12.14.2012

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 Crockett, however, subscribes to the outdated motto, "beauty is as beauty does," and he nurtures the little tree through the winter and in spring he plants it on the sidewalk.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?

12.11.2012

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.

12.06.2012

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.




12.04.2012

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.

12.03.2012

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.

12.01.2012

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?

Yep.

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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