Musical City: Tito Puente, Mambo King - Rey del Mambo

Tito Puente Mambo KingTitle: Tito Puente, Mambo King/Tito Puente, Rey del Mambo
Author: Monica Brown
Illustrator: Rafael López
Publ. date: March 3, 2013
Publisher: Rayo/Harper Collins

Tito Puente, the Mambo King, was born in New York City to Puerto Rican parents and went on to become one of the most important musicians and composers in Latino musical history.  Tito Puente, Mambo King/Tito Puente, Rey del Mambo tells the story of Puente's life in a straight-forward tale from the time when he was a small child banging out catchy rhythms on pots and pans through his time in the Navy, at Julliard, all the way to the end of his career when he was recognized with 5 Grammys.

The text, which itself seems to sway to the beat of a mambo is in both English and Spanish, a tribute to Puente's heritage, but there is no sprinkling of Spanish words amongst the English text as one sometimes finds in bilingual books. Brown focuses primarily on general facts about Puente without getting into a lot specifics, but they are the types of events that young kids will enjoy hearing about: his love of dancing, his wish to be a bandleader, the sounds of the instruments.  My sons loved the repeated rhythmic phrases like "¡Tum Tica! ¡Tac Tic! ¡Tum Tica!  ¡Tom Tom!" at the beginning and end of the story.

López has created vibrant illustrations which fly across each full two page spread. A fun note in the copyright section indicates he used "acrylic paint that comes in recycled salsa jars from Mexico." Those swirling, spicy orange, red and brown colors of the salsa that used to inhabit those jars bring Puente's musical salsa to life. The city is ever present; skyscrapers and apartment buildings are colorful browns, purples and yellow, with windows always lit up as if constantly full of life.

This is a short biography. Older children who want to know more detail about Puente's life can read a biographical note in the back. I think the book is best used as a springboard to introduce kids to Latin Jazz. I would encourage you to listen to some of Puente's music (or watch a video like the one below) after reading the book.

I've read a lot of jazz-themed books but this is one of the few that is specific to Latin jazz. I encourage you to read it with your music-loving kids.

Want More?
The same team wrote and illustrated the bilingual My Name is Celia/Me llamo Celia : The Life of Celia Cruz/la vida de Celia Cruz.
Visit Monica Brown's website.
Visit Rafael Lopez' website.
Watch this video of Puente from 1965:

Big Kid says: He sounds like a great musician.
Litte Kid says: Can you still see his sticks?

Disclosure: Links to Amazon are affiliate links. Purchases made through links may result in my receiving a (very) small commission, at no extra cost to you. I was given a copy of this book for review purposes. All opinions are my own.


Animated City: New York in Pajamarama

New York in Pyjamarama
Title: New York in Pajamarama
Author: Michaël Leblond
Illustrator: Frédérique Bertrand
Pages: 24
Publ. Date: 2013 (US Edition)
Publisher: Phoenix Yard Books

When I first saw the YouTube video demonstrating how New York in Pajamarama worked, I knew I had to share it with my kids! The book was originally published in France as New York en Pyjamarama in 2011 (where it was the fastest selling picture book of the year) and has finally made its way to the USA!

The Story:
One night, at bedtime, instead of falling asleep a boy in striped pajamas dons a red cape and flies off on a midnight adventure across New York City. Inviting readers to follow him, he takes in the whole city: from traffic-jammed streets to busy shopping districts, from leafy Central Park to sparkling Broadway. Eventually, the dizzying "skyscraper forest" overpowers him and he finally heads back home to rest, but not without mentioning that there will be a new journey soon. (There is a sequel, Lunaparc en Pyjamarama.)

How It Works:

The book comes with a large sheet of acetate marked with black lines. Each of the book's illustrations also contains an embedded "code" of lines and when you slide the acetate across the pages the effect is that the illustrations come alive (as demonstrated in the video, below).

The technique is perfect for conveying the constant movement of the city: dizzying lights, waving leaves, rushing vehicles and stampeding pedestrians! My kids loved the interactive nature of the book and there was a wee bit of arguing over who got to control the animation! We had to take turns for each page, but no one wanted to relinquish the acetate sheet!

My Recommendation:

I found this book to be marvelous and highly recommend it. Many of you may be familiar with the "Scanimation" books by Rufus Butler, but I always found those small books frustrating because the animation only occurred when turning the page and you have to be careful not to miss it. The great thing about New York in Pajamarama is that readers can open the large book flat to control and enjoy the "magic."

This is not a library book! It's a book to purchase (and I don't say that about many books since I love the library so much).

Want More?
Watch the YouTube Video:

Read a review at Library Mice or Kirkus.
On my parenting blog, we made a cityscape art project to go along with the book.

Big Kid says: Awesome!
Little Kid says: Awesome!

Disclosure: I received a review copy of this book from the publisher, but it in no way influenced my review. All opinions are my own. This post contains affiliate links.


Baby City: Lazy Little Loafers

Title: Lazy Little Loafers
Author: Susan Orlean
Illustrator: G. Brian Karas
32 Pages
Publisher: Abrams Books for Young Readers
Publ. Date: Oct. 1, 2008

The narrator of this book is really on to something. She wonders why babies aren't doing anything more productive than pushing strollers and elevator buttons (both activities which are are more likely to annoy than improve the  lives of those around them.) Babies, she declares are just moochers. Worst of all, they get to all the things she wants to do, except she is required to go to school instead!

Karas' illustrations of a girl walking through the city with her (very stylish) mom and baby sibling bring Orlean's story to life. [Orlean is the author of the grown-up book, The Orchid Thief, which was the inspiration for the very bizarre move, Adaptation.]  Our narrator sees babies everywhere, from billboards to the park and the City is the natural choice if you are looking for a location that can be easily and realistically packed full of infants. Indeed, the illustrations reminded me of the heavily tot-populated nabes of the Upper West Side and Park Slope in New York City. (A Central Park hot dog vendor in a park scene reveals that the location is NYC).

This is a cute book and would be a nice choice for older siblings who frequently whine about why they don't get to do what their younger counterparts get to do. (Not that I know anyone like that....) But be warned, the book doesn't answer that question!

Big Kid says: That is Central Park.
Little Kid says: What's a "loafer"?

Want More?
Read the backstory at Susan Orlean's website.
Watch a video of Orleans talking about the book on The Warren Report.
Visit G. Brian Karas' website.


Neighborly City: Laundry Day

Title: Laundry Day
Author/Illustrator: Maurie J. Manning
32 Pages
Publisher: Clarion Books (HMH)
Publ. Date: April, 17, 2012

Laundry Day is going on my list of favorite new urban picture books. Set in early 20th century New York City, a length of red fabric floats down and lands on young shoeshine boy. He looks up to see miles of laundry lines criss-crossing the tenement-lined alleyway. Determined to find the owner of the vibrant cloth, he hoists himself up on the fire escape. Making his way from apartment to apartment he encounters the friendly inhabitants from various cultural backgrounds, including a Chinese grandmother, four young Polish girls, a harried Irish mother, an African-American prospector, and others. Each neighbor expresses their admiration for the fabric, using a cultural reference (and new foreign word) but it is not until he reaches the roof, that the shoeshine finds its owner.

Although the action of Laundry Day takes place in a single, rather confined location, author-illustrator, Manning, has marvelously created an uplifting portrait of a diverse and densely populated city. It looks like a lovely place to live -- interesting neighbors, different cultures and friendly faces. Manning illustrates the books using a multi-panel (or storyboard) layout which both enhances the feeling of close-knit living as well as nicely accents the shoeshine as he adeptly climbs railings, slides and tightrope-walks across clotheslines and shimmies up pipes. In this book, the city is indeed a fun place to be.

Laundry Day is an excellent choice for your next family story time, whether you're an urban-dweller or not. I highly recommend it.

Little Kid says: He climbed to the top!
Big Kid says: That looks a little dangerous.

Want More?
Visit Maurie J. Manning's website.
Reviews at Perogies & GyozaBookalicious and Waking Brain Cells.


Brownstone City: The Beautiful Christmas Tree

Title: The Beautiful Christmas Tree
Author: Charlotte Zolotow
Illustrator: Ruth Robbins
32 pages
Publisher: Parnassus Press (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)
Publ. Date: 1972

When Mr. Crockett moves into a rundown brownstone on a fashionable block in a gentrified neighborhood, his neighbors are suspicious. After all, he engages in highly unusual activity such as cleaning his own windows and stoop! Surely he does not realize it is better to hire others to do this for you! He even has the Charlie Brown-esque audacity to purchase a spindly, sickly potted tree for Christmas instead of a lush, chopped-down evergreen. Mr. Crockett, however, subscribes to the outdated motto, "beauty is as beauty does," and he nurtures the little tree through the winter and in spring he plants it on the sidewalk. Needless to say, the little tree thrives under Mr Crockett's tender care. The tree catches the attention of the birds and children and the true meaning of Christmas is realized.

The references to fashionable neighborhoods at the start of the book reminded me of the battle over gentrification that is waging in cities like NYC. Neighbors object when someone doesn't conform (think: The Big Orange Splot) and are apt to miss the beauty right under their noses. Ruth Robbins' gentle illustrations are lovely and delicate. Her pastel brownstones stand in a neat row and oversized snowflakes cover sidewalks where kids pull their sleds. Mr. Crockett sits on his stoop, watching his more fashionable neighbors, but some of those neighbors like to watch out their upper floor windows. We only see one block (and one shop) of the whole city, but it is such an intimate story, that is all that is necessary.

This classic edition of Zolotow's story is no longer in print, but I recommend you try to obtain a copy (as opposed to the 2001 version -- see below) at your library or used bookstore. It's a longer picture book than most and a lovely story.

Want More?


Shopping City: Brownie & Pearl See the Sights

Christmas Book Brownie and Pearl Title: Brownie & Pearl See the Sights
Author: Cynthia Rylant
Illustrator: Brian Biggs
24 pages
Publisher: Simon & Schuster (Beach Lane Books)
Publ. Date: Oct. 5, 2010

Brownie & Pearl See the Sights is part of the Brownie & Pearl by powerhouse kid lit author Cynthia Rylant (seriously, it is amazing how many books she has written). In this installation, Brownie and her faithful feline friend, Pearl, head out to the city shops for a little retail therapy. Everything they try on is oversized until they get to the cupcake shop, where the products are a perfect fit. (Isn't that always the way?) When the sugar high turns into a sugar low, Brownie and Pearl head back home for a winter nap.

Biggs' illustrations are colorful and cheerful, loaded with oranges and pinks. When the shopping duo get to the city they are greeted with colorful shops and traffic, all decked out for the holidays. I love that there are even menorahs in apartment windows. A sprinkling of snow falls over the the grey city backdrop. The final note of the book tells the reader that being cozy at home is much more relaxing than seeing the sights and shopping in the city. However, they obviously had a good time on their outing and there is no sense that the city is a place to be avoided as sometimes happens in city v. country books.

My one complaint about the Brownie & Pearl series is that for short books they have a high price point. They are published in a hardback picture book format, but the $13.99 price tag is very high for an easy reader (I have the same complaint about the Elephant & Piggie books). However, I highly recommend finding this book and the rest of the series at your local library. As read alouds they are nice and short; as easy readers, they will lure in an audience with their jolly illustrations.

Want More?
Visit the illustrator's website.
Visit the author's website.


Rodent City: The Town Mouse and the Country Mouse

Title: The Town Mouse and the Country Mouse
Author/Illustrator: Helen Ward (from Aesop)
32 pages
Publisher: Candlewick Press
Publ. Date: Sept. 11, 2012

Helen Ward's retelling of Aesop's fable is traditional in its approach. There are no surprises in the text. All ends as it always does: the town mouse still likes the town best and vice-versa. East-west, home is best, and all that jazz.

The reason I have decided to review  The Town Mouse and the Country Mouse here at Storied Cities is simply because Ward's illustrations are so lovely. The town is no "town" at all. It is New York City in the 1930s! At Christmas! What could be better? Not much, I tell you. At first the little country mouse is dazzled by "great towers of smooth stone and glass," electric elevators, sumptuous holiday feasts, and cozy Christmas trees that make great sleeping nooks. Unfortunately, the city also comes equipped with one highly menacing pug dog, who sends the country mouse scampering back to home-sweet-home. The town mouse, however, doesn't mind his canine pal and curls up for a good gorgonzola-induced nap.

There are only a few city scenes in this book but they are worth it, and country lovers will enjoy Ward's  illustrations of the more natural side of life. It's an excellent choice for some cozy holiday reading.

Want More?
Try a different variation on the country mouse-city mouse theme with Love, Mouserella, or the duo Brown Rabbit in the City/Moon Rabbit.
Read an article in The Guardian about Helen Ward.


Fish City: Carl the Christmas Carp

Title: Carl the Christmas Carp
Author: Ian Krykorka
Illustrator: Vladyana Krykorka
32 pages
Publisher: Orca Book Publishers
Publ. Date: Sept. 1, 2006

In Czech culture it is traditional to eat carp for Christmas dinner. Some people keep this fish in their bathtub to fatten it up for a few days before the big meal. This is all news to me, but it sounds like a good idea for a picture book, right?

You are in luck.

In spite of Radim's declaration that he would rather have chicken, Radim goes with his father to the outdoor market to buy the traditional carp for Christmas dinner. After bringing it home they set it in the bathtub to live for the next week so they can fatten it up. Disturned by fish dreams and the resemblance of the fish to his uncle Carl, Radim decides to free the fish. One night, he and his friend, Mila, engage in a piscatorial conspiracy and release the fish into the local river. Fortunately for Radim, the Christmas spirit prevails, his parents forgive him easily and Mila's family has them all over for a nice chicken dinner.

Christmas stories from other cultures are always a great choice for holiday read alouds. Carl the Christmas Carp is a fun choice and not many kids' books are set in Prague. I loved Krykorka's colorful mixed media illustrations and we get lots of perspectives of the city from the marketplace to the town square, out by the river, ice ponds surrounded by beautiful old building facades and some apartment interiors.  The illustrations are vibrant and Krykorka's brushstrokes create a city under constant siege from a very blustery snow storm. constant. Even the interiors are experiencing the effects of such a strong wind!

Want More?
There are two more carp-in-the-bathtub stories I have not read yet. One is also set in Prague, the other is about a Brooklyn Jewish family fattening their carp up for gefilte fish.

Visit the illustrator's website.
Read a review at Quill and Quire.
Oh, yes. You can indeed watch you tube videos of people with carps in their bathtubs. Some of them even have uplifting musical accompaniments evoking Jesus. People are so weird.


Christmas City: Great Joy

Title: Great Joy 
Author: Kate DiCamillo
Illustrator: Bagram Ibatoulline
32 pages
Publisher: Candlewick Press
Publ. Date: Oct. 9, 2007

It's a pretty safe bet that a book by Kate DiCamillo will be a winner and Great Joy is no exception.  The plot itself is fairly simple, but the power of the book lies in DiCamillo's skillful writing and extraordinary ability to provoke an emotional response in her readers by combining child-like wonder with a compassion for others. I'm not admitting anything, but this book might have made me cry. That's all I'm saying.

From her apartment window, young Frances watches an organ grinder with his monkey who plays every day on the same street corner. She wonders where they go at night, but her mother assures her, "everyone goes somewhere." Frances is unsatisfied with this response and seeks him out to discover he spends his nights on the same corner. On her way to church, Frances invites the man to come and watch her in the Christmas pageant. When he shows up just as Frances delivers her line, she cannot help but be inspired with, "Great Joy!"

I admit I have a soft spot for snowy winter cityscapes. Our entire view of the unnamed city in Great Joy is of a single street corner at "Fifth and Vine." We view this location from a number of vantage points: from the apartment window, the building stoop, the street, at day, at night and as such we are privy to a variety of perspectives. It's wonderful the way Frances can look out her window and see the world below, thoughtfully considering the lives of the people she sees. Both the text and Ibatoulline's gorgeous illustrations effectively communicate that the city is not a faceless void, but a place for intimacy, compassion and individual relationships to shine. Indeed the backdrop of bustling, ever-changing life brings Frances' and the organ grinder's humanity into sharp relief.
Needless to say, I highly recommend adding this book to your stack of Christmas reading. There is a religious element to the story, but it is not the focus and both religious and secular families will take much away from the book.

Want More?
Visit the author's website.
Watch an interview with the author as she talks about moving from novels to picture books. At Reading Rockets.


Holiday City: Jeannette Claus Saves Christmas

Title: Jeannette Claus Saves Christmas 
Author: Douglas Rees
Illustrator: Olivier Latyk
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Publ. Date: October 5, 2010

Did you know that Santa has a daughter?


I'll just let that tidbit soak in for a bit.

Anyway. Her name is Jeannette and she is a little bit feisty and a very bit cute. One Christmas Eve when her dad has a cold, Jeannette insists on making the yearly round of gift deliveries to all the good little boys and girls. The team of very grumpy reindeer are none too happy about this and manage to strand her on a rooftop in the middle of the trip. Fortunately for Jeannette, this particular rooftop is in a big city where there lives an ample population of stray cats and dogs which she can rally around her. She harnesses a hodgepodge team of these domestic pets to her sleigh and together they lift off into the starry skies.

I admit the idea for this story is pretty cute, even though I can't list the book as among my favorite Christmas reads. (It also uses the word "stupid", which I really hate because it is a word I am constantly trying to get my kids to abandon.) It is rather unclear why the reindeer are so mean-spirited and the conflict with that team is left unresolved. Will the sleigh-team next year be cats and dogs or will Santa go back to the reindeer? It's probably not a detail that is particularly important, but it bothered me.

The city, however, is the crucial point of my reviews and in this book it is of course the only location where Jeannette could have assembled a new team so quickly. The digital illustrations are colorful, but rather uninspiring. In fairness, I did like their retro flavor and the perspective from the snowy rooftops with their water towers and fire escapes.

It might seem as if I don't recommend this book, but that is not the case. Jeannette Claus Saves Christmas is a fun story and both my boys enjoyed it and that is the material point. Pick up a copy at your local library.

Want More?
Visit the author's website.
View more of the illustrator's work. I really like this illustration of a colorful, snowy city.
Read a review at Miss Print.
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