Wednesday, May 31, 2006

One of the lovelier reviews we've had the pleasure of reading

A fantastic review & a fantastic blog by a children's librarian in New York:

A small still book, May 24, 2006
Pity the small publisher in this age of global conglomerates and massive buyouts. In a time of Harcourts and Harper Collins, and Antheneums it's almost impossible for the little guy (the little guy in this case being Simply Read Books) to make any kind of a lasting impression on the marketplace. Worse than all of this is the snobbery involved in criticizing small publishers. I admit freely that when I picked up, "When You Were Small", I looked at it long and hard with an eye towards finding any faults it might have. Not all small publishers are good, after all, and not all of their books readworthy. Simply Read Books is different, though, and "When You Were Small", is infinitely readworthy. An unassuming title with a charming presence, great use of wry commentary, and some really outstanding pen and ink illustrations. "When You Were Small", reminds all of us that sometimes the smallest publishers are the ones who find the best new talent around.

Every night, we are told, Henry and his dad sit down, "and have a chat". Henry asks his dad to tell him what he was like when he was small and dad does so. The only thing is, dad seems to be a bit of a literal sort. The first thing he tells Henry is, "When you were small you used to have a pet ant and you would take him out for walks on a leash". And here we see Henry, no younger than before, but tiny enough to walk an ant as if it were a particularly frisky dog. With each page we learn more about what "little" Henry's life was like. Sometimes it's straightforward, as when we're told, "When you were small we took the toy castle out of the aquarium and you were king of it". Other times the book acquires a dry wit, saying things like, "... your mother once lost you in the bottom of her purse. When she found you again, you were clinging to an earring she'd lost three years before". We hear about how Henry would eat, use a ruler when it came to tobogganing, and take a bath. Near the end of the book Henry's father notes, "we wanted to call you Hieronymous but it was too big a name for you and so we shortened it to Henry". And when Henry asks if all of this is true (as I am sure he asks every night) his dad simply says, "Well ... don't you remember?".

With a steady hand O'Leary parcels out the information in this book in a familiar form. Each section that discusses Henry's previously tiny state begins with the repeating phrase, "When you were small". I think it was the understated humor that really won me over to this book, though. There's a wonderful moment when Henry would ride around in his father's breast pocket. "Your little head would just stick out and your little hands would grip onto the edge of the cloth. Actually you ripped a lot of my shirts that way". It's a small statement, but it makes the reader suddenly wonder if all the dad's stories were true after all. I mean, that's a pretty realistic detail to include. Illustrator Julie Morstad further confuses the issue when she displays front and endpapers that consist of Henry staring at photographs of himself in his "small" state. Some show him posing alongside an ant. Others display him floating away on a balloon or doing something as mundane as posing for Halloween. What is a child to think?

Actually, I should be giving artist Morstad some definite props for this book as well. Using the thinnest of pen lines in a wide variety of colors (subdued, for the most part) the book feels almost like a foreign import. We rarely see such delicate perfectly rendered pictures in our American bookstores and libraries. There's a picture of Henry standing astride a beautifully penned cat. Every hair of that cat is meticulously placed, making it my favorite image in, "When You Were Small". Morstad could make even Peter Sis look like a thick-penned schlub in comparison.

I should mention that the book conveys a great deal of love without artifice or false sentiment. Some of this you might be able to chalk this up to the simplicity of the book's design itself. Publication information is in tiny type at the bottom of a single page. There is no information about either the author nor illustrator nor even a dedication section. The book also hasn't any book jacket, giving it a rather classic feel. All in all, this is one of the lovelier picture book creations I've had the pleasure of reading in a long time. A quiet, intelligent, rather sweet read in a style that everyone can enjoy. Recommended with honors.
Posted by E.R. Bird on

"Delightfully sly sensibility"

From Booklist:

Henry sits in an armchair opposite his dad. He asks for the usual
evening ritual: "Tell me about when I was small." And so the father
does, in a series of wonderfully unexpected images. When the boy was
small, he could walk his pet ant, sleep in his father's left slipper
(with a peppermint teabag for a pillow), bathe in a teapot, or ride on
the cat's back, as if "[Henry] were an emperor and [the cat] was an
elephant." He could fit in his dad's shirt pocket or play the part of
a knight on the chessboard. When Henry asks his father if it's all
true, Dad replies, "Don't you remember?" Whimsical, crosshatched line
illustrations, washed with gently shadowed colors, appear to float on
white pages, pairing a single, evocative picture with each fantastical
memory. Packaged without a jacket and sporting an elegant cloth spine,
this looks different from most picture books on the market--and the
story's delightfully sly sensibility bears out initial impressions.
GraceAnne DeCandido
Copyright (c) American Library Association. All rights reserved

Monday, May 22, 2006

Papers from all over weigh in

"This exquisite children’s book, which invites children to imagine they were once little enough to ride on the back of the family cat, take baths in a teapot, and use a wooden ruler for a toboggan, is the kind of book I would have saved on the shelf long after my children had grown. Julie Morstad’s elegant illustrations are spare pen-and-ink drawings colored with a soft watercolor wash. Like many great children’s books, this one is worth collecting."
Kimberly Green, writing in Portsmouth Herald, April 2, 2006

Karen Unland, The Edmonton Journal
Published: Sunday, May 14, 2006
When You Were Small by Sara O'Leary
illustrated by Julie Morstad
Simply Read Books
ages 5 and up
32 pp., $19.95
Julie Morstad's spare drawings in When You Were Small could not be more different from the Folies-Bergeres-like swaths in When Cats Go Wrong, but they are no less delightful. Sara O'Leary's story is wonderful, too, and lesson-free, unless you count the implied observation that dads kid around a lot. "Tell me about when I was small," Henry asks his father. What follows is a tall tale about smallness -- Henry taking his pet ant for walks, bathing in a teapot, using a ruler for a toboggan. Is it true, Henry asks? "Well," says his dad, "don't you remember?" Consider this one for every child who looks at Mom for confirmation every time Dad tells a whopper.
Karen Unland is an assignment editor at The Journal. Her four-year-old already knows not to believe a word her father says.