Weekly Readings XVII

Weekly Readings 17

 Welcome back to

Weekly Readings!


For those new here, Weekly Readings is when your lit. rat reviews picture books I’ve read here and there.

While T.A.A. focuses on animal stories, we do give humans their due now and again…

This week, your lit. shares with you tales of father-son bonding, a well-ordered parisan lady whose dog teachers her to go with the flow, and an insect prodogy who shows how “playing with your food” can change the world!



The Bear’s Song

by Benjamin Chaud

Publisher: Chronicle Books


Pub. Date: September 17th, 2013

While we’re nearing the onset of Spring 2015 (at the time this review’s being written), I couldn’t help but share this story after having bears in general on my mind…

As winter seta in, Papa Bear is all set for hibernation, but his son’s wanders off, and from there Papa Bear’s journey to find him 

Benjamin Chaud’s illustrations have this classic yet modern look to them that would just at home amongst the early works of Richard Scary and Bernard Waber  as they would on the cover of a “The New Yorker” today.


It’s a quality many of my favorite illustrators such as Gus Gordon and Zachariah ‘OHara share, but Benjamin’s use of shadow and light, and Monet-esque tone sets it apart from the hyper-technicolor palate common in kidlit.

The text, while concise, is a less spare and a refreshing change of pace from the “minimalist” era in picture books today. Moments of lighthearted humor flows well with the gorgeous spreads throughout the book.


“The Bear’s Song” is partly a father and son story, with accentts of “Where’s Waldo?” and the charm of “Guess How Much I Love You?” but with the subtle and sophisticated art style that would make it a unique cofee table book as well as a great read-aloud. 



Madame Martine

by Sarah S. Brannen (@SarahBrannen)

Publisher: Albert Whitman & Company

Pub. Date: September 2014


 If Tomie DePaola’s “Strega Nona” is the magical grandmother many of us wish we had (or are lucky to have) in real life, and Ms. Frizzle (from “The Magic School Bus”) is about empowering us to “Take chances, make mistakes, and getting messy” in the name of making learning fun, Madame Martine is the exact opposite of the ladies mentioned above. She’s the pragmatist to their flair and flamboyance.

Her days are planned out and highly rooted in routine. I’d imagine this is what would look like without 

Until one day, she happened upon a stray dog, cold, hungry, and dirty. Madame Martine takes him home, cleans him, and eventually decides to adopt him, thus naming him Max. 

But in chaging this former stray’s fortune around, Madame Martine hadn’t counted on was how Max would change her life…when a routine walk becomes anything but when Max’s curiosity leads him, and his new human, off the beaten path, and allows this level-headed local too see Paris (most notably the famous Eiffel Tower) with the eyes and childlike wonder of the tourists who flock to the “City of Lights” time and time again for the very first time.


In many ways, Max is to Madame Martine, what Madeline is to Miss Clevel, or Mouse is the cheeful ying to Bear’s curmudgeonly yang. (from Bonny Becker and Kady MacDonald Denton’s popular picture book series), Max provides the spark of serendipity that breaks  up routine and sprinkles a healthy dash of spontenatey we all could use more of in life.


While there’s something to be said to having a distict style that unifies your work (such as the works of Beatrix Potter, Suess and Scary), I always find it impressive when illustrators can vary the art style and medium to suit a particular book, and while I can only imagine how that might make things tricky from a marketing standpoint, it gives the reader (and those being read to) the treat of  exploring not only a new story and characters each time, but a differnt art style to explore.


It offers the reader, and those read to, that extra bit of freshness that can get harder to achieve the further an author and/or illustrator is in their career.


Sarah’s illustrations here have a more classic style that the exsagarted watercolors from “The Beary Tooth Fairy” (written by author/publisher Arthur A. Lavine) or the collage-like approach of “Uncle Bobby’s Wedding” that have a more detailed and precious touch versus the more childlike astetics of Lauren Child’s mixed medium approach used in her “Charlie and Lola” and “Clarice Bean” series.



In a world that seems to demand foresight and meticulous planning at every turn, “Madame Martine” (and Max) reminds us all that the best things in life can’t always be planned, but rather come about because we have no plan! Something everyone, but especially parents, need to be reminded of sometimes.



Please, Mr. Panda

by Steve Antony (@MrSteveAntony)

(U.S.) Publisher: Scholastic (@Scholastic)

(U.K.) Publisher: Hodder Children’s Books

Pub. Date: December 30th, 2014


It’s early morning as I type out this review. The reason I note this is because when I think of early morning, I think naturally of breakfast, or brunch if I’m late to waking up.


I try to get something healthy in me at the start of each day, but sometimes I answer to my inner lit. rattling and sneak in something decadent, one such treat is homemade doughnuts and coffee, and hey-once in awhile it’s not cataclysmic to my health.


Now when I think of doughnuts (or “donuts” depending on your POV of how it’s spelled…) I’ll also think of “Please, Mr. Panda” which is one of those books that lures in you in with deceptive simplicity, but tells a tale that’s harder to pull off than folks often realize.


While there’s certainly truth to the “Best things in life are the simplest” cliché, pulling off simplicity is actually among the most challenging feats for most writers, and the bravest ones will not be shy to tell you that.


While we’re often more concerned with how kids and teen perform in school, we should put more stock into how they perform in other areas of life, such as how they socialize, and part of soclizing is sharing. 

Don’t worry, this isn’t some thinly veiled moral tale. Like Mo Willems’ “Don’t Let The Pidgeon Drive The Bus” this book invites audience participation. But rather than letting the audience being read to “Be the parent” to Pigeon,  it invites the reader and audience to think about how the story relates to them on a personal level.


“Why won’t Mr. Panda won’t give doughnuts to nearly all who requested one?”


It’s a quiter form of audience participation, but no less effective, and often the best books force readers to think about how to story relates to their own lives, maybe even about what they’d like to see more of than what’s currently the case.


Mr. Panda has doughnuts to give away, and various creatures aren’t shy about wanting to them off his paws.

But nearly everyone who proclaimed to want one (or ALL) of his doughnuts is swiftly denied.


Well, put yourself in Mr. Panda’s place. How did you feel when your kid brother or sister used your things without permission?

Or (if you don’t have siblings) how it felt when a friend or relative betrays your trust by sharing an embarrassing moment that was only meant to be heard by your ears alone.

When trying to teach our lit. rattlings how to share, something we may gloss over is what sharing looks like.


Sharing isn’t just about offering. 


It’s also about HOW we offer what we intend to share. It’s more often than not the difference between empathy and sympathy.

Writers often are told to make their characters sympathetic, when really they should be saying they need to be more empathic to win the heart of the reader.

While sympathy and empathy can look similar on the surface, they’re not. Sympathy actually drives DISCORD and DISCONNECTION.

Empthy, by contrast, drives CONNECTION and putting others on an equal playing field, both mentally and emotionally.


We’re (often subconciously) looking down on others when we feel sympathy toward others, versus empathy when we’re sincerly offering a helping hand or a patient ear (whether conciously or subconciously) because we’d want the same courtosey if were in the other’s position, or we might’ve faced something similar and decide to reach out, especially if we had no one to do the same for us.

Something you learn as a writer early on (if you’re lucky) is HOW you say something’s just as important as WHAT you say. This book makes smart use of that.

While many authors (myself included) want to entertain first and foremost, and while some readers often desire “larger than life” characters to escape the harships we face in life, we also want to bring some level of our experience in our work, not to glamarize or melodramtize our life, but to add depth and enrich our writing.

Steve Antony’s soft, minimalist illustrations do much of the work as Mr. Panda goes from creature to creature, denying most of them the doughnuts he’s resolved to give away, and when he finally comes across someone who’s awarded his bounty of pastry goodness…

Well, I won’t spoil the ending, but I assure you, it will surprise you, even if you think you can guess it from the title…you’d only be half correct.


Writers are always preaching to each other to “Show” instead of “Tell.”

“Please, Mr. Panda” does just that. 

It’s not only a story about sharing, or simply about good manners, it shows the reader (and those being read to) what well-mannered sharing looks like.

“Sharing is Caring” as the song goes, but I’d rephrase it as, “How we share, shows how much we really care.” Not as catchy, perhaps, but more accurate to what we’re trying to show our family and friends.  

Kids and teens always want to know “Why” something’s important. “Please, Mr. Panda” shows not only the “Why” but also the “How” of what sharing’s all about, which sets it apart from most books on sharing that only answer the “Why.”


Check Out the OFFICIAL Trailer for

“Please, Mr. Panda”






Roberto: The Insect Architect

by Nina Laden

Publisher: Chronicle Books


Pub. Date: August 2000


Ever since I was charmed by author-illustrator Nina Laden’s “Bad Dog”  I’ve been on a mad dash to read (and review) her impressively long backlist of titles, and “Roberto: The Insect Architect” is no exception.


Most termites see wood as nothing more than fuel, sustence, or put more simply, food. (just don’t call it “Grub.” In the insect world, they often live within wood!) But Roberto looks at wood, and sees possibilities…

From an early age, Roberto used wood not to satisfy his culinary palete, but rather to excite his creative muse and used it the way Leonardo Da Vinci used marble in his early years as an artist. He evneutally set his sights to the big city to become an architect.


At first, everyone turned him away, seeing him as a liability who’d eat the profits (in the literarl sense) rather htan build with them. Roberto was the kind of hard sell risk as  would be a mouse (or rat…) in cheese shop, a dog working for a butcher, and of course, a termite working with wood in the contrscution biz.

Along the way, Roberto encounters various friends and neighbors who are homless for one reason or another, and decides to do something about it.


With his self-taught knowledge of architecture, Roberto designs and builds the homes and businesses to get those bugs off the streets and a second chance at a better life, and in the spirit of a “Secret Santa” does so anomyously.


It doesn’t take long before the city at large is buzzing with inritgue wondering who this mystery master archetict is.


When it’s discovered that Roberto’s the bug they’re looking for, the reader (and those read) are shown not only the importance of hard work and never giving up, but also how not to let doubt from others blindside you from your dreams.

Nina Laden’s agular and wonderfully quirkly illustrations, matched with concise and engaging text that sprinkles in fun wordplay throughout complete each other well.



While I always liked the idea behind the film,  “A Bug’s Life” (the sophmore effort after the phenemon that was/is Disney-Pixar’s “Toy Story”) I couldn’t fully get into the execution. “Roberto, The Insect Architect” pulls it off, and in a fraction of the time.


Unless you’re horridly averse to insects, this is a book worth checking out.


If more termites were like Roberto, they’d probably be as sacred to us as cats were in ancient Egypt and parts of Asia, and today in the form of viral videos like “Dear Kitten”, comic strip icons like “Garfield” and “Heathcliff”, and pop culture phenemons like “Doraemon.” Or at least keep David Kirk’s “Miss Spider” and E.B. White’s “Charlotte’s Web” company…


That’s it for Weekly Readings. See you next time!


NOTE FROM THE LITERARY RAT: If my ramblings convinced you to buy one or more of the books mentioned above, please support T.A.A. by clicking on the affiliate cover images above or links within the review(s).

Weekly Readings VIII




Welcome back to Weekly Readings!

For those new here, Weekly Readings is when your lit. rat reviews picture books I’ve read here and there.

While T.A.A. focuses on animal stories, we do give humans their due now and again…

This week, as you might guess from the image above, your lit. rat’s heart is alive with the sound of music, as I review a quartet of books inspired by movies, music and dance. 

  The Pelican Chorus

The Pelican Chorus (and Other Nonsense)

by Edward Lear

Illustrated by Fred Marcelino

Publisher: Balzer + Bray (An Imprint of HarperCollins)

Pub. Date: April 29th, 1998

While most picture books tend to be some are just plain unbridled fun! The Late and Great Fred Marcelino breathed new life into his artistic take on a medley of prose and poetry by author Edward Lear (not sure if he’s related to Norman Lear, one of the “Godfathers” of sitcoms).   


I’ve had a serious crush on Marcelino’s illustration style for years. If he were alive today, I’d do whatever human possibly to work with him on a project of mine.



His style is both classic yet with a level of modern flair that’s hard to come by when much of modern illustration and animation has moved to digital plane or CG animation is taking precedence over classic 2D hand-drawn animation, and my stance is there should ALWAYS be room for both.


While I respect that computers can make shading and certain other techniques easier to do, I appreciate when the illustrator honors the tactile mediums and keeps them alive in some way.  


Maybe it’s because I’m a non-illustrator author (who wishes he were an illustrator) that I feel so strongly about this, but I do feel an added visceral connection to an illustrated book.


Be it a picture book or a graphic novel where I know that there’s still that level of organic tactile feel that someone made this by hand, even if they do the final art digitally on a tablet or the computer, there’s that level on handmade warmth that still shines through even if part or all of the final book is created digitally.  

Fred was one of those illustrators that mostly illustrate the books of other authors, whereas most illustrators today are also authors who write and illustrate their own books.

I, Crocodile

(Check out our first “Weekly Readings” for my review of “I, Crocodile” which Fred wrote and illustrated) There are also authors who only illustrate their own books. My stories matched with his masterful illustration would’ve been amazing.  


Thankfully, there are still many fine illustrators in the world, but Fred will be missed.


I never got to know him outside the work he left behind, but thankfully the books he did illustrate (Including Tor Seilder’s novel, “A Rat’s Tale” which is one of my favorite books and was the inspiration for my upcoming debut novel “Gabriel“) are here for us today.


From funny, to poignant, and back to funny again, The Pelican Chorus is as much the creation of Fred Marcelino as Edward Lear, as like with his illustration work on “Puss in Boots” and Tor Seilder’s version of “The Steadfast Tin Solider”, Fred was able to put his own spin on a medley of prose and poetry that was first written and published long before his time. It reminds me a lot of the best picture book collaborations today such as Axel Scheffler and Julia Donaldson (The Gruffalo, The Highway Rat, and The Scarecrow Wedding) whom we profiled during our Picture Month 2013 celebration, and husband-wife team Helen and Thomas Docherty (The Snatchabook).  


When Pigasso Met Mootisse

When Pigasso met Mootisse

by Nina Laden

Publisher: Chronicle Books (@ChronicleBooks | @ChronicleKids)

Pub. Date: July 1st, 1998


How do you get readers who love fiction interested in nonfiction? Take famous folk from history and give them a fantastical fauna face-lift, of course!


Well, in the case of “When Pigasso Met Mootisse” this format works well and gives us a fun vehicle to discover how two folks from different walks of life and ways of doing things, can find common ground, and mutual respect.


This book also has the benefit of doing for art history what “The Magic School Bus” does for the sciences: Mix in the fantastical to engage the reader in the factual.  


Just like the DC vs. Marvel in the comics space, Mario vs. Sonic in the ’90s era of video games, and most recently the sizable shift from hand-drawn 2D animation to CG on both the big and small screen, there were and still are fierce rivalries in the world of fine art, and the real-life Picasso and Matisse had just as fierce an off and on battle as their animal alter-egos.


I was way into art history as a kid, and while I’ve not mined the world from a historical perspective in some time, whenever I come across books about visual artists such as painters, sculptors and niche craftsmen and women in a book I’m always delighted. One thing I LOVE about this book is that they bring together two artists, one more well known and often parodied, with a talent that’s perhaps more under the radar to an American audience.


While Pablo Picasso is well known for his arguably “Childlike” approach to his painting, Henri Emile Benoît Matisse is lesser known to the west for his more traditional approach, though he too was chided for his work being too radical yet stuffy for his time, in that respect he was as much of an misfit in the art world as Picasso, 11 years his junior.


Nina Laden uses her own angular and offbeat style to capture the essence of her subject artists turned fictional characters, and in doing so brings to light one of the numerous “Odd Couple” stories of the 20th century.


The book’s end pages also includes a brief overview of the real life origins and interactions of the artist duo who despite their rivalry, and vastly opposite worldview and art styles, were overall good friends to the end of their days, with one outliving the other.


In fact, the great Picasso vs. Matisse rivalry wasn’t so much between the artists themselves, but the rabid fans of one against the other, and I thought the fandom feuds among readers today was bad…


All in all, this a book any fan of visual arts should check out, and if you’re already a fan (though hopefully just shy of homicidal as the fanboys and girls of their time) of one or both, you’ll be in for a treat.   Mary Had A Little Ham

Mary Had A Little Ham

by Margie Palatini

Illustrated by Guy Francis

Publisher: Disney-Hyperion


Pub. Date: September 2nd, 2003


Even the shyest souls among us have at times dreamed of life in the spotlight, even your lit. rat likes to pretend he’s a famous actor or performer of some kind.


In some ways my upcoming podcast imitative “T.A.A. FM” will give me the chance to in some small way live that fantasy, but with my voice more so than my face, but more on that later, now onto the review…


As the title suggests, this is a retelling of the vintage nursery rhyme “Mary Had A Little Lamb” but recast to star a pig by the name of Stanley Snoutowski who leaves his home on the farm to chase the siren song of stardom.


Illustrator Guy Francis left nothing to chance, using every page spread from cover to cover, crease to corner, and dedication to end papers, to invoke the spirit of Old Hollywood at it’s best.


While also depicting the lows of our swine-tastic protagonist on his way from humble beginnings to the big time, part of which is chronicled via the old school snail mail between, and his girl, named, you guessed it–Mary, alongside Margie’s spare but effective prose.


My friend Swinebert Glockchester (of Swinebert and Dempsey fame) has a dad who worked in the movies as an actor, and when I shared the story with him, he said-


“This pig fits my Pa to a T, when he was just getting started in show business. Hope Dempsey and me do as well with our endeavors.”  


You will, S.B. I’ll do my best to make sure of that. Classic movie buffs and starry eyed thespians alike will find much humor and unabashed optimism abound in “Mary Had A Little Ham.” On that note: Here’s looking at you, Stanley!



Ballerino Nate Cover 2

Ballerino Nate

by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley

Illustrated by R.W. Alley

Publisher: Dial

Pub. Date: March 16th, 2006

Don’t laugh, but “The Literary Rat” in his preschool days once wanted to be a ballet dancer, though I lacked the discipline and stick-to-it factor I’ve learned to develop for writing over time, but I’m all for boys who dare to defy “gender norms” with wild abandon.


This is one of those books that I would’ve loved to read when I first became enchanted by the ballet, and while it may not have kept me on the ballet path, I would’ve had this as literary empowerment armor whenever some chauvinist lad or lass says “That’s only for GIRLS!”   Well, I wouldn’t have used the word “Chauvinist” at age 4, of course.   But by age 9, to use a retro tween play on words: For sure! (That was the beginning of my “I Love Lucy” obsession), but that’s a whole other story…


Nate, like any sensible nonconformist, has no qualms disagreeing with his “Know-it-All” big brother who by contrast is more “Tom Sawyer” than “Baryshnikov” [buhrish-ni-kawf], but at times can’t help but wonder “Is he right?”


Would I have to wear a tutu?

Do I have to wear pink even though I’m a boy?

Can boys even be “Ballerinas” at all?


Well, the latter’s kind of true, but NOT how you think, and I’ll let the book show that to not spoil the pathos!


The illustration style is appropriately traditional, hand-drawn watercolors has charm to spare, and accents the movement and grace that any serious dancer (ballet or otherwise) can relate to, and also gives readers with self-proclaimed “Two Left Feet” syndrome a glimpse into the art and practice of dance in general, and ballet in particular.


It’s very hard to talk about this book without another famous ballet student in the fantastical fauna universe, but rest assured, this book while great for both genders gives those nontraditional boys something they can quickly identify with.   While gender doesn’t solely define our identity as it once did (In some parts of the world, anyway…), parental baggage aside, it does play a part, and this book honors that, without stereotyping, and at the same time doesn’t shy away from the questions (be they spoken or unspoken) even the most progressive and open-minded families ask at times.


This is in many ways “Angelina Ballerina” for boys, only we have anthropomorphic dogs (and/or wolves, it’s not quite specific either way) instead of mice, but here it’s the youngest in the family that takes center stage.


Sadly, unlike the mouselet star with big dreams, this seems to be a one and done, but what a wonderful and worthy one and done it is!


If you’ve got a ballet fan of the male persuasion, tell him I said “BRAVO!” and to give him this book.


He’ll thank you for it, if not in words, in his actions when one day he too could be a Supremo Ballerino, just like Nate. Ballet Men UNITE!

Check out my fan book trailer for Ballerino Nate!

For Parents: Check out the blog “My Son Can Dance” to hear one mother’s journey (author and writing coach, Nina Amir) to her (now grown) son who went from ballet school to turning pro in the field.

If your dancing lad’s seriously into ballet, you’ll find a mix of tips, memoir, and info parents or other caregivers can use to keep their ballerino-in-training  (Yes, “Ballerino” is the male equivalent to “Ballerina” for female ballet dancers, just as the title suggests) on pointe, and empowered to stay the course, despite the gender bias and discriminate folks who don’t “Get it.”


Violet's Music

Violet’s Music

by Angela Johnson

Illustrated by Laura Huliska-Beith

Publisher: Dial

Pub. Date: January 5th, 2004

While we focus on animal stories on T.A.A., we occasionally let humans in on the fun, and this week is one of those times, but I have a certain “pride” to thank for my learning of this title-

I first discovered this book via the PBS series “Between the Lions” that stars a suburban pride of lions who live in a library where you learn the ins and outs of early literacy and the pleasure of read-aloud time. 

I adored that show, even though it debuted LONG after I learned my ABCs and how to read on my own, and while I wasn’t yet the ravenous reader I would go on to be , this did make books cool in a way I didn’t experience in school.

It’s kind of like “The Electric Company” (the Old School 70s version more so than the newer version) but with a fantastical fauna bent.

Laura Huliska-Beith’s patchwork watercolor illustrations nicely reflect Violet’s “Go Your Own Way” vibe, and author Angela Johnson really brings a lyrical flair a story like this demands

When I first had the theme of this “Weekly Readings” in mind, I immediately thought of this book alongside the others I recently read and reviewed above, and recently read it again for this review.

While I heard this book read on the show cited above, I certainly didn’t have it memorized! So I checked it out from the libary and read it again. Happy to report it still holds up. 

As musicians well know, it’s HARD to capture the feels and flows of music, which an art form that depends on sounds that’s hard to infer via prose.

Some stories using poetic forms like various rhyme scheme or certain meter or rhythm almost mimic a singer-songwriter or lyricists’ process.

This book also does something RARE for picture books, the title character actually ages over the course of the story, from rattle-shaking babe in the cradle to emergent tween rocking a REAL guitar. Rock on, Violet, Rock on…

That’s it for Weekly Readings. Check us next time!

NOTE FROM THE LITERARY RAT: If my ramblings convinced you to buy one or more of the books mentioned above, please support T.A.A. by clicking on the affiliate cover images above or links within the review(s).