A Letter to My Mom Created by Lisa Erspamer, Review & Giveaway

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Created by Lisa Erspamer
(Crown Archetype, $22.00)



… Featuring contributions from Kristin Chenoweth, Melissa Rivers, Josh Groban, Kelly Osbourne, Shania Twain, Dr. Phil McGraw, will.i.am, Christy Turlington Burns, Monical Lewinsky, Lisa Ling and more!

I can’t think of a more meaningful gift to give to your mom for Mother’s Day than Erspamer’s latest, A Letter to My Mom, the third title in her popular “A Letter to My” series. However I do recommend wrapping up a pack of pretty tissues along with the book because there will be tears, but wonderful tears of joy. Inspiring letters, heartfelt letters, and encouraging letters from celebrities and “everyday daughters and sons” pack the 160 pages of this touching tribute to those who’ve kissed an abundance of boo boos better, those who’ve always been there through thick and thin, and those who’ve shown compassion and resilience, setting the bar high and providing worthy examples for their progeny.

With each new letter read, I kept thinking I had found the exact words to express my feelings, but then read on and found more. However, one of my favorite quotes is from writer Tom Burns:

A good parent curates reality for their children. They up all of the good stuff –
all of the knowledge, opportunity, existential wonderfulness, and more – and they say,
“Here’s what the world has to offer – go enjoy it!” 

I cried when I read Mariel Hemingway’s letter to her late mother detailing the enduring love for her mom, and eventually the love of herself that she worked hard to find. Her newfound joy emanated in those three precious pages. I felt privileged to read the candid words of some contributors, in awe at how succinctly they could sum up their maternal relationships, sometimes to mothers still living, other times to mothers long gone. Sarah Monson’s tribute to her late mother Kim Hendricks, whom she lost in a house fire, was particularly poignant:

Your capacity to love was cosmic – you loved deeper and cared more than anyone I know.

Everyone who read s A Letter to My Mom will find letters that speak to them, stories that pull at their heartstrings, maybe even lessons to live by. The book may help you find the words you’d like to share with your mom, so read it first before presenting it and consider writing a little something in the lined space provided at the beginning of the book. There are biographies for all the contributors at the end and each letter includes photos, providing an added emotional dimension. I hope you’ll find A Letter to My Mom as beautiful and unique as I did.

– Reviewed by Ronna Mandel

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Hoot Owl: Master of Disguise by Sean Taylor

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Written by Sean Taylor

Illustrated by Jean Jullien

(Candlewick Press; $15.99, Ages 3-7)


Starred Review – Kirkus Reviews

Hoot-Owl-cvr.jpgI love larger-than-life characters who never let defeat get in their way. I think of Inspector Clouseau in the Pink Panther series; there’s also the self-proclaimed genius Wile E. Coyote whose only success is consistently failing to catch his adversary. No matter how many times they fail or get rejected, these characters’ shameless ineptitude has us laughing clearly at, not with, them.

Hoot Owl: Master of Disguise uses this larger-than-life character trait in the loveable Hoot Owl who invites us to laugh right along with him. Hoot Owl’s flair for overly dramatizing his predatory skills consistently botches his ability to catch any real dinner. Even before the dedication page, we feel the suspenseful tone build up in the warning posted on page 1:  “Watch out!  I am Hoot Owl!  I am hungry. And here I come!” In his first picture book for children, Jullien, of course, eases the hearts of even the youngest reader. Hoot Owl’s egg shaped head and wide eyes peeking from the bottom corner of the page assure us no animals (illustrated or otherwise) were harmed in the making of this book.

Especially appealing in this character driven story are the similes Hoot Owl uses to describe his supposed deftness at flying through the “darkness of midnight…as quick as a shooting star…like a wolf in the air…like a knife.”  On his first attempt to catch dinner, Hoot Owl boasts of the “sharp beak” that will soon “gobbl[e] that rabbit up!” But Hoot Owl isn’t just any old owl; he is an owl of great mental prowess too. Before he closes in for the kill, he states:  “Everyone knows owls are wise. But as well as being wise, I am a master of disguise.” And so our hero disguises himself as a (not-so-convincing) carrot. The bunny’s calm smile confirms our suspicions that Hoot Owl is more likely to win an Academy Award for Best Performance Before Dinnertime than to actually catch anything to eat.  The adorably bespectacled “juicy little lamb” and mellow “trembling” pigeon are next on our predator’s supposed hit list, highlighting once more the comic disconnect between Taylor’s sensational diction and Jullien’s heartwarming illustrations.


HOOT OWL: MASTER OF DISGUISE Written by Sean Taylor and Illustrated by Jean Jullien, Candlewick Press ©2015.

That Hoot Owl shares with us he’s in on this comedy, too, is what I find most endearing about his character.  “The shadowy night stretches away forever, as black as burnt toast,” he says using a simile so forced you know deep down he’s laughing at his own incompetence. Adults and children will be pleased and surprised at the dinner our hero finally does  catch—then back again into the “enormousness of the night” Hoot Owl glides stealthily, warning us of his return….which readers of all ages will, without a doubt, impatiently await.




– Reviewed by Armineh Manookian


Words of Encouragement by Marla McKenna

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Words of Encouragement by Marla McKenna


MomsBigCatch-cvr.jpgHearing positive words of encouragement every day is something that each child needs in his or her life. And doing it through the power of stories and tying that into the thrilling game of baseball makes it even more fulfilling as children grow both physically and mentally.

I’ve always loved baseball and writing, so combining the two has been extremely exciting! It was a family outing at a major league baseball game that sparked the birth of Mom’s Big Catch, which also inspired the follow up book Sadie’s Big Steal. This fun and unexpected event (I can’t give away the surprise) changed my life. It’s the crazy way a ball is caught, and what baseball fan doesn’t want to catch a ball at a game? It’s really the dream of every fan! Years later when I decided to tell the story, getting the actual book published felt like going into many extra innings. It was a long and winding road and reaching the destination was not easy. After two years, rejection spurred doubts in my mind of trying to get Mom’s Big Catch even noticed. It wasn’t until a publishing contract was offered to me that I felt I could finally share my positive message with kids in a very unique way!

SadiesBigSteal-cvr.jpgTelling the stories in my books came easily but that backstory was even more inspiring and prompted the message of patience, positivity and perseverance. Not giving up was a must in order to achieve success. It’s important to teach this lesson to children…if you really want something important in life, you have to go for it and follow your dreams; not letting anything stop you from pursuing your passion. Children also need to learn that anything that’s worthwhile requires a lot of hard work. This is a message that I share with children grades K – 5 when I visit schools, along with learning about the writing, publishing, editing and illustrating process.

Rick Springfield-MarlaMcKenna.jpgThe students love to see how a book comes to life, and they love to hear how when you truly give everything toward following your dreams and helping others, that’s when the magic happens. Never did I imagine, I’d be working with major and minor league baseball teams or that my favorite rock star, Rick Springfield, would support my cause! Never did I imagine, these books would touch the lives of so many children and baseball fans of all ages, and those fans would be asking for the next book. And to be able to give back to help our furry friends find loving forever homes is something that I love doing. When you set your heart and soul on your purpose…doors begin to open where you didn’t even see a window.

Dreams really can come true!

My books offer positive messages—told through the eyes of a little girl and the voice of their family dog—about following your dreams and teaching kindness. Partial proceeds from both books go to the Linda Blair WorldHeart Foundation. Their mission is to ensure that every dog they rescue receives a loving forever home. (LindaBlairWorldHeart.org) Special thanks to singer, actor, and best-selling author, Rick Springfield for matching my donations.

Sadie’s Big Steal is another great story from Marla. It has a personal touch for me with the addition of my sweet lost pal Gomer immortalized in ink. A great story and a great cause. XOXO” – Rick Springfield

As an avid dog lover, I felt The Linda Blair WorldHeart Foundation was an easy choice for me to give back to. And as a Rick Springfield fan, this journey has come full circle for me with his support. Baseball, dogs and Rock ‘n’ Roll – three passions of mine that I get to combine with my love of writing and sharing that positive message with children. I don’t think it gets any better than that!

Marla-McKenna.jpgMarla McKenna’s second book, Sadie’s Big Steal, has just been released, following the success of Mom’s Big Catch.

SADIE’S BIG STEAL by Marla McKenna
(Tate Publishing; $10.99 Paperback, Ages 4+)
This is also an eLIVE title, meaning each book contains a code redeemable for a free audio book version from TatePublishing.com. eLIVE—Listen, Imagine, View, and Experience.


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Best Children’s Books for Holocaust Remembrance Day 2015

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We recommend these fine children’s books to share on Holocaust Remembrance Day (Yom HaShoah) and throughout the week of remembrance.

ABagofMarbles-cvr.jpgA Bag of Marbles: The Graphic Novel by Joseph Joffo, Kris, & Vincent Bailly (Kar-Ben; Paperback $9.95, Ages 12-18). In 1941 Paris, two Jewish brothers must flee together to the free zone. The journey is dangerous, and safely escaping the Nazis will demand the boys’ level-headedness, courage and ability to lie about being Jewish. Based on the bestselling true story of Joseph Joffo. A must-read for middle school and high schoolers.

Let The Celebrations Begin! A Story of Hope for the LiberationLettheCelebrationsBegin-cvr.jpg by Margaret Wild with illustrations by Julie Vivas (Candlewick Press; $16.99, Ages 7-10). Also based on a true account, this picture book idea grew out of the author’s reading about stuffed toys “Polish women in Belsen made for the first children’s party after liberation.” Wild’s moving story brings humanity to what was a dehumanizing situation in the concentration camps and tells of hope and renewal where there had once only been death.

Marcel Marceau: Master of MimeMarcel-Marceau-cvr.jpg by Gloria Spielman and illustrated by Manon Gauthier (Kar-Ben; $17.95, ages 8-11). There are many mimes, but there is only one Marcel Marceau. In Spielman’s compelling children’s biography complemented by subtle artwork from Gauthier, we learn of Marceau’s early inspiration, the silent film star Charlie Chaplin, as well as his childhood growing up in Strasbourg, France, close to the German border.

The son of a Jewish kosher butcher, Marceau and his older brother Alain fled to Limoges when, on September 1, 1939, Germany invaded Poland and the French government ordered the people of Strasbourg to leave their city. Helping a cousin in the Resistance, Marceau, on numerous occasions, also helped children escape across the border into Switzerland.

– Reviewed by Ronna Mandel

The Inside-Outside Book of London by Roxie Munro

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The Inside-Outside Book of London
by Roxie Munro
(Universe Publishing; $14.95, Ages 4 and up)


With the publication of this new edition of The Inside-Outside Book of London first published 25 years ago, you may recognize the work of artist Roxie Munro whose illustrations have graced more than a dozen New Yorker magazine covers and filled numerous children’s books. And for those of you who regularly follow this blog, you’ll know I’m quite partial to all things English having lived in London over 6 1/2 years. In fact my son was born there. This summer we’ll be crossing the pond for the first time in nine years and I can’t wait. Thanks to Munro’s wonderfully realized love letter to London in the form of detailed exterior and interior illustrations, I know everything I want to return to once again, this time with a teenage son in tow who barely remembers all the landmarks of his early years.


© The Inside-Outside Book of London by Roxie Munro, Universe Publishing, 2015. All illustrations © Roxie Munro.



© The Inside-Outside Book of London by Roxie Munro, Universe Publishing, 2015. All illustrations © Roxie Munro.

Whether you’re an Anglophile hankering for a taste of London with its abundance of amazing architecture, or someone eager to simply see this capital city’s highlights from the comfort of your couch, this picture book is for you. Share the sights of the former Londinium with your kids. They’ll be impressed with its rich history found in every corner of town.

A city full of bridges spanning the width of the winding Thames river, London comes alive in the 40 pages of The Inside-Outside Book of London as we tour Buckingham Palace, the Houses of Parliament, the Tower of London and St. Paul’s Cathedral. There are stops at the British Museum (one of my faves) with the famed mummy collection dating back thousands of years plus a peek inside Waterloo Station, the original home to the Eurostar International rail service now located at St. Pancras. It’s great that we get to go inside all the buildings because so frequently a visitor’s impression comes merely from the exterior. Although I must admit, there is nothing more fun than a first glimpse of London from atop a bright red double decker bus so I’m quite glad Munro’s included this in our virtual vacation.


© The Inside-Outside Book of London by Roxie Munro, Universe Publishing, 2015. All illustrations © Roxie Munro.


© The Inside-Outside Book of London by Roxie Munro, Universe Publishing, 2015. All illustrations © Roxie Munro.

Of course for many, no trip to London is complete without shopping. So continue your journey on the bus to ride down the distinctly curved Regent Street, perhaps making a stop at Hamley’s toy store, and other well-known shops like Burberry’s before arriving at Trafalgar Square. Later, in the City, actually the oldest part of London, climb upstairs to the Whispering Gallery of St. Paul’s Cathedral, built by Sir Christopher Wren in 1666, and see if the rest of the family can hear what you whisper from the other side, “112 feet away.”


© The Inside-Outside Book of London by Roxie Munro, Universe Publishing, 2015. All illustrations © Roxie Munro.


© The Inside-Outside Book of London by Roxie Munro, Universe Publishing, 2015. All illustrations © Roxie Munro.


If you’ve enjoyed this visit as much as I’ve loved sharing it, you and your family will delight in the pleasures Munro’s illustrations convey. From Big Ben in Westminster all the way to Tower Bridge, the best places to see when traveling to London, are at your fingertips to behold.

-Reviewed by Ronna Mandel

Orangutan Houdini by Laurel Neme

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Written by Laurel Neme
Illustrated by Kathie Kelleher
(Bunker Hill Publishing, Inc.; $17.95, Ages 3-7)


Fu Manchu, a crafty and clever orangutan in a Nebraska zoo, longed to roam outside the boundaries of the enclosure that he shared with four other orangutans. Although their outdoor play area allowed them to exercise and explore, Fu had his sights set on visiting a stand of elm trees growing near the elephant corral.

One day, Fu secured a loose wire from a light fixture. He concealed it in his mouth until he found an opportunity to fiddle with the enclosure’s door lock. Wiggling and juggling the wire, Fu soon popped the lock, unbolted the door and signaled to the others that an unauthorized adventure was in store!

ORANGUTAN HOUDINI, Neme’s debut picture book, is based on the true story of an adult male orangutan at the Henry Doorly Zoo in 1968. With gentle humor and mild suspense, Neme skillfully conveys the intelligence and capability of this mischievous ape with a penchant for escape. We, the readers, are in on the joke from the start, knowing how Fu was able to pick the lock. But poor Jerry Stones, the zookeeper, was repeatedly outsmarted by Fu and his friends, finding them at play in the elm trees on several occasions.

The zookeeper warns his staff to be more careful with the locks. They double check the locks, and search the enclosure for possible lock-picking tools. Finally, they concede defeat and build a new enclosure for the orangutans. Fu then reveals the wire that he has kept carefully concealed in his mouth all along, and thus earns an honorary certificate from the American Association of Locksmiths.

The attractive illustrations by Kathie Kelleher are colorful and nicely detailed, capturing the bemused and carefree attitude of the apes in contrast with the confused and frustrated zoo staff. Elephants, giraffes and a tiny chipmunk are also sprinkled periodically through the story, showing the disparity in the size of the zoo creatures and wildlife.

ORANGUTAN HOUDINI will appeal to budding naturalists and those with an interest in animal intelligence. Neme includes a helpful author’s note that discusses the orangutans’ ability to make deliberate plans, devise tools, and deceive others in a playful fashion. The book is a great springboard to talk about ape intelligence and the careful design of stimulating and safe zoo habitats. And for those wanting even more information, Neme’s extensive website includes a wonderful teacher’s guide to accompany the book, as well as helpful information on orangutans, endangered species, and protection of international wildlife habitats.

– Reviewed by Cathy Ballou Mealey


Where Obtained:  I reviewed a copy of ORANGUTAN HOUDINI from my local library and received no compensation. The opinions expressed here are my own.

Lend a Hand by John Frank with illustrations by London Ladd

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Poems about Giving
Written by John Frank
Illustrated by London Ladd
(Lee & Low Books; $17.95, Ages 4-10)


During National Poetry Month I’ll be reviewing a bunch of my recent faves. Lend a Hand by John Frank with illustrations by London Ladd is one of them. With its 14 poems about kindness, caring and volunteering, this beautiful picture book is heartwarming and inspiring. I can’t think of a child, parent, teacher or caregiver who wouldn’t enjoy having Lend a Hand to return to again and again

The opening poem called Sandwich is touching and brings a smile to my face each time I read it. It’s about a a young girl who shares half her sandwich with “the new kid sitting alone with only the words of a book to feed her.” I hope that if my kids were in this situation they would be as thoughtful. I am also encouraged that other children reading or being read this poem will look at that new student sitting by themselves in their school cafeteria, perhaps without a lunch of their own, with a new paradigm in place.

There’s a short, but sweet poem called Puppy about the selfless act of raising a service dog who’ll be “someone’s eyes one day” that is moving in its simplicity. The one below, called Jammin’ really struck a chord with me because it highlights a coming together of generations that I feel is so important for youngsters to see. I can actually picture one of my son’s friends doing the exact thing this lad does, stopping by to jam with a much older, possibly lonely, fellow musician.


Interior spread from Lend a Hand by John Frank with illustrations by London Ladd, Lew & Low Books, ©2014.


In Home Run, a klutzy kid in PE is given a few winning baseball pointers by a more experienced classmate who takes the time to help when another student might not necessarily care. Song, with its hopeful message about the music from a student choir reaching into the soul of a wheelchair bound nursing home resident, brings tears to my eyes. And No Charge, about passing a kindness forward after one’s been done to you should impress upon youngsters that some of the best rewards are not financial.

One of the most catchy poems is Bus Ride with a rhythm and beat matching the music the narrator is listening to through his earphones. This poem, a most ideal read-aloud, demonstrates how we can all be considerate by giving up a seat on a crowded bus to someone who needs it more than we do. But it’s really teaching empathy, helping children to realize that every situation is not always just about them. Rather than avert his eyes so he can continue to selfishly occupy a seat that a man with a cane could use, the narrator explains that he deliberately catches the older man’s eye and motions “toward the empty seat” once he’s gotten up. I wish I saw this type of behavior more often on public transportation which is why I felt this poem provided a great example for kids. Frank has put together a meaningful collection of poems populated by diverse individuals and covering timeless themes that will resonate with readers and be a jumping off point for countless conversations about giving. Our kids are never too young to begin learning the importance of empathy and how, in this big, busy world of ours, taking the time to stop and think about someone else can have a powerful, positive and lasting effect.

London Ladd’s acrylic and pastel illustrations are spirited and full of emotion. He explains in the end pages how he works “from photographs” and uses “ordinary people, not professional models, as references for the illustrations.” I loved finding that out because it makes the illustrations feel more real and every moment captured more tender.

– Reviewed by Ronna Mandel

Click here for a shareable infographic from Lend a Hand about how to make a difference.