Insufficiently Appreciated: Books I Should Have Reviewed
Every year it’s always the same. I manage to scrap together enough brain particles together to do about one review of a children’s book a week, skipping the occasional week when said particles are too wispy to coalesce. Then, by the time the end of the year rolls around. I am horrified to discover a gigantic pile of books on my shelf at home that I had every intention of reviewing. What the heck? How does this keep happening to me? Here’s a secret: Part of the reason I started doing my end-of-the-year series 31 Days, 31 Lists is because it was the only way to alleviate my guilt when it came to the books I neglected to review.
Today, though, I’d like to pay homage to a couple of the books that I should have made more of an effort to praise properly when first they were published. These are titles that I just think are stellar. The bee’s knees. The cream of the crop. The [noun] of the [noun]. Because, honestly, there are just too many books out there. Here is a piddling few. A random assortment of books that make me perk up whenever I run across them.
Billions of Bricks: A Counting Book About Building by Kurt Cyrus
Though it published in 2016, it wasn’t until early 2021 that I was able to make good on promise I made to this title 5 years before. In 2016 things were busy. Books got misplaced. And though I had every intention of highlighting this magnificent counting book (by twos, no less) it slipped through the cracks. Fast forward and we’re in the middle of a pandemic. I’m serving on the Mathical Book Prize committee and lo and behold, we let books become Honor titles even if they came out in the past. I was so pleased that someone nominated this book and it didn’t take long for my fellow committee members to also see what I liked about it so much. Kurt Cyrus has such a clear, precise style and there are also loads of tiny details hidden in this story. Keep your eye on that guy with the ladder (you can see him on the cover). He is the story’s schlemiel. Cyrus, I should note, has done other books very much in the same vein as Billions of Bricks. This year he has the ecological Trillions of Trees, which just came out in March. Be sure to check it out!
Life: The First Four Billion Years by Martin Jenkins and Grahame Baker-Smith
The books on this list here today are the ones that I think and rethink about long after they have left my home. And man, do I wish I’d held onto this book when I had the chance. Few titles have so perfectly highlighted the amount of time that passed here on Earth before humans entered into the equation. Here’s a description of the book:
Before humans took their first steps, there were billions of years of vibrant and varied life-forms on Earth. Discover the story of our planet during this time, from the formation of the universe to the first mammals and all the incredible life that flourished in between. Covering ice ages and fossils, the first life in the sea and on land, the time of the dinosaurs, and the rise of mammals, Martin Jenkins navigates through millennia of prehistory in a style both enthralling and accessible. With superb illustrations from Kate Greenaway Medal winner Grahame Baker-Smith, this is a captivating journey through the life of our planet before we called it ours.
Little Brown by Marla Frazee
Keep your Boss Baby and your Farmer and the Clown. In my heart, my favorite Marla Frazee may be this strange, unapologetic 2018 title. Few picture books dare to contain open-ended conclusions. We like our storylines crisp, succinct, and easily explained. Little Brown is none of these. It probes deep into the question of what it is that makes someone mean. The book doesn’t have a redemption arc, but it also is not without hope. It just does its own thing. And that thing is very good.
This Chinese import from 2018 contains four separate stories about a girl and her grandfather. It’s not a chapter book, though. This is a graphic novel, with beautiful illustrations and heartwarming little stories. Its Kirkus review fretted that young readers would be confused by the “Chinese terminology or history” which strikes me as silly. This book does not linger in such way where you might lose track of the storyline. I think it’s remarkably straightforward with just a hint of magical realism for spice.
Nobody Likes a Goblin by Ben Hatke
Gosh I liked this pro-Gobling, anti-adventurers picture book. My kids did too, for that matter. Read enough books where the goblins are the baddies and you begin to yearn for a book that shows the other side of the story. Hatke tapped beautifully into precisely what is wrong with adventurers barging into other people’s caves, stealing their treasures. I think I’ve read this book, conservatively, 200 times but it could be more. Yet even after all this time I’ll either spot something new or just laugh at the jokes again. I didn’t know when it came out that it could have such longevity, but it does! It really really does.
Pinocchio by Kate McMullan. Illustrated by Pascal LeMaitre.
This book is the one and only way I’ll read Pinocchio to my kids. Don’t worry, it’s the original story all right. Just cut down into a perfectly sized early chapter book. LeMaitre’s art makes things seem, if not all right, at least less creepy (kind of in the same way that Quentin Blake’s art always mitigated Roald Dahl’s creepiness). Kate McMullan, meanwhile, was able to take a piece of serialized fiction and make it sound like a single sustained story. I cannot stress too how accurate this is to Collodi’s original vision. You want donkey cruelty and that super strange sequence where Pinocchio is hanged? It’s in there! But it’s also an honestly fun read. Who knew? There may be a reason it’s held on all these centuries after all!
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About Betsy Bird
Betsy Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.
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