Nov 10, 2023

Did You Know This Booklover, JACKIE KENNEDY?

Sky Pony Press, 2023

 The name Jackie Bouvier Kennedy Onassis will always have a place in American history and likely in world history. As the wife of one of our most well-known presidents at the time (and since), Jackie Kennedy was a first lady whose short tenure in that role reshaped expectations of  the spousal-residents of the White House. 

In JACKIE AND THE BOOKS SHE LOVED, written by Ronni Diamondstein and illustrated by Bats Langley, readers will learn that a throughline of her life was her love of books. Reading books, talking about them, eventually writing and editing books, articles, and even becoming a photojournalist/interviewer. 

The roles played by books in her life, from childhood until her dying days, were less widely known by the general public than her roles in politics, fashion, or social circles. This cradle-to-grave account of Jackie and the ways books shaped and enhanced and supported here throughout her life makes it clear that knowing this central force in her life is essential to understanding who she was.

As iconic as her image has been for decades, and as admired and even idolized as she was globally, this is actually a very intimate view of the privacy, solace, and comfort she sought within the pages of beloved books and among those in her life who understood who she was. One  spread especially appealed to me, in image and in narrative. This segment references the time in her later life in which she edited and helped to launch the many books she supported in their making. 

Interior Illustration and text:
Sky Pony Press, November, 2023

"Even though she was very famous, for Jackie, 

the author was the star of every book. 

She made sure to stay in the background and let her authors shine."

As a once active and successful photojournalist, Jackie was well-aware that the subject of the spotlights and flashbulbs told a story in themselves, so it is her unlit face here that beams out at her starring author on stage. And at readers who may often feel those camera-aware selfies and smiles are the mark of greatness. With her approach, it is clear that Jackie invested in the editing and publishing process for the sake of the creation and celebration of fine books, not for the spotlight. Both front and back endpapers include short quotes from her career, including this one:

"If you produce one book, 

you will have done something wonderful

with your life."

It is noteworthy that Jackie wrote her own books as a child, as well as poetry. Anything she chose to write and submit would have found ready publication and promotion. But she actively resisted writing a memoir or other book under her own name throughout her life, although she wrote with and researched writings of others, including her husband Jack Kennedy, as well as the many authors she later edited. She chose to submerge herself into their work and into the readings and thinkings about other books that opened her to worlds beyond her own persona- past, present, and future. 

Back matter for this distinctive bio/profile includes a timeline of Jackie's life, an author note, more quotations, and a representative selection of the books professionally edited by Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. Sources and credits are also included for this thorough homage to an iconic American woman.  


Nov 7, 2023

PATCHWORK PRINCE: "Love Makes a Prince"

 A recently released picture book by talented friend/colleague Baptiste Paul called to mind my mother's stories from childhood in Appalachia, Kentucky. In her case, clothing was sometimes produced from various scraps, new or used, not unlike the life-inspired lyrics of Dolly Parton's Coat of Many Colors. Mom's (and Dolly's) emotional reactions when receiving, then wearing these lovingly created garments were similar in that they each understood their own mother's talented efforts to provide a utilitarian item with beauty and appeal that they could not provide by buying new items in a store or catalogue. In both narratives, the teasing of peers undermined the appeal, but the love stitched into every seam outweighed the taunts of kids. This blend of utility and beauty extended to the many quilts they created, too, including some I still own. Another of my mom's childhood stories was revealed to me when I shared a picture book with her, Elizabeti's Doll. I discussed that connection in a post several years ago (HERE).


PATCHWORK PRINCE, written by Baptiste Paul and illustrated by Kitt Thomas, is one of many stories that arise from Paul's lived-childhood experiences while growing up on the Carribean island of Saint Lucia. In his case, he was raised by his mother and father, sharing their tiny quarters as one of ten siblings. 

Both Paul and Thomas are natives of Saint Lucia, and they made the perfect pairing for this exuberant story. Those who have traveled to this popular tourist destination will have seen its beauty and appeal, but may have only seen the vistas intended for moneyed travelers. The daily lives of locals, like the Paul family, offered different stories, but not without  celebrations of play and nature and family and love. In this tale the patchwork clothing his mother created was an enormous source of pride, in its color and vibrance and "newness", as opposed to the mis-sized, hand-me-down rough-wear that made up everyday life. When it came to Sundays, Baptiste and his siblings would proudly don custom-made capes and other clothing from his mother's talented and determined hands.

The story itself is an homage to the very special relationship Baptiste had with his mother, leaving his siblings out of th is particular story until they appear in the author note after the main text. It is a royal romp through the many steps involved in obtaining those scraps to generate such glorious regalia. The adventure of this process begins with predawn sessions in which young Baptiste and his mother made their way to the dump. There, the local clothing manufacturer discarded truckloads of scraps and unused fabrics from the nearby clothing factories, intending to burn every bit  before anyone local could "steal" the useless materials. Between dumped loads, the boy and his mother would race into the pile, gathering armfuls of vibrant swatches, as many as they could manage, and then dart back behind nearby greenery. Sometimes a friendly driver would take a little longer than needed to allow locals to gain some ground and retrieve even more. Even then, factory managers would signal from a nearby window to get on with it, and the un-saved fibers soon erupted in flames. 

This is only the start of the mother/child partnership Paul describes. The pieces were color-sorted, scrubbed, hung in the tropical sun to dry, and then organized in readiness for the ultimate sewing projects. In a recent interview, Paul added that the excess/unused washed fabrics were stored in the small room shared by eight brothers. Those fabrics would be stacked and scattered across the floor of that room as sleeping mats each night. That, too, reminded me of Mom's family quilting tradition, minus the stitching!

The illustrations celebrate the colors of a spilled crayon box, presenting a joyful family, a boy whose memories of his mother spark smiles. The text is equally lively and vivid, rich with figurative language of simile, metaphor, and inspiration. The boy calls his mother a queen, and she in turn says, 

"Each piece tells a story,...

Black for beauty.

Gold for royalty.

Blue for dignity.

Green for life.

Red for strength."

In the end his mother, his Queen, produced undeniably royal attire, fit for a patchwork Prince.

The language is as masterful and action-packed as the images, filled with dance, emotion, and qualities like patience, watchfulness, gratitude, and joy. The story resonates with a majesty of its own. Even so, I urge you to read the back matter, the author's message that reveals some of the details shared here about the way Paul's life unfolded throughout his childhood. He makes clear that finding and repurposing items (or scraps of items) holds a rich history in his life and continues to offer a deep sense of satisfaction when making full use of the potential they can provide to our Earth. The value of seeing within discarded items those hidden treasures has stayed with him long after it was no longer a necessity of his circumstances. It is also clear that he never lost his loving mother's message that he was (and still is) a prince, and that each reader of this book is, too.

This is a lively book that will launch many stories, inspire good stewardship of every available resource, and celebrate self-acceptance, inner strength, and beauty. 

This is a picture book blog, but I recently read a teen/YA contemporary novel that features a very different/similar situation of a family with limited resources, a need for repurposing and valuing "maker" skills, and a much more conflicted/challenged but loving mother/son relationship. That new book is GATHER, and I reviewed it on GOODREADS, HERE.  The writing is utterly page turning, the voice is unique and genuine, and the characters, including the dog GATHER, are unforgettable. I highly recommend it.

Nov 3, 2023

A Nexus of Picture Books by Notable Authors

Each time I tell myself I should NOT take time to add another note here, books come along that deserve whatever boost I might provide by featuring them here. (Actually, I learn about them, place them on library holds, pick them up, read them, then locate them prominently in my living spaces so that I cannot ignore them!  So no, they do not just "come along". *Sigh*)

In this post is a compromise with my limits of time and other book responsibilities (see CYBILS, HERE). Three offerings merit my attention, and yours, for a variety of reasons. The least I can do (and it is less than I would like) is to feature them here with a brief note and links for you to pursue more about them!

Abrams Books for Young Readers, 2023

First up is a book that really doesn't need my support. Its co-authors, Julie Andrews and her daughter Emma Walton Hamilton, were inspired during Covid lockdowns to write this magical-realistic story of a boy and his orchestral conductor father. A video of a quartet playing to a concert hall with seats filled with plants led to this broader analogy. In this colorfully expressive third person narrative, we meet a simple village whose musical performances attract larger and larger audiences. In a not-surprising way, local merchants and pop-up vendors expanded their offerings until the village becomes so absorbed by commerce and personal gain that they neglect the musical source of their success. An oppressive haze sweeps the town into massive melancholy until the young boy realizes that music can at least revive the fading palm in the concert hall. The ultimate resolution is satisfying, with illustrator Elly Mackay utilizing hues, tones, and perspectives to enhance the shifting moods throughout the transitions of the villagers and the music creators. THE ENCHANTED SYMPHONY will delight young audiences and gratify adults who share it. It also offers mentor text and discussion opportunities for middle grade and older readers to explore extended analogies, consider rich language, and explore ways in which current events and media can inspire writing in unrelated genre.

Books for Young Readers, 2023

Next up is quite a different offering, an important nonfiction title. It, too, has much to offer for established young readers with a bit older background knowledge. In this case the time and place surrounding remarkable Frances Perkins ithe NEW DEAL era of the presidency of Franklin D. Roosevelt. Following (and somewhat during) the depths of the GREAT DEPRESSION, Roosevelt's transformative efforts, in legislation and bureaucratic expansion, established programs to lift Americans from its deadly economic impact and years of suffering. In the process, they were gradually lifting the malaise and emotional depression that blanketed our country's population. THE ONLY WOMAN IN THE PHOTO: Frances Perkins and and Her New Deal for America was written by the gifted  historical writer Kathleen Krull and illustrated by Alexandra Bye. 

The first half of this chronological biography of Perkins reveals her deep-rooted commitment to making the lives of others better, including her youthful choices, eventual role as a social worker, and shocked response to the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire. All of the above provide a richly informative background for younger readers to a time in history with "big" events through the lens of everyday people and the impact of social forces on those same folks. For a woman to be tagged by Roosevelt to take on a role of guiding the government through changes that would change millions of lives was unheard of, yet Perkins's own quotes, sprinkled effectively throughout the narrative, show her sense of duty and opportunity. When such a door opens, her responsibility was to walk through it, take a seat, and play such a role with intelligence and vigor. It did, though, make her the only woman in the room, thus the only one in the historic photos of that era. Endpapers are brilliant indicators of her longterm impact in keeping that door open.The opening papers highlight her isolation among a sea of (White) men's faces, but the closing end papers feature women of every age, identity, and background. Times have changed, even if full equity has not yet arrived. Perkins is not solely responsible for such changes, but, as was true during her life, her impact is undeniable.

Holiday House, 2023

Finally, here's a contemporary nonfiction picture book that is written by a relatively new creator, certainly not one with the fame of Julie Andrews or Kathleen Krull. GREAT CARRIER REEF is written by Jessica Stremer and  by Gordy Wright. This is the account of a noble but retired aircraft carrier, the USS Orinskany, otherwise known as the Mighty O. Its eventual new service is to the forces of nature, now carefully submerged off the Florida coast and providing a structural habitat for the restoration of the coral reef.

This thoroughly researched account successfully  captures the dignity (and potential indignity) of a retired military warship, the intensive planning and preparation required to make its new life possible, and the countless individuals and groups that were necessary to make the project a success. The facts of this project can be found easily, yet Stremer's text and Wright's images and perspectives provide intensity and tension surrounding the eventual moment of igniting the carefully-placed explosives to allow the Mighty O to settle on the ocean floor in the exact position needed to make the project succeed. Back matter adds even more to this impressive text and invite readers to learn even more, and to actively work own behalf of saving reefs through simple actions in their own locations.

As you may have noticed, even my best efforts to limit comments tend toward extensive when it comes to outstanding picture books. Consider this a valuable bundle of recommendations that I hope you'll find irresistible, and might lead to you recommending and sharing with others.

Oct 30, 2023

Another Notable Nonfiction Picture Book: Meet Maria Mitchell, Astronomer!


 In this post heading I chose to feature the subtitle of a new biographic picture book because Maria Mitchell deserves to have her name more widely known. HER EYES ON THE STARS: Maria Mitchell, Astronomer is written by the impressive and award-winning author, Laurie Wallmark, with powerful illustrations by Liz Wong. Wallmark has written both nonfiction and fiction titles, some of which I've reviewed here, here, and here. She is widely recognized for her focus on WOMEN IN STEM

In this important work, Wallmark again writes a story that engages readers with well-researched content, beginning with a scene of young Maria spending moonless nights on the rooftop of her home with her father, exploring the starry skies through his telescope. Tracking and making sense of those skies and patterns, safely viewing eclipses, watching the repeated patterns of the waxing and waning moon combined with nightly star-studies fill her with knowledge and questions.

I especially loved the description of an event revealing how knowledgeable she was though very young. She calibrated a whaler-captain's maritime chronometer-- an essential navigation tool --because his urgent request was made while her father was away. Maria's lifelong understanding of mathematics and astronomical instruments allowed her to provide the necessary answers, despite the captain's doubts of her ability at only thirteen years old. This was also despite Maria's birth into the early years of the nineteenth century, when girls and women were often considered uneducable, or at least not worthy of work beyond domestic shores. She lived a life that included a scientific father who believed his daughter had a brain, and in circumstances that allowed her to use that privilege and blessing to continue to examine the night skies with the attention and consistency of a dedicated scientist. 

This was an accomplishment of note, but the event that marked her for history was her identification of an as-yet unknown comet on October 1, 1847. She knew that her discovery should be reported officially, immediately, because others might also have noted the comet's appearance and location. When the esteemed official bodies of scientists made their final rulings, Maria was found to be the first woman ever to have identified a previously unknown comet. That marked her as a success, of sorts, within the astronomical community, but it was barely a halfway point in her long life and career as a scientist and studier of the night skies.

The back matter is (as always with Wallmark's nonfiction books) a rich and readable resource for those who finish the account of Maria's life in the main text with a sense of awe. There are plenty of additional facts and resources (timeline, bibliography, author note) and each is provided in ways useful to young readers and to the adults who might share the book with them. In this case that is especially suited to the life story of a girl whose parent became her mentor and guide, supporter and admirer, as she piloted the night skies where no woman had gone before. At least not with such success. 

The illustrations merit attention not only for their evocative and appealing tones and color choices, but for the extensive information they offer without intruding on the story itself. From double page spreads to insets and spot illustrations the images clarify science details, expand on aspects of the surrounding history and culture of Maria's lifetime, while conveying a quiet reserve and deliberation that seem to be good descriptors of her approach to life. 

Don't miss this title. And don't miss any opportunity to spend time in the dark outdoors on a moonliess night to see what it was that inspired Maria Mitchell to such greatness!

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.