Sunday, January 24, 2016

Sy Montgomery's Animal Non-fiction Books for Children

Sy Montgomery's Brilliant Animal Books for Children

Quite casually, a few months ago, the seven-year-old and I were researching flightless birds of the world, trying to get past the well-known large birds like ostrich and emu and penguin and cassowary and kiwi. That's when we came across Kakapo, a nocturnal ground-dwelling parrot endemic to New Zealand.

Naturally, we wanted to learn more. So when I came across Kakapo Rescue: Saving the World’s Strangest Parrot by Sy Montogomery and Nic Bishop at the library, I brought it home hoping to read it with the younger child in installments whenever he is ready.

I did not expect the wild enthusiasm he showed for this book! And for a very good reason. The book is by Sy Montgomery, whose brilliant books have the right balance of information, drama, storytelling, and intrinsic beauty.

Fewer than 90, yes nine-zero-ninety, of these gorgeous, friendly birds remain in the wild on the remote Codfish Island off New Zealand's south coast. Sy and Nic journeyed there to record the work done, mostly by volunteers, to prevent these sweet birds from going extinct.

The photographs by Nic Bishop, along with an easy-flowing, clear, heartwarming account of their journey of discovery makes this book a huge favorite with me.

The shared experience of reading this to the kiddo and learning about the plight of these birds that were indiscriminately killed when humans took over and settled in its habitat made us so aware of the large impact we have on our environment simply by going somewhere and being where we never were before.

We ended up reading this book every single night and finished it within a week, coming out of it as if we had traveled to the place ourselves and seen and interacted with the individual birds ourselves. We felt the pain when one of eggs was destroyed, or didn't get fertilized. We couldn't help rooting for these naive and cuddly birds.

[Read an excerpt here]

We were hooked! I borrowed every other book by Sy Montgomery that was available at our library.

In Quest for the Tree Kangaroo, we learnt about this odd-looking creature that looks like a stuffed toy that was determined to stand-out: "Impossibly soft, with a rounded face, button eyes, pink nose, upright ears and long, thick, furry tail, the 25-pound animal hops like a kangaroo, carries babies in a pouch like a koala, and climbs trees like a monkey."

In Saving the Ghost of the Mountain, Nic and Sy are on an expedition among Snow Leopards of Mongolia. "Prowling along ridges, slinking below skyline, the snow leopard is as invisible, yet as powerful, as the wind, and as elusive as a ghost." Collaborating with Snow Leopard Trust scientist Tom McCarthy and his team in the Altai Mountains of the Gobi Desert, Sy and Nic try to learn about and save an animal they can’t see—before it becomes a ghost for real.

Among the "Scientists" series of books, the kid loved Octopus Scientists -- no surprise there as Octopus is an all-time favorite for him. From its ability to totally camouflage and blend into its surroundings, its ink, its beak, to its tendency (mama octopus) to starve and die after its eggs hatch, everything about them is curious and intriguing. Sy and Keith Ellenbogan take us along for a underwater wild ride in this book.

One of my personal favorites is The Man-eating Tigers of the Sundarbans by Sy Montgomery. It is poetic and heart-wrenching and fearsome and hopeful all at the same time.

Currently, we are reading Encantado: The Pink Dolphins of the Amazon.

Next on our list: Snowball the Dancing Cockatoo. Our library does not have it, so, I'll be looking for a used copy to bring home sometime soon.

[image source: Sy Montgomery's website]

Sunday, January 03, 2016

3 Awesome Animal Picture Books

Egg: Nature's Perfect Package 
by Steve Jenkins & Robin Page
published by HMH Books for Young Readers, March  2015

Trademark cut-paper collage on stark white background with crisp, precise nuggets of information make Jenkins's books perfect for animal-non-fiction-loving young readers.

The book is all about eggs as the title suggests: little eggs, big eggs,, where to lay eggs, how many to lay at a time, egg consumers, egg protection, egg packaging, egg carrying, incubation, and getting out of the egg... all are laid out with plenty of animals showcasing their techniques and ideology.

Everything needed to create a new living creature: The Egg.

[image source: HMH Catalog]

How to Swallow a Pig
Step by Step Advice from the Animal Kingdom
by Steve Jenkins & Robin Page
published by  HMH Books for Young Readers, September 2015

A recent top favorite book for the seven year old, he rattles off fascinating facts about animals from this book that surely caught my interest and attention.

Like how a Capuchin monkey smears itself with millipede after rolling the said millipede in its mouth to get it to release its toxins. Why does it do that? Well, that's nature's own insect-repellent right there.

Or, like how smart a crow is that it chooses a stop light and plants its hard-to-crack nut on the road and waits for a car to go by and crush the nut open.

Or, as the title suggests, swallow a whole pig after squeezing it to death as a python does.

The tongue-in-cheek format of the book and the clever presentation is sure to fascinate the curious-minded child, and maybe incite them to imitate these creatures.

[image source: HMH Catalog]

Unusual Creatures
A Mostly Accurate Account of Some of Earth's Strangest Animals
by Michael Hearst
Artwork, Diagrams, and Other Visuals by
Arjen Noordeman, Christie Wright, and Jelmer Noordeman

published by Chronicle Books,  July 2014

"Unusual Creatures is a rich and fantastic book of charming imaginary animals who... what? They're real? I'll be under the bed." -- Lemony Snicket.

That quote on the cover had me chuckling right away.

The book starts out by explaining the biological classification in a kid-friendly way, with the mnemonic:

Kids Place Candles OFoot Gravy Sausage

↠ Kingdom ➢ Phylum ➢ Class ➢ Order ➢ Family ➢ Genus ➢ Species.

I was hooked right on that page, and so was the kiddo.

The book is laid out alphabetically, starting with Axolotl. "Mama, did you know an axolotl can regenerate its body parts, even its heart? We had an axolotl in our classroom last year, remember? They are so cool!" And we learn that the name axolotl comes from the Aztec language, most common translation being "water dog".

Each double-page spread focuses on one animal. The informational text and related diagrams, with K-P-C-O-F-G-S laid out next to the animal's common and scientific name, plus a full page illustration of the animal with a scale to show its size makes it easy to digest the information in small chunks and marvel at nature's creativity.

Turn to any page at random, and you are sure to find a fascinating and rather unusual creature like Barking Spider, or Giraffe-necked Weevil, or Hammerhead Bat, or or Long-eared Jerboa, or Magnapinna Squid, or Sea Pig, along with some unique but slightly well-known creatures like Echidna, Honey Badger, Platypus, and Slow Loris.

A must-have for our bookshelf, along with every one of Steve Jenkins's books.

Watch video clippings of featured creatures at

[image source: Chronicle Books]

Sunday, December 20, 2015

Rules by Cynthia Lord

by Cynthia Lord

Left to herself, my ten year old may not have reached for this book. But, having read it myself, I wanted her to read it as well. I wanted to know if the book resonated with her, if anything touched her, if anything seemed incongruous to her in any way.

So, rather than wait for her to pick it up, I decided to read it aloud to her, a few chapters at a time. I believe that reading aloud is wonderful for any age, even for adults. Anyway, thus began this interesting journey of discovery together.

Twelve-year-old Catherine is the main character. The story is all about Catherine and her growing pains, wanting to fit in and be accepted for who she is.

However, Catherine has an autistic brother and so naturally, her life is inseparably intertwined with his. Add in a pair of well-meaning, well-intentioned parents who are doing the best they can, plus a new neighbor and potential friend, and a non-verbal teen in a wheelchair, the story is bound to get interesting.

Summer vacation has just begun. Catherine goes with her mom for her eight-year-old brother David's weekly Occupational Therapy session. That's where she meets 14-year old Jason. Her growing friendship with Jason confuses and rattles her. Through it all, Jason comes out as independent and strong and in the end, Catherine does realize that she truly values his friendship even if she feels quite awkward around him. We follow Catherine through this summer vacation where she discovers a little about herself and learns to accept herself, flaws and all.

Catherine is fiercely protective of her brother; she defends him from insults and taunts by others. It grates her when people stare at David. Her love for her brother is never in question. But, being a "normal" child, Catherine also resents David's special needs. She desperately wants a "normal" brother, one who would know to keep his pants on in public, one who knows not to open cellar doors in other people's houses, one who wouldn't scream or throw a fit if dad is a little late to take him to the video store, in short, one who would not embarrass her so much.

Older sisters with a younger brother, with special needs or otherwise, can easily identify with Catherine being called to 'baby-sit' her brother often when she would much rather do her own thing. Catherine's annoyance leads to her making up a list of "Rules" that David can follow to ensure appropriate behavior. Little brothers can be quite challenging to sensitive older sisters and this is the part that resonated most with the resident ten year old.

As it is written from Catherine's point of view, her parents do come across as a bit one-dimensional, but it is obvious that they are average working parents trying to make the best of each day.

The author states that she has an autistic son, and that her daughter was the inspiration for Catherine. Which makes many of the details realistic, reasonable, and believable.

While the book has two major characters who are disabled, the book is not about disability or disabled persons. How Catherine navigates her world, a world that is complex enough to stress her out, is what the book unfolds.

One objection that usually comes up about this book is that Catherine wishes her brother would be "normal" somehow; whereas, clearly he is who he is and she must accept him as such. David is somehow not humanized as much as Jason is in the story. Catherine finds herself uncomfortable around both of them, but Jason stands out as a well-developed character, whereas all we know about David is what Catherine tells us through her interactions.

However, as my ten year old pointed out, there is nothing wrong with Catherine wishing for her brother to be like who she wants him to be, however she defines "normal"... She just wishes she can connect with him in a deeper way and share sibling love and the joys of growing up together. As it is, she just barely manages her own pre-teen angst and to have to constantly defend and protect David can be draining for her.

The book definitely affected the ten year old, possibly in ways she is not be able to articulate at this time. Lives of all the Davids and Jasons out there is sure to get her thinking deeply about how people learn to live with disabilities in our world, and how the people around them can learn to treat them with dignity and respect.

The author does a wonderful job of balancing Catherine's needs and her expectations. Catherine is just a young girl, not a saint; she just has too much to process around her, and that overwhelms her; she is basically a loving, kind, and down-to-earth kid.

[image source: Author Cynthia Lord website]

Saturday, December 05, 2015

7 Inspiring Picture Books for Children

True life stories can be quite inspiring for the young. And stories set in parts of the world where life is so very different from theirs can be both educational and moving.

While many of these books are a few years old, the message remains relevant and meaningful for kids growing up in today's increasingly global world.

Four Feet, Two Sandals
by Karen Lynn Williams & Khadra Mohammed
illustrated by Doug Chayka

Relief workers bring in used clothing and shoes to a refugee camp. Everyone scrambles to get what they need. Ten-year-old Lina is thrilled to find a perfect sandal. However, she is a bit upset when she finds another girl holding the other matching sandal.

Soon Lina befriends the other girl, Feroza, and they decide to take turns to use the pair of sandals.

Warm colors and double page spreads bring the terrain closer to the readers, while the words portray the hope and courage and strength of the refugees around the world who live in constant uncertainty and fear.

Teacher's Guide

[image source: Author Karen Lynn Williams website]

Razia's Ray of Hope
One Gir's Dream of an Education
by Elizabeth Suneby
illustrated by Suana Verelst

Razia Jan, born in Afghanistan, moved to the US when she was a young woman. She worked as a tailor and raised her kid in a small town in MA. When Razia felt the need to connect people from her new home in America with people in Afghanistan, especially after Sept 11, 2001, she looked for ways to make a difference.

She finally left US and went back to Afghanistan where she felt she can make a difference by educating the girls there who are usually sidelined and subjugated. She started the Zabuli Center for Girls in the middle of seven villages that never had a girls' school before.

Gorgeous illustrations transport the reader to the culture and country, while the carefully chosen words explain the complicated nature of relationships and priorities for families in that part of the world. Glossary introduces us to Dari words.

[image source: Author Elizabeth Suneby website]

Malala Yousafzai
Warrior with Words
by Karen Leggett Abouraya
illustrated by L.C.Wheatley

Winner of Nobel Peace prize 2014, Malala is not an unknown figure today. Her belief that every child has a right to education has inspired many children and adults around the world including governments and policy-makers.

To think that a simple act of going to school can be dangerous in some parts of the world was rather unbelievable for my kids when we read this story. And that she would be shot in the head while riding a bus with other kids was even scarier.

The book is a kid-friendly story of her life so far and how she started the Malala Fund to give girls hope for a better life through education. Malala's courage and determination shines through the story.

[image source:]

Emmanuel's Dream
The True Story of Emmanuel Ofosu Yeboah
by Laurie Ann Thompson
illustrated by Sean Qualls

In Ghana, West Africa, a baby boy was born:
Two bright eyes blinked in the light,
two tiny fists opened and closed,
but only one strong leg kicked.

Born with only one strong leg, Emmanuel Ofosu Yeboah did not let his disability define him. He cycled an incredible 400 miles across Ghana to spread his message: disability does not mean inability.

After his mom died, Emmanuel came up with a plan. He wrote to the Challenged Athletes Foundation in San Diego, CA, who sent him bike, plus helmet, shorts, socks, and gloves! He went door to door for further support and hired a taxi to follow him with water; he got a camera and had his friends make the video.

Through bustling Accra, over rolling hills, through rain forests and across wide muddy rivers he pedaled on for 10 days, wearing the colors of his country and a shirt printed with the words "The Pozo" or "the disabled person."

He didn't stop there, though. His continued efforts and activism inspired the Ghanian Parliament to pass the Persons with Disability Act which ensures equal rights for all the citizens, disabled or not.

[image source: Author Laurie Thompson website]

One Plastic Bag
Isatou Ceesay and the Recycling Women of the Gambia
by Miranda Paul
illustrated by Elizabeth Zunon

In Njau, Gambia, people simply started trashing the plastic bags, dropping them where they please and going about their way, not paying any heed to the environmental impact of their action. Bags accumulated in ugly heaps, catching water and breeding mosquitoes, strangling gardens and suffocating livestock.

Isatou Cessay could not sit by and watch this. She decided to do something about it. She collected these discarded plastic bags, recycled them into beautiful utilitarian purses. Soon other women joined in and she showed them how to make purses, which they then sold for a fair dalasi. Soon, she had made enough money to buy a goat for their family.

One day the rubbish will be gone and my home will be beautiful, thinks Isatou...

[image source: Author Miranda Paul website]

One Hen
How One Small Loan made a Big Difference
by Katie Smith Milway
illustrated by Eugenie Fernandes

When kids ask how can one little thing make any difference, this is the story that can inspire them about how a small help can make a huge difference in someone's life.

Set in Ghana, the story is about how Kojo, a microentrepreneur, takes the small loan of one hen and ends up building a poultry farm. Based on a real person, Kwabena Darko, who changed his community and is helping others do the same, this is a story as much about perseverance and determination as it is about generosity and resourcefulness.

Beatrice's Goat by Page McBrier and Lori Lohstoeter is a similar story where Beatrice receives a goat, Mugisa, as a present, much like Heifer  Project International has been doing. Milk from the goat helps the poor family of six hope for a better life. And eventually, it even allows Beatrice to go to school as she dreamed., a non-profit empowers children to become social entrepreneurs to make a difference in the world.

[image source: One Hen Inc.,]

The Red Bicycle
The Extraordinary Story of One Ordinary Bicycle
by Jude Isabella
illustrated by Simone Shin

Bicycle can be the best mode of transportation in many parts of the world where unpaved roads and rough terrain discourage motorized transportation between remote villages. Bringing crops and goods to market is made easier with just pedal power.

When Leo in North America outgrows his bike, he wants it to be something more than just a pile of metal tossed in a junkyard. When he talks to his bike shop owner, he learns of an organization that collects used but good bicycles, fixes them up and sends them across the world to those who cannot afford one or have access to one but certainly need one for local transportation.

Thus begins the journey of "Big Red", Leo's bicylce, which ends up with Alisetta in Burkina Faso where she puts it to good use hauling goods to the market and watching over her family's sorghum field. When Big Red's spokes break and Alisetta knows not what to do with it, along comes Boukary who can fix anything. Can he squeeze yet another use out of Big Red? Of course!

Boukary attaches a trailer to the bicycle and it becomes a makeshift ambulance with a stretcher and belt for keeping patients safe when transporting them to the nearest clinic. Haridata loads the medical bags, water, blanket on La Grand Rouge as she calls the bike, and rides ready in case she runs into someone needing medical aid.

Back of the book has information section titled, What You Can Do To Help.

[image source: Author Jude Isabella website]

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Magnus Chase and the Gods of Asgard: The Sword of Summer

Magnus Chase and the Gods of Asgard: The Sword of Summer
by Rick Riordan

The typically snarky, devil-may-care attitude of boys jumping into the fray wasn't impressing my ten-going-on-fifteen year old daughter much. Why is there so much fighting, bloodshed? Why is everyone trying to destroy everyone else? And why are there these impossible quests that make no sense? Those were her questions.

So, I wasn't holding out much hope for her to devour Magnus Chase now at 10.

I, of course, *had* to read it. Not just because I adore the fatalistic Norse mythology too much and was curious about Riordan's take on it, but also because I wanted to be entangled in a well-spun yarn.

Exposition aside, the book flowed smoothly towards a common end: Reclaim Sumerbrander, Re-bind Fenris, Cast Surt back to Muspelheim, and thus postpone Ragnarok! All in a day's (week's?) work for a dead demigod -- son of Frey, nephew of Freya - elevated to the status of einherji, by mistake (i.e., Odin's design.)

The characters are diverse and colorful - from a deaf elf, Hearthstone, who has suffered much to gain rune magic, a fashion-conscious dwarf, Blitzen, a Muslim Valkyrie demigod daughter of Loki, Samantha al-Abbas; to the re-imagined slightly-gross and gassy, loud-mouthed Thor who rides a cart drawn by two goats, the book continues the theme of Percy Jackson by twisting our accepted notions of Norse mythology and noble characters. I liked that Sam and Magnus are not instantly attracted to each other to become love interests.

As always, my objection has been that the odds are stacked up disproportionately against our heroes in an effort to make their victory seem all the more meritorious. There is always the looming deus ex machina, which is unavoidable as the book is all about deus (dei) and their machinations.

On the one hand, we want more kids to enjoy reading for pleasure, therefore, be it graphic novel or grisly adolescent entertainment, we should embrace any and all such reading materials. However, I can't help but wonder if Magnus Chase books can do with a bit more of the sublime -- a smattering of veneration, and a little less of the flippant impertinence -- not just to mythology and life, but to the style of presentation as well.

Magnus Chase comes across as just another good kid who has suffered much pain, possessing certain super powers by birthright, learning to master them and use them for worthy purposes. He is witty, has a self-deprecating charmness about him, and has that stubborn streak of zero-self-preservation which lets him plunge to death if he believes that's the right thing to do.

There is plenty of gore and carnage which is mitigated by the fact that in (Hotel) Valhalla, they rise up again and do it all over again. Cousin Annabeth Chase makes an appearance at the beginning and the end, but, Book Two: The Hammer of Thor, promises to include her in a larger capacity. Epilogue leaves us speculating wildly about Loki's plans and Uncle Randolph's secrets.

[cover image: Rick Riordan website]

Friday, November 20, 2015

The Not Very Merry Pout-Pout Fish

The Not Very Merry Pout-Pout Fish
by Deborah Diesen
illustrated by Dan Hanna

published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux (BYR), Sept 2015

Ages 3-6

Ever since we first encountered Mr.Fish with his fish face stuck in a permanent pout, spreading  dreary-wearies all over the place, we've been a big fan.

The very first book, The Pout-Pout Fish, with its perfect beat and rhythm, is an all-time favorite for read-aloud sessions.

After The Pout-Pout Fish and the Big, Big Dark, and The Pout-Pout Fish Goes To School, plus a few other mini adventures, the duo is back with some holiday spirit in The Not Very Merry Pout-Pout Fish.

While it might be near-impossible to recreate the magic of the first book for authors in any genre, it is even tougher in picture books. But, Ms. Diesen and Mr. Hanna have worked very hard to capture the beauty of Mr. Fish's endearing nature yet again.

Mr. Fish makes his Gift list and is all set to go shopping for his friends. He wants to get the best and latest gifts with "bling-zing" as nothing less would do. When circumstances arrange themselves to frustrate and disappoint him regarding finding the very gifts "guaranteed to bring delight", Ms. Shimmer comes along and shows him that making gifts for friends "with his very own fins" is just the thing to do to spread the joys of the season.

The seven year old's favorite is Manta Claus, and his sleigh pulled by sea horses, of course. Little details tucked into each page provides hours of fun for the little ones to discover and giggle over. Although Mr. Fish's shopping dilemma may resonate more with adults than kids, the gentle reminder that hand-made holidays are what it is all about brings a sense of peace and calmness to the young readers.

View Inside the Book at US MacMillan

Learn More at

I am very happy to be part of the Blog Tour for The Very Merry Pout-Pout Fish and bring the interviews with the author and illustrator.

Interview with author, Ms. Diesen:

How did you come up with the original Pout-Pout fish book in 2008?

The story grew out of an actual pout!  One day many, many years ago, when my elder son was a preschooler, he was having a very grouchy afternoon.  Hoping to amuse him, I made an exaggerated pouty face at him.  He smiled and then pouted right back, which got us both laughing.  “We look like fish,” I said.  “Like pout-pout fish!”  As soon as I said that out loud, it became a story idea.  I jotted the idea down and I started writing The Pout-Pout Fish that same day.  Years later, I started sending the story to publishers, and in 2005 it was accepted at Farrar, Straus & Giroux Books for Young Readers.  The book was published in 2008 and began a series of stories, all featuring Mr. Fish, his friends, and their adventures. Since the first book, we’ve seen Mr. Fish go to school, learn to smile, face the dark, discover how to dream and play hide-and-seek.

What do kids (and their parents) love most about the series? 

I think one of the things that makes Mr. Fish an appealing character for many kids and parents is that kids and parents alike can identify with his experiences.  Toddlers sometimes pout; so do adults!  Preschoolers have things they’re scared of; so do adults!  Kindergartners get nervous about starting something new; so do adults!  Mr. Fish’s experiences provide a way for kids and grown-ups to explore those issues together.  In addition, the stories have rhyme, repetition, and wordplay, which are fun in a read-aloud book.  And Dan Hanna’s illustrations!  They’re fantastic.  They truly bring the stories to life.

What is Mr. Fish up to now? Does he have a case of the “dreary wearies” in the latest book, too?

Mr. Fish’s newest adventure is called The Not Very Merry Pout-Pout Fish.  In it, Mr. Fish is in a bit of a holiday panic, searching for perfect gifts for all of his friends.  His shopping trip is unsuccessful, and Mr. Fish is sure that he’s let all of his friends down.  But his friend Miss Shimmer reminds him that the best gifts of all come straight from the heart, and she helps him craft simple and meaningful presents to bring to the holiday party.  His friends are delighted with their presents, and together everyone celebrates peace, joy, and love – what a very merry gift!

What do you hope young readers (ages 3-6) will learn from The Not Very Merry Pout-Pout Fish? Is there a message here for grown-ups as well? 

I hope that Mr. Fish’s latest tale will help children to realize that presents don’t need to be expensive or complicated or splashy.  Simple, heartfelt presents that connect us to one another are the best gifts of all.  A drawing; a craft project; time spent together; even just a smile!  These sorts of gifts are the most cherished and the most enduring.  It’s a lesson we grown-ups have to re-learn periodically as well.

Do you have any tips for parents of toddlers about the joy of giving presents, rather than just receiving them, this holiday season? 

Kids love to give presents, and they especially love having an active role in the process of creating the presents.  Try a craft idea or project that’s extremely simple and stress-free, and then let your child have at it with a minimum of help.  The more messy, lopsided, and imperfect the results the better!  Have fun with the process, and as you do you’ll create not just gifts but memories as well.

How do you and the illustrator, Dan Hanna, work together on the books? (Are there any special stories about the illustrations on Not-Very-Merry that you can share?) 

I absolutely adore Dan’s art, and I credit it as the reason for the success of the series.  We work independently of one another during the creation of the books.  I work with our editor on the stories; then, when a story is finished and ready, she passes it along to Dan.  Dan moves through the art creation process, from sketches to finished product, working with our editor and with the art director.  I do see some of the steps along the way, but during the illustration process the author’s most important task is to stay out of the way!  And that’s for the best, because it allows the artist to bring the story to life in the way only an artist can.  Dan brings a thousand times more to the illustrations than I could ever begin to imagine – the characters and their expressions; the settings and their details; and all the funny and quirky extras.  For instance, in The Not Very Merry Pout-Pout Fish, one of the spreads shows a store full of what I describe in the text as shiny trinkets and handy gadgets.  Dan took that description and brought it alive by imagining, drawing, and labeling shelf after shelf in the gift shop with hilarious and unique sea gifts.  His creativity is amazing.  I feel very grateful and happy to get to make books with Dan!

Any future plans for Mr. Fish? What adventures can we expect to see him in next? 

Mr. Fish has a new mini-adventure coming out later this year called Kiss-Kiss, Pout-Pout Fish.  This mini-adventure, like the previous mini-adventures Smile, Pout-Pout Fish and Sweet Dreams, Pout-Pout Fish, is a very short board book with just a few words per page, meant for babies and young toddlers. In spring 2016, there will be a touch-and-feel alphabet book and a sticker book.  Another mini-adventure, called Trick or Treat, Pout-Pout Fish, will arrive later in 2016.  And in 2017, Mr. Fish will be in a new full-length hardcover called The Pout-Pout Fish, Far, Far From Home.  He stays pretty busy these days!  But he’s enjoying all of his adventures. As am I!

Interview with illustrator, Mr. Hanna:

How long have you been illustrating the Pout-Pout Fish books? What inspired your depiction of the main character, Mr. Fish?

I started illustrating the first book in early 2007 and so it's been about 8 or 9 years now.  About 15 years ago I was scuba diving in Fiji.  There was a huge rusting hulk of a shipwreck about 80 feet down.  At the end of a pole extending above the deck was a small metal basket.  Resting in that basket was a pudgy fish about the size of my fist.  I swam up and looked right into his eyes and he looked right back with a deep, gloomy frown.  Years later, when I received the manuscript for The Pout-Pout Fish, that memory bubbled up.  I realized, at that moment, that Mr. Fish was an actual fish, living on the other side of the world, 80 feet down on a shipwreck.

When there’s a new Pout-Pout story to illustrate, how do you collaborate with author Deborah Diesen?

It may seem odd but I don't communicate with Debbie regarding the illustrations.  I work with are the Editor (Janine O'Malley) and Art Director (Roberta Pressel).  When I initially receive a manuscript I'm given complete freedom to break it down into pages and to illustrate it however I think best.  After I complete the first dummy (a mock-up of the book) I send it to Janine and Roberta.  That begins a long series of feedback and changes until we get to a version that we're all happy with.  At that point I begin the final art that will eventually be delivered to make the book.

What has been your favorite Pout-Pout book to illustrate? Why?

The first book!  Nothing can compare to getting your first book published.  Its success paved the way for all the others.  The original book was the first for both Debbie and me and that made it extra special.Usually a publisher will team up a first timer with someone who has experience.  Fortunately, FSG took achance on two rookies.

What medium do you use to make the illustrations? What’s your favorite to work with? Tell us about your creative process.

I use the PPPPP approach: Paper, Pencils, Pens, Paint and Photoshop. My favorite is just pencil and paper.  When I start a new book I like to visit a variety of coffee shops in my area.  I let my caffeinated mind roam, scribbling out ideas and laughing to myself.  If a sketch doesn't make me laugh then it usually doesn't make the cut.

What illustration in The Not Very Merry Pout-Pout Fish did you have the most fun creating?

I especially like the one where Mr. Fish imagines giving Ms. Clam the robot body.  She just looks so happy and empowered. The items in the shop and the gifts Mr. Fish imagines in this story are so detailed and quirky.

How did you come up with them? Did you have a specific inspiration?

For the imagined gifts, I drew on my own experience as a kid where I would dream up magnificent presents for my family and friends.  Eventually, as with Mr. Fish, I would have to confront reality and drastically scale back my plans. The shop items are based on all the goofy stuff you can find on the shelves of some of the more interesting gift shops.

Of all the items that the Pout-Pout fish dreams up (robot, spaceship, submarine etc.), which one would you love to get this Christmas?

The Submarine!  When I was a kid there was an ad in the back of a comic book for a submarine.  The ad went something like this:
"Delux Submarine!  Life Size!  Torpedo Tubes!  Absolutely NO Cardboard Parts!  Only $10!! I saved up the money and sent away for it.   As I waited for it to be delivered my dreams were filled with visions of underwater adventure.  Eventually it arrived and sank my dreams into the abyss.  It was just a cardboard box with torpedo tubes made from toilet roll tubes.  It was even more depressing than the SeaMonkeys and X-Ray Glasses.

What do you think was your most valuable childhood experience?

Being bored.  I firmly believe that having enough free time to sit around and be bored is very important for the development of a healthy imagination. What kinds of things inspire you to work?I'm primarily motivated by death.  When I contemplate my eventual demise it scares me into action.  Although what really gets me going — is death and a cup of coffee.

What do you want the students to get out of your school visits?

That being a writer or illustrator is like being a wizard.  Your magic wand is a pencil.  Your potions are words and scribbles.  And the spells you cast will be the stories you write and the pictures you draw.  So pick up a pencil and make some magic happen!

Do you enjoy researching or do you prefer working totally from your imagination?

Initially I let my imagination run wild.  Then I knock it out with a tranquilizer dart while I do some research.  Finally, my groggy imagination re-awakes, snarls angrily and then runs wild again.  I've found that this approach works best for me.

Do you have any advice for aspiring picture book illustrators?

Buy one thousand parrots and place them in a room with a looped recording saying something like: "Dan Hanna can sure draw fish!" Then release the parrots, using a helicopter, over each of the major publishing houses. When the editors leave for lunch they'll hear the parrots in the trees screeching "Aaaaccck, Dan Hanna can sure draw fish!" Now I know this scheme seems rather elaborate, but it worked for me.

How did it feel to have your first book (and author Deborah Diesen's first book) become so successful?

It feels like a hot air balloon ride.  But not like one of those rides where the basket catches on fire or the balloon hits a power line or something.

What do you think will be the ultimate fate of your work?

Five billion years from now, when our sun has blown up and the Earth is a smoldering chunk of charcoal, humanity will hopefully have escaped to another planet.  Perhaps, packed away in one of the zillions of moving boxes will be an old, dusty copy of "The Pout-Pout Fish".  Maybe then, some remnant of my wandering soul will smile as a genetically enhanced child stumbles across it and cracks open its ancient spine.

[Disclosure: I received a review copy of the book, but the opinions expressed here are entirely my own.]

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Farewell CROCUS 2015

And already it is time to wrap up this year's CROCUS which was devoted to  Comics and Graphic Novels!

With over 30 reviews and many of them of book series or clusters, we are sure you will be spoilt for choice.

The subject of the graphic novels were varied- you saw books ranging from Girl power (Roller Girl, & Rapunzel) to the giggle-worthy Monster on the Hill, Bird & Squirrel, plus Owly series, from Shakespeare ( Macbeth) to the gorgeously illustrated works of Raymond Briggs, from Primates & Darwin to the Holocaust and much much more. You will find something for every reader's taste.

CROCUS has the ST team working to bring you these treasures in a cohesive, timely manner. Sheela was truly the guiding force behind this year's initiative and she prodded us gently to meet timelines, smoothed out doubts, ensured all was in order, in conjunction with Praba.  Besides doing that, they also contributed a lot of reviews.

Lavanya's flyer is always exciting and this one was no exception. Kapow! it made a strong impact. 
Satish with his quirky comic rendering of the reason behind the theme choice, also is an ardent fan of the genre. Both brought us a lot of reviews, not just now but also in the past at ST.

Sandhya's Down memory lane post had us reaching for our favourite Phantom or Asterix comics again.

Madmomma, Ranjani and Choxbox, brought us a well curated and inviting set of books.

The guest post by Vinitha Ramchandani was truly educative and  Arundathi's interview with Nicki Greenberg from Australia and Praba's chat with Sayan Mukherjee were delightfully insightful.

If you have not had your fill of graphic novels, here is a list of some of the lovely collection of graphic novels reviewed at Saffron Tree over the years, the first as early as 2008.

Mara and the Clay Cows

Nirmala and Normala

Prehistoric Life: Cave Kids!

Comics loved at Sathish's home

Hereville How Mirka Got Her Sword

Muhammad Ali: King of teh Ring

Charles Dickens for Children

The Secret Science Alliance

Into the Volcano


The Arrival

You will see Indian publishers such as Tulika and Penguin,Walker and Scholastic, all have great offerings on themes as classic as Dickens to as contemporary as Science Club Adventures. Sathish and Wordjunkie remain the top contributors to this genre reflecting their passion and love for it. And can Sheela & Sandhya, our most regular reviewers, not have contributed?

Soak in and read these books. We will ensure we keep bringing you interesting books, do leave us a comment to let us know what you think once you have read them or just that you are reading our reviews!

Sayan Mukherjee on Graphic novels

Graphic illustrator and artist, Sayan Mukherjee has illustrated the graphic novel adaptation of the Bengali classic, Chandar Pahar, Moon mountain by Bibhutibhushan Bandhopadhyay, which has won several awards.
A graduate of the Indian Art College, Kolkata, Sayan Mukherjee is a young advertising professional, passionate about illustration. Hey! That's an A! is his first picture book. He has also illustrated Little i and The Talking Bird.

We are pleased to have him in our midst as we wrap up our annual book blog festival CROCUS, as he shares his views on the medium of graphic novels and his delightful drawings. Thank you, Sayan!


I think graphic novel as a medium is nothing new. Since the days of paleolithic age, people used to create pictures to tell stories. The hieroglyphics of the ancient Egyptians is one of the great examples of the existence of graphic storytelling. Over the years, this medium being very strong and powerful visual medium became very much interactive and much more fun to read.

Today there are a lot of artists who are doing amazing work with interesting stories and different mediums. I would love to talk about two graphic novelists' work, Thomas Ott and Art Speigelman amongst many other favourites. Both of their most known works are in black and white but they are way different from each other. Thomas Ott is more into surreal and horror space and uses the traditional form of storytelling, which is storytelling without words. He uses the space in such an interesting way where it says a lot more than words. Whereas, Art's work is more of a documentary with small busy frames and lots of texts.The diversity makes graphic novel more interesting and is a lot of fun to read.

There is no way one can ignore graphic novel as a genre.I think graphic artists create that extra dimension and layer to a particular story which is a lot more than just a story and take it to another level where you start interacting with the frames and become a part of it.

I think workshops should be conducted for kids to make their own comics. Kids love pictures and they have a lot of stories to tell. Comics is a medium where they can express their thoughts through pictures. So, I think comics is not only a medium which is fun to read but also a medium where kids can express their creativity and their stories.

When I was a kid I used to read a bengali novel called Chaander Pahaar ( Moon mountain) very often. It used to blow my mind every time I read it. Everything was so graphic and picturesque about the story that it was demanding to be adapted as a graphic novel. After growing up, I thought it would be a nice idea to start work on it. After a lot of hard work, finally the graphic novel came out from Puffin in 2014. It was a 'dream come true' moment for me. The book was very close to my heart since my childhood days and it was a dream which came true, eventually.

Owly by Andy Rutton

Written and Illustrated by Andy Rutton
Published by Simon & Schuster

In Owly, wordless panels of pictures silently tell a delightful story of friendship between an owl and a worm.
Owly, an apparently flightless and rotund little owl, longs for friends. Sadly for Owly, the other birds are not quite friendly to him. But thanks to his nurturing and kind side, Owly holds up strong as he rescues Wormy. As the two new friends set off find Wormy's parents, they also learn to say goodbyes when they meet some humming birds.

The artwork in this black-and-white graphic novel is expressively rendered, particularly the loneliness and longingness for friendship as shown through Owly's large eyes. A smattering of anthropomorphic elements, (the fully furnished tree house for example) add to the charm, while retaining a sense of natural world.

Owly paved the way for us to discover graphic novel as a genre. I accidentally bumped into the book at our local library when my older one was about eight.Owly comes in a six part series and are appropriate for an early or pre-reader. Older children might find it a fast and fun read as well.

Owly is as truly authentic as it can be with no frilly and unnecessary distracting elements. A neat little appetizer bundled with a lot of heart, perfect for the graphic-novel-hungry kid who is just starting out exploring the genre.

Bugsy Malone: The graphic novel of the iconic mobster movie - Alan Parker

Bugsy Malone Graphic Novel
by Alan Parker

Bugsy Malone is not every parent's cup of tea. A comic book based on a musical about gangsters, the roles performed by children, it has all the makings of inappropriate, but it got a G rating. In our politically correct times, this book might not be acceptable to every parent, but I dislike censoring what kids read, so here goes.

Personally I think of gangster noir as an education and just a different kind of culture - just as I wouldn't think twice about letting them read a slice of history that included jouhar or sati. What's a childhood without some introduction to crime, I say! Just kidding.

Getting back to the tale - it's a speakeasy in downtown New York - good luck with explaining what a speakeasy is to the kids. Mine quite enjoyed the entire secrecy surrounding it and the password needed to enter. On one side you have Fat Sam and gang, on the other, Dandy Dan and his mobsters. Blousey Brown is a starlet hoping for a break while our man Bugsy Malone, is the star.

The content stays fairly child-friendly, with insults ranging from knucklehead to dope. Even the guns they shoot, go splat, instead of killing. A gang war involves a pie fight.

While there is plenty a child will not understand about gang wars and their motivations, it is on the whole, a fun read. The panels are constantly changing and action packed, giving it almost a film-like pace. The art work is fantastic and very reminiscent of the 70s. Unfortunately they've chosen to give them a washed out retro feel.

The Bean at eight had trouble following the panels at time for their slightly haphazard arrangement. The Brat on the other hand, at ten was a lot more interested simply for it's unusual content. This one is a classic that I hope they will come back to over the years.

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