Three picture books that will make kids laugh…and think

It’s difficult to say when children outgrow picture books. Educator and book expert Colby Sharp reads picture books daily to his fifth grade students. My fourth graders loved hearing and discussing picture books this past year. Often, picture books are aimed at older readers, but even those for younger readers can have important messages to impart and ponder. Here are three picture books which are adorable on the surface but also thoughtful and worthy of discussion.

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Picture books and beginning chapter books: Biographies about important people and events

Reading biographies about important people—those who live near and far—is crucial for young minds to learn that at heart, we are all alike, and also to learn about people whose actions can inspire the rest of us to be better and think about how our actions can affect others.

Some American heroes include Dr. Fauci, the physician and scientist who led the fight against COVID-19 during the pandemic; Shirley Chisholm, the first Black woman in Congress; and Hallie Morse Daggett, the first female fire guard in the US. All of these people serve as inspiration to others to fight for what they believe in as well as to help others. There are also quiet heroes, people whose names aren’t familiar in most households. Frieda Caplan was a woman who changed the way we eat, and Nicholas WInton saved the lives of children in the Holocaust. These people, and others, are featured in these children’s books which should all be considered for classroom and library shelves.

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Three feel-good picture books

One of the reasons to read picture books is to teach children about emotions and feelings. These three picture books are wonderful stories that will help start conversations about feelings and children’s feelings of self-worth. One of the books is about how pleasant it is to read with another person — or cat, as the case many be — so it’s not a solitary activity. The illustrations are very different in each book, but each interesting and well-suited for the stories.

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Picture books with memorable animals

Kids and animals go together like peanut butter and jelly. Books with animals naturally interest children, and these five picture books include a range of funny, interesting, and just plain curious animals who will fascinate young readers. From an inquisitive owl to an angry bear, a grandmotherly wolf to a white peacock, the range and the humor in these stories will encourage not only good discussion but also a bit of laughter.

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Three important nonfiction picture books teach about wildlife and conservation

Nonfiction picture books for children are an essential way of emphasizing the importance of reading informational text to learn about the world around us. Most children are fascinated by animals and the environment they see every time they venture outdoors, whether it’s a city environment, like the cougar encounters in “Cougar Crossing: How Hollywood’s Celebrity Cougar Helped Build a Bridge for City Wildlife” or a coastal environment such as those in “Chase the Moon, Tiny Turtle” and “Beneath the Waves.” These three picture books span a wide reader audience from the simply rhyming story of turtles hatching and trying to reach the sea to the much more complex National Geographic Kids book about myriad creatures who live on, under, and near the ocean. Continue reading

‘Champ and Major: First Dogs’ by Joy McCullough is a celebration of the most important new White House occupants — the dogs!

Champ and Major: First Dogs

Let’s face it. While Joe and Jill Biden are fabulous new occupants of the White House, the new residents that are exciting the hearts and minds of animal lovers across the world are their two dogs: Champ and Major. Major is especially a celebration in light of the fact that he was a shelter dog that the Bidens fostered, then adopted before moving into the White House. A new picture book, “Champ and Major: First Dogs” by Joy McCullough and illustrated by Sheyda Abvabi Best celebrates these two four-legged Biden family members.

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Black history comes alive with these 4 children’s nonfiction books

Black lives and books for Black History Month and every month

It’s February, and that means there are amazing new children’s books that are perfect for every month of the year, not just February, and which celebrate Black activists and Black heroes. Some you might already have read about, but some of these fascinating and important historical figures might be newly revealed to you through these worthwhile reads.

“Have I Ever Told You Black Lives Matter” is by Shani Mahiri King and Bobby C. Martin, Jr. and is a unique book. Its presentation is brilliant — in terms of color and layout. The cover of the book is the first hint that this book will be filled with colorful graphics and lots of positivity. You actually have to look at it a few times to see the order of the words. And words make up this book from the endpapers that are filled with the names of famous Black people with barely a space between, to the introductory letter from the author about why he wrote this book, to the pages filled with questions like, “Have I told you that we were among the 1st patriots to lay down our lives for the dream of an American independence and that a Black man named Crispus was the very first person to die for that dream?” One side of the page is filled with purple lettering on a teal background and the other side, with a stylized image of Attucks, features purple lettering on an orange background. The key is following the colors of the text to see what goes together. For example, on the page asking (telling) in purple letters that “we have long been world-acclaimed poets and authors,” there are names next to those purple letter in white lettering: Zora, Richard, Langston, James, Ralph, Maya, Toni, Ta-Nehisi, and on the facing page are those names, first and last, with the names of other acclaimed poets and authors such as Gwendolyn Brooks, Jacqueline Woodson, Countee Cullen (a few of my favorites). There’s a double page about Colin kneeling and those who went before him, including, “Jesse punctured the Nazi myth of racial superiority with four gold medals.” At the end are snippets about the lives of 116 Black leaders and artists and athletes. The author points out that choosing which Black lives deserved to shine was difficult, and that these form only a tiny sample. From its sentiment to the powerful presentation, this is a book that deserves a place in every school library and on every classroom bookshelf. (Tilbury House Publishers)

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‘Big Ideas for Little Philosophers’ series shares wonderful thoughts for young readers

The belief that a child is never too young to learn about big ideas like happiness, truth, equality and imagination is exemplified in a series of board books (yes, board books!) written by Duane Armitage and Maureen McQuerry and illustrated by Robin Rosenthal. The series includes “Truth with Socrates,” “Imagination with René Descartes,” “Equality with Simone de Beauvoir,” and “Happiness with Aristotle.”

Each of the books begins with a simple, child-friendly definition of “philosopher” and states in a large white font on a bright background, “A philosopher is a person who loves wisdom. Wisdom means knowing things that help you live better and be happy.”  The next page has an illustration of the philosopher, and the text shares simple information about each one. For example, “Aristotle was a philosopher who liked to think and ask questions about his life. He wondered about the purpose of his life and what made him happy.” Simone de Beauvoir “believed all people were equal.” René Descartes “used his imagination to help him understand the world.” And Socrates “….said wisdom means being truthful and honest.”

Children will understand the simple text that nevertheless carries important meanings and ideas. Parents and teachers will appreciate the chance to have important discussions with young children that might help them think about concepts like truth and happiness — things that children can’t see or touch, but that are just as real as any toy they play with.

The board books are sturdy and suitable for really young children, but because of the content, they are also suitable for older children as well. The illustrator manages to make the art engaging for young readers as there is much to see and discuss on the pages. When René is trying to use his imagination, we can see in his thought bubble a plethora of items from stars and rainbows to a paintbrush and a violin and leaves and fish.

These would be a great gift for a newborn but also for any young child with an inquiring mind (or parents who love teaching their children about worthwhile topics). They would also be a great addition to any preschool or kindergarten classroom. It’s never too early to learn about these truths.

Please note: This review is based on the final board books provided by G. P. Putnam’s Sons, the publisher, for review purposes. 

Picture books for worriers, grumps, wolves and those in need of help

Sometimes, reading the right picture book can be just the right medicine for what ails your youngster. Here are four picture books that will ease worries, make that grumpy one smile, and illustrate that we all need friends in our lives to help us and play with us. So get out your shopping list and be ready to add some books that fit the empty spot on your bookshelf (metaphorically speaking).

“Mootilda’s Bad Mood” by Corey Rosen Schwartz and Kirsti Call is the story of Mootilda, who is in a terrible mood. In Rosen Schwartz’s trademark meter we see that nothing seems to be going Mootilda’s way. Her popsicle falls on the floor; while jumping rope she trips and spills a bucket of milk; she falls off her bike and does a belly flop into the pond. Worse yet, her bad mood seems to be catching. The chickens tell her, “Our stuff was pecked. Our projects wrecked. We’re feeling bleak and blue.” Mootilda replies, “Oh my, what a cow-incidence! You’re in a bad mood too?” But sometimes, misery loves company ,and having others to cow-miserate with helps. Get this one for the message, but enjoy the clever word play and Claudia Ranucci’s whimsical illustrations. (Little Bee Books)

“Brenda Is a Sheep” by Morag Hood is a picture book in which the words only tell part of the story. It’s the kind of picture book that I like to read to students first without showing them the illustrations. They get pictures in their minds from the text, and those pictures are the opposite of what is really going on in the story. They can’t believe it when they finally see the illustrations and realize that everything that they’ve been imagining is completely wrong! The text says, “These are sheep.” And there is an illustration of a dozen fluffy white sheep. The next page says, “This is also a sheep. This sheep is called Brenda. Brenda has a very nice woolly sweater.” And the illustration shows a gray wolf in an orange sweater. And while the text tells us one thing, what we actually see is that Brenda does not like eating grass or doing sheep things. She really wants to eat the sheep. So how does this book end up not being a bloody mess as Brenda butchers the sheep for dinner? Read it to find out! You’ll love the sweet ending. (Random House Children’s Books)

“Way Past Worried” by Hallee Adelman and illustrated by Sandra de la Prada is just what the title says. It’s a book about a boy who is way past worried. He is going to a friend’s birthday party, and he worries about everything. Is he wearing the right costume? Is it too small? Will he arrive late? Are the kids going to laugh at him? Kids who worry about things will appreciate knowing that they are not alone, just as Brock eventually feels better when he learns that he’s not alone. This would be a great choice for a school psychologist or social worker, or just anyone who knows a child who worries too much. (Albert Whitman & Company)

And for kids who feel that they can’t ask for help, there’s “Scout the Mighty Tugboat” by Charles Beyl. Scout, as the title indicates, is a tugboat. And she pulls everything by herself, from container ships to cruise ships. She pulls them into harbor and out to sea. But when an oil tanker is in trouble near huge dangerous rocks, Scout finds that no matter how hard she tugs and pulls, the job is too big for her alone. Sometimes, we just need some help. And with a little help from her friends, they get the oil tanker to safety. Sometimes, we all need a little help –  and that’s okay. (Albert Whitman & Company)

Please note: These reviews are based on the books provided by the publishers for review purposes.

Winter picture books that celebrate freedom and tradition for all kinds of young readers

There’s no better gift for a child than the gift of a good book. And nothing gets young children more excited about reading than good picture books. Reading good picture books with toddlers can instill in them a love of reading that will last a lifetime.

What better gift could you give?

“Lilah Tov Good Night” by Ben Gundersheimer (Mister G) and illustrated by Noar Lee Naggan is not a typical holiday book. There’s no Christmas tree, but there is a menorah. And even though we don’t see the family celebrating Hannukah, it’s clear that they’ve left their homeland for a new beginning, a beginning which includes a better future for their children, and a future where life will be better. The text is simple as the small family packs up a few belongings and leaves their tiny house, where there’s only a small wood stove for warmth and bread and turnips to eat for dinner. They travel far, and cross the water (reminiscent of the ocean that the author’s family, and many of our families, crossed to get to America) before arriving at a small house tucked in the shadow of a mountain. A new home and a new tomorrow. We see the small daughter tucked warmly in her bed, sleeping soundly, with the menorah on her windowsill. It’s a perfect story to share history and tradition with children. Except for the indigenous people, we are all immigrants here, and our ancestors (or we) came here for a better life. A simple, lovely story with beautiful illustrations. The illustrations cleverly use cool blues for the backgrounds while keeping the warm colors, tans and browns, as the focus for the family and the sleeping animals tucked in tight in their winter quarters. Mister G is also the author of the lovely “Señorita Mariposa.” (Nancy Paulsen Books)

“Feliz New Year, Ava Gabriela!” by Alexandra Alessandri and illustrated by Addy Rivera Sonda is a picture book about New Year’s Eve celebrations that takes us on a journey to Columbia in South America, where we see Ava celebrate the holiday with her extended family. This book is not just about the holidays, though. It’s also about being shy — Ava is so shy with her extended family that she can’t bring herself to talk to them. Her cousins and aunts and uncles and even her grandmother seem like strangers. But as we learn about the Año Nuevo celebrations, we also learn about the Año Viejo, and we see Ava gradually become more comfortable with her relatives through her persistence and determination to enjoy the visit. It’s not only a story of the celebration of a different culture during a familiar holiday, it’s a touching story of overcoming painful shyness. (Albert Whitman & Co.)

“Raccoon’s Perfect Snowman” by Katia Wish is about four animal friends who are playing in the snow and building snowmen. One of the three, Raccoon, is a perfectionist. We all know someone like that — someone whose creations must be perfect, flawless. Well, Raccoon shares his rules with Rabbit, Fox and Mouse so that they, too, can build the perfect snowmen. But Raccoon has taken all the clean snow, and he’s used all the tools and the decorations, leaving his friends with less than optimal paths to build their own perfect snowman. Luckily, before it’s too late, Raccoon realizes his mistake and is able to bring the friends together on another project. This book is really about realizing what is important. A perfect snowman is not nearly as important as making friends happy, and that’s a perfectly important discussion that the reader can have with the children who need to hear this lesson. What is the author’s message? Children as young as three and four can start talking about that question and sharing their ideas. (Sleeping Bear Press)

Please note: This review is based on the final, hardcover books provided by the publishers for review purposes. 

Ten nonfiction picture books for readers of all ages

Nonfiction picture books are little treasures. They are a way to expand the world around our children as we read stories to them about important people, important ideas, and important concepts about the world around us. Well written nonfiction is a way to teach without a classroom, and to inspire without preaching.

voteWith the presidential election not quite behind us yet (at least in the news), “A Vote is a Powerful Thing” by Catherine Stier and illustrated by Courtney Dawson is timely. Of course, a book on voting is always timely, especially every four years when there is a presidential election. In this fictional account of a class election about a field trip, the main character actively campaigns for a class visit to a wilderness center. But while the story is fiction, the information at the end includes the headings “All about voting,” “Who Can Vote?” “How Do Citizens Vote?” and “Voting Rights in the United States.” It’s a great introduction to voting and the importance of each and every vote.

Two books by Doe Boyle, “Heartbeat” and “Blink!” are lovely examples of captivating and informativeblink nonfiction picture books. Each book features prose written in a pleasant meter which rhymes occasionally along with clearly nonfiction informational text written in a different font and placed in a location that indicates this is the place to find hard facts. Adèle Leyris is the illustrator of “Blink!” and the watercolor techniques she uses to create the images are perfectly suited to the almost glass-like eye of the cheetah surrounded by soft, blurred fur. heartbeatThe backgrounds are mostly solid colors with silhouette shapes and facts. Daniel Long, the illustrator of “Heartbeat,” uses shapes that have definite hard edges, and his python is a marvel of pentagonal jewel shapes. Both books will ignite the imaginations of young readers, and both books would be fabulous additions to a classroom library. “Heartbeat” in particular is a wonderful tool for teaching onomatopoeia.

“Adelita: A Sea Turtle’s Journey” by Jenny Goebel and illustrated by Ana Miminoshvili is a touching account of adelitaa loggerhead sea turtle who was named Adelita and tracked across the Pacific Ocean. The story is a bit sad when we realize that a fisherman caught the young turtle in the Gulf of California and took her to researchers in Baja, California, where she lived in a cramped tank for a decade. Researchers wondered where the loggerhead turtles had nesting places because there were none on the Baja coastline. Finally, a researcher thought of a way to find out where Adelita’s real home was. He attached a satellite transmitter, a brand new technology, to Adelita’s shell. They were able to determine that she swam across the ocean to Japan. It’s heartbreaking to find out that her journey ends there. The transmitter stops sending information. We never find out what happened to Adelita, but we learn that because of her, people around the world learned about the plight of endangered turtles. Fishermen started releasing them from nets. They are still endangered, but after reading this book, we all will root for their survival. The illustrations are engaging, and Adelita’s huge black eyes will grab at your heart.

seahorseOh, my. I dare you not to love the adorable “This Is a Seahorse” by Cassandra Federman. I want to reread it over and over just because it’s a combination of cute and informative. The story, as we find out on the endpapers, is that a class visited an aquarium, and now the homework is to write about an interesting animal. Cassandra Federman, the author, er – the student, writes her report on the seahorse on primary-school lined paper. She illustrates her writing, but we get to see the purple word bubbles that contain the “actual” seahorse’s responses to her ridiculous (at least to the seahorse) statements about the seahorse’s huge nose and big belly. When she compares seahorses to opossums, because both can grip things with their tails, the seahorse responds, “Those nasty creatures? You won’t catch me holding tails with one of them.” I learned that seahorses can camouflage themselves as octopuses do. While I find that information fascinating, our friend the seahorse is appalled that he is being compared to a hideous eight-armed sea monster. Kids (and adults) will enjoy the clever humor and the real seahorse facts.

“How to Grow an Apple Pie” by Beth Charles and illustrated by Katie Rewse is authored by someone who ownsapplepit an apple orchard. So she knows what it takes to grow an apple tree, and she knows what it takes to bake an apple pie. Do we know if Sophie, the main character in the story about growing the apple tree, waiting for the trees to mature (six years) and then learning how to pick the apples without damaging them (you turn them upside down), and then following the yummy recipe to bake an apple pie, is really a child in the Charles family? While we don’t know whether that is a fact or not, that doesn’t detract from the facts that we do learn about the care and treatment of apple trees and how to bake a pie. Be prepared, though. If you read this book to children, they will surely want an apple tree of their own. Maybe six of them.

tinaja“The Tinaja Tonight” by Aimée M. Bissonette and illustrated by Syd Weiler is an interesting book if only for the fact that most of the people reading this book won’t have any idea what a tinaja is. According to the facts in the book, “A tinaja is a pool formed by a natural hollow in the rock where rainwater or melting snow collects.” The text is conversational, and the transitions from one page to another and from one species of animal to another encourage continued reading. “What’s that sound? What’s that snuffling? The quail takes off running. If only they knew not to worry. It’s just…” and the reader has to turn the page to find out what is scaring away the quail, then the javelina, then the jackrabbits. Situated below the larger font narrative are the facts in a different, slightly smaller font. The broad swaths of deep colors make this a visually appealing book as well, even though the colors are deep and dark because the animals are nocturnal and are all out at night.

Like the other books in this nonfiction series of picture books, “Dragonfly” by the same author, Aimée M. dragonflyBissonette and illustrated by Catherine Pearson consists of narrative text:

“It’s a dangerous time for us. We need to hatch.”

Along with facts shown in a smaller, different font, we learn that most of a dragonfly’s life is spent underwater, growing from eggs to nymphs, which grow and change their skin as they enlarge and molt. The last time it molts, it changes and has wings. That time – between nymph and dragonfly — is a dangerous time as they don’t fly well until their bodies harden. It might take a few days for them to fly well. But once they are mature, dragonflies are masters of the sky. Their four wings can move independently, and they can fly straight up or down, even backwards. They are not only fast; they are hungry, and their favorite food is mosquitoes. They eat hundreds of bugs every day. “They can eat their own weight in insects in 30 minutes.” If you see a dragonfly, rejoice, because their presence means clean water is nearby. The illustrations are bright and bold, and while they don’t represent the true colors of nature, the rainbow hues are a feast for the eyes.

beatrix potterWhile we know Beatrix Potter as the talented author and illustrator of children’s books, in “Beatrix Potter, Scientist,” by Lindsay H. Metcalf and illustrated by Junyi Wu, we learn that she was first and foremost a scientist. From childhood on, Potter immersed herself in studying animals and plants. In fact, she learned how to germinate the spores of fungi, and shared that information with the gentlemen-only Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew. But when she wrote a paper with her discovery, it was refused. She never again attempted to publish it, but shortly thereafter, she  began writing the much-beloved Tales of Peter Rabbit. As we learn in the informational text at the end, “she was later shown to be among the first British people to germinate spores from the group of fungi she worked with.” A century later, the Linnean Society, London’s group of natural history experts, apologized for how Potter was treated. There is also a timeline of her life at the end.

“My Name Is Helen Keller” by Myron Uhlberg and illustrated by Jenn Kocsmiersky is a fictional account ofhelen keller Helen Keller’s life. Because it’s a picture book, Uhlberg chooses certain events to exemplify how Helen lived and the difference Anne Sullivan made in Helen’s life. In the Author’s Note, he explains that this is a biographical fiction. “The scenes in this book are based on real events in Helen’s life, as detailed in many excellent biographies about Hellen Keller.” He also provides a timeline of her life and the manual sign alphabet that Helen and Anne used. Both this book and “Beatrix Potter, Scientist” are perfect first biographies for young readers.

Please note: These reviews are based on the uncorrected proofs provided by Albert Whitman & Co. for review purposes.

Perfectly diverse picture books: One for a boy and one for a girl

It’s that time of year when we are thinking of holiday gifts. But these two 2020 picture books are perfect books for any time of year and any occasion. Both celebrate possibility – the possibility inherent in every child no matter the gender, no matter the color of their skin, no matter their religion. Each book celebrates the fact that we are all unique and we all have unique and unlimited possibilities.

“I Am Every Good Thing” is by celebrated author Derrick Barnes and illustrator Gordon C. James. The combination of metaphor and brilliant colors and powerful brush strokes make this a book that calls for reading and rereading again and again. Each reading of the prose and examination of the illustrations will elicit new observations and new discussion. This is definitely a book aimed at boys, and most of the illustrations are of Black boys, adorable boys, with bright colorful backgrounds. They are swimming and hugging little sisters and peering through microscopes and in space suits exploring the deep blue. The constant metaphor will cause teachers to salivate at the perfect text for teaching students what poetic language can be. “I am good to the core, like the center of a cinnamon roll. Yeah, that good.”

This book is sweet and beautiful, but there is one page that drew my attention. It’s the page that illustrates that sometimes, the first person narrator is afraid. He says, “I am not what they might call me, and I will not answer to any name that is not my own. I am what I say I am.” The first time I read the book, I simply looked at the illustration of a Black boy in a polo shirt with a star radiating from his head. I didn’t really stop to reflect on the background, behind the star. I certainly didn’t connect it with the text. And that’s my fault for reading it too quickly and missing the deeper meaning of that page. For behind the star, there are white faces that look angry. We don’t see much of it, and the emphasis is on the beautiful portrait of the boy who is looking forward, not towards the leering faces behind him. But upon reflection, I understand what the author communicates when the boy refuses to answer to any name that is not his own.

And that is something that many of us can relate to. While my own status as someone who is reviled by bigots and haters is less apparent because of my white skin, I have seen those chanting “Jews will not replace us” and other hateful words so recently that it still horrifies me. There are daily accounts of people of color enduring not just names, as the narrator denounces in the text, but dangerous, too often deadly, actions by the haters. This is a page that, unlike the positivity that characterizes the rest of the book, addresses the darker side of growing up as a male African American.

This is a book for those of us who want to share books with our children, grandchildren, and students, books  that vividly and powerfully declare that we are all the same. We all are unique. We all have desires and dreams and plans. We all deserved to be loved and cherished. We are all equal in these truths, and our children must be educated in this reality. (Nancy Paulsen Books)

“A Girl Like You” by Frank and Carla Murphy and illustrated by Kayla Harren is unabashedly aimed at girls. (There is a previous book, “A Boy Like You.”) In this book, the message is that every girl is unique, and every girl’s desires and looks and clothes and talents are unique, too. It’s about having empathy and friendship, and working hard whether it’s at fixing things, lifting weights, or studying the moon. It’s about following your dreams and picking yourself up when things go wrong. The illustrations are of diverse children with diverse skin colors, including some girls who are disabled and some who wear hijabs. The message is:

“And remember, the world needs a girl…
a caring and strong girl,
a bold and brave girl,
an unstoppable girl.
A girl like you.

This is a perfect choice for any girl who deserves a message about determination and spunk. In short, every girl. (Sleeping Bear Press)

Please note: This review is based on the final, hardcover books provided by the publishers for review purposes.