Wednesday, December 11, 2019

Review - Snowy Farm

Snowy Farm
by Calvin Shaw
illustrated by Oamul Lu
Date: 2019
Publisher: Simon & Schuster/Paula Wiseman Books
Reading level: C
Book type: picture book
Pages: 32
Format: e-book
Source: library

A magical and lyrical fantasy about a family of farmers who live in a shimmering, frosty house in a snowy white world, where warmth of each other is all they need to be cozy and happy.

There’s a snowy white windmill
on a snowy white farm
with a frosty old house
and a snow covered barn.


And so begins this enchanting story of a family in a frozen land whose quiet and simple way of family life is all they need. This fantastical picture book from debut author Calvin Shaw and internationally renowned illustrator Oamul Lu is sure to warm hearts and become a perennial family favorite.

(synopsis from Goodreads)

I'm sorry, but this is just stupid. I'm losing patience with some children's books these days. In this case, the ridiculous premise is made worse by not including the author's note at the beginning, leading to the impression that this is culturally appropriative and grossly inaccurate... when it's really just weak fantasy.

The problem is that this is--according to the author's note--an imagined idea of what it might look like for a family to live in Antarctica. But then the people are drawn in a way that makes them look like they're Inuit... and it all goes downhill from there as they're shown harvesting snow apples, feeding snow carrots to their animals, raising chickens (who wear earmuffs), and making snow angels with the goat. But they're also shown building structures out of snow blocks and eating locally caught fish. It's impossible to tell what's real and what's imagined. The Dutch-style windmill on the first page was the first big clue that something was amiss, but some of the other details were realistic, making it difficult to sort out what was real. (I'm also not a fan of the mother being the cook for the family and the father doing the farm work. If this is fantasy, why are rigid gender stereotypes still enforced here?)

I do not like the pictures, either. They're too rough for my taste. And I just don't get all the animals wearing human accessories. Why would you bring animals from a temperate climate if you're going to go live in the coldest place on earth? (It could've gone full-on fantasy and had the family raising penguins instead of chickens and using reindeer instead of horses. You know, cold-climate creatures to go with the cold climate. At least then it would've made more sense.)

This was a total miss for me. It either needed to be more reality-based or more clearly fantasy. This is too realistic, and it's going to be confusing for some readers... especially since they won't encounter the author's note until after they've already read this head-scratcher.

Premise: 1/5
Meter: 3/5
Writing: 2/5
Illustrations: 2/5
Originality: 2/5

Enjoyment: 1/5

Overall: 1.71 out of 5

Tuesday, December 10, 2019

Review - Bird Brain (DNF)

Bird Brain: Comics About Mental Health, Starring Pigeons
by Chuck Mullin
Date: 2019
Publisher: Andrews McMeel Publishing
Reading level: A
Book type: comic collection
Pages: 144
Format: e-book
Source: NetGalley

Bird Brain is a collection of brutally honest, brilliantly weird comics exploring what it’s like to live with mental illness... using pigeons.

When Chuck Mullin began experiencing anxiety and depression as a teenager, she started drawing comics to help her make sense of the rollercoaster. Eventually, she found that pigeons—lovably quirky, yet universally reviled creatures—were the ideal subjects of a comic about mental illness. Organized in three sections—"Bad Times," "Relationships," and "Positivity"—and featuring several short essays about the author’s experiences, Bird Brain is a highly relatable, chuckle-inducing, and ultimately uplifting collection of comics for anyone who has struggled to maintain their mental health.

(synopsis from Goodreads)

DNF @ 54%

It's tricky when you're reviewing something so personal. But I couldn't finish this one, and I feel I should mention the reasons why, since it might save someone else an unpleasant experience.

Let me start by saying I have no problem with the premise or the intent behind these comics, at least individually. It's brave for anyone to share their mental health struggles with a bunch of perfect strangers. No, my problem is not so much the subject matter. In the case of this book, it's a quality versus quantity issue... and the quantity is what's causing the problem.

If I'd come across these as web comics, encountering them one at a time, I might have liked them more. The problem, as I see it, comes when they're all put into one place. It leads to overwhelm (especially for those who might be suffering from mental health issues themselves). I felt the same way about The Grumpy Guide to Life, which was a book that collected a bunch of Grumpy Cat memes. One or two are amusing. A whole book of them leaves you feeling like you hate humanity. Bird Brain suffers from the same problem; where one comic might have seemed insightful and witty, a whole bunch of them together feels like the book is starting to beat the reader over the head. I had issues with the "Bad Times" section, because all of those comics about the pigeon getting overwhelmed at parties just left me scratching my head and wondering why the pigeon didn't just stop going to parties if they were that torturous. But it was the "Relationships" section that really put the nail in the coffin for me. One or two comics about relationship insecurities and a great partner would've been fine. Comic after comic about how supportive and perfect the pigeon's partner is comes across as a bit tone deaf (many people with severe mental health issues don't have a partner, and it kind of rubs salt in the wound to see this point belaboured the way it is). I don't think it was the intent, but this section comes across as a little braggy; I don't think I would've felt the same way had I encountered the comics one at a time in some other format.

I'm also not a fan of the huge chunks of explanatory text (I thought I was getting a collection of comics, not a prose memoir) or the way the author generalizes mental illness as if all conditions are the same. You don't see people trying to compare a broken finger to colon cancer, even though they're both physical ailments... so I don't appreciate having all mental illness lumped together, either.

The pigeons are amusingly drawn and, like I said, I might have liked these better if I'd encountered them one at a time. In a collection, it's all just too much. Sometimes comics work better in a serial format; not every comic needs to be collected into a book.

Thank you to NetGalley and Andrews McMeel Publishing for providing a digital ARC.

Review - The Lorax

The Lorax
by Dr. Seuss
Date: 1971
Publisher: Random House Books for Young Readers
Reading level: C
Book type: picture book
Pages: 72
Format: e-book
Source: library

Long before "going green" was mainstream, Dr. Seuss's Lorax spoke for the trees and warned of the dangers of disrespecting the environment. In this cautionary rhyming tale, we learn of the Once-ler, who came across a valley of Truffula Trees and Brown Bar-ba-loots ("frisking about in their Bar-ba-loot suits as they played in the shade and ate Truffula Fruits"), and how his harvesting of the tufted trees changed the landscape forever. With the release of the blockbuster film version, the Lorax and his classic tale have educated a new generation of young readers not only about the importance of seeing the beauty in the world around us, but also about our responsibility to protect it.

(synopsis from Goodreads)

I didn't think I'd read this one, but as I turned the pages, the memories started to come back to me. It was the Brown Bar-ba-loots that stuck in my head for some reason...

In any case, this is a rather modern-sounding tale about conservation. It's just as appropriate for today's audiences as it would have been when it was first published. The Lorax contains a story within a story told by a mysterious character called the Once-ler, who tells of a time when Truffula Trees grew plentiful, supplying the Brown Bar-ba-loots with shade and food. But the Once-ler figures out that he can knit with the tufts of the Truffula Trees, and this spells the end of the natural paradise. A creature called the Lorax, who speaks for the trees, warns the Once-ler that he's doing harm... but the Once-ler cares only about money.

I found the writing in this a bit iffy, and the meter isn't as strong as it is in some of Dr. Seuss's other books. Still, the message is important enough that I'm willing to overlook some of these issues.

The story ends with a bit of hope, but the depiction of what happens from unchecked industry and greed is bleak. It's definitely a timely tale, and one that is perfectly appropriate--necessary, even--for today's kids.

Quotable moment:


Premise: 4/5
Meter: 3/5
Writing: 3/5
Illustrations: 4/5
Originality: 4/5

Enjoyment: 4/5

Overall: 3.71 out of 5

Review - How the Grinch Stole Christmas

How the Grinch Stole Christmas
by Dr. Seuss
Date: 1957
Publisher: Random House Books for Young Readers
Reading level: C
Book type: picture book
Pages: 64
Format: e-book
Source: library

"The Grinch hated Christmas! The whole Christmas season!
Now, please don't ask why. No one quite knows the reason."


Dr. Seuss's small-hearted Grinch ranks right up there with Scrooge when it comes to the crankiest, scowling holiday grumps of all time. For 53 years, the Grinch has lived in a cave on the side of a mountain, looming above the Whos in Whoville. The noisy holiday preparations and infernal singing of the happy little citizens below annoy him to no end. The Grinch decides this frivolous merriment must stop. His "wonderful, awful" idea is to don a Santa outfit, strap heavy antlers on his poor, quivering dog Max, construct a makeshift sleigh, head down to Whoville, and strip the chafingly cheerful Whos of their Yuletide glee once and for all.

Looking quite out of place and very disturbing in his makeshift Santa get-up, the Grinch slithers down chimneys with empty bags and stealing the Whos' presents, their food, even the logs from their humble Who-fires. He takes the ramshackle sleigh to Mt. Crumpit to dump it and waits to hear the sobs of the Whos when they wake up and discover the trappings of Christmas have disappeared. Imagine the Whos' dismay when they discover the evil-doings of Grinch in his anti-Santa guise. But what is that sound? It's not sobbing, but singing! Children simultaneously adore and fear this triumphant, twisted Seussian testimonial to the undaunted cheerfulness of the Whos, the transcendent nature of joy, and of course, the growth potential of a heart that's two sizes too small.

This holiday classic is perfect for reading aloud to your favorite little Whos.

(synopsis from Goodreads)

When a book is this old and this popular, many people are bound to have memories tied to it. For me, this book takes me back to high school. It was a tradition while I was there that one of the English teachers--an elderly gentleman with an actual English accent--would read this book at an assembly just before the start of Christmas break. To this day, I still think it's one of the neatest things ever: imagine hundreds of jaded teenagers sitting there, absolutely silent and rapt, listening to a teacher read a children's picture book. Nobody was "too cool" to listen and nobody made fun of anyone else for enjoying it.

I hadn't actually read the book myself (not that I could remember, anyway), so I figured I should give it a try. I couldn't get it last year before Christmas, so I waited. I'm glad I finally got a chance to read it for myself.

What can you really say about this one? It's a classic, with a message that's more timely than ever before. The illustrations are kind of goofy, and Dr. Seuss has an annoying habit of making characters grin their speech (et tu, Dr. Seuss?), but I can forgive those things because the book has so much else going for it: fun characters, a strong message, and the wonderful rhyming text that just begs to be read aloud.

I can definitely see why this book has stood the test of time. Kids might be more familiar with the animated special or the movies... but I would also recommend going straight to the source and introducing them to the book. It's a wonderful Christmas story that will probably be enjoyed for generations to come.

Quotable moment:


Premise: 4/5
Meter: 4/5
Writing: 3/5
Illustrations: 3/5
Originality: 4/5

Enjoyment: 5/5

Overall: 4 out of 5

Monday, December 9, 2019

Review - Salma the Syrian Chef

Salma the Syrian Chef
by Danny Ramadan
illustrated by Anna Bron
Date: 2020
Publisher: Annick Press
Reading level: C
Book type: picture book
Pages: 40
Format: e-book
Source: NetGalley

All Salma wants is to make her mama smile again. Between English classes, job interviews, and missing Papa back in Syria, Mama always seems busy or sad. A homemade Syrian meal might cheer her up, but Salma doesn’t know the recipe, or what to call the vegetables in English, or where to find the right spices! Luckily, the staff and other newcomers at the Welcome Center are happy to lend a hand—and a sprinkle of sumac.

With creativity, determination, and charm, Salma brings her new friends together to show Mama that even though things aren’t perfect, there is cause for hope and celebration. Syrian culture is beautifully represented through the meal Salma prepares and Anna Bron’s vibrant illustrations, while the diverse cast of characters speaks to the power of cultivating community in challenging circumstances.

(synopsis from Goodreads)

Salma the Syrian Chef is a sweet story about the immigrant experience.

Salma and her mother live temporarily in the Welcome Center in Vancouver with a number of other immigrants. Salma is trying to adjust to her new life, but she's aware that her mother is busy and distracted. In fact, it's been a long time since Salma has heard her mother laugh. She thinks that if she can bring a little taste of home to Canada, it might help... so she sets out to make foul shami. Not knowing the language makes it tricky, but she succeeds in finding most of the ingredients. Things go well until a series of mishaps threaten the dish, and Salma wonders if her mother will ever laugh again.

I always like to see a book that's set locally, and this one has the added bonus of focusing on a subject that's current and timely. The struggles of the newcomers--especially in learning English--are highlighted, but with an undercurrent of patience and hope. Salma and her mother already have a great network of new friends who understand each other's emotions because they're all going through something similar.

The illustrations are quite cute. They have an almost retro-animation sort of style, complemented by geometric ornaments and patterns. The pictures work really well with the story.

Overall, this is a strong book about the emotional side of a child immigrant's experience. I enjoyed getting to know Salma and her friends... and learning a little bit about Syrian cooking.

Thank you to NetGalley and Annick Press for providing a digital ARC.

Premise: 4/5
Meter: n/a
Writing: 3/5
Illustrations: 4/5
Originality: 4/5

Enjoyment: 4/5

Overall: 3.83 out of 5

Review - Krit Dreams of Dragon Fruit

Krit Dreams of Dragon Fruit
by Natalie Becher & Emily France
illustrated by Samantha Woo
Date: 2020
Publisher: Bala Kids
Reading level: C
Book type: picture book
Pages: 40
Format: e-book
Source: NetGalley

A beautifully illustrated, Zen-inspired picture book for children ages 4-8 about moving to a new home, making friends, and finding beauty wherever you are.

Krit and his dog, Mu, love their beautiful home in Thailand--full of golden temples, colorful mountainsides, and endless adventures. Everything seems perfect until Krit's mother announces they will be moving to the frigid city of Chicago. At first, Krit tries to adjust to this unfamiliar place, but he can't do any of the things he used to love. Missing Thailand, Krit asks his mother to tell him a story about home. But instead of a story, she gives Krit a koan--a Zen riddle--to puzzle through. Krit wonders what the story about a blade of grass and Buddha's smile have to do with home, but in solving the puzzle, Krit meets a new friend and learns that home is wherever he makes it.

(synopsis from Goodreads)

Krit Dreams of Dragon Fruit is a story about the immigrant experience and finding home wherever you go.

I like the overall premise. Unfortunately, in this case, it seems subtly appropriative. The authors' note at the end further muddies the issue and makes me wonder about the motivation for using a Thai boy as a main character. There's a huge difference between a child being dragged across the globe by his parents to an unfamiliar city and an affluent adult making their own decisions about where they want to go.

The writing is mediocre. A glaring dangling participle tripped me up early on. There's also evidence that writers today don't know how to properly use quotation marks when dealing with paragraph breaks. (I'm not picking on these two specifically; I'm seeing this more in recent years in various picture books.) The illustrations are okay, but I found them a little flat. I wanted to feel the way about Thailand that Krit did... but the pictures didn't really help get me to that emotional place.

Overall, this is okay in that it sort of introduces Buddhist concepts to kids. However, I question the use of a Thai main character. The use of that ethnicity sends the message (inadvertently or not) that Western kids can't be Buddhist. (A little digging shows me that Natalie Becher was born and raised in Thailand. Why on earth is this not mentioned anywhere? It would go a long way to making the book look less like it's trying to capitalize on someone else's culture.)

Thank you to NetGalley and Bala Kids for providing a digital ARC.

Premise: 3/5
Meter: n/a
Writing: 3/5
Illustrations: 3/5
Originality: 2/5

Enjoyment: 2/5

Overall: 2.5 out of 5

Sunday, December 8, 2019

Review - Dyno Dinosaur Family Christmas Adventures

Dyno Dinosaur Family Christmas Adventures
by Sharida McKenzie
illustrated by Tatiana Minina
Date: 2018
Publisher: Sharida McKenzie
Reading level: C
Book type: picture book
Pages: 46
Format: e-book
Source: Amazon.ca

Let your child’s imagination run wild in this immersive and delightful collection of Christmas short story picture books starring the Dyno Dinosaur Family! Experience the Christmas spirit with the Dyno family as they laugh, play and celebrate together all while helping Santa and Mrs. Claus prepare presents for all the little girls and boys. The stories and illustrations magnificently capture the warmth and magic of the holidays. The dinosaur lover in your family will treasure this creative twist on Christmas! Perfect for kids ages 0-6.

Titles include:
1. Santa and the Flying Dinosaurs
2. Dyno Kids Visit Santa’s Workshop
3. Decorating the Christmas Tree with the Dyno Family
4. Dyno Family Snow Day

(synopsis from Goodreads)

To be fair, I'm not the audience for this. I'm not a kid aged 0-6, nor do I have a kid aged 0-6. So maybe it's because of this that I didn't find a lot to love in this storybook. There are four short "stories" in here, but they're basically little plotless scenes with dinosaurs doing Christmas stuff. The writing is uneven (who needs consistent punctuation?) and the meter is really clunky in places.

But the illustrations kind of saved this one for me. I'm not entirely sure why it's snowing indoors in the middle two stories, but the rest of the pictures are pretty cute... especially in "Dyno Family Snow Day". I love the dinosaur kids in their onesie pajamas! That alone is worth checking out.

I wish there had been more plot to these "stories", because the concept of these anthropomorphized dinosaurs is really cute. The illustrations are quite strong, but they need a stronger narrative to really make them shine.

Premise: 2/5
Meter: 2/5
Writing: 2/5
Illustrations: 4/5
Originality: 3/5

Enjoyment: 3/5

Overall: 2.71 out of 5