Nov 30, 2018

All-of-a-Kind Family Hanukkah: Timely and Timeless

There are some names in the world of picture book creators that come with a guarantee of quality. Two of these talented individuals have joined forces to collaborate on text and illustration, reuniting after earlier successes working together. I can hardly be blamed for forming a hopeful and positive opinion about the work before I was even able to set eyes on it.

Penguin BYR, 2018
I actually felt that way before the starred reviews began rolling in, and weeks before the title began appearing on award shortlists. 
ALL-OF-A-KIND FAMILY HANUKKAH is written by Emily Jenkins and illustrated by Paul O. Zelinsky, both of whom have garnered awards and commendations for wonderful  works in the past. My hopes couldn't have been higher. Once I had a chance to read and explore it, the actual book exceeded my highest expectations. 
This picture book extends the classic ALL-OF-A-KIND FAMILY novel series into a charmingly specific holiday celebration event that lets the characters shine through. 
The historic context and Hanukkah preparations are so thoroughly engaging that readers need not be familiar with either the foundational characters and stories nor the customs of Hanukkah celebrations to enjoy the book. The flowing language and the childlike charm of the illustrations keep readers focused on the perspective and emotions of the youngest daughter, Gertie, who takes center stage. She is desperate to help with latke preparations. Each step in the process (the peeling, grating, slicing, frying) presents dangers for one so small, even with loving older sisters who are kind and willing to share their chores. 
When Gertie has a meltdown, not unlike those likely taking place in holiday homes across the country (world), she is firmly banished to her room. Gertie's emotional rumination are recognizable, familiar, and  explore feelings we've all experienced as children. When Papa arrives home his role adds humor and reflects the loving nature of the family as a whole. 
The language and illustrations are nothing like a prior Jenkins/Zelinsky pairing in the TOYS GO OUT trilogy and picture book (TOYS MEET SNOW, reviewed here.). Just as Jenkins bends her ear and voice to capture those of characters she has loved for a lifetime, Zelinsky's art explores a rare childlike quality while incorporating a nod to authentic historic and cultural details. This approach provides expressive gestures and postures, with eye-level awareness of how dangerous a kitchen can actually be. The author's and  illustrator's notes following the story are worthy reads, and you'll definitely want to return to the book after reading their notes.
And then you'll want to place an order for hot latkes!

In past posts I've mentioned that I grew up devouring inhaling reading books, even though I had limited access to a very sparse branch library. I attended a school with a single shelf in each classroom collection. My childhood was at a time when very few children's books were being published. I read cereal boxes, the daily paper, and magazines, from BOYS LIFE to REDBOOK. I'd wait my turn to read every book that entered our home after Mom or my older siblings finished. 

That means I often reread books from our limited household library, including series titles like my sister's CHERRY AMES, STUDENT NURSE. There were other series from my meager public library, including The Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew Mysteries, although I was never desperate enough to read those titles more than once.
It's not uncommon to come across academic articles saying that reading series titles should be discouraged. They can be formulaic, with predictable patterns, plots, and character traits. I wouldn't deny that many series, particularly those written in the fifties and sixties, presented little challenge to readers, but they did provide better entertainment than the back of a cereal box.
One series I am certain I never heard of, or read, (and wish I had) is the ALL-OF-A-KIND FAMILY.  Apparently, though, young readers in New York City, particularly in Jewish families, read every book in this series by Sydney Taylor. They certainly weren't alone. Taylor was the first author to write novels about Jewish family lives that also became popular with young readers from other religions and backgrounds, although they certainly weren't in my parochial school classrooms. Loyalties to this series extended across generations as children took these characters into their homes and lives and hearts. 
Taylor's stories unfold at the turn of the twentieth century in a Henry Street neighborhood in New York's Lower East Side.The title comes from Papa's nickname for his family of five daughters, who are "all-of-a-kind". 
I wish I had been able to access these when I was young, because I'm sure I'd have enjoyed the family dynamics, the lively and distinct personalities, and the historic insights from the era.
I'm always excited to read and enjoy any picture book with the appeal of All-of-a-Kind Family Hanukkah. In this case I'm grateful to a picture book that has provided me with gift to my younger self. I'll be checking out the five titles in Taylor's series and indulging in several hours of delightful stories that I missed when they were new. Once you read this terrific new picture book you may want to do the same.

Hanukkah begins at sunset on December 2 this year. Blessings to one and all. 

Nov 29, 2018

Don't Forget: Picture Books About Memory Loss

As family and friends gather for the holidays, some awkward moments may arise as younger people in your circle notice changes in older people, people they know and love. Questions may arise, and, in the moment, young ones may get a message that there are things we "don't talk about". Two recent picture books approach such situations with gentle understanding and realistic suggestions, and both are presented in the context of appealing stories. 

THE REMEMBER BALLOONS is written by Jessie Oliveros and illustrated by Dana Wulfekotte
There can't be enough picture books about memory loss or Alzheimers or dementia, in my opinion. The numbers of young kids who will experience both the blessing of having elders in their lives and the struggle of watching those beloved elders become confused strangers will increase rapidly as the boomer generation lives longer. Many titles do a good job of exploring this topic in an age-appropriate way, as this one does. 
But this one has a special quality of family, universality, emotional honesty, and satisfying resolution. 
More importantly, of the many titles on this topic, I can't recall another in which the characters are African American. (If I've missed something, please add a comment to this review so I can explore it, soon.) 

I have a vague memory (no pun intended) of a picture book on this topic with Asian characters, but I can't come up with a title for it.
This issue, as with so many of life's experiences, unifies the human race. Even so, young audiences need to see themselves and their loved ones in pages dealing with such transitions. This is a very welcome book. 

Not all "changes" kids may notice are in elders or in those whom they only see occasionally. Sometimes young lives are affected when a parent undergoes undeniable changes with serious impacts on their family's lives. DAD'S CAMERA is written and illustrated by Ross Watkins and  Liz Anelli.  
This powerful picture book carries the weight of serious issues within its pages. The father confuses and upsets his young son and wife while pursuing his unexplained mission to capture daily life on film. He is dealing with an unnamed deterioration of his mind- perhaps early onset Alzheimers, or a progressive brain tumor. Whatever the cause, the son and wife are well aware, as is the dad, that their time together is limited, that his memory is disappearing and that he will not last long- in spirit or in body. 
Subdued colors, softened edges and details, and simple, direct text share the burden of this sad tale about Dad's puzzling mission, one that eventually offers a resolution of understanding and increased appreciation of Dad's final legacy. This is a real conversation starter and an example of a picture book for every age.

The wonder of books as powerful as these is that they will be enjoyed and explored by any young audience, whether they apply to personal lives or not. They can open discussions, even ones about unrelated challenges. Silence is rarely a solution, and never is when it comes to dealing with change and loss.

I hope you'll share other titles that might be useful, too.  

Nov 27, 2018

More Board Books: Hide-and-Seek and Non-Fiction

I launched this blog almost seven years ago with THIS POST, in which I clarify my thesis: Picture books are NOT limited to books for babies. 
All these years I've been featuring books and author interviews for a multitude of ages and interests. I've tried to shine a light on how quality picture books can inform, entertain, and engage audiences of all kinds. In making my point I've often said, 
"Remember, picture books aren't baby books!"
 I don't mean to imply that BOARD BOOKS aren't important, only that they are just one of many formats of picture books and are targeted exclusively to the infant-to-toddler age. That means they are written, illustrated, and designed with very distinct guidelines suited to that age and developmental stage.

I mentioned that books for this very young audience include many genre in the previous post about some outstanding  Board Books among the Cybils Awards nominees. As this post title indicates, I'm back now to share examples from two more categories: Guess/Search books and nonfiction. 

The guess/search/puzzle format is as natural to babies as the universally human "peek-a-boo" game. GUESS WHICH HAND, written by Hans Wilhelm and illustrated by Ilaria Guarducci, is a delightful twist on a familiar game. 

I recommend this for a litany of reasons that you can read about in my Goodreads review, here.

Next up in the seek-and-find category is HERE I AM: A Finger Puppet Book, written by Sarah McBratney and illustrated by Anita Jeram.

You can read some of my thoughts about this appealing and interactive book in my Goodreads review, here.

Baby games, no matter how appealing and squeal-inducing they may be, are the flip side of an emerging category of board books, NON FICTION. This extends far beyond the familiar basic concepts topics of colors, numbers, letters and animals sounds and names, although some terrific choices in that category will be featured in my next post. A growing market for informational board books with vibrant illustrations and well-written text has emerged. You really should take a look at these:

EXOTIC FRUIT is created by author/illustrator Huy Voun Lee. This book is as delightful and appetizing as the featured fruits, and the variety of text (child focused and fine print adult messages) makes it a book that could grow with the child and family. Read what I had to say about it on Goodreads, here.

BOTANY FOR BABIES is one of the BABY 101 series. I am not a fan of cramming learning into tiny heads, so I approached this one cautiously. What I found, though, is a well-designed and appealing book that works on many levels. The "story" of plants in nature is developed simply and naturally with flair and fun. The book involves enough turns and surprises to keep the shared experience lively, and there are loads of familiar critters and details for tiny fingers to point out and later name. The parts of plants presented are colorful and simply designed to emphasize important elements. Many are labeled with dark, small  print. These labels do not distract from the overall plant narrative, presented in large, interesting font and layout. 

WE ARE MUSIC is written by Brandon Story and illustrated by Nick Radford. I thoroughly enjoyed this book and can imagine it being shared with music playing, then turning household items into instruments.
Read more about it on this Goodreads review, here.

I'd love to read what you think about these in the comments, and read your own suggestions for classic favorites or new board books you've discovered!

Nov 24, 2018

Got a Baby? Get a BOARD BOOK!

Board books are not exactly picture books, and yet they are, in a way. They also have very specific qualities that are NOT like picture books. My role as a round-one panelist is to choose the Cybils 2018 finalists in both fiction picture books and board books categories. They are each evaluated according to distinct criteria. 
For board books, the guidelines are:

  • Written for children aged infant to two years old;
  • Cloth, vinyl, or paper construction [read: cardboard];
  • Have a short page count, with a close picture-to-text ratio; and
  • Sized for infants and toddlers to hold
There are additional eligibility criteria related to publication dates, etc.
I'll admit that I haven't examined board books closely or comprehensively for several years, and I seldom review them on this blog. Being a panelist has been a welcome chance to study and handle more than sixty nominated board books. This has reminded me how very special this category of books is as an infant's first introduction to literary life. 
As I quickly recognized particular ways in which I viewed these books, I found myself sorting them into subsets: 
  • Stories (a smaller proportion of this type than you might think)
  • Concepts (colors, shapes, numbers, etc.)
  • Word play (opposites, labels, even homonyms/synonyms, etc.)
  • Science (everything from biology to botany to earth science to nature)
  • Special topics (or the junk drawer of categories, "other")
Within each content area there are interactive books (manipulating parts, spinning wheels, tracing patterns, folding pages out, up, down, and otherwise), made of varied materials, illustrated with wide-ranging art styles, and they are durable to a greater or lesser degree. Most have at least some text. I find myself noticing not just the words, language, and messages, but also the choices of font, size, color/contrast in relation to background, and placement on the pages. 

So, in this first of several posts, I'll take these categories one at a time and note some board books I've been evaluating and found to be very special. A click on the title will take you to in case you wish to purchase something, and a click on the Goodreads link will take you to my comments about that title. During the holidays, do some thinking about the tots in your circle of family and friends, and even think about those little baby bumps as "coming soon" attractions. You just might find some books that will be perfect shower and welcome-to-the-world gifts. 
Have fun checking them out... I did!

The "story" category is heavy on bedtime books, but even those have a version of the beginning-middle-end format and some even use a goal/obstacle/resolution/twist sequence. 

You can find my thoughts about this book on Goodreads, HERE.

BUT FIRST, WE NAP by David Miles and Darya Dremova.
I shared some thoughts on Goodreads, HERE.

BEDTIME, TED! by Sophy Henn.
Check my Goodreads comments here.

WILL SHEEP SLEEP? by Hilary Leung 
Check my comments on Goodreads HERE.

If any of these interests you, pull out your library card, check them out and try them out on a toddler during holiday gatherings. My guess is you'll be as charmed by them as the tots are, and surprised by the many variations with so few words and pages. 

Nov 19, 2018

The Little Barbarian: Something to Think About

***I begin most posts and reviews with a bit of an introduction. In this case, those notes will become my conclusion.
***This review contains a spoiler alert- you may NOT want to know how the story ends, so I'll warn you when you should stop reading. If you stop, though, hurry and get your hands on the book to find out for yourselves.

Eerdmans Books for Young Readers

You won't want to miss reading THE LITTLE BARBARIAN, by Renato Moriconi.The unusual trim size will delight little hands. Exceptionally  tall, narrow, and lightweight, this wordless book will intrigue even the youngest and encourage a page-turning, left-to-right orientation for those first developing book awareness. 
That cover makes clear who the star of this show will be: a  tiny, fearless warrior on his charging steed. 
After reading, come back to examine this cover and share a chuckle.
The vibrant colors throughout, including the glossy green endpapers, add excitement and drama to the wordless adventures. On the title page the little barbarian is off at a run, with each page-turn leading him first to mount his steed, then rising and falling on successive pages to overcome (or under-come?) the many dangers throughout his journey. From the bottom of the page he is assaulted by flocks of birds, sky-giants, a fire-breathing enemy, pitchfork-wielding monsters, and more. On alternate pages he soars high to escape flames, one-eyed giants, omnivorous plants, sea monsters and more. Throughout it all, from that first sprint to his stallion, his eyes remain closed and his sword is ever-ready. 
In the final page turns, he stalls at the bottom, page-left. Then his eyes open and his confident smile fades. Another turn shifts to a look of horror...
A massive bearded face appears upper right.
A hand reaches down toward the panicky, stationary little barbarian.
Then a (presumed) bearded dad (eyes closed) leads the howling little barbarian away from his valiant horse, one of many on the small merry-go-round. 
After sharing a first read, the cover deserves that closer look and a shared chuckle.
Then successive turns through the book will provide an entirely new awareness of the power of this story. 
Repeated readings invite each reader, of any color or gender or age, to insert themselves into this eyes-closed adventure, imagining the many ways those up-and-down journeys could offer imaginative delights and conquests.
Any adults (or babysitters) who have ever dealt with a melt-down tantrum might reflect on what inner worlds of panic or distress the child could be experiencing, adding unknown drama to what appeared to be a simple situation. The book might even spark some conversations about that with children. 
This charming homage to the power of imagination can, and should, encourage kids to spend more time interacting with the 3-D screens on the inner surfaces of their eyelids, offering scenes that never run out of batteries and only improve with practice.
* * *
So here's my postponed introduction and, perhaps, a moment of ZEN:

As we enter the winter/holiday season, adult caregivers have more leverage to achieve kid-compliance. Even so, anecdotal evidence indicates that kids might have more meltdowns in the weeks ahead than typical. When the stress of time, budgets, and endless lists (shopping, wish, and to-do) fill adult lives, and kids imaginations are triggered by every sparkling bulb, advertisement, and store display, a howling meltdown becomes almost inevitable. 
This book, shared lovingly and joyously, might lend some perspective to those situations, Maybe even prevent a few. Closing your eyes, breathing slowly, and pausing to connect could be practiced in advance (and during) tough times.
Even if that is unrealistic in your situation, sharing ANY book during a quiet time can help the toughest days end lovingly. 
Take the time to do that, please, and remember that every child has a bit of the Little Barbarian in him or her.

A copy of this book was provided by the publisher in exchange for a free and fair review.

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)

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.