Back to School With Monsters (of the Misunderstood Variety)

September 1, 2014 § 3 Comments

"My Teacher is a Monster" by Peter BrownOne of my favorite books as a kid was James Marhsall’s Miss Nelson is Missing, a picture book about a smiley, mild-tempered teacher, who, fed up with the rude and rambunctious behavior of her students, dons a pointy nose, a wig, and a black dress to become the witchy, ultra-strict substitute named Viola Swamp; within a few weeks, the children have reformed their ways and are begging for Miss Nelson’s return. The story is a playful reminder that we’re not always grateful for what we have until it’s gone.

As a kid, though, my obsession with the book stemmed from the fact that Viola Swamp’s true identity eludes, not only her students, but us readers as well—that is, until the final page, when we get a glimpse of the familiar black dress hanging in Miss Nelson’s bedroom closet. Once we’re in on the secret, we can’t help but want to read the book again and again, picking up on clues that we missed the first time around, stunned that the truth was right in front of our eyes the whole time. If only we (alongside Miss Nelson’s students) hadn’t been so quick to settle for first impressions, we would have seen that Miss Nelson wasn’t just a sweet face, oblivious to the spitballs flying at her. Nor was Viola Swamp the monstrous outsider we assumed her to be.

Now, forty years after James Marshall published his book, Peter Brown again turns the conventional teacher-student relationship on its head in his infectiously-titled new picture book, My Teacher is a Monster! (No, I am Not.) (Ages 5-9). “Bobby had a big problem at school. Her name was Ms. Kirby.” « Read the rest of this entry »

Hot-Off-the-Press for August’s Birthday Parties

August 14, 2012 § 2 Comments

I’m a bit late with my pick for August birthday parties, but this gift will work equally well heading into the school year, because it’s a book about friendship! In Squid and Octopus: Friends for Always (Ages 4-8), Tao Nyeu is following a great literary legacy of Dynamic Duos (Frog and Toad, George and Martha, to name two favorites from my own childhood). Like her predecessors, Nyeu has packed her stories (there are four, organized as “mini-chapters” in the one picture book) with that winning combination of humor and heart. Squid and Octopus bear a particular resemblance to my son JP and his best buddy Willem: like all great friends, they argue about who is right, they make up by deciding they’re both right, they make each other laugh with silliness no parent can hope to understand, and they give each other lung-compressing squeezes that are supposed to resemble hugs.

What makes Nyeu’s book sing are her fantastical illustrations: pattern-studded silk screens made from water-based ink and colored pencils set against a simple white background. For a book about two cephalopods, living in an underwater universe complete with flower gardens, soup stands, and swing sets, one would expect backgrounds in dizzying shades of blue; but by setting her drawings on white, Nyeu focuses children’s attention on the irresistible quirkiness of the characters themselves. (I won’t say that I’m not totally attracted to the Jonathan Adler-esque color scheme of turquoise and orange as well.) As I was getting ready to write this post, I asked JP what his favorite thing about the book was. Instead of one, I got five enthusiastic points:

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