A Fresh Take on a Holiday Tradition

November 24, 2016 § 1 Comment

After last week’s "The Nutcracker" by Niroot Puttapipatsomber posts, I am shifting tones to herald one of the most spellbinding picture books of the year, inspired by one of our family’s favorite holiday traditions.

I confess I never liked The Nutcracker much as a kid. I thought the Mouse King was creepy, I thought the dancing was long, and I thought the Sugar Plum Fairy’s castle consistently under-delivered on such a lofty name. Either I was a cranky kid, or I wasn’t seeing the right performances (or reading the right books ahead of time).

Then I became a parent and two things happened. First, beloved British illustrator Alison Jay came out with arguably the sweetest, cheeriest, and loveliest picture book adaptation of The Nutcracker—one that the kids and I have looked forward to unpacking with our Christmas decorations and savoring afresh every year. « Read the rest of this entry »

Princesses Kicking Butt

March 31, 2016 § 1 Comment

"The Princess in Black" and "Hamster Princess" SeriesEarlier this year, the third title came out in the now wildly popular series, “The Princess in Black,” written by Shannon and Dean Hale and illustrated by LeUyen Pham (the first is here, the second is here). The newest installment, The Princess in Black and the Hungry Bunny Horde (Ages 4-7), features all the characters we’ve come to adore, plus a fleet of purple bunnies every bit as deadly in behavior as they are gentle on the eyes (even the PIB is initially fooled by their “language of Cuteness”).

What continues to make this series so much fun isn’t just the “princess pounces” and “scepter spanks” (although I do love me some alliterative fighting), but the tantalizing way in which the story lines turn traditional princess lore on its head. Princess Magnolia might be upholding the pretty in pink image back home at the castle, but outside where there are monsters threatening innocent goats and goat herds, she and her unicorn-turned-black-stallion are 100% kick-butt. « Read the rest of this entry »

Alison Jay, Cloud Creator

April 25, 2012 § 3 Comments

If you haven’t discovered the amazing British children’s artist Alison Jay, you’re in for a real treat. Or, if you’re as obsessed with her as I am, you’ll love her latest masterpiece, a fairy tale of sorts titled The Cloud Spinner (Ages 3-6), by Michael Catchpool (a fellow Brit).

The Brits have an unparalleled knack for creating books that feel Quintessentially Childlike, seamlessly blending fantasy with realism, and sprinkling on a quirkiness that makes these stories memorable for a lifetime. Alison Jay’s artistic signature, which she employs in all her work, is a “crackle finish” layered over her paintings, a technique which gives them a vintage look. In contrast, her animals, landscapes, and people feel anything but old-fashioned (here’s where that endearing quirkiness comes into play).

It seems that Jay’s artistic style has not gone unnoticed by JP, my four year old. Our favorite alphabet book is Jay’s ABC: A Child’s First Alphabet Book, which I’ve been reading to him since he was a baby (and which is jam packed with hidden surprises), along with a handful of her other storybooks (see my list at the end). A few months ago, while perusing the shelves at our local library, JP stumbled upon an Alison Jay book he’d never seen before (William and the Night Train), and he called out, “Look Mommy, it’s one of those books with the crazy clouds!” I had never thought of it that way before, but he was right: Alison Jay does have a very specific way of painting clouds.

So, it seems only appropriate that Jay’s newest book, The Cloud Spinner, should take on clouds as its central subject. And with a unique, magical premise: Once upon a time, there was a boy who could “weave cloth from the clouds”—not just any cloth, but cloth “as soft as a mouse’s touch and as warm as roasted chestnuts.” All was OK because he had been wisely taught by his mom (who else?) to use only as many clouds as he absolutely needed (say, for essentials like a muffler).

Enter a Greedy King, who takes one look at the boy’s scarf and demands, not only a matching one for himself, but a wardrobe for the entire royal family. As the boy weaves, the clouds get sparser, the days get hotter, and the crops get drier. Jay adds in her own artistic endorsement of this ecological message: through the first half of the book, each hilltop is subtly populated with animals, trees, or flowers that together form patterns of smiley faces (British humor at its best). And yet, as the story goes on, the hilltop smiles begin to bend down; they begin to look serious and, eventually, downright forlorn.

Every fairy tale needs a hero to step up, and in this case it’s the King’s daughter (up until now silent but watchful), who gathers all the clouds-spun-clothes while her family sleeps and takes them to the boy. As she hands over the treasure, she poses the loaded question, “Is it too late to undo what has been done?” Like the ending of Dr. Seuss’ The Lorax and other books that remind our children of their power to do right by their Earth (to turn the frowns upside down, if you will), the boy assures us: “There is still time.” Phew.

Other Favorites Illustrated by the Magical Alison Jay:
ABC: A Child’s First Alphabet Book (Ages 1-6)
Listen, Listen (Ages 1-4), by Phillis Gershator
I Took the Moon for a Walk, </em>by Carolyn Curtis (Ages 1-4)
If Kisses Were Colors, by Janet Lawler (Ages 1-3)
Christmastime (Ages 2-10)
The Nutcracker (Ages 3-6)
Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, by Lewis Carroll (Ages 6-12)

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