice the importance of persistence and the value of community as she problem-solves using the Green Book.

The illustrations by Floyd Cooper are startling and pair beautifully with the story.  They are soft, rich, and lovely.  They evoke a sense of a hazy reflection or memory, but they are also very descriptive and powerful.  We see scenery, faces, and emotion that give even more depth to the wonderful story.

Ruth and the Green Book is an ideal book for children in grades 1-4.  It broaches racism, discrimination, and Jim Crow in a way that is real and honest but also won’t overwhelm a child.  At the back of the book is one page devoted to the history and importance of The Negro Motorist Green Book by Wendell P. Alston, so children are able to learn even more.  It’s no surprise that Ruth and the Green Book has won several awards including ALA Notable Children’s Book, Jane Addams Children’s book Award, Independent Publisher Book Award, Bluestem Award, Children’s Book Committee at Bank Street College Best Children’s Book of the Year, and many more.

The School for Cats

jennyThe School for Cats
by Esther Averill

A few years ago, a friend recommended the Jenny’s Cat Club books for my cat-obsessed daughter.  I expected to find another cute, fluffy kitty book.  I was mistaken and delighted to be mistaken.  This was no series of stories featuring cats with twee names and sparkle powers; this was a retro series of wonderful stories that just happened to have a cat as a main character.  Esther Averill wrote and illustrated the books from the 1940s-1970s, and they are treasured tales of a sensitive cat adventurer named Jenny Linsky, who always sports a charming red scarf knitted by her sea captain owner.  Every one of the Jenny books has found a home on our bookshelves, so it’s hard to choose just one for review.  Since many kids have just gone off to school for the first time and might still be feeling uneasy, it seems especially appropriate to feature The School for Cats.

Jenny’s master, Captain Tinker, decides to send Jenny to the countryside to attend the School for Cats while he is out to sea.  The school’s two main learning objectives for its pupils are manners and cooperation.  Jenny is very nervous and very homesick.  Her first encounter at the school is a traumatic one.  Pickles, a much larger cat, is either “spirited” or a bully, and he nearly runs Jenny down while driving his cat-sized fire engine.  Jenny first hides in the chimney, refusing to come down, and she later gets double-spooked by Pickles and runs away.

Waiting at the train station while sneaking back to New York City, Jenny sees two cats in their travel baskets headed for the same School for Cats.   She is intrigued by them, so she lingers and listens to them talk about the fun they will have at school, and how they hope to see their old friends there.  She observes the teacher’s kind interactions with the train conductor and the handsome cats, Florio and Tiger James, when she comes to pick them up.  Jenny starts to have second thoughts about going home.  When she considers how disappointed Captain Tinker will be to hear that she’s run away and hasn’t learned at school, she decides that she must return to the School for Cats.  She is a sensitive and virtuous cat, you see.

It’s easy to see where the story is heading.  Jenny returns after another short adventure in the woods (the first time she’s ever seen a forest), she makes new friends, and she is very successful in school — final marks of 100% for Manners and 98% for Cooperation.   This, of course, makes The School for Cats a perfect read for kids struggling with the adjustment of a new school or new classmates.  It takes a little time for Jenny to feel comfortable, and it is definitely not easy at first, but by the end of the book, she’s so glad she stayed.

Esther Averill’s storytelling has a timeless appeal and is perfectly current in theme.  There are only a few instances of dated phrases kids today won’t use, but they make sense in context and just add to the classic charm of the story.  Jenny meets many colorful characters with realistic personality traits, and she is not a simplistic character, herself.  Every scene in the story has just the right amounts of complexity and action for the early elementary audience.  The illustrations are so very perfect and so very mid-century in three colors (black, red, yellow) — I would love to have them framed!  The book itself is bound in a very lovely way with a red fabric spine and quality paper, thanks to the publication by The New York Review Children’s Collection.  It makes a perfect gift for any young child.

It should also be noted that the Jenny’s Cat Club series is a wonderful read aloud for families with younger children, and the longer books are ideal for those advanced young readers who are capable of reading chapter books but aren’t mature enough for the content featured in many of them.

Other titles in the series include:

Jenny and the Cat Club
The Hotel Cat
Jenny’s Birthday Book
Jenny’s Moonlight Adventure
Jenny Goes to Sea
Captains of the City Streets

 

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