Aug 30, 2018

The Rough Patch: Wisdom for Every Age

I launched this blog many years ago to celebrate the joy, value, quality, and benefits of picture books for every age. If this is your first stop at this blog, you can read my manifesto about picture books in these early posts, HERE and HERE

Greenwillow/Harper Collins Children's Books, 2018

I take great joy in reading picture books (text and illustrations, which is how picture books speak to us).
I never planned to provide daily posts (and I'm still  in awe of those who manage to do so). I'm very selective about the books I feature here.

Deciding which picture books to discuss and how extensively to write about each book challenges me. I look for something unique in the books I feature, searching for something that attracts my attention, draws me back again and again, and allows me to uncover new elements in the text and the illustrations on each rereading. 
I share books that are multi-layered, both timeless and ageless, in my opinion. 
Even though it goes against my nature to name favorites among the many books I love, some continue to absorb my attention, even years after an initial reading or post.

THE ROUGH PATCH, written and illustrated by BRIAN LIES, will undoubtedly be such a book. I'm not alone in feeling this way. It has already garnered rave reviews and three stars. Check out what School Library Journal said (HERE), Kirkus Reviews (HERE), and Publishers' Weekly (HERE). Each outlines the story well and makes note of a few of the many distinctive details, like Evan's garden boots.

I offer these trusted sources to confirm that my opinion about this tender story wasn't unduly influenced by the fact that I faced a heartbreaking final good-bye to my own four-legged companion earlier this summer. In fact, if this book had been released in June I probably wouldn't have chosen to read it at that time. My emotions were still too new, too raw.
Having read it now, though, I wish it had been available to me then. 
There is as much comfort between the covers of this book as I feel when wrapped in one of my heirloom family quilts.

Yes, on one level, THE ROUGH PATCH is a story of loss. But it is so much more than that. It explores and celebrates the amazing capacity and power of friendship and love. It reveals the depths and strengths of human emotions, the importance of living in the moment, and, yes, the circle of life.
In fact, the initial opening spreads are joyous, vibrant, luminous. Evan (the Fox) and his friend (the Dog) savor every moment of their full, shared lives. Their companionship, comfort, and wordless communication shine on the pages and will be deeply felt by those who share their own lives wth dogs, cats, or other friends. 
The scant but potent text in each spread, throughout each stage, conveys Fox's joy, grief, anger, and eventual healing. Lies's writing perfectly suits the lives of this garden community: simple, direct, and pure. It reminds me of a free-verse Robert Frost.  In one achingly gentle double spread, Evan realizes that "the unthinkable happened."

The next several spreads follow Evan through his stages of grief: his isolation and anger, and his rejection of his formerly joyful garden. The metaphoric title plays out superbly in the middle portion of the book, in which "a good place won't stay empty for long". Evan destroys his formerly manicured garden, but nature abhors a vacuum. The space soon fills with growing things: weeds, thorns, and spiky intruders. Evan nurses that negativity, embraces it. In the process, though, he experiences the healing power of resuming his daily habits despite his aching, broken heart. 
Time passes, sun shines, and a "volunteer" vine creeps into the garden. 
When Fair Week finally rolls around Evan is open to a twinge of familiar excitement. Time and old habits have allowed his heart to begin to heal, to give himself permission to enjoy familiar joys. When a scrabbling tendril of possibility reaches out to him at the fair, he chooses to begin anew.

Throughout each page and stage, Lies uses his mastery of illustration to combine expressive features, shifting perspectives, light, shading, color, and detail to create scenes that beg to be examined closely while urging readers to turn the page and know the characters more deeply. Throughout it all I found myself walking hand-in-paw with Evan, wanting desperately to comfort him but knowing his was a journey to be traveled alone.

Lies has created many books I admire. His talent for capturing the nuance of expression, movement, habits, and postures in animals is incredible. I first described that talent in a post (here) about MORE, which he illustrated for author I. C. Springman. 
Apart from the elements within each scene or spread, I greatly admire the way he conveyed the emotional arc of this book through the continuity and transformations from first page to last. In THE ROUGH PATCH I noted his use of similar artistic tools, and yet he achieves distinctly different effects. In both cases, the transitions are so deftly accomplished that what might be considered simple circle stories instead become salvation stories, each ending with the characters transformed and strengthened in ways that are layered and lovely.

I recommend many books, but put THE ROUGH PATCH at the top of your list. 
Share it widely.
This fox and dog represent all of humanity.

Aug 22, 2018

Funny Little Fiona: One Healthy, Helpful Hippo!

Whether you're enjoying picture books with your own families, sharing them within your classrooms, or reading and analyzing them to inform your own efforts to write quality picture book text, let me introduce you to a little hippo who will command your attention.

ZONDERKIDS, August, 2018
Let's start with the most recent of three remarkable picture books, all about funny little Fiona. FIONA THE HIPPO is written and illustrated by New York Times bestselling illustrator Richard Cowdrey.This creative-nonfiction version of the now-famous, prematurely-born Fiona the Hippo (Cincinnati Zoo) takes a charmingly kid-friendly approach. Cowdrey views the tiny newborn's early struggles, undaunted spirit, and eventual ability to grow and thrive as seen through the imagined eyes of fellow zoo animals. Before you declare his irresistible illustrations as overly humanized, take a look at the back cover photo of Fiona and do a quick online search to see how touchingly human this hippo really seems. 
The point of view and illustrations allow Cowdrey to assign words and thoughts to little Fiona and her zoo-mates. His effective use of Fiona's repetitive mantra is one that her zoo-keeping caregivers recognized and reported from her earliest hours:

"She was ready! She let out a snort, wiggled her ears, and said, 'I've got this!'"

HMH Books for Young Readers. June, 2018
Next, take a close look at two other purely nonfiction picture books about Fiona's early life: Saving Fiona: The Story of the World’s Most Famous Baby Hippo by Thane Maynard, and Hip, Hippo, Hooray for Fiona!: A Photographic Biography
by Jan Sherbin. Using photographs from zoo personnel, this last title was actually the first, documenting the resilient spirit of the zookeepers as well as Fiona's will to survive, and thrive. A portion of the proceeds from this last book goes to the Cincinnati Zoo to support their work.

Insights Productions. October, 201

These three titles disprove the common warning in publishing that a specific subject/topic shouldn't be "overdone". In this case, each of the three titles offers a distinctly different take on sharing a remarkable story even though all are shaped around the early months of little Fiona's life.

Reading and exploring these three titles with young audiences (and older ones) provide perfect opportunities to:

1) honor each book for its own distinct strengths and appeal, 
2) compare the similarities and differences in points of view, 
3) analyze narrative text types, and 
4) consider ways to approach writing non-fiction text in various ways.

You can't go wrong with these picture books.  They are all fun-filled and smile-inducing, offer inspiring text and images, provide STEM-focused content, and are thoroughly irresistible. 
Fiona's waiting for you.

Aug 5, 2018


It's that time again... back to school, around the world!  Whether a child can walk out their front door and take a few steps to the schoolhouse door (as I did), or boards a bus, or walks miles on a dirt road (as my mother did), getting there matters. Many kids feel the stirring excitement of going to school in their bones, usually fostered by their parents' messages about the value of learning. 

little bee books, 2018
ADVENTURES TO SCHOOL: Real-Life Journeys of Students From Around the World is co-authored by Baptiste and Miranda Paul and illustrated by Isabel Muñoz. It makes a compelling case that this feeling is a universal experience. 

This delightful recent picture book uses imagined but convincing first-person-voiced young locals describing trips to school under challenging circumstances. This combines with informative illustrations and narrative text to reveal daily school-travel in remote areas around the world. The balance of voices/perspectives is effective in connecting and developing empathy as well as curiosity and respect. Expository sidebars include images of each country's flag, an iconic indigenous animal, and up-to-date facts about the featured country as a whole.

Author notes in front- and back-matter are helpful in recognizing the universal importance of education and the extent to which families value and support learning and progress for their children. Notes about research and authenticating sources are especially valuable, including cautions about online videos, often viral, making claims about places and people that are no longer true or perhaps never were. 
I particularly appreciated the range of locations across many continents (including North America) and the album-like double page spread at the back to assemble images and place-designations for the fictionalized characters within the book. One additional feature I would have enjoyed would be a world map marking and labeling each character with a location. I can easily see this book being used to launch a geography/map unit of study, for a classroom or for individual readers and families.

I'm pleased and privileged to say that both Miranda and Baptiste are personal friends of mine, and I was expecting to invite them to answer a few interview questions here. Before asking, if they'd have time in their busy lives, I developed a list of questions. Then I went online to search for prior interviews so that I could eliminate duplicates and be sure to provide something fresh for readers. In the process I found that Maria Marshall had posted an extensive interview with Miranda and Baptiste on her blog, THE PICTURE BOOK BUZZ (HERE). It's not surprising that some of my questions matched hers, but she had covered every topic on my list! I was especially interested in how they had divided up the writing work, and was excited to read about their process in this earlier post. Actually, Maria's questions were even more comprehensive than my own, included the same interior spread and author photos, and also provided information about upcoming books and links to other reviews.

I know when to take a step back and give the stage to others, and this is a perfect case. I also know when I've found another picture book blog to which I should subscribe, which I did (and you should, too). Please, take the time to click the link to this comprehensive blog post (Repeated HERE!) 

So, instead of an interview, I'll remind you to get your hands on this book and share it with kids. While you're at it, check out my previous post about IT'S YOUR FIRST DAY OF SCHOOL, BUSY BUS! by Jody Jensen Schaffer. Both books tap into the excitement of returning to school, and between the two of them there's something for any age!

Aug 1, 2018

A Trio of Timeless Picture Books

The goal for anyone producing text and/or illustrations for picture books is to create books that are "classic", timeless, lasting. In this post I'll first feature a book from 2003. (That's FIFTEEN YEARS AGO already! How did that happen?) Then I'll share a release that was first published in Japan in 2003, but released in the USA in 2017. I'll end with a retold story with origins from centuries ago but newly released in 2018. 
So let's get this time-travel started!

Dial Books for Young Readers, 2003
THE SNAIL AND THE WHALE,  written by Julia Donaldson and illustrated by Axel Scheffler, is a truly charming book. With crisp lines  and vibrant jewel-tone illustrations, it offers an unusual twist on unexpected friendships. The seemingly effortless rhyme and repetitive nested text moves the story in wavelike rhythm from its tropical opening through the Arctic and beyond. The little snail uses slime as cleverly as Charlotte used her web to send messages that invite adventures and then to save the life of the whale. It's an undeniably heartwarming tale, and well worth dwelling on the expansive spreads and the tiny details, especially the eyes of snail, whale, and their community of critters. It's a wonderful read-aloud and could serve as mentor text for writing.

Chronicle Books, 2017

This next book was released in Japan that same year. THE FOX WISH was written by Kumiko Aman and illustrated by Komako Sakai. Often non-English books make their way to release in America, but more typically they do so within a year or so of the original publication. In this case, Chronicle Books released this English version in 2017, and I'm so happy that they did. 

Unlike the oversized, landscape layout suited to a world-traveling whale adventure, this gentle but lively story is told with subtle, woodland colors and produced in a smaller, square trim size. The art itself is deftly blended with blurred edges and  the text is interspersed with cursive font. The overall book design is an ideal format for this young-girl narrator and her little brother Lukie to make a most astonishing discovering. When they return to the field to retrieve her jump rope, they discover a family of foxes jumping rope. These are absolutely delightful foxes, not the least bit anthropomorphized, in my opinion, despite adopting human actions, voice, and names. They truly display fox-like body movements, postures, and expressions, not to mention attitudes. 
You love it already, right? 
But just wait.
This much of the story is pretty evident from the cover alone, but within the pages you'll find it is loaded with surprises. The foxes aren't good at jumping and the girl quickly coaches them to hold their tails up straight. The kids and kits are soon jumping together, having a wonderful time. It's only when Roxie, the girl, takes the handle to turn that she realizes it is her missing rope. Of course she tries to claim it, but one llittle fox has a tale to tell that shines a whole new light on the day, and on the rope. Seriously, this book should be in every home, classroom and library. What a conversation starter it is, for every age, which every classic book should be. 

Holiday House 2018
Finally, take a look at the most recent book, whose title will be immediately recognizable, since the origins of the tale are often attributed to Aesop: WHO WILL BELL THE CAT? This recent version is retold by Patricia McKissack and illustrated by Christopher Cyr. There are plenty who say that retold tales are not needed or wanted in the current "market" for picture books. This book demonstrates well that a lively, well-constructed text and vibrant, expressive art can make even the oldest tales feel fresh and appealing. 
McKissack provides cleverly generic names for the wildly varied barn mice (Smart Mouse, Friend Mouse, Wise Mouse, Wee, Tiny, and Teeny Mice). Cyr offers characteristic and masterful use of light and dark tones in the illustration, framing and highlighting the eyes, personalities, setting, and tension of the dramatic events as they unfold. Rich with personality, the barn rats make a signifiant appearance, as does a carload of "giants" (humans). Not an art stroke or a character is without purpose and occurr naturally. That includes the carload of humans who happen to be people of color, a rare but happy appearance for traditional tales. 

I recommend each of these wholeheartedly, and hope you'll check them out sooner rather than later. Their stories are universal, their artwork is absorbing, and the creators are from around the world. If you know any of these books already, chime in with your own opinions, or come back and comment after you've taken a close look of your own. You won't be disappointed.

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.