The holiday shopping season is upon us (at least, as far as the flocked plastic trees at Target are concerned), and you may be considering picture books for the youngest ones on your list. Two of 2009’s Minnesota Book Award finalists sit at completely different ends of the emotional spectrum.
Among the four finalists for the 2009 children’s literature award, which went to Susan Marie Swanson’s The House in the Night, are Chris Monroe’s Monkey With a Toolbelt (Carolrhoda Books) and George Ella Lyon’s My Friend, the Starfinder (Atheneum), illustrated by Minnesotan Caldecott winner Stephen Gammell.
Starfinder is a very sincere book about fanciful stories. “Once there was an old man,” begins the book, told from the perspective of a young girl. “I knew him when I was no bigger than you are.” (She’s assuming a lot there, but never mind that.) The man—who is the “Starfinder” of the title—claims to have found a fallen star and to have been drenched in the colors of a rainbow. Not “the colors of the rainbow,” the colors of a specific rainbow that he happened to stumble into.
That’s pretty much the story. It’s illustrated in wild, almost riotous full-page panels by Gammell, who deploys color strategically to highlight his disheveled characters and their colorful adventures. The book is certainly visually striking, as you’d except from Gammell, but it would be a rare child indeed who would appreciate Lyon’s suggestion that a good story is more important than the literal truth. I don’t doubt that she knows some rare children.
As for the kids I know, they’d likely be more engaged by Monroe’s rambunctious tale of a monkey who’s justly proud of his multipocketed toolbelt. The toolbelt, the implausibly numerous contents of which are precisely depicted and itemized by Monroe, gets Chico Bon Bon the monkey and his friends out of numerous jams; the story climaxes with the monkey’s elaborately planned escape, by way of toe-hammering, from (horrors!) an organ-grinder.
Monroe’s sprawling illustrations are a lot of fun; I particularly like the smug look of pride on the monkey’s face as he crawls into bed having strapped his trusty tool belt on over his pajamas. Sitting alone, I found myself reading the story aloud just for the fun of saying things like “Chico Bon Bon” and “he uses his level on a toy box for Neville.” (My neighbors have been playing Fleetwood Mac’s greatest hits on repeat all day, so they can darn well put up with some rhyme-spitting from my side of the wall.)
The sequel, Monkey With a Tool Belt and the Noisy Problem, is equally fun. But don’t take my word for it: the book’s jacket notes that Monroe’s work has been praised by “reviewers and bloggers alike.” Whichever she wants to count me as, she can count my voice as another in that choir.