As their food supply dwindles and Mom pours the last cup of milk to make her special “fancy milk” drink, Molly learns they’ll be visiting a food pantry the next day. “What’s a food pantry?” Molly asks. “It’s a place for people who need food,” Mom answers. “Everybody needs help sometimes.”
In gentle ways, O’Neill and Magro illustrate the characters’ hesitance and anxieties while they wait in line for the pantry to open. Molly sees her classmate, Caitlin, standing in line with her grandmother. To Molly’s surprise, Caitlin expresses feelings of shame for being there. Walking back to her mom, Molly feels confused. Is “there something wrong with needing help?” Once inside, even Mom “look[s] like she want[s] to be invisible.” But Molly reminds her, “Everybody needs help sometimes.” Later, Molly points out to Caitlin ways they themselves helped “cheer up” the grown-ups in the pantry.
Open, honest conversations between Caitlin’s grandmother and Mom about finding and keeping employment allow for a safe space to share. Muted illustrations using straight, geometric lines provide a sense of structure, order, and calm. With minimal background in the settings, Magro allows readers to focus on each individual character, driving home the point: everyone is important, everyone needs help, and most of all, we need each other. A note in the back matter for adults and caregivers about food insecurity by Kate Maehr, Executive Director and CEO of the Greater Chicago Food Depository, provides additional details on child hunger and resources to help.
Whether in the classroom or family room, readers young and old can benefit from this positive, heartfelt message of hope.
Finalist for the 2021 National Book Award for Young People’s Literature.
★ Starred reviews – Horn Book, Kirkus, School Library Journal
A re-imagined Paul Bunyan legend gives one Chinese American girl the courage to face adversity.
Thirteen-year-old Mei lives and works in an 1885 Sierra Nevada lumber logging camp in the graphic novel, The Legend of Auntie Poby Shing Yin Khor. Her father, Hao, cooks for the workers, and Mei is famed for her pies. Mei, unlike the other women in the camp, does not wear a dress and is conflicted about her budding sexuality and her feelings towards Bee Anderson, the camp foreman’s daughter.
Within the camp, racial tensions simmer and the Chinese workers face discrimination and violence. Abusive behavior towards women in the camp also adds to an increasingly hostile environment. Camp foreman Hel Anderson, Bee’s father, turns a blind eye to all that is happening.
To help her and the other women and children cope with these injustices, Mei invents a Bunyanesque character, Auntie Po, only she can see. The stories she spins about Auntie Po and her blue water buffalo, Pei Pei, give courage and hope to the others.
Following the passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act, the Chinese workers are forced to leave the mill. Mei stays with Bee’s family, but Hao and the other Chinese workers leave to find work in San Francisco. When camp conditions severely deteriorate, Anderson travels to Chinatown to persuade his former workers to return. Hao, mindful of Anderson’s acceptance of the discriminatory conditions, negotiates a better deal for the Chinese workers. Anderson agrees and Hao and the others return to the camp. Father and daughter are reunited.
Author/illustrator Khor’s colorful illustrations authentically capture 19th lumberjacking life, demonstrating the amount of research she did to convey the details of daily life and conditions experienced by the workers and their families. In addition, this graphic novel highlights the art of storytelling and how each story can be shaped or reimagined by the experiences of the teller and the listener.
As the story concludes, Mei and her father decide it’s time for her to go away to school. Mei has also resolved some of her identity issues:
“I know who I am. I am a good cook. I have good friends, I have the best pa in the world” (p. 272).
The author’s endnote and her bibliography contain valuable information, as does her video on how this book came about for anyone who wants to learn more about the legends and history behind this engaging graphic novel. This is truly the middle-grade at its finest.
Lisa Wheeler’s latest picture book, Someone Builds the Dream, uses rhythmic lines to pay homage to the tradespeople who make things happen. For example, behind an architect are the workers who “guide the saws, plane the logs” because “someone needs to pound the nails.”
The structure reveals how tasks are accomplished while recognizing the workforces who labor possibly underappreciated or even unknown. Wheeler’s clever lines fit together like a well-oiled machine. Scenes finish with, “Someone has to build the dream,” drumming that message home, creating anticipation for the next repetition of this phrase.
The acrylics and colored pencil illustrations by Loren Long proudly show a diverse array of people. “Frontline” job positions are supported by those who “set the text, run the press, and load the reams” (for authors) or “tighten bolts, steer the crane, drive machines” (for the scientist creating cleaner energy sources). Long’s art provides a timeless feel and beautifully captures workers in action, bringing the story alive with movement.
This book succeeds on many fronts and would be a welcome addition to homes, schools, and libraries. We see that no one can do it alone and understand the importance of appreciating everyone on the team. Be sure to peek beneath the book jacket for a second cover image. Truly a five-star book in all regards.
Prejudice, Segregation, and the Case of Roberto Alvarez
Written by Larry Dane Brimner
Illustrated by Maya Gonzalez
(Calkins Creek; $18.99, Ages 7-10)
★Starred Review – Kirkus
I could not put down the nonfiction picture book Without Separationbecause, like the compelling but little-known case presented in the recently reviewedWe Want to Go to School, this eye-opening account is about a civil rights case I had never heard about yet think everyone should.
Readers meet Roberto Alvarez on his way to school on January 5, 1931, just after the Christmas break. When the 12-year-old arrived at Lemon Grove Grammar School, “the principal told Roberto and other Mexican and Mexican American children that they did not belong there.” It soon became clear that the children were going to be segregated under the guise that the Mexican children didn’t understand English and were holding back white students.
I was stunned upon reading that the board of trustees of the school district had gone ahead and had another school built to separate these children. On top of that, they did it without telling the Mexican parents. They thought they were avoiding trouble this way but what they were doing was wrong or they would have been more transparent.
They may have thought that by going behind parents’ backs they could get away with their ploy but the inhabitants of the Mexican barrio knew better. Roberto’s parents had told him to come home if he were sent to the new Olive Street School, aka the barnyard.
That fateful morning, Roberto and a large group of other students refused to attend. While the school district tried to spin Olive Street School as a way to help the children learn English and American customs, Roberto, his parents, and other families knew the truth. This was a blatant and seemingly illegal attempt to segregate the students based on race.
Fortunately, the families quickly organized themselves. When they met with the Mexican consul, he connected them with a couple of lawyers to help them. “Roberto brought the situation in Lemon Grove to the attention of the California Superior Court in San Diego on February 13, 1931.” A lawsuit against the board of trustees of the Lemon Grove School District was filed stating how Roberto wanted to go to the same school as the white students, where he’d gone before the new year.
The school board felt overly confident about winning the case because San Diego’s district attorney was on their side, but mistakes were made. The D.A. tried to get the case dismissed but luck was not on his side.
The judge ultimately ruled in favor of Roberto Alvarez who the school district tried to prevent from returning to the local school he’d previously attended. The law said the lead plaintiff (and therefore all the others affected) had every right to attend the Lemon Grove Grammar School “without separation or segregation.” This important case along with several others was cited “before the US Supreme Court when it made its landmark Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka (Kansas) decision of 1954 that outlawed school segregation.” And though the struggle recounted in Without Separation took place almost 91 years ago, the facts surrounding this case feel as relevant today when prejudice against the immigrant communities here in the U.S. continues and racial-based inequalities linger.
Author Brimner has written a timely and terrific book for today’s generation of children to gain greater insight into the power of community, commitment, and the change that even “one small voice” can make.Gonzalez’s gorgeous artwork, reminiscent of Mexican muralists with its bold lines and rich colors, helps bring this story to life.
Eight pages of interesting back matter go into more detail about the case including what happened to the principal Jerome J. Green. There are photos along with information about other similar lawsuits. I was happy to read how Roberto Alvarez became a successful businessman, civic leader, and philanthropist in San Diego before he passed away in 2003. It’s great that this book is available for families, schools, and libraries so readers can have a greater appreciation of the significant impact of Roberto Alvarez v. the Board of Trustees of the Lemon Grove School District.
In this tale set in the ancient Inka (sometimes spelled Inca) empire, Little Chaski has a big job: he is the Inka King’s newest royal messenger. On his first day delivering messages he stops to help several creatures in need along the way, causing him to nearly miss his sunset deadline. But the kindness he bestowed on these animals winds up helping him in surprising ways. Descriptive language and bold illustrations give readers insight into Little Chaski’s nervousness and excitement as he runs the Inka Trail, working earnestly to fulfill the responsibilities of his new role.
Colleen Paeff:Hello, Mariana! There is so much I want to talk to you about, but let’s start with your most recent book. Run, Little Chaski: An Inka Trail Adventure, which I had the pleasure of seeing when it was just a manuscript! Congratulations on the two starred reviews and the Junior Library Guild Gold Standard selection! Can you explain to our readers what a chaski is?
Mariana Llanos:Hi Colleen! I’m excited to be talking about it with you! You’ve seen this story from its first drafts. The word chaski means messenger in Quechua. Chaskis were a relay system of messengers used during the Inka Empire. They delivered official messages through the vast territory of the Tawantinsuyu. When the Spanish invaded, they were so impressed by the organization of this system, they even kept it running for some more years.
CP: Did you first hear about chaskis as a child growing up in Perú, or did you learn about them later in life?
ML:I learned about chaskis in Perú. They’re an important part of Peruvian history and culture so I learned about their system in school. The word chaski is also used as a name for different tourism-based businesses so I was familiar, although I did research more in-depth when writing this book. I read several non-fiction books to make sure I was getting everything right. I discovered there was a lot more to learn about the Inka, since the studies of their culture keep on advancing and more theories develop. Writing a book rooted in your own culture is a huge responsibility to bear on one’s shoulders. I really wanted to get it right.
CP:You manage to pack so much information into the backmatter of this book. You talk about the Inka empire, animals of the Andes, chaskis, and more–and it’s all told in a way that the youngest readers will understand. Did you know from the start the book would have an informational aspect to it or did that develop over time?
ML: It evolved. In the beginning I had an author’s note with some information about the Inka and the Chaskis, but then my editor, Kate DePalma, thought it would be best to break down the information. I really like it now because it’s easier to see and process, especially for young readers. The team at Barefoot Books took what I had already written in the author’s note and added more sections. Later, I went over it and made corrections, and added additional information.
CP: In 2017 you received an Oklahoma Human Rights Awards from the Oklahoma Universal Human Rights Alliance, and the United Nations Association Oklahoma City Chapter. That must have been such an honor. How does writing for children help you to address human rights?
ML: It was an honor that I take very seriously. I feel like writing for children allows me to plant a seed of peace. It allows me to offer a mirror and a window. All children have a right to live in peace and they should have the right to see themselves reflected in books. Books allow kids to imagine a world that is inclusive for all, they allow them to dream of a fair and just society. Through books we can also tackle big important issues like climate change, sustainability, so that’s the direction I’m heading with my stories. Writing for children is a tremendous responsibility.
CP:Your book Luca’s Bridge/El Puente de Lucatackles immigration and deportation—very tough topics—but it’s also about resilience and family. What was the process of writing that book like? How did you find a way to add hope to such a difficult story?
ML:There was a lot of crying involved. It’s such a tough topic, but it was a story I wanted to tell. In the story, Luca’s parents are deported as they’re undocumented, while he is an American citizen but has to travel to Mexico with his parents. It is reversed from the immigration stories we usually hear, but I knew from the news that there are thousands of children in this situation. I know I couldn’t give this story a traditional satisfying ending, but I knew I had to at least weave some hope into it. As an immigrant myself I know how terrifying the thought of being deported is, but I also tried to put myself in Luca’s shoes. To me, as long as I have laughter, music, and family I’d know that eventually, I would be okay. It was important to offer my readers an opportunity to empathize with a person in this situation. We often hear a lot of judgment against people who are undocumented, but what would YOU think if you were part of a mixed-status family, like so many in the United States?
CP:You did such a wonderful job of putting the reader in Luca’s shoes. And the illustrations by Anna López Real add such a beautiful, dreamy quality to the story. What did you think when you first saw them?
ML:Colleen, there was even more crying! They are so evocative and powerful. Anna is such a talented person and couldn’t be happier to have shared Luca with her. It was a similar feeling when I saw Run Little Chaski’s illustrations. I had no idea they could make the story so much fun. I am in constant awe of the talent of the illustrators I’ve been paired with.
CP: In addition to writing (and raising a family and working!), you do a lot of school visits. How do you fit it all in!? Do you have any favorite productivity hacks you can share with us?
ML: I schedule everything in my phone calendar. If I don’t immediately add it to the calendar, then forget it, it won’t happen. It took me a long time to learn to organize myself, but I think I have managed to learn to block my time. My mornings are for my writing and school visits. Afternoons for other work and kids. Family always comes first though, so I don’t feel bad if I have to cancel anything when my family needs me.
CP:In addition to being a traditionally published author, you have also self-published some books. What’s the biggest bonus to each of the different types of publishing?
ML: I have really enjoyed my journey in self-publishing. The biggest bonus is that I tell the stories I want to tell however I want to tell them. Self-publishing allows me to be creative without having to stick to industry standards for format, word count, long waits, even language. On the other hand, it is very hard to get noticed and for picture books, it gets expensive—I’m not an illustrator. But self-publishing is a great way to get our stories out, and I would consider it again to publish in Spanish as traditional publishing still doesn’t publish many authentic books in Spanish written by Spanish-speaking authors from the U.S. Most of what’s published in Spanish in the U.S, are translations, which is fine (there are very good translations of great books), but I think it’s a big bonus when the author writes in their own native language too.
CP: This past year, you started teaching writing classes in Spanish. Can you tell us a little about your classes?
ML:Yes, I began giving workshops about publishing. My goal is to reach Spanish-speaking people who want to begin publishing their stories. Most are bilingual, but like me, feel more comfortable speaking in their language, so this class is directed to them. One of my classes is an overview of the publishing industry. How to go from writing to publishing and the different paths to publish our stories. The class that I’m putting together now is called “El abc de los cuentos” and it will be about craft.
CP: That sounds terrific! In addition to teaching and school visits, what’s next for you?
ML: Currently, my awesome agent, Sera Rivers, is submitting my manuscripts. We have two chapter book series out on sub and a couple of PBs. Hopefully, I’ll get good news in the next few weeks. Everything in publishing moves slowly, but I keep myself from biting my nails by writing more and more stories.
CP:That’s an excellent strategy. I use it myself! Thanks for chatting Mariana. And good luck with your submissions!
ML: Thank you so much for having me, Colleen. My fingers and toes are crossed for my manuscripts and yours too. Thanks, everyone, for reading.
Mariana Llanos is a Peruvian-born writer of children’s books and poetry. She was raised in Lima, Peru, and moved to the United States in 2002. In 2013 she self-published her first book, Tristan Wolf. Nine books later, Mariana debuted as a traditionally published author in 2019 with Luca’s Bridge/El Puente de Luca (Penny Candy Books, illustrated by Anna Lopez Real). This book was selected as a 2020 ASLC Notable Book. Her next book Eunice and Kate (2020, Penny Candy Books, illustrated by Elena Napoli) won the Paterson prize Books for Young People 2021. Her latest book Run Little Chaski(2021, Barefoot Books, illustrated by Mariana Ruiz Johnson) is a JLG Gold Standard Selection and received starred reviews from Kirkus and SLJ.
In The Perfect Plan, author/illustratorLeah Gilbert takes the reader along on a magical journey with Maya, the main character who hopes to build a special place for dreaming and playing in the forest. Through perseverance and teamwork, she builds a fort grander than anything she could have imagined in Gilbert’s enchanting second picture book.
Transporting readers through spreads of tall brown trees and tiny yellow birds, Gilbert’s art encompasses all the beauty of an inviting forest. Tiny Maya gazes upward toward the sky envisioning a tree fort with a ladder to climb and windows to see out of. “’It will be the most INCREDIBLE and WONDERFUL tree fort in the world!’ she imagined.”
Maya is a determined child, and quite the planner, and returns to her bedroom with her black cat by her side to research and design the perfect tree fort. “When she was sure she had thought of everything, she headed outside.”
With her perfect page turns, Gilbert returns the reader to the colorful green forest and the most perfect spot to build a fort. Gilbert depicts Maya pulling and pushing and thinking, but having trouble building a fort alone. Maya realizes that sometimes in life we need help and asking for help is okay. She begins by selling the idea of a fort to three little brown beavers. “I’m building the most OUTSTANDING and ORIGINAL tree fort in the world! Will you help me?” and of course they eagerly agree.
Gilbert’s beautifully expressed words convey that not everyone is good at every job. This is an awesome reminder for both parents and kids! We see that beavers are great at cutting and chopping branches, but not so good at dragging heavy items. Gilbert introduces the kind moose and tells him that she is building “the STRONGEST and STURDIEST tree fort in the world!” Two big brown bears happily agreed to build and stack the frame, and the yellow birds with their natural ability to fly high “twisted and twirled, weaved and wound. Now all the branches were secured.”
When Maya and the animals scanned the finished fort, Maya began to think something was missing only to be interrupted by a big storm. Maya ran for cover looking back at the fort, while worried that it would be ruined. But upon returning to the spot “Maya couldn’t believe her eyes. ‘It’s Perfect.’” Gilbert paints delightful purple flowers that have bloomed from the rain and the fort is now “far more than she had even imagined it would be.”
Gilbert celebrates creativity and shows children the importance of perseverance and teamwork. Kids see that magical things can happen when putting their heart and soul into something. The words can be re-read with new meanings found in the message each time, while the soft colorful art inspires kids to get out a paintbrush and create their own hideaway.
If you’re looking for an empowering new take on fairy tale princesses, look no further than Tracy Marchini’spicture book Princesses Can Fix It!This homage to The Twelve Dancing Princesses shows readers that princesses (and princes) can do whatever they set their minds to, no matter what anyone else thinks.
At the start of the book, we learn that there is a problem in the King’s castle. The alligators from the moat have escaped and are now running about inside! The three princesses, Margaret, Harriet, and Lila, have an idea how to help. Unfortunately, the King wants them to only focus on proper princess activities rather than their passion for inventing and building. Throughout the book, the girls secretly work on their creation to fix the problem and prove their father wrong.
Julia Christians’colorful and dynamic illustrations bring the characters to life and give the book a whimsical flair on every page. This, combined with the book’s poetic structure and use of repetition also gives the book excellent read-aloud potential.
Most of all, what I love about Princesses Can Fix it!is how it manages to be both silly and meaningful at the same time. This charming picture book is about three clever and committed young girls building a contraption to solve their alligator infestation. At the same time, it’s also about how they stand up for themselves and persevere, something that should motivate little girls and boys eager to pursue their passions in the face of societal expectations.
Guest Review by Mary Finnegan
Click any of the below links to purchase the book:
“A behind-the-scenes look at the creation and evolution of Wonder Woman, the iconic character who has inspired generations of girls and women as a symbol of female strength and power.
Perhaps the most popular female superhero of all time, Wonder Woman was created by Bill Marston in 1941, upon the suggestion of his wife, Elizabeth. Wonder Woman soon showed what women can do—capture enemy soldiers, defeat criminals, become president, and more. Her path since has inspired women and girls while echoing their ever-changing role in society. Now a new group of devoted young fans enjoy her latest films, Wonder Woman and Wonder Woman 1984, and await a third installation being planned for theatrical release. This exceptional book raises up the many women who played a part in her evolution, from Elizabeth Marston to writer Joye Hummel to director Patty Jenkins, and makes clear that the fight for gender equality is still on-going.”
Hi Kirsten! Welcome to Good Reads With Ronna and congratulations on the publication of A TRUE WONDER: The Comic Book Hero Who Changed Everything, a truly wonderful picture book that I’m so excited to discuss with you, especially on your launch day! Like you, I grew up on comic books (Archie) although to be honest the only superhero I followed as a child was Superman. Somehow I came late to the game with Wonder Woman. Patty Jenkins’ first film was my first introduction to the backstory.
GOODREADSWITHRONNA:Can you believe the young girl in the 1970s who was a Lynda Carter fan is the one who’s written about Wonder Woman?
KIRSTEN W. LARSON:I wasn’t someone who always wanted to be an author when I grew up, so I feel lucky to have stumbled on a career later in life that feeds my curiosity. I love research and that thrill of feeling I’ve gotten a book “just right” in terms of voice, structure, etc.
GRWR:I’m curious if once the idea hit you to write the history of Wonder Woman, you knew you’d approach it with a comic book style format (which I ADORED by the way)? Did you do the research first and then decide how to find your way into sharing the story or did you always know how you’d do it?
KWL:I always envisioned this as a biography of the character of Wonder Woman, showing her character arc across the decades. This was a rare book for me. The finished book is very close to the original drafts. The main difference was the addition of some of the more modern incarnations of Wonder Woman that bring the character up to the present. I always envisioned comic-book style illustrations, but of course, the choice to illustrate the book that was entirely up to editor Jennifer Greene, the art director, and illustrator Katy Wu.
GRWR:A TRUE WONDERcould not have been an easy manuscript to write for someone used to the more traditional nonfiction structure. What was that like having to write a script with setting, narrative, thoughts, speech, and sound effects?
KWL:You may be surprised to know that I wrote A TRUE WONDERjust like any narrative nonfiction picture book. I did have a global illustration note suggesting the comic book style, as well as the trading card format for the sidebars about significant people who contributed to the Wonder Woman character. But it was illustrator Katy Wu who broke out the illustrations into panels and dropped the quotes I included into speech bubbles. She deserves all the credit.
GRWR: Whoa, I sure hope Katy sees this and all your compliments because the art and prose work seamlessly. Did you and the illustrator Katy Wu get to collaborate?
KWL:Katy and I didn’t collaborate at all, which is fairly typical for picture books. She did all her own research. I provided some minor comments on her dummy, but that’s it. We’ve only corresponded since we started marketing the book.
GRWR:I am so impressed! So, do you have a favorite spread?
KWL:Yes! The final spread, which talks about how Wonder Woman inspires us to become heroes of our own stories is my hands-down favorite. I tear up every time. Katy illustrated it with a diverse group of women, and it is perfect.
GRWR:Based on your previous STEM books and NASA background, writing about Wonder Woman is a departure for you though it is definitely a STEAM read. What are your feelings about that, and do you think you might write more non-STEM books in the future?
KWL:I love to write about underdogs and women who defy expectations, and the character of Wonder Woman falls into that theme. Plus, comic books are a big part of geek culture. Just think about how much time the Big Bang Theory characters spent at the comic bookstore, or trying to get tickets for San Diego Comic Con.
GRWR:LOL!InA TRUE WONDER I learned SO much about the early days of comic books, especially how the business was populated by white men keen on keeping superheroes men. Yet it was an exceptionally enlightened man, Bill Marston, with a wife working full-time as the family bread-winner who pitched the idea of Wonder Woman to Charlie Gaines of All-American Comics, the precursor to DC. Tell us more about that fateful turn of events in the male-dominated industry.
KWL:This probably won’t surprise anyone, but comic books have been under attack almost since their inception. Just before Wonder Woman was introduced, parents and educators complained about the violence in comics. They argued that comics were a poor substitute for classic literature too (sound familiar)? But Marston thought comics could be a force for good. It was his wife, Elizabeth Marston, who suggested the idea of a female superhero. And that’s what Bill Marston pitched – a female superhero who he hoped would be a good influence on children.
GRWR:Women writers and staffers behind the emergence of Wonder Woman ultimately played crucial roles in empowering the character and women in general during WWII when a majority of men were off fighting. You mention more than a handful and even write in your back matter about Joye Hummel (who wrote under a male pen name) and several others who made an impact on the representation of Wonder Woman including Gloria Steinem. Can you speak to how they contributed to feminism?
KWL:Through the years and often behind the scenes and uncredited, women have contributed to Wonder Woman as authors, artists, editors, and consultants. These women were ahead of their time in what continues to be a male-dominated industry. At the same time, second-wave feminists like Gloria Steinem and Joanne Edgar grew up reading Wonder Woman comics and sort of adopted her as their mascot, putting her on the first cover of Ms. Magazine. Even today, we tap into Wonder Woman as a short-hand way to talk about strong and powerful women and sisterhood.
GRWR:What would like your young readers to take away from readingA TRUE WONDER?
KWL: I hope that children will find a way to channel their inner superheroes and make their own contributions to their communities and the world. We need everyday heroes now more than ever.
KWL: I find story ideas everywhere: books, movies, magazine articles, museums, you name it. Normally I do some initial research to learn whether the resources I need (like primary sources) are readily available, and to figure out if someone is already writing a book about the subject. If everything checks out, I start with secondary sources to get context, then dive into primary sources to hear the characters’ voices. The research normally guides me to a structure and voice, but there’s always a lot of experimentation. And walking, along with showers, meditating, and mentor texts, are great for when I get stuck during the writing process.
GRWR:That’s so helpful to know. Do you have a writing routine and a preferred place to write?
KWL:I write all over the place–in the living room, outside on my back patio, in my office. I get up before everyone else and try to write for at least an hour Monday through Friday after checking in with my accountability partner. Most days I dedicate another two hours to writing before turning to other things.
GRWR:What’s your go-to creativity beverage or comfort food when feeling frustrated?
KWL: I work with so many amazing contributors on STEM Tuesday, led by Jen Swanson. Each month, team members put together a themed book list plus classroom activities and ELA/writing activities. The last week of the month we have an interview with an author and a book giveaway. I write about writing. There is so much creativity happening in nonfiction and STEM writing right now. I love showing educators how they can use STEM books to teach writing craft.
GRWR:I agree that STEM reads and nonfiction have never been more exciting than right now. What’s a recent nonfiction book that you couldn’t put down?
KWL:Next year, illustrator Katherine Roy and I have THE FIRE OF STARS with Chronicle Books. It’s a dual narrative picture book about Cecilia Payne, who discovered the composition of stars, told alongside the process of star formation. After that, I have two more books under contract but not yet announced. One is a lyrical, STEM book for younger readers, the second is a middle-grade historical fiction, which I did write in full graphic novel script form.
GRWR:Thanks tons for taking the time today to chat, Kirsten. We could not be more excited aboutA TRUE WONDERand wish you every success with it. And happy book birthday, too!
KWL: Thanks for having me, Ronna! It’s been my pleasure. I love to connect with folks at my website Kirsten-w-larson.comand on social media @kirstenwlarson.
Kirsten used to work with rocket scientists at NASA. Now she writes books for curious kids. Kirsten is the author of WOOD, WIRE, WINGS: EMMA LILIAN TODD INVENTS AN AIRPLANE, illustrated by Tracy Subisak (Calkins Creek, 2020), A TRUE WONDER: The Comic Book Hero Who Changed Everything (Clarion, Fall 2021), illustrated by Katy Wu, and THE FIRE OF STARS: The Life and Brilliance of the Woman Who Discovered What Stars Are Made Of, illustrated by Katherine Roy (Chronicle, Fall 2022), as well as 25 nonfiction books for the school and library market. Sign up for her monthly newsletter here.
In Kirsten Hall’s fun 16-page interactive board book, The Kids on the Bus: A Spin-the-Wheel Book of Emotions, we meet a variety of animals with different emotions. Set to the tune of the familiar song, lines include, “The bear on the bus laughs, ‘Hee, hee, hee, . . . all ’round the town.’” This novelty book is shaped like a school bus.
Melissa Crowton’s lively and inclusive illustrations are set within a soothing sky-blue background. My favorite character is the backpack-wearing, skateboard-riding blackbird. The expressive animals have fun causing a ruckus until the driver has to shush them.
While you can read the book or sing along, be sure to utilize the important social-emotional learning (SEL) elements. The sturdy spinning wheel allows kids to identify their feelings by choosing moods such as silly, angry, or shy.
Part of a 23-book series featuring the same cute baby, Leslie Patricelli’s latest board book, Mad, Mad, MAD, lets off a little steam. As is true in life, sometimes we’re happy, sometimes we’re sad, and sometimes we’re screaming, roaring mad. The contradictory feelings are shown through the art with clearly communicated expressions, and short, rhyming text: “No, I won’t go! / I don’t want to stay.” Dad’s face on this page perfectly captures his confusion—relatable to most parents as they try to understand what their young children need.
When Baby realizes they want to stop feeling this way, trying things such as taking a walk or doing deep breaths eventually helps. The back matter lists additional ideas that may alleviate angry feelings such listening to music, reading, or taking a bubble bath. This book’s social-emotional learning (SEL) guidance can gently help our children more effectively manage their emotions.
Susie Jaramillo’s recent board book in the Canticos series, Feelings: Bilingual Firsts, tackles emotions by showing the word for a mood in English with its Spanish translation on the left-hand side: brave / valiente. Lift the flap on the right-hand side to see vibrant art depicting that mood along with questions such as “Can you show me a surprised face?’ or “How does feeling shy look?” These questions are also provided in Spanish.
The colorful art includes a child, an array of animals, several chicks, and a star. I really liked the angry elephant calf. Cute illustrations coupled with simple text make this an easy way to introduce another language at home. Not only will this book help kids identify their own moods, but another important aspect of social-emotional learning (SEL) is the ability to recognize other people’s needs and feelings.
This lift-the-flap board book, Peek-a-Mood, by Giuliano Ferri presents animals whose faces are hidden behind their hands. Questions such as, “How do you think I feel?” and “Why am I hiding?” pique a child’s curiosity. Behind the hands, you’ll find that the first monkey’s frown provides a clue that it is upset, while the second monkey’s downturned open mouth goes on to reveal it is scared.
An array of artfully depicted mammals draws the reader in. The darling monkey that asks if you can make a silly face too, is adorable! This interactive book concludes with “Show me how you feel!’ Behind the human’s hands is an unbreakable mirror—how fun is that?!
Exploring and identifying emotions is a key part of child development and social-emotional learning (SEL). Peek-a-Mood makes it fun to try figuring out nonverbal emotional cues.
Welcome to Day Four of The Wall and the Wild Blog Tour!
Scroll up or down for the full tour graphic.
The Wall and the Wild, the debut picture book from Christina Dendy with vibrant art by Katie Rewse is in its own lovely way, a call of the wild. Lured in by the cover illustration, I was beckoned on by the gratifying marriage of language and illustrations.
As the story opens, readers see a treetop view of a young girl, Ana, creating a garden. However, she’s overly picky about what she selects. There can be no flaws in what seeds she plants and her face shows when she is dissatisfied. “YOU, stay out THERE” Ana warns the disorderly WILD which, like nature, is really all around her. What doesn’t appear perfect she “throws into the untidy WILD.” With the WILD presented early on by Dendy as a character, my curiosity was piqued.
Intent on keeping her plot pristine, Ana constructs a stone wall, and soon her garden bursts with color and an abundance of beautiful flowers, fruits, and vegetables. Not only do friends come by to admire Ana’s garden, but so do creatures big and small. This feast for the eyes might please others, but Ana seems to only focus on the negative. I love how the author has added another important layer for children in this story about how limiting perfectionism can be. Ana finds and plucks plant intruders from the WILD whose presence mars the overall neat appearance. These weeds weren’t something Ana could tolerate. So, once again, along with more imperfect seeds, she tosses them all away.
Now Ana is more determined than ever. She adds onto her stone wall to prevent the WILD from coming in. Yet, rather than thrive in these conditions, Ana’s perfectly tidy garden seems to wither. The illustrations convey a quality of dullness. When visitors dwindle along with the plants’ health, Ana begins to question her intentions. Perhaps she was too controlling? Maybe it’s time to see what’s out in the WILD where all her discards have gone. “On the other side, voices babble, footsteps patter, and sunlight beams.” There’s a lightness to the prose and a hint at what’s to come.
To her surprise, a world of remarkable beauty awaits Ana beyond her wall. Here I grew excited to see Ana grow along with the WILD garden that’s flourished in spite of her efforts to thwart it. Seeing her realize that, as Dendy mentions in her back matter on ecosystems, “Seeds don’t need to look the same or ‘perfect’ to grow into perfectly beautiful, healthy plants,” is a rewarding moment in the story.
This lovely message of caring for all and how there’s room for everyone at the table or in the garden is as rich as the soil that Ana first tended. Something I missed on the first reading, but noted later on and truly appreciated as someone coming from a family with hearing loss is that Rewse has included the main character wearing hearing aids in her art. I can easily see this charming picture book included in classrooms’ STEM curriculums and as a great way to encourage outdoor, nature-based learning.
“Would knowing how you were going to die change the way you choose to live?” That question drove coauthors Jessica Koosed Ettingand Alyssa Embree Schwartz to write their YA, Fade into the Bright. From the opening pages, eighteen-year-old Abby’s voice pulled me in: “Obviously, it happened right before Christmas. Because don’t all extremely shitty things happen right around the holidays?” This refers to the news Abby and her older sister Brooke receive from their estranged father. In his brief letter, they discover he’s tested positive for Huntington’s disease. The girls have a 50/50 chance of also carrying the gene for this fatal degenerative brain disorder (described as Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and ALS all rolled into one). Typical onset happens between your thirties and fifties.
Both sisters decide to undergo the required six-month pre-testing genetic counseling. Older sister Brooke tests negative, but Abby’s not so lucky. Suddenly, her plans to attend college—and do pretty much anything else with her life—seem futile; Abby escapes to a remote part of Catalina Island to stay the summer with her aunt. (Though I live in Los Angeles and have visited Catalina, the book’s setting provided me with scenery I had not experienced: “rugged and rustic, completely removed.”)
The story unfolds, alternating between chapters in the present day and those flagged as “before.” I like the designation of “before” because it’s true, when something life-changing happens there is that moment before it happened, then everything else follows. Abby’s ups and downs feel real as she wonders what to do while she waits for symptoms to appear. A job at the beach keeps her busy enough to keep panic mostly at bay, but brings with it the complications of whether she should (or could) tell her new friends about all of this, and what to do when she starts falling for her charismatic and attractive coworker, Ben.
The heart of this story revolves around family and how this disease brings people together, pulls them apart, and how to live with everyone’s results. Sister dynamics can already be complex; add in Huntington’s and a layered, emotional story is born. As Abby says about this disease, “It tells you your ending, but leaves out the important parts, like the how and the when.” Still, the characters choose to move forward and, overall, the book feels inspirational.
Jessica Koosed Etting and Alyssa Embree Schwartz know a thing or two about relationships since they’re probably as close as sisters, having been BFFs for more than twenty years and cowriters for most of that period. Their seamless process works; Fade into the Bright is a beautifully written book about such a difficult topic. Huntington’s is near to Jessica because she has watched her family deal with similar situations to those depicted in the book. I’m thankful these writers brought awareness to this disease and the far-reaching impact of a diagnosis.
Good Reads With Ronna is thrilled to be the third stop on the Good Night, Oppy!Blog Tour. I didn’t hesitate to join in when I heard thatJames McGowan’sdebut picture book was about the Mars rover, Opportunity. I live less than a mile or so from NASA’s JPL (Jet Propulsion Lab) where the rovers are created, maintained, and communicated with so I was eager to learn more about Oppy. She was first launched in 2003 when I still lived abroad and was raising children, with little time to think about planetary exploration.
In McGowan’s story, he’s anthropomorphized the rover and introduced us to Oppy, one of two rovers on the Red Planet in 2004 searching for signs of past life. He blends the fictionalized narrative of hard-working and fun-loving Oppy, a solar-and-battery-powered robot roaming Mars and reporting back to her handlers on Earth, with fascinating scientific facts on most spreads. Plus, the onomatopoeia of the sound effect “Ping! Ping!” before a command from Earth adds an extra atmospheric touch that kids will enjoy repeating.
Readers learn that Oppy, as an Interplanetary Detective, remained in daily contact with “Teams of scientists and engineers …” who command and operate spacecraft using the Deep Space Network (a system of huge antennae throughout the solar system). I always wondered how that worked! In fact, my friend’s husband was one of those JPL experts who, among other key responsibilities, received Oppy’s real-life signals on Earth. Equipped with cameras and other equipment for info transmission, Oppy’s job was to photograph and navigate Mars, report back and explore, explore and explore. In fact, over her lifetime she trekked twenty-eight miles providing invaluable information about the Red Planet for scientists and engineers.
Having successfully dodged many potential disasters, things changed for Oppy in June of 2018 when she went to recharge her battery. She needed a place where the sun could reach her solar panels unobstructed, but a powerful dust storm approached. Getting a message to Earth was impossible as layer upon layer of dust covered her panels. Oppy’s power was running low. With the sun obscured, she’d be unable to recharge. She managed to outrace the worst of the storm and transmit one last time to Earth before losing power forever.
What a game changer the rovers have been! Some of Oppy’s finds have been groundbreaking including her discovery of the mineral hematite on the surface of Mars meaning that at one time there had been groundwater. Another time Oppy got stuck in a sand dune and the process of getting her out required clever commandeering (see art above). That unfortunate experience also helped future rovers and technicians know what areas to avoid! Oppy was productive and persevered well beyond what the teams had ever expected. McGowan’s Author’s Note explains that both Opportunity and her sister rover, Spirit, were designed for ninety-day missions yet Spirit worked for six years while Oppy “worked for almost fifteen years!”
Carter’s expansive illustrations in an array of red tones depict the vastness and dryness of Mars. Spreads are never stagnant and present an expressive Oppy on the go, investigating, soaking up the sun, and receiving commands from Earth that dictate which activities to pursue. I like how several times we’re transported to JPL command central for a different perspective of Oppy’s daily life. And, as the massive storm that ultimately ended Oppy’s career bore down on Mars, I felt sad when Oppy fell silent. By humanizing the rover, McGowan’s made Oppy’s contributions feel that much more important than they already are. Presenting Oppy’s story in this way makes it more compelling to younger readers and those more reluctant to pick up a STEM book. I learned so much and children will too. Such a great way to make kids care about our universe. Thank you and good night, Oppy! If you want to read more about Good Night, Oppy!, check out the other bloggers on the tour listed below.
Meet Burt, he’s a ten-lined June (or watermelon) beetle. Burt has feathered antennae, a large body, a sticky abdomen, and can flail his legs when he falls on his back (but needs assistance flipping over). He notices that other insects have special or “super” abilities. A bumblebee is a “super hard worker” and ants can carry heavy loads. So what makes Burt special? Well, he’s trying to figure this out. As Burt meets more insects and learns about their amazing features, he wonders what his “super” ability is. Would winking count? How about hanging out around porch lights? Trying to imitate other insects’ super abilities doesn’t work either and Burt continually ends up on his back.
When Burt discovers a spider web with insects trapped in it, he’s amazed to find that their super abilities cannot free them from the web. As the venomous spider taunts Burt, he realizes he does have some super abilities. Burt’s a hugger and he happens to be sticky, too. Furthermore, he’s big and heavy enough to tear up the spider’s web when he falls on it, saving the other insects–and landing on his back once again. This time he has very grateful friends to help him flip over!
Cheerful and upbeat humor shines in this book. Commenting on his feathery antennae, Burt notes “it’s a style choice.” Gentle quips are exchanged between characters. When the spider, firmly stuck to Burt’s abdomen, asks “is this ever going to end?” Burt replies “I guess you’re stuck with me. Get it?” Exaggerated bodies and expressive faces, especially “bug” eyes, add to the enjoyment.
Spires has created a graphic novel designed for younger readers, especially those new to the graphic novel format. The panels are clean and well organized, without a lot of distractions. The number of characters and speech bubbles in a panel are kept to a minimum and the print is bold and slightly larger than usual. This book is appropriate for independent readers or as a read-aloud for emerging readers.
The book includes some themes which could be used to invite children to discuss character and friendship. Burt’s search for what makes him unique is something children also explore for themselves. Perseverance is a challenge for children, but Burt’s positive “can do” type of behavior in the face of repeated failures may encourage them to keep trying. He takes care of his friends and “doesn’t bite because that’s not how you make friends.”
Lastly, this graphic novel engages children in the natural world around them, weaving in factual information about insects and including “awesome insect super facts” in the back matter. Hopefully, it will inspire children to continue exploring the world of insects and their “super” abilities.
(Margaret K. McElderry Books; $17.99, Ages 4 to 8)
The Great Stink: How Joseph Bazalgette Solved London’s Poop Pollution Problemcombines history and engineering to tell the true story of how one amazing engineer cleaned the stinking River Thames and stopped a deadly cholera epidemic by building London’s first modern sewer system. Illustrations by Nancy Carpenterprovide humor, historical details, and plenty of STEM-related discussion starters, while the book’s back matter delves into “Poop Pollution Today” with tips to help young readers keep the waterways in their own communities clean.
Ronna Mandel:Welcome, Colleen! After two years of your fantastic interviews on this blog, it’s now your turn to answer some questions for our readers!
I’m so excited to share this Q+A about your debut picture book that kept me riveted. And who can close a book that opens with the Queen on her throne, and not the royal throne, but the euphemistic one!?
Now let’s go back to the day the idea for The Great Stink hit you like the foul odors you write about. Where were you and what do you remember thinking about when you first saw those three unforgettable words?
Colleen Paeff: I was reading How to be a Victorian by Ruth Goodman while waiting for a plane at the airport in Atlanta, Georgia, and I came across a line about “The Great Stink of 1858.” There wasn’t much information about it, so I did a quick Google search because the name was so intriguing. When I realized the Great Stink was caused by poop polluted water and an engineer saved the day by cleaning the River Thames, I knew this story had all themakings of a terrific children’s book.
RM:I’m so glad you did. What did your visit to the Crossness Pumping Station in London teach you?
CP: So much! First of all, it convinced me that I wanted to tell this story. The beam engines at the pumping station are incredible and a nonprofit group has been working on restoring them to their former glory, which was really nice to see! While I was there, I was very surprised to learn that Bazalgette’s plan involved pumping sewage back into the river, a practice that continued until 1887 when they started dumping raw sewage directly into the North Sea instead. (!!!) This continued until 1998!
RM: Who knew about all that raw sewage re-dumping so late into the 20th century? Not me! I could gag thinking how much North Sea shrimp I ate back in the ’90s when I lived in Frankfurt!
Your opening paragraph quickly pulls readers in and back in time. I’m curious if you had to work hard to get it as perfectly stinky as it now is? All those superb synonyms spoke to me!
CP:The first sentence is exactly the same as it was from my very first draft. The rest of the paragraph is probably pretty close. I knew I wanted to use all those synonyms for stink and I worked hard to get the right rhythm and then to match that rhythm in the penultimate sentence of the book. The rest of the book didn’t come so easy, though!
RM: How did you react when you heard Nancy was illustrating your book and again when you saw the preliminary artwork? What particularly struck you?
CP:I was already a huge Nancy Carpenter fan. She’s illustrated books written by some of my favorite authors (like Michelle Markel, Jonah Winter, Alexis O’Neill!!), so I felt incredibly honored to discover she’d agreed to create the art for my very first book. And, I felt really lucky to be working with a publishing team that thought to ask her! I didn’t see any illustrations until Nancy had completed sketches for the entire book and I was blown away. I really loved how she depicted the cholera epidemics and how Joseph Bazalgette’s character shines through every time we see him. And there’s so much humor! I died laughing when I saw the way our names are floating in the murky waters of the Thames on the cover of the book!
RM:I can just imagine. It’s so clever. And just look at the bird on the left side of the cover and those stench-sick people on the bridge. Too funny, although I don’t think anyone was laughing at the time.
I’ve always been fascinated with old England, London especially. I know you love it, too. Do you think that, knowing what you know about the sanitation problems that began in the early 1800s due to population growth and the use of flush toilets, whenever you read stories about this time period you’ll always be thinking about poop? In other words, has your research tainted your image of the Victorian era?
CP:It hasn’t tainted my image of the Victorian era, but it’s made watching movies set in that time period a little more difficult to enjoy because I can’t stop thinking about how the outdoor scenes should have more filth.
RM:I feel the same way. And speaking of filth and now knowing the illness it can cause, we learn that Bazalgette was thirteen during the first Cholera epidemic. But by the time more deadly outbreaks come in the late 1840s, he’s already working as an engineer mapping London’s sewer system with the goal of making London “a better, cleaner, healthier place to live.” Were you surprised that no one had thought about this sooner? Can you speak to why his initial plan didn’t get wide approval and how it eventually did?
CP:They had been talking about updating London’s sewers for decades. In fact, Bazalgette’s predecessor, Frank Forster, is largely thought to have died from overwork due to the stress of his job. A big part of the problem was finding the money to pay for such an enormous project. But when the problem started impacting the people in power—the Houses of Parliament are right on the Thames where the stench was intense—and people started to die by the thousands, they suddenly found the money and they found it fast.
RM:There is SO much interesting, eye-opening stuff in The Great Stink, Colleen. Tell me what you had to leave out that you SO wish you could have kept in?
CP: I wish I could have included how Dr. John Snow tracked the source of London’s 1853 cholera epidemic to a water pump on Broad Street not far from Bazalgette’s office. It’s such a fascinating story. Grownups can read more about it in Steven Johnson’s The Ghost Map: The Story of London’s Most Terrifying Epidemic – and How it Changed Science, Cities and the Modern World.
RM:As a bonafide Anglophile, I’m adding that book to my TBR list! How long did it take for you to gather all your research material and write the book?
CP:I started my research in August of 2016 and the manuscript went on submission in May of 2018. But I wasn’t working on that story alone for the whole time. I had other books I was writing and researching. I don’t work on different projects simultaneously, but I will work on one book for a while, send it out to my critique partners, and work on something else while I’m waiting on their feedback. Or sometimes if I can’t figure out how to solve a particular problem with a manuscript, I set it aside for a few months while I work on something else.
RM:What is it about nonfiction that resonates with you?
CP:I love nonfiction because it allows me to really dig into subjects that fascinate me. I never imagined I would be fascinated by sewers, though! I visited several wastewater treatment facilities over the course of my research and was astounded by the science behind how they treat waste. I was even more astounded by some of the amazing things they’re doing with human waste these days!
RM:Sounds like that could be fodder for a second sewage-themed book. 🙂 Do you have any tried and true research tips you can share with other authors starting their nonfiction journey?
CP:Keep track of where you find your information! I’m terrible at doing this, but it makes things so much easier when it comes time to copy edit and fact check a manuscript. I’ve started keeping an “Info Dump” file on Scrivener for each research project and I include source information for every fact. My hope is that later, when I’m fact-checking, I’ll be able to do a word search that will take me to the original source. I’m crossing my fingers that it works!
RM:Ditto! I’ll be curious to hear how that works out.
Here’s my chance to officially wish you a happy book birthday! Yay! It must have seemed like 2021 was so far off when you first began The Great Stink. But at last, your book is out there on bookshelves (signed copies are atOnce Upon a Time Bookstore). What are you most looking forward to?
CP: I can’t wait to hear the reactions of my young readers and to start doing school visits!
RM: What resources for creatives do you turn to for inspiration and to keep your prose fresh?
CP: Books and long walks.
RM:Do you have any advice for nonfiction book authors who are seeking new subjects and people to write about?
CP: Pay attention to everything. News stories. Little tidbits in books you’re reading. Stories people tell you. Email newsletter content. (I love Atlas Obscura, Smithsonian, and JSTOR’s newsletters.) And if anything piques your interest, dig deeper—look for stories that have lots of angles. The Great Stink touches on germ theory, engineering, history, and environmental science, so teachers should be able to use it in the classroom in lots of different ways. I imagine that was one thing that made it appealing to my editor—though I’ve never asked. Maybe I should!
RM: I was one of the passionate members of your picture book study group. Please tell readers the benefits of creating this kind of group.
CP:Ourpicture book publisher book clubwas THE BEST! When I first got serious about writing for kids (after many years of dabbling) I decided that the best way to learn what made each publishing house or imprint unique, would be to get a big pile of picture books published by the same house and read them all at once. So every month, I checked out about 25 books published in the last five years by one publisher, say Chronicle Books, for example, and invited other picture book enthusiasts (including you!) over to my house and we would take turns reading books aloud. The following month, we might do books from Roaring Brook or Holiday House. At first, we only read books from places that accepted unsolicited manuscripts because most of us were unagented, but after the first year, we broadened our scope. There were so many benefits to creating this group. We learned a ton about the market and what was being published. We started to pick up on the subtle (or not so subtle) differences in the books coming from different publishing houses. And, best of all, we made lasting friendships. I think that book club was one of the best things I ever did for myself as a writer.
RM:Before we say goodbye, I’m sure everyone wants to know what’s on the horizon for you?
CP: My next book, Rainbow Truck, comes out in 2023 from Chronicle Books. I co-wrote it with Hina Abidi and Saffa Khan is illustrating. It tells the story of a Pakistani decorated truck trying to discover her true purpose as she makes deliveries around the country. If you have never seen a decorated truck from Pakistan, Google it! They’re incredible!! And, in the meantime, I’m working on a new picture book biography and I’ve got a few other projects on the back burner, too. Thanks so much, Ronna, for interviewing me. I’m really glad to be celebrating my book’s birthday with you!
RM: And thank you, Colleen, for taking the time to go into such fascinating detail about The Great Stink. It’s been wonderful!
Fueled by English breakfast tea, a burning curiosity, and a love of research, Colleen Paeff writes picture books from a book-lined office in an old pink house with a view of the Hollywood sign. She is the author of The Great Stink: How Joseph Bazalgette Solved London’s Poop Pollution Problem (Margaret K. McElderry Books, 2021) and Rainbow Truck, co-authored with Hina Abidi (Chronicle Books, 2023). Find her online at www.colleenpaeff.com and on Twitter and Instagram @ColleenPaeff.
Back-to school this year is not only the start of a new school year, for many it’s also a return to in-person learning in over a year. For others, it’s really the first time ever to attend daycare, preschool, or elementary school. This selection of ten assorted books highlights all the things that returning to school means for kids.
Cindy Jin’s upbeat 12-page school-shaped board book, Meet Your School!: An All About Me Book, features a variety of animals making their way through a school day. A nice overview is given of what kids can expect, from the main classrooms to the art room, gym, cafeteria, library, and music room. The rhyming couplets reinforce what can be found in each area: “The library is filled with books of all kinds / to teach and inspire bright, young minds.”
The illustrations by Melissa Crowton depict cute, colorful animals interacting happily in various situations. Each page has fun lift-the-flaps for further exploration. Overall, this book has a lot to discover while also providing a positive message as to what school is all about. – Review by Christine Van Zandt
My eyes were instantly attracted to the colorful book cover illustration of an apple being shared on the school playground with a new friend, while classmates throw balls and glide down the slide, introducing readers to acts of kindness in How To Be Kind in Kindergarten: A Book for Your Backpack.
A book for your backpack is a perfect subtitle for this small hardcover book that reads rhythmically, teaching hidden lessons to kids first entering the new world of school. The fun-to-read story includes a diverse mix of abilities, races, and genders. Kids should have no problem finding themselves in one of Hammond’s realistic drawings.
Steinberg opens the story with the question, “Are you in kindergarten? Is that really true? How in the world did you get so big? So smart and funny, too!” The story moves into the classroom with posters of 1, 2, 3, and ABC so a child sees what a kindergarten classroom looks like. Kindness is threaded through each page as Steinberg points out, ‘Cause you’re the kind of kid who always shows you care.
This book shows kids what an impact they can make in their new school, whether cheering up a sad new friend or including a shy friend in a game. This truly is an ideal backpack book and should be read on the first day of school, the middle of the school year, and at the end of the school year because kindness is needed year-round. – Review by Ronda Einbinder
The eye-catching cover of Joan Holub’s, What’s in Dragon’s Backpack? gleams with metallic dragon scales and the backpack-shaped 14-page board book has a cut-out handle just the right size for small hands. Inside, the fun rhyming couplets give us a glimpse of what Dragon’s got in there: “Stickers, charms, a message, and some homework that he fried. Oops!”
Each page has lift-the-flaps for further exploration adorned with Christopher Lee’s adorable art. The faces on his dragons, such as on the mock A Dragon’s Tale book, are top-notch. I also really like the subtle math lessons showing three flames equals one on-fire number three. Other teaching elements include groups of shapes that, once you peek beneath the flap, combine to make a sword.
Educational, interactive, and fun, this engaging book is sure to be a hit with kids who are starting school and donning backpacks. It can also be a conversation starter about what should be inside your child’s backpack to make school days a success. – Review by Christine Van Zandt
It’s the first day of school, an English-speaking school, but Isabel only speaks Spanish. Isabel is a charming and irresistible main character and I cared about how she felt going into unknown territory, alone. Her reluctance is understandable. She doesn’t know English and is scared of what it will be like. Isabel sees things in gorgeous colors and through art and doesn’t realize how quickly she will pick up the new language. “English sounded wrong, like stormy blues and blizzard whites.” Isabel preferred the warm, cheerful colors of Spanish.
Ultimately her language learning is facilitated by one good friend but her limited grasp of English initially gets in the way. Isabel’s thoughtful art saves the day and new friendship blossoms. The interplay between Alessandri’s beautiful prose and Dawson’s flowing art makes every page a delight to behold. This cleverly presented bilingual picture book also includes Spanish to English translations in the back matter but for English speakers, most of the Spanish words can be understood in the context of the story. – Review by Ronna Mandel
School really does stink when one classmate is a skunk and the teacher is unBEARable. So, when little Stuart tells Mom his classmates are wild animals she says all kids are wild animals in debut author Becky Scharnhorst’s hysterical read-aloud with drawings by Julia Patton.
The originality of this story told in diary form starting on the first day of school and ending at Open House, when Mom and Dad realize they have sent their young child, Stuart, to a school full of animals, takes the reader through the first seventeen days of school. Stuart attempts to play along with his classmates when the monkeys hang him upside down. He’s then caught by Patricia the Porcupine pricking him with her many quills. Stuart journals P.S. The deep breaths still aren’t working. P.P.S. Neither are the happy thoughts P.P.P.S. I’m not going back tomorrow!
As Stuart continues to journal he also begins to make friends. Charlie the Crocodile apologizes for biting his fingers and becomes Stuart’s new best bud. This sweet story can be read for school storytime or by a parent before bed. I laughed on entry September 15 when Scharnhorst writes P.S. Mom doesn’t understand how a skunk got in the storage closet. I guess she’ll find out at Open House. I was anxious for Open House to find out how Mom and Dad would react to realizing they sent their child to the wrong school, but Stuart repeats what they told him on the first day of school Mom and Dad told me to take deep breaths and THINK HAPPY THOUGHTS. This was a great lesson for his parents. I just hope they let him stay friends with a crocodile! Patton’s detailed artwork adds to the whimsy with letters written on notebook paper and characters drawn with big teeth and round glasses. The P.S. notes were a fabulous extra touch. – Review by Ronda Einbinder
Oh, how I’d love for this nonfiction picture book to be required reading in all schools! I could not believe as I read it that prior to President Ford signing the Education for All Handicapped Children Act (EAHCA) in 1975 with its Individualized Education Plan (IEP), children with disabilities did not have the right to a free, appropriate, public education. But the book really focuses on the lawsuit in 1971 called Mills v. Board of Education of the District of Columbia, the District Court ruling in 1972 that led to this important act being implemented, and the seven school-aged children and their families who made it happen.
We Want to Go to School is narrated by author-illustrator Cocca-Leffler’s daughter, author Janine Leffler, whose own inclusive experience as a student with Cerebral Palsy (CP) receiving various special assistance in school contrasts to what students prior to her would have experienced. She explains how prior to the ’70s, students with disabilities either didn’t go to school, stayed in hospitals, or were sent to special schools at a huge expense to families. If they were allowed into some schools, these children were segregated in separate classrooms. There was little chance to interact with mainstream students. That is until Peter Mills, Janice King, Jerome James, Michael Williams, George Liddell, Jr., Steven Gaston and Duane Blacksheare decided they’d had enough of being left out. Of course, the schools objected, finding reason after reason why students with disabilities should not be able to attend. Their parents were having déjà vu.
Wasn’t public school supposed to be for everyone? Wasn’t that the lesson learned in Brown v. Board of Education in 1954 when segregation because of the color one’s skin was the issue. So the families fought back. They began to meet others facing the same school challenges and there was power in numbers. The news of the lawsuit spread so that pretty soon “more families joined the lawsuit.” It then became a class action suit. “18,000 students from the Washington, D.C. area were also not receiving a public education because of their disabilities.” Would the judge presiding over the case agree? YES! And the positive outcome of this lawsuit led to big changes for students with disabilities with “federal laws guaranteeing public education for all children.
I loved the energy of Cocca-Leffler’s art, especially the spread where she’s filled the page with faces of 1,000 kids and tells readers to imagine those 18,000 DC students, and the 8 million US students denied an education because they had disabilities. Powerful! Five pages of back matter include information on Disability Education Rights, a timeline, Author Notes, and an enlightening Note from Paul R. Dimond, Plaintiffs’ Attorney in the Mills v. Board of Education of the District of Columbia. I’m grateful for these change-makers. They paved the way for future students with disabilities who continue to benefit from their commitment to equal rights in education for all. – Review by Ronna Mandel
The Night Baafore The First Day of School blends the counting element, the rhyme and hilarity of Sandra Boynton’s Hippos Go Berserk with the irresistible art of Mark Teague’s Pigsty. As the main character Bo—the star of two previous books I haven’t yet read—attempts unsuccessfully to fall asleep due to day-before-school-starts jitters, he calls on sheep to help. The catch is they make it more difficult to sleep with the ruckus they create. Poor Bo, aware of the hours slipping away, is desperate. He offers them a snack if they’ll stop, but when that doesn’t work he calls an emergency meeting. Only then a mysterious shadow of a monster appears further exacerbating the chaos.
There’s as much for readers to enjoy in Young’s wild storyline as there is in Pino’s zany and action-packed illustrations. The counting of sheep from 1 to 10 as they get up to no good adds an engaging layer to the book. Then, reversing that to eventually count back down as it gets later and later, is such fun and a great way to involve young readers. I love how the 10 sheep all wear number necklaces to identify themselves. Kids may want to study each spread more closer upon further reads to see what each individual sheep is doing with the supplies Bo has prepared for his backpack. The massive mess is mighty fun to look at. Tension builds with each page turn as we wonder if Bo will get any shut-eye and manage to catch the bus to school. And the humor surrounding every sheep-filled episode encroaching on Bo’s time to sleep is a delight in this rhyming romp of a read-aloud. – Reviewed by Ronna Mandel
Norman, a very small, almost invisible dinosaur compared to all the other dinos at Mrs. Beak’s play group, is shy. This may resonate with young readers experiencing a similar emotion when just starting school and being away from home. Julian’s rich artwork is charming in how it depicts Norman hiding (except his tail always adorably sticking out) in various situations where the text also states “he was very good at hiding.” In the beginning, before Norman makes friends, parents can ask children to see if they can spot him in the illustrations as he avoids interaction.
My favorite part of the picture book is when Norman confides in Mrs. Beak that he really wants to join the other dinos but feels shy. “It’s okay to be shy,” Mrs. Beak replied. “It’s a special part of who you are.” When she asks the dinos to perform in pairs, Norman teams up with big, loud Jake who despite his size, admits he’s rather nervous too. The two share a laugh and come up with a magical performance that not only satisfies (and perhaps comforts) children but provides the perfect conversation starter for parents and teachers to discuss shyness. I’m not sure it was deliberate, but I appreciated Mrs. Beak’s rainbow door and her rainbow mug, another welcoming feature to this warm and reassuring read. – Review by Ronna Mandel
School Is Cool was written and illustrated by sisters Sabrina Moyle and Eunice Moyle founders of Hello!Lucky, their award-winning letterpress greeting card and design studio.
Targeting the child who has already had some school experience, this story begins on the beach where the rhinoceros, dog, and platypus are chilling out until they realize Tomorrow’s the first day of school! The expressive drawings tell it all when the dog almost drops his ice cream cone and the rhino jumps from his floatation device. The friends are worried kids won’t like your hair. Or how they talk. Or what they wear.
Eunice Moyle’s bold, captivating illustrations depict all sorts of animals arriving for their first day by school bus and bikes. They line up awaiting a handshake from the animal teacher, in popping bright greens and oranges and a happy yellow sun, a perfect complement to the welcome the smiling animals.
This book expresses the true feelings many kids have when it’s time to say goodbye to Mom and home now replaced by an unfamiliar teacher and classroom where they must learn the new rules. What if your teacher calls on you—and the answer is five, but you said … 2. It’s ok to say “I don’t know.” Everyone is here to grow.”
The back flap states that the Moyle sisters use their creativity and humor to inspire kindness, empathy, self-awareness, and service and in doing so dedicate this book to teachers everywhere. You are the coolest! Thank you for all you do! – Review by Ronda Einbinder
It looks like it’s going to be three times the trouble at school for David Suárez. With new neighbors, the Benitez triplets adding to what’s already an annoying presence by his other neighbors, the Romero twins, David must navigate third grade and not lose his cool. His goal after all is to be captain of the Globetrotters, the geography club, and that requires an uncluttered mind. Except the Benitez triplets and Romero twins are messing with him and everyone else.
When David is tasked with monitoring the playground (trouble maker prime turf), he fears it may be made off-limits for everyone if the five tricksters continue getting up to no good. And that is looking more and more likely when both sets of mischief-makers aim to rule recess with their pranks and pushy personalities.
This early chapter book, filled with humorous black-and-white illustrations, works well with its mix of Spanish words and expressions along with comments at the end of most chapters noting a reader’s progress. I like how Back-to-School Blitz includes a diverse group of students and some interesting geography information (David’s favorite subject) that ends up playing an important part in keeping the bullies in check. A couple of things jumped out at me like having the triplets together in one class which I thought wasn’t typically done. Another time, after causing a distraction, the triplets sneak out of class early without the teacher, Mr. Kim, noticing. But I’m an adult and if the kids reading this first book in a new series don’t mind, that’s great because as the book ends, there’s some unusual digging going on in the sandbox, and surely more pranks to come in book #2. – Review by Ronna Mandel