May 9, 2022

Curiosity and Creativity are PHANTASMAGORICAL!


KIdsCanPress, May, 2022
I'm so excited to help spread the news about author BETH ANDERSON'S latest picture book release, FRANZ'S PHANTASMAGORICAL MACHINE, brilliantly illustrated by Caroline Hamel. The title choice (PHANTASMAGORICAL) is one of those words kids love, combining parts of other happily exciting words, and that is a fine reflection of Franz and his mission. His early childhood  curiosity, intrepid tinkering, and innovative pursuit of both discarded materials and a glorious goal succeeded in inspiring and entertaining.

That, dear readers, is what his "world machine" was meant to do: Spark awe, curiosity, analysis, joy, and sheer amazement. And that is just what Anderson's and Hamel's production of this book has accomplished, too. 

Born in 1910 in rural Austria, Franz could have lived a valuable but conventional life, unnoticed by others beyond his village or lifetime. But Franz was a curious tinkerer and inventor, dismissed (and disapproved of) by others for his time-wasting, dilly-dallying, and what they believed was general foolishness. Depicted in a colorful and comic style, Franz is shown to fulfill his obligations (quitting school, helping on the family farm, and eventually taking over full management with his wife) but each spot illustration reinforces that "whisper" of imaginative inventiveness that Anderson so effectively reveals in the ear-friendly text. 

Kids will identify with this "daydreamy" drive to pursue their imaginations while adult readers might be predicting that, in the end, Franz will design a remarkable device that will make farm work easier, safer, faster, more economical, etc. After all, that's the American way, right? Franz came from a similar Europe-centric work ethic, right? And Franz was bred of hardy, productive stock, right? 

It's not a spoiler to suggest that kids will see the truth of Franz's purposes and lifelong effort more easily than will adults. There's plenty of village supporters for such an attitude, eager to see just what he labors on in his workshop without windows, wondering what he might produce. There are also surprises along that way that could easily steer him off his course. but does that sound like the Franz I've hinted at here? it certainly won't, once you begin reading about that persistent whisper, his repeated trips to dumps and other discard collection sites. He was a man of his times in making the most of used objects, but followed a diverging road when using them  in unexpected places, for unexplained purposes. 

Kids will note some small repeated images within his daydreaming, whispering thought bubbles, which will come in handy in the back matter challenges, including a hidden picture puzzle. The author note, Franz facts, resources, and more will captivate thinker-tinkerers and have kids begging for a trip to see the actual science/art sculpture that initially sparked Anderson to write and share this story. 

When my now-fully-adult nephew would assemble various blocks and other dimensional-semi-functional-but-for-what sculptures, they sometimes resembled recognizable structures but other times were simply something to "take in", to admire and appreciate, to examine closely. Names and purposes had no place in those inventive and individual results. Such was the case with Franz, with the eventual audience of his day, and with those who still visit and view the exhibit of his lifetime creation in Austria. Eyes pop. Jaws drop. Whispers race through brains.

Few references were available to Anderson. Certainly, no other picture books about Franz were available, and what she found for adults were almost exclusively written in German. Yet persevere she did. And Franz would have been proud of her, since her efforts were as creative, entertaining, and fascinating as the man himself. Imagination and tinkering and designs that are meant to inspire awe, entertain, and invite whispering curiosity are too few and far between, but well worth it to find them. 

Find this book, and encourage a kid you know to chase dreams and imagination and whispers.

I'm delighted to report that Beth has agreed to an interview here in a few weeks. in the meantime, celebrate someone's birthday, or a teacher, or thank a librarian by buying and gifting this book. If a little whisper urges you to read it before wrapping, don't ignore that inner voice!

May 3, 2022

IT'S ME, HENRY! Celebrating Your Passions

 I'm delighted to share a picture book that could well have appeared here a few days ago, during "Autism Awareness Month", April. The purpose of such a theme month, of course, is to increase understanding and respect for those who might be identified on the Autism spectrum. My general feeling about theme months is that they have a place in our tunnel-vision society, and yet they can too easily sort our awareness into short-term focus. I've gone on and on about that in various posts, beginning HERE. I actively chose to wait to share this book because it is such an appealing, engaging story and character. It should never be delegated to a particular topic or theme or month, but rather shared often for many purposes.


IT'S ME, HENRY! is written by Stephanie Deslauries, illustrated by Genevieve Depres, and translated by Charles Simard. 

In first person narrative, readers meet Henry in his natural habitat, school, where he annoys his friend-not friend Daisy by calling her the scientific name for daisy. Henry knows himself well, but struggles to understand the feelings and reactions of others, even when he can label them correctly. He knows she doesn't like it, but can't fathom why, or adjust his behavior out of empathy. When he shouts out answers (correct ones) it earns a reminder from the teacher and expressions on the faces of peers who seem... possibly impressed by how smart he is? At recess Henry happily settles under the willow tree, alone, connecting with the tree, the earth, and nature, his favorite subjects. 

When older boys tease him, he cries at being misunderstood. (Adults will recognize the irony of pain at being misunderstood in a child who misunderstands others, too, and might hurt them as a result.) Henry is shown to have a trusted adult, the counselor, and scene after scene wrapping him with flora and greenery, which also provide Henry comfort and safety. In effective daily-life scenes, readers learn about worries (and obsessions) that are displayed by some on the spectrum, but by many others as well: Yucky broccoli must NOT touch favorite nuggets on his plate.

Henry's favorite place on the planet is the garden where the end-of-year field trip takes place. Invited by his teacher to help lead the tour, Henry notices her cues for when and how to offer added facts, or even present the entire content at various locations. His enthusiasm and engaging discussions allow Daisy to connect, choosing Henry as a partner near the conclusion. 

Praise from the teacher, applause form his classmates, and the feeling of solid ground beneath his feet, metaphorically, allow Henry to celebrate the day, to accept and appreciate himself. To finally feel understood. The author's choice to allow the story to unfold in Henry's voice was challenging, yet she captured the confusion and conviction of Henry. By presenting various patterns within an organic story, readers will recognize entirely typical feelings of any child in wanting to have a friend, to be accepted, and to enjoy the moments of a day without fear or worry. The other characters are realistically portrayed, too, reacting as many do, lacking a perspective on the frame of mind from which Henry is approaching them.

The illustrator very effectively leaned into the floral and greenery backgrounds on every page. She achieved a subtle, soothing, but colorful comfort zone for Henry. The effect is a blend of simple-lined elements with impressionistic aspects.

There are unlimited discussion points in this story, for anyone looking for stories with individuals on the autism spectrum and the patterns that are typical of most of the neurotypical population as well. But this story also offers plenty of opportunities to discuss friendships, diversity, bullying, and kindness. Any classroom working on studies of plants will want to add this to a collection of related picture books, too.

Candlewick, 2002

Pair this with a classic from author Paul Fleischman, illustrated by Kevin Hawkes, WESLANDIA. This story reveals an older boy, middle grade perhaps, who also loves and understands plants, knows himself well, and finds that peers and parents consider him to be weird, at best. The text and visual narratives are glorious and powerful, with a delightful twist that will have readers cheering for Wes and also taking strength from celebrating their own passions.  Give them both a try.

May 1, 2022

SOUP? Try LENTIL SOUP by Carole Tremblay and Marieen Poignonec

Here in Wisconsin it's the first day of May, but the weather has been stubbornly cold, blustery, and not at all spring-like. That's frustrating, but not entirely surprising. When the sun shines through on a cold, windy day, I can feel spring nudging its way around the corner. But when cloudy and overcast conditions persist for days on end, I need to cook up a pot of soup. 

ORCA BOOKS, Canada, 2022

I plan to have the ingredients for LENTIL SOUP on hand the next time that happens. Those ingredients are not only tasty and healthy, they are cleverly comic in a recent picture book. Every day veggies are brought to memorable life in the conversation between young mouse Buddy and his increasingly exasperated mother. LENTIL SOUP is written by Carole Tremblay and illustrated by Maureen Poignonec

The endpapers reveal an array of bite-sized veggies with cheeky expressions in their google eyes, eyes that are similar to the wide-eyed pair who tell the entire story in speech bubbles with delicately-lined and softly colored images related to each exchange. 

When mother serves up steaming hot soup, the young one declares it too hot to eat. Then, an exchange of questions/answers ensues, with Buddy questioning every ingredient, starting with those lentils. Mother responds with answers posed as four multiple choice options, three of which are laughably absurd. The actual answer is informative, to Buddy and to readers, leading to the next, then the next, then the next. As Buddy recognizes his mother's progressive impatience, he offers optional answers to his own questions. Mom takes the bait and supplies the correct response, right down to the herbs. 

By that time the soup is too cold (kids will love predicting that) and needs to return to the pot to heat up. The humor throughout is light and delightful, while providing a template for young readers to define or explain other fruits or vegetables (or other things) using the four-options approach and simple drawings of their thoughts. Imaginations will run wild!

The concluding two pages are deliciously tongue-in-cheek, and cheeky, making Buddy an unforgettable character. I'm wondering if he and his mother may appear in a future story? There's a bonus at the end- Mother's recipe for lentil soup! Can you nominate some other recipe that deserves thorough examination through the eyes of Buddy and company?

When it comes to fictional books with factual ingredients, this one is a gem. Kids will adore the interaction in this deftly-depicted child-parent relationship that suggests amusement, affection, and humor-bordering-on-annoyance. 

Pull up a hot bowl of soup and this book for a heartwarming experience. While you're at it, hold warm thoughts for a change to spring weather, please!

Apr 20, 2022

Basketball Champions- NBA and a TALL TALE!

 As we enter the NBA championship season, I enjoy bragging about our Milwaukee Bucks. This has been "my city" since BEFORE we had an NBA team. Then, with combinations of great coaching (Larry Costello), player-leaders (Lew Alcindor/Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Oscar Robertson), and team effort, this newbie team won the whole shebang, the NBA championship in 1971. Despite some strong years in between, including memorable players and teams, it was exactly fifty years later, in 2021, that the Bucks (Fear the Deer!) won the whole dang thing again for the second time. Led by MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo, it was teamwork and spirit that turned them around after losing early games in the final round. 

What does all that have to do with picture books? Well, Milwaukee's history with basketball runs deep, players do best when they have big hearts that match their outsized talents, and winning matters, but it isn't everything. A picture book that can convey the value and story of such things will win hearts, too. And one way to hook readers is to find books that match their interests. I shared winning picture books that capture the action, spirit, and edge-of-the-seat- excitement of  basketball and championships HERE. Some of the most popular picture book biographies feature stars of the NBA, past and present. 

Charly Palmer has created stunningly powerful art, but this is his debut as a picture book author. He takes on a similarly inspiring and engaging picture book that takes a sidestep from these others in several ways. First, his focus is not NBA or even NCAA players, teams, and championships. Instead, his story was inspired by the amazingly talented and big-hearted street-ball stars who never made it to the NBA. He chose a slightly fictionalized account of a team, a rivalry, and a character-compilation to celebrate in a legendary way. 

Farrar Straus Giroux, 2022

Palmer delivers a winning account of GRAVITY, one of several remarkably talented teammates. It will win over readers of many ages and interests. His helpful author's note at the back includes the specific names of truly memorable players from city lots and local teams across the years. Among them are two dedications: One to Richard "Deep Water" Brown, and the other to Milwaukee's own Albert "Spoony" Hall, who, like most of the others, never made the "big time" teams but were so unforgettable that their stories of greatness deserve the term legendary. Players like these, past and present, inspired THE LEGEND OF GRAVITY: A TALL Basketball Tale. 

Using a storyteller's voice that feels right at home among the colorful, impressionistic urban center of Milwaukee, the narrator addresses young admirers of "King James" Le Bron  and other deeply talented, lauded, and compensated hoop stars. That opening concedes they are "not too shabby", followed by the familiar phrase, 

"But have you ever heard of ..." 

And so begins the TALL tale of GRAVITY. The narrator spins a colorful, lively description of a sunny June street ball game among talented friends with trait-revealing nicknames: Sky High, Left 2 Right, and Liquid (smooth with the ball and with his words). A single pass and play reveals that his knobby-kneed, lanky, and low-key approach disguises phenomenal ball skills. but he did not have a street name of his own. A terrific double spread reveals that the narrator was a team member, and she tags the new kid GRAVITY, because he goes up like he's never coming down, like he has redefined GRAVITY.

This already-good team is now unstoppable, heading toward a championship. Teams used housing project courts, rode city busses to other neighborhoods to compete, headed into summer's end with confidence. Best of the Best Milwaukee Basketball Tournament" was theirs to win, and time spent on strategy always relied on GRAVITY. In a single weekend they defeated team after team as his legend grew. When  the final game approached, the perennial winners, the FLYERS, devoted themselves to keeping GRAVITY down. That's when the power of leadership and spirit proved themselves to be legendary, too. 

I won't spoil your reading with an ending, or even reveal the pages leading up to that final buzzer. I will say that I'm convinced I'd love this and recommend it even if it wasn't set in Milwaukee, my longtime hometown. The swaths of colorful scenes, dynamic perspectives, impressionistic but effective expressions, and action postures, stances, and moves make this a power house picture book, one that will stay with you. It offers (without overdoing it) an authentic  look at the importance of individual skills and talents, of teamwork, of believing in yourself, and of excellence regardless of outcome. For each NBA player (even those often traded or benched) there are, literally, hundreds of thousands of kids playing B-Ball on city playgrounds, at the Y, in schools and clubs who will never know and who will never be drafted by an NBA team. Even so, among them are many who will be remembered, whose names will remain legendary. 

Meanwhile, GOOD LUCK, BUCKS!

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.