Genre 1: Picture Books

RAPunzel by David Vozar, Illustrated by Betsy Lewin
Image from
Vozar, David. 1998. RAPUNZEL: A HAPPENIN’ RAP. Ill. by Betsy Lewin. New York: A Doubleday Book for Young Readers. ISBN 9780385323147

In this modern retelling of the classic Rapunzel story, the characters have been updated and placed in an urban setting. Rapunzel’s father accidentally spills his ice cream all over the witch, who uses her “zapping” powers to kidnap Rap and lock her in a tower in the city. Rap becomes spoiled as the witch uses her zapping magic to give Rap anything she wants. Enter Prince Fine, sporting a neon green mohawk, who immediately falls in love with Rap and sets about climbing her hair (well, after she styles it a few times). Alas, no sooner does the prince make it into the tower, than the witch arrives and zaps him away. The witch is so mad at Rap for demanding more and more stuff, her head explodes and Rap is blasted out of the tower. Prince Fine and Rap open a hair salon and live happily, and stylishly, ever after.

The characters in this modern retelling are unique and humorous. The use of dogs instead of people keeps the emphasis on the story, rather than the ethnicity of the characters. Thematically, this book seems to wander. Rap is spoiled, whiny, and greedy, but she never learns her lesson. It’s also troubling that Prince Fine is so in love with Rap that he doesn’t even notice these flaws. Unlike traditional fairytales, this version is more concerned with rapping than making sure each character gets what they deserve. Although Rap and the prince live happily ever after, I found the resolution disappointing.

The story is split into three sections with headings to denote each one and the passage of time is indicated in the rapping text. Unfortunately, the playful text is marred by an abrupt change in perspective. Half of the story is told in third person flashbacks and then suddenly shifts as Prince Fine takes over the narrative. However, the loose line drawings, full of funny details and color, help to bring the elements of the story together by providing context for the words.

The urban setting of this book is appropriate to the rapping format and style and it’s the rapping that will hook the readers. The joy of this book is in rapping it out loud. Along with rhythm and rhyming, the text uses humorous imagery, such as “covered in goo like a humongous s’more.” Even though the story lacks a satisfying resolution, I think children and adults alike will enjoy the humor and rapping of this modern fairytale.

Review in BOOKLIST: “This happenin' rap gives an old story an urban setting, a rhythmic beat, and a contemporary silliness that kids will love.”
Review in KIRKUS: “The rhyme is bouncy with a solid beat; Lewin's expressive black lines and wild doggy outfits are a good match for the words.”
Review in SCHOOL LIBRARY JOURNAL: “Bright, cartoon illustrations add action and appeal, and are far superior to the overly long text.”

*Read some other versions of Rapunzel and compare the different depictions of the characters, the settings, and plot points.
Isadora, Rachel. 2008. RAPUNZEL. 9780399247729
Storace, Patricia. 2007. SUGAR CANE: A CARIBBEAN RAPUNZEL ISBN 9780786807918
Zelinsky, Paul O. 1997. RAPUNZEL. ISBN 9780525456070
*Other Picture Books in Rap Format for Kids:
Vozar, David. 1995. YO, HUNGRY WOLF!: A NURSERY RAP. Ill. by Betsy Lewin. ISBN 9780440409533
Minters, Frances. 1997. CINDER-ELLY. ISBN 9780140561265

 The Poky Little Puppy by Janette Sebring Lowrey, Illustrated by Gustaf Tenggen

Image from
Lowrey, Janette Sebring. 1942. THE POKY LITTLE PUPPY. Ill. Gustaf Tenggen. New York: Random House. ISBN 9780307021342

Five little puppies dig a hole under the fence and venture out into the wide, wide world. Four puppies admire the view, but where is that little poky puppy? He’s stopped because he smells rice pudding and off the puppies rush for dessert. The naughty puppies are sent to bed without supper, while the poky little puppy wanders in late and licks up every last bit of pudding. The pattern is repeated with chocolate custard and finally strawberry shortcake. However, on the strawberry shortcake day the poky little puppy’s sibling get even by filling in the hole after they scramble through. Their mother rewards their good behavior with dessert, but the puppy that was slow and had to dig under the fence on his own, is sent to bed hungry and ashamed.

This classic Golden Book, first published in 1942, has remained popular despite a somewhat bland plot and generic illustrations. The puppies are adorable, but indistinguishable from one another and although their faces are sweet, they don’t express emotions or deeper meaning than described in the text. In addition, sometimes the illustrations and text are contradictory. For instance, there is a picture of a green toad accompanying the text, “The only thing they could see coming up was a brown hop-toad.”

On the bright side, the story sets up a pattern that makes it easy for young children to follow the story. The repetition of text makes this an inviting book for children just learning to read. The text is mainly descriptive and many people fondly remember the way the puppies tumbled down the hill, “roly-poly, pell-mell, tumble-bumble…”

The book has two major themes. First, that there are consequences to breaking the rules and second, that you will miss out on life if you are poky. Although it’s never too early to learn that your actions have consequences, modern parents may have difficultly labeling puppies or children “poky.” In addition, the story does not model a very supportive sibling relationship, with the four “normal” puppies ganging up on the little poky puppy.

The Poky Little Puppy continues to be one of the bestselling children’s books of all time and I think one of the reasons this story has remained so popular is that the characters and settings are not especially specific, and so have aged without become clichéd or stereotypical. Regardless of its shortcomings, this book will appeal to puppy-loving children and many parents who remember this book from their childhood.

Personal Response
As someone who didn’t grow up reading this book, it was a struggle for me to write this review. I really wanted to like the book – the poky little puppy resembles the dog I grew up with – however I was rubbed the wrong by the moral of the story. I don’t feel comfortable labeling children and am inclined to celebrate the benefits of being “poky” rather than dwell on the negative connotations. Kids who take their time are often more observant and introspective than their faster paced peers; I don’t think being faster or slower is necessarily better.

Finally, it bothers me that their mother never explains to the puppies why it’s so bad to go out into the wide, wide world, she just punishes them. I have always found that explaining the reason for a rule is more effective with children and adults then doling out a punishment just “because.”

Publisher’s Weekly All Time Best Selling Children’s Book, #1 in 2001
Horn Book Guide Reviews, Fall 2003

Barbara Carroll Roberts of CHILDREN’S LITERATURE REVIEW: “The illustrations are equally bland; these are generic puppies with little expression, rather that individualized characters.”

*Talk about the ways the puppies use their 5 senses. What do they see/smell/hear/taste/touch?
*Crafts – Make dog-ear headbands for the kids to wear.
*Count the puppies in the illustrations each time they get to the top of the hill.
*Other picture books with dogs about counting:
Boynton, Sandra. DOGGIES: A COUNTING AND BARKING BOOK. ISBN 9780671493189
Chall, Marsha. ONE PUP’S UP. ISBN 9781416979609

A Sick Day for Amos McGee by Phillip C. Stead, Illustrated by Erin E. Stead 

Image from
Stead, Philip C. 2010. A SICK DAY FOR AMOS MCGEE. Ill. by Erin E. Stead. New York: Roaring Brook Press. ISBN 9781596434028

This understated picture book features the dedicated and loyal friendship between zookeeper, Amos McGee, and his friends, the zoo animals. Amos is a man of routine and although he’s a busy man, he visits his friends once a day. The time Amos spends with each of his friends is special and unique and shows Amos’ dedication and love for his friends. One day when Amos cannot work because he is sick in bed, his friends take the bus to take care of him, just as he has taken care of them.

Although this is not explicitly stated in the text, the themes of dedication and loyalty it is implicit in the care and attention Amos gives to the animals. Amos, long-limbed and wrinkled, is a quiet, observant protagonist who knows exactly what to do to make the time he spends with each of his friends time meaningful and special.

This stylistically understated story begins by establishing Amos’s regular routine. Through the description of the daily activities of the zookeeper it becomes clear that there is great meaning in these small daily acts. The story comes full circle when the animals visit Amos and each animal does for Amos what he has done for them every day.

The illustrations expand upon the text, giving the reader deeper insights into the characters. The design and are layout are simple using details to draw you into the story. Color is used sparingly, but with great impact. The palette, like Amos, is soft and gentle. The use of woodblock printing and pencil creates very delicate, detailed illustrations. Just as Amos carefully tends to his friends, it is clear that the illustrator put a lot of care into each page.

The setting is realistic, but the characters step slightly outside of the possible. The animals are anthropomorphic; nevertheless they are individuals, not stereotypes. The universal themes of dedication and loyalty are easily translatable to other cultures and so the book does not concern itself with cultural depiction.

Observant children will take to this book immediately, but it may be a harder sell for more active, energetic kids as the story may progress too slowly. Additionally, the book does not have any characters who are children and there may be some kids who have a hard time identifying with the elderly zookeeper. However, the child-like qualities of the Amos and the animals should help bridge the gap for most children.

I found this book to be comforting and reassuring, like having your mom take care of you when you’re sick. It’s a timeless story about the little things we do to show how much we love and care for one another. The illustrations do such a wonderful job of celebrating the little things. There aren’t fireworks and parades; instead the celebration is in the details.

Caldecott Medal 2011
New York Public Library’s 100 Titles for Reading and Sharing, 2010
Cooperative Children’s Book Center Choice’s, 2011
ALA Notable Books for Children Award
Charlotte Zolotow Award, 2011 – Honor Book
New York Times Best Illustrated Children’s Books, 2010

Starred review in KIRKUS REVIEWS: “This gentle, ultimately warm story acknowledges the care and reciprocity behind all good friendships: Much like Amos's watch, they must be wound regularly to remain true.”
Review in SCHOOL LIBRARY JOURNAL: “Illustrations are positioned on the white space to move the tale along and underscore the bonds of friendship and loyalty.”
Starred review in PUBLISHER’S WEEKLY: “Philip Stead's…narrative moves with deliberate speed, dreaming up a joyous life for the sort of man likely to be passed on the street without a thought.”

*Ask the children what they do for their friends, siblings, parents, when they are sick and need cheering up.
*Talk about the duties of a zookeeper. Better yet, contact the nearest zoo to see if there’s a zookeeper who would be interested in coming to talk with the kids.
*Other nonfiction books for children about being a zookeeper:
Liebman, Dan. I WANT TO BE A ZOOKEEPER. ISBN 9781552976975
Smith, Roland. Z IS FOR ZOOKEEPER: A ZOO ALPHABET. ISBN 9781585361588
*Other picture books for children about zoos
Newman, Jeff. HIPPO! NO RHINO. ISBN 9780316155731
Lee, Suzy. THE ZOO. ISBN 9781933605289