Berenstains Still Lead Local Kids’ Book Brigade
by Frank Lipsius
Although Philadelphia is not the only region with prolific children’s book writers and illustrators, it has more than its fair share.
The Berenstains alone practically provide a children’s book publishing empire from their Bucks County, PA base. Though Stan Berenstain died at age 82 in 2005, wife Jan is alive and the books keep coming.
Child’s Play: Cartoon Art of Stan and Jan Berenstain (Abrams, $35) is a nostalgic but evocative tribute by their son Mike to their early careers as cartoonists and illustrators for magazines such as Colliers and The Saturday Evening Post.
The latest Berenstain book, Big Book of The Berenstain Bears (Random House, $10.99), first came out in 1997 as The Berenstain Bears’ Sampler and consisted of five previously published First Time Books, which give kids’ initial experiences a gentle, humorous and sometimes mischievous cast in the bears’ well-appointed tree house.
Two new entries in Judy Schachner’s Skippyjon Jones cardboard-book series, Up & Down and Color Crazy (Dutton, $6.99 each) put the big-eared little cat with big blue eyes through its paces of wild actions or running into funny colored places and people, illustrating teaching goals.
In Kitten Red Yellow Blue (Atheneum, $15.95), Peter Catalanotto of Doylestown, PA draws a cat in each color of a 16-crayon box from Easton, PA-based Crayola. He reinforces for older folks without access to the Crayola box what the colors teal and chartreuse actually look like.
Defining older readers as those who can follow a story but like illustrations brings us to Lee Harper, also from Doylestown, illustrating Woolbur by Leslie Helakoski (HarperCollins, $16.99). The illustrator does a great job making a gentle-looking lamb less revolutionary than the story of Woolbur, who follows his parents’ advice to be more like the other lambs by making the rest of lambdom more like him.
Mother and daughter writing team Donna Jo Napoli and Eva Furrow have their own sassy hero in Bobby the Bold (Dial, $16.99). Bobby is a bonobo, not to be mistaken for his near relatives, the chimpanzees he lives with at the zoo. He is clever enough to get himself out of the zoo to learn a new trade that brings him back into the center of attention when he returns home.
Dan Gutman’s Casey Back at Bat (HarperCollins, $16.99) is a funny take on the long ball hitter in a new adventure that solves some world and outer space mysteries while literally being one of those balls that seem to go on forever.
Deborah Kogan Ray writes and illustrates Down the Colorado: John Wesley Powell, the One-Armed Explorer (Farrar Straus Giroux, $17). It’s the story of a real-life Civil War survivor whose diary combines with the author’s history to tell about the first exploration of the Colorado River to identify new territory in the West.
Sumptuous illustrator Charles Santore’s The Silk Princess (Random House, $17.99) follows the adventures of the dainty princess whose encounter with a cocoon leads her beyond the palace, past spiders, dragons and adventurers on her way to introducing silk to the world.
David Wiesner makes up his own medieval tale of knights and princess-rescue to accompany his rich illustrations in The Loathsome Dragon (Clarion, $16), while Robert Byrd retells the story of Theseus and provides much interesting background to Greek mythology in The Hero and the Minotaur (Dutton, $17.99).
S.D. Schindler’s appropriately old-fashioned, gentle drawings accompany The Curious Adventures of the Abandoned Toys. This story by the screenwriter of Gosford Park, Julian Fellowes, tells of toys’ adventures when they are left to fend for themselves.
Illustrated books require detailed drawing and good stories, but they are not the marathons required of chapter book authors. In that sphere, the Delaware Valley boasts a champ in Jerry Spinelli. Not far behind is his wife Eileen, whose picture book Someday (Dial, $16.99) soars on dreams before settling for a good night’s sleep.
The latest Jerry Spinelli is Smiles to Go (HarperCollins, $17.89), about young, talented, brilliant Will Tuppence, whose down-to-earth but spacey voice describes how he controls his world. He soon learns to deal with not controlling it.
The new Jerry Spinelli book comes close on the heels of last year’s Love, Stargirl (Knopf, $16.99), a sequel to Stargirl, who moves to Pennsylvania, of all places and in her own voice adjusts to life while still thinking of and writing to boyfriend Leo back in Arizona.
A new voice in teen literature is Jordan Sonnenblick. His third novel, Zen and the Art of Faking It (Scholastic, $16.99) follows his first, Drums, Girls and Dangerous Pie, on the subject of facing a younger brother’s cancer diagnosis, and Notes from the Midnight Driver, about the antics of a kid in a mixed up world.
Always daring and challenging, Sonnenblick’s characters are funny and self-reflective. In his new book, San Lee casts himself as a seer and has to face up to the slim odds of transforming from faker to fakir in his new Pennsylvania home. Maybe it’s the setting, where so many seem to have something to say to the world in a children’s book.
Frank Lipsius is a contributing writer to MetroKids.