Sunday, March 16, 2008

Review of Phoebe and Chub by Matthew Henry Hall and Illustrated by Sheila Aldridge

After we brought this home from the library, my son wanted to take it in the car to look at on the way to school. He's nearly three - so he wasn't reading the words, he was just looking at the pictures. He was captivated, so I assumed the pictures must be expressive.

Then we read the book. The pictures are expressive, but the themes (indicated as "rules" and numbered 1-3) add a level of sophistication the illustrations alone can't convey.

The story is about a tree frog (Phoebe) and a fish (Chub) who live at the bottom of a canyon. They make lots of friends, who are then able to help Chub give Phoebe a special birthday wish - the chance to fly.

There are several qualities about the illustrations that I particularly like. The first is that each drawing is packed with little details for the child invested in searching them out. A parent could easily prompt, "Where is the catepillar? Where is the ladybug? Where is the snake?" and keep a child closely looking at the pictures. Another thing, mentioned before, is that the animals have very expressive faces - Phoebe looks happy or relaxed or surprised. Other animals wave, or listen, or dance. There's a lot in the expressions to engage a child as well. In Dr. Michelle Borba's book about "Building Moral Intelligence" she encourages parents to develop their child's ability to read emotional states from outward expressions by analyzing faces and body language. She says that if children don't build a vocabulary for describing a range of emotional states (in part by recognizing them in others) they have a harder time labeling and defining their own range of emotions.

Sheila Aldridge uses two tools in this book that I've noticed elsewhere and really like as part of a book's illustrations. One is orienting one two-page spread differently from all the others. In this case, she switches from the usual horizontal approach of using two pages side by side to having them create a tall, vertical illustration (to show how deep the canyon is and to contrast the bottom where Phoebe lives with the rim where her friend the California condor lives). The other thing - which perhaps was the decision of an editor or designer - is one two-page spread with no text. I love the effect this creates. With nothing to read, my son and I instead discuss the picture. We've spent more time talking about this picture than any other in the book, and in this case it represents the climax of the story. I love the idea that the climax is better represented by the picture alone than could be done with picture and word together.

The last page includes "A note from the author" about the endangered status of a number of the animals represented. I feel like this is a bit too much for my son. I'm not ready for him to worry about the safety of animals - but for older kids, especially those studying the environment or ecology in school, this might be a nice layer to the story.

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