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  • 2013 Comstock Read Aloud Honor Books

    Jack and the Baked Beanstalk written and illustrated by Colin Stimpson and published by Templar Books, an imprint of Candlewick Press, 2012.

    Jack and the Baked BeanstalkIllustrated in an Art Deco style with soft, romantic, muted dream-like colors, Jack and the Baked Beanstalk is a playful twist on the beloved story we all know about happy-go-lucky, down-on-his-luck, Jack, and his long suffering mother who need magic to stay alive, and yes, to put food on the table. As Jack takes his mother's few remaining coffee beans, a mysterious figure trades the java for Jack's favorite, baked beans. "Now, Jack had read enough fairy tales to know that you don't turn down an offer like that."

    Eating baked beans along the way, Jack climbs the stalk to find a near-sighted, money hoarding, food-loving giant at the top. And what does the giant do? Eat Jack and his dog, Bella? No, he does what every foodie would do, and prepares a giant sized feast for Jack and Bella. There's an unexpected twist at the end and all live happily ever after, with plenty of food to last all of them their lifetimes.

    Read aloud to children ages nine to elven years old, children liked the new take on an old story and thought it was funny, especially that the giant would cook for Jack. They loved the illustrations and observed the fine use of color and imagery, with muted, yet vivid illustrations. Children liked that everything was on a giant's scale, super-sized. While the illustrations are delightful to view, the language is also poetic, and some children repeated the fee-fi-fo chorus when the reading ended. Children were very engaged in this story and appreciated the unpredictable, yet predictability of the story.

    Colin Stimpson, an art director and film designer, lives in England. This is the first book he has both authored and illustrated. KATHY ENGER 

    Mrs. Harkness and the Panda written by Alicia Potter and illustrated by Melissa Sweet, and published by Alfred A. Knopf, an imprint of Random House Children's Books, 2012.

    Mrs. Harkness and the Panda"In 1934, Ruth Harkness had never seen a panda bear. Not many people in the world had." Thus begins the story of Mrs. Harkness, who had not intended to go looking for the beishung. After all, in 1934 women were considered "too dainty for exploring." But after Mr. Harkness passes away in China during his search for the panda, Mrs. Harkness is determined to take on the expedition. Despite the vocal naysayers, Mrs. Harkness packs, prepares, and heads to China. With the help of Quentin and Lao Tsang, a panda is found. Mrs. Harkness names the baby Su Lin and finds him a home in the Brookfield Zoo. The naysayers are quieted and Mrs. Harkness is recognized as a woman explorer.

    The watercolor and mixed media illustrations bring a nostalgic feel to Mrs. Harkness's travels. According to Melissa Sweet's web page, much of the paper and collage materials used were obtained while she was in China.

    Students from nine to eleven were drawn in by the phenomenal illustrations and the rich language of this story. A passion for research was ignited in some students sending them to the library to look for more information about both pandas and female explorers. The children loved the determination of Mrs. Harkness and commented on how she continued her quest despite the negative feedback from others. A "Chronology of Events," "Author's Note," and "Selected Bibliography" provide further information for readers wanting to know more about Su Lin and Mrs. Harkness.

    From Boston, Alicia Potter is a long-time reviewer of children's books. Melissa Sweet, who currently resides in Rockport, Maine, has received a 2009 Caldecott Honor award and the 2012 Sibert Award. HEATHER MANEIRO 

    Suryia Swims! The True Story of How an Orangutan Learned to Swim by Bhagavan "Doc" Antle with Thea Feldman, photographs by Barry Bland, and published by Henry Holt, 2012.

    Suryia SwimsThe story begins with endearing photos of a truly unique and loveable creature, Suryia, an orangutan who lives in a wildlife preserve with a whole host of human and animal friends. The colorful book takes readers through Suryia's journey of exploring a love of water, beginning first with a playful bath and ending with days of swimming in the pool with other animals, ranging from Suryia's best friend Roscoe, a dog, to tapirs, tigers, and leopard cubs.

    The crisp, clear, and vibrant photographs create a visually pleasing patchwork of vignettes for children to participate and enjoy Suryia's exploration and love of water. The photographs inspire emotions of love, joy, and admiration for this animal and his water-filled journey with diverse and fantastically unique friends.

    Children, grades two to four, thoroughly enjoyed this book. They commented on how funny the book was and how wonderful the pictures were. The story drew children and readers alike into the story of Suryia learning to swim and sharing the water with his friends. Readers commented on how it was a "great non-fiction book" and it was "an amazing story of how an orangutan did things his natural instincts wouldn't normally allow."

    Bhagavan "Doc" Antle founded The Institute for Greatly Endangered and Rare Species (T.I.G.E.R.S.) where Suryia and all of the animals in the book, including Roscoe, live together in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. Thea Feldman is a children's book author in New York. Barry Bland is a world renowned wildlife photographer. HEATHER NESEMEIER