Quote of the Month

When love and skill work together, expect a miracle. John Ruskin

Friday, April 29, 2022

Early Reader Extravaganza

Do you remember when the ability to read first happened to you?  Have you seen that realization dawn on the face of a child? The feeling of knowing you can read is nearly indescribable. In that moment for you and others, the world shifts.  It is brimming with endless possibilities and discoveries. 

Some of the best books for early readers have engaging characters, characters who connect with us and charm their way into our collective hearts.  Their everyday lives are akin to adventures.  What they say and do is liberally enlivened with humor.

Author Jonathan Stutzman and artist Heather Fox have created an early reader series with sibling ghosts who are the best of friends.  We were introduced to the duo in Fitz And Cleo (Henry Holt and Company, May 25, 2021) and earlier this year their second book, Fitz And Cleo Get Creative (Henry Holt and Company, March 8, 2022) was released.  The exuberance of these characters will have you grinning from ear to ear and wishing to join them.

in the 


Was that you?  No, I'm right next to you.

What do 
you think
it is?

I don't know.
It sounds

In this first of eleven delightful stories, Fitz and Cleo, finally explore the attic.  They find a stray kitty.  Cleo is thrilled and names the cat, Mister Boo.  Fitz is not so thrilled, especially when  Mister Boo's favorite place to sleep is on his head.  

Mister Boo stars in the next three tales as Cleo proclaims the cat's virtues, Fitz babysits Mister Boo, and subsequently discloses the lack of Mister Boo's desirable characteristics.  The trio next share a day at the beach and ice cream.  Star wishing and brain freezing might be involved. 

Fitz and Cleo try to beat the previous record of loop-de-loops via paper airplanes.  Mister Boo is not happy with the results.  Fitz questions the outcomes of a scientific theory and Mister Boo's baseball skills with conclusions not to his liking.  Who knew how cat tails were so useful?  Speaking of science, why can't Mister Boo be an astronaut and get shot to the moon on a rocket?

As the final hours at a day's end are presented, readers find Fitz and Cleo, brother and sister, peering through a telescope at the stars.  After one of Fitz's remarks, Cleo declares this planet the best planet.  Fitz does not understand how she could possibly know that.  Cleo's replies are entirely heartwarming and true.

in the 

Don't you like the book?
the book.

That's the 

In this next series of lively narratives, they begin with Cleo's dissatisfaction with her life compared to what she reads in books.  Ever supportive, Fitz points out the wonderful imagination of Cleo per her love of the "cloud game."  That evening during a roller-coaster kind of movie viewing, Cleo has her best idea yet.  She and Fitz (and Mister Boo) are going to make a movie!

The successive episodes revolve around their creative endeavors.  The value of getting an idea in writing before it vanishes will resonate with a lot of readers as will the practice of writing versus procrastination to accomplish your goals.  Readers will find themselves laughing at an exercise in painting and the importance of winning rock-paper-scissors.  

When Cleo and Fitz look for cast members for the movie, we meet their friends who closely resemble a vampire, a werewolf, and a creature from the Black Lagoon.  The siblings shine in the next two stories, each doing what they do best.  Colorful creativity bursts forth, but does not last due to another type of burst. If only powerful spells and Rube Goldberg Machines really worked as they desire.

In one of the two final stories, readers are treated to an extraordinary movie production.  All the participants reveal their best talents.  We learn the finest gift they have is the gift of friendship.  Faithful to her sweet and wise nature, Cleo utters the final sentence.  And, that's the truth.

Author Jonathan Stutzman has written dialogue between these ghostly siblings certain to echo in readers' minds and hearts.  The personalities of both Fitz and Cleo are found in what they say and think.  Their honesty with each other and their shared love stands out.  Sometimes these disclosures will have you laughing out loud.  Here are passages from the first story in each book.

YAY! Spooky
Shhh . . .
We want the
element of

Spooky attic.
Spooky spooks!
Might be a monster,
might be some kooks.

What are you singing?
It's called
"The Spooky Attic Song"!
It's my favorite.

You just made
it up, didn't you?
Yes, I did.



Some terrible beast is up
here with us!  It's coming
from over there---shine
your light at it!


You know that
game you like,
where you
find shapes in
the clouds?

You don't 
like that

Yes! Because cumulus clouds
are not bunnies or dragons,
they're ---

I mean . . .well . . .
do you maybe 
want to play now?

You want to play 
the cloud game?
*sigh* . . .Yes.
What do you see?

That one . . .
. . .looks like me!

Personally, I think it looks like someone
who has exciting adventures inside
her head every day.  Someone who will be
more than ready when real adventures
come her way.

You cannot look at the front of the book cases of these books without smiling.  What Heather Fox has done with her black lines is fashion two ghosts we want as our friends.  The glasses and hat for Fitz and the big purple bow for Cleo are the finishing touches.  On the back of both books is information you would normally find on the front and back flaps of a dust jacket.  Fitz, Cleo and the title text are varnished.

The pattern on both the opening and closing endpapers in the books is a reflection of some of the stories.  On the first set, white outlines on lavender feature ice cream cones, balls of string, rockets, and paper airplanes.  On the second set, white outlines on turquoise spotlight paintbrushes, juice boxes, pencils, and microphones.  With a page turn, in both books, a pictorial interpretation, wordless, starts with the siblings engaged in an activity.  

A series of panels, bordered in fine black lines or wide white borders, full-page images, page edge to page edge and two double-page pictures, edge to edge, for dramatic effect created by Heather Fox invite readers to be participants in each narrative.  We want to jump into the images with Fitz and Cleo and Mister Boo and the other characters.  

Sometimes, you will stop to fully appreciate the extra details included in each image.  Is that an octopus as the ice cream vendor?  The similarity between Cleo's chalk art and Fitz's body as the Rube Goldberg Machine completes its task will not be lost on many readers.

One of my many favorite illustrations from Fitz And Cleo is three wordless vertical panels on a single page.  They are close-ups of the eyes of Cleo, Fitz, and Mister Boo.  It is after they have consumed too much ice cream too quickly.  Brain Freeze has attacked them.  We all know how that feels and their eyes replicate that feeling perfectly.
One of my many favorite illustrations from Fitz And Cleo Get Creative is a double-page picture.  It is a stage setting with shades of purple for the background and speakers.  The stage lights are turquoise.  On a raised light blue platform is Mister Boo on red drums.  On one of the drums is the group's name, Boo Fighters.  To the left of the gutter is Cleo looking gothic but still wearing her big purple bow.  On the right is Fitz wearing his glasses, playing an olive green guitar, sporting a chain around his neck, and instead of his hat, he has a yellow and orange spiked Mohawk. 

These books, Fitz And Cleo and Fitz And Cleo Get Creative, written by Jonathan Stutzman with artwork by Heather Fox, are pure happiness.  Readers will find themselves smiling, giggling, laughing, and sighing at the shared antics and inventiveness of these two ghosts and their Mister Boo.  They are wonderful for silent reading or as read aloud titles.  I highly recommend them for both your professional and personal collections.

To learn more about Jonathan Stutzman and Heather Fox and their other work, please visit their websites by following the link attached to their names.  They have a joint website for these titles linked here.  There are activities to download. At the publisher's website, you can view interior images for Fitz And Cleo and Fitz And Cleo Get Creative.  Jonathan Stutzman has accounts on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.  Heather Fox has accounts on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.  To introduce their series, Jonathan Stutzman and Heather Fox wrote a post at librarian and writer John Schu's site, Watch. Connect. Read.

There are several explanatory tales in folklore about why dogs chase cats.  You have to wonder if there is some veracity in these stories because it seems canines and felines struggle with compatibility even today.  If one or the other of them has been the sole companion of humans, they are wary of the introduction of the other into the family dynamics.  Frank and the Bad Surprise (an Arthur A. Levine BookLevine Querido, April 5, 2022) written by Martha Brockenbrough with illustrations by Jon Lau is about a cat that fails to understand what his humans were thinking.  Are they crazy?

The Bad Surprise

Frank the cat had it good.

He had a nice house, lots of toys,
all the Whiskies he could eat, and a 
window that looked out at the world.

One beautiful morning Frank was looking out that window and saw his humans returning to the house.  He was excited to see them carrying a box, but the box was not good.  The box was bad.  Inside that box was a puppy.  Frank immediately went to the computer keyboard composing a letter to his humans. (Are you laughing yet?)

After mailing that letter, Frank fell asleep in the sun knowing his humans would comply.  His nap was disturbed by that rambunctious puppy.  This unruly canine did not understand basic rules.  Frank retaliated.  He found himself in his crate, but still able to type away on the computer keyboard writing a letter.

His humans forgot he was in "jail" until he meowed at the sight of the puppy eating his beloved Whiskies.  He did not forgive his humans and wrote another letter.  The next morning Frank did the only thing he could think to do, he ran away.  He felt sorry for his humans, but what else could a cat do when a puppy enters their domain?

Frank thought he knew the world from his window watching.  He did not.  It was too much of everything that was not good, loud yappy dogs, mean people, rain, thunder and lightning, and smelly garbage.  Soon he found himself sitting in the rain on the sidewalk outside his home.  The storm woke up the puppy.  It started barking.  Frank imagined it was laughing.  It was not.  Frank wrote one new letter.  (Yes, his humans noticed him and he was back inside.)

Using a blend of narrative, Frank's thoughts, his comedic letter writing and human commentary, Martha Brockenbrough, in seven short chapters, acquaints readers with Frank and the puppy, who he names at the book's end.  The letters written by Frank are full of hilarity.  You can tell his mood with each writing by his signature line.

As a human who shares her life with both cats and dogs, Martha Brockenbrough writes with the sure knowledge of their interactions. Through her words she deftly depicts the regality of this cat and joyful abandon of the puppy.  Here is a passage.

Chapter 2
The Rules of Naps

There is nothing bad about a nap.
A nap in a warm spot is cozy.  A nap
feels the way warm bread and butter
Frank loved naps more than any
other thing.
Frank's humans knew not to 
wake him from a nap.
They knew that was against the
rules of naps.
The puppy did not care about
the rules of naps.

As soon as you look at the front cover of the book case, you can see the contrast between Frank and the puppy.  Frank is moving with uncertainty, or perhaps total disbelief. The puppy could not be happier.  This is grim versus grin.  The sign hanging from the mailbox designating this as book one is a nice design touch. On the back of the case is text normally supplied on the front and back flaps of a dust jacket.  There are two small pictures of Frank doing his favorite thing and discovering the "bad surprise."

On the opening and closing endpapers with dark turquoise on lighter turquoise are rows alternating between a dog bone and a cat ball with a bell.  On the title page are Frank and his two humans sitting on the front porch of the house before the arrival of the "bad surprise."  The puppy and Frank sit in opposite corners on the verso and dedication pages.

These illustrations were rendered by Jon Lau

by painting the characters, objects, and backgrounds using poster color paints on sheets of BFK Rives printmaking paper.  He then scanned the paintings and assembled the illustrations in Adobe Photoshop, much like a digital collage.

The size of the images vary in accordance with the pacing and presentation of the narrative.  There are full-page pictures, edge to edge, and smaller pictures on a single page, sometimes several grouped together.  There is one atmospheric scene on two pages when Frank learns a valuable life lesson.  Toward the end of the book are more double-page visuals when the best lesson of all is understood.  Readers will readily be able to discern the mood of Frank, the puppy, and the humans by their facial expressions.

One of my many favorite illustrations is when the puppy is breaking the rules of naps.  Frank is still mostly asleep, curled in coziness.  The puppy has leaped on top of him, paws on his chest.  The puppy is licking Frank's nose.  This is a smaller image on a single page with a light spring green background, focusing solely on the puppy and the cat.

That Frank and the Bad Surprise written by Martha Brockenbrough with artwork by Jon Lau is the first book in this series is a GOOD surprise for all readers.  We can hardly wait to see what new adventures Frank and the puppy will celebrate together with their loving humans.  Who knows what surprises await this twosome?  You'll want to have a copy of this funny and fun title on your professional and personal bookshelves.

To discover more about Martha Brockenbrough and Jon Lau and their other work, please follow the link attached to their names to access their websites.  Martha Brockenbrough has accounts on Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest, and Twitter.  Jon Lau has accounts on Instagram and Tumblr.  At the publisher's website, you can view some interior pages with art and text.

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