Tag Archives: picture book spotlight

Picture Book Spotlight: Inside My Hat

Inside My Hat by Theodore Clymer
Published: Ginn and Company, 1982
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It’s another Theodore Clymer early reader! Inside My Hat alternates photographic and illustrated stories to teach new words with similar ending elements like “-ick” and “-ain.” The theme this time is wheels, which has nothing to do with hats. The featured story is “The Trick Race,” illustrated by black New York artist Reynolds Ruffins.

It’s a beautiful series of pages with sharp outlines and psychedelic colors in a desert environment that screams 1982. But this is a Clymer book, so we know who we really came to see.

Welcome back, Ken!

He probably set that fire.

In the first two stories, Ken and his sister Sara discover a fire outside and alert their mother. There’s no emphasis here on dialing 9-11 specifically, which is quaint. The next section, where Ken goes to the fire department and meets Beth’s fireman dad, is a straightforward discovery of how a firehouse operates when not responding to an emergency. For some reason, Ken asks the firemen if they bake in their kitchen oven. They never give him an answer, but I’m guessing they don’t.

There’s just too many to escape… There are THREE of them!

Ken later joins a bike race, but somehow can’t tell the difference between a bicycle and a tricycle. This is the story where the kids throw sweetness to the wind and outright tell Ken he’s a screw-up. He seems to agree. The girl in front is riding a Big Wheel with streamers, something I also owned in 1982.

The book includes my favorite Ken story of all time, the two-parter “Come and Trade” and “The Trade Ken Made.” Ken and Sara attempt to throw out their firetruck, but Beth suggests they take it to the swap meet instead. Ken trades his truck, then trades the items he receives with no less than five kids before ending up with his truck again.

Ken gives up an electric train, a bicycle, a book about dogs and a trick pig so he can get back the firetruck he didn’t want in the first place. That’s why we love him… and now I want a trick pig.

Author of Strawberry Shortcake: Return of the Purple Pie Man, Disney’s Frozen Comic Collection, Transformers: Robots in Disguise Animated and Littlest Pet Shop: Open for Business. She’s written for IDW Publishing, Hasbro, Lion Forge, American Greetings and Scholastic, and her work has been discussed in Comics Beat and The Washington Post. Subscribe to the newsletter

Picture Book Spotlight: Sally Goes to the Mountains

Sally Goes to the Mountains by Stephen Huneck
Published: Harry N. Abrams, 2001
Pages: 38
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As part of our move to a small town two years ago, I wanted to develop a regular library habit. I’ve always been very spotty about my library trips; I’d go for two months, then never set foot in one for years afterward, and never have a good reason why. The locations were convenient and the selections were reasonable, what was my problem? I don’t know the answer to that question, I can only say that my determination to change paid off, and had a positive influence on my daughter.

The local library also provides Legos, and that may be the real reason my daughter is so eager to go. In fact, I know it’s the reason, but at least it’s working. I struggled to convince her to tear herself away from the games and browse the books, but I persevered. She pulled a few promising books off the shelves, just to please me, as quickly as possible. It didn’t take long before I noticed they were all similar books: Sally books.

Sally is a curious Labrador—and that’s all you need to know, really. She plays, she runs, she meets new friends, and her best friend is a cat. My daughter loves animals, and the Sally books are animal-centric stories with bold illustrations in primary colors.

Sally’s adventures are described in simple sentences that stay true to how a dog might actually behave, most of the time. There are some interesting exceptions, like the time Sally ran up a tree:

I have questions…

My daughter checked out Sally books every time she found them at the library, and I suspected it wasn’t just because she needed something to appease me. She could read them herself even when she was in the early stages of learning and she pulled them out to read in the car on the way home. I asked her what made them so appealing and she said:

I like the pictures and I like Sally. Sally is cute and funny! She gets in trouble but then she’s okay.

It’s not deep, but it’s the best she could give me. When my daughter asked me over and over to tell her the name of the author, I noted the books were recent enough that the author was likely still writing, and it might be nice for her to tell him how much they mean to her. I looked up Stephen Huneck, and unfortunately, he took his own life in 2010 after a long battle with depression.

It saddened me to learn that my daughter would never get the chance to tell Huneck how wonderful his books are. As he was a woodcarver, the illustrations are actual woodcuts, and he published ten books featuring his own black Lab, Sally. His home, nicknamed Dog Mountain, is a tourist attraction in Vermont where you can see the chapel he built to celebrate our spiritual connection with dogs.

Thank you, Stephen Huneck, for encouraging my daughter’s growing love for both animals and reading.

Author of Strawberry Shortcake: Return of the Purple Pie Man, Disney’s Frozen Comic Collection, Transformers: Robots in Disguise Animated and Littlest Pet Shop: Open for Business. She’s written for IDW Publishing, Hasbro, Lion Forge, American Greetings and Scholastic, and her work has been discussed in Comics Beat and The Washington Post. Subscribe to the newsletter

Picture Book Spotlight: The Great Big Elephant and the Very Small Elephant

“The Great Big Elephant and the Very Small Elephant” by Barbara Seuling
Published: Random House Childrens Books, 1977
Pages: 40
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There are a lot of children’s books about relationships between two close friends. Most of the time, they’re simple stories about best friends who go through some kind of conflict and come out the other side with a stronger bond. Sometimes they give off an entirely different vibe.

The Great Big Elephant and the Very Small Elephant is about two elephants who can’t make it through life without each other. It’s very upfront about this only a few pages in, as the Great Big Elephant prepares to take his sick cousin’s place at the Circus Maximus during a short illness:

“Will you go?” asked the Very Small Elephant.
“Of course,” said the Great Big Elephant. “I must go. Someone needs me.”
“But I need you,” said the Very Small Elephant.

The book is divided into three different stories, each about how they support each other through life’s minor inconveniences. In the first story, the Very Small Elephant, after failing to trick the Great Big Elephant into turning down his stint at the circus, resigns himself to passing the time with letters until his friend returns.

Why would his friend turn down an opportunity to wear these beads?

In the second story, my personal favorite, the Very Small Elephant’s Aunt Matilda comes to visit and he has no idea how to handle it. The Great Big Elephant has to walk him through the steps for being a good host, including how to feed her, how to provide bedding, and where to take her. Aunt Matilda’s trip is described exactly like every awkward visit you’ve ever had with an elderly relative and I love it.

Perfect souvenir choices right there. They totally could not get peanut fudge at home.

In the last story, the Great Big Elephant is rescued by the Very Small Elephant from a mud pit and wrestles with his self-worth. It’s a remarkable moment after he’s spent the last two stories keeping the Very Small Elephant into collapsing on the kitchen floor in a puddle of tears, but everyone needs validation sometimes, I guess. Naturally, he gets his moment to rescue the Very Small Elephant, and the companions are happy again.

It’s difficult to read this book as an adult and not get the feeling that the elephants are more than friends. They have separate houses, but the emotional bond and day-to-day co-dependence reads like they are two very different personalities trying to approach life as a couple. In that regard, it reminds me very much of  Frog and Toad, another children’s series with a same-sex subtext. As the accomplished author left a wife behind when she passed in 2016, that subtext may have been intentional. Whether it was or not, the book is a beautiful depiction of love in the middle of everyday, mundane problems.

Much of Seuling’s work was illustrated by other people, which I was sorry to learn, because I’m fond of the book’s gentle linework. The facial expressions on the elephants tell me exactly how the characters are feeling, from their raised eyebrows to the curl of their trunks, and it’s fun to see when she’ll choose to pose them on two feet or four. The backgrounds are detailed when they need to be, and sparse when it serves the story.

The Great Big Elephant and the Very Small Elephant is a long read as a picture book, and works best in smaller doses. I recommend reading the chapters on different nights until your child is ready to read on their own, which is what I did with my daughter. Even when I partitioned the book, she seemed less interested than I was at her age. There isn’t much action… I may be keeping this one around for me.

Author of Strawberry Shortcake: Return of the Purple Pie Man, Disney’s Frozen Comic Collection, Transformers: Robots in Disguise Animated and Littlest Pet Shop: Open for Business. She’s written for IDW Publishing, Hasbro, Lion Forge, American Greetings and Scholastic, and her work has been discussed in Comics Beat and The Washington Post. Subscribe to the newsletter