Dec 28, 2013

2013 Wrap Up- Is It 2014 Already?

This is the time of year when blogs offer wrap-up and best-of lists. I've avoided that in the two years I've been doing this, for several reasons. Although  I'm excited to sing the praises of books I love, I dread naming "favorites" of anything, let alone books.
Perhaps it's a result of teaching for so many years, but I simply can't name one (or ten) as favorites-- for any reason-- without feeling I've neglected to mention stellar qualities in all the others. I'm not a "feel good", "empty praise" kind of teacher, one who treats all results as equal, denies quality or encourages excuses. (To tell the truth, I don't even know any teachers like that!)
I believe to my very core that self-esteem is innate, but needs to be nurtured and developed in the same way any other skill or talent should be. People of every age slide quickly into self-protective patterns, guarding themselves against injury of any kind. This often results in adopting a sort of flinching, comfort-zone approach to life.

Authentic self-esteem, however, allows us to assess and take reasonable risks, to tolerate and learn from criticism and failure, to value and take pride in our own willingness to push the envelope of what is and explore what could be. It fosters objective self-assessment and goal setting. Confidence and self-respect open us up to appreciation and genuine joy for the success of others without feeling diminished or compared by their time in the spotlight. 
I adore reading the lists offered by others, nodding along in agreement or racing to post library holds when an occasional unfamiliar title pops up. 

I don't doubt that my experience and education are an adequate basis for stating my own selections and offering justification for my choices. I recognize that "favorites" indicate personal taste, a subjective standard by definition. 
Yet I can't seem to get past my belief that books are judged best by their readers. I'm haunted by thoughts that I could list a thousand and one titles and somehow not include the one book that changed the life of a child. Who am I to say that book is NOT the best book of the year? 

That question guides me when I consider books for these posts, or review and rate titles on Goodreads. I assume that even when I can't find things to recommend about a title, it just might be the one book that will unlock a child's heart. If I can't say something good, sincerely, I pass.
There are countless great things to say about the 2013 crop of picture books, but once again, I will not be offering my own list of favorites or most-recommended titles. 

Having said all that, I'm more than willing to point you toward a few of the lists created by others. Some titles will pop up on multiple lists, many that have been featured in posts on this blog, and all are more than deserving of your attention. If you stop by and leave a comment, tell them I sent you!

There's no better place to start than with Alyson Beecher's KidLitFrenzy blog. Alyson is a self-described  "...educator, writing mentor, book geek, and blogger." Her opinions are always worth reading.
Speaking of reliable sources, you can't go wrong with recommendations by the followers of the Nerdy Book Club. Here's the post for their 2013 Fiction Picture Book survey. 
Hot off the presses, here's the Nerdy Book Club announcement of their 2013 Non-Fiction Book Survey, too!

Some folks, like THE BOOK AUNT, clearly feel comfortable taking a position on lists such as this. In fact, she dares to name the ten best picture books of all time. (This blog title would have been mine, except it was taken before I got to it!

Then, if you're up for it and interested in books for all ages, check out the New York Public Library's 100 Children's Titles for Reading and Sharing-2013. 

The above links provide evidence that others are doing such an outstanding job,  my contributions aren't needed. Check these out, and if you offer lists (or individual titles) of your own, please add them in the comments and link to your own post, too!

Dec 21, 2013

The True Value of Gifts

With the holiday celebrations comes gift-giving. In the last post I urged giving books, and I still do.

Now I'm feeling compelled to discuss the gifting process itself. In this affluent country (and many others), there exists a wide range of  economic levels. Many in the "have not" category rely entirely on the kindness of strangers to have a decent meal or a meager gift under the tree. That reality offers a learning opportunity for kids, especially those who take their holiday gifts as a given, literally and figuratively.

Beyond our own marginalized neighbors, though, there are children in refugee camps and war zones who face a daily struggle for survival with barely subsistence resources. Holidays in such settings are marked, if at all, in spirit rather than in practice.

Dragonfly Books, paperback, 1988
Alfred A. Knopf, 1986
An ideal book to share such an experience is A NEW COAT FOR ANNA, written by Harriet Ziefert and illustrated by Anita Lobel. I've loved this book, based on a true story of post-WWII survivors, since it was first published. As Christmas approaches I've thought about it often because it reminds me of the circumstances facing characters in my forthcoming middle grade historical fiction release set in Norway during the German occupation. Bartering and making-do were necessary for survival, but reserving assets for even harder times to come also played a role.
In this picture book Anna and her mother have survived the war years intact physically, but with few worldly goods or resources. Anita Lobel's opening spreads reveal Anna in her little blue coat, then one page turn shows her several years later, wearing the same now-too-small and badly tattered coat amid the refugees and relics of her city. The story reveals, in words and images, that Anna and her mother arrived at the end of war considerably more intact than many others, yet unable to get needed supplies, including food. It's her mother's goal to return a degree of normalcy to Anna's life in the form of a new red coat that fits.

Anna's mother is a clever woman. Now that war is over she decides to use her few reserved valuables to get Anna that coat. Her bargains and promises extend throughout a full year and the entire community: a watch traded for wool (with months of waiting for the wool to grow and be sheared), a lamp traded for spinning (to be done in warmer weather), the yarn dyed with berries (harvested later in summer), a necklace traded for weaving wool cloth, then a teapot traded to the tailor.

This community outreach effort spans a year and provides an excuse to invite all involved to a Christmas gathering that features generous servings of  gratitude and Christmas cake. All agree it is the best Christmas in memory. Anna even visits the sheep to thank them for their contributions. The story is permeated with patience, participation, and appreciation of craft and contributions without even a whiff of sentimentality. 

Other review quotes include:
"Thought-provoking and informative" (Booklist, starred review)
"...will be understood and cherished by all ages" (School Library Journal)
"…hardship gives life to hope" (The Los Angeles Times)
"Lobel's illustrations-- rich, warm, and bright as the new coat itself-- bring the story to life." (The Philadelphia Inquirer)
Puffin Paperbacks, 2008

Another holiday story featuring war survivors is Patricia Polacco's CHRISTMAS TAPESTRY. In this case the story is a continent away from Europe and a generation or more later, but it, too, deals with the ravages and losses of war, the meager items salvaged by refugees, and the nature of giving and gratitude. 

Whatever stories are shared at this time of year, in picture books or from personal experience, my hope is that they will convey a sense of recognition of those who make the items, those who bring them to us, and the spirit in which gifts are given and appreciated. 

Dec 14, 2013

Long Lines Make Me Smile- in Bookstores!

This will be a fairly short post (it's holiday season, in case you missed the memo). Along with cookie baking, gift shopping/wrapping, and package shipping, we've had some snow shoveling to deal with around here, too.
photo via

With that said, you'd think waiting in long lines would be particularly frustrating, but NOT SO when the lines are in bookstores. This is true any time of the year. Instead of staring at racks of snacks, pop culture rag-azines, or useless oddities, bookstore lines provide my eyes with an array of titles I've considered, unique (even hand-made) stocking stuffers, and peeks at other shoppers' selections. This is true in larger chain stores and even more so in independent bookstores. 

I often find myself unable to resist commenting or inquiring about those selections, finding myself engaged in a lively book/author discussion with a friendly shopper when we're rudely interrupted to complete our purchases!

At holiday season I'm especially thrilled to find so many people buying books-- actual books-- as gifts. I've always gifted books for Christmas and every other occasion, even when there is no recognizable occasion but the time and match are right. This year I'm again able to gift some picture books signed to the recipients, which turns my smile into a grin.

Chronicle Books, one of my favorite picture book publishers and stalwart champions of the place of picture books in our world, offers a "Give-a-Book-Pledge" opportunity to nudge you in the same direction. I'll add to that this link to Indiebound so you can search out the title you prefer and find someone in your area who will be pleased to help you obtain it. 

When considering options, here are a few resources:

The New York Times Style list for parents,

This breakdown by grades from Reading Rockets

and my highest recommendation refers to our Wisconsin list of 2013 releases, able to be downloaded here as revised lyrics to THE 12 DAYS OF SCBWI-Christmas by Kate Lindsay.

So, set those cookies aside and start searching. Whether shopping for kids or adults, do your part to help me picture books (sorry 'bout that) in the hands of everyone during this holiday season.

Dec 6, 2013

Sharing Mandela's Legacy with New Generations

When anyone has lived for 95 years, has shaped a nation, has inspired and altered the entire world trajectory, his passing should not be mourned. What can be mourned is that his spirit is no longer embodied here with us.  Yet it lives on through his words and actions, a legacy for generations to come.
Little, Brown Books for Young Readers,  1996
Now the burden falls to us to not only sustain the momentum of Mandela's courageous public life, but to find ways to transfer our awareness of his importance to future generations. These young people lack experience with apartheid and it's inhumane impact on every member of society, oppressed and oppressors.
Picture books can play a dramatic role in this process, focusing on personal stories and images that make abstract concepts come alive for readers. THE DAY GOGO WENT TO VOTE: SOUTH AFRICA, APRIL, 1994, written by Elinor Batezat Sisulu and illustrated by Sharon Wilson is just such a book.

The author served as a polling booth official on those days when, for the first time, ALL citizens of South Africa participated in a free election. This was the first time elections included people of every skin tone and ethnicity, every shade of melanin in their skins, both voters and candidates. This story is told from the point of view of a very young girl who accompanies her great grandma (Gogo) to the voting location. So many were expected to vote that the election allowed the polling places to be open for three days, with the first day devoted to the elderly and disabled. The commitment to exercise this long-denied right can be witnessed in videos such as this Peter Jennings YouTube clip.

This picture book was published while Nelson Mandela was president of the Republic of South Africa, elected during those very days. His quotation on the back of the book says it all:
"A picture book like this, which evokes the spirit of an historic occasion
 as seen through the eyes of a child, is a moving testament 
to the strength and courage of the South African people."

Does South Africa still have major problems? Yes, every society does, and the larger the nation the more complex and challenging are those problems. Does every resident of South Africa treat every other with respect, seeing themselves in others regardless of their color or station in life? Of course not. But, thanks to the efforts of Mandela, his followers, and the international support they inspired, all do have equal standing under the law now, all have legal recourse when violations are perceived or witnessed.
Harper Collins Publishers, 2013
How Mandela came to be such a leader is portrayed, in part, in Kadir Nelson's picture book, NELSON MANDELA.
"Kadir Nelson tells the story of Mandela, a global icon, in poignant verse and glorious illustrations. It is the story of a young boy's determination to change South Africa and of the struggles of a man who eventually became the president of his country by believing in equality for people of all colors. Readers will be inspired by Mandela's triumph and his lifelong quest to create a more just world." 
New York Times Best Illustrated Children's Book, 2013.

These two books are perfect portals to understanding the time, place, and power of Mandela and his role in the history of South Africa and the world. Older students will find countless resources, online and in print. One place to start includes his inspiring quotations.

Wherever the discussion and readings lead, let's make sure that Mandela's greatness, his almost unimaginable accomplishments, do not overshadow the fact that his efforts affected individual human lives, or that he is treated as anything other than a human himself. These picture books reveal how very human Mandela was.

Perhaps one of the greatest humans in history.

Dec 1, 2013

Any Jeopardy Fans Out There?

I've chatted recently with some college grads who've been working as classroom aides while hoping to break into the professional fields for which they were trained. After chatting about progress on that front and offering as many encouraging ideas and as much support as possible, I couldn't resist asking how they feel about their classroom  experiences. Without fail these highly educated and accomplished young people end up raving about the amazing things they are learning in third, fifth, or seventh grade classrooms. They each mentioned some topic in science, history, math, or literature that fascinated and intrigued, that raised questions and led to further investigations.

I've often felt that odds favor elementary teachers in Jeopardy competitions for that very reason. Despite massive campaigns to suggest that schools are utter failures, elementary classrooms are teeming with energized learners pursuing far-reaching topics of study and research, analysis and inquiry. Who better to have amassed (and frequently shared) an encyclopedic array of information, and to have finely-honed reflexes from managing those eager learners than their teachers?

I mention this because I recently received preview materials from Simon & Schuster,  created in collaboration with Ken Jennings, the record-setting Jeopardy champion. I'll review them briefly below, but first I want to share a passage from the letter written by Ken and enclosed with the samples.

"…let me tell you where my story started: not on a Culver City soundstage in 2004, but decades earlier, when I was a kid with a bookshelf beside my bed just crammed with amazing-facts books, ratty paperbacks full of hard-to-believe knowledge about every subject under the sun. Dinosaurs, computers, Vikings, baseball, ice cream. It didn't matter. I was curious about everything."

Simon & Schuster,
April,  2014
These new materials are in two forms- picture books aimed at ages 4-8 and topical books aimed at middle grade readers. Both incorporate visuals to appeal, to clarify complex concepts, to visualize vocabulary, and to present accessible pages with manageable amounts of text and colorful images. His new materials is called the Junior Genius Guide, including interactive books on specific topics. I previewed the book on maps and geography; also available are titles on Greek mythology and U.S. Presidents, with more topics in development. The picture book series is the "Did You Know" collection (Hippos Can't Swim and Other Fun Facts, Chickens Don't Fly and Other Fun Facts).
Simon & Schuster
April, 2014

These feature minimal but clearly-stated text with cartoonish, vibrantly-colored full spreads. They offer engaging openings to further reading through their quirky factual details. Countless  quality non-fiction picture books are available to extend this lead into further explorations at reading levels to suit preschoolers through established readers. Find some great suggestions at this post from

The Junior Genius series provides the same benefit. Reluctant readers will especially like the extensive white space on each page, the small blocks of print in comfortable font size, and the quirky line drawings that call to mind the sketches in the Wimpy Kids series. Here, too, the serious reader will find a wealth of additional resources that are equally accessible and extend the content in many directions.

I love that these materials are produced in traditional paper format, offering online links that are interactive in the best sense. The S&S Junior Genius Guides website is colorful, appealing, and age-appropriate. If you take a look, chime in with your thoughts, or let me know if you were ever the kind of kid who collected odd facts and figures like a crow hoards gum wrappers. (If so, why not follow the lead of  Ken Jennings and try out for Jeopardy?)

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.