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  • Children's book reviews by Jennifer Sykes

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Otis and the Scarecrow

otis

Otis and the Scarecrow

by Loren Long

Fans of Loren Long’s popular Otis series have a new seasonally-appropriate book to read!  Otis and the Scarecrow is Long’s seventh book featuring a beloved, sensitive tractor and his friends on the farm.   All are beautifully illustrated and give wonderful models for social and emotional behavior.

In this story, Otis discovers a new friend on the farm.  It’s a sourpuss scarecrow that stands in the middle of the field, all alone.  The animals and Otis are at first confused by the scarecrow ignoring them and put off by the way he looks and smells, and they eventually give up on him because of his lack of interaction.

Seasons change, the friends play together like they always do, and the loner scarecrow stays the same.  All alone.  Still frowning.  One rainy autumn day, Otis and his animals friends are playing a game at the top of the hill.   It’s “the quiet game,” which gives Otis a still, silent opportunity to look at the scarecrow in the distance.  When the game ends (he wins, of course!), he puffs over to the scarecrow and stays beside him.  He doesn’t want him to be alone anymore.  More importantly, he doesn’t want him to be lonely.  All of the animal friends follow Otis and join him, huddling around the scarecrow and feeling happy to be a friend to even the grumpiest, quietest loner on the farm.

While the story doesn’t feature much action or resolution, it does feature compassion and kindness.  Whether or not the scarecrow changed his ways, Otis and all the animals decided it was better to take the first step at friendship than sit off by themselves and ignore that quirky character from afar.  Otis is a great leader and example of how we want children to behave, and this gentle story gives them a chance to see themselves in the situation.  There is no injustice done by the scarecrow — he is not mean or rude — and this is key to helping children see the moral in the story without being caught up in “the rules,” as often happens.  The scarecrow is just different and is someone who is hard to figure out, but Otis and his friends show that it’s always best to give people a chance.  Even if there is no new friendship born of it, the act of kindness itself brings happiness.

The book itself is large and beautiful.  This makes it a great read aloud option and a wonderful book for young children to read to themselves.  The illustrations are rich and lively, and given their size, they allow the reader to be even more immersed in Otis’ warm, comforting world.

Goldilocks and the Three Dinosaurs

goldilocksGoldilocks and the Three Dinosaurs

by Mo Willems

Many people love author/illustrator Mo Willems for the wit and humor in his fun Pigeon books or the sentimental Knuffle Bunny, but our family most enjoys his lesser-known titles.  Edwina, the Dinosaur Who Didn’t Know She Was Extinct is a top 10 read aloud in our household.   When I discovered Goldilocks and the Three Dinosaurs, I was psyched to see yet another dinosaur-related book from Willems.

The title clues you in that this will be a re-telling of the classic fairy tale.  A great way to capture kids’ interest is to make them laugh by reading the title, alone.  Check!  Another great way to capture kids’ interest is to feature dinosaurs.  Check!  Before you open the book, they’re already curious and giggling.  And, of course, it doesn’t stop there.

Instead of meeting a bear family, we meet a mother and father dinosaur.  Where’s the baby in this version of the tale?  He’s been replaced by the very random “some other dinosaur” who is visiting from Norway.  Cue the giggles!  Willems tells the story with playful  irony.  The dinosaurs were “definitely not hiding in the woods waiting for an unsuspecting kid to come by.”  The “poorly supervised” Goldilocks thinks she hears the dinosaurs yelling at one another regarding her demise, “but that could have been a rock falling.  Or a squirrel.” She’s a girl on a mission, and she thinks she’s going to the three bears’ house like the story is supposed to go.  Yet…

Everything she sees in the house is scaled HUGE (you know, they’re dinosaurs), but naive Goldilocks pays no mind to that being out of the ordinary.  She smells chocolate pudding, which is much more appealing than porridge, no? After gorging on pudding, she needs to have a seat.  All the chairs were far too tall for her, and she decides to rest in the bedroom.  She gets a little irritated when she sees that even the beds are huge and couldn’t possibly be for bears.  Yet she sticks around until she finally hears what is “either a passing truck or a Dinosaur gloating, ‘A few more minutes and she’ll be asleep!  Delicious chocolate-filled-little-girl-bonbons are yummier when they’re rested!'”  Kids reading along or listening to the story will have slapped their heads 14 times by now because of Goldilocks’ obliviousness.  But they will cheer as it finally clicks for her!  She takes a minute to look around, realizes where she is, and then she bolts to safety.

The silliness of the re-tell is obvious and fun and quirky, but a real bonus in this book is the background humor in the illustrations.  Searching for jokes in the wall art, decorations, signs, etc., is a great activity for repeated reads.  Older, nerdier kids will love the Science and Geography jokes — like the wall calendar that says, “Norway – ‘Gateway to Sweden;'” and a basketball team poster in the bedroom features a dinosaur in a sweatband with the text, “Go Asteroids!  Feel the Boom!”  Aaaaah, extinction humor!  There are many little funny surprises in this book, and it makes it very enjoyable for kids and adults.  While the target audience for a read aloud is usually preschool-first grade, Goldilocks and the Three Dinosaurs is a great selection to read to most school-aged children… especially if you’re very good at faking a Norwegian dinosaur accent.

 

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’.

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