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.

Balthazar The Great

“Where Bone?”, a kids’ picture book written and illustrated by Kitty Moss, is a hilarious account of a hilarious dog named Balthazar, who has lost his beloved bone. Balthazar is my emotional doppelganger and my personal guru; his plight and his behavior speak to me because I, too, go a bit (or very very) crazy when I lose my keys, my glasses, my nail clippers, my anything. Balthazar, you have taught me that I am not alone. Continue reading

Those amazing and unpredictable unicorns: five magical picture books

 

Consider the eternal and eternally wonderful unicorn — the favorite animal of thousands of children and quite a few adults I personally know. And best of all, because those lovely creatures are purely imaginary, they can be almost anything we want them to be — any shape, any size, any color (any pigment of our imaginations). Here are five adorable picture books all about that favorite of all imaginary animals. Unicorns all over the place! And each of the books has some really important things to say to our little ones, and to all us stodgy old ones, too. Continue reading

‘The Invisible Alphabet’ by Joshua David Stein and Ron Barrett is a clever and thought-provoking picture book

With “The Invisible Alphabet,” author and illustrator Joshua David Stein and Ron Barrett have created a really unusual and thoughtful picture book that is perfect for engaging children’s creativity and thinking-outside-the box skills. Even the cover, with the word “invisible” barely seen because it’s white-on-white but in shiny print gives a clue to the brilliant art inside. The black ink with white paper and just a hint of orange is the theme throughout the book. That orange provides the only actual color in the illustrations.

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‘I Found a Kitty!’ by Troy Cummings — Touching and brilliant sequel to ‘Can I Be Your Dog?’

In the adorable picture book “I Found a Kitty!” by Troy Cummings, there’s a new cat in town, and he needs a home. And Arfy, the pooch who charmed everyone in “Can I Be Your Dog?” is determined to help. The sweet kitty can’t live with Arfy and his friend who delivers the mail because she’s allergic to cats, but surely someone wants a many-talented, sweet, playful kitty for their very own?

Cleverly, before we even get to the title page, there’s a little narration by Arfy about how he found his new friend, the kitty. After the title page, as in Arfy’s own book, there are letters he writes to neighbors asking if they want a kitty of their own. Cummings brilliantly combines visuals with plays on words to make each letter that Arfy crafts match the visually revealing prospective home.

For example, the first prospective home is the residence of a music teacher. Even my four-year-old grandson recognized that the house looks like a piano with the treble clef symbol in both front windows. Even the mailbox has a musical motif. The letter introduces Scamper and shares that “He also likes to sing! I know he would make beautiful music with your students.” The response from the music teacher is negative, but also peppered with clever musical play on words — some that only an adult will get. “I was hoping for more harmony in my household. But with Scamper here, I can hardly find a single measure of rest.

With each house, Scamper gamely delivers Arfy’s letter. But each time there is something that doesn’t work out. Three babies and a cat don’t make for gentle petting, and a cat who plays with mice instead of eating them won’t help a mechanic with a rodent problem. Even the cat-loving neighbor, whose house looks like a cat, seems to appreciate inanimate cats more than the real, moving, sometimes-clumsy ones.

Finally, Scamper sends Arfy a message. He really wants a home where he can do all the things that each house offered. He wants to get cuddled, play, get brushed, sing. And yet again, Cummings’ ending brought this reviewer (and lover of my three black cats) to tears with the all-too-clever, all-too-touching twist at the end. 

As Cummings  shares on the endpaper at the end of the book, there are many ways to help homeless kittens and puppies (and grown-up dog and cats). Donate to your local rescue. Get to know them and how the money is used. Adopt a pet instead of buying one.  At the shelter, meet all the cats and dogs before you pick one to adopt. Some might be shy or scared at the shelter. A dog or cat missing a leg or even an eye will be a fabulous pet with lots of love to share. And don’t overlook the senior pets. They have years to show their gratitude to you for giving them a second chance! 

If you don’t have Arfy’s book, buy it along with “I Found a Kitty!” and your classroom or library or bookshelf will be better for it. And your children will love them. Guaranteed.

Please note: This review is based on the final, hardcover book provided by the publisher, Random House, for review purposes. 

 

Pandemic-perfect picture books Part Five: Nonfiction (mostly) picture books

 

Some of these picture books are completely nonfiction while others skirt the line between fiction and nonfiction. I’ve included a few that are really fiction but that include enough nonfiction information that I think they impart content that merits inclusion in this collection. I hope you enjoy reading about these and share a few with your favorite young reader!

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Pandemic-perfect picture books Part Four: Books about feelings and self-care

 

Being at home during the pandemic is difficult for adults, and for many children, it’s a confusing time. They aren’t going to preschool or school, they aren’t seeing their friends, they aren’t getting to go to the playground to expend energy. And some may not understand why. These picture books will address a range of needs from acting out, feeling inadequate, and making a mistake, to enjoying this new slowed-down life. Some will teach important lessons and others will just be enjoyed as lovely, clever reads.

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Pandemic-perfect picture books Part Two: We’ve gone to the dogs

As many have discovered during this pandemic, adopting or fostering a dog (or cat) is a lovely way to have a furry, loving companion who gives nothing but love (and fur). There’s nothing quite like an animal’s unconditional love. Here are some reading choices that will share some training tips you may (or may not) want to take note of, as well as some doggy quirks (like digging in dirt), and two picture books about dogs and reading.

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