otto and pio

Monday, July 22, 2019 | | 0 comments
On occasion, I’ll put the picture books I’m planning to read out on a communal table by my desk at work (mostly to remind and/or guilt myself into finally reading them!). When I had Marianne Dubuc's picture book Otto and Pio out for a day, three different visitors asked me “What’s the white thing?? [referring to Pio]” That’s a recurring question in this story as well – what IS Pio, and how did he arrive outside Otto’s house? In trying to unravel the mystery, these two unlikely companions learn to value each other – and their story makes for a delightful bedtime (or anytime) read.

otto and pio by marianne dubuc book cover
Otto the squirrel is perfectly content living by himself in his treehouse in the forest, when a small creature, Pio, arrives on his doorstep, looking for his mother, and Otto invites him in. Pio eats all the hazelnuts, takes up the entire bed, and just gets bigger and bigger! Though Otto worries he may not be very good at caring for a little creature, Pio is very happy. Otto and Pio is a heartwarming tale about finding love and family when it is expected least and needed most.

One day, Otto the squirrel finds a spiky green ball outside his front door. He doesn’t worry about it, because he isn’t the curious type. But when it hatches a furry white creature who calls him “Mommy!” – well! That’s another story. In their quest to find out who Pio is, and where his Mommy is, Otto and Pio begin to value each other and learn the meaning of found family.

Dubuc’s sweet meditation on belonging and family hits some hilarious notes along the way – slapstick as Pio grows too big for Otto’s house, for one! It’s also got the slightly meandering, just-repetitive-enough style that is perfect for bedtime, and reminds me of classics like Are You My Mother? and Am I Yours? There’s the mystery element of: What is Pio?? But there are also warm, homey moments, and lots of hazelnut-munching and hammock-sleeping. In the end, Otto and Pio decide to be each other’s’ family, and that’s about a heart-warming as it gets. For the record, I did not expect to like a book about an uncurious squirrel and a maybe-a-yeti this much. It’s fun.

Now, the art! The watercolor and colored pencil drawings are done in a simple style, in a limited setting – the enormous tree where Otto lives (and his doorstep), and the inside of his home. The illustrations progress sequentially, and fairly literally – perspective does not alter much except to pan out and in. This will appeal to children during one-on-one storytime or bedtime as they can follow along frame-by-frame.

In all, Otto and Pio is a loveable, longer picture book perfect for kids with generous attention spans and for bedtime read-alouds.

Recommended for: one-on-one reading for children ages 5 and up, and readers any age who enjoy forest friends, light mysteries, and funny antics in picture book form.

Fine print: I received a finished copy of this book from the publisher for review consideration. I did not receive any compensation for this post.

catwad: it’s me.

Jim Benton (he of Happy Bunny fame) has started publishing a new graphic novel series about a character named Catwad, and I’ve been trying for an hour to figure out how to describe it. In the first book, Catwad: It’s Me., Catwad reminds me of nothing so much as a book version of the Grumpy Cat meme. Or a cross between Grumpy Cat and a Garfield comic. Whichever way you slice it, the book is full of biting, physical humor, and it will be a hit with kids no matter their reading level!

catwad: it's me. by jim benton cover
From New York Times bestselling author Jim Benton, meet Catwad! He's blue, he's a bit of a grouch, and his best friend is a dim-witted cat named Blurmp who can see the bright side of anything. From pizza and computers, to love and happiness, this crabby tabby has a funny take on just about everything, and he's not afraid to share it.

Catwad is a cat (did the name give it away?), and star of a new graphic novel series featuring two cats (Catwad and Blurmp) who play off each other for laughs. It’s a bit like a modern, gross-out version of Amelia Bedelia, and sure to spark belly laughs. Catwad loves nothing (except coffee), and Blurmp loves everything – even when it doesn’t make sense. Their adventures, reluctant friendship, and jokes make for a hilariously meme-able reading experience that is sure to appeal to anyone who has searched the internet for “funny cat videos” (and who hasn’t, at this point??).

With a book filled with jokes about growing up, grossout moments, immaturity, wordplay, meditations on friendship, “dumbness,” and more, Catwad's adventures are destined to be a popular series. I especially appreciated the strategic use of faulty grammar for comedic effect (I might use it as an example in my 9th grade classroom). I see this book as a natural successor to Dog Man, Diary of a Wimpy Kid, and other mega-popular graphic novel series that rely on physical humor. It ups the sophistication level a bit (and it’s quite clever at times), but the reading level remains low and the focus is on the contrast between visuals and text.

Speaking of the art, Catwad: It’s Me. is full of vibrant colors, simple images, and a good mix of panel sizes. The stories within also vary in length – some sections are several pages long, and others are brief, contained spreads. Since there isn’t much in the way of background, the focus is squarely on Catwad and Blurmp, and they are easily-traced shapes – so this book may inspire some budding cartoonists as well!

In all, Catwad is a hilarious addition to the elementary and middle grade graphic novel canon, and a great choice for kids who like humor and are at lower reading levels.

Recommended for: readers ages 7+ who enjoy reading newspaper comics, Diary of a Wimpy Kid, and other humorous sequential art.

Fine print: I received a finished copy of this book from a publicist for review consideration . I did not receive any compensation for this post.

little doctor and the fearless beast

Imagine a girl veterinarian who lives somewhere deep in the jungle. Now imagine that she treats... crocodiles! What would her clinic look like? What kinds of injuries would crocodiles have and a Little Doctor heal? What kinds of stories could crocodiles tell? Sophie Gilmore's debut picture book Little Doctor and the Fearless Beast takes that premise and those questions and spins a yarn that is engrossing and satisfying.

little doctor and the fearless beast by sophie gilmore book cover
Crocodiles come from far and wide to seek Little Doctor’s care. She treats each one with skill and kindness—even the toughest crocs with thick skins and large, powerful jaws. Little Doctor marvels at these fearless beasts, listening to their stories, while she diagnoses and cures what ails them. But when she meets Big Mean, the largest crocodile in the land with jaws clamped tightly shut, Little Doctor can’t figure out what’s wrong. And she might be just a little bit afraid.

When one creative idea lands Little Doctor right inside Big Mean’s tremendous jaws, she is sure she’ll be munched or crunched—until she sees that Big Mean isn’t so horrible, after all. As it turns out, the crocodile is only protecting her hatchlings, all tangled in plastic, inside her mouth.

Watercolor illustrations create a richly imagined world in this awe-inspiring story about how even little kids can be fearless, and even big, mean creatures sometimes need help.

Apparently when crocodiles tell tales, their legends are full of "terrible danger, dizzying escapes, and acts of great mischief." And if you treat them well, as Little Doctor does, crocodiles will share their stories as a reward. Little Doctor and her crocodile patients are part of an absolutely beautiful and patently charming picture book that always feels just one jaw snap from disaster, but full of kindness as well. As a bonus, Gilmore's storytelling is matched (or exceeded, even!) by her fantastic illustrations.

Each page spread in Little Doctor and the Fearless Beast is full of details to be examined and pored over read after reread. There are crocodiles in every corner of Little Doctor's home, and it's fun to anticipate where the next one will be. When Big Mean (the biggest, most fearsome creature of all!) comes on the scene, the spreads get even more creative. How will such a big animal (reptile??) fit in Little Doctor's house? Especially when Big Mean is feeling mean and uncooperative?

Gilmore's watercolor and pencil illustrations are a delight. She masterfully captures light, shading, texture and color, and adds whimsy and magic to boot. Both adults and children will enjoy the dangerous suspense of sharp teeth juxtaposed with fearless kindness. Little Doctor and the Fearless Beast is an unexpected (and welcome) surprise, and a soon-to-be classic.

Recommended for: storytimes and read-alouds with little ones ages 4-7 (especially with children who love animals, reptiles, and a little bit of bite), and for fans of beautifully illustrated picture books à la Where the Wild Things Are.

the tea dragon society

It’s been an age since I updated this blog! Too long. I’m out of practice and I have the anxiety to prove it (typing up reviews is v. therapeutic, who knew??)(I did, I just conveniently forgot to make time for it… ). But enough of that. Today I want to talk about one of my favorite bookish things: dragons!  Dragons are the best. THE BEST. Most of my favorite fantasy books have dragons in, and though I know correlation is not causation… DRAGONS are deeply awesome. So when a graphic novel is titled The Tea Dragon Society, well. Let’s take it as a given that I’ll be reading it (and expecting enchantment).

the tea dragon society by katie o'neill cover
From the award-winning author of Princess Princess Ever After comes The Tea Dragon Society, a charming all-ages book that follows the story of Greta, a blacksmith apprentice, and the people she meets as she becomes entwined in the enchanting world of tea dragons.

After discovering a lost tea dragon in the marketplace, Greta learns about the dying art form of tea dragon care-taking from the kind tea shop owners, Hesekiel and Erik. As she befriends them and their shy ward, Minette, Greta sees how the craft enriches their lives—and eventually her own. 

Greta is learning the old art of blacksmithing from her mother when she happens across a tea dragon in distress. She returns it safely to its owner, Hesekial, who offers to teach Greta tea dragon lore. But what is a tea dragon? Well, it’s an adorable little denizen of the fantasy world that O’Neill creates in this book. But it is also explained in-text, and I wouldn’t want to spoil that! So take it as read that tea dragons are slightly mystical, unbearably adorable, and the rest of this story is as well.

Katie O’Neill’s The Tea Dragon Society started its life as a webcomic, and that’s how I originally came across it. In print, it’s a large format graphic novel with a gentle, LGBTQ+-positive story and absolutely gorgeous (and distressingly cute??) art. I read it for the 2018 Cybils awards, and it made the elementary and middle grade graphic novel shortlist—everyone loved it.

So what’s to love, aside from cuteness overload (but really, that’s all you need sometimes!)? Well, there are several things I’d put in the ‘plus’ column. First, the art is full of flowers, and I’m all in on flowers (see my instagram if you have any doubts). Then there’s inventive character design and characters of color. Add in LGBTQ+ rep, disability rep, and a fluffy story that will make readers feel just as happy as main character Greta… plus cool fantasy and magic world-building, and an open ending for future volumes, and there you have it. It’s basically perfect.

When I tried to think of negatives, all I could come up with was that there’s not a whole lot of urgency in the story or plot. That’s not… a fault. Oh well!

If you’re in the mood for quiet magic, soul-soothing beauty, and a moment or two of laughter, then The Tea Dragon Society is the book for you. It will make you wish that tea dragons are real and that you had a big mug of fragrant tea to sip from—even if it’s not tea-drinking weather!

Recommended for: fans of sweet middle grade graphic novels like The Prince and the Dressmaker and Nightlights, readers ages 8 and up with an eye for art, tea drinkers, and anyone who likes quiet, original fantasy in a beautiful setting.

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