1 2 3: A Child’s First Counting Book by Alison Jay

Jay, Alison. 1 2 3: A Child’s First Counting Book. New York: Dutton Children’s Books, 2007.

Plot:  Count to ten and back again through the magic of fairytales. Cover of 1 2 3: A Counting Story by Alison Jay

Setting: Imaginary

Point of View: 3rd person

Theme: fairytales, counting, numbers, storytelling, reading, dreams

Literary Quality: “[O]ne little girl sleeping[,] two soaring wings[,] three little pigs…” Thus begins a counting story that takes readers through the fairytale dreamscape of a sleeping girl. The movement of the story peaks at ten in what what might be described as a fleeting nightmare with the “ten sharp teeth” of the wolf from Little Red Riding Hood. The next spread shows Beauty fleeing the Beast, who holds “nine perfect roses,” and from there eases into more calm and delightful moments of the fairytales. Whimsical oil paintings add to the enchantment of the journey, and a crackle varnish lends an antiqued appearance to the illustrations, perfect for these age-old stories. The little girl can be found in every illustration, as well as an element from the previous fairytale and the one to come. For example, while we count “seven marching dwarfs” we see the pumpkin carriage from Cinderella and the gingerbread house that Hansel and Gretel find on the horizon. The paintings also all contain other things to count in sets of the relevant number — the three little pigs are surrounded by three hats, three teacups, three umbrellas, three apples, and so forth. While counting stories and adaptations of fairytales abound, this is truly a gem, delivering all the allure, alarm, and adventure of a fairytale in a form even the youngest readers can appreciate. A final page acts as a form of index, matching each illustration to its respective fairytale. Alison Jay’s artful weaving of conceptual and traditional story frames creates something altogether new and lovely.

Audience: All ages. A book that can easily be used one-on-one, as a read-aloud, or in a classroom setting. 

Personal reaction: As soon as I opened this book and looked at just the first couple of pages, I knew it was something special. I (and my one-year-old) have been completely captivated by 1 2 3‘s charm. This is a story to read and read again. We always find something new.

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The Boy Who Cried Wolf by B. G. Hennessy and Boris Kulikov

Hennessy, B. G. The Boy Who Cried Wolf. Illustrated by Boris Kulikov. New York: Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, 2006.

Cover of "The Boy Who Cried Wolf"Plot: A bored shepherd boy looks for entertainment while watching his sheep and gets himself into trouble as a result.

Setting: Deliberately timeless rural town

Point of View: 3rd person

Theme: boys, shepherds, wolves, sheep, lies, lying, boredom, friendship, fables, folklore, morals, humor

Literary Quality: This retelling of an old fable incorporates humor and a kid sensibility into both the words and illustrations. The shepherd’s dilemma is that he is “SO bored,” and on the very next page when he decides that he is “the most bored boy in the world,” readers get a close-up view of the boy picking his nose as he kicks up his dirty bare feet. These modern touches are balanced by traditional oral storytelling elements: the boy’s tale changes just a little bit each time (from one to three wolves), and repeating phrases such as, “Munch, munch, munch. Baaaaaaaaaaaaa,” are woven throughout the story, delightfully changing to a startling “Lunch, lunch, lunch! GRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRR,” when wolves actually arrive on the scene. The watercolor and gouache illustrations play with the balance of modern and ancient: the townspeople consist of folks from what appears to be every era – we see armored knights alongside boys adorned in baseball caps, sticks and rakes next to baseball bats and umbrellas. The pictures bounce us around perspectives, moving in and out and up and down. And while the text suggests the wolves might have devoured the sheep due to the shepherd boy’s negligence, the final, wordless illustration will make readers breathe a sigh of relief and giggle when they see the sheep safe if not entirely sound in the top of the tree behind the clueless shepherd. Lots of white space and a bold playful font complete the pleasant experience of this story.

Audience: I would recommend this picture book for ages 3-8. Great for a read-alone or a read-aloud.

Personal reaction: I adored this retelling of a fable that has the potential to be (in my opinion) a bit dire and a little dry. This story reinvigorates it with humor without detracting from the moral, striking the perfect balance of silliness and tradition.

My Abuelita by Tony Johnston and Yuyi Morales

Cover image of My Abuelita by Tony Johnston and Yuyi MoralesJohnston, Tony. My Abuelita. Illustrated by Yuyi Morales. Photographed by Tim O’Meara. Boston: Harcourt Children’s Books, 2009.

Plot: Abuelita is old, round, wrinkly, and forgets to put clothes on in the morning! She yodels and booms and says that “words should be as round as dimes and as wild as blossoms blooming” as she gets ready for work each morning.  What type of work could she possibly do?!

Setting: Modern United States

Point of View: 1st person (Abuelita’s grandson)

Theme: grandmothers, family, morning routines, singing, storytelling, imagination, nontraditional families, Mexican-Americans

Literary Quality: In this story, Johnston plays with words and sounds as much as Abuelita does. Both the text and illustrations infuse My Abuelita with a lively energy that will delight and captivate young readers and listeners. Each character — the grandson narrator, Abuelita, and the cat, Frida Kahlo — has a strong and distinct presence in the story with unique characteristics that bounce this picture book into life with humor and lightheartedness. Morales’ colorful mixed-media illustrations made from clay, wire, felting wool, paints, fabric, wood, metals, and Mexican crafts are the perfect complement to this quirky, fun celebration of family, breakfast, and storytelling.

Cultural Authenticity: Tony Johnston lived in Mexico for 15 years and has devoted many of her books to Mexican subject matter. Johnston is also a storyteller in her own right and a prolific writer. Yuyi Morales was born and raised in Mexico, moving to the United States as a young mother without a work permit or any English-speaking ability. She has testified to the assistance (and inspiration) of the picture books at her local library in overcoming these challenges. Both the author’s and illustrator’s life experiences contribute to the authenticity of this story. Other details such as the nontraditional family (grandson living with grandmother) further enhance a sense of authenticity.

Audience: Ages 3-7. This story has broad appeal and makes for a fabulous read-aloud.

Personal reaction: I originally happened upon this book because as a fan of Yuyi Morales’ work, and these illustrations are very different than other books of hers that I was more familiar with (such as Little Night and Los Gatos Black on Halloween). I found the combination of illustrations and text in this story to be just outstanding. I loved that while the story has universal themes (morning routines, storytelling, grandmothers), it easily incorporates Mexican-American ideas and characters, as well as a nontraditional family structure. The visuals and sounds make for a wonderfully spirited story.  

Where the Mountain Meets the Moon by Grace Lin

Cover of "Where the Mountain Meets the Moon" by Grace LinLin, Grace. Where the Mountain Meets the Moon. New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2009.

Plot:  Minli lives with her mother and father in the Valley of Fruitless Mountain. They work very hard, toiling in their rice fields all day long, but still they are very poor. Each evening, Minli’s father, Ba, tells her fantastic stories that sweep her mind away from their troubles. But her mother, Ma, complains about their hard life, about Ba’s stories, about everything. One day, though, a goldfish man comes into their village. His appearance and the fish he sells Minli are the start of her unforgettable adventure to find the Old Man in the Moon, an adventure that brings with it new friends, dangerous obstacles, and an abundance of stories.

Setting: China; timeless.

Point of View: 3rd person

Theme: Storytelling, folktales, hardship, friendship, fortune, adventure, fantasy, China

Literary Quality:  Grace Lin thoughtfully combines adventure, humor, fantasy, and folktales in Where the Mountain Meets the Moon. Minli’s brave, clever, kind, and earnest character is utterly endearing. While folktales often include recognizable character types, and certainly we can identify some stock traits here (clever, wise, whiny, kind and poor, greedy, etc.) Lin has fleshed out this fantasy world and all of its inhabitants. Her graceful incorporation of stories and storytelling throughout the book weaves a stunning tapestry that finally depicts a delightful and beautiful new folktale. This tapestry is made all the more colorful by Lin’s illustrations, some of which are full-color spreads, others smaller line art in changing monotones, as well as even smaller medallions.  The final effect of text and art together is one of vibrancy. This story leaps off the page and comes to life in exciting and tender ways. A tribute to storytelling in all its forms, Where the Mountain Meets the Moon is a great accomplishment.

Cultural Authenticity:  Lin explores her own heritage through many of her books, including Where the Mountain Meets the Moon, which draws on many traditional Chinese folktales, her real experiences and visits in China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan, and (of course) her own imagination. She offers readers a glimpse into her process of creation at the end of the book in a section called “Behind the Story.”

Audience: Ages 8-12, or any age thereafter. The female protagonist may attract female readers especially, but the adventures and story in general should have broad appeal.

Personal reaction:  Where the Mountain Meets the Moon left me feeling awestruck. Just by flipping through the pages you can see the care and love that went into this book: the illustrations, the layout, the font: it’s a beautiful book. And the story itself is gentle yet powerful. This is a book that should be lingered over. It is a book that easily lends itself to re-reading and reading aloud. I occasionally pull it off the shelf just to read one or two of the stories that Minli hears. Layered and lovely, I highly recommend it to readers young and old.