Mar 28, 2019


This is a short but sweet post about a short, sweet, historic story. Based on true events in Birmingham, Alabama in 1913, this charming fictional story of an elephant-obsessed boy  and his mother, his minister, and a local park incorporates the important truths about segregation, animal care, and dreaming big dreams. 
G. P. Putmnam's & Sons, 2019

MEET MISS FANCY is written by Irene Latham (co-author of CAN I TOUCH YOUR HAIR?) and illustrated by John Holyfield. The extensive author note in back clarifies that characters young Frank and his minister, Reverend Brooks, are fictional, but the time, place, segregated rules for park access, petition event, and denial of access are all historically correct. Even more impressively, the eponymous MISS FANCY was an actual circus elephant who was purchased through a school-based penny collection to become a resident of Avondale Park for twenty-one years. 
In this story Latham's colorful and figurative language (hosepipe trunk, flap-flap ears, and tree-stump feet) are perfectly paired with the images of lively character Frank and family/town members, representing life in a pre-WWI setting in the segregated south. The matter of fact sign on the park, NO COLORED ALLOWED, makes it clear that the previous scene of Frank's all-Black school is not accidental. His mother's fictional quotation no doubt mirrors often-repeated cautions by many voices to many young ears in those days: "Listen, Frank, I know it's not right, but it's the law, Change will take time."
This lively, delightful, and animal-friendly story should appeal to any and all, but is another fine example of ways that "Black History" belongs in everyday classrooms, homes, and story times.
Discussions may (and should) involve the reasons, racism, and injustice behind segregation policies, but will also gravitate to elephants and other fan-friendly animals (think hedgehogs, sloths, gorillas, and on and on.)

I saved this book review and commentary to share with you in late March, well-past the arbitrary boundaries of "BLACK HISTORY MONTH", that well-intentioned and double-edged effort that corrals our literary attention toward Blackness and History-ness into the shortest month of the year. This book, this character, and these discussions belong in our collections, on our shelves, under the spotlight every day of the year. 
I hope you agree, and I hope you check out this entertaining and empowering book. 
  Side note here, but a very significant part of the Author's Note to share: Miss Fancy resided in the park for twenty-one years, but then was sold to the Cole brothers-Clyde Beatty Circus. She toured with the circus for two years before being sold to the Buffalo Zoo in Buffalo, New York, where she lived on until 1954. Animal rights also becomes a worthy topic, considering lives of elephants and other wild animals in circus touring, in zoos, and in sanctuaries, such as THE ELEPHANT SANCTUARY in Tennessee. Webcam views of elephants in natural habitats can be accessed here. 

Mar 25, 2019

A FRIEND FOR HENRY: Empathy and Insight

If you missed my post about HENRY THE BOY (Penny Candy Books), I hope you'll click back to that post (HERE) and take a few minutes to read it. The HENRY in today's post is not the same boy, but they have much in common. If you read that post (better still, read the book) you will note that HENRY of HENRY THE BOY is quite a confident and self-aware young person. You'll also note that it is his external differences that affect his interactions with peers. 
Chronicle Books, 2019
A FRIEND FOR HENRY is written by Jenny Bailey and illustrated by Mika Song. The Henry who stars in this recent picture book appears to be a few years younger than Henry of the first title, but they otherwise have many things in common. Both want to have friends, both have issues that affect their ability to interact with peers in "typical" ways, and both experience complications when it comes to making friends. 
I greatly admire the ways in which both author and illustrator have revealed younger Henry's personality and needs. What appears to be a third person narration, including some dialogue, which gradually invites readers to view the story unfolding as an inner voice, a peek inside Henry's head. 
At no point is Henry labeled. No reference is made to being on a spectrum, to rigidity, to being high-functioning, or any of the other designations that are becoming catch phrases among  the general public. 
Assumptions are shattered, in the subtlest of ways, revealing that Henry does not "prefer" to be alone, but is, in fact, eager for a friend. He adheres firmly to a sort of checklist of criteria and rules to determine who COULD be a friend, the kind of friend he wants and needs.
Text makes clear that Henry is observational, often standing apart to gather information. He holds firm to his conclusions about others but is capable of growth. Henry has strong preferences (in colors, locations, activities) but but he CAN adjust, if given a chance. 

There is a strong (and overdue) push to represent our diverse world in all books, but especially in books for young children. This picture book succeeds in terms of externals (skin tones and ethnicities) but I was even more charmed and delighted to note that Henry (and readers) will identify personality and temperament differences, too. Henry notes the patterns of his peers (activity and noise levels, bossy/sharing tendencies, and others) and is aware of his own reactions to those personal styles. 
The two titles could be shared and compared, with similarities and differences noted. Both also offer rich resources for discussions about finding, making, repairing, and keeping friendships. Some amazing conversations about the illustration styles, color tones, and moods of the two books will arise, along with distinct preferences between the two approaches. 
As a side note, Henry seems to be a popular name these days. If you have a Henry (or two) in your home or class or library group, you will have some very enthusiastic readers!

Mar 22, 2019

SWEET DREAMERS: A Dream of a Book-- YES!

Anyone who reads my posts here can be forgiven for thinking that I rave about any and all picture books. 
Not true, my friends.
It IS true that I adore picture books. I swoon over text that is lyrical, powerful, surprising, tempting, laugh-inducing, tear-teasing, and otherwise memorable. 
It IS true that I savor picture books as a form of fine art, with the added intentional benefit of storytelling, question-raising, emotion-soothing, mood-setting, purposeful page-turning design and execution.
The many things I love about picture books are the reasons I am selective about which books I choose to feature in my blog posts. 
Not all picture books that cross my lap or laptop are featured here. 
There is not enough time in my life (or in the universe) to analyze or even account for every picture book, even the recent ones. 
Instead, I selectively consider which books serve special purposes in life- in the lives of adults like me, and teachers, parents, and librarians. 
So, yes, I tend to rave about the books that I feature here. 
Even more so, I seek out and feature books that BELONG IN THE LIVES OF YOUNG READERS! 
Yes, I shouted that.
Yes, I'm presuming that my opinion matters.
Yes, some books are worthy of that assertion, shouted in upper case letters.

Eerdmans Books for Young Readers March, 2019
You may want to plug your ears in case I shout, but keep on reading, please.
SWEET DREAMERS, written and illustrated by Isabelle Simler, is such a book. This is a picture/poetry book that, on the surface, is a bedtime book. 
Many bedtime books are produced in hand-friendly trim sizes, with thirty-two or fewer satiny pages within glossy covers, often with pastel colors. There are plenty of exceptions, but few that divert so thoroughly from those conventions.
Sweet Dreamers is an oversized book (about 10"x11" with 80 pages!) features intense colors, especially orange tones, created with what appears to be a black scratchboard technique. I puzzled over the remarkable application of this media for several days before discovering a review by Elizabeth Bird of Fuse #8 Production, an acclaimed blog for School Library Journal. 
Finding her post was both good news and bad news for me. She had tracked down the answers to my questions about Simler's art technique. It is, in fact, an incredibly original and gorgeous digital adaptation of scratchboard art. Bird also provided the translator's name, Sarah Ardizzone, who deserves credit for preserving the remarkable beauty of the poems written originally in Simler's native French. Bird's review (also raving) managed to include virtually every feature of this book that I had intended to praise. She points out the thematic organization of the images and poems, the flow from page to page, as a seamless whole, the wordless double page nighttime scenes of  varied habitats, the drama of shifting perspectives and scales of the featured animals and backgrounds. Bird also praises the short but astute, sensory-rich poems of various animals like seahorse:
"He clings to a stalk/and drifts with the waves./ 
As if on a carousel,/ the seahorse dreams at a gallop."

Each poem suggests a dozing, dreamy creature while hinting at the nature and behavior of the species, suggesting the instinctive patterns that shape the nature and value of sleep for that individual creature. She also notes the remarkable organizational structure of this lengthy collection. 
Are you wondering how annoyed I was after reading how thoroughly she had analyzed and praised this book?  Let me assure you that Betsy Bird is such an admired librarian/reviewer that her reflections actually reassured me about my assessments. I did wonder, though, if my review would be  limited to a link to her post and my robust "I AGREE!". (Now or later, I urge you to read her linked post in full.)
Actually, though, as I read her post over and over, I realized I still had things to say. 
Along with the many reasons she noted to admire this book, I want to call attention to the unifying impact of the colors and shapes of the moon and eyes throughout these pages. From the end papers (front and back) and all the scenes and creatures within its covers, there is a unifying, transformative power of light in the darkness. The moon itself, and its reflected light in and through and across various surfaces, defines and reveals hidden truths about the world around us. The moon shines through the wordless spreads, in the moon-like faces and eyes of sloth and bat, in the globular leaves and rounded bodies of robin and flamingo, even in the crescent reflections in the eight spider eyes, or the curled cat... I could go on. Throughout it all, the darkness is no longer a scary entity, but rather a landscape of beauty, inviting dreamers.
Consider paging through this amazing book without reading, without imaging the stories/poems of each creature, without seeking a unifying theme. Simply turn the pages, soak in the images, follow the flow of light and darkness, and allow yourself to slip into its magic. 
What does not appear on first glance to be a 'typical" bedtime book may well be the most effective and beautiful bedtime books in years. 
I urge you to share this book with young sleepyheads, and keep it handy for your own next sleepless night.

A copy of this book was provided in exchange for a fair and honest review.

Mar 20, 2019

How We See Ourselves: HENRY THE BOY

How we see ourselves matters. It is shaped in both subtle and obvious ways, rooted in early childhood, and, all to often, negatively affected by those around us. That can happen intentionally, through bullying, but also through the most casual of comments, glances, or even subconscious bias and consistent micro-aggressions.

Penny Candy Books, April, 2019
HENRY THE BOY is written by Molly Felder and illustrated by the mother-son team of Tara Sweeney and Nate Christopherson. It is true for all picture books that the story begins on the cover. In this case I especially urge you to linger at the cover, before knowing anything else about Henry.  Ask yourself what it tells you about Henry and who this boy really is. Here's what I came up with:

  • Henry the Boy with curious eyes. 
  • Henry the Boy with a big imagination.
  • Henry the Boy living in a colorful world of possibilities.
  • Henry the Boy with places to go and things to do.
  • Henry the Boy with feelings.
Oh, perhaps you also noted that Henry the Boy wears glasses and has crutches. Those are also his truth, but are such small parts of HENRY THE BOY. The cover encourages readers to begin by seeing HENRY THE BOY, not Henry, the boy on crutches.

The illustrators use a combination of surrealistic distortions and additions to surround Henry, but safely embed those into stable and familiar scenes. Henry begins his day with a smile, using his sticker-covered crutches to descend steps, that are, in his reality, extremely steep. The images also reveal that coming downstairs to breakfast is a familiar challenge he has mastered, smiling while envisioning his sticker-covered, clicking crutches as his heron legs. 
It is during interactions with others, from classmates to his friend Joel, that Henry confronts the labels others use for him. Even if meant in fun (robot, chicken) Henry the BOY knows they are seeing that last detail, those crutches, as the most important one about him. They are erasing his agency and empowerment to reshape his perception of himself. 
And they are hurting his feelings.

With that problem presented in the first pages, Henry and Joel are free to have fun- on the playground, on their walk home, and in Henry's muddy backyard. Their adventures unleash the illustrators to splash the backgrounds with vibrant color and "people" the foreground with fine-lined drawings of the various metaphorical comparisons that arise throughout the book. Henry's freedom to just be a BOY in these pages is empowering, as is the end-of-play moment in which Henry manages to use his crutches to stand up on his own, no helping hand required. The help of being allowed to be a BOY has already been given.

Henry's busy day ends as we would hope-- with Henry the BOY as happy as he was when the day began. His book, his collection of object-friends, and his experience of acceptance and engagement with Joel have provided the confidence for Henry to be a BOY.

The combination of color, curiously engaging line drawings, and story will draw the youngest back to this book again and again. In the process, they will meet HENRY the BOY, absorbing the appealing sense that we are all more alike than different, and we can do more than others might imagine we can. In the process this offers a wealth of discussion potential about topics of resilience, empathy, confidence, and problem solving. 

An advance copy of this book was provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review. It is available now for preorder with a publication date of April 2.

Mar 17, 2019

Potential Bunny Pets? Read BORROWING BUNNIES First!

Popping in here with an important (and lovable) book for the Spring/Easter season. 

Farrar Straus Giroux, 2019
BORROWING BUNNIES: A Surprising True Tale of Fostering Rabbits is written by award-winning novelist Cynthia Lord, with photography by John Bald and Illustrations by Hazel Mitchell
Let's just agree, photos of bunnies deserve five stars and raves.
No arguing, I said.
If you don't believe me, get your hands on this book and see for yourself. 
Now, on to a discussion of the book.
This is a nonfiction, how-to book that serves as mentor text for young writers (of any age, actually), and also models practical and accessible back matter. The photos, illustration enhancements, and details of a particular fostered bunny pair will have you AW-ing at every page turn. Who on this planet would not AW and OOH at newborn bunnies that look like miniature hippos, at babies named for Dickens characters, and at happy rabbits twist-jumping in a move called a "binky". 
That's real!
Just be sure to make that final page turn to the back matter after the ooh-ing and aw-ing are over. The title of that page poses this important question: 
(Who wouldn't, after reading this book?)
Some simple cautions and guides provide parents with questions and answers that will make sense to little ones: 
  • Is anyone in the household allergic? (Enough said.)
  • Are there very young siblings in the home? (Waiting is advised, for everyone's sake.)
  • Do you have time for a rabbit? (even after the novelty wears off?)
  • Will you care for it throughout its long life? (8-12 years!)
  • Do you have enough money for a rabbit? (Supplies, food, veterinary care?)
  • Can you keep your rabbit safe? 
This is a  must-have book for anyone considering having a bunny as a pet, but also a must-have for nonfiction collections in libraries, classrooms, and homes.

Before you even consider buying a bunny (or chick or other baby animal) to tuck into an Easter basket or offer as a gift for other seasonal celebrations, PLEASE research and be realistic about the needs of the animals involved. This is a perfect example of how research can be fun, and a reminder that there are other outlets than ownership for animal lovers. Kids are often welcome to volunteer as caregivers, fosters, walkers, petters, and such. More research could yield great solutions, since this book doesn't go into such details.
If you hope to proceed to ownership AFTER (and only after) serious investigation, I strongly recommend adoption of rescue animals rather than pet shop purchases. That should be your next stage of research. 
So, with Easter still a month away, I'm sharing this post into the ether in advance of last minute impulse buying!

Mar 13, 2019

THE BIG UMBRELLA: Kindness Has No Limits

Whether you are a regular viewer of THE ELLEN SHOW or not, you've surely seen and heard her daily closing:  BE KIND TO ONE ANOTHER.

That mantra is a simple one, but profound. 
And true.
That message is undoubtedly a major reason why humans of every age love Ellen. Especially kids.

THE BIG UMBRELLA is authored and illustrated by Amy June Bates and co-authored by Juniper Bates, a mother-daughter team. Kids who get their hands and eyes and hearts on this new picture book will adore it, as will the adults who read and share the book with kids. 
A Paula Wiseman Book, 2019
The cover (including the back cover) suggests the story, but as pages turn and the truth unfolds, the story expands, our hearts expand, and we realize this analogy is even more compelling than we could have imagined. 

That massive, smiling red umbrella on the cover is introduced on the first double spread. There, it's a normal size umbrella, propped at the door, with a snoozing, subtle, smiling face. The page turn reveals the back of a kid, decked out in rain gear, hand on the umbrella. The umbrella's closed eyes have opened and its smile expands knowingly. The text for those two spreads is simple and gentle:        
                                 "By the front door...         there is an umbrella."
On each successive page the umbrella becomes the main character, the one you see on the cover. It likes to help, to spread wide, to give shelter.  It gathers people in, no matter the size, shape or color of the people it encounters. No one is excluded, furry or four-footed, even web-footed.
My favorite spread is when this expansive umbrella seems stretched beyond imagining, surrounded by others on a busy city street, with this text:

         "Some people worry that there won't be enough room under the big umbrella."

And why not? Isn't the world telling us, day after day, that life is a zero-sum game? That anything shared with others reduces what WE have? Aren't modern day messages (to adults) meant to entrench selfishness? To create calculations about just how much anyone can afford to offer in the way of sharing, sheltering, support. We're constantly reminded that we should limit kindness, generosity, caring for fear that the supply could and would run out.

Umbrella knows better. Sunshine knows better. There is always room, and the need will not last forever. And in the process of gathering under THE BIG UMBRELLA, those vast and very diverse sheltered people have become familiar with each other, even becoming friends.

There are plenty of delightful and laughter-inducing picture books that have to do with an everyday object expanding beyond reality. A perfect example is Jan Brett's THE MITTEN.  For lap-reading, class reading, or teen analysis, there are plenty of ways these can be compared, and I encourage that process. Ultimately, though, the question should be: What is this book really saying to you? 
That could (and should) be different for each reader, but there is a universal truth that can be recognized. 
I hope you'll explore that question with kids, but also share THE BIG UMBRELLA with adults. 
Especially those who wear the label fiscal conservatives and social liberals. Consider carefully where the line between those two categories can be drawn, and where the red umbrella would stop providing shelter.
As I so often say, and write, and think:  Little books have big ideas.

Mar 10, 2019

SIDE BY SIDE: A Celebration of Dads

This weekend I'm exciting to share the release of new picture book that celebrates dads. 
I've included notes about my own dad in posts here and here, and I've written about him (and mom) in other posts and venues. I consider the blessing of my life to being raised by two parents who were steady and loving anchors and guides throughout my childhood and beyond. 
There are plenty of kids who still grow up with that blessing. Plenty of others are growing up with dads who offer positive influences and interactions in their children's lives, even if not able to do so full time. The amount of time spent together pales in comparison to the quality of time spent, so this book also applies to those men who step up and assume the mantle of dad in a child's life. 
Phaidon, 2019

My first impulse with any books by  Caldecott winner Chris Raschka is to rave. When it comes to reviewing, though, I force myself to be more objective. 
The subtext of the title, SIDE BY SIDE: A Celebration of Dads, says it all. Each three-page-turn-stanza of this poetic celebration is a story unto itself. Each sequence suggests an extended experience, a pair of loving lives. With minimal words, not rhymed but perfectly chosen and paced to reveal the roles on both sides, we join the the father and the child as they interact in a variety of activities. A range of ethnicities, genders, and settings underscore the universality of these relationships.
Use your imagination to picture these examples: 

Horse and rider
Queen and jester
Side by side

Mountain and climber
Dreamer and doer
Side by side

Now, try your best to view your mental pictures as interpreted by Chris Raschka: vibrant colors, loose and flowing swashes of color, soft edges, movement and action, expressive faces, and shifting perspectives on the page. The tall but narrow trim size provides ample room for soaring kites and scaled dad-kid images. The end papers are a delight: opening papers display the dad/kid hats from the interior, while final end papers do the same with the paired pairs of shoes from the interior stories.
From cover to cover, from head to toe, from scene to scene, this is a winner. I can hardly imagine a child or parent who would not embrace (literally, embrace) this book. It is an ideal gift book, of course, but it is equally suited to day-to-day reading and circulation in classroom, libraries, bookstores, families. 
When reading about Raschka's inspiration for this book it reminds us, too, how adult children can use picture books as gifts to our own parents to say what our own words never seem to do as well.
This is a rave review, right? 
Yes, it is, and it is well-earned.

A copy of this book was provided in exchange for an honest review.

Mar 1, 2019

Carter Reads the Newspaper: A March Black History Post

Peachtree, 2019
This post is intentionally released on March 1, and it's an important new picture book that suits any age. The tag line says it all, yet not nearly enough: "Carter G. Woodson didn't just study history. He changed it."
I've been grateful, as a citizen and as an educator, for Black History Month which "ended" yesterday. It's a resource and reminder of the countless contributions of Black men and women to advance ALL people. Even so, I have long been concerned that annual attention to one specific month meant that many resources, especially picture books, end up relegated to a cabinet or back shelf after the month ends. 
A new picture book has me shifting my perspective on this repeated rant (here). CARTER READS THE NEWSPAPER is written by outstanding nonfiction author Deborah Hopkinson and illustrated by the remarkable author and artist Don Tate.
This is a story of how Woodson (Carter) made it his life's work to develop literacy and, eventually, to turn Black history into an annual celebration. Inspired by his father's pursuit of knowledge, Carter's passion for history grew from a childhood in which the legacy of enslavement, including illiteracy, was evident among Carter's own family and friends. The hardships he suffered as a child are heartbreaking, including being injured in a mine accident. He pursued his own education at every opportunity, despite severe adversity. In 1926, as a history professor, he was able to establish a national Black History Week, the origins of our present monthlong designation.
This book is rich with images, names, dates, and taglines for both well-known and less famous Black innovators and leaders, as well as providing an author's note, bibliography, resources, and more. After reading this valuable biography of Woodson as a leader among his family and eventually for us all, I will temper my concerns about a designated "month" potentially limiting attention to neglected history-makers. Instead, I'll celebrate Woodson's leadership and encourage the reading and sharing of this book. Perhaps that alone will remind others to keep Black History books circulating all year long. 

Here are a few examples i've featured in the past that deserve attention all year long. Many more can be seen here, here, here, and here, among others: 
The recent Academy Award winning movie, THE GREEN BOOK, has been criticized for taking a white-savior approach. For a more authentic understanding of the need for and use of THE GREEN BOOK, read this historical fiction picture book.
RUTH AND THE GREEN BOOK, is written  by Calvin A. Ramsey and Illustrated by Floyd Cooper. It provides the immediacy of individual lives and relatable illustrations that evoke personal and visceral responses from readers of any age. Back pages provide further insights and explorations from the authors and offer resources for further exploration and research on the topics and characters portrayed. Now, more than ever, providing young people with the facts of our own history and the ease with which individual liberties were distorted and restricted is essential. It's not a bad time for adults to review these stories and resources, any month of the year.

More than Anything Else. by Marie Bradby, illustrated by Chris K. Soentpiet. 1995
After slavery ended a family struggles to survive, with father and sons shoveling salt from dawn to dark. The younger boy's compelling thirst is for the power of letters, of reading.  Only indirectly, on the last page, do we see that this story depicts the early days of literacy development for Booker T. Washington.
I hope my intentional expansion of this black history post into March (Women's History Month) will serve as a reminder that history (and picture books) matter and we should feel an obligation to open the eyes and hearts of others to our shared heritage all year long.

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.