An eclectic collection of picture and travel books for summer fun.
(Originally published at Redeemed Reader on May 21, 2013)
The Not-for-Parents Travel Book, Lonely Planet Publications, 2011, 207 pages.
Reading Level: Middle Grades, ages 10-12
Recommended for: ages 8-up
Australians are probably the greatest travelers in the world, and Lonely Planet (an Aussie publisher) produces some of the greatest travel guides, according to some experienced backpackers I know. Lately LP got into the kid’s market, with their “Not-for-Parents” guides. The title, I’ll admit, is a little off-putting to parents, but let’s assume they mean well. Last January, for instance, three boys who were camping with their families in Queensland rescued themselves from the mud flats after getting literally stuck in quicksand, after one of them recalled information he’d picked up from Lonely Planet’s Not-for-Parents: How to Be a World Explorer. I’ll probably be reviewing that book later–you never know when you’re going to be trapped in quicksand!–but for now, prospective globe-trotters will enjoy touring the world with the Travel Book. It’s a hodgepodge of information, with something on every page that’s bound to be of interest. Every country of the world, or almost, gets a page, meaning Canada shares equal space with Vatican City (pop. 826), and Russia with Luxembourg. Insert maps show where every country is located, with population, area, currency, flag and official language. Recurring features include Scary Stuff, Epic Events, Hideous History, Crazy Facts, and Amazing Animals. Since it’s geared to kids, most of the information is kid-friendly, such as where Pez dispensers, roller skates, and Legos were invented (you’ll have to read the book to find out), as well as what country has the highest rate of twin births(ditto). Since it’s published in Australia, British spellings are used. And since Lonely Planet leans left, there are some details you might want to discuss. Why, for instance, is Cuba described as “a moving museum of old cars”? Maybe because the people can’t afford new cars, because communism has run their economy into the ground? China’s one-child policy is presented with no comment, and no mention of forced abortion. For some parents, there may be a little too much “scary stuff” and “hideous history,” but the history is fairly even-handed (i.e., not all the fault of white people) and fascinating facts outnumber the scares. A world map on the last double-page spread puts these countries in perspective. (Lonely Planet also offers detailed guides to the world’s great cities, such as London, Paris, and New York. If you’re planning a family trip to any of these destinations, they may be worth looking into.)
- Worldview/moral value: 3 (out of 5)
- Literary/information value: 4.5
The Matchbox Diary, by Paul Fleishman, illustrated by Bagram Ibatoulline. Candlewick, 2013, 50 pages. Age/interest level: 6-9.
On a bright sunny day, a little girl and her great-grandfather are spending some together time in his crowded antique shop. Apparently they’ve just met, and he’s asked her to pick something off his shelves. “And then I’ll know something about you.” She chooses a cigar box. “So. You like boxes, just like me. You smoke cigars?” What’s inside is not cigars, but stories. “When I was your age I had a lot I wanted to remember but I couldn’t read or write. So I started this.”
“This” is a collection of little matchboxes with sliding lids, each containing a piece of the past: an olive pit, a worn photograph, a bottle cap. All together they tell of the old man’s childhood in Italy and how he and his mother and sisters sailed the ocean to join their father in America (sunflower seed shells in one box marked every day until the Statue of Liberty finally appeared on the horizon). Some tough years follow, living from job to job until the boy is finally able to go to school and learn to write. Though a simple story (told entirely in dialogue), it’s beautiful and poignantly human, with each evocative picture illustrating a memory captured in a box.
- Worldview/moral value: 5
- Literary/art value: 4.5
CRAFTS AND HANDS-ON ACTIVITIES
Building Our House, by Jonathan Bean. Farrar Strauss Giroux, 2012, 40 pages. Age/interest level: 5-9.
Today is moving day. We left our old house in the city and we’re moving to the country. My family is building our new house away from the road, down a dirt lane. The family is Dad, Mom, big sister (who looks about 4 or 5), little brother (around 2), and their pickup, Willys. It’s the early 1970s, so you don’t have to have car seats for all the children and you can put up a house just about anywhere you want to, meanwhile homesteading in an old Airstream trailer. That’s what the author’s family actually did—build a house from the basement up, starting before he was born and ending around his fifth birthday, using “every scrap of spare time.”
For this book he compresses the action into one and half years, and the process will fascinate any budding builder: laying water pipes, digging a basement with grandpa’s backhoe, stacking rocks and mixing cement for the basement walls, sawing planed logs for the house walls and boring holes with a brace and bit. Relatives helped raise the frame, but everything else—wiring, insulating, and plumbing—is done by Mom and Dad with the kids helping out wherever they can. Meanwhile, Mom is working on a baby, who appears in the second spring. The soft watercolor illustrations are bursting with activity. Be sure to compare the endpapers in front (open field) to the back (finished house, already looking like it belongs). This book is a labor of love from a son who honors his parents and takes pride in their accomplishment.
- Worldview/moral value: 5
- Art value: 4
THE GREAT OUTDOORS
Scaredy Squirrel Goes Camping, by Melanie Watt. KidsCan Press, 2013, 30 pages. Age/interest level: 3-6.
If you’re familiar with Scaredy Squirrel, you know he’s afraid of lots of things: crowds, loud noises, skunks, the dark, and zippers (He insists you check your zippers before reading this book). So camping is not high on his list of faves: He’d rather be comfortable inside than risk going out in the rugged wilderness. He’ll watch wilderness shows on TV instead! But when he wrestles his new TV into his hollow-tree home there’s one big problem—he can’t plug it in. The nearest outlet happens to be . . . in the nearest campground. Like it or not, Scaredy is going to have to risk an expedition in the great outdoors to get his TV plugged in, carrying an extra-long extension cord and other incongruous supplies that will be explained along the way. It will come as no surprise that Scaredy changes his mind about camping after an adventure—and one big scare–in the wilderness. Little ones will feel themselves lots braver than Scaredy, but he’s so darn cute they’ll want him for a friend anyway. A perfect way to get preschoolers in gear for camping season!
- Worldview/moral value: 4
- Literary/art value: 4
AND FINALLY, WE MIGHT DO A LITTLE WRITING!
Exclamation Mark by Amy Krouse Rosenthal and Tom Lichtenheld. Scholastic, 2013, 46 pages. Age/interest level: 4-8.
What do you do when you just don’t fit in? The story follows Exclamation Mark’s efforts to scrunch up, curl up, hunker down or otherwise make himself inconspicuous, with predictable results. All the periods seem sympathetic—nobody makes fun of E.M.—but they can’t do much. It’s when that other guy shows up–the one who looks like this: ?—that things get interesting. E.M. reaches his limit when barraged with questions, finally yelling STOP! All of a sudden he’s found his purpose and is freed from a life sentence (ta da!). Amy Rosenthal is a master of wringing pathos and humor out of objects so common we don’t think about them (see Spoon, Chopsticks, and This Plus That, for example). With Exclamation Mark she manages both an engaging punctuation lesson and a “celebrate our differences” fable.
- Worldview/moral value: 4
- Literary/art value: 5
For more picture book recommendations, click the picture-book line in the drop-down menu under Book Reviews. And don’t forget to come back tomorrow for our summertime rollout!