Apr 27, 2019

Color Me Impressed by THE CRAYON MAN

If I called for a show of hands (among many ages, adults included) I'm guessing more than half of the population has viewed one of the various versions of How A Crayon Is Made. That estimate extends far beyond the borders of the USA, because crayons are one of the first and most important toys a child can receive. Since the book featured in this post honors the origin story behind CRAYOLA CRAYON's creator, Edwin Binney, I'll link HERE to Crayola's official seven-minute You-Tube version. If you've never seen it, you might want to take a look, before or after reading my notes about this book.

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing, 2019
THE CRAYON MAN: The True Story of the Invention of Crayola Crayons is written by Natascha Biebow and illustrated by Steven Salerno.
This biography/creation story behind CRAYOLA crayons offers multiple themes, including:
  • Edwin Binney following his truest self, from being a boy who recognized and embraced vivid color and on a mission to share that with others throughout his life;
  • The power of business collaboration, innovation, and initiative;
  • The importance of experimentation and perseverance (STEM);
  • Spouses, particularly women, as contributors and supporters, not just tea-servers in an era of gender diminishment;
  • Figurative and descriptive, dare I say COLORFUL language;
  • and more!

Add to that the crisp and colorful Photo-Doc-How-It-Is-Made spread in the back matter, an accessible bit of archival and research detail about Edward Binney and his family, and one of the most appealing and useful bibliography/reference pages I've seen in any picture book (and I see a lot).
I'm tempted to add a caution that this is NOT a diverse story. Then again, it is NOT fiction. It is HISTORY, and it portrays a very WHITE society in which education, investment, and thus events like these occurred. Note the invisibility of any non-white individuals involved in the upkeep of that society, which was also a characteristic of that time and place.
A significant part of me felt sad as I turned these vivid and appealing pages. All the visible skin was  "FLESH"-toned. (Remember that crayon color, now retired?) The cover illustration allows for the existence of other-than-white in that time period. But the final page, which pulls the text into the present, presents a delightful pair of kids/friends (one white-ish, one brown-ish, and neither very FLESH-ish) using crayons to pour their creatively colorful minds and hearts onto sheet after sheet of paper.
I highly recommend this for any age for the quality text, perfectly-suited illustrations, and outstanding bonus features. It is also an impressive mentor text on many levels, especially for the youngest through adults with a dream of creating nonfiction picture books.

I was tempted to include a photo of the end papers, but I challenge you to get this book in your own hands and check them out. The challenge statement included within those end papers is a life goal for anyone, any age.

Apr 19, 2019

Perfect Poetry Partnership: Helen Frost and Rick Lieder

Precision in language,
and purpose.

and light
 HELLO, I'M HERE! is the latest release in a masterful photographic picture book/poetry series by Candlewick PressIn each title, one of Helen Frost's breathtakingly lyrical nature poems is paired with Rick Lieder's photographic brilliance to produce a picture book that will be loved by anyone with eyes and ears. 
I wrote about SWEEP UP THE SUN in 2015, here. At that time I might have defied my self-imposed restrictions on NOT naming favorites to claim this as one. As it turns out, this entire series has become a favorite and certainly could be among yours. Other titles in this series (which I hope will continue indefinitely) are WAKE UP!, STEP GENTLY OUT,  and AMONG A THOUSAND FIREFLIES. Each is a celebration of new life, of lyrical language, and of the magnificence of the natural world. 

While you're checking out these titles, be sure to ask for THE UNDEFEATED, another prefect pairing of talents. Kwame Alexander has written an extended metaphorical poem about the survival and triumph of African Americans throughout their long history on this continent. Alexander's powerful words are illuminated by the remarkable art of Kadir Nelson
The theme of sports competition is a scaffold on which centuries of history of Blacks in America are called forth in the earliest pages, contrasting a formal family's portrait as survival by any means with the blank page representing those who did NOT survive, yet merit celebration within these pages. Many names and images are familiar, some are recast in new light, and others are rarely acknowledged. The poem and portraits celebrate undefeated icons spanning sports, music, art, politics, everyday life, and more.  Don't miss this one. 

When the 2019 award season rolls around, you can expect to find these titles in the running on many counts.

Apr 15, 2019

Easter Elf: Surprise!

As late as the holiday is this year, it's natural to imagine gathering armloads of blossoms, romping through blades of grass and buzzing bees, searching our garden for Easter eggs, and posing for pictures in spring finery while basking in Sunday's sunshine. Instead, you may be  tsk-tsk-ing at the snow, at flooded puddles, and at still-brown foliage in your yard. It's been a bummer of a spring so far, that's for sure.
But don't give up hope on Easter. 
It's all about renewal and hope and moving forward.
And Easter IS coming in just a few days, no matter what the weather. 
So, even though I can't promise sunshine, I'll offer up a brand new Easter tale, one that will lift your spirits and that kids will relish. 
KWiL Publishing, 2019
EASTER ELF is the debut picture book offering of author Rochelle Groskreutz and is illustrated by Leah Danz DiPasquale
The premise is a clever one, proposing that Easter has always had its own set of hardworking elfin helpers, but they have simply lacked the public relations efforts of Santa's elves. Full bleed pages and text layout awash in pastel and saturated seasonal colors provide a feast for our winter-dulled eyes. Lively Easter elves are preparing for the big day, dressed in springtime T-shirts and shorts, bunny slippers. and rabbit-eared elf caps. These characters are Easter eggs-perts, offering up pun-filled prose that will have kids and parents chuckling. Apart from gaining some long overdue attention for their annual hard work, the pre-season preparation stress ramps up when Santa's Christmas elves un-eggs-pectedly land and gum up their Easter routines. 

Along with the word play, there are plenty of laughs and visual antics to entertain. Throughout the action an important story about competition, acceptance, cooperation and building friendships emerges before everything is finally sorted out. This delightful soon-to-be-classic is widely available and makes a delightful addition to Easter baskets. It's a wonderful way to prepare for the big day with advance read-alouds with your kids and grandkids. 
When the weather finally invites you outdoors to celebrate spring, keep your eyes peeled for some of these Easter elves. They've been around for generations, it seems, but now we finally know what they look like!

You might also want to take another look at HOW TO TRACK AN EASTER BUNNY by Sue Fliess, reviewed HERE, and BORROWING BUNNIES: A Surprising True Tale of Fostering Rabbits, by Cynthia Lord, reviewed HERE

I'm proud to say that both Groskreutz and DiPasquale are Wisconsin friends of mine, but I'd be singing the praises of this lively addition to the holiday season even if they were total strangers.

Apr 12, 2019

Live, Learn, and Love Your Life -- Every Day

That's a trite title, right?
I suppose so, but it is also wise advice. Speaking for myself, it is also too easily and too often ignored. Several recent events have me paying more attention to that advice and wanting to share my thoughts here, though picture books.

Two picture books can be compared to explore the magnificence and the fragility of daily  life, the importance of living in the moment, and the value of being present to those who matter in our lives. 
One of this pair of picture books was released thirty-five years ago but is still cited and shared as exemplary storytelling and beautiful illustration. The other was released just last year and is equally impressive.

HarperCollins, 1984
BADGER'S PARTING GIFTS was written and illustrated decades ago by Susan Varley. (I'm imagining many of you sighing,  then adding, "Awww, I love that book!" If this is a new title to you, please pause now and write it down, or go to your library link and place a hold, or put it on a wish list. This one is a must-read and a keeper.)
Briefly, Badger is the beloved but aging resident of this meadowland community. The scientifically  accurate  predator/prey roles is suspended among these friends, but the story is otherwise deeply anchored in realities of life. 

The first page of text begins like this:

"Badger was dependable, reliable, and always ready to help when help was needed. He was also very old, and he knew almost everything. Badger was so old that he knew he must die soon."

On the next page the narrator clarifies that Badger doesn't fear death, but he is concerned about how his passing will make his friends feel. That, too, is dealt with directly. Soon Badger does go down "the long tunnel", leaving behind a note for his friends. Despite his request, though, they cannot deny the sadness they feel at his loss.
Grief and winter inevitably settle in on the meadow residents. But spring returns, as it always does. The friends often gather, sharing stories to honor Badger's life, his friendship, the many ways in which he changed their lives. Badger patiently taught Mole how to cut a paper chain of moles. He taught Frog to ice skate, taught Mrs. Rabbit to make gingerbread rabbits, and taught Fox how to tie his tie, perfectly. In fact, Badger's friendship had given each of them a gift, a special memory of their time together. Gifts that they, in turn, could give to others. On the final page when Mole has something to tell Badger, he speaks it to the wind, knowing Badger will hear him, that he is still among them.

In the classroom I often shared this title when a child experienced a loss- a pet, a relative, a friend. Or when a loved one or pet was fading, moving toward that final journey, when the end was near and anticipated. Badger's lessons are simple ones, but profound. Sadness cannot be avoided, should not be denied. Even beloved Badger could not make that so. Yet the passing of time eases the sharp edges of pain. Remembering and practicing the gifts left behind can offer very real comfort. And as long as we keep those memories and feelings alive, our loved ones are still with us.

Princeton Architectural Press, 2018
In recent months another picture book picks up on this theme in very interesting ways. UP THE MOUNTAIN PATH is written and illustrated by Canadian Marianne Dubuc, published originally in her native French. These two books offer comparisons of publication eras, with Varley's art and book design presenting a more traditional style, somewhat reminiscent of Beatrix Potter's books and animal portrayals. Dubuc's art is equally charming and engaging, but accomplished with a lighter hand: black and colored pencil lines, fewer but well-chosen details, soft washes, and less realistic but equally expressive characters. Her images flow throughout and across the spreads rather than locking into facing text/image pages. 
In this story it is Mrs. Badger who is a naturalist and a friend to all the creatures in her mountainside community. Her weekly hike to the top of the mountain has a routine to it, but each trip presents opportunities for surprise and for curiosity. The opening image and text reflects both similarities and differences to the previous book:
"Mrs. Badger is very old. She's seen many things. Some can be found in her kitchen: pottery shard, smooth pebble, sand from the sea, finch nest."
In this case, Mrs. Badger is not anticipating her pending death, but is engaged in learning and savoring every moment of her rich life. Early on she invites a "follower" (Lulu the cat) to join her. During their weekly hikes, Mrs. Badger supports, guides, shares, and otherwise provides her small companion with countless "gifts". Lulu, in turn, continues the weekly hikes when Mrs. Badger is unable to do so. Mrs. Badger welcomes updates each time Lulu returns, and Lulu becomes a friend, guide, and mentor to others along the way. 
Both books are visually appealing, tender-hearted with light touches of humor, and convey multi-generational experiences as deeply significant and rich. Both deal with the undeniable  end of a long life, as do other special books, reviewed previously (Here and Here)

I commend these two titles to you for your own reading and consideration. Apart from their undeniably rich content, in language, image, and theme, they pair well for compare/contrast discussions. As for myself, they offer comfort and powerful reminders that each friendship, each routine, each moment in nature presents an opportunity to do good, to notice and celebrate the marvel of our world, even in distracting or distressing times.

Whether in words or in the silent message of your attention, show your appreciation. I'm hardly the first to say so, and many have said it better. For example:

Apr 6, 2019

Singing the Praises of "LYRICAL" Picture Books: Poetry Month

Kids often insist that nothing is a poem unless it rhymes. The flip side of that belief is that anything that rhymes is a poem. Actually, there are plenty of adults who feel the same way. 

I don't. 

Debates about what poetry is, or isn't, have gone on for centuries. Poetry.org says this:
POETRY: literary work in which special intensity is given to the expression of feelings and ideas by the use of distinctive style and rhythm.

I've seen amazing visual art that strikes me as poetic (including the illustrations for these featured books) as well as scenes in nature (crashing waves, starlit nights, crystalline fields of snow, murmurations of starlings, etc.) But, since this is a picture book blog, I'll focus on literary poetry here. 
My questions of the day:
  • If picture book text rhymes, does it mean it is poetry?
  • Can picture book text be considered poetry if it doesn't rhyme?
My personal (arbitrary) guide in answering those two questions follows. 

Poetry (picture book or otherwise) is:
written and/or spoken;
distinctly lyrical (style and rhythm);
focused on emotions or concepts;
presented in a concise, intentional form.

That first point suits picture book text perfectly: It is written AND intended to be spoken aloud.
Jumping to the final trait, picture book text is concise and presented in an intentional format.  
Certainly anthologies, themed collections, and specialty forms (novels in verse, haiku, poems for two voices, etc.) are poems, too. 
But what about the very familiar category of narrative picture books, in two types:  rhymed and unrhymed?

For these, I focus on the two central traits above.

I'd argue that EVERY picture book should engage emotional or conceptual reactions. That isn't limited to tenderhearted reactions but includes humor or surprise or the simple satisfaction of a story well-told. When that is the case, picture book text meets three-out-four of my indicators of poetry.

The final condition comes down to that lyrical quality, which is by no means a trait of every picture book. Certainly personal taste comes into play, but there are qualities that can be noted and appreciated, too. I feel confident in asserting that the two examples below, both by the same author, are poetic text.

Harper, 2019
REMARKABLY YOU is written in rhyme by Pat Zietlow Miller with energizing, expressive illustrations by Patrice Barton.

"You might be bold, 
You might be loud.
Leading parades. Drawing a crowd.

You might be timid.
You might be shy.
Quietly watching your neighbors go by."


"You are a blessing,
a promise, a prize.
You're capable, caring, courageous, and wise."

These passages exemplify the lyrical quality that distinguishes all of Miller's rhyming picture books: a rhythmic style that appears effortless yet reveals deeply thoughtful craft. It's rhymed text that invites read-aloud and read-along while providing structure and story to propel prediction and page turns. The excellent rhythm and rhyme provide auditory pacing, and the progression of underlying concepts and messages build to a gratifying conclusion. 
These lines (and the entire text) serve well as examples for young readers eager to try their hands at writing rhymed stories. Writing in rhyme can be as challenging as it is fun. The trickiest aspect of lyrical text is achieving consistent meter (rhythm) that sounds natural, unforced. Miller's words are consistent in providing a sense of conversational speech, but are written with technically perfect meter that begs to be put to music. 
Adults trying to write rhymed text for publication, especially picture books, would do well to type out the full text. In that format Miller's mastery of the craft is even more evident: the use of parallel structures and images (as in the first two stanzas above), and the minimalist but familiar scenes suggested. The third stanza above comes near the conclusion of the book. In it, the resolution of emotion, empowerment, and momentum are undeniable. Using second person voice can be a dangerous choice, but Miller's lilting language is inspiring rather than teaching or--to be avoided at all costs--preaching. 

Is the text of this picture book poetry? I vote yes.

Little Brown Books for Young Readers, 2019

WHEN YOU ARE BRAVE is written in unrhymed but undeniably lyrical text, enhanced by the lilting and emotionally expressive illustrations by Eliza WheelerThis particularly brilliant author/illustrator pairing originated with one of MIller's earlier picture books, WHEREVER YOU GO (also by Little Brown BYR, 2015). 
In that work Miller used rhymed text. (I reviewed it when it released, here.) I'm delighted to see their talents once again interacting so magically in WHEN YOU ARE BRAVE. (I urge you to read more about Wheeler's approach to the text and view a short trailer for the book over at Betsy Bird's FUSE 8 Production blog for School Library Journal, HEREI guarantee you'll enjoy the insights and closer look at the art.)
Meanwhile, I'm excited to share just a few lines from Miller's unrhymed but LYRICAL text.

"Some days, 
when everything around
you seems scary...

You have to be brave.

Brave as a bird that steps from its nest,
hoping to soar through the sky.

Brave as a dog that
wanders for miles,
searching for one
well-known light."

"At times like these, the world can seem...
Too big. Too loud. Too hard. Too much.

While you feel...
Too small.
Too quiet.
Too tired.
Not enough."

Unlike Miller's previous rhymed text, these lines read as free verse. The rhythm is established within the language itself. Replace each syllable with "la", then read it aloud. You'll find yourself reciting the text with a musical meter and flow. Miller magnifies that effect by using repetitive phrasing, figurative language, and metaphoric images. 
If that analysis suggests the text is formal or stilted, I assure you it is not. Note the child-friendly images of fledging birds and lost dogs, both with inherent appeal and intense emotional connections. Wheeler's illustrations explore those intense emotions, cycling through memories of common fears (public speaking, first day of school, etc.) without overwhelming, but honoring the legitimacy of the worry and angst those memories recall. 
Miller's theme (being brave) is artfully layered, emerging without even once using the word FEAR, providing scripted remedies, or calling on a character to have superpowers. In this narrative, she again uses second person/direct address, and again inspires rather than resorting to bossing or an "adult" tone. Readers are gently encouraged to recognize and draw on their inner resources to imagine, to remember, and to rely on themselves.  
This book in particular reminds me of the quality of Robert Frost poems, using ordinary and familiar objects and experiences to explore deeper emotions and address significant human questions.

Is the text of this picture book poetry?  Again, I vote YES.

So, whether honoring April's theme of poetry or reading picture books throughout the year, i encourage you (and kids you care about) to develop your own "rules" for what makes a poem a poem then apply that to the text. Kids eagerly enjoy rewriting lyrics to familiar songs, so consider using outstanding text such as these to model writing, too. 

Keep in mind that these are my opinions and I welcome discussion and additional title recommendations in the comments. I could recommend many other picture book titles, rhymed and unrhymed, that deserve designation as poetry.  Thanks to Pat Z. Miller for permission to quote lines from these picture books. I urge everyone to read the entire text, repeatedly.
Library editions of both titles were used for this review and post.

Apr 1, 2019

THEME MONTHS: Break Those Boundaries!

Two reviews today are intentionally paired and featured to underscore the truth that THEME MONTHS are not designed as calendar limits on reading and sharing, but to serve as spotlights on outstanding books that might otherwise be overlooked. The best of these books should be showcased throughout the year and across various themes and purposes.
From the beginning of this blog (here, too) and stretching back through my long teaching career, I've struggled with the concept of theme months. As WOMEN'S HISTORY MONTH ends and  BLACK HISTORY MONTH fades nearly out of sight in the rear view mirror, POETRY MONTH bounces through April's open window and into our hearts. In fact, there are plenty of books that intersect among two or three (or more) of these themes. Let these two titles remind you to share the best of ALL books ALL year long, and imprint that message on the minds of young readers.

I've long been a fan of reading and sharing AT LEAST ONE poem and AT LEAST ONE picture book per day. There are plenty of poetry anthologies that are NOT self-limiting to this one month of April, collections that feature poems about every day of the twelve months of the year. Many span all four seasons and countless topics. 
If that surprises you, I urge you to pause and  click this link to check out Lee Bennet Hopkins, the talented and esteemed author, editor, and anthologizer of poetry. If you try the link and never get back to this post, I'll understand. Hopkins's website makes my point for me: APRIL doesn't even scratch the surface of amazing poems meant to be enjoyed and shared all year round. 
Nosy Crow, 2018

A fine example, and a recent one, is this coffee-table-worthy book that deserves daily living space with a family or classroom like yours. SING A SONG OF SEASONS: A NATURE POEM FOR EACH DAY OF THE YEAR offers poems collected by Fionna Waters and pages delightfully illustrated by Frann Preston-Gannon. The unifying theme of nature provides the focus for these selected  poems, a balanced blend of  all-time classics (including ones by the prolific Anonymous) and contemporary creators. The poems are organized chronologically and arranged following monthly, date-labeled tables of contents. The back matter is an invaluable resource (author index, title index, and first line index). The language is enhanced brilliantly by the remarkable illustrations throughout. 
And how about this... my copy includes a page-marker ribbon, something that makes my heart smile.

With this book, I proudly unfurl my flag and march in the "POEM-A-DAY" parade, challenging one and all who would dare to stop sharing poems when April ends. 
Pssst...Learn more about some exciting poetry-related activities HERE, but promise to use them all year long. Please.

Carolrhoda Books, 2019
Just to keep my rabble-rousing, theme-bucking mood going, here's an important and thrilling  non-fiction title I've been saving (and renewing) since the first week of February. It popped up in more than one blog post during Black History Month, earning multiple starred reviews. As much as I loved it, I waited to share it until that theme had blown away on a gusty March wind. LET 'ER BUCK: GEORGE FLETCHER, THE PEOPLE'S CHAMPION is written by Vaunda Micheaux Nelson and illustrated by Gordon C. James. If ever there were a hidden history story that needed to be told, this is it. This dramatic account reveals the amazing life (and skills) of African-American George Fletcher, who grew up in the Pacific Northwest in the first decades of the twentieth century. He learned early to weather the  taunts (and worse) from white neighbors, finding friends on the Umatilla Indian Reservation where he learned the ways of the horses, rough-riding and bouncing back regardless of how tough the landing.
This depiction of his early years and the 1911 Pendleton Round-Up stars George, but also nods to the talents and roles of Jackson Sundown (Nez Perce tribe), John Spain (the judges' favorite contestant- who just happened to be white) and Sheriff Tillman Taylor (with a strong sense of justice). 
This book deserves attention for the vivid depiction of a dramatic time and place, for the page-turning tension of the culminating events, and for the densely saturated colors and action-packed scenes that leap from the pages like a 3-D movie. 
Only better. 
Each page feels like it could be framed as fine art, yet it urges readers onward to follow George's compelling life. James is as adept and artful with hoof-flinging, muscular horses, tails flying and nostrils flaring, as he is when rendering a full-page foreground image of young George's beaming smile while riding all-out down the dusty main road in town. You will want to fly through these pages, and you should do so. Then, reread and linger in the notes at the back, revealing even more details about the various players and the research that provides the foundation for the book. 
Finally, return again to savor the art.

But you're not through yet. This is one of those powerful picture books that can be pulled out time and again for many reasons, including poetry month. It is not written in rhyme or verse, but "boy howdy" the language captures the time, place, and personalities with humor and brilliance. The author adopts a voice that drips with colloquialisms that fit the story like a glove but could also serve as mentor text for poetry, figurative language, or any genre. At times it reads as intentionally gaudy and humorous, then drops into subtle expressions that beg to be read aloud: 
  • Life at home was no bushel of peaches.
  • George took to their ways like a wet kitten to a warm brick.
  • Life in the saddle and riding rough were all George hankered for.
  • He rode the buck out of the bruiser but... their dance spilled onto the sidewalk.
Capturing and balancing just the right tone in word choice, direct narrative, and authentic language is enhanced by the art designer's shifts in font, sizing, page layout, and text colors. This is a book you shouldn't miss. I'm risking a prediction here that the ear-tickling text and eye-candy illustrations will have this title rounding up lots of attention (and medals and honors) come award season. Once you read it, I'm betting you'll be recommending it, too. In February, in April, and 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.