Beautiful, Unusual Children’s Books 7

The Eleventh Hour: A Curious Mystery – Graeme Base (writer and illustrator)

First, a short description:

Horace, a young elephant, wishes to throw an extravagant party in honor of his eleventh birthday. Planning, preparations, and the party itself go well and most enjoyably until… 

…but I won’t spoil it for you.

Now, for the content:

This is a treasure trove of a book. Just look at the artwork!

The Eleventh Hour

Does anyone else get the feeling of being in a cathedral or a palace? I’ve never seen such a lush, exquisite illustration in my life. Look at all the minute and precise details – from the opulence of Horace’ home to the proportions and features of each animal. I want this picture to be framed and hung in my house. I’d rightly call it the most elegant thing that I own.

The story itself, specifically how it’s told, has captivated me for years. The narrative rhymes throughout, but it’s more complex sort of rhyme than, say, “Horace was an elephant. / He lived inside a great big tent.” That is a made-up example. The actual language of the book is much, much richer. Here are the first two verses:

When Horace was turned Eleven he decided there should be / Some kind of celebration. “For my friends,” he said, “and me.” / For though I’ve been the age of eight and nine and six and seven, / This is the very first time that I’ve ever been Eleven!”

With that he set to work and wrote the name of every Guest, / And then eleven sorts of food that Elephants like best. / He wrote the invitations next (and sent them off that day), / And finally eleven Games for everyone to play.  

I can’t help but be enchanted. The words are elegant, but none of them are overly formal. None of them are so rare, or so outmoded, that a reader might not recognize them. I would not be at all surprised if the language of the story proved to be “immortal”.

Before purchasing this book, one thing should be known – the mystery is not solved within the story. Instead, an encrypted answer key is provided in the back. This answer key is also accompanied by a booklet that explains how to spot clues to the solution within the illustrations. So, do not be frustrated by the seeming lack of closure. That’s one of the best qualities of this book – that it provides an invitation to each reader to participate in the story, to become the detective that will solve this “curious mystery”.

Age level: I don’t think one can be specified. Give this book, or suggest it, to any child who is an independent reader.

Available for purchase: http://www.powells.com/biblio/2-9780810932654-11
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– Circuit B

Beautiful, Unusual Children’s Books 6

Persephone – Sally Pomme Clayton (writer) and Virgina Lee (illustrator)

Persephone

Part 1:

For those who do not know this Greek myth, or may not remember it, it begins in this way:

Persephone is the daughter of Demeter, the harvest-goddess. One day when she is wandering alone, Persephone is abducted by Hades, the god of the dead. He takes her to the Underworld where he declares that she will be his queen.

In the above-world, Demeter is bereft at the loss of her child. When she learns that Persephone is trapped inside the earth, she becomes furious. She then curses the land to be barren until her daughter returns. 

I won’t write the whole tale here. But that introduction is enough to know that that is how winter first came to be.

Part 2:

The story of Persephone has been on my mind since the beginning of 2013. I think I know the reason for this: that charming, lovely scene from David Almond’s My Name Is Mina, when nine-year old Mina McKee calls to Persephone and asks her to come back so that the goddess can end an especially cold England winter.

My Name Is Mina is my new favorite book, and I think that scene was the part I liked best. It made me want to revisit the original myth. So, it was to my joy that I found Clayton’s version at the local library. (The cover was so enticing! I couldn’t leave the book alone.)

Part 3:

Is Clayton’s version identical to the original Greek telling? Honestly, I don’t know. There may be a few deviations, but to the best of my memory, it’s identical (or close enough) to the Greek form. It’s not embellished in any way that I could tell. The story is written simply and clearly, as I think it should be. Persphone’s tale is not about complex, psychological motivations. The focus is on the events of the story itself, how a young goddess was robbed of the life she knew and how her fate affected the entire world.

I don’t wish to say too much on the illustrations. They really are impressive, and I’d rather you be surprised (and maybe awed) when you see them for yourselves. I will say this though: Virginia Lee’s illustrations are a perfect complement to the Persephone story.

First of all, they are done in the classical Greek art style, the kind you might see on pottery.

Red Figure

Secondly, each one manages to perfectly convey a mood or an atmosphere in the story, from innocence to horror… even to utter bleakness, as when Demeter covers the world in winter.

Demeter covers the world in winter.

Part 4:

I think the myth of Persephone is beautiful. It is a sad story, and a dark one, but it’s filled with brightness, like Demeter’s love and relentless searching for the daughter who was lost. Ultimately, it’s a hopeful tale. Yes, winter must come, but spring will always return.

As will Persephone.

Reading level: K+
Available for purchase: http://www.powells.com/biblio/61-9780802853493-0

Beautiful, Unusual Children’s Books, 4

Press Here by Herve Tullet

press here

It’s an interactive book that isn’t!

Let me explain, while the book instructs readers to press dots, shake the pages, and so on, the book actually doesn’t change. The dynamic graphic designs, however, do give the impression that the book is coming alive in your hands. It’s about as close to having a magic book as you can get!

dot

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That’s really the whole thing. You shake the book and the dots change. Which is surprisingly entertaining and beautiful. Think cool, experimental minimalist art project for children.

Age Level: Really any age, since it’s the sort of book that can be adapted to suit whatever the reader wants.

Available for purchase: http://www.powells.com/s?kw=press+here&class=

Can’t You Sleep, Little Bear? by Martin Waddell, illustrated by Barbara Firth

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Like the other Martin Waddell book on the list, Owl Babies, this one deals with a typical children’s problem, the inability to sleep in the dark. And, like Owl Babies, Waddell doesn’t downplay this problem as no big deal. In fact, the entire story feels kind of grand and epic, this increasing quest to find the perfect nightlights and the eventual contemplation of the moon in the night sky. Also, like Owl Babies, it’s a comforting story where the baby character eventually feels safe. It was a favorite story in my house, and I remember my little sister asking for it again and again when we were kids.

The illustrations are really charming and sweet without being cutesy. The bear’s cave is part actual cave part recognizable children’s bedroom, and, kind of like Miss Suzy’s house, I remember wanting to live there. The gentle, muted colors, clean line work, and increasing light from the lanterns helps create this cozy, moody feeling that kind of perfectly works for a bedtime story. Plus, it has bears. I love bears.

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Age level: Pre-K and up

Available for purchase: http://www.powells.com/s?kw=can%27t+you+sleep+little+bear%3F&class=

Stagecoach Sal by Deborah Hopkinson, illustrated by Carson Ellis

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Stagecoach Sal is a beautiful Western adventure story. I discovered it through library work and was delighted with the way it blended folk art illustrations and some fun adventure.

I absolutely love Carson Ellis as an illustrator and fine artist, and her work here is stellar, full of her beautiful linework details, smooth coloring, and charming characters. Like several others on this list, I would hang these illustrations on my wall. In fact, I actually own a poster by Carson Ellis, although it’s for a Decemberists concert and not from this book. Needless to say, she’s one of my very favorite illustrators!

stagecoach

Stagechoach Sal is also based on a true story, so it’s one of those educational books that also works as a genuinely fun read.

Age level: K+

Available for purchase: http://www.powells.com/biblio/2-9781423111498-4

ABCs by Charley Harper

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If you’re an illustration fan and want to find a really beautiful and unusual alphabet book, this one is pretty incredible. I love the designs, the simple shapes the form the images, the color planes, the balance of the figures… These are, again, works that I would buy as prints. But, they also make really pleasing illustrations for the alphabet.

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The images are colorful and charming, with pictures of animals for each letter. Unlike many alphabet books, it doesn’t try to be cutesy or really attention grabbing. It’s very calm, and seems to take kids very seriously.

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I think a lot of adults have really gotten into this book, which, considering it has barely any text other than the alphabet, is kind of saying something. The images are just really beautiful.

He also has a similar 1 2 3s book and book of colors, both of which are beautiful.

Age level: pre-k, board book

Available for purchase: http://www.powells.com/biblio/1-9781934429075-9

Beautiful, Unusual Children’s Books, 3

Continuing with gorgeous kids’ books!

Harold and the Purple Crayon by Crockett Johnson

Harold_and_the_Purple_Crayon_(book)

This is one of those extremely special books that seem to have a lot of fond memories attached. I think many of us grew up with this story and felt kind of inspired by it. It’s about a little boy who uses art to create an adventure for himself. How awesome is that?

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The illustrations are fantastic, and extremely dynamic since the character is actually drawing them as the story progresses. They encourage kids to see art in a variety of different ways and to express themselves creatively. Drawing just seems so exciting and even a little dangerous and thrilling.

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It’s a smart, creative story that seems to inspire kids with each generation. And, it’s also just a cool book. It’s one of those kids’ books that you find tattooed on adults, turned into theatrical productions, and given Dr. Who parodies (all of which you can find with a quick google search).

Age level: pre-k and up, and available as board book

Available for purchase: http://www.powells.com/s?kw=harold+and+the+purple+crayon&class=

Franklin Stein by Ellen Raskin

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This is a wonderful, little-known book from the Newberry Award winning author of The Westing Game. It’s about an eccentric little boy who makes a giant monster sculpture. People really dislike his work, at first, and Franklin has to prove that his art is actually beautiful.

As a former art major, this might have struck home a little…

But, anyway, stories about kids learning how to express their creative voices, even if people don’t really “get” them, are always on my radar as good reads. This book, with Raskin’s witty, award-winning writing style and quirky, retro illustrations, is also just a really entertaining story.
And, again, the illustrations are wonderful. They’re very retro, “groovy” even, with fun character designs and fantastic details.

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And, again, it’s about creative arts –strange, monstrous creative arts!

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I think it’s really moving that Franklin just wants everyone to see his art, the monster Fred, as beautiful, and how he sticks to his belief that Fred is beautiful. That’s pretty inspirational, right there.

Age level: reading about K and up, but I think younger children would listen to the story and like the pictures.

Available for purchase: Out of print, but here’s a link to used copies. http://www.alibris.com/Franklin-Stein-Ellen-Raskin/book/2443301

Blueberries for Sal by Robert McCloskey

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Blueberries for Sal was always a favorite in my house. It’s just the kind of book that really works well with kids. It has a charming setting (blueberry picking with mom), a little danger (someone else loves blueberries, too!), and a great repeated refrain of berry-picking sounds that kids love to repeat! Kerplink, kerplink, kerplunk! Who doesn’t like shouting that?
I really like kids’ books that have a sort of gentle quality and leave out trying to be hip and snarky. I like it when kids’ books let kids just be… kids. It’s a special time when blueberry picking with mom is a huge adventure, and we have all of adulthood to be hip and snarky. We need more blueberry picking days.

blueberries for sal2

I also like how there’s *spoilers?* two sets of moms and babies. You see, that someone else who likes blueberries is a bear cub! (I may have a thing for bears. I looked at my list of kids’s books and I was like, wow, bears, everywhere!) It’s a really great message because while there’s still a strong sense that bears are wild creatures, you also can really see the similarities between Sal’s adventure and the baby bear’s adventure. They’re both in search of the same things in the story, and that’s actually kind of a profound message.

blueberries for sal3

Also, the illustrations are amazing! The characters are charming and friendly, the scenery beautiful. I love the simple line drawings and the texture. They’re just delightful pictures, and, like Where Is My Hat?, I would hang prints on my wall!

Age level: Pre-k and up

Available to Purchase: http://www.powells.com/biblio/7-9780670175918-0

Ghosts In the House by Kazuno Kohara

ghosts

It’s no secret among those who know me that I love scary things. Even as a little kid, I loved scary stories. However, I also love really gentle, sweet kids’ books. So, when the two are combined, I get very happy. That’s the case in this book.

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It’s about a little witch who discovers her house is infested with ghosts, like one might have an infestation of moths. So, since ghosts in this story are literally animated sheets, she washes them and puts them to use in her house. Which is absurdly hilarious.

The story about facing fears is very similar to There’s Something In My Attic, and as a kid who regularly gave herself nightmares by watching scary movies, I really appreciate this kind of moral. Now, I’ve heard some complaints about how the book supposedly is about exploiting others, like the ghosts are her slaves or something. To that I say, please! You’re taking it too seriously. It is literally and truly about ghosts, and the only moral here has to do with not being afraid. I mean, the ghosts are sheets with faces and she washes them, that’s not meant to be any colonolial symbolism or subliminal message about exploitation. Why can’t a ghost just be a ghost? And also a bed sheet?

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I love the illustrations. They’re bold, extremely cute, and really creative, and I love the simple, bold designs. And the little witch and her cat are just adorable characters. Even the ghosts are pretty cute, with their simple, little smiles and dot eyes. That’s just adorable!

Age level: pre-K and up

Available to Purchase: http://www.powells.com/biblio/1-9780312608866-1

Rapunzel by Paul O. Zelinsky

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It may be obvious by now that my tastes in illustrations are kind of minimalist. I like the balance of figures on uncluttered backgrounds, and the drama of few lines. But, just as I like the sketchy pen work in There’s Something In My Attic and Owl Babies, I cannot resist this book. I mean, it’s illustrated in the style of the Italian Renaissance. How can this not be amazing? I used to love showing this to kids at the library and blowing their minds.

tower

Talk about taking children’s books seriously! These illustrations are mind-blowing, steeped in a strong understanding of both art history and just masterful technique. I’m really glad he went for this style instead of some hokey photorealism, which usually looks creepy, in my opinion. Instead, the images are dream-like and magical –like fairytales themselves!

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The story isn’t dumbed down, either. Kids don’t usually pick it up, but, yeah, Rapunzel gets pregnant in the original fairytale. That’s how she gets discovered by the witch. I’m not kidding. I remember the first time I realized that was a plot point, and it’s not one you’ll see in Tangled, that’s for sure. And, that’s pretty much what happens in this version, although Rapunzel and the Prince are secretly married at this point. Plus, there’s thorn-blinding, kidnapping, wandering in the wilderness… It’s epic, heavy stuff for kids.

hair

But, that just seems fitting, considering the epic, heavy illustrations. And, I have yet to see a kid who wasn’t enchanted and inspired by the story.

Don Bluth, the man behind Land Before Time and other classic kids’ films, once said that you can show a child anything as long as there’s a happy ending. Classic fairytales seem to do just that, what with their high body counts, dark subject matter, and struggles for the protagonists. But, the payoff, that happy ending, just makes it so worth it!

Age Level: It’s difficult to say. The language seems like grade school and up, but the pictures are so beautiful that I’ve seen non-reading kids entranced by the story.

Available to purchase:  http://www.powells.com/biblio/7-9780142301937-2

Beautiful, Unusual Children’s Books Cont.

There’s Something In My Attic by Mercer Mayer

attic

I love Mercer Mayer’s illustrations most of the time, but this was one of my all-time favorite books as a small child. Part of this was because the protagonist is blond, and so, in the strange way very young children understand books, I thought the story was about me.

But aside from me pre-K belief that someone had projected my soul into a book, this is actually a really good story. It’s about a little girl who thinks that there is a monster in her attic. And so she captures it. And then they become friends. It’s one of those perfect blends of slightly scary, enough for kids who are afraid of monsters to relate, as well as empowering and cute. It doesn’t discredit the imagination of kids who do believe there are monsters in attics, under the bed, or in the closet. But, it still helps give kids the tools to deal with their fears.
And, the monster is kind of adorable in the end:

monster

And, again, Mercer Mayer’s illustrations are wonderful. I loved them as a kid. They’re emotional, fun, and just super creative. As an adult, I did my undergrad in fine arts and I have an interest in illustration, so I really admire his work just from a technical aspect. The colors are moody, I like the texture of the line quality, and his monster drawings are just so darn creative! I would be lying if I said I didn’t draw pretty heavily from this in my own artwork at times. And, the pictures are seriously beautiful. He doesn’t mess around with making lovely, moody images. Just look at this eerie-but-awesome farmhouse! (I like the detail of one light being on, since the little girl can’t sleep.)

mayer

The book also has the added benefit of the little girl eventually letting her parents sleep and dealing with her monster problem on her own –a moral I can assume many parents appreciate.

There are more stories in this series, with kids vs. closet monster and alligator, but, partially because of nostalgia and partially for the artwork, I always thought that this one was the best.

Ages: pre-K and up

(I won’t say reading level, since parents can read the books to kids, as well. =D )

You can purchase copies here: http://www.powells.com/biblio/61-9780140548136-0


Owl Babies by Martin Waddell, illustrated by Patrick Benson

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This pick is also one heavily affected by bias. Owls have been one of my favorite animals ever since I was a little girl. However, out of all the owl books out there, this one is pretty special. It’s just stinking beautiful!

owls

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The story deals with a pretty typical childhood problem, that of being away from mom and going into a panic. This is something I think everyone can relate to. I mean, we all did it.
The book doesn’t downplay this fear, which I like. Telling kids it’ll be fine and they have nothing to worry about rarely seems to help when they are convinced that, no, things aren’t fine and they probably should be very, very worried. So, instead, the story shows kids how the mother owl really is coming back and they have nothing to fear.
It’s kind of poetic, really.
And, of course, again, it’s gorgeous. The birds are drawn realistically and unsentimental,and the nighttime forest imagery is really quite beautiful and evocative.

Age level: pre-K and up

You can purchase a copy here: http://www.powells.com/biblio/1-9780763617103-0

The Snowy Day by Ezra Jack Keats

the_snowy_day
I think that basically anything by Ezra Jack Keats is wonderful. His illustrations are gorgeous, and he tells simple stories about… life. They’re just about life. There’s not really a central plot to The Snowy Day. It’s about a little boy who experiences a snowy day. That’s pretty much it. There is a bit about trying to save a snowball for later, but that’s not so much as driving force to the story as just something the character does because, well, he’s a kid.
The illustrations are great! They’re simple but dynamic, full of action and with pleasant colors and imagery. Also, points for not putting the snowy day in some idyllic farmland where there’s always a grandmother dressed in 1800s clothes cooling pies in her window. This is unsentimental and still adorable, looking at a very realistic kid’s experience of a realistic snowy day. He doesn’t encounter some magic, nostalgic experience. He does things like hit tree branches with sticks. Why? Because he’s a kid.
snowy

I think a lot of kids like Peter from the story because, frankly, we all kind of were Peter. How many of us just hit trees with sticks because cause and effect was still pretty awesome? Probably most of us.
peter

Basically, there’s a reason why this book is considered a classic and why so many kids love it. It’s gorgeous, it’s cute, and it’s not cheesy. It’s about snow days, and all of us, even adults, love snow days.

Age level: pre-K and up, and available in board book format

Available for purchase: http://www.powells.com/biblio/7-9780140501827-7

I Want My Hat Back by Jon Klassen
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How can you not fall in love with this right from the cover? This is adorable. I have a huge case of illustration envy right now. There’s just something hilarious about his very serious-looking bear staring at you in a kind of soulful way and paired with such an odd request. This bear wants his hat back. Doesn’t reading that sentence just make you smile?
I love the illustration style. It’s simple, sort of folk-art style, with some great animal images paired with this weirdly serious, polite text about finding hats. It’s hilarious and awesome!

hat

I really like how the backgrounds are just basically blank. The illustrations give you just enough information and then you leave the rest to the imagination. It keeps the page clear and uncluttered, harmonious even. They’re just really nicely set up pages. I would put prints of the illustrations on my wall, absolutely.
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I feel like these animals exist in the same world as the Fantastic Mr. Fox movie, where the story is still an animal adventure for kids but the animals interact like kind of weird grownups. I can imagine Bill Murray doing the bear’s voice, just kind of dully exasperated by the fact that he’s lost a red, pointy hat and no one seems as concerned as he is about this fact.

I might be gushing, but it’s a great book. I think I’ll buy myself a copy…

Age level: pre-K and up, even to adulthood

Available for purchase: http://www.powells.com/biblio/1-9780763655983-1

Elephant and Piggie by Mo Willems

Initially, I thought these books would be really dumb, like the delightful adventures of two animals learning all the thrills of learning up and down or how to say “cat” and “stop”. I… really hate those kinds of books. We live in a Dr. Seuss world where we know we can teach these things in a fun format. So, I assumed that Elephant and Piggie wouldn’t be very good.
I was wrong.
Completely wrong.
You see, Elephant and Piggie are absolutely hilarious. They are best friends, but also huge mischief makers who constantly get into weird adventures. Just look at these faces. They’re up to no good.

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But, it’s really the way they get into mischief that’s so funny. The books are just outrageously smart, like the baby’s-first-meta-fiction-experience of Elephant and Piggie realizing they are inside a book. Which apparently leads to this moment of baby’s-first-existential-crisis:

piggie

Of course, everything turns out in the end.
But, the stories are just really very funny and often absurd. Sometimes Elephant and Piggie just want to fight, for no reason, and then jump around and shout, for no reason. Kind of like kids. And they take their exploits rather seriously.

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There’s even a book where Piggie decides to be a frog. That’s the story.

The illustrations are simple and full of energy and emotion. The facial expressions are hilarious. And, the stories are legitimately funny, which is unusual considering that they are written for very early readers.

Age level: pre-K, and available in board book format

Available to purchase: http://www.powells.com/s?kw=elephant+and+piggie&class=

I would like to point out that many of these books are from Candlewick Press, which is an all-around awesome company and I would highly suggest checking them out if you want to find sweet, creative books for kids! (I’m not even getting paid to say that.)

Disclaimer: I do not work for Powell’s Books, and am not being paid to send people to their store for purchasing. However, I do support independent book sellers, and Powell’s is just a really cool company, one that I think is worthy of support, and they will consolidate your shipping orders (which helps save a lot of the hidden expenses of buying from companies like Amazon).

Beautiful, Unusual Children’s Books

So, trying to revive this, again, now that I have more time on my hands.

Because a friend just asked me for some children’s book suggestions, and I have received this question a lot. Here are some kid’s books that I think are utterly gorgeous, hilarious, brilliant, touching, creative, or all of the above. I’ll try to put a reading level next to each, and I’ll be excluding anything higher than the reading level in Nate the Great. Perhaps I’ll do a juvenile literature and young adult post later, if anyone likes this.
And so, here is the first:

Miss Suzy by Miriam Young, Illustrated by Arnold Lobel photo most-young2_zps872a285c.jpg

Miss Suzy is a family favorite, and the copy my parents have at their home is worn and taped up and battered. Just like any well-loved book. The story is about a squirrel called Miss Suzy, whose home is stolen by red squirrels and who is forced to live Snow White style in a dollhouse inhabited by toy soldiers. The illustrations are simple but beautiful, and the story praises simplicity and friendship. Miss Suzy loves her home, even more than the fancy doll’s house, and I remember as a kid really falling in love with her treehouse, as well,and being genuinely sad when the red squirrels kicked her out. How can you not feel for this? They even made her drop her cake! (Childhood holding-back-tears happened around this point, every time.)

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Now, some people have criticized this book because Miss Suzy doesn’t *spoilers? I guess?* take back her own house from the squirrels. To that I said, please. You miss the whole point. Miss Suzy is a lover, not a fighter. She’s not a soldier. And, in the end, it’s her love of the toy soldiers that really saves the day. The soldiers don’t even fight the squirrels, they just scare them off because… well, honestly an animated army of dolls IS pretty scary. Just watch one of the Puppetmaster videos… Miss Suzy can’t and should not be scary because she stands for all the simple, happy things of childhood, like eating cakes and staying in a treehouse and watching the stars.

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That, right there, was what I wanted to be as a kid. I still basically do.

Reading level: pre-K and up. I don’t know if it comes in board book editions.

Available for purchase here: http://www.powells.com/biblio/62-9781930900288-0