Life (Cynthia Rylant & Brendan Wenzel)

Hello, friends! Our book today is Life by Cynthia Rylant and Brendan Wenzel, a vivid and stunning meditation on life and what makes it so magnificent.

Life begins small: a sprouting plant, a baby elephant. Everything begins as something smaller, and then? It grows. As days and nights pass, it becomes larger, and different, and more incredible than the day before. Life comes in many forms, from the smallest insect to the biggest whale. And if you ask each animal what they love about life, they will answer differently: a hawk loves the wind, a snake loves the grass, the ancient turtle loves the rain on its shell. But life is hard sometimes, and there can even be times when it’s hard to find the beauty in it. But we must push through, because the morning will bring something new, something unique, something incredible – because life is beautiful, and so are you.

Simply phenomenal. Rylant and Wenzel have crafted something absolutely astonishing in its simple grace and powerful message. At the start, the story is a look at the animal kingdom through a different angle, and the detailed and eye-catching mixed media art sweeps the reader on this journey in a striking style. Then halfway through, the tone shifts, becoming a story about overcoming hardships and finding hope in troubling times. It encourages the reader that the dark and scary times will end, and that life is worth seeing and loving and experiencing. It’s an unexpected and deeply moving sentiment, especially for anyone who is experiencing or has experienced grief or depression. And with suicides and self-harm among young children on the rise, it’s a message that all young readers should hear as much as possible. The length is great, JJ loved the animals, and just… wow. This is a must-read, and we strongly recommend it to anyone who needs a reminder to find hope in the storm. Baby Bookworm approved!

Henny, Penny, Lenny, Denny, And Mike (Cynthia Rylant)

Hello, friends! Our book today is Henny, Penny, Lenny, Denny, And Mike, written by Cynthia Rylant and illustrated by Mike Austin, a story about how the quietest among us can often be the most brave and helpful.

Henny, Penny, Lenny, Denny, and Mike are all old friends from the pet store, and as close as friends can be. So naturally, they are delighted when a little girl buys all five of them and takes them home to a shiny new fish tank! The tank has everything: orange gravel, a cool rock, a neat diver, bubbles, and well, a slimey snail, but no one pays him any mind. Soon a hilarious clownfish and a striking angelfish join their clique, and the girl even adds a beautiful fairy castle for them to swim through. But – OH NO – Lenny gets stuck and no one can figure out how to free him! What will the friends do?!

This was a great little tale of inclusion, and we liked it a lot. It’s an interesting twist on the “popular kids” story because it shows things from the opposite point of view than is typical. The fish aren’t mean or nasty to the snail (who eventually saves the day to great acclaim), they just sort of breeze past him because they focused on each other. It shows young readers that the popular ones aren’t always bullies and unpopular kids aren’t always loners – everyone involved might just need to find the right way to connect. The art is cute, colorful, and very expressive, and I loved the integrated comic-book style text. The length was good, and JJ liked it a lot. A great story with a strong message: sometimes, the person on the other side of the fish tank is just a friend you haven’t made yet. Baby Bookworm approved!

Beauty And The Beast (Cynthia Rylant)

Hello, friends! Our book today is Beauty And The Beast, retold by Cynthia Rylant and illustrated by Meg Park, a new twist on the classic love story.

In the countryside lived a man and his three daughters. The youngest daughter, Beauty, was kind and lovin. One winter, as their father was returning home from the port, he became trapped in a blizzard, and found food and shelter in a castle deep in the woods. As he leaves the next day, he finds a single red rose and, hoping to give it to Beauty, plucks it. This enrages his heretofore unseen host, the Beast, who demands that the man remain as his servant until death as punishment for his ingratitude. Upon learning this, Beauty insists on taking his place instead, and begins to find that the Beast is not as monstrous as he appears.

This was an interesting take on the classic story that had both positives and negatives for me. On the plus side, the art was just gorgeous, mixing a modern animation-inspired style with a soothing winter palette to create some very lovely illustrations, including some clever visual nods to the seminal Disney version. The story had some bright spots as well: I loved that Beauty initially rejects Beast because she is not in love with him, and he accepts it – there is less rage and spite in this Beast. However, from a feminist perspective, this is a story that has always been problematic, and even this earnest version has issues. I wasn’t wild about Beauty’s needlessly nasty sisters, who promptly disappear from the story after the first act with no resolution to their behavior. And while the length was good, the story felt a bit rushed, and the ending abrupt. I would have liked to see more of Beauty and Beast and less of the family’s financial struggles. Still, this was a commendable take on a beloved classic with some lovely art, and JJ enjoyed it, so it’s Baby Bookworm approved!