She Persisted

She Persisted: 13 American Women Who Changed the World, by Chelsea Clinton, illustrated by Alexandra Boiger, Philomel; $17.99 32 pages, ages 4-7.

“I wrote this book for everyone who’s ever wanted to speak up but has been told to quiet down–for everyone who’s ever been made to feel less than,” said Chelsea Clinton about her children’s book, She Persisted. Certainly, the goal is laudable: profile thirteen American women whose strength and perserverance helped change the world for the better. Harriet Tubman, Hellen Keller, Virginia Apgar, and even Oprah Winfrey appear as pint-size activists. In each vignette, Clinton presents the challenges each woman faced and repeats the current feminist rallying-call, “She persisted.” The book joins a fleet of recently published girl-power volumes like Feminist Baby and Goodnight Stories for Rebel Girls

Each woman is presented chronologically, but there are no dates to pinpoint the progression across time. Luckily, Alexandra Boiger’s marvelous double-page illustrations help to fill the gap. Perceptive readers will have questions about these women, such as when they lived, how they made history, and who helped them. For example, Anne Sullivan appears in an image of Hellen Keller, but isn’t mentioned by name. Yet, there are no endnotes or bibliography to help answer those questions. That aside, the text itself feels forced–read aloud, the words are halting, hesitating, and, unfortunately, boring, which these women certainly were not. The presentation is less a celebration than a suggestion that women, simply by virtue of being women, will always face a stacked deck, and those who succeed do so alone.

Clinton fans will no doubt flock to the book regardless, but those looking for more engaging accounts of brave American women would do better to look elsewhere–the recently published Motor Girls by Sue Macy, for example (National Geographic, $17.99, ages 11-14), is a fascinating account of women at the turn of the twentieth century who took to the open road despite much (male) protest. It’s thorough, engaging, and packed with primary source material, statistics, and lively anecdotes. Amy Ehrlich’s Willa, illustrated by Wendell Minor (Paula Wiseman, $16.99, 72 pages, ages 6-10) is an excellent picture-book biography of one of America’s most beloved writers.

Well-intentioned, She Persisted lacks joy, and despite its simplicity, manages to strike an unwelcome didactic tone. “Remember these women,” Clinton writes. “They persisted and so should you.” Rather than a lively, well-written, and informational account of great women, She Persisted offers platitudes that do little to inspire.

 

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Fish Girl

Fish Girl, by David Wiesner and Donna Jo Napoli; Clarion Books, $25.00, 185 pages, ages 7-10.

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Image copyright 2017 David Wiesner. Reproduced with permission from Clarion Books.

On a lonely stretch of seaside boardwalk stands a modest three-story building hiding a big secret: inside resides the mysterious Fish Girl, watched over by King Neptune. For a small fee, visitors are welcome to glimpse the girl for themselves. Fish Girl feels protected by Neptune and believes his stories–that she is the last of her kind, that this building full of exotic fish is the last refuge of his realm–until she befriends a neighborhood girl, Livia. Now, the mermaid (soon to be renamed Mira) wants to enjoy life on land, but an inability to talk and lack of legs hampers the process. Slowly, with steady determination, a little yoga, and some magic, Mira’s lonely life changes forever.

Three time Caldecott Medalist David Wiesner (Mr. Wuffles!) and Donna Jo Napoli (Albert) debut their first graphic novel with an exploration of trust, betrayal, and bravery–Mira is kept in what amounts to a water-filled cage, lied to about her family, and forced to perform tricks for money. Adults will no doubt make comparisons to children and young women conscripted into all sorts of unsavory labor around the world, but the mermaid element keeps this story squarely rooted in fantasy and will not spook young readers. Interestingly, the protagonist is mute–most of Wiesner’s best-loved books are wordless, relying on visual storytelling. That’s not to say Mira doesn’t share her thoughts–somehow, she communicates with her underwater and oxygen-breathing friends, and cultivates a language of friendship with Livia. Deft interplay of myth and contemporary folklore make this splashy story hard to resist.

Foxy Behavior

Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Fox? by Benjamin Renner; First Second Books, $15.99, 188 pages, ages 5-8.

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copyright 2017 Benjamin Renner. Reproduced with permission from First Second Books.

 

Can’t a fox get a break? Apparently, no–not even the fluffy egg-laying hens are afraid in Benjamin Renner’s mapcap graphic novel making it’s English-language debut next month. Originally published last year in French as Le Grand Méchant Renard, the book chronicles the woes of a wannabe terror, a hungry fox whose antics only provoke the ire of his intended victims. Even under the tutelage of the old master of fairy-tale disaster, the wolf, this fox “as ferocious as a geriatric tortoise,” appears destined to nosh on berries and twigs for the rest of his days. At least, until the wolf hatches a plan to steal some eggs. The fox succeeds, but can he bring himself to eat these fluffballs? And what happens when he develops an attachment to his brood–who soon enough believe themselves to be baby foxes? Will the new family escape the clutches of the scheming wolf? Will the hens have pity on a poor fox seeking redemption? Renner’s slapstick, subversive, and sly saga will keep readers of all ages clucking with joy. While the artwork certainly has the feel of a cartoon strip, there’s a freshness and sophistication here that reveals a master at work.  Pre-order this finely executed graphic novel to ensure hours of summer reading enchantment.

First Words

First Words; Lonely Planet Kids, $12.99, 208 pages, ages 4-8.

Lonely Planet Kids has expanded its product line-up in recent years with an intense focus on the pre-k to third grade demographic with interactive travel journals, guidebooks, and now, phrasebooks. In the age of Google translate (which is no substitute for learning a second language, but that’s another topic altogether), it’s reassuring to see publishing houses recognize that language acquisition is a skill best learned young. The First Words series enters the market with three languages–Spanish, French, and English–and each volume introduces the same 100 words. Each book uses the same images, so there’s continuity across the series if not cultural diversity. (But really, a gato is a chat is a cat, right? Sometimes it’s best not to overthink these things.) Every page is devoted to one word with a pronunciation guide, and Lonely Planet’s website offers free audio clips spoken by a native language-speaking child, for all 100 words. (Check it out here.)

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The First Words series is a cute introduction to second language acquisition, and Lonely Planet plans to add Italian, Mandarin, and Japanese to the lineup in the near future. The trick now is for Lonely Planet to follow up with an equally engaging series that takes readers to the next level of language acquisition, because it’s at this secondary stage that many companies falter, and kids lose interest. Here’s hoping Lonely Planet will change the trend.

Keats for Kids

A Song About Myself, by John Keats, illustrated by Chris Raschka; Candlewick Press, $17.99, 40 pages, ages 7-9. 

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A SONG ABOUT MYSELF. Illustrations copyright © 2017 by Chris Raschka. Reproduced by permission of the publisher, Candlewick Press, Somerville, MA.

British poet John Keats (1795-1821) published fifty-four poems during his brief life, yet those pieces secured his place among the “second generation” of Romantic poets like Lord Byron and Percy Bysshe. Keats wrote the three-part A Song About Myself while traveling through Scotland and included it in a letter to his fifteen-year old younger sister, Fanny. The whimsical, cheeky verses about Keats as a naughty boy wandering the world are a departure from the poet’s better-known odes and sonnets. Keats describes the world outside of London and reveals that no matter where he is, some things remain the same.

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A SONG ABOUT MYSELF. Illustrations copyright © 2017 by Chris Raschka. Reproduced by permission of the publisher, Candlewick Press, Somerville, MA.

So, how does an early nineteenth-century poem hold up in 2017? Not bad–the rhyming pattern is easy to follow (“There was a naughty Boy/ A naughty boy was he,/ He would not stop at home, / He could not quiet be –“), simple verses that quickly build into a playful ramble through the land to the north of London. Some words, like pother (a fuss) and rivetted (hold close) might trip up readers, but most of it is straightforward enough–this is a poem written by a feisty young man intent on making his reader laugh. Two-time Caldecott Medal winner Chris Raschka’s watercolors flow unencumbered through the pages, abstract yet thoroughly engaging, and expertly match this bizarre little road trip. (Don’t miss the end papers where a condensed map of New York and the British Isles begs close examination.)

A Song About Myself is a wonderful introduction to Keats and proving that some things just don’t go out of style.

BE QUIET!

BE QUIET! by Ryan T. Higgins; Disney-Hyperion; $17.99, 40 pages, ages 3-8. 

Rupert the mouse has a dream: to craft a beautiful, wordless picture book. His ideas are grand, but when his friends hear about the project, they interject. A lot. And come up with all sorts of ideas. Unfortunately, brainstorming requires…talking, and poor Rupert quickly loses his cool, while his credibility as an artistic know-it-all slowly loses its veneer in perfectly paced slapstick. Clearly, this is not going to be a wordless picture book, but Rupert’s going to give it everything he’s got–even at the expense of his lofty sensibilities. The book is sure to be a hit with preschoolers, but offer BE QUIET! to a first- or second-grader to read aloud, and watch the hilarity ensue. The creator of Mother Bruce knocks it out of the park once again with another wacky menagerie of characters while also cleverly engaging adults with definitions of onomatopoeia, visual stimulation, and most importantly, irony.

Mrs. White Rabbit

The White Rabbit is always busy. This book explores how his wife manages a rambunctious household in the heart of Wonderland.

Mrs. White Rabbit, by Gilles Bachelet; Eerdmans, $17.00, 32 pages, ages 6-10. 

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Mrs White Rabbit has her paws full: caring for a household overrun with a warren of rambunctious bunnies, tending to the needs of her time-strapped husband, the White Rabbit, and entertaining the oddball visits of a size-shifting girl named Alice has left the family matriarch feeling sullen, stressed, and neglected. It turns out today is her birthday, and her distracted husband has forgotten all about it. Mrs. White Rabbit vents her daily drama in diary format, giving readers a behind-the-scenes look at life in Wonderland for the White Rabbit’s better half. Gilles Bachelet’s humorous look at leporidine domesticity is accompanied by his equally witty illustrations of bunnies at play, and causing mischief, all under the perennially peeved gaze of Mrs. White Rabbit. Could any family expect tranquility when taking up residence in Wonderland? Besides, it seems all Mrs. W. really wants is a little R-E-S-P-E-C-T, and who can’t relate to that?

Originally published in French as Madame le Lapin Blanc, this cheeky twist on Lewis Carroll’s classic is a quirky reminder that it takes a village to raise a family, and though everyone is busy these days–replace the White Rabbit’s clock with a cell phone and he’d blend in perfectly with any number of daily commuters–we’ve got to make time for our loved ones, too.