Cats and Dogs and Picture Books

Lynn and Cindy: You can NEVER have too many picture books featuring cats or dogs or both! Here are three terrific books featuring our furry friends.

My Wild Cat (Eerdmanns, 2019) by Isabelle Simler

I don’t know how I missed this one last year but I am so glad I caught up with it now. This is part scientific fact, part poetic description, part affectionate tribute and all stunning illustration. Simler is an illustrator I admire greatly and she clearly knows and loves cats. The book is in a small format, with each set of pages featuring a descriptive phrase, a related scientific fact as a footnote and wonderful drawings in pastel on a white background. The use of shape and form is simply brilliant and there is a smile lurking on every page. A cat is shown in a sink, the tail echoing the curved faucet, draped over a radiator or stalking a fly on a glass. Readers who cohabitate with felines will recognize every scene. Simple yet sophisticated this little gem would be treasured by readers of all ages.

Joy (Candlewick, 2020) by Yasmeen Ismail

It’s all fun and games until someone gets hurt! Kitten has a ball of red yarn and it’s her favorite toy. An onomatopoetic rhyming play session ensues full of zooms and zams, clops and hops, until a trip, trip, slip, flip results in a bruised kitten, or at least a bruised ego. Her parent comes to the rescue and soothes her until she’s forgotten the hurt and is ready to adventure again. Oh, joy! Jenni Desmond’s mixed media illustrations exude the appropriate joy for Ismail’s rollicking picture book. Anyone who’s watched a kitten (or a young child) at play will appreciate this fun story.

Cat Dog Dog: The Story of a Blended Family (Random House/Schwartz & Wade, 2020) by Nelly Buchet

Blended families come in all shapes. This one features a man and his dog who moves in with a woman and her dog and cat. The story is told almost entirely in the illustrations with the various dog, cat, dog descriptors. There are adjustments to be made in every blended family as the various members learn to adapt to the shifting members and partners, amid lots of humor. Just as things are finally starting to calm down in the blended house a new element, a baby, is added to the mix! The humorous details are in the cartoonish ink illustrations, created by Zuill, who wrote and illustrated one of our favorite books, Sweety (2019). Cat Dog Dog is a current Junior Library Guild Selection, for a very good reason.

The Rebels and Revolutionaries: James Rhodes Introduces Classical Music to Teens

Cindy: What I learned about classical music was mostly learned during my high school days playing flute in our small school’s band and later watching the movie Amadeus. I’m not quite serious, but almost. My middle school orchestra students are probably way ahead of me today. It’s not for lack of wanting to know more, it’s for the lack of knowing where to begin or how to approach such a large body of music of which I know so little. If it’s intimidating to me, it surely must be for a teen who may have even less interest in pursuing that interest without some inspiration. And thus, concert pianist James Rhodes to the rescue for many of us. Playlist: The Rebels and Revolutionaries of Sound (Candlewick, 2019) is just the ticket. Packaged in the trim size to match an LP cover and stunningly illustrated by Martin O’Neill, this book will attract and convert new classical music fans.

In his introduction, Rhodes admits that classical music has a reputation of belonging to old people and about as interesting to read about as algebra. He makes a good case for why that just isn’t so. And, he also explains why this book focuses on the dead white males and makes some suggestions for composers to explore outside the “established ‘classics.'”

The book then opens with a Spotify playlist Rhodes created asking the reader to access it and listen along throughout the book. This is genius! From there we start in with each composer. When you see the double-page spread of “Bach: The Godfather,” him in short sleeves with double sleeve tattoos sporting the quote, “If it’s not Baroque, don’t fix it,” you know this isn’t your grandfather’s classical music book! O’Neill’s collage work (with a zine-like feel) is stunning throughout, and will attract young artists in addition to musicians!

For instance, Rhodes answers the question, “Where to even begin with Mozart…”

You can buy the complete compositions of
Johannes Chrysostomus Wolfgangus Theophilus Mozart on CD.
Or, to be precise, on 180 CDs.
ONE. HUNDRED. AND EIGHTY.

He says, “Imagine Rihanna or Coldplay releasing SIX albums a year. Every year. For thirty years. It’s ridiculous.”

Each composer gets a double-page spread called “The Facts of Life” that includes basic bio, quotes about or by the artist, musical output, tracks of contemporary artists including rock and rap that have referenced or sampled the composer’s music, and soundtracks of movies, tv, and streaming series that have used that composer’s music. The facing page is a short essay that uses humor and adoration to convey the highlights of his life and career. The following two double-page spreads each explores a composition as an introduction to a piece of music (so, two per artist) with a reminder to listen to those tracks in the playlist. Listening to the track before, during, and after reading those essays was very helpful to not only understanding the particular piece and its composer better, but it gives the non-music student some help in how to listen to all music, classical or not. I recommend this for all secondary school libraries (and music classrooms), public library collections (adult departments, too), and as a gift book for that young person beginning their own musical instrument.

Lynn: I grew up with music as part of my family life. My father loved music, especially classical and jazz and he played music every evening. Being a college professor, he was always ready to teach on any subject that interested him and my sister and I absorbed a lot of music history over the years – sometimes more than we wanted at the time! I came to this book, interested but not expecting to get much more than a refresher look at some of the important composers. Boy was I wrong! Oh the facts are there, wonderfully chosen to appeal to teens and humanize the historical figures—and yes, show them as revolutionaries of music. The introduction to famous pieces is there and information about why each composer stands out. But what completely captivated me was Rhodes’ intensely infectious love for classical music, his spellbinding passion to share that, and his ability to convey that passion to a skeptical teen. It is clear in every syllable that James Rhodes champions classical music and the shining highlight of this impressive book is his ability to make current teens give it a chance. I already love the music and I found his words so compelling that I listened to every note of the playlist with a new sense of wonder. I am so hooked and I think teens will be too.

I admire so much about the writing here but one of my absolute favorite of the repeating sections is where Rhodes describes the musical selections on the playlist. Sometimes he tells about what was happening at the time or he imagines what the composer might have been feeling. Often he describes the way the music makes him feel. Here is his quote about Beethoven’s Emperor Concerto. It will give you a good feel for the wonderful tone of this book:

“…as the piano begins, I can see a beautiful bird floating miles above the earth, then soaring down toward the ground and landing on my shoulder. It picks me up and flies me away from all the madness and confusion of the world, up to a place where nothing seems to matter. At least this is what I imagine. I’m sure you will have your own story–it is such a moving piece of music.”

I dare you to read that and resist the urge to immediately listen to the music!

Rhodes also includes a short informational page on a symphony orchestra and a really helpful Timeline of Western Classical Music and the back matter includes a glossary of musical terms.

 

 

A Book for All Those Square Pegs: Sweety by Andrea Zuill

Cindy: Sweety is an awkward retainer-wearing naked mole rat and I have the biggest soft spot in my heart for her. Andrea Zuill, thank you for creating Sweety (Schwartz & Wade, 2019) with the *best* illustrations to bring Sweety to life! When her friends share their dolls’ names, Sweety’s response (delivered with great enthusiasm), is:

This is Warrior Princess Zorna! Friend fo the friendless, destroyer of evil, lover of chocolate-beet cake with cream cheese frosting! Her favorite color is aubergine* and my mom made her for me!

*Grammarly didn’t know this color. You will be more worldly, or you can look it up!

Sweety sometimes wishes she were more like her friends, or even is jealous (For instance, Deb’s hair, and I do mean singular—ONE hair). Other times, she is content to be herself enjoying her hobby of fungi identification. The illustrations make me giggle and laugh…but always with Sweety, not at Sweety.

It’s Aunt Ruth who helps Sweety to understand that being a “square peg” is not a bad thing. She advises her niece to stay true to herself and promises that one day she’ll find her people. Zuill dedicates the book to “all those who have accepted their inner oddball.” We all know a Sweety or two…and perhaps some of us have our own inner oddball. Here’s to Square Pegs everywhere!

Lynn: I fell hard for Sweety too. The illustrations just crack me up! Don’t miss Sweety’s family album or vignettes of Sweety trying a different hobby. Even a “normal” hobby like knitting gets its own Sweety style.

But as much as I love the illustrations here, I love Andrea Zuill’s message to kids even more. We’ve said the same thing to the Sweety kids seeking refuge in the library over the years! Be true to yourself and hang in there. You will find your people. Happily in this charming book, Sweety doesn’t have to wait too long before she finds a kindred fungi-loving friend. Queue the secret handshake and make sure to share Sweety and her message to kids everywhere!

“Children Deserve Important Books!” Thank You, Margaret Wise Brown.

Lynn: As a young librarian I was taught to honor Margaret Wise Brown and as a parent I loved to read her books to my boys. But with all that, I knew very little about the life of this iconic author. Mac Barnett steps up to help me with that glaring error in his new stellar picture book biography, The Important Thing about Margaret Wise Brown (Harper/Balzer+Bray, 2019)

Right from the start, Margaret was a different soul and Barnett does an outstanding job of bringing that difference forward and letting readers know that it was more than okay. I LOVE Barnett’s writing in this book. He speaks directly to the reader, is conversational, blunt and refreshingly honest with kids, acknowledging some of Brown’s strange actions. Kids probably won’t know of many other authors who skinned a dead pet rabbit and wore its pelt around her waist, swam naked, or blew her entire first book earnings on an entire flower cart and threw a big party! And, Barnett goes on to say, Brown also wrote strange books, at least strange for her time although not so dissimilar, kids will note, to the very book they are reading.

What comes through wonderfully here is that it is OK to be strange and Margaret Wise Brown was strange in some truly important ways. Brown believed that children deserve important books and as Barnett again points out, life is strange and books that reflect that may seem strange but they also “feel true.” Margaret Wise Brown was a champion for children and books and after reading this amazing book, I think Mac Barnett is too.

Cindy: Maybe the reason we knew so little about Margaret Wise Brown is that she thought the stories were more important than the author! Here is the quote that Barnett opens with:

“It did not seem important that any one wrote these stories. They were true. And it still doesn’t seem important! All this emphasis today on who writes what seems silly to me as far as children are concerned.”

No matter, we know a little bit more now about the author of Goodnight Moon, The Runaway Bunny, The Important Book, The Little Fur Family, and so many more. While Barnett spins the tale, we get to immerse ourselves in Sarah Jacoby’s watercolor and Nupastel paintings. There are bunnies, and dogs, and many flowers and trees, and bunny children reading books or being read to by librarians like Anne Carroll Moore. The scenes are at once familiar and fresh.

And then, Mac Barnett slices into our hearts with his truthful pen, or computer, and says:

“Lives don’t work the way most books do.
They can end suddenly,
as fast as you kick your leg in the air.”

And it goes on and is beautiful and is a tribute that Margaret would have liked, I think. But you’ll have to buy the book and read the rest yourself because I am crying just a little and the words are blurring.

The Roots of Rap–Say Holler if You Hear

Cindy: What I know about Rap music I mostly learned by listening in the car as I drove my teen daughters to high school each morning a decade ago. I let them pick the music every day—”I Do It for Hip Hop.” Last year I listened to a delightful debate between my middle schoolers and visiting author Jason Reynolds as they quizzed him for his opinion on their favorites. I have some catching up to do! Meanwhile, I can’t wait to add this new picture book, The Roots of Rap: 16 Bars on the 4 Pillars of Hip-Hop ( Little Bee, 2019) by Carole Boston Weatherford to my middle school libraries.

“Folktales, street rhymes, spirituals—rooted in spoken word.
Props to poets Hughes and Dunbar; published. Ain’t you heard?”

So begins Weatherford’s rapping text on a spread that features images of the poets in the clouds and a skeptical black teen staring at the reader. On to James Brown, duel turntables, breakdancing on cardboard sheets, and female rappers like Queen Latifah, while “keepin’ the lyrics real.”

“A generation voicing stories, hopes, and fears
founds a hip-hop nation. Say holler if you hear.”

I’ll be adding this book as a choice in our 7th-grade nonfiction picture book research multimedia project and it makes a great pairing with When the Beat Was Born: D.J. Kool Herc and the Creation of Hip Hop (Roaring Brook, 2013), which we wrote about here. The Roots of Rap is a much-needed picture book to balance against the many featuring jazz and blues artists. It will be a huge hit with its intended early elementary school audience, but all ages will enjoy it as well.

Lynn: I know even less about rap and hip hop than Cindy! My kids were into They Might Be Giants and Barenaked Ladies. So this terrific book was a very welcome introduction/history. Not only is it a real joy to read but I feel like I have a much better understanding of this important musical form. I love Weatherford’s text but I’m blown away by Frank Morrison’s illustrations. (Now that we’re independent again, I’m adding “blown away” as a literary criticism term.)

Frank Morrison, Simon & Schuster, 2019

Morrison’s bold dramatic illustrations use every inch of the pages and practically pulse with energy. Strong colors and unusual perspectives make every page-turn a new treat while expanding the text and evoking the time. DJ Kool leans over the turntable out toward the reader on one 2-page spread while on another page, readers look down from high above at a break dancer surrounded by his audience.

Don’t miss the back matter either. There’s a helpful glossary of terms, a Hip-Hop Who’s Who, and personal notes from both the author and illustrator. This book is keepin’ it real!