Bookmonger: Picture books to brighten gloomy autumn days

FOR THE BELLINGHAM HERALDOctober 7, 2013 

It felt as if we had November weather at the end of September, didn't it? I, for one, needed a break. The antidote I found was George Shannon, who provided the sunshine I needed - not literal, but literary - as well as clever and fun.

Based on Bainbridge Island, Shannon has worked as a children's librarian and a professional storyteller, and for years has been writing some of the most delightful picture books around.

There are dozens of them by now, but I particularly like his stories featuring a plucky lizard ("Lizard's Home," "Lizard's Song," "Lizard's Guest") and also "White Is for Blueberry," which is an unconventional book about perceiving color.

This autumn two new books by Shannon will be showing up at your bookstore and in your library: "A Very Witchy Spelling Bee" and "Turkey Tot." The titles and protagonists might make people assume that there are holiday connections, but really the stories are not tied to Halloween or Thanksgiving.

"Turkey Tot" is aimed at a younger audience - preschool and kindergarten. It's the story of a young turkey who is determined to harvest some delicious berries that hang enticingly from the top of a very tall bush.

Turkey Tot's friends believe the situation is hopeless, but our feathered protagonist is not easily daunted. While his fellow creatures serve as a kind of Greek chorus, lamenting the impossibility of obtaining the juicy treat, Turkey Tot sets to work trying to find a solution to his problem. And despite numerous setbacks, he eventually triumphs.

Another Bainbridge Islander, artist Jennifer K. Mann, makes her picture book debut with fresh, comical illustrations that enhance this tale.

The other book, "A Very Witchy Spelling Bee," will be best appreciated by kids who are learning how to read and write.

Anybody familiar with Shannon's work knows that he celebrates ingenuity and tenacity, and his heroine in this tale, a young witch named Cordelia, represents those qualities well.

Cordelia loves to spell - both spelling words and casting spells - so she is thrilled when she sees a poster announcing the Witches' Double Spelling Bee. This prestigious contest, held only once a decade, requires witches to be accomplished at both forms of spelling.

Cordelia signs up for the event and, as the youngest contestant, finds herself pitted against some very canny rivals. Particularly intimidating is 203-year-old Beulah Divine, who has prevailed as double spelling champion thirteen times previously.

But for all of Beulah's snarling, cackling ways, spunky Cordelia is not cowed: "I've studied. I've practiced. I'm ready to win!"

This is a hallmark of Shannon's work, and a time-tested storytelling trick: the repetition of a phrase that captures the gist of the tale. For isn't it true that what we tell ourselves often turns us into the people we become?

Beyond that, Shannon's zippy wordplay is terrific entertainment for brains young and old.

Mark Fearing, an artist from just outside of Portland, created the lively illustrations that accompany.

Kudos all around!

Barbara Lloyd McMichael writes a weekly column focusing on the books, authors and publishers of the Pacific Northwest. Contact her at bkmonger@nwlink.com

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