Nov 18, 2015

More Worthy Cybils Contenders: Post-Paris Attack Reflections

If you haven't yet seen the brief video showing how a father in Paris talks to his young son about his fears, please watch here. It only takes minutes, but will stay with you forever. 

Then there's this, by Antoine Leiris, a young husband/father's open letter to the terrorists. Even if you've heard or read it, I believe it's worth taking time to read again (here). 
Every word is powerful, but since this is a picture book blog, I'll excerpt this portion from his Facebook post:
"We are just two, my son and me, but we are stronger than all the armies in the world. I don't have any more time to devote to you. I have to join Melvil who is waking up from his nap. He is barely 17-months-old. He will eat his meals as usual, and then we are going to play as usual, and for his whole life this little boy will threaten you by being happy and free. Because no, you will not have his hatred either."
In both cases the focus of the parent is intently on his child, aware in those moments that joy and peace are not words on holiday greeting cards but are experiences to be recognized, savored, and fully appreciated.
Among the fiction picture book titles I've been reading are two that may remind us all of that truth, not just in times of crisis, but every day of our lives.

Roaring Book Press (A Neal Porter Book) June, 2015
Current events shaped my choice of titles to share in this post, but the value of each of these is timeless. BOATS FOR PAPA is written and illustrated by Jessixa Bagley. 
"Buckley and his Mama live in a cozy cabin by the ocean. He loves to carve boats out of the driftwood he finds on the beach nearby. 
He makes:

big boats
long boats
short boats and
tall boats,

each one more beautiful than the last, and sends them out to sea. If they don't come back, he knows they've found their way to his papa, whom he misses very much. 
In this stunning debut, author/illustrator Jessixa Bagley explores the subtle and deep emotions associated with loss in a heartwarming tale that is sure to stay with the reader long after the book is closed."

"The colors, scenes, and language of this book allow a complex and difficult story involving grief and longing to seep gently into our minds and hearts. These animal characters (beavers) become instantly humanized, not because they are wearing clothes, but because what they experience is universally recognizable. Even the youngest will understand and appreciate this story, but it offers a rich menu of emotions and responses to readers of any age.
It stands up well as "just" a picture book, but elevates itself into so much more than that."

Grounded Books, March, 2015

Take a careful look (or a dozen) at SIDEWALK FLOWERS, written by JonArno Lawson and illustrated by Sydney Smith. Seriously, spend some time with this one. it is so much more than either Goodreads or I can describe, which should be true of any outstanding picture book, I suppose.
Here is the Goodreads synopsis:
"In this wordless picture book, a little girl collects wildflowers while her distracted father pays her little attention. Each flower becomes a gift, and whether the gift is noticed or ignored, both giver and recipient are transformed by their encounter. "Written" by award-winning poet JonArno Lawson and brought to life by illustrator Sydney Smith, Sidewalk Flowers is an ode to the importance of small things, small people, and small gestures."

And here are a few comments I added
"This wordless book uses color, detail, subtle facial and body expressions in black/white illustrations with the spot color contrast to lead readers through an emotionally complex story. It is accessible to the very young but offers content to spark potentially intense discussions at any age about relationships, personal expression, and pursuing that often-referenced "in the moment" awareness in daily life."

If you're looking for other titles (released in the current or past years) that offer not "only" the entertainment or diversion of a picture book but open doors to discussions and emotions that can be too intense to approach directly, I recommend the  blog, BOOKS THAT HEAL KIDS. (Here)

These recommendations are my own responses and evaluations of the books, not a reflection of our Cybils panel discussions or deliberations. 

Nov 13, 2015

Cybils Fiction Picture Books: Worthy Contenders

We're making progress on the stacks and stacks of fiction picture books nominated for this year's CYBILS Awards. As I mentioned in this post, the reviews and opinions I share here are my own and don't reflect any deliberations by our panel. Those haven't even begun yet. 
What I'm excited to do here is to shine a light on two books that surprised me, in the best possible ways. I love books, especially picture books, and I read tons of them. Along with books I read myself, I follow blogs and reviews by some of the most engaged folks in the kid-lit world, including teachers, librarians, parents, kids, authors, illustrators, and editors. I read every edition of Horn Book from cover to cover, scour bookstores, and follow social media. 

Surprising me about picture books is hard to do. 

And yet these titles did just that. In a few cases I hadn't heard about them, or had less than stellar expectations, or had the highest hopes for them and they blew right past those and into the upper atmosphere. My reviews from Goodreads are used here for a couple of the best, in my opinion, with more to come in the days ahead.
Abrams Appleseed, 2015
Let's start with TICKLE MONSTER, written by Aedouard Manceau, illustrated by Edouard Manceau. This is one of those that slipped under my radar, so much so that I first read a different book with the same title. I refer to it at the end of this review, in part to caution you that THIS is the Tickle Monster I recommend, for these reasons:

"I love everything about this "tickle book": vibrant colors leaping off a black background, empowering young readers to control things they fear, emphasizing creativity and imagination, using if/then language patterns, kid-friendly simple text in a little-hands-friendly trim size, predictable patterns that allow kids to name and read body parts, and a reassuringly "safe" tone at bedtime despite the imposing cover image. 

Compare these features to my thoughts on this other picture book with the same title, reviewed here."

NorthSouth, January, 2015

I'm a huge fan of squirrels, so I should have expected Mr. Squirrel and the Moon, written and illustrated by Sebastian Merschenmoser, to be a treat. And yet... this is what I had to say after reading:
"Oh, my. I can't exactly say why, but I wasn't expecting to enjoy this from the title alone. It won me over from the cover and endpapers and wrapped itself around my heart with each page turn. The stark contrasts throughout seemed like a perfect parable of life- conflict, worry, determination, surprises, apparent success leading to more challenges and absurdity, balanced with an earnest belief in ourselves. 
Mr. Squirrel's reality (in contrast with his somber black and white imaginings) basks in the brilliant glow of the "moon". The illustrations themselves and the color palette elevate this to brilliant, in my opinion.
This is "If You Give A Mouse A Cookie" flipped on its head and given a moral spine without a hint of preaching. In fact, it's overflowing with cheeky, wry humor.
The somber "punishment" scenes are utterly hilarious, and the eventual final scene mirrors the hunched silhouette from those somber scenes.
In my many teaching years I often witnessed innocent, earnest kids imagining that some unexpected development in their lives could result in disproportionately negative consequences. I wish I had this book to share with them at the time."

Hope you'll take a closer look at these titles, too. For more of my reviews on the many books I'm reading and evaluating, check out other Goodreads reviews here, and I'll be back with more in a day or two.

Nov 9, 2015

Some Veterans Day Recommendations

I paused this series of posts for PICTURE BOOK MONTH to take a brief weekend trip. It was a privilege to arrive at the airport on the morning of a VETERANS HONOR FLIGHT to Washington. I've admired and contributed to the organization since it began, but hadn't witnessed the operation in process, and walked right into that opportunity. The veterans, their escorts, and the amazing volunteers displayed contagious energy and excitement.
 These flights require an incredible amount of coordination and a complex support system. They proceed throughout the year, providing a once-in-a-lifetime experience that would otherwise never happen. 

Wednesday, November 11, is VETERANS DAY. Picture books are an ideal way to transport young readers into the past, distant or recent. They provide the perfect vehicle for increasing understanding, appreciation, and connections to the human side of wars and military service in general.

Several books related to this topic come to mind. I'll spotlight three that are especially suited to spark interest and increase understanding about this annual commemorative day. The first two are nonfiction, the last is fiction.

Alfred A. Knopf, 2013
Veterans Day was established as Armistice Day, calling for quiet recognition of the suffering and loss of life that ended "The Great War" on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month, 1918. A Splash of Red:The Life and Art of Horace Pippin, is written by Jennifer Bryant and illustrated by Melissa Sweet. Since its release it has received numerous awards, including:

An ALA-ALSC Notable Children's Book 

Horace Pippin, the subject of this remarkable biography, was a severely wounded survivor of the notorious trenches of World War One. Determination drove his recovery and eventually he resumed a life of painting.
This is a perfect example of a book that will appeal to and intrigue young readers while adults will find themselves wanting to learn even more of Pippin's story. 
On Goodreads I noted: "From its dedication "For the Veterans" to its vibrant, colorful illustrations, this biography of self-taught artist Horace Pippin inspires from cover to cover."

Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, 2009
Next up is another TRUE story, this one profiling the survivor of a recent war. NUBS: The True Story of a Mutt, a Marine, and a Miracle. Co-written by Major Brian Dennis and author Kirby Larson, with photos by Mary Nether, NUBS documents a remarkable Iraqi dog of war. 
On Goodreads I had this to say:
"Stories of survival, of veterans and those they have encountered in war, are (sadly) prolific. This one is a sure-fire winner for many reasons, not the least of which is the quality of the storytelling.

Here's a segue to those who wait at home. Their struggles are challenging enough for adults who have more life experience, world awareness, and other resources. Children, though, have less capacity to cope with the absence of loved ones who deploy for long periods, whether to combat zones or not. 

WAITING, created by Kevin Henkes, is fiction of the purest sort: utterly fantastic and achingly real at the same time. The entire comforting, hopeful story takes place on the windowsill while the world outside moves through the seasons. Each character has dreams, hopes, and varying moods, but these friends/family always have each other. This is a picture book that will touch adults as deeply as it does the youngest. 
"Characters and the setting appear to be as "simple" as the premise of this book. Don't be fooled, because even the youngest will quickly note the talented use of tiny line shifts, angles of perspective and positioning, and scenes outside the window. Waiting is not just an issue for the youngest set, it is ubiquitous at every life stage. The way we view those waiting passages in our lives determines more than the length or nature of those waits. And the company in which we wait matters even more."

These books are just a few of the many picture books that open windows to awareness of the human side to service, in times of war and peace. Add your own suggestions in comments, or find more excellent titles on  this post on the blog, READ ALOUD PICTURE BOOKS, here

On Veteran's Day another post about  picture books on this topic appeared on GROG (Group Blog) written by school librarian and maker-space innovator, Todd Burleson. Check out his great title suggestions here.

Nov 5, 2015

Another PICTURE BOOK Recommendation: The Bear Report

Here's another picture book recommendation that you won't want to miss. 
Seriously, doesn't this just tug at your heart?
Harry N. Abrams. October, 2015

The Bear Report, written and illustrated by Thyra Heder, is a remarkable story blending fact and fantasy seamlessly, a magical power picture books have been known to exert over readers from time to time. 
In this case the fiction is a realistic story of a girl who must write a report on polar bears... BORING! 
The fantasy is that a polar bear (Olafur- don't you love that?) shows up to provide a guided tour of life as a polar bear. From that fantastic experience emerge facts about the food, habitat, and challenges to life  in the Arctic. 
The premise concludes with Sophie returning to write the most detailed and enthusiastic report ever!

I kept my comments short on Goodreads because this is one case where no amount of description or praise can do justice to the experience this book will provide.

"A powerful blend of story, science, and images ideally designed to capture both fantasy and fact. The young human is a perfect foil for the most appealing polar bear you'll ever meet, one that is wise and witty."

If I had the clout of a Kirkus Review, I'd have been more detailed. Instead, they did it for me, giving THE BEAR REPORT a starred review and saying this:

"Wit, imagination, and a bit of the impossible combine with chilly shades of icy blue and stormy gray for an elegant beauty of a book.
Combining panel storytelling with full-bleed artwork, succinct word use, and creative text placement, Heder’s tale comes alive as a picture book accessible to younger readers yet engaging to more sophisticated audiences. It’s the story of young Sophie, who’d rather watch television than do her homework assignment on polar bears. “They are big / they eat things / they are mean.” That seems to be all the young girl can think of, until a polar bear visits her living room and whisks her off to an artfully constructed Arctic, complete with ice floes, whales, and snow rabbits. In this follow-up to Fraidyzoo (2013), Heder captures the spirit of a child’s imagination, allowing readers to watch as Sophie transforms from boredom to curiosity to pure delight. Heder uses sumptuous watercolors to depict girl and bear laughing, learning, and tumbling through the wintry background. Wry, hand-lettered dialogue is the only text. “What else is under here?” the girl asks. “Seals…foxes…snow rabbits,” the bear responds. “But they avoid me.” The author teaches about life in the Arctic in the best way possible—by making it feel like she's not teaching at all.
Gorgeous to look at and a tummy tickler to read, this is a very fine book indeed. (Picture book. 4-8)"
As I said, you've really got to get your hands on this one. Hurry, Olafur is waiting for you!

Nov 4, 2015


In case you missed the post that launched this series, here's a quick reminder. I'm attempting to feature some outstanding fiction picture books from among the many nominated in that category for this year's Cybils award. 
Keep in mind that these are my own opinions and DO NOT reflect discussions among the  Round One Panel Members.
If you care to follow any of the other ratings or reviews I've been listing on Goodreads during this process, check out my posts here.

And so, kind readers, without further ado, allow me to introduce you to tonight's nominee, certainly the book with the longest title:

TOYS MEET SNOW: Being the Wintertime Adventures of a Curious Stuffed Buffalo, A Sensitive Plush Stingray, and a Book-loving Rubber Ball, written by Emily Jenkins and illustrated by Paul O. Zelinsky.

Schwartz and Wade Books, September, 2015

Here's what I had to say on Goodreads:

"Full disclosure: I am such a fan of the TOYS chapter book series that I opened this, their first picture book,  convinced that I'd love it. Sometimes that happens and I have to admit disappointment, even if slight. 
In this case, TOYS MEET SNOW  met and exceeded my expectations. 
I love these characters, and seeing them in color, in their delightfully determined, cooperative adventure to explore the snow, made a sheer fantasy surprisingly believable. Their distinct personalities radiate across horizontal double-spread illustrations that amplify their distinctive points of view regarding the natural/magical world. 
What a wonderful experience this will be for even the youngest readers, but equally for anyone of any age who knows (or even suspected) that those toys filling our lives have secret lives as rich as our own. Pair this with the three short chapter books featuring Lumphy, Starfish, and Plastic, as well as Kevin Henkes's recent picture book, WAITING.
That's what I call an outstanding adventure for anyone."

Now, not to brag or anything, but I wrote that more than a month before the Publishers' Weekly lists of Best Books for 2015 came out. Wouldn't you know they included TOYS MEET SNOW among their best picture books? Congratulations, Emily and Paul.

If you aren't aware of the series that introduced and developed these three remarkable characters (and others), be sure to check them out here: TOYS GO OUT, TOY DANCE PARTY, and TOYS COME HOME (each with equally long subtitles). 

Dutton Children's Books, September, 2015
While you're at it, click on Paul's name above. (Or here: PAUL O. ZELINSKY) It will take you right to his website homepage where you can join in the celebration of the 25th anniversary of his closest-thing-to-perfect interactive picture book, WHEELS ON THE BUS! He's offering fun and easy opportunities to win a 25th Anniversary Commemorative Edition! Even if you have an original copy (and every family should), this one is worth having. 

Holidays are ahead, and if these don't make it onto your shopping list some young readers will be missing out on the best of the best in children's books.

Nov 2, 2015

Picture Book Month Continues: Maya's Blanket: La Manta de Maya

As this recent post indicated, November is PICTURE BOOK MONTH. Each day this month I'm sharing quick notes and links to some of the outstanding fiction picture books I've been reading for the ROUND ONE Cybils Awards. 

Add caption
For today's installment, don't miss MAYA'S BLANKET: La Manta de Maya, written by Monica Brown, illustrated by the incomparable David Diaz. 

Here's my short note on Goodreads: 

"Full disclosure: I am an unabashed fan of the traditional JOSEPH HAD A LITTLE OVERCOAT, in the Simms Taback version and several others, but tend to be critical when retellings are not well-executed.
This Latina version is well told, features a female recipient, allows the young girl to be a co-creator along the many transformations of her blanket, and is told with bilingual text.

When David Diaz lends his magical, interpretative illustrations a guaranteed winner is the result."

I've read multiple glowing reviews, but several made it a point to recommend this book for schools and libraries serving Latino/a populations. I heartily endorse that sentiment, as far as it goes. My objection to that recommendation is that this book should find its way into the hands of ALL readers, regardless of cultural background, on its merits alone. It not only offers a mirror to those who speak and live with a Hispanic identity but also a window for those unfamiliar with the language or culture. 

Back soon with more suggestions!

Nov 1, 2015

November is PICTURE BOOK MONTH! 3...2....1... GO!

I mentioned in a recent post how honored I am to be serving on the Round One Panel for the annual Cybils Awards in the category of fiction picture books.
It's a responsibility that takes my commitment to promoting quality children's literature to a different level. Rather than just selectively shining my limited light on those titles that I find particularly valuable for various purposes and reasons, I've been carefully examining every single nominated title in this category. 

I fully expected to enjoy this process. 

Wow, "enjoy" is one heck of an understatement! I'm loving it!

I also expected to find myself drawn to some titles more than others, for a variety of reasons. 

Right again. I've found something to appreciate in each and every one of the 150+ books I've read and examined (so far). The count of books I read and considered carefully eventually rose to 250. Even so, some clearly rise above the rest in the quality of their stories, illustrations, book design, and overall appeal. 

November is Picture Book Month, so all month long I'll be posting notes and links about some of the books that particularly caught my eye. I've also been posting about them on my GOODREADS book lists, usually with a short review. Before reading my reviews here or there, or those of anyone else, please read the excellent thoughts of fellow panelist Carrie Charley Brown on the Writers' Rumpus Blog, here.

 It's important to note that my comments, ratings, and reviews reflect personal opinions and do not reflect the opinions or discussions of our panel.

Candlewick Press, 2015
So, ta-da! The first title I'll feature here is an irresistible story that is based on actual characters and events, and they are extraordinary. Almost unbelievable! 

Except they're true.

Ketzel, the Cat Who Composed, is written by Leslea Newman and illustrated (brilliantly!) by Amy June Bates. Here's what I had to say about Ketzel's story on Goodreads:

"This story is difficult to "cat"-egorize as fiction since it is based on actual events, an actual cat, an actual composer and an actual contest. The evocative and moody illustrations capture the urban streets, the comforting apartment interiors, and, most of all, the warm and loving personalities of the composer and the cat. It's a story with as many rich layers as a symphony, told with a lighthearted and loving touch. It also weaves insights about creativity and the universality of music across cultures (and species) throughout the story."

So, this is a great place to start following along on the process and discover incredible books to read, share, and recommend for yourselves. Even if you don't read the hundreds of titles we'll be reading, you won't want to miss this one.

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.