Picture books — gotta love them for how they can entertain children while at the same time broadening their knowledge of the world, helping them make sense of it and presenting messages that will help them to become critical thinkers. Because that’s what learning is all about, isn’t it? Reading, gaining knowledge, and improving our thinking. Reading with children and inspiring them to become life-long readers is a way to ensure that they will also be life-time learners. These picture books are very entertaining, but they are also filled with messages that adults might point out to the children gently, to help them learn to look for messages in all the books they read.
Perhaps my favorite, simply because it’s a book that I have read and reread and love as much each time I read it as I did the first time, is “Gladys the Magic Chicken” by Adam Rubin and Adam Rex. The text and the illustrations are incredibly clever and unique. From the first page, you know this is going to be a special story. “This all happened a long, long, long, long, looong time ago. Three thousand years before your grandma’s grandma’s grandma was born. We call it Ancient Times. And in Ancient Times, they talked like this: ‘Lo and behold how this chicken doth dance after feasting.'” And thus begins the story of Gladys the dancing chicken, who unwittingly convinces everyone that she can grant wishes. From the gawky sheepherder who sees himself in a pool of water and wishes to be handsome, to the thief who wishes to go to the ruler’s castle, all those wishes come true. But is it Gladys? Or is it fate? Coincidence? You (and the children you are reading it to) be the judge. Along the way, you will love the humor as the narrator, speaking to us directly, comments on the action. This is sure to be one of those picture books that kids want to read over and over and over again. And you know what? You won’t mind a bit! (G.P. Putnam’s Sons Books for Young Readers)
“Beautifully Me” by Nabela Noor and Nabi H. Ali is a well-told story about diversity and accepting ourselves for who we are. Nabela Noor is known for her social media platforms and her message of self love. And she remains true to that message in this lovely story of a young Bangladeshi girl who, on her first day of school, begins to notice that her family and the other students seem obsessed with weight and not being fat. Zubi, the adorable round little girl, begins her morning excited to be in school, but by the end of the day, she decides that she shouldn’t eat dinner because she needs to be on a diet. Her family realizes their mistake and they talk about beauty. Her mother tells her that “beauty is how you make people feel and the kind things you do.” She goes on to assure Zubi that beautiful people are happy with who they are and they make others feel beautiful, too. And that’s a wonderful message to share. Zubi’s mother wears a hijab, and one of Zubi’s classmates, Alix, is referred to by the gender-neutral pronoun, “their.” In all, this is a picture book that reflects a great deal of diversity in a manner that is understated and natural. Teachers and librarians will want to make sure this is a part of their collection. (Simon & Schuster)
The next two picture books share a theme. They are about misunderstandings. In “Hamsters Make Terrible Roommates,” author Cheryl B. Klein presents a very unhappy hamster. Henry lives with another hamster, Marvin, and Henry is one miserable hamster. For over two hundred days (Henry’s been counting), Marvin has been chattering and yammering and talking nonstop day in and day out. Henry doesn’t get a moment’s peace. Henry hides in the tunnels and under the bedding, but Marvin finds him. Finally, Henry snaps. What happens and what we learn about opening up and talking about problems is something kids need to learn. Doubling down on this idea by having a discussion about the importance of dialogue would really help make this concept stick. This cute book with adorable illustrations shows the crucial role picture books can play in teaching important ideas to young kids. (Dial Books for Young Readers)
Another book about empathy and understanding is “Stretchy and Beanie” by Judy Schachner. Fans of Stretchy and Beanie are familiar with the plucky ginger cat and his best friend, Beanie. Stretchy and his family have been adopted by Beanie and her family, and Stretchy and Beanie do everything together. Both are content until Beanie decides that Stretchy needs to be a perfect pet. She decides that the way to accomplish that end is with lessons: math, music, dance and art. And we see what happens through the clever illustrations and text, “Stretchy did not like his lessons, did not want to dance. He’d rather eat a cantaloupe than wear those fancy pants.” Although Beanie loves Stretchy as much as anyone could love a cat, Stretchy finally can’t take “the other stuff.” He isn’t keen on becoming the perfect pet and runs away. Beanie learns an important lesson, and kids will learn about unrealistic expectations and the value of patience, love and kindness. (Dial Books for Young Readers)
The book “21 Cousins” and its Spanish counterpart “21 Primos” are perfect choices for the bilingual or dual language classroom. “21 Primos” and “21 Cousins” are both written by Diane de Anda and illustrated by Isabel Muñoz. The book (in either language!) will fascinate young kids as they see the huge variety of colors of skin, hair, and interests that exist in one family. It begins by explaining that the mother and father each have three siblings, so altogether there are 21 cousins. The family is mestizo because they share “a mixture of the different people and cultures in Mexico: Indian, Spanish, French, and others.” In spite of their differences, they are a family. So while Enrique has dark skin and loves to run, Elena is light skinned and wants to be a teacher. Along the way we learn some Spanish nicknames like Güera (who has light skin), Pelón (a baby who is bald), and a petite cousin with an English nickname, Teenie. There is plenty of diversity, including a cousin who is in special ed. When I used this with my dual language class, I read it in Spanish. I found the vocabulary robust; there were words that I didn’t know. These books would be great choices for using in the classroom when teaching adjectives. My students liked the book a lot. (Star Bright Books)
Bilingual books like “Isabel and Her COLORES Go to School” by Alexandra Alessandri and Courtney Dawson are accessible to children who speak English or Spanish. In fact, the book is about Isabel, who doesn’t speak much English and is starting at a school where English is spoken. She is scared that she won’t understand what is being said. The writing is lovely and filled with metaphor. “Her heart pitter-pattered like a summer’s rain.” Isabel thinks in terms of colors, and sounds remind her of her mothers coffee, or a night-sky blue, sunrise-orange. When the language barrier becomes a barrier to making a friend, Isabel finds that art, and her much beloved colores, can help bridge the gap. A teacher could read this in English, Spanish, or both. I can’t think of a better book to read when a new student joins the classroom. Even though a new student might speak English, it would open a discussion about how any new student might feel and what the other students can do to make the new student welcome. This is definitely a fine choice for classroom and school libraries. (Sleeping Bear Press)
Another book about language barriers — albeit a quite different kind of language barrier — is “How to Talk Monster” written by Lynn Plourde and illustrated by Mike Lowery. This is the story of a boy and a monster, and Lowery’s clever and engaging illustrations are done in a graphic novel style that works well to tell the story. We see the boy reading a book about monsters, but it scares him and he throws it away. He sees a monster in his window and calls for his parents. They reassure him that there’s no monster and even put up a sign outside that says “No Monsters Allowed.” But could it be that monsters can’t read English? The monster speaks monster, the boy speaks English. But there is a universal language: kindness. And when one is injured, compassion wins over. And a friendship is made. (G.P. Putnam’s Sons)
What can I say about “Wood Could” except that it’s absolutely adorable and would (not wood) be an excellent choice for classroom use. Tiffany Stone’s clever text is matched by Mike Lowery’s (yes, he’s been busy) bright illustrations with big bold text bubbles. The puns about wood never end. No matter what the adventurous girl thinks the stump could be, the stump refuses to play along. So when she needs a bridge, the text says, “Wood could be a bridge. But…why branch out?” Similarly, wood could be a ship, or a ladder, but why bother? And with puns galore, the stump refuses to play. But in the end, when the girl really needs help, will wood step up and save the day? I would use this book with young readers and have them find the “woody” words that sprinkle each page. For older readers, I would have them use this book as a model so they can create their own pun-filled picture book. It’s delightful. ( Dial Books for Young Readers)
Please note: These reviews are based on the final, hardcover books provided by the publishers for review purposes.