Jul 2, 2022



The premise on which I launched this blog more than a decade ago is that picture books are for every age and should NEVER be considered just a "stage" that children move through and leave behind once they can read chapter books, even early ones. (I won't elaborate or link my thoughts on that, but if you are new to this blog, scroll down my archives and read a few posts from the earliest days of posting in which I actively present my point of view.) 

I have reviewed here many of the picture books by talented Pat Zietlow Miller, but not her New York Times best-selling BE KIND (Illustrated by Jen HIll)I love it and keep a stock of copies on hand to use as gifts, but readers were obviously finding it without  needing a boost from me. In it, Miller's kind-hearted main character struggles with the central question: "What does it mean to be kind?". The age of the characters, with a layered plot and interactions, make that book an excellent choice for sharing  and discussion with individuals and groups who are school age (and older!).

Frances Lincoln Children's Books, July 2022

That's why I'm excited to celebrate a new picture book by the equally talented and prolific Janet Halfmann, HOW CAN WE BE KIND? Wisdom from the Animal Kingdom.
 Her title question explores the same premise, but frames nonfiction text with animal groups as examples of ways that little ones can recognize in their own lives and those of their families and communities. Illustrated by talented Darla Okada,  this text incorporates global animal groups as examples of instinctive behaviors that increase the survival and comfort and FUN of living in groups and communities. While a few of the samples will be familiar to North American audiences, most will be new to little viewers (and their adult readers!), yet they subtly expand our awareness that caring for others, benefitting from companionship, support and security, is a universal and natural way to live. 

It is also a delight for those audiences who are still lap-sized, with no personal connection to the school scenes and situations in which the Miller's story unfolds. That's a fine way to reveal that academic world in a gentle and comfortable way while revealing that answers don't all come from walking through school doors or through direct instruction while seated at a desk. Some of the most important life lessons are learned through respectful interactions with others.

What I celebrate in this new offering  is the language and format of Halfmann's latest, both  perfectly suited to the littlest eyes, ears, and experiences. The opening spread frames the question with human faces of many ages and ethnicities/identities, visually confirming that people of every kind can find ways to answer this seemingly simple question in the following pages.  Double page spreads reveal that question with images of a particular species demonstrating caring behaviors, followed by more double-page-spreads with  different species before returning to that central question. Each turn provides the name of the animals shown within the natural text of the questions and responses, framed as "We can __________ like ________". Those things /ways we can be kind are accessible and natural in everyday life, offering even the youngest toddlers an opportunity to consciously choose to "be kind" as the ubiquitous mantra extols us to be. The things we can learn include looking after each other, sharing, making others feel welcome, working as teams, putting others first, and even making others laugh! The animal examples include globally familiar creatures like ants and bees, but also European badgers, capybaras, European jackdaws, and more. 

I was especially a fan of the animal choices, to expand the underlying universality of the messages which is direct but not didactic, and also because the choices of species are visually similar to other animal "relatives" from around the world, keeping the examples very relatable yet inspiring curiosity about "new" discoveries. Halfmann, as always, does reliable research and found a way to answer some initial questions in user-friendly back matter. Small inset illustrations of each animal is accompanied by a short passage describing the actual species patterns depicted. Care was given to assure that these sometimes big-eyed critters reveal, in colorful, natural ,cartoon-styled art, the actual look and behavior of the animals in GROUPS, with no exaggerated humanizing by walking on hind legs when that is not the nature of the animal, etc. By the way, I recently reviewed a CAPYBARA picture book which made a fan of me, and would be a great companion title for readers captivated by less familiar animals. 

The text and images combine with small-hand-friendly trim size to make this a direct and delightful nonfiction favorite among the youngest set, but one that has potential for becoming an individual's memorable treasure, or to spark eager exploration of animals and their behaviors. Even in a single read, it will generate a deep-seated sense of how to be KIND. Always. Every day. The text and presentation also makes this an ideal candidate for translation in many languages, which has happened for many of Halfmann's prior titles.

In a recent post I mentioned an older picture book by author Janet Halfmann, GOOD NIGHT LITTLE SEA OTTER. Halfmann's appreciation of nature and environment are relflected in these titles and in many others for this target age. A lifetime of writing has honed her skills in writing and directing the curious content she discovers toward the developmental interests at various ages and for the purpose of the book, especially for these youngest audiences. In the case of How Can We Be Kind? , as with WHO IS SINGING? (previously reviewed HERE) she demonstrates mastery of producing well-researched and appealing nonfiction content in delightfully age-appropriate non-fiction picture books that are lovable in themselves but also spark interest in learning more and exploring the natural world. If any of these books appeal to you, visit Halfmann's website, HERE, to learn more about her current and past titles, and to follow what's coming next.

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