Dec 1, 2022

Hanukkah Winners and Activities!

 I'm welcoming in December with two picture books (one a board book) celebrating Hannukkah (no matter how you spell it!). Sunday, December 18, marks the first night of lights for 2022, and the concluding night is December 26. This movable feast is not considered a major holiday within Jewish traditions and yet it is perhaps the best known among those who are not Jewish. 


A delightfully illuminating board book about the holiday is HANUKKAH NIGHTS, written and illustrated by Amalia Hoffman. Each page turn lights yet another candle until all eight (and the server candle) are glowing by the conclusion. The unique things about this new offering is that it is so kid-friendly and also an inspiring book about exploring artistic expression for even the youngest. 

Each spread features two rhymed lines, while revealing another candle, lit in a different colored flame, produced by a different (simply produced) art technique. One principle of Hanukkah gifts is the value of simplicity and handmade gifts presented each day. Craft and art play a central role in the family and community sharing throughout the days and nights and gatherings. I wanted to share this book well in advance to be sure you have time to get your hands on a copy of the book and the materials suggested. 

 Yes, you should search out this book for young folks, whether Jewish or not, but also collect and prepare the simple, inexpensive materials that are demonstrated within the text, in the enlarged art example, and in the concluding "how to" spread. Children (and adults!) of any background will be enthused about exploring these techniques, especially if black background paper is provided among their supplies. (Thank you to Kar-Ben for a preview pdf file without a promise of reveiw.)

Interior: Hanukkah Nights (Kar-Ben, 2022)
Interior: Hanukkah Nights (Kar-Ben, 2022)

Interior:  (Kar-Ben, 2022)

Kalaniot Books, 2022

In addition to this inspiring and fun little offering, check out a lively and lighthearted picture book story, MENDEL'S HANUKKAH MESS UP, written by Chana and Larry Stiefel and illustrated by Daphna Awadish. Storytelling, music, humor, faith, and trust are essential elements in Hanukkah traditions, within celebrations and in the origin story that is honored. When Mendel is invited by his rabbi to drive the Mitzvah Mobile through the neighborhood to spread the good word of celebrations among his neighbors, all of the above are involved in a surprising and "miraculous" contemporary series of events. 

This will please readers of any background and will find eager audiences among those who have been defined as (or defined themselves as) "mess-up" kids.
Don't miss it.

And whatever you celebrate at this time of year, invite books of all kinds into your lives and share them with the lives of your own young audiences.

Nov 20, 2022

Horse-lovers Alert: JUBILEE Awaits You!

 Here's a non-fiction picture book that reads like a novel, and ticks all the boxes for a potential film. Even more compelling is the fact that it is entirely true and involves a woman who broke new ground for gender-neutral sports competition. This title is heartwarming, inspiring, and amazing.


JUBILEE: The First Therapy Horse and an Olympic Dream is written by KT Johnston and illustrated by Anabella Ortiz. Lis Hartel grew up in Denmark with horses for playmates, learning early to manage a pony cart and even to jump horses. In both 1943 and1944 she was  national champion in dressage (exhibition horse-riding) for Denmark. 

Later in 1944, while a young married woman with children, she contracted polio and was immobilized, bedridden, told she would never ride again. Doctors predicted her highest goal should be to walk again with braces and possibly crutches.

Lis was not one to give up without a fight. She gradually developed control of her arms, exercising painfully but also in ways that involved her child as they learned to crawl together. The point is never made explicitly, but hers was a family with the means to employ help for her family and for her recovery efforts. 

When she had recovered some degree of stability (sitting up, but with limited use of hands, feet, legs), she insisted that she be placed on the back of her beloved champion horse, Gigolo.Then she was told that her horse had a leg injury and could not provide a steady ride. Instead, her husband suggested a (supported) ride on a young mare, Jubilee, who was was not built like a show horse but was very gentle and calm, with a long straight back to give a stable seat for Lis's poor balance.

Without trevealing everything that Lis accomplished, she did, indeed, overcome the prediction of never riding again. Please note that the story has just begun. With illustrations that reveal the world of formal horse training and care, artfully placed on tall white pages that make each step feel even more dramatic, Lis and Jubilee grew together in strength, skill, confidence, and communication. I'm not about to provide spoilers, but keep that subtitle in mind while noting that neither Lis nor Jubilee were quitters. Included among their impressive eventual accomplishments is the launching of the first horse-riding therapy program, which blossomed into global efforts. These have become so successful that there is likely one in your own community.

I've had horses as neighbors, but never had the opportunity to ride routinely. I always enjoy simply being in the company of horses. They are a natural draw for most young people I have known. This story certainly taps into that appeal, and also invites the attention of sports fans, Olympic strivers, female-equity sports enthusiasts, those who recognize disabilities as invitations to adaptation rather than limits, and anyone with an interest in service organizations. Despite that long list of "hooks", the strongest appeal, to me, is the well-crafted story in words and illustrations that rein in the raw events and details of an important person's life to deliver a powerful conclusion. There is nothing maudlin or pitying in this portrait. In fact, it is a joyful account of finding a way forward and  never giving up.

Highly recommended.

Nov 11, 2022

Meet WOMBAT, My New Best Friend!

 Think about the wombats you've met. 

What, you've never met a wombat? 

Truth be told, the only ones I've "met" have been in the pages of picture books and nonfiction books for young readers. There are some remarkable wombats in those pages, and I consider several of them "friends". 


But then I got my hands on the very recent picture book release, WOMBAT SAID COME IN, written by the incredibly talented Carmen Agra Deedy and illustrated by the visual-narrative master storyteller Brian Lies.

Regular readers may notice that this is NOT nonfiction, which I've been immersed in since October as a Cybils Awards panelist in that category. I considered saving this post until late December when that process ends. 


Once. Twice. A half dozen times. 

I read the story first, noticing its serious subject matter  (an Australian wildfire forces animals to seek refuge). There's certainly nonfiction truth in that situation, truth that's likely (sadly) to occur again many times in the future. 

I read for craft next, a delightful narrative that uses prose storytelling with a rhyming refrain throughout. I was quickly chiming in at each repetition of the irresistible lines, as any young audiences will no doubt do. That includes reading the refrain with nuanced tone and attitude as the story progresses.

 That emotional nuance was my next focus in reading. These are anthropomorphized animal characters, Australian critters whose voices and patterns reflect their zoological and habitat realities. Each, though, (wombat, of course, and wallaby, kookaburra, platypus, koala, and sugar glider) reveals personality and behaviors that provide layers of humor and tension. Their behaviors and conversations  also reflect deeply universal feelings, responses, and complexities within families and friendships, ones that apply far beyond these specific animals and this situation. 

Finally I read the text once more, trying (unsuccessfully) to block out the remarkable illustrations that offer a complementary visual narrative that expands, enriches, and informs readers of the heart and the facts of this story. Eventually I resorted to typing the text and reading it separately for a last admiring look at how wonderfully it is written. 

Then, I dove deeply into the illustrations multiple times. In readings above I allowed the color tones, expressive faces, rich scenes, and lively actions to enhance the story as told by text. It was time to examine each page and spread closely, noting the choice and placement of the perfectly suited details to draw the audiences into the underground Australian life of WOMBAT. From the cover (look at that cover again, please!) anyone will recognize the artistic talent, skill. and affection Lies has for animal characters. Fans of his BATS books, MORE, and THE ROUGH PATCH will be pleased to meet this new collection of animal friends. 

Wombat's glance over his shoulder at his front door invites the reader to come right in to the story. End papers deserve more than a glance, opening with various paw/claw prints approaching Wombats welcome mat. The closing end papers suggest those same tracks walking away from the welcome mat, a gloriously subtle open and close to this story. A slightly ominous eye peeking out from a postal slot is followed by an inset image of a steaming mug (etched with an Australian bottle tree?) and a plate of cookies on the copyright page. There, a dedication from Deedy honors those who welcome refugees while the dedication from Lies celebrates friends who are masters of hospitality. The opening double spread after the title page reveals wombat in his comfortably decorated and maintained underground home, mug and plate in hand: A cozy light, bookcase, and furniture reassure us that the scorched and barren earth above ground is troubling, but not a threat to him. 

Before that page turns, a cry for help is heard, and wombat finds wallaby at his door, begging for refuge. Use your imagination for now to picture additional critters seeking aid from a friend, met each time by "Wombat said, "Come in!" then a rhymed refrain. Along the way the visual details are irresistible, including a cassowary (native bird) tea cozy, an Adelaide mug, a comfy chair with structural elements reminiscent of the Sydney Harbor Bridge, outback and fancy dress hats, and assorted Aussie-labeled open food containers. Wombat's country-style clothing suit him to a tee, though the portrait on his wall suggests he comes from more formal ancestry. 

These are only a few of the mindfully chosen, artfully rendered, and carefully situated details within the story that suggest Wombat's diminishing patience but bottomless wealth of goodwill and welcome, despite the many strains his "guests" impose. Every well-constructed story needs a satisfying conclusion, often followed by a bit of a surprise or twist. This new picture book provides those generously, in text and images. I won't spoil your reading with more than I've already provided, but you will ruin my day entirely if I've failed to get you to click a library hold or make a purchase to read and share this book.

Now I return to my nonfiction reading and assessments, but I intend to keep this book at hand for at least a few more weeks. Each time I crack the covers, or even glance at the front or back views, I smile and want to peruse it again. Wombat represents to me the better part of our nature, and certainly the aspects of my own nature that I need to nurture and practice more consistently. Welcoming those in need to share what we have, to recognize myself in their need, allows me to imagine myself having Wombat's heart. That's a goal worthy of my attention and effort. Yours, too?

Nov 7, 2022


 Have you heard of 'rewilding"? This is an organized effort to restore wildlife to an area or habit where they belong. When I first heard/read about the dramatically successful program to restore wolves to Yellowstone National Park my first thought (after gratitude) was that this needs to be a picture book. I was not alone with that thought, obviously, and this book is a worthy representation of the remarkable wolves, the program, and the significant impact the wolves have had on restoring THE PARK ITSELF and its other native species to a more sustainable (and original) environmental balance.

With straightforward text that is readable and speaks clearly about every step in the process, the text and the illustrations reveal the imbalances that developed in this particular national park after wolves were eliminated there. Early pages reveal the complex teams and intricate teamwork needed to safely transport and successfully adapt Canadian wolves to the park. The wolves were each tagged and monitored, their movements and actions recorded, analyzed, and reported. 

There are equally informative and fascinating details about the wolves' adjustments over time, including how individual and entire packs adapted and expanded. They were not artificially confined to the park . Efforts were made to inform nearby stock owners about the value of the wolves natural lives within the park, but some were killed once they crossed those lines. Despite that, their successful existence  and expansion generated changes in the park's deer and other herds, in beaver activity, and in other significant aspects of wildlife. The combination of those shifts eventually reshaped rivers, repopulated some species and reduced other overgrown herds, and helping to restore the park ecosystem to the patterns of nature.Such an intricate process over long spans of time are not easily explored in a picture book, m and yet this creative pair accomplished it  with grace and accuracy.

This is an outstanding (and appealing) picture book for a wide range of readers, including some young audiences who will engage with the  artfully crafted text content and images even if not yet able to read for themselves.

For more examples and details about this process in many settings and species, check out a more advanced picture book: REWILDING: Bringing Wildlife Back Where It Belongs by David A Steen and illustrated by Chiara Fedele.
Steen is a herpetologist and it shows in this expensive view of the rewilding process across all animal kingdoms and global habitats. I recommend this for established readers who care about the EARTH.  In fact, for those who don't express interest or concern, these two titles might be just the ticket to a new and invested attitude.
Both are among the CYBILS NONFICTION AWARD nominees for 2022. Check out these and other nominees in the extensive list 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.