Sep 20, 2021

I AM SMOKE: A Poetic Upside of Fire and Flame

During the last year (and more), I've found it wearying to hear well-intentioned variations on the theme of glass half full, silver-lined clouds, and windows opening when doors are slammed shut. And I'm an innately optimistic person. My reaction is likely related to decades of such blind-eyed denial of climate change, so many long months of Covid, followed by ongoing hostile arguments about rights versus responsibilities. Even the most sincere, big-hearted efforts to appreciate "the upside of down" can develop a hollow, off-pitch ring. That's why I'm excited to recommend this new nonfiction picture book. 

Tilbury House Publishers, 2021

I AM SMOKE is written by Henry L. Herz and illustrated by Merce Lopez. Rather than adopting a persuasive tone, this remarkable book assumes that readers will be both curious and surprised by positive attributes of something as ubiquitous, and often ominous, as SMOKE.  

Lyrical text empowers SMOKE as a character, making it the first person narrator of its own story. That voice reclaims credit for the many ways SMOKE offers benefits to mind, body, soul, and nature while admitting that those benefits contradict more common negative smoke associations that dominate our collective consciousness.

This is certainly a rare subject to explore through personification and SMOKE is itself an entity that we rarely consider through a positive lens. That is the first of several ways in which this remarkable book seizes our attention and never lets it go. Travis Jonker, school librarian and author of picture books and the popular blog 100 SCOPE NOTES for School Library Journal, included this book among titles he designated as THE MOST ASTONISHINGLY UNCONVENTIONAL BOOKS OF 2021. 

Kirkus Starred Review is HERE, and this title was included in Kirkus's list of 150 Most Anticipated Fall Books HERE.

The fluid, translucent, and nearly hypnotic qualities of smoke are captured effectively with few words, directly addressing the reader, and ensnare our attention. The opening lines tap into prehistoric emotional connections:

"I am smoke.

I twirl in dark dance from every campfire."

A page turn allows SMOKE to proceed, for a few lines and images, with a concise but accessible explanation of what SMOKE actually is, how it is created, and how it moves. In the following double spreads, a left-page, riddle-like line or two crack open our assumptions, with slightly expanded text on the right page revealing some of the many ways that each riddle/challenge can be answered. Both halves of the call/response pattern are displayed on evocative, emotionally-toned, double page illustrations that transport readers around the world, across cultures, time, and experiences. These explorations are as scientifically and historically accurate as that chemical-structured opening, and yet they convey an almost spiritual or meditative quality to the narration. 

I can't say enough about the power and particularity of each response/spread, not only in making clear the ways in which SMOKE has served our planet and our people over time, but does so with a remarkable portrayal of SMOKE itself. I realized on every page that I could virtually smell SMOKE, only to read in other sources that the illustrator actually used smoke and flame and ash to create the original art throughout. Of course, that wouldn't transfer the scent of SMOKE to the printed media, and yet it somehow did. For an impressive preview of the art, check out this brief trailer from Tilbury House Publishers, HERE.

The added benefit to this already outstanding picture book for many ages is that several pages of back matter provide brief but thorough explanations of each declaration SMOKE makes within the main text. In addition, sources are listed to allow further study or verification of the reliability of the statements that might surprise adult readers, and will likely do so even more with young readers. 

Speaking of target ages, I can't close out this post without commending this new picture book as a great example as mentor text for established readers. I AM SMOKE could provide an innovative impetus for doing research and non-fiction writing on other topics. Not only would this inspire expansion of sources, seeking examples across cultures, time, and global settings, but such a pattern presents a useful tool for identifying the pros/cons of various natural forces (fire, wind, rain, erosion, currents, etc.) It is also a model for writing to inform and to affect readers' opinions beyond the traditional essay/persuasive writing form. In fact, it is a rich resource for writing craft and figurative language in any form or genre.

Get on it, folks. Contact your library (community and school libraries) to make sure they stock it for circulation. Purchase copies for your family, classrooms, and as gifts. This is one book you may loan, but will want to replace when it somehow is not returned. I am not alone in singing its praises, and I'm guessing that you'll join the chorus once you have a close look and read.

Sep 16, 2021

A WHALE of a New Picture Book: WHOLE WHALE

 You've never met a child whose classroom experience involved  a daily "counting to one hundred" activity, or celebrated 100th DAY by preparing a collection of "one hundred somethings"? If not, I feel safe in betting that you've never met a child who goes to school. In fact, if you click above, you'll find more than a hundred Pinterest ideas/images that have been used for these activities  Or, just do an online search for 100th Day celebrations to find links for even more ideas, including links to this practice in other countries, cultures, and continents. 

Barefoot Books, 2021

That's why I'm expecting to hear global cheers for this new picture book, WHOLE WHALE, with words by Karen Yin and Illustrations by Nelleke Verhoeff. The premise of this oversized, colorful, animated (by active scenes and by an increasing array of animals), story far exceeds a simple number/concept book. 

Opening with the inviting expanse of a nearly bare, shiny-white, double spread, a few animals recognize a wonderful place to gather and play. Could they fit one hundred, even in such a massive space? The next pageturn challenges that- surely not a whole blue whale? Each successive turn adds a few rhymed lines in which types of animals are named and pictured. Some are familiar, many are not. Each is portrayed with cheeky-to-charming expressions, oddly-scaled sizes, in part and in whole, continually returning to that challenge- a WHOLE WHALE? Not likely!

That descriptor is, of course, important. Some arrive with evidence, but not "whole": scales, hoofs, etc. But a WHALE? A WHOLE WHALE would be entirely impossible, wouldn't it?

The rhymed text remains tightly-metered and story-propelling while incorporating quality vocabulary, less familiar animal species, and specifics such as  collective nouns: "a pod, a pack, a pride, a prowl". They come and go around and among pages, in full voice: "Just listen to them howl and growl."  

Mid-book, the question naturally arises- even if they could fit a WHOLE WHALE, could they all get along? With pleas to stop crowding, the essential line arrives on a very crowded page:

"When  everybody makes some space,

One more can always find a place."

I loved that the underlying theme of this book is as rich and dense as the language itself. The push is on by the assembled menagerie, not to eliminate or separate anyone, but to literally MAKE SOME SPACE, resulting in a double-gatefold that allows these large, glossy pages to unfold to arms' width- and more. Wide enough to allow a WHOLE BLUE WHALE to join them all as the one-hundredth  animal! A challenge is included on that last line, for little (and BIG) readers to find and count all one hundred, adding a final page turn that offers an illustratedl/numbered account of the full one hundred animals.

With ONE HUNDRED DAY experiences being ubiquitous, it's safe to assume that there are a vast number of picture books that focus on counting to one hundred. (Likely, there are more than a hundred titles, of  varying quality, but I didn't search or count.) I can assure anyone interested in pleasing a young learner or their teacher that ONE HUNRED DAY books and related items will be put to good use. I can even more confidently recommend that THIS book is a delight for a wide range of ages, and will be returned to often, certainly more often than a simple  number-concept book would be. It will also intrigue, generating curiosity about the actual size of a WHOLE WHALE, about the other animals and their sizes and habitats and names and more. It will also make a lovely touchpoint/reminder to MAKE SOME SPACE when things feel a bit crowded in groups or when someone is treated as if they are not a good fit. 

This is one of those picture books that I first read about, somewhere, and what i read caused me to check it out from my library immediately. Now, as i search for reviews and posts online, I'm not able to locate that original review, or blog post, or tweet or whatever first caught my attention. Barefoot Books is a small traditional press, but even so I expected this book to have more public praise by now (released in June). Wide praise is well-deserved. I hope that my post here will catch your eye enough to check it out and recommend it to others, if you find yourself to be as big a fan as I am. 

Sep 14, 2021

Beth Anderson Interview: Tad Lincoln's Restless Wriggles

I'm excited to share this interview with readers, because Beth Anderson's books are reliably informative, entertaining, thought provoking, and heart-tugging. Her upcoming picture book is sheer delight:  TAD LINCOLN'S RESTLESS WRIGGLE: Pandemonium and Patience in the President's House, illustrated by S. D. Schindler. I'll be back with a review of this October release later this fall, but here's a hint: I love it! So does Booklist:

"Anderson’s lively text offers anecdotes along with insights into how Tad’s high-spirited escapades may have given Lincoln welcome relief from his weighty responsibilities."

Beth invests endless effort in finding the facts for her stories, and even more in finding the heart for her storytelling, which she writes about: finding the heart of TAD and his father HERE. That's why I'm so grateful that she was willing to take some time to answer questions.


SB: Welcome, Beth, and thank you for spending time here with my readers. I’ll begin with my sincere compliments. As beloved as Abe Lincoln is in American history and legend, your story endeared him to me in entirely new ways. I believe that will be the case for everyone who reads your book. You not only revealed the very tender and loving relationship between Abe and his son Tad, your words and Schindler’s illustrations revealed the human lives within the building we now call THE WHITE HOUSE. It was not only authentic, but especially effective, to refer to it with the term of the day, the President’s House. That, like every bit of this book, anchors Tad's story in its very specific time and place for contemporary young readers. From beginning to end, you achieved a balance of the Lincolns’ lives as a Presidential family as the loving, grieving humans they were. 


I won’t include any spoilers here, but your author notes indicate that this book took a drastic change of direction from your original intent. Would you share a bit more about the ways in which you found Tad’s stories and felt your focus shift from an origin story about a presidential tradition to a story focused on family love, laughter, and surprises?


Beth: Following a chain of ideas, I learned that the first presidential turkey pardon happened due to the request of Tad Lincoln. A child? Interesting! So I explored that piece of history. As I dug deeper in search of “heart,” the meaningful “take away” for the story, I found a rambunctious child, an exceptional child, a lonely child, a mischief maker, a stutterer, a “wildcat,” the Lincoln’s (sometimes “troublesome”) “sunshine,” a boy wise beyond his years, the “absolute tyrant of the Executive Mansion.” Oh my! 


I began asking WHY and looking to see what was behind it. What was going on with Tad? He annoyed others—why? He refused his lessons—why? He brought ragamuffin kids into the White House for food—why? All that exploring took me to the emotional level where I discovered his endless energy, his speech and learning disabilities, his relationship to his brother Willie who had died the previous year, and an irresistibly endearing father and son relationship in which they each fulfilled the other’s needs. It was fascinating to see Abraham Lincoln as a patient, loving father who guided his son. Tad’s creative, humorous, well-meaning antics combined with his behavior issues reminded me of some of the students who challenged me in the classroom and, in doing so, stuck in my heart. So there I had a strong personal attachment and my passion emerged for telling a much deeper and fun story about Tad—a story in which a child’s impact on adults was front and center. 


And…I had pets and trips to camps; I had his super energy and joyful heart; I had a story about a child’s life in the White House at an important time in history. So much to love. So much there for parents, children, and teachers that I then had the challenge of how to shape it all into a meaningful story. 



SB: Every bit of that shines through in your "year in a life" approach. It allows readers to meet Tad over time and recognize his history and growth. That undoubtedly involved some very exacting research.

I am a huge fan of back matter. Yours includes information that answered some of my questions when the main text ended. Tad’s story is framed mainly during 1863, placing the Lincolns a few years into Abe’s first term and several years into the Civil War. Even with that tight focus, you covered a wide span of time for a picture book. Can you tell us about your decisions regarding pacing of the colorful events portrayed, and if there were particular ones that broke your heart when they had to hit the cutting room floor?  

Tad’s colorful wriggling antics and clever mind earned their place on the page, but also convinced me that there could be many other stories that had to be left out.


Beth: I found a good number of stories from 1863, and they showed a transformation in Tad. When I found the last one (no spoiler), I knew I had the ending. From there I arranged everything chronologically and looked at the developmental pieces for Tad. I looked at how his father responded to him and the changes through the year. Which scenes would shape the arc? 


[Slight tangent: I found lots of sets of 3s! Very fun to play with! I’ll need to do a blog post on that sometime. I love playing with structure!]


After much experimenting with the pieces, I found the ones that moved the story forward…except for one. (With “Smelly” Kelly and His Super Senses, I’d learned a lot about choosing and creating scenes and transitions.) And that one was hard to let go as it had a starring role as #2 in a set of 3. Sigh. It was one of Tad’s well intentioned efforts to help. 


Someone (accounts differ as to who) gave Tad a toolbox which kept him quite busy. He decided to build furniture for the Old Soldiers’ Home. Well… after Tad was found sawing up the mahogany table in the formal dining room to make chairs, his toolbox disappeared. I lost that bit of fun in the revisions for the editor. It was just not needed and slowed the story. It was really important that the story move as energetically as Tad. [So, in the book, there are only 2 things that suddenly, inexplicably (wink, wink) disappear.]


SB: At least that bit of history made it onto THIS page, if that helps at all!


I’m a fan of your word mastery in all of your books. So, speaking of Tad, I was especially taken by “Restless Wriggle” in the title. It makes delightful alliteration, but it also made me smile about the various ways that different writers use WIGGLE vs. WRIGGLE. Apart from the liveliness of that choice, did anything in your research reveal this phrase, (or either of the two words) among the many sources you scoured? 


Beth: Word choice is such an important part of writing picture books. Finding just the right word can often let you cut ten others. I spend a lot of time choosing words, and with a title it’s immensely important and usually a tremendous challenge. 


Research sources generally used the word “squirm” for Tad as a baby. Abe thought his head looked a little large and he squirmed like a tadpole—thus they began calling him Taddie or Tad. I don’t recall if any sources actually used “wriggle.” It just felt like the right word to me—accessible yet distinctive. To me, squirm for a person has a connotation of discomfort or intention. “Wriggle” is what I’d use for a tadpole as it feels more intense, uncontrollable, and interesting than “wiggle.” And “restless”? To me it indicates pent up energy which is totally Tad. But also, the word doesn’t have a connotation of good or bad so it’s not labeling Tad negatively and leaves the judgment up to the reader. And of course…alliteration! The title wasn’t offered to me by the research as with An Inconvenient Alphabet. With this one, I experienced my usual title torture for quite a while.


SB: Very masterful. it also resonates as a word of the times, to my ear. That's just another example of the ways your text and Schindler’s illustrations brought to life the history, issues, and customs of that era. As distant as this period is from present day, your combined talents connected the people and problems and parental stresses of Lincoln’s day to modern lives.  


Did your research and writing of this story have an impact on the way you felt about Lincoln BEFORE the project developed? 

(I ask that, because it definitely changed mine!)


Beth: Don’t we all know a child a bit like Tad? Maybe some of us were a child like Tad? Who hasn’t struggled with behavioral expectations at some point? Have you ever had good intentions backfire? Don’t all parents (and teachers) struggle with discipline at some point?  And really, once we’re given the opportunity to understand a child’s emotional challenges, aren’t we more patient and open? It’d be hard to find parents more stressed than Abraham and Mary Lincoln. 


Take a look at this spread of a cabinet meeting. Haven’t we all received those looks as a child? And probably reacted that way as a parent or teacher or random person in the grocery store? 😆

Whatever our time or place, all the questions and ideas I just mentioned hit us emotionally. I have to bring my emotional connection to the reader. Craft-wise, I think it’s in characterization and trying to bring the reader inside the experience as much as possible with scene building. Characters need to act and react. Human issues are timeless. S.D. Schindler’s amazing illustrations show setting, but they also show that humanity that connects us. 


As a child growing up in the “Land of Lincoln,” I was steeped in Lincoln history. I’d read stories about his boyhood and presidency; I’d visited Salem and Springfield. But I never encountered stories about him as a father. (Though I always saw a bit of resemblance between him and my father.) As I read the stories about his home life and relationship with the boys and Mary, he became a more complete person in my mind, with more depth—maybe a bit closer to the rest of us. While life in the White House and governing the nation is an experience we can only begin to imagine, the family role is something we can easily connect to on a meaningful level. This whole other side of him becomes even more interesting when you think about all he was dealing with at the time. What really took hold of my heart was how he so desperately needed the joy Tad offered, and also how he recognized and provided all that Tad needed from him. (OK, now I’m verklempt.)

SB: Same here.(FYI: verklempt = overcome with emotion) That has been my reaction each time I've read my advance copy. The chuckles and sighs and eye rolls are undeniable, and yet an awareness of the burdens of office and personal loss on the Lincoln family can't be ignored. I'm certain that young readers, even those not yet steeped in a lifetime of Lincoln lore, will sense it, but the adults in their lives will undoubtedly empathize with the poignancy of this story.


 Ahem... recovering my thoughts here...

SB: I always like to ask if you have something in the works you’d like to share (and are allowed to share at this point in time, given publishers' restrictions about dates and details).


Beth: Somehow…I ended up with three releases in 2022. Two of the books are about little known, gutsy women and the American Revolution. REVOLUTIONARY PRUDENCE WRIGHT: LEADING THE MINUTE WOMEN IN THE FIGHT FOR INDEPENDENCE is illustrated by Susan Reagan, from Calkins Creek, releasing Spring 2022. And CLOAKED IN COURAGE: UNCOVERING DEBORAH SAMPSON, PATRIOT SOLDIER is illustrated by Anne Lambelet, from Calkins Creek, in Fall 2022

The other spring title is a complete departure from these—a STEAM, historical fiction story about an Austrian man driven to tinker, create, and invent. FRANZ’S PHANTASMAGORICAL MACHINE is illustrated by Caroline Hamel, from Kids Can Press. 

There’ll be more revolution in 2023 with THOMAS JEFFERSON’S BATTLE FOR SCIENCE: BIAS, TRUTH, AND A MIGHTY MOOSE, illustrated by Jeremy Holmes. Science, humor, and history! So much fun!


I never like to say too much about what I’m working on (often it takes a nose dive into “the drawer”)… but will say I’ve been working on another Lincoln story. Clearly I’m fascinated by so many aspects of his life. And when I started that one, I remembered a different story that had been relegated to “the drawer” that’s suddenly ringing with relevance and calling me to revise. And then I’ve got a few piles of research started…always…


SB: Wow, Beth. I introduced you with gratitude for finding time to respond to my questions, and now I wonder if I should apologize for interrupting your amazing productivity! I'll be here to read each and all of these upcoming titles as they become available, with a full intent to review them and share them here. I'm confident that your current look at an earlier Lincoln story will bring it to the right stage at exactly the right time. 


For those who are not writers, the proverbial "drawer" is where writing attempts go to hibernate, simmer, marinate, and sometimes simply dissolve. Just as with that tidbit about Tad's short-lived furniture career, the "darlings" we set aside or edit out can often step forward to take a bow on an unintended platform or at an unplanned time. 

Beth, thank you again for the generosity of your time and thoughtful insights. And for books that reveal the past, resonate with the present, and will remain treasures into the future.

@Bandersonwriter (Pinterest, Twitter, Instagram) 


illustrated by S.D. Schindler, Calkins Creek 
OCT 5, 2021 Now available for pre-order. 

illustrated by Jenn Harney, Calkins Creek ISBN 9781684373994.  Free Educator Guide
JLG Selection
NSTA/CBC Best STEM Books for 2021 list

illustrated by E.B. Lewis, Calkins Creek ISBN 9781629799391  
Shortlist Goddard Riverside CBC Youth Book Prize for Social Justice 
Finalist Jane Addams Childrens Book Award
JLG Selection
Chicago Public Library 2020 Best Informational Books for Older Readers
CSMCL Best Multicultural Children’s Books of 2020

Illustrated by Elizabeth Baddeley, Simon & Schuster ISBN 9781534405554
Free Educator Guide from S&S 
Finalist Colorado Book Awards - Children’s Literature
JLG Selection

illustrated by Susan Reagan, Calkins Creek. Spring 2022

FRANZ’S PHANTASMAGORICAL MACHINE, illustrated by Caroline Hamel, Kids Can Press, spring 2022.

illustrated by Jeremy Holmes, Calkins Creek, Fall 2023.








Sep 9, 2021

Kids + Questions +Core Content = Chemistry Magic!

There are many amazing picture books that explore and explain concepts, innovators, and game-changing discoveries in STEM topics (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math). They range from biography (HERE), to poetry (HERE), humor (HERE), and distinctive voices (HERE), for very young (HERE) and for older readers (HERE). When the subject of CHEMISTRY arises, you might feel justified in assuming that the target age would be much older readers, or the subject matter would need to be diminished for younger readers. 

NOMAD PRESS, October, 2021

Surprise! When the book's formula combines a talented and knowledgeable writer with informative illustrated text and directions, exploring  intriguing CHEMISTRY topics that are safe, engaging, and dramatic, magic happens. CHEMICAL REACTIONS! With Science Projects for Kids is the newest title in the Nomad Press series, EXPLORE YOUR WORLD. Written by award-winning scientist/author Susan Berk Koch, Ph.D. and delightfully illustrated by Micah Rauch, it will, no doubt, find its way to plenty of eager teachers and learners in school and home classes. 

I don't include intentionally academic books in these posts, but this book isn't a text book. Even so, I wish it had been available when I was teaching chemistry units in elementary classes. 

As for my own experiences, I thoroughly enjoyed my high school and college chemistry classes. I would have LOVED to have this book for myself as a kid. Instead, my parents managed to give me a kid-chemistry-kit one Christmas. I just never felt inclined to putter with it, or learn from it. The little packets and parts reminded me of the little light-bulb-heated oven that came with tiny pans and packets as an earlier holiday gift. Everything about it was obviously "pretend", even when actually edible mini-bite-cakes were produced. I tired of it quickly, and  learned nothing about cooking or baking. I did, in fact, learn more about baking (and chemistry) by working with the actual oven and real ingredients from the cupboard. Mistaking salt for sugar, adding baking soda instead of baking powder, reading the recipe wrong and using only 1/4 cup of water instead of 1 and 1/4 cup of water made real world changes in the outcome of my efforts. 

So, getting back to this book, it offers everything I would have wanted and kids should have. To start with, the information is presented in digestible and logical bites and sequences, with the book design effectively sorting content into categories of chemistry processes and principles. Projects build on prior experiences and also incorporate careful cautions and solid doses of confidence. Each project provides additional challenges and opportunities for expanded investigations related to adjusting variables. 

For those working at home on their own, or using this book in a classroom setting, the early direction  to establish and use a notebook includes a thorough and effectively designed format. With guided and well-timed prompts throughout each project to make notes on observations, this essential step of recording science processes becomes as natural and successful as the projects themselves. 

Everything about the design and organization of content makes this a user-friendly book, one that the publisher can rightly suggest suits children as young as 7-10 years old. In fact, the big-eyed, big-wigged froggy scientist and his on-point partner lend a nearly comic-book appeal to the whole, while offering actual science content that is well-suited to middle school and beyond. In fact, if my high school chemistry teacher's classroom had been filled with students who had been immersed in this material while younger, we could have all advanced to AP CHEM in the blink of an eye. This is a screen grab from the bottom of the TABLE OF CONTENTS page, just to demonstrate how open-ended the potential for learning is in this book:

The chapters range from chemical structures and bonds to compounds, reactions, mixtures, states of matter, and more. One of the earliest assertions is applied throughout- Chemistry surrounds us in every day life. Colorful side bars provide important glossary explanations in helpful "Words to Know" frames. Each PROJECT frame (and there are plenty of them in the 98 page book) organizes materials needed, states the purpose of the exploration, cautions when needed, and adds "Did you know?" and "Think about it!"  inserts related to each project concept. Amazingly, none of this is text-heavy and it is ALL enticing. In the few cases that require materials not readily accessed in most households, suggestions are provided for sources or alternatives.

From start to finish, the main subject, chemistry, becomes intriguing and exciting. Even more, the approach and applications reinforce the central premise that chemistry is all around us. Chemistry IS us. That is the sense and essential theme that was missing from my youthful chemistry kit.  I've known others who say that they enjoyed them, which is fine. I was just not a fan of "pretending" to be a chemist, or a baker. The real world, though, that was a fascinating platform for learning. And that is the platform provided in this terrific book.

Be sure to check out this remarkably appealing and exciting on-ramp to experiments and developing a scientific understanding of our world. While you're at it, subscribe to Koch's blog,  which is, by far, one of the most informative and entertaining blogs I read on a regular basis. That goes for kids reading on their own or along with adults. Prepare for impressive interactivity and mind-stretching content, HERE.

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.