Jun 29, 2019

Plenty of Current Topics in This Historical Picture Book

I'm seriously committed to staying current on new releases in picture books, but that doesn't mean that I ignore wonderful titles from the past. In fact, I'm genuinely excited when I come across a book from several years back, one that somehow missed my radar. That's especially true when it is a book that resonates with the most current of current issues. 
Tundra Books, Canada, 2011

That's certainly the case with IN THE BAG: Margaret Knight Wraps It Up, written by Monica Kulling and illustrated by David Parkins. This remarkable nonfiction title was a finalist for the Canada Books for the Arts Award, but it is first place winner to me. It addresses the reality of 19th century child labor, gender bias, and early industrial capitalism, but parallels modern issues of environmental concerns, workplace safety, immigrants, marketplace equity, STEM studies, and maker-space innovations. 

Margaret was as unknown to me as the book was, but now I'm eager to spread her name with creators of all ages. By the time she was twelve, in the 1850s, she was proficient with an array of tools and spent any spare time inventing, designing, and applying her skills in practical ways. Ideas abounded, potential solutions to problems filled her many notebooks, and she was undefeated by failure, resistance, or injustice. 
I won't spoil this for you by revealing too many details, but Margaret's story will connect with modern kids on many levels. Her father died when she was only three. She and her brothers worked long days in a cotton mill to provide enough income to survive. At work and at home, her mind spun as rapidly as the looms in the factory where they worked. 
She never stopped studying those machines and imagining ways to improve them. She learned from trial and error until she invented a safety device for looms that quickly made its way into every factory in New England. She never received a penny (or patent) for that invention because she was "only a girl".
Although her success should have earned admiration among locals, instead she was mocked and doubted. It was widely believed that girls don't have the brains for mechanical thinking. Even so, she continued working with her notebooks, tools, trial and error in every spare minute. 
As an adult, Margaret spent long working days at the paper bag factory, where "narrow bottom bags" were cut, folded, and glued by hand. A bag that could stand on its own on a counter and hold every sort of thing was much in demand, but it was only Margaret who imagined a better way to make them. After several years of models and refinements, she succeeded! This time, she planned to get a patent and prove she was the inventor. 
But men in charge had other ideas and tried to claim her invention as their own. 
That was a mistake. Nothing would stop Margaret.
Margaret's life story is inspiring in its individual details and as a model for us all: a creator, an innovator, a "persister", and a resister. Prejudice and societal limitations didn't stop her. She gained financial success and respect for her talents during her own era, and she deserves our attention and respect today.
The text for this remarkable account is reliably readable and engaging, including Kulling's introductory poetry BAG MAGIC, written in the style of William Carlos Williams. Added details in back matter enhance the accurate depiction of Margaret's life. Parker's illustrations are equally detailed and informative while offering a charming window to life nearly two centuries ago. Just as Margaret studied and pored over machinery, readers will want to carefully examine and discuss the intricately detailed elements of each scene.
A book like this will go a long way in encouraging girls to explore maker-spaces and enter STEM fields. The work and resources that go into producing basic paper bags could encourage kids to reuse and recycle paper bags rather than littering plastic. 
The importance of trial and error, of analysis and note-taking, of documenting process and patent application are all modeled here, too. Margaret is a historic and admirable icon of knowing your true calling and talents and pursuing them despite hardships and lowered expectations. 
Get this book into the hands of someone you know. Sooner rather than later!

Jun 20, 2019

Start Summer with STEM Books!

It's an old fashioned concept that summer vacation for kids is a wide-open, free-wheeling, choose-your-own-adventure time. If I were decades younger I'd might even doubt that it was ever true. But I lived that kind of summer. Sure, there were chores, family outings, even some short half-day camps sponsored by church or scouts or whatever. But the bulk of our long sunny days were ours to plan and execute.

Truth be told, I spent lots of my free time reading. But countless hours of summer were improvised, spur of the moment adventures with friends. That might involve cooking, camping out in the the back yard, making up new rules to old games, or packing a lunch for an all day bike trip of undetermined route or destination. (These explorations launched without today's ubiquitous cell phones, just a dime in a pocket in case we needed to use a phone booth.) 

That's certainly not the way of the world today, but here's my suggestion to salvage at least the spirit of what those days were like. Both are STEM books, and both are semi-non-fiction, relying on real events and back matter to blend exciting and fun stories into actual space-based science. 
Penguin Workshop, 2019

First, a suitably small book features little Mars Rover Curiosity as the central character. BIRTHDAY ON MARS is written by Sara Schoenfeld and charmingly illustrated by Andrew J. Ross. In wonderful dusty, rusty tones with a Rover-eye-view, Curiosity voices a first person account of why it is there, an awareness of its friends on Earth, and a sense of purpose. The clever small moments (taking a birthday selfie, peeking under rocks) make it a winning intro to space science for even the youngest. The topper is the blend of humor and fact in the story when it sings HAPPY BIRTHDAY to itself. Then back matter reveals that this little explorer did, in fact, sing happy birthday to itself on it's first anniversary on Mars. 
Roaring Book Press, 2019
I can't imagine a more appealing way to interest kids in space science, unless it is this next book. GO FOR THE MOON: A Rocket, a Boy, and the First Moon Landing is a big, bold opposite to the sweet little Rover book.Chris Gall wrote and illustrated this oversized, heavyweight, photo-realistic story of a space-enthralled little boy whose life mirrors the first moon launch and landing. 
With white-framed, double-spread illustrations readers open to a rear view of a young boy staring out his bedroom window. His walls, shelves, and toys all reveal a childlike but obsessive interest in space. Text is white on the night-darkened scene, emphasizing the full moon glow and the substance of the text:

"In the morning, three brave men will climb inside a giant rocket, blast off into space, and fly to the moon. ... The astronauts are ready for the mission and so am I."

From that page forward this lad duplicates each stage of the process, from his Tang breakfast, to launching his self-built rocket, to suiting up for the moon landing, to entering his cardboard landing capsule. Soon he and family are pictured stretched out in front of their black-and-white, grainy, scratchy console television. I was right back in my own living room, home from college and working a night shift at the hospital. I was able to stay long enough to see the lander touch down and hear the astronauts' voices in the capsule, I saw the door open, and watched that first footstep before needing to leave for work and follow the progress of the landing on the car radio. 
What a night that was. I was overwhelmed as an adult, but viewing it through the eyes of a space-struck boy in this book felt even more powerful. That little boy was the author/illustrator, Gall, and he details his own engagement with rockets and space in the back matter. 
That genuinely portrayed first person insight to the magnificent adventures of  those days is matched by this book's ability to make superlatives kid-friendly. Gall describes the skillful expertise demanded of the rocket-crane operators. (It has to do with raw eggs, but I won't spoil your reading with further details.) He compares massive weights and heights to stacks of elephants, the Statue of Liberty, and other familiar touchpoints.  Inserting science content and accurate descriptions provides informative facts to kids and to the adults who share this with them. 
There is much about Gall's illustrations that remind me of Chris Van Alsburg (JUMANJI, POLAR EXPRESS, and many others). There is much in these two new picture books, one tiny and clever the other massive and moving, to spark curiosity and challenge in young readers' minds. 
10 -9 - 8 -  Let  the summer explorations begin!

Jun 15, 2019

A Fathers' Day Round-up of Picture Book Favorites

Rather than focus on asingle  new title for Fathers' Day I'm falling linking up some recent favorites on this topic from my own posts, and suggesting recommendations from some other bloggers/reviewers.

Combining these sources means a very long list of special books for and about dads (and dad-surrogates) and their relationships with their kids emerges. One of the most recent releases is featured in my post about Chris Raschke's SIDE BY SIDE. It has also turned up in several other posts starring Fathers' Day recommendations, including this post by Horn Book

There are so many wonderful things to say about this book, not least among them the expansively diverse representation of the pictured pairs and their varied activities and personalities. The deepest value I found in it was the unstated but undeniable truth that time spent together, fully present (i.e., not glued to a screen!), is the richest and most robust gift a child and a parent will ever exchange.

Next is my post about JABARI JUMPS, with reflections on my own dad. This title, too, appears on several other lists. Whenever I prepare to write a post, I take the time to see if I'll be repeating what someone else has already said-- or not. I'll admit that discovering how popular my favorites are with others can be a bit frustrating, because I feel real excitement when it seems I might be introducing news about wonderful books that readers have yet to discover. 
On the other hand, it is gratifying to see my own appreciation of particular books being shared by others who deeply respect and enjoy picture books. It also allows me to recommend some outstanding bloggers you might want to follow. In this case, check out what Davina Hamilton has to say about JABARI JUMPS, here.

The books above and most that are featured in others' posts are recent releases.even so, a few  classics are included, such as PAPA DO YOU LOVE ME? by Barbara Joosse and Barbara Lavallee.
I'll add my own throwback favorite to the mix, a title that didn't pop up among the many blogs featuring Fathers' Day titles, THE BOYS, by Jeff Newman. Perhaps it was overlooked because it isn't really a "dad" story as much as it is a story about the power of role models and mentors, a sort of barber shop culture in which young people can feel safe and valued, even if being gently teased by the adults. 
If this "old" title (2010) is new to you, or is one you've known and forgotten, please do a favor for yourself and someone who cares for kids, especially boys, and recommend this book. It's wordless, which makes it ideal for any age and especially for relationships in which one or both sides of the age span lacks the ability to read English. In this case, the visual reading is a rich and universal narrative of hopes, dreams, and support, liberally laced with humor. You'll see what I mean, beginning with this post. 
Some other  blogs you may want to read include COOL MOMS, featuring very recent releases, Abby the Librarian which includes some titles I've mentioned and others, too, that are favorites of mine. And PEACHTREE PRESS, a favorite picture book publisher   presenting Fathers' Day offerings from their newer titles and their backlist of terrific choices. Finally, Brightly Blog presents a wide selection with brief notes, and each is something very special.
So, my gift to you is not only an extensive selection of titles for Fathers' Day, but an array of wonderful picture book bloggers for your investigation. You might want to subscribe to one or more of these to have further great suggestions pop into your inbox on a regular basis. 
Finally, here's a link to a prior post singing the praises of dads and sharing more thoughts about my own father.  Those of you who still have a father in your life, hug him one extra time for me and all the others who no longer can do that with our own fathers.
Miss you, dad. 

Jun 11, 2019

Visit Milwaukee: In Real Life, and in a New Picture Book!

It's summer tourist season and Milwaukee is waiting to welcome you. Ever since I first arrived in Wisconsin to attend Marquette, the downtown area won my heart. In my first years here, Summerfest was launched as a soggy lakefront music festival.  It has since become the annual "World's Largest Music Festival" and anchors a summer-long series of ethnic and themed festivals, drawing millions of visitors from around the USA and the world.
Sleeping Bear Press, 2019
Each and every one of these (and other) events features kid-friendly activities.  Even so, I urge families to check out a recent picture book before and during visits to the city. ROCKY & LULU in MILWAUKEE is written by Barbara Joosse and illustrated by Renee Graef. This talented pair is noteworthy for individual achievements, including many award-winning and classic books (Joosse's MAMA, DO YOU LOVE ME and  PAPA, DO YOU LOVE ME; Graef's many LITTLE HOUSE picture book adaptations, and illustrations for titles in the nonfiction Alphabet series). These two are close and longtime friends from the Milwaukee metro area who enjoy traveling together as much as Lulu and Rocky do. This is their first title in a planned series about other cities, published by reliable Sleeping Bear Press. Because I know them both I was picturing the fun they must have had in doing the background work for this book.

The story opens with an invitation to the pair (and Lulu's friend Pufferton, a penguin) to visit Milwaukee. They meet doorman Norman at the luxurious landmark Pfister Hotel, then spend three days exploring iconic locations in MIlwaukee's city center. 

The characters are all delightfully humanized animals, each more charming than the next, but the sites featured reveal kids-eye-views of some of the best year-round attractions this city has to offer. The text is direct but not simplistic, and Norman's comments offer some fun examples of figurative language from an earlier generation.

The level of detail is "just right" for young readers, with informative labels and enough color and side details to spark curiosity and develop an appetite for exploration. 
This lively pair (and observant penguin) cover a great deal of territory in a short amount of time, which happens on vacations, right? 
Out-of-towners with kids would do well to spend some time with this book prior to a visit and encourage the young ones to state a preference for side trips. Most won't be able to stay at the Pfister, but it does offer tours, including stories about ghostly residents!  Back matter provides accessible details about various high points and icons visited throughout the story.

Once families get their hands on this book the adults will be as enthused about visiting Milwaukee as the kids will be. In fact, I encourage classroom teachers and local families to check it out, too. I'm sadly aware from leading school field trips (for many ages) that there are thousands of people living within a few miles who rarely visit downtown and are unaware of its many treasures. 
Milwaukee offers something for everyone in every neighborhood and district. Summer isn't the only time to explore the city, but it does offer an ideal opportunity to get to know it better, or for the first time.
And there's no better souvenir (or gift of any kind) than picture books!

Jun 1, 2019

The Wild Wombat: Playing on Rumor and Fear

There is much to like about this picture book, even before interacting with the story:  expansive double-page horizontal spreads with full-bleed saturated color, shifting perspectives and scales, mildly comical/caricatured animals with expressive features, and suddenly-appearing monstrous figures popping from behind and between clever gatefold pages. What's not to like?
Minedition, May 2019

THE WILD WOMBAT, written by Udo Weigelt and illustrated by Melanie Freund, offers a rambunctious twist on the well-known "telephone game" premise played out among zoo animals. If you know in advance what a wombat looks like, you can pick up on the humor of this premise from the cover-- or not. Did you miss those menacing eyes peering from inside the crate?
As a former parrot owner I can attest that it's true to the nature of these birds that parrots jabber and repeat what they've heard (mindlessly?) delivered with the know-it-all vibe of this parrot with wings-on-hips.
From initially overhearing the zookeepers report: "...the wild wombat is coming. ... We must be very careful with him," parrot launches a chain of misconstrued messages and mis-drawn conclusions. Each critter escalates the mistaken assumptions to another level of contrived details and resulting fear. Once Wombat arrives the real worry is that no one from the zoo is willing to meet him, let alone befriend him. They are all hiding in fear!
Parrot, oblivious to the impact of his role in fanning the flames of fear, puzzles over why no one has arrived. He muses, "I know I mentioned that you were coming..."

There is a single concluding page providing actual facts about wombats, after which readers will want to return to the start and stay alert for additional mistakes and asides. Kids will also love the half-page reveals on the monsters that often result when imaginations run wild. There's plenty of color and characters and confusion to win over audiences, but I hope the book will also lead to some discussions about the potential harm done by jumping to conclusions, judging others, and isolating ourselves in silos of anxiety rather than sharing concerns and problems-solving together. 

This was originally published in Europe, where fears and false assumptions currently percolate through society. I hope that there, and now here in the states, in English, this entertaining and engaging book might trigger some mindful conversations about exploring and defusing confusions and anxiety, and giving every newcomer a chance.

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.