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Patrick in "A teddy bear's picnic" and other stories by Geoffrey Hayes
Toon Books, 2010

Throughout the course this collection of short stories in graphic novel format, adorable young teddy bear Patrick goes on a picnic with his mother, encounters Big Bear the bully, and struggles with nap time.

First of all, the art is lovely. Hayes fills the pages with soft, colourful illustrations that are full of small details that make the most of the forest setting. The characters' expressions - especially those of Patrick and his mother - are a delight and provide a lot of the humour in the stories.

Hayes also uses a wide variety of graphic novel layouts, from full-page panels to a two-page spread containing 15 panels. While the book's language is at  Level 2 (emerging reader), the complexity of the panel layouts is used wisely and in intuitive ways that guide and instruct the reader. Additionally, the helpful "tips for parents and teachers: how to read comics with kids" page at the back offers insights and suggestions for reading graphic novels with children.

The stories themselves are snapshots of Patrick's life. While the picnic is a special occasion, the activities Patrick partakes in - puddle-splashing, playing with a toy boat, blowing up balloons - are ones that children are familiar with. There is certainly a wholesomeness and whimsy on display here as there are no signs of electronics, but the addition of Big Bear the bully (who Patrick deals with in a healthy manner) keeps it from being too saccharine.

This may sound foolish, but the one thing that distracted me throughout the entirety of the book was Patrick's shirt: it can't be a turtleneck because the sides aren't high on the sides of his neck but the front is up past his chin. Does he have his shirt on backwards? I have no idea. All I know is I had to look twice at some panels to see which way was his front because it honestly looked like his head was turned all the way around. After doing a bit of research, it appears that Patrick has always had a purple shirt that's a bit odd around the neck in all of Hayes' Patrick books, even those from the 1980s. Nonetheless, I found it bizarrely distracting, for nothing if not the perceived discomfort of such attire.

Minor wardrobe issue aside, Patrick in A teddy bear's picnic and other stories is an engaging and timeless introduction to the graphic novel genre for blossoming readers.

**Review copy provided by publisher.

 
 
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Little Panda by Renata Liwska
Houghton Mifflin, 2008

One day, a little panda is talking to his grandfather when his grandfather tells him the story of a small panda who encounters a tiger one day while he is napping in his favourite tree.

This is a cute little story, and the illustrations reflect that cuteness with the animals round and softly drawn. Even the tiger - the villain of the piece - is adorable, which made me wonder if the tiger was even supposed to be full grown. Ultimately it doesn't matter but I thought the tiger might be even a bit scary rather than cute. That said, this is a book for the very young so perhaps a scary tiger wouldn't have been the wisest decision.

A sweet story with a couple of humourous twists at the end.

 
 
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The Middle Passage: White Ships | Black Cargoby Tom Feelings
Dial Books, 1995

Twenty years in the making, The Middle Passage wordlessly depicts the horrifying journey across the Atlantic that millions of African captives were forced to take during the slave trade.

I was first introduced to The Middle Passage during a young adult literature class I took during the course of my MLIS, and it hasn't left my mind since. Not an easy book to procure, I luckily found a copy on a used book website and purchased it for the high school library I manage, and I view it as a highly prized part of the collection.

The Middle Passage is not an easy book to experience. I say 'experience' because while wordless, it is immensely powerful and often difficult to view. In fact, the horror that Feelings portrays throughout dozens of black and white paintings cannot possibly be put into words. Scenes of violence, abuse, rape, murder, and death abound, yet while Feelings' artistry reveals enough to make clear what is happening in the paintings, the images are not graphic in the sense that some violence in films and books are graphic. What is shown is enough to clearly indicate what is happening and the blanks are easily, uncomfortably, filled in.

There is a lot to absorb in The Middle Passage. The white men who abduct the African captives are so pale as to be ghostly. Scenes of the ship's hold, with hundreds of shackled men, women, and children crammed into tiny spaces where many fall ill and perish, are unimaginable. The spirit of the slaves emerges strongly, with rage and mutinous intentions made clear.

It is difficult to adequately describe The Middle Passage. It is a book that proves that not only is a picture worth a thousand words, but worth more than words can say.

 
 
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Red sings from treetops: a year in colors by Joyce Sidman, illustrated by Pamela Zagarenski
Houghton Mifflin, 2009

As a rule, I am not a lover of poetry. The only book of poetry I remember enjoying as a child is Shel Silverstein's Where the sidewalk ends due to its wit, creativity, and occasional weirdness, which fails to explain why I attempted to slog through Sir Walter Scott's epic The Lady of the Lake a few years later. In between, my grade 9 English teacher's apparent obsession with The cremation of Sam McGee by Robert Service drove me batty - there is something about the rhythm and rhyme that I didn't like - and I haven't read that blasted poem since. The thing is, if there were poetry books like Red sings from treetops when I was young, I would probably not be so averse to the genre.

Sidman essentially weaves a tale of the colours of the seasons in a narrative told in verse. There is a sequential nature to the poems as later poems tie back to earlier ones: poems about white all describe it as a sound, and poems about green follow its prevalence throughout the seasons. This flow of the poems ties in nicely with the flow of the seasons and as a group as well as individually, the poems are lovely. There is no set rhyming scheme, length, or rhythm, so the poems vary but none are more than 10-12 lines.

Zagarenski's illustrations are stunning. They are a combination of mixed media paintings on wood and computer illustration, and are magical. All the people and animals who make their way through the seasons wear crowns, even the snowman. I find it difficult to describe Zagarenski's style here, as she combines patterns and textures and pasted newsprint in a way I have never seen before. It certainly lends an air of fantasy to the poems, and I am curious if she uses the same techniques in other books.

Lovely to read and beautiful to look at.

 
 
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The gift of nothing by Patrick McDonnell
Little, Brown, 2005

Mooch the cat has decided to give a gift to his best friend, Earl the dog. However, Earl already has everything a dog could possibly want so Mooch decides to give him nothing. Problem is, Mooch can't seem to locate nothing since everywhere he looks, there is something. Will Mooch find it?

I don't recall reading any of McDonnell's Mooch comics, although I'm sure I must have at some point. Either way, I was not familiar with the characters, nor does one need to be to appreciate this book and its message of friendship and simplicity. It is not an in-your-face message, just that companionship and love are things to cherish over material objects, and it certainly hit home with me.

The illustrations are line drawings in black ink with red accents, yet McDonnell captures expression and emotion with little decoration. The quality of the paper is important as well, and since it is recycled paper it has a greyish hue with tiny flecks of darker colour in it. It is also nice and thick and doesn't stick together like shiny paper can tend to do. The fact that the text appears only at the top of and is, at most, 2 lines per page allows the illustrations to convey humour and affection as needed.

While there is a definite message that The gift of nothing is getting across, it is one that is worthwhile told with artistry, humour and grace.

 
 
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Houndsley and Catina and the quiet time by James Howe, illustrated by Marie-Louise Gay
Candlewick, 2008

Houndsley and Catina are practicing for their band concert that evening when Houndsley looks out the window and declares that they are snowed in. Catina begins to panic, thinking of all the preparations she was going to do for the concert, but Houndsley is relaxed and convinces Catina to stay and spend the day together and enjoy the quiet that the snow brings.

As far as I'm concerned, this book depicts the ideal snow day: poems, board games, music, playing in the snow, a roaring fire, and good friends. James Howe certainly captures all that is good with snow days, and the counterpoint of Catina fretting about all the plans that need to be cancelled is a point well taken, especially as she wants to spend more time with Houndsley on their imaginary island in the end.

The watercolour and pencil illustrations by Marie-Louise Gay suit the text and theme exquisitely. Soft blues, greens, and oranges reinforce the calm atmosphere at Houndsley's house, and his furniture looks terribly comfortable. I also covet Catina's skirt, for the record - why on earth does she think she needs to change?

The inclusion of music and how it can have moods and suit a particular atmosphere is truly lovely. Howe's description of the concert is evocative and makes me wish I was there to hear it: "the musicians picked up their instruments began to play so softly that the notes fell on the listening ears like snowflakes on waiting tongues, gently, softly, there for a flicker before melting away" (p. 36). I know exactly what he means.

I had Houndsley and Catina and the quiet time in my display of books about winter as it captures the essence of a snowy day: quiet, beautiful, and well worth sharing.

 
 
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Millie waits for the mail by Alexander Steffensmeier
Walker, 2007

Millie the cow loves scaring the mailman, so she hides in a wide variety of places to wait for him to come down the lane on his bicycle. Unfortunately, she's so good at scaring him that everything the farmer gets delivered is broken. What on earth are the farmer and the mailman going to do to solve the problem?

Originally published in Germany, Millie waits for the mail is a hilarious picture book by premise alone (a cow scaring the mailman? Aren't books usually about dogs doing that?). The illustrations are colourful and full of fun details, especially the chickens partaking in a wide variety of activities in the background, from catching a lift on the tractor with their coffee to wandering about porting a sling and a neck brace. Steffensmeier excels at conveying motion and sound when Millie scares the life out of the mailman: I can almost hear a frantic, bellowed "mmooooOOOOOOOOooo!!" coming out of the page, to say nothing of the mailman's terrified reactions.

Despite the imagined mooing, Millie is actually very doglike - a montage of her hiding places include her in a dog's play pose with her hind end in the air, and when she is taken aback her tail bristles and she strongly resembles a pointer in mid-hunt. Her visible emotions run the gamut from impatience to disappointment to confusion, all conveyed with few differing details by Steffensmeier: just different angles, eyebrows, and body language. I'd also like to note that the farmer is a woman, which I found refreshing.

Millie waits for the mail is an amusing book that stands up to multiple readings, which I know because I regularly grab it off the shelf for a guaranteed giggle.

 
 
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The chicken thief by Beatrice Rodriguez
Enchanted Lion Books, 2010

When a hen is snatched from the farmyard by a fox, a rooster, a bear and a rabbit follow in hot pursuit. The chase lasts for 3 days, through the forest and across the sea,  before the fox is finally tracked to his home in a tree trunk.

What an odd little book this is! Even its dimensions - the book stands about 5" high and is approximately 9" long - are different from the usual picture book. This wide perspective lends itself very well to the chase, with the fox and hen on the right side of the page and the pursuers on the left, and the scenery can be shown in detail. The animals are also evocative and drawn with a sense of humour, from the hen's sunglasses to the rooster swooning to any number of eyebrows found throughout. The scenes that involve sunrises and sunsets are especially spectacular, with the quality and colour of the light spot-on.

The chicken thief is told entirely without words, but there are nonetheless some complex feelings addressed. The rooster appears to be the ringleader among the pursuing trio, for although he sometimes leaves the more arduous tasks like burrowing into holes and rowing to his companions, he has the most evident emotional reaction at the end of the story. You see, the hen chooses to stay with the fox to (hopefully) live happily ever after. Yes, the hen and the fox appear to fall in love which seems to be a bit of a stretch, given the usual nature of foxes and hens. On the other hand, who could possibly resist a nice game of chess in a cozy burrow, natural predator or not?

A little bit odd, a little bit humourous, and whole lot of fun.

 
 
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LMNO Peas by Keith Baker
Beach Lane Books, 2010

According to LMNO Peas, peas are far more diverse than I had ever thought. From acrobats to zoologists, peas embark on activities and professions from A to Z.

This is about as adorable as a book can get with rhythmic rhyming text and lovely detailed digital illustrations. Giant letters (well, giant compared to the peas) provide backdrops to peas participating in various activities that start with the corresponding letter. The peas themselves are delightful - the a hiking pea is in the process of losing a hat and each parachuting pea had a different outfit on, to name only two examples - and lots of time could be spent looking at all the hundreds of different peas in the book.

While this has worked well for me as a class read-aloud, I think it would be best read to an individual or small group due to the detail in the illustrations that would be difficult to see from a few feet away. Each and every page has a lot to look at, and the humourous touches for the adult audience (a pea Elvis as a king, anyone?) are also appreciated. Charming all round.

 
 
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Rhyming dust bunnies by Jan Thomas
Beach Lane Books, 2009

Ed, Ned, Ted, and Bob are four dust bunnies who love to rhyme, and what could possibly interrupt such fun? Bob sees something that might stop their game in its tracks, but whether the other three will listen to what he is saying remains to be seen.

Rhyming dust bunnies is one of my favourite early-elementary books. The illustrations are big and bright in primary and secondary colours, it encourages crowd involvement with the rhyming (what 4- or 5-year-old can resist the question "what rhymes with cat?"), and the plot is ridiculously simple and cleverly executed. Who would have guessed that a book about dust bunnies avoiding a broom could be so funny? Not I.

Thomas creates wonderful tension with Bob, the dust bunny who can't seem to make a rhyme from even the easiest of words. His three friends certainly let him know that his rhyming is not up to par, even when what Bob is saying is, "LOOK OUT!" The audience knows something is amiss from the beginning, and the fun is waiting to see how long it takes Ed, Ned, and Ted to figure it out.

I can attest from personal experience that young children adore this book. When I read it to the grade Primary class last year, they yelled out rhyming words, laughed at the punchlines, and ultimately enjoyed it so much that they demanded I read it again immediately. So I did, and they relished it as much or more the second time. It is a popular book in the library, as it should be.