Dec 8, 2019

"JUST RIGHT" Gift Books for Picky Readers- and the Rest of Us!

Nearly everyone I know has used a field guide at some point in their lives. Birdwatching? Identifying tree leaves? Preparing a school report on insects? 
Field guides, while useful, are not what I'd call picture books in  any traditional sense. They are meant to be utilitarian, a convenient resource for occasional use.
And yet, some manage to offer many of the benefits and much of the appeal of great nonfiction picture books. 
Here's my post about some amazing field guides, two of my favorite nonfiction nominees for Cybils finalists from among the many outstanding titles I've been reading. Each is clearly labeled FIELD GUIDE, but each has won my heart with picture book qualities, and will do the same for readers of many ages. Each elevates the category of FIELD GUIDE through excellence in writing and design. Both broaden the appeal of truly unusual topics of study to audiences of many ages and backgrounds. And each utilizes a voice that reaches out to fully engage individual readers.

First, I'll celebrate CRYPTID CREATURES: A FIELD GUIDE, written by Kelly Miller Halls and cleverly illustrated by Rick Spears with retro style and color tones. I won't be the least bit offended it you pause right here to click on Kelly's name above to check out her website. 
You'll be gone a while, because her website is subtitled "WONDERS OF WEIRD", and it's almost impossible to look away. 
Kelly, you see, is a renowned writer, researcher, presenter, and expert on "cryptids". 
She explains in the introduction of her new book that CRYPTOZOOLOGY is the study of mysterious sightings.
Yes, this is science. 
In fact, if/when scientific investigations conclusively prove that a previously unknown creature is actually real, it moves from this crypto-label into a scientific classification within known categories, or even sprouts a new branch on our zoological tree. 
As you must know though, the vast majority of various unexplained sightings are more often disproved than proved, Often the  evidence leaves unexplained creatures hovering in the crypto-zone. 
This hand-sized manual will entice even the most reluctant reader to dive and delve deeply into the world of the weird. Author Halls is an established expert on the subject of unexplained/unconfirmed sightings and claims of lifeforms that have yet to be established in science. Her research involves travel, interviews, analysis of conflicting reports, and examination of artifacts and locales. Over time, her reputation for approaching claims of unexplained lifeforms elevates her writing to a level of mentorship for others in navigating the fine line of describing and defining the range of credibility and reasoning for each claim. 
Kids (and adults!) struggle to separate fact from fiction, even when hard data and direct observation are available. In cases of claims and hoaxes, Halls's field guide  examinations invite readers to identify standards of proof, to question claims without cynicism or gullibility, and to generate hypotheses and possible research to pursue further understanding. 
The creature-claims included here are classified by types, with added content threaded throughout offering individual pages of related subject matter, from cartoons to museums to rewards for hard evidence. Challenges to the reader's curiosity abound.
Hall's website (and her excellent prior titles) provide even further deep explorations of unknown and intriguing subjects for investigation. Her school visits and presentations are consistently a hit with audiences of any age, but especially with the kids who have struggled to connect with more typical topics and genre. I urge you to check out this remarkable title and share it with kids you know who need a portal to potential!

The next offering is MOLES, subtitled THE SUPERPOWER FIELD GUIDE. Cover captions like "Featuring Rosalie the Bionic Burrower!",  "96 Pages of Gobsmacking Facts", "Mole Illustrations Galore", and "ARMS OF HERCULUES! SUPERSONIC SNOUT FINGERS! BOOD OF THE GODS! AND MORE!" use a comic-book style dynamic. It felt a bit over-the-top to me at first, but I soon saw that was not the case with the kids who picked it up. 
Within minutes of opening the book I realized that author Rachel Poliquin had dug deep. (<<< See what I did there?)
And it shows.
Illustrator Nicholas John Firth brings comparable hyperbole and retro style to his illustrations with limited color tones and unlimited fun while adhering closely to the scientific facts about amazing moles. 
I'll admit that moles were low on the appeal-meter for me, even though I'm an animal-lover. I tolerate deer nibbling my foliage, squirrels and chipmunks uprooting my bulbs for tasty snacks, and rabbits raiding my veggies and can't suppress my smiles.
However, moles undermining my garden hovered in the irritation-zone, not far from cabbage worms and slugs.
This book won me over, though, and I've read it several times. My admiration for moles now is immeasurable! Those over exclamations are more than merited. 
The author manages to make clever comparisons from from page one- inviting readers to see a typical garden mole as potato sized-and-shaped critter. She backs up her raves about this  squinty-eyed, super-powered wonder with astonishing facts. 
Naming her model mole Rosalie, the author provides all the science detail you could imagine (and more!) while layering in humor and stacking up page after page of impressive accomplishments and adaptations for this little powerhouse. 
The writing itself is a perfect blend of lighthearted explanations and informed admiration for moles. After reading this field guide, it's easy to describe Rosalie and her relatives as charming. Back matter includes suggested further reading (both fiction and nonfiction) and  a helpful glossary. 
If you are wondering what kinds of books might hook a digitally-obsessed kid you know, or one who has been heard to say, "I can't find any books I like," these two titles are exactly what you need to add to your gift list for holiday shopping.

Dec 1, 2019

Three Biographies: Inspiring Performers!

A recent post profiled  the power of everyday people to change the world with a spotlight on biographies about FRED ROGERS (Mr. Rogers, of course) and TOD BOL (originator of LITTLE FREE LIBRARIES). In both cases, they drew on early intentions about doing good for others, about honoring the messages learned in youth, to generate ripple effects that continue beyond today. 
Whether starting from humble beginnings or nurtured from the earliest days, three remarkable creatives each made an impact that reverberates today.
Candlewick Press, 2019
Dipping back farthest in time (of these three titles) is a biography of perhaps the most iconic figure in cinematic history. SMILE: How Young Charlie Chaplin Taught the World to Laugh (and Cry) is written by Gary Golio and illustrated by the remarkable Ed Young. Two award-winning talents were paired and do justice to the heart-tugging and surprising early life of little Charlie, to reveal the necessity and the inspiration for Charlie to develop his timing, his talent, his theater awareness, and his comfort on the stage. 
When, as an adult,  he found himself exploring characters in the new media, silent film, he led with his heart. While directors called for "More funny!" he discovered that audiences would laugh harder if the character they saw on the flat, black and white screen could reach out and connect. And audience could care enough to cry, if the story and the actor worked their magic together. 
Chaplin was proud to transform apparently everyday folks into everyday heroes by revealing seeming weaknesses into strengths. He did so with a grace that is still imitated but remains unmatched. Check out clips and further details of Charlie Chaplin at the official CHAPLIN site, HERE. Back matter in this book leads to other helpful information. 

Just a bit further into the twentieth century, young Lester Paul was growing up in traditional Waukesha, Wisconsin. He raced into the music room at his school with the enthusiasm for music that stayed with him throughout his very long life. 
His music teacher was not as enthused about his various attempts at instruments and informed his mother that Lester was NOT musical. 
GUITAR GENIUS: How Les Paul Engineered the Electric Guitar and Rocked the World documents how wrong a teacher can be.
Like Fred, Tod, and Charlie, Lester had a mother who believed in him, who encouraged his inventions and schemes, even when they involved sawing a chunk out the staircase or disassembling electronic and other household items. That confidence and encouragement keep Lester pushing and prodding and learning and playing, even though he never learned to read music. His list of awards and honors as a performer, an innovator, an inventor, a collaborator, and more led to lifetime achievement accolades in multiple Halls of Fame and numerous patents for his inventions. The text by Kim Tomsic and illustrations by Brett Helquist vibrate with Paul's unstoppable drive and energy. Back matter is informative on several layers. 
My personal disappointment with this book is that there is no mention, even in the back matter, of Paul's creative musical partner and love of his adult life, his wife, Mary Ford. She collaborated in the development of many of his inventions and innovations, and together they were dubbed THE GOLDEN DUO. As should be the case, this picture book is focused on his childhood. But enough pages touch on his adult accomplishments that this feels like an unhappy omission.
Schwartz & Wade, 2019
Finally, you'll want to have a close look at ELVIS IS KING, written by Jonah Winter and illustrated by RED NOSE STUDIO. If any rocker took the power of Les Paul's electric guitar and ran with it, it would be ELVIS. Although his original beat-up accoustic guitar was beloved, and he performed with accoustics often, his drive to create a sound that had never before been heard never left him.
Winter's text is laid out in blocky chunks, moving readers from age to age, page to page, and stage to stage, pun intended. The neon cover lettering and carved-puppet-dimensional profile hint at interior scenes. Each dimensional, stop-action spread reinforces the staging that Elvis mastered early in his life- including when he used dye and wax to turn his blond hair into the iconic masterpiece it was throughout his career. 
This rags to riches story is far more than a tribute to determination and dreams. Elvis, like Chaplin and Paul, harnessed incredible talent to change the world. 
30 Years Triumphs Books, 2019
If these lives have you in a musical mood, you should pick up THE HISTORY OF ROCK for BIG FANS and LITTLE PUNKS, by Rita Nabais and Joanna Raimundo. With a blend of field guide style and comic book illustrations, brief bios of the best known and most influential rockers are presented in chronological order. Whether because global rock favors -speaking performers or because the book is intended for American audiences, representation of international bands is limited. 
Even so, the change-makers, innovators, and icons of rock music are within these pages. Simple sidebar details enhance the short  summary paragraphs. Back matter includes a glossary of rock terminology, both technical and cultural. There is plenty of appeal to lead BIG FANS AND LITTLE PUNKS to search for, explore, and discover performers and music that might otherwise fly under their radar. 

Nov 28, 2019

Profiles in Kindness: Biographies of Everyday Heroes

As I've been reading and examining picture book biographies, I've noted the challenge to portray famous adult lives and their accomplishments while not losing touch with the children from whom they grew.Two recent books do that particularly well. 
Abrams Books for Young Readers
YOU ARE MY FRIEND: The Story of Mister Rogers and His Neighborhood uses words by Aimee Reid and pictures by Matt Phelan to reveal the deep roots of Fred Rogers- as a child. 
With gentle, minimal text and images, the well-known adult Fred Rogers comes to life on the page first  as a sickly, timid, lonely little boy. Everyday experiences reveal his gradually developed ability to entertain himself with imagination (and puppets), to listen intently to those he trusted, and to absorb and apply their wise words in his own life. 
He finally developed the confidence to consider running along a stone wall. When he dared to ask permission, the gathered adults told him no. But Grandpa McFeely said yes, and then affirmed Fred's courage when the boy came back with a skinned knee.
Unlike some biographic picture books, this one successfully keeps the focus on Fred as a child long enough for readers to identify with him as a child. They are able to see him as an ordinary boy, one who could be in their classroom or neighborhood. 
Only then do they see him move ahead to become an observant, curious adult with a keen eye for making the world better. In one important case, a pivotal event, he imagined how making the new world of children's television could make the whole world a better place for... children.
Of all the ways he opened the world to young viewers, Fred Rogers never lost sight of those childhood messages: Look for the helpers, I believe in you, and you are wonderful just the way you are. The ways in which this ordinary hero changed lives is immeasurable.  This picture book biography plants the seed of truth: anyone can be a hero. Everyone IS a hero when they live up to their best selves.
Added back matter and resources are accessible and add valuable details and insights.

Clarion Press
The second biography that impressed me is LITTLE LIBRARIES, BIG HEROES, written by Miranda Paul and illustrated by John Parra. The narrative begins with another small boy whose struggle had to do with reading. That was a particular pain for a boy whose mother was a reading teacher and loved books. 
We quickly learn that she saw beyond her son's struggles and did not measure his worth by fluency. Instead she instilled a magical message in her son, Todd Bol, a seemingly ordinary boy. She shared her belief that he was gifted, that he could change the world, that he could do anything.
He never forgot that.
This book is as much a biography of the message as it is of Todd or any of the other cameo heroes included. Each had special gifts, ways of becoming heroes. 
This is the story behind the global movement that resulted in Little Free Libraries being built, registered, filled, and stewarded by people who love books and reading as much as Todd's mother did.
It is the story of Todd's search, as an adult, for a way to move beyond sadness when his mother died. To honor her, he decided to build and fill and steward a streetside little free library in her memory. 
This is also the story of Todd never giving up, believing his mother's message about making a difference. He moved his effort into nearby towns in Wisconsin with the help of a big-thinking buddy and volunteers, then on into public awareness, then on into communities around the country and around the world as his message spread.
It also offers anecdotes of  just a few everyday people who took on the role of Little Free Library stewards in their own communities, celebrating individuals for bringing the love of books and reading to their neighbors. Some of those stewards launched their efforts as  young as six years old.
In this book, too, the added details and resources in back matter elevate an inspiring story to nonfiction excellence and mentor writing. Content includes added details, but also notes links to learn more about this global effort. The nonprofit organization website allows you to explore a world map of active locations, find more individual stories, and learn how to become a steward in your own neighborhood.

How we define our heroes probably defines us.  

We sometimes urge kids to look beyond media-enhanced superheroes to recognize admirable folks in their midst, the ones who make a daily effort to live up to and exceed the responsibilities of life. 
Not often enough, I'm afraid.
With kids, that effort often yields a more fully developed understanding of role models, of leaders, of  admirable human qualities. Young people may interview and write about those close-at hand heroes, too.

As we pause in gratitude for all that we have, as we gather today and throughout the upcoming holidays, I urge you to share stories of the personal heroes you found in your own lives, especially when you were very young. Share some stories of how Mr. Rogers was a part of your life.

After a full meal, gather up some gently loved books to exchange and take a walk to a Little Free Library near you. (Check the map!) If there is none near you, why not open a conversation about becoming an steward in your own front yard. 

And remember, before stumbling into heated or hurtful conversations, that the young ones gathered round are watching, listening, and absorbing what you say and do. What they see and hear, directly and indirectly, will shape who they one day become. 
As Fred's Grandpa McFeely told him, what he always remembered and grew up to share, "You are wonderful just the way you are."

Happy Thanksgiving.

Picture books are as versatile and diverse as the readers who enjoy them. Join me to explore the wacky, wonderful, challenging and changing world of picture books.