Nov 13, 2018

2018 Produced AMAZING Picture Books

As a first round Cybils panelist for Board Books and Fiction Picture Books, I've been reading then closely examining 300+ releases from 2018. Seriously, this is what heaven must be like, except for one tiny issue: we'll eventually narrow those down to a handful of finalists! If you've read any of my prior posts you're probably aware that I avoid naming favorites in most things (colors, foods, etc.). I'm totally aversive to such labeling when it comes to books. 

One reason comes from my own childhood reading, and another is my experience from years of reading with kids of many ages in classrooms and beyond. The bottom line is that readers' favorites will change over time, and many individual's favorites may never make a finalist or award list. The specific book that touches the deepest core of a young reader may have a title not even known by a teacher, blogger, or classmate. 

For example, I remember fondly a yearlong love affair with books by Lear, Thurber, and Steig, even though it seemed that none of my friends knew about the work of those clever authors. There was also a critical period during which I found a book called CLAY FINGERS. I renewed and reread my library copy endlessly. It, too, was unknown to teachers or classmates. It was a pivotal book in shaping my eventual career, (which was NOT working in ceramics).

All of the above raise a serious question- WHY would I volunteer to serve on a committee whose purpose is to label books as finalists and winners of awards in a variety of categories. (BTW, click on that category at the top of this post to get a glimpse of the variety and depth of the fields in both categories this year.)

Back to that existential question, WHY? Here's my reply:

When lists of "bests" or finalists or award-winners are shared, they may (and should!) lead readers to new titles, even keeping books in print or on library shelves long after a publisher or librarian might otherwise do so. Participating also offers me both opportunity and incentive to read books I might have missed, then to read them again and probe deeply into the qualities that make some especially appealing to kids and outstanding as material for young readers. 

  • This process improves me as a reader. 
  • My expanded knowledge allows me a better base of titles from which to recommend books to readers in my efforts to provide core-catching matches. 
  • And I only ever offer to serve on the finalist panel, freeing me from the excruciating task of deciding on single winners. 

Clever, right?

So, as December nears I'll be sharing more full reviews of the books that have been rising into the very small pool from which I'll have to make my short-short list in discussions with the other panelists in these categories. Until then, I'll do some speed-dating posts to share my comments from among my 2500+ Goodreads postings. I hope you'll take a look.

Here are just a few, if you're interested in my thoughts about:

MARWAN'S JOURNEY  (A refugee story)

FIRST LAUGH (Cultural tradition of Navajo - Dine - with infants.)

THE DAY WAR CAME (A refugee story with an empowering child-view of choices)
I urge you to take a look, and I'll return soon with suggestions for more picture books and board books that deserve your attention.

Nov 5, 2018

Two Books by Sue Fliess: Rhyming Rocks!

Those of us who work diligently at writing picture book text are often frustrated by the widespread insider advice AGAINST writing in rhyme. The premise behind that advice is that publishers don't buy rhyming text. That's obviously not true, but this is: writing rhyming text is VERY hard to do, even harder to do WELL, and rhyming text is very challenging to edit. So, the REAL advice should be, don't write in rhyme unless it's absolutely the only/best way to tell your story. Then, if that's the case, study the best and do it WELL.

Author Sue Fliess seems to have figured out the secret sauce for a recipe for successful rhyming picture books. Her latest two releases are good examples of her rhyming skill in storytelling.
Two Lions, 2018
Since the orange of Halloween has been stored away and shops are filled with red and green, it's not too early to share her Christmas book. MRS. CLAUS TAKES THE REINS is illustrated by Mark Chambers. When Santa has the sniffles and opts out of Christmas, Mrs. Claus saves the day. She's well-suited in her green cardigan outfit, red socks and hair, and elfin glasses. 
She and her loyal troops weather storms, incoming ducks, snug chimneys, and exhaustion to "get 'er done"!
There are no real surprises in this rollicking adventure, but it's fun to follow a highly competent Mrs. Claus carry the toys, the spirit, and the joy of holiday giving around the world in a single night. 
The story reveals that Christmas magic is not Santa-specific, but seems to be anchored in (or lifted by) good will, generosity, determination, and love. Fliess incorporates all within this rousing, tightly-metered rhyming text that makes a lively and lovely read-aloud with a strong woman saving the day.

Running Press Kids, January 2019
You'll need to put her second title on your wish list because it won't release until early January, 2019. NINJA CAMP is illustrated by Jen Taylor. There are plenty of ninja picture books, a testament to the many wannabe ninjas among kids (and their parents!). 
Quite a few, although not all, are written in rhyme. Sharply metered, power-packed rhymes, many using onomatopoetic slams, bangs, chops, and kicks, suit the concept well. That's true of the text in NINJA CAMP, and the action-dense story is illustrated to enhance the text.
Fliess has managed to find an original take on the ninja theme in portraying a training camp and inter-camp challenge. The action is enhanced in the nighttime setting by using dense color tones with figures outlined by streaky white lines to suggest the backlighting of the starlit skies. There are plenty of page-turning twists throughout, with (no surprise) a happy ending for the young ninja stars. 

While you're waiting for NINJA CAMP to release, make a stop at your library and check out a few other fun Ninja picture books:
DOJO DAYCARE by Chris Tougas,
NINJA! by Arree Chung (The first in a series featuring this adorable little Ninja)
and 10 LITTLE NINJAS by Miranda Paul, featured in a an earlier post, here. (Now available as a board book)

Oct 31, 2018

Picture Book Series, Part 2 (Economics, History, Culture)

In a previous post I shared three of the five picture book titles in the    TRADE WINDS series by Eerdmans Books for Young Readers.
I wrote there:
The five titles in this collection are presented in picture book format and feature young characters in stories set during key periods in the history of global economics and culture.
Whew, that's a mouthful. 
As much as I advocate for using picture books across all ages, some intentionally instructive titles/series should be evaluated as academic tools rather than as picture books. 

That is NOT the case for the five titles in this set. Each could stand proudly on its own (and can be purchased separately). Each is a story featuring a young character whose narrative arc unfolds within a specific historic time and place. Each contains back page supplements, including a kid-friendly glossary and timeline, map anchors, and a few clarifying comments about the concepts presented, all of which are highly accessible to young readers. And each  is enhanced by elaborate illustrations that provide additional insights about the central concepts and cultures.

At this time in history, culture might be viewed as whatever meme last went viral, and economics can be seen as swipes of a card or chip or smartphone with little relationship to actual marketplace or economic principles.  We also live in a time in which wealth is amassed in inconceivable amounts and in fewer hands, making the money = power equation more relevant than ever before. Finding ways to anchor economic concepts within a broader global culture is a challenge, and these titles meet that challenge with engaging stories and helpful clarifications. 

The two remaining titles in this series convey important economic turning points in western history. GRANDFATHER WHISKER'S TABLE, written by Eun-jeong Jo and illustrated by Bimba Landmann, is another father-son story. In the mid-Renaissance era, Siena, Italy, emerged as the banking center of Europe. 

Enzo and his father visit to view the famous Palio de Siena horse race (which is still a thing!). Young Enzo is enthralled with the swirl of people, languages, and marketplace surprises, asking dozens of questions. He is particularly intrigued by Grandfather Whisker, who has settled on a bench in a marketplace stall with his strongbox. There he is saving, lending, and protecting valuables, exchanging currencies from around Europe, and recording each transaction in his book and providing receipts. (Did you know that BANK derives from the Italian word for bench?)
Enzo's story involves choosing a gift for a sibling, making a smart decision to ask the banker to hold it in safe keeping, then dealing with the dramatic loss of his receipt at the end of the race. The banker's lesson for Enzo is also valuable, and the specific banking vocabulary in back pages is still surprisingly current, even in our digital exchange era.
I found the illustrations to be evocative and I'm sure they will generate many curious questions from readers about the cultural patterns of that late medieval time: Complex buildings, walled neighborhoods, colorful clothing styles, heraldry, and more.

The latest period explored in this series is in LEATHER SHOE CHARLIE, written by Gyeong-hwa Kim and illustrated by Anna Balbusso and Elena Balbusso. The story opens in a small village in England during the Industrial Revolution. Charlie's grandfather is a master cobbler and the boy proudly sports his leather shoes throughout most of the book, earning his nickname and the title of the book. 
When his family (and most other families from small towns) moved to Manchester to work in the mills, readers are thrust into a 19th century mill town. Grimy tenement  housing looms throughout the pages, with Charlie's prized shoes soon offering the only vibrant color within the dull, suffocating images. Dangers and problems of child labor and unprotected industrial conditions are hinted at, with clarifying details developed in the back pages, including references to emerging labor organizations. 
One significant aspect of millwork forms the drama for Charlie's narrative. His mother develops a chronic and debilitating cough from the factory fibers and dust, but even with the whole family working they are not able to afford a tin of tea to sooth her throat. Charlie chooses to sacrifice his prized shoes to trade for tea. Even so, he can see a future in which he will leave the mills and train to be a cobbler like his grandfather. 

In both posts about the titles in this series, I've praised the informational content, the storytelling, and the scope and depth of the subjects and locations. When translating books from other languages, those qualities are not easy to accomplish. Credit goes to an author I deeply admire, JOY COWLEY, who served as editor for the series. She has a knack for writing in a down-to-earth yet creative and lyrical way, and her deft touch shines through in each book. It bears mention, too, that in each story there are aspects of kindness and generosity, family affection, and pursuit of learning. These elements make stories from long ago and far away feel relevant and recognizable to young readers.
I can't resist pointing out, and I hope young readers will notice as well, that the central characters are all males. Sadly, each culture and era portrayed was patriarchal. In that sense, the questions raised and comparisons made to gender equity in a modern world can lead to better understanding of how recently these changes have emerged and how many unfulfilled goals remain.
I hope that all of the above will give you reason to track down these books and give them a careful read. 

Full disclaimer here:  When My dad was a boy about Charlie's age his father died. That was during the depression, pre-social services safety net. He was the oldest son, so he worked with his cobbler uncle to earn enough money to feed his family. He handled deliveries and shop chores, but also learned enough of the trade to support his family throughout high school, repairing his classmates' shoes. As reluctant as I am to name favorites among any books, Leather Shoe Charlie has a special place in my heart. 

Eerdmans Books for Young readers provided a copy of the books in this set in exchange for a fair and honest review. I will donate this series to a local school and I recommend them to schools, libraries, and families. 

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.