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Keiko Kasza: All about cartoon critters

Author and illustrator Keiko Kasza was born in Japan and moved to the US for college only to meet and marry an American and then become American herself. On her website she shares the fun factoid that while her last name sounds Japanese, it actually comes from her husband, whose family has Hungarian roots.

Kasza loves to people her stories with adorable furry and feathered friends, and illustrates in a somewhat cartoonish style, coloring characters in bright colors and surrounding them with plenty of bright white space. There’s often a gentle moral shared, and of the sort that’d we’d appreciate, like: adoption is good, try to be brave, grandparents have lessons to share, and sometimes two disagreeing friends may discover they have both been a little wrong and a little right.

There’s a sense of playfulness to her work, perhaps because some of her books come off a little like a joke, the build-up leading to a satisfying punchline. And, at 32 pages each (and shorter for the board book), they are all pretty quick reads, which means you can share two or three at a time with your little ones.

Sadly, some of her titles aren’t readily available, so I’ve noted the ones that are easier to get by including a cover picture. But all twelve of the recommendations are worth putting in some effort to track down.

RECOMMENDED (12)

Silly Goose’s Big Story (2012)

Goose is so good at making up stories, his friends always ask him for more. But when the roles get handed out, his friends start noticing that Goose always gets the hero role. And they want a turn too. Goose isn’t about to do that. Then a wolf interrupts things, swoops up Goose, and tells him, “So you’re the hero, huh? More like a hero sandwich to me!” Goose can’t get away. But he can tell a story. So Goose tells the most outlandish story about a wolf-eating monster that lives in the area. And who should be coming through the woods right then, but the monster himself! Wolf runs off, and we discover the monster is nothing more than Goose’s three friends stacked atop each other. Goose gives them thanks, and notes that they are the real heroes! It’s a sweet story, where friends fight, but figure it out… with some help from a wolf. 🙂

Ready for Anything! (2009)

Duck wants to go on a picnic, but Raccoon wonders, what if killer bees, or a terrible storm, or even a ferocious dragon make an appearance? In contrast, Duck is a glass-half-full kind of guy, and has his own what ifs to share: what if butterflies pass by, and what if the weather is warm and the breeze just strong enough to blow a kite? Raccoon agrees to go, but brings loads of gear – he’s ready for anything! – and actually saves the day when Duck forgets to bring their food. I loved that both friends learn a lesson: Raccoon learns not to obsess about the bad, and Duck learns that it’s not crazy to prepare for bad stuff, because it does sometimes happen.

The Dog Who Cried Wolf (2005)

When Moka’s owner reads a book about wolves, Moka starts getting jealous. He wishes he could be a wolf. So the next day he takes off for the mountains. The only caution for the book concerns his celebration: “He ran. He jumped. He danced. And he peed where he wanted.” That is, however, the only bit of potty humor. And soon after celebrating his freedom Moka realizes it isn’t all that it is cracked up to be. He is soon very hungry, and he can’t catch his dinner. Then, when he meets a pack of real wolves, Moka realizes that he never understood how good he had it back home. When he runs back, he’s met at the gate by his master, her arms wide open to hug him – this could have been titled “The Prodigal Dog”!

The Mightiest (2003)

A lion, bear, and elephant happen upon a crown with an inscription that says it is for the mightiest. To figure out how should get it, they take turns trying to scare an old lady. Each, in turn, manages to “scare the daylights out of” the old lady. But then the three of them get scared themselves when a giant comes along and scoops them all up. “Help!” they all cry, and who should rescue them but the little old lady. She is the giant’s mama, and since he’s sure scared to disobey her, isn’t she the mightiest of this whole lot?

My Lucky Day (2003)

A hungry wolf thinks it must be his lucky day when a delicious piglet, looking for his friend rabbit, knocks on the door. But as the wolf’s dinner prep begins, the piglet notes “I’m filthy. Shouldn’t you wash me first?” And so the wolf sets out to collect wood, start a fire, draw the water and give the piglet a wonderful scrub. As they head back to the kitchen the piglet notes, he’s quite small, and wouldn’t he be more delicious if the wolf fattened him up. Yes, the wolf agrees, and he picks tomatoes, cooks spaghetti, bakes cookies, etc. Piglet ends up having such a wonderful time that he thinks it must be his lucky day. And the wolf gets so tuckered, the piglet easily makes his escape. There is a sequel, My Lucky Birthday (2013), that’s almost its match, marred by one use of “gosh.”

Don’t Laugh, Joe! (1997)

Joe is a young possum who can’t help but giggle. That’s fun for all his friends, but his mom is worried that it might give him away when danger comes – after all, possums evade danger by playing dead, and no predator is going to believe a laughing possum is dead. But with a little help from a grumpy bear, he figures it out… and helps the grumpy bear see the funny side of things too.

A Mother for Choco (1996)

A little bird looking for a mother finds a giraffe that’s the right color… but she doesn’t have wings. A penguin mother has wings, but doesn’t have Choco’s round cheeks. And so the hunt goes on. Finally she meets mother bear, who looks nothing like Choco, but wants to hug and kiss her like a mom would. And they decide that’s what matters. Choco heads home with the bear, and discovers she has other children that also don’t look like her: a pig, a crocodile, and a hippo. I think the point of this is to celebrate adoption, and it does a good job (though I would have liked it more if dad bear had shown up).

Grandpa Toad’s Secrets (1995)

On a walk in the forest, Grandpa toad shares with his little grandson three secrets to dealing with danger. The first is to be brave, and when a snake jumps out to eat them, Grandpa puts his advice into action. He puffs himself up, until he’s twice his normal size and shoos the snake away. His second piece of advice? Be smart! When a huge snapping turtle tries to eat them, Grandpa tells the turtle about an even tastier snack that just slithered by only moments before. Before he can give his third piece of advice, a monster grabs him. Thankfully, little grandson has been listening, and uses the first two tips to mount a very brave and very smart rescue of his dear ol’ grandpappy. A very fun story!

When the Elephant Walks (1990)

A scared elephant scares a bear, who in turn scares a crocodile, and so on, until we have a running raccoon accidentally scaring a mouse. Will it all stop with the mouse? Who would be scared by a mouse? Well… an elephant of course! So round we go once more. This board book is clever, but it is very short, taking just a minute to read.

The Pig’s Picnic (1988)

Mr. Pig wants to ask Miss Pig out for a picnic, and on the way to her house, he meets three friends, who all want to help him look his very best. Fox loans the pig his bushy tail, while Lion gives his hair, and Zebra shares his stripes. But with Mr. Pig now looking so very different, Miss Pig slams the door on him. And when he comes back looking like himself, she is happy to go on a picnic with him, and eager to tell him about the ugly monster that had visited that morning. The moral of the story is to be yourself, not someone else.

The Wolf’s Chicken Stew (1987)

A wolf anticipates eating a wonderful chicken stew. But before pouncing on the chicken, he leaves gifts of 100 pancakes, followed by 100 doughnuts, then a 100-pound cake, all in an effort to fatten the chicken up. When he finally thinks it’s time to pounce, he goes to her house only to discover a grateful brood of 100 chicks who have been enjoying his cooking. The newly minted “Uncle Wolf” gratefully receives their 100 kisses.

TAKE IT OR LEAVE IT (1)

Badger’s Fancy Meal (2007)

Badger has plenty to eat in his hole, but wants something fancy. So he goes after a mole, rat, and rabbit, all of them escaping in turn by diving into the hole he just left…where they find what, in their eyes at least, is a fancy feast just waiting for them. When the Badger finally returns to his den he finds his food gone. All that’s left is a note, signed by three critters:

“Sorry for dropping by uninvited. A nasty badger was chasing us and we had nowhere else to hide. The apples, worms and roots were delicious.”

The bad guy gets what he deserves, which is good. But the reason I didn’t rate this higher is because as parents we also need to teach our children that we should be thankful that God is not giving us what we deserve.

DON’T BOTHER (3)

Finders, Keepers! (2015)

A little squirrel in a bright red hat finds a big acorn and celebrates with a shout of “Finders Keepers.” He buries it for later, marking the spot with his hat, which is later found by a bird, who thinks it would make for a great nest and takes his turn at declaring “Finders Keepers.” And on it goes. This is a light-hearted tale but only because it completely ignores that finders keeping leads to losers weeping. We don’t want our kids living out the moral of this story: instead of being keepers, finders should try to be returners.

Dorothy and Mikey (2000)

Two hippopotamus best friends share three stories here, all three of which center around fights. In the second, Dorothy pulls a trick on Mikey because he’s being all braggadocios about how much better he is at their contests. She challenges him to a contest of standing on one leg with eyes closed to see who can do it longer. But once they start, she goes home and enjoys a nice cool lemonade while Mike continues standing on one leg in the hot sun for hours, thinking she is there too. This is just returning evil for evil, which God doesn’t want us to do (1 Pet. 3:9).

The Rat and the Tiger (1993)

A little rat is best friends with a big tiger who isn’t always looking out for his little friend. For example, when they play cowboys, Tiger always gets to be the good guy, and Rat has to be the bad guy. After a lot of this, Rat gets fed up and won’t be friends with Tiger until Tiger gets a taste of his own treatment. But while Tiger was thoughtless, Rat treats Tiger badly on purpose. This is one to give a miss because as much as the world preaches it, we don’t want our kids to ever believe two wrongs make a right.

 

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Articles, Book Reviews, Children’s picture books

Jerry Pinkney: Making the classics kinder

In addition to the dozens of books Jerry Pinkney (1939-2021) has illustrated for others, he has also retold a number of tales from Aesop’s Fables, Hans Christian Andersen, and Rudyard Kipling. While loyal to these classics, he always adds in his own spin, which is often kinder than the original. This gentler take comes out in his illustrations too, where his use of watercolor makes his pictures bright, but soft. He loved drawing animals with people’s facial quirks and often packed his pages with detail. What follows is a summary review of his most popular picture books. Recommended Rikki-Tikki-Tavi 1997 / 48 pages This is a gorgeous treatment of Rudyard Kipling’s classic tale. Rikki-Tikki-Tavi is a lost mongoose taken in by an English family in India. But he’s not simply a pet – mongooses are snake killers, and there are three snakes in the family garden that he has to fight, one by one. The story is scary in parts, but each fight is quickly told, which might make this a great book to introduce young readers to a bit of tension. Pinkney’s watercolor paintings add enormously to the story. The Ugly Duckling 1999 / 40 pages Everyone seems a little bit nicer (or maybe a little less mean) to the ugly duckling in Pinkney’s version, though he does still get picked on for looking so different from the other ducklings. It’s only when he discovers he is a swan, not a duck, that he finds his place in the world. The moral to this story is one that parents can shape to a degree: is it about finding the right peer group – one that will accept you for who you are – or is what’s important finding out who God intends you to be? Aesop’s Fables 2000 / 96 pages This is a fabulous collection of more than 60 of Aesop’s fables. Even if you aren’t familiar with the ancient Greek author Aesop, you’ve certainly heard at least a few of his fables, ones like The Ant and the Grasshopper, The Tortoise and the Hare, and The Lion and the Mouse. In this collection the stories are at their shortest, just half a page to maybe two, which means you can read a handful at a time to your children. There is a moral to each story, again, and while most of them are insightful and foster common sense, these are not inspired. We found some of them are disputable, or right in one situation and may be wrong in another. That makes them all the more fun to read together, because examining the moral spurs on the discussion. That might be a reason parents would want to read this one with their kids, and not simply hand it off to them. None of the morals taught are all that horrible, so it isn’t a dangerous book: just a limited one, that gets some things only partly right, which means, also partly wrong. The Little Red Hen 2006 / 32 pages A red hen asks her barnyard companions if any of them will help her plant, harvest, carry, or bake her grain, and the pig, dog, rat, and goat all answer in turn, “Not I!” So, when it comes to the eating of the bread, the hen decides that they won’t have any part in that either. This is a tale about justice, so it is worth reminding kids that we shouldn’t be so quick to deliver justice to others, as Jesus satisfied the just judgment coming our way so that we would instead receive mercy. Little Red Riding Hood 2007 / 40 pages I love the little details Pinkney adds: in this one, he offers a reason as to why the wolf didn’t just gobble Little Red Riding Hood when he first met her in the forest – “he heard the chop, chop of woodcutters working nearby.” The wolf then gets ahead of Little Red by suggesting she stop to collect some kindling for a fire to warm her grandmother. Parents can point out that while this might seem a nice idea, it’s actually disobeying Red’s mother, who told her to head straight there with no delay. I was surprised when not only grandma but Red herself gets swallowed up. But, of course, the woodcutter does come to the rescue. The Lion and the Mouse 2009 / 40 pages When a tiny mouse disturbs the rest of the King of the Beasts, the King seems intent on having a quick snack. But instead, after some back and forth with the tiny petitioner, the lion lets the mouse go. Why? Readers already familiar with this Aesop Tale will remember that the mouse has pledged to help the king if ever he is in trouble. But in Pinkney’s almost entirely wordless version – there are only a few squeaks, one owl screech, and a lion’s roar – it isn’t as clear. But no worries, we can follow along well enough. Then when hunters trap the mighty lion in a net, it is the mouse that comes to the rescue, chewing through the rope to set the lion free. The moral of the story? Even the strongest will need help. Three Little Kittens 2010 / 40 pages Three little kittens lose their mittens, and consequently, lose their chance to eat their mother’s pie. Pinkney has extended but only lightly altered this classic tale, and paired it with page after page of adorable kitty pictures that any child will love to look at. The Tortoise and the Hare 2013 / 40 pages In this nearly wordless retelling (just 27 in all) we get treated to a double-page spread of the hare stretched out galloping with everything he’s got. In some versions of the story, the rabbit succumbs to ego and flattery, falling behind when he does stunts to impress the fans (particularly the girl fans) but Pinkney gives him a less obnoxious flaw, distracting him instead with a plump lettuce garden, where he overindulges and falls asleep. And that’s when the slow but steady turtle can make his move. The story concludes with the hare being a good sport and celebrating the turtle’s victory. The Grasshopper & the Ants 2015 / 40 pages In this version the grasshopper is a one-man band, singing his encouragements to the ants to forgo their work for play. Of course, when winter comes, we see the (unstated) moral to the story play out: that we should not put off until tomorrow what we can do today. But Pinkney’s ending, with the ants offering the grasshopper a place to winter, leaves us wondering if the grasshopper learned that lesson. Three Billy Goats Gruff 2017 / 40 pages This is the best version of this classic tale you will find, with wonderful artwork paired with an updated and improved version of the story. The three goats come, one by one, the smallest first, to cross a bridge to get to some delicious grassland. A troll pops up to devour the first goat, but this little one promises that his bigger, tastier brother is coming, and the troll should really wait for him. When the second comes, he says the same about his even bigger brother, and the troll lets him pass too. But when the biggest Billy Goat Gruff comes, he knocks the troll right off the bridge. That’s usually the end of the story, but Pinkney has the troll land in a river where a giant fish tries to devour him! After his narrow escape, the question is, has the troll learned his lesson? This is a story parents could maybe use to talk about bullying, but they would have to note that even though the troll got what he deserved here, that doesn’t mean we have to do to others as they were going to do to us. Take it or leave it Noah’s Ark 2002 / 40 pages I’m leery of biblical adaptations in large part because those that do them are often casual about how closely their summaries line up with what the Bible says, and the visual dimension will add details that weren’t in the biblical text. However, Pinkney is quite careful, with his most notable departure the omission that, in addition to the pairs of creatures two by two, seven of each clean animals were also taken (or, likely, seven pairs of each clean animal – Gen. 7:2-3). Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star 2011 / 30 pages A chipmunk stars in this retelling of the classic bedtime nursery rhyme, and early on he is finding “little stars” everywhere, from a dandelion fluff floating in the sky, to water droplets glistening on a spider’s web. But then, suddenly, he’s in a boat sailing to the moon. Clearly, he must be dreaming here, but the transition from the waking world is abrupt and I think most children (and many an adult) will be mystified as to what just happened. Don't bother The Little Match Girl 1999 / 32 pages I have to say I’ve never liked the original version of this Hans Christian Andersen tale, and nothing has changed with Jerry Pinkney's update. It is well done, but such a sad tale. And while it is important for adults to know of the needy, I don’t know that I have to confront my Grade 1 child with these difficulties. The Nightingale 2002 / 40 pages An African adaptation of an odd and lesser-known Hans Christian Andersen tale. It features death as a creepy character which is why I’m content to have it remain a lesser-known tale. Puss in Boots 2012 / 40 pages A beautiful version of a less than heroic tale about a clever but deceitful cat who tricks everyone into believing his master is a Count. The Little Mermaid 2020 / 48 pages In his version, the Little Mermaid doesn’t fall in love at first sight, doesn’t give up her life underwater for a man who doesn’t even know she exists, and doesn’t trade her tail for legs that constantly feel like she’s walking on blades. So, an improvement on the original? Maybe. But Pinkney’s version has a witch that looks like Satan himself, all red and horned, and a tack-on “girl-power” ending with the Little Mermaid suddenly able to beat all the bad guys all by herself for reasons that remain elusive. There’s no reason to get this one. Conclusion In the many articles prompted by Pinkney’s passing late last year, mention was made of how this prolific author struggled with reading in his youth. It was only decades later that he discovered he had dyslexia. Pinkney credited his parents’ positive outlook with enabling him to persist, and while he had struggles in one area, he found out that he was gifted in another: right from the start, he had a talent for art. These obituaries also spoke of his advocacy for African Americans. He grew up in a tumultuous time. He was almost the same age as Emmett Till, a young black boy who was famously murdered for simply flirting with a white woman. It wasn’t until Pinkney started having children himself that black children started being depicted in picture books. He’s made a point of including them frequently in his own work – for example, he has a black Red Riding Hood – though the inclusion is done naturally, without any particular note made. Even his advocacy is gentle. What never seemed to be mentioned was anything about Pinkney’s relationship with his Maker. The closest was a passing reference to his wife being a minister, which would have us suspect he was a liberal Christian. If so, his love for the old classics seems to have kept him from pushing any such liberalism in his books. He is an author that Christian parents will love to share with their little ones, particularly because he so often put a new spin on familiar fare....