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An Interview with The Passover Guest Author Susan Kusel

AN INTERVIEW WITH AUTHOR SUSAN KUSEL

ABOUT HER DEBUT PICTURE BOOK

THE PASSOVER GUEST

(Neal Porter Books; $18.99, Ages 4-8)

 

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SHORT SUMMARY:

In The Passover Guest, written by Susan Kusel and illustrated by Sean Rubin, Muriel assumes her family is too poor to hold a Passover Seder this year, but an act of kindness and a mysterious magician change everything.

 

INTERVIEW:

GoodReadsWithRonna: Welcome, Susan! Congratulations on your debut picture book, The Passover Guest!

Susan Kusel: Thank you so much for having me here! I am honored to be on this blog

GRWR:  How does it feel as a synagogue librarian and indie bookstore book buyer to know your new book,
The Passover Guest, has landed on shelves? 

SK: It’s an absolutely surreal feeling to know that my book has a spot in some of my favorite libraries and bookstores. I am humbled by the idea of a child pulling it off the shelf and reading it.

GRWR: When did the seed to become a storyteller first plant itself in your soul? Can you recall the first books that sparked your imagination? 

SK: I’ve wanted to be a writer for so long, it’s hard to remember the exact moment I started. I do remember the first time I ever wrote a complete book though. It was for a 5th grade English assignment and was about a Russian Jewish girl named Rachel. I remember being very proud of the special folder I put the book into.

My mom used to read to me every night when I was a child and some of my favorite books then were Cars and Trucks and Things That Go by Richard Scarry, Walter the Baker by Eric Carle, Mr. Popper’s Penguins by Richard and Florence Atwater, Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel by Virginia Lee Burton and of course, The Magician by I.L. Peretz, adapted by Uri Shulevitz.

 

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Interior spread from The Passover Guest, A Neal Porter Book/Holiday House © 2021. Text copyright © 2021 by Susan Kusel Illustrations copyright © 2021 by Sean Rubin

 

GRWR: What inspired you to write The Passover Guest as a retelling of the classic I. L. Peretz’s story adapted by Uri Shulevitz in 1973 rather than create a new tale? 

SK: As I mentioned above, The Magician was in regular reading rotation by my mother when I was younger and so it’s a story I’ve been in love with for a long time. When I rediscovered the book in a library as an adult, I still thought it was an amazing story, but I noticed some plot elements that I wished were different. That started me down the path of doing an adaptation of Peretz’s story, a process that took about ten years.

GRWR: Aside from setting the story in 1933 Depression-era D.C. are there any other notable changes you wanted to make for 21st-century young readers? 

SK: The most significant change I made was adding the character of Muriel. In the Peretz version, the story is about a couple but I thought that it was very important to add a child character. There are also a number of subtle changes I added, such as Muriel putting a penny in the Magician’s hat, the rabbi coming to Muriel’s seder, the whole community filling the house, the matzah breaking itself in two, and several smaller plot points. My goal was to stay true to Peretz’s message while making the story my own.

GRWR: What were your go-to Jewish holiday books growing up and right now? Do you have a collection? 

SK: Jewish stories have always been very important to me, but when I was growing up, we owned very few. Our whole book collection, which took up half a shelf in my brother’s closet, was primarily obtained from library book sales. We supplemented these with library books. I only had a few Jewish books including The Power of Light by Isaac Bashevis Singer and Potato Pancakes All Around by Marilyn Hirsh (which we used then, and I still use now for the latke recipe).

As for now, I am typing this while sitting in my home library surrounded by picture books, including several shelves just for Jewish books. Current favorites include Hershel and the Hanukkah Goblins by Eric Kimmel (no holiday list is complete without it!), I Know an Old Lady Who Swallowed a Dreidel by Caryn Yacowitz, The Matzah Papa Brought Home by Fran Manushkin (sadly out of print but still extraordinary), and Here is the World by Lesléa Newman. That’s really just a small sample though because there are so many Jewish holiday books I love.

GRWR: Has your experience on the Caldecott Medal selection committee or as chair of the Sydney Taylor Book Award Committee influenced your writing in any way? 

SK: One of the most common pieces of advice given to writers is to read extensively in your field. I think those committees, as well as others I’ve been on, have certainly helped me with that. When you are reading hundreds and hundreds of books in a genre, it does give you a better sense of what is currently published. Being on so many committees has helped me see what the conventions are, and how they can be broken and how I can be a better writer.

GRWR: Sean Rubin’s art is as magical as your prose and the mysterious guest himself. Do you have a particular favorite spread from the book you can tell us about? 

SK: I think Sean did a truly extraordinary job on the illustrations and picking just one of them is like trying to pick a favorite child. I think his work adds so much to the book and makes it complete.

I could easily go on at length about every individual spread and how much I love it, but if I can only pick one, it would be when Muriel goes to the synagogue to consult the rabbi. Over the course of one continuous spread, Sean shows us four completely separate and distinct scenes and the cause and effect of each one of them. And all of this against the astonishingly beautiful and majestic background of the Sixth and I Synagogue, a D.C. Jewish landmark. 

GRWR: Early on in The Passover Guest Muriel meets an unusual street performer to whom she gives her last penny. Can you speak to the story idea of magic and how, especially in tough times, this kind of belief can help people? 

SK: I think it’s always a good time to believe in the possibility of magic, especially during difficult times. You never know who that bedraggled stranger might turn out to be. Faith and hope are so important.

 

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Interior spread from The Passover Guest, A Neal Porter Book/Holiday House © 2021. Text copyright © 2021 by Susan Kusel Illustrations copyright © 2021 by Sean Rubin

 

GRWR: Where do you find the time to write with all your other commitments? Do you have a daily routine? 

SK: I’d love to be able to say that I sit down in the same place at the same time every day and write for the same amount of time. But the truth, as you alluded to in this question, is that I have multiple jobs, commitments, and children, and I do my best to write as much as I can when I can.

GRWR: You mentioned in your author’s note that Passover has always been your favorite holiday, can you tell us why? 

SK: I love so many things about Passover: the coming of spring, getting the seder plate ready, singing songs, finding the afikomen, eating too much charoset, being with family, and much more. It’s always been a magical holiday for me and I’m delighted that this book lets me share some of that magic.

GRWR: Are you working on your next book? Will it have a Jewish theme? 

SK: I’m working on several next books, all with Jewish themes. I have a real commitment to telling Jewish stories.

GRWR: It’s been wonderful having you as a guest here today, Susan! I really appreciate your thoughtful replies and am looking forward to sharing a review of your book when we get closer to Passover.

Author Susan KuselBRIEF BIO:

Susan Kusel has turned a life as a book lover into many careers as an author, librarian, and buyer for a bookstore. She has served on many book award committees including the Caldecott Medal and the Sydney Taylor Book Award. She loves biking, cross-stitching, and of course, reading. Learn more about Susan on her website and by following her on social media.

Twitter: @susankusel
Instagram: @susanhkusel
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Click here to read another picture book author interview.

 

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Picture Book Blog Tour – An Interview With Chick Chat Author Illustrator Janie Bynum

MEET JANIE BYNUM

AUTHOR-ILLUSTRATOR OF

CHICK CHAT

(NorthSouth Books; $17.95, Ages 4-8)

 

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It’s Day One of the CHICK CHAT BLOG TOUR as well as its book birthday! Peep! Peep! GRWR is so happy to participate and celebrate the hatching. Please enjoy the following interview with Chick Chat author-illustrator Janie Bynum and her insights on this fun new read-aloud picture book for children.

 

CHICK CHAT SUMMARY:

Friendship comes in all shapes and sizes.

Peep, peep, peep! Baby Chick has a lot to say!

Everyone in Chick’s family is too busy to chat with her. But when chatty baby Chick adopts a large egg—she finally finds a friend who is a good listener. When her egg goes missing, Chick is heartbroken, until she finds that it has hatched into a brand-new friend!

INTERVIEW WITH CHICK CHAT AUTHOR-ILLUSTRATOR JANIE BYNUM

GoodReadsWithRonna: Hi Janie! Welcome to the blog. I’ve got lots of questions for you today.
In your author bio on the book’s copyright page, you mention how talkative you were as a child. Can you expand on this and how it influenced creating your main character Baby Chick?

Janie Bynum: Being an inquisitive, talkative, and determined child, I’m sure I tested the patience of my family—and quite a few teachers. Baby Chick and I share all of those personality traits—as well as being a fairly self-reliant youngest sibling. As I wrote and revised Baby Chick’s story, this very talkative youngest sibling emerged. So I ended up writing from a perspective (with a voice, as it were) that I understood as a kid.

In early versions of the manuscript, Baby Chick actually spoke instead of only peeping. But, I ultimately chose to have her peep in such a way that sounds like she knows exactly what she’s saying (and she does). This way kids can interpret what she may be saying—either inferred by the illustrations or by whatever words they imagine for her.

 

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Interior spread from Chick Chat written and illustrated by Janie Bynum, NorthSouth Books ©2021.

 

GRWR: Which came first, the Baby Chick character design or the story?

JB: The Baby Chick character art came first.

GRWR: It was funny how everyone in Baby Chick’s family is unaffected (to the point of almost ignoring her while they’re otherwise occupied) by her nonstop peeping while she carries on joyfully by herself. Is there something to be learned from her sheer self-contentedness?

JB: Possibly … by enjoying our own company, not being entirely dependent on others to “make” our happiness for us. Baby Chick is creative and makes her own fun; and, in doing so, she discovers something to nurture, which ultimately hatches into a friend who listens.

GRWR: I was absolutely convinced Baby Chick had found a rock not a big egg. Was this deliberate?

JB: No. The giant Galapagos tortoise’s egg—which I used for reference—looks very much like a round stone. Only at first, when she hasn’t fully unearthed the object, does Baby Chick not know that it’s an egg. But once she uncovers it, she realizes it’s some sort of egg—maybe not a chicken egg because it’s so round. But Baby Chick either doesn’t notice the difference or doesn’t care. It’s an egg without anyone to tend it, so she decides to be its guardian.

GRWR: I’m curious why you decided to make the baby turtle a quiet character rather than one “with a lot to say” like Baby Chick?

JB: I could’ve made the baby turtle/tortoise even more talkative than Baby Chick, which would’ve been funny. But I wanted Baby Chick to be rewarded (for all her nurturing and protection of the egg) with a friend who likes to listen. It’s also a sort of celebration of the yin/yang relationship, how seemingly opposites are actually complementary (in this case extrovert/introvert).

 

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Interior spread from Chick Chat written and illustrated by Janie Bynum, NorthSouth Books ©2021.

 

GRWR: Do you see Chick Chat as primarily a friendship story or did you feel there were other themes you wanted the book to explore?

JB: The friendship theme is wrapped around a story about self-sufficiency; and, as you noted earlier, self-contentedness. So, it really has two main themes.

GRWR: What medium do you work in when creating your artwork?

JB: I used a combination of digital media and traditional watercolor, which is the way I generally work. For Chick Chat art, I worked on my iPad (in an app called Procreate) and in Photoshop on my Mac computer with large monitor. I used traditional watercolor for some areas, and added real paper and paint textures (with Photoshop layers) to give more depth to some of the digital color.

GRWR: As someone who began telling stories first visually, do you usually create your dummy with thumbnails and then add the prose later?

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Painting space in Janie Bynum’s studio ©2021.

JB: I usually have a character in mind first that I must draw so that I can get to know them. A seed of a story germinates as I’m drawing. As I start writing the story, I sometimes create a simplified mind map to look at arc, action, and direction possibilities. Then I write some more. And I revise. And then I revise the text some more.

When I feel like I have a fairly finished manuscript, I start thumbnails. Inevitably, the text changes as I work on thumbnails and rough sketches. So, as I create the rough dummy, I work back and forth between words and pictures until I feel confident that the story (both visual and written) is ready to submit to my agent.

GRWR: I enjoyed a lot of the little unexpected details you included in the illustrations like Baby Chick’s grasshopper friend (or cricket), and the punny titles of the books Sister is reading. Did you do this in all the books you illustrate even if you didn’t write them?

JB: Thank you. Since I write/illustrate for a fairly young audience, I try to add details that older readers (especially adults) will enjoy. While I don’t include a small observer character (who sometimes participates) in all of the books I illustrate and/or write, I have done so in a few. In Otis, which I wrote, a red bird appears in many of the pictures; and, in Porcupining, written by Lisa Wheeler, a grasshopper observes and sometimes participates.

GRWR: What do you do to spark your creativity? Is your process to work daily, inspired or not?

JB: In addition to creating children’s books, I work as a creative director and graphic designer (outside of children’s publishing), so creative problem-solving is part of my day every day. But, one of the things I do as a creativity spark—at least several times per week—is just draw for no reason at all, with nothing in mind until pencil meets paper (or stylus meets iPad). Many times character ideas come from these sessions.

GRWR: How long did it take to complete Chick Chat from the idea stage to the final book we can order from bookstores today?

JB: Roughly two years: story and book dummy, spring 2019; art delivered January 2020; published book January 2021.

 

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Interior art from Chick Chat written and illustrated by Janie Bynum, NorthSouth Books ©2021.

 

GRWR: Who are some of your current kidlit illustrator faves and why?

JB: I have soooo many favorites, and for so many different reasons.

I love the color and stylized work of Felicita Sala. I adore the haunting stylized art of illustrators like Isabelle Arsenault and the cheery whimsy of Louise Gay. Carter Goodrich’s dogs are divinely humorous, and he possesses quite a deft hand with paint. With Sophie Blackall’s art, I’m inspired by her use of color, texture, and pattern. Her work is retro and contemporary, both at the same time.

Oliver Jeffers’ composition on the page (including an amazing sense of negative space) and his sensitive use of color and line inspires me. Matthew Cordell’s spontaneous linework and non-complicated watercolor embodies a spontaneous loose feel that I aspire to in my own work.

I like Ryan T. Higgins’s ink line coupled with his graphic use of shape and color (and, of course, his humor); the gorgeously strange art of Mateo Dineen; and the Matisse’esque art of Olivier Tallec.

GRWR: What’s in the works for your next book?

JB: A very creative beetle is the hero of my current work-in-progress. Also, I’m considering creating something for Gary the Worm to star in. (To find out who Gary is, visit my Instagram @janiebynum.)

GRWR: Is there anything else you’d like to add that perhaps I haven’t addressed?

JB: I’d like to let educators (including parents and grands) know that they can find Chick Chat activities at my website (janiebynum.com) and at northsouth.com/resources. And last, but not least, thank you for including me in your blog!

GRWR: It’s been such a pleasure being the first stop on your blog tour and getting to know you and Chick Chat better. Thanks for your terrific answers!

 

AuthorIllustrator JanieBynumBIO:

Janie Bynum grew up in Texas and graduated with a BFA in graphic design with an emphasis on illustration. As an author/illustrator, she has created many lovable characters and stories for younger children. Her work has been recognized as a Junior Library Guild Selection. She loves to travel and experience other cultures, drawing inspiration from the people, landscape, and cuisine. Known to her friends as a bit of a nomad, Janie lives in a nearly-100-year-old storybook house in southwest Michigan—for now.

Website: janiebynum.com

Instagram: @janiebynum


CHICK CHAT BLOG TOUR PARTICIPANTS AND DATES

·       Dulemba.com – January 28

·       Dreamreaderkids – February 2 Instagram/Blog review +giveaway

·       Storymamas – March 10 review + giveaway

·       Kidlit411 – March 26 illustrator spotlight

 

CLICK HERE TO READ ANOTHER AUTHOR-ILLUSTRATOR INTERVIEW

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Kids’ Nonfiction Picture Book Review – Becoming a Good Creature

BECOMING A GOOD CREATURE

Written by Sy Montgomery

Illustrated by Rebecca Green

(HMH BYR; $17.99, Ages 4-7)

 

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Starred Reviews – Kirkus, School Library Journal

 

Sy Montgomery’s New York Times best-selling memoir, How to Be a Good Creature: A Memoir in Thirteen Animals, inspired the picture book, Becoming a Good Creature. Herein she conveys her beliefs that we can—and should—learn from animals. Montgomery’s fundamental messages include “respect others,” “find good teachers,” and “see for yourself.” She encourages us to take a closer look at the world and everything inhabiting it. In doing so, we are bound to “love little lives” and find ways to nurture them because we’re all in this together.

 

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Interior spread from Becoming a Good Creature written by Sy Montgomery and illustrated by Rebecca Green, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt BYR ©2020.

 

While naturalist and adventurer Montgomery has led an extraordinary life, traveling the world and living with animals, we don’t have to fly far away to find something worth exploring.

 

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Interior spread from Becoming a Good Creature written by Sy Montgomery and illustrated by Rebecca Green, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt BYR ©2020.

 

During the pandemic, my family has discovered and interacted with previously overlooked insects in our garden. Becoming a Good Creature reinforces such behavior. It also shows that women can make their own families and forge their own paths.

 

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Interior spread from Becoming a Good Creature written by Sy Montgomery and illustrated by Rebecca Green, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt BYR ©2020.

 

Rebecca Green’s paintings, full of delightful animals, depict Montgomery from girl through woman and showcase how curiosity inspired her positive interactions with animals around the globe. For example, alongside the beautifully poignant illustrations of an octopus, a young Montgomery wonders what could we possibly have in common with them; the answer is playing! This uplifting book stresses the importance of communication and caring—much-needed actions for successful coexistence on our planet.

  • Click here then scroll down the page to learn more about Rebecca Green’s artwork.
  • Read a review of another picture book about animals here.

 

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Kids’ Board Book Review – Happy Birthday, Trees!

HAPPY BIRTHDAY, TREES!

Written by Karen Rostoker-Gruber

Illustrated by Holly Sterling

(Kar-Ben Publishing; $7.99, Ages 1-4)

 

Happy Birthday Trees cover

 

Happy Birthday, Trees!, written by Karen Rostoker-Gruber and illustrated by Holly Sterling, is a 12-page board book that just exudes joy and one I can easily recommend for the annual holiday of Tu B’Shevat, a Jewish Arbor Day. Tu B’Shevat or Tu BiShevat has, over the years, grown to become a celebration of nature and the environment and a time to reflect on the importance of trees since we are their only caretakers. This year, the holiday begins on the evening of January 27 and ends the following night.

In this charming rhyming board book, three diverse children go through all the steps of planting a tree with a soothing repetition that reinforces the progression of the actions. First, they dig a hole. Then they carefully place the tree in the hole and, after a few other important steps, the youngsters watch the tree as it grows and changes through the seasons.

 

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Interior spread from Happy Birthday, Trees! written by Karen Rostoker-Gruber and illustrated by Holly Sterling, Kar-Ben Publishing ©2020.

 

I love how Rostoker-Gruber, in such a short story, has managed to convey not only the pleasure of the planting process but the complete cycle a tree experiences. Sterling’s cheerful illustrations full of movement and expression show readers how, in the year following the initial planting, the tree ultimately blossoms, spreading its perfume for all to enjoy. Happy Birthday, Trees! is truly a Tu B’Shevat treet!

  •  Reviewed by Ronna Mandel

 

Click here for a Happy Birthday, Trees! Teaching Guide.

Click here to read a review of another Jewish holiday book.

 

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Kids’ Book Review – The Poisoned Apple

THE POISONED APPLE:

A Fractured Fairy Tale

Written and illustrated by Anne Lambelet

(Page Street Kids; $17.99, Ages 4-8)

 

 

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THE REVIEW:

Good effortlessly thwarts evil in this reimagined Snow White story, The Poisoned Apple:  A Fractured Fairy Tale, by author/illustrator Anne Lambelet

Irritated with a princess who is much too wholesome and “sweet” for her own good (how dare she be!), a witch is on the search for rare ingredients to concoct a “single apple-poisoning spell.” Kids will get a kick out of watching the witch carefully collect these ingredients in her hopes of getting rid of the princess once and for all; some ingredients on her list include such delightfully repulsive items as the toenail of a giant monster. 

 

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Interior spread from The Poisoned Apple: A Fractured Fairy Tale written and illustrated by Anne Lambelet, Page Street Kids ©2020.

 

Readers will equally love seeing the spooky font and haunting artistry whenever the words “the poisoned apple” are repeated in the text. It adds to the humor by highlighting the seriousness of the situationthe princess does, after all, accept the apple easily. But the phrase also hints at the unlikeliness of anything dangerous from actually happening due to the ripple effect of kindness. 

Goodness has a way of growing as the princess’s compassion for her hungry friend, one of the seven dwarfs, leads her to give the apple to him. In turn, when he notices “a couple of hungry forest animals,” he passes on the snack to them. They also show pity to a “foraging squirrel” who is “desperate for something to feed her babies.” Kids will erupt with laughter when they notice the horror and disappointment in the witch’s face as her perfect plan crumbles. She follows the squirrel, climbing ever higher and higher on the tree until a hilariously illustrated double-paged spread exposes the natural consequences of her greed. (Readers will enjoy holding the book up vertically to get the full effect). Down and down she falls, and when she comes to, a special gift awaits her, given by the squirrel out of genuine concern. The adage, what comes around goes around, plays out perfectly in this last scene. 

 

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Interior spread from The Poisoned Apple: A Fractured Fairy Tale written and illustrated by Anne Lambelet, Page Street Kids ©2020.

THE ART:

Lambelet’s gorgeous illustrations, rich in texture, muted colors, and geometric shapes capture this intersection of whimsy and mystery. For those who enjoy a bit of dark humor and clever retellings of classic tales, The Poisoned Apple is an excellent choice. NOTE: Remove the jacket cover to enjoy the lovely illustration beneath.

Click here for a fantastic activity guide.

If you’d like to read more fractured fairy tales, click here for a roundup of recommendations.

 

  • Reviewed by Armineh Manookian

 

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Middle-Grade Novel Review – The Great Pet Heist

THE GREAT PET HEIST

Written by Emily Ecton

Art by Dave Mottram

(Atheneum BYR; $17.99, Ages 8-12)

 

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In The Great Pet Heist, when elderly Mrs. Food slips on some dog barf and ends up too injured to return possibly ever, her pets must fend for themselves. Walt (don’t call me Lucretia) is an Oriental shorthair and the sly female lead. Her sidekick is lovable but slow at times Butterbean, a male long-haired wiener dog, whose claim to fame is his nostril-probe lick. The main crew is comprised of Oscar the smart mynah bird, and the amiable rats Marco and Polo.
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Interior art by Dave Mottram from The Great Pet Heist written by Emily Ecton and illustrated by Dave Mottram, Atheneum Books for Young Readers ©2020.

 

A girl from their building named Madison comes by to take care of the basics, but the pets know it’s hasta la vista soon. Their situation seems dire until they stumble upon a possible criminal in their building who may have enough gold coins to give the animals riches to care for themselves. Once the heist is launched, a series of funny antics will keep you wondering whether these characters will succeed, or if it’s off to the pound.

Throughout, Dave Mottram’s art is beautifully done, adding another layer of humor to Ecton’s story. Though Walt was my favorite character, I fell for Chad the octopus once I saw him rising out of toilet bowls and tripping up the villain. Take a close look at the image next to the title page of The Great Pet Heist to find Chad.

 

Click here for another humorous middle-grade novel about pets reviewed by Christine.

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Children’s Book Review – A Year of Everyday Wonders

A YEAR OF EVERYDAY WONDERS

Written by Cheryl B. Klein

Illustrated by Qin Leng

(Abrams BYR; $16.99, Ages 4-8)

 

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BOOK REVIEW

If ever there was a year of wonders, I think 2020 would be it, both for adults and children, the whole world over. For this reason, I found Cheryl B. Klein’s A Year of Everyday Wonders especially meaningful though clearly her thoughtful book was created without the pandemic in mind.

The book follows a young girl, along with the people in her world, through all the “firsts” during the year.  Some of the lines are poetic, like “First green in the gray” when spring arrives or “First gold in the green” when fall arrives. The hopeless romantic in me liked the scenes of “First cold” when the protagonist is ill, which is immediately followed by “First crush” when a classmate of hers offers his tissue box. Equally touching was how “Second crush” comes about. The book eventually comes full circle as it begins and ends with “First day of the new year.” These seemingly small events of childhood will resonate with readers young and old who have likely experienced one or all of the beautifully depicted moments, the memories of which may last a lifetime.

 

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Text from A Year of Everyday Wonders © 2020 Cheryl Klein. Illustrations © Qin Leng. Used with permission from Abrams Books for Young Readers.

 

THE ART

Qin Leng’s illustrations, rendered with ink and watercolor, portray each wonder with simplicity and emotion. There is lots of white space around many of the pictures, instilling a sort of quiet feeling, which is perfect for reading with your youngsters and reminiscing about all the “firsts’ they have had and will have in the future, depending on their ages.

 

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Text from A Year of Everyday Wonders © 2020 Cheryl Klein. Illustrations © Qin Leng. Used with permission from Abrams Books for Young Readers.

 

IN CONCLUSION

Like I mentioned at the beginning of this review, 2020 was a year like no other, a year of many firsts for everyone: first lockdown, first virtual classroom learning, and first masks. With this last one, I admit that my mind is so focused on the pandemic in our new world that when I actually read the line “First masks” in A Year of Everyday Wonders, it took me a minute to realize that it was not referring to pandemic masks. Let’s hope that 2021 is a year of wonders indeed, of only the best kinds that children should experience.

Starred Reviews – Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books, Publishers Weekly and School Library Journal

 

  •  Reviewed by Freidele Galya Soban Biniashvili
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    Click here to read another book review by Freidele.

 

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Young Adult Novel – The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes

 

THE BALLAD OF SONGBIRDS AND SNAKES:

A Hunger Games Novel

Written by Suzanne Collins

(Scholastic; $27.99, Ages 12 and up)

 

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Coriolanus Snow: Anyone who has read or seen The Hunger Games knows this man. Yet, who was he before becoming the evil overload of Panem? In The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes, we meet Snow at age eighteen. His cousin, Tigris—yes, that Tigris—and his Grandma’am are all he’s got. They haven’t had enough food in ages and aren’t far from losing their once-luxurious housing. Facing an uncertain future upon graduation, Snow must achieve personal recognition at school, in hopes of being awarded funds toward University tuition.

It’s reaping day again and this year the kids from Snow’s class are assigned tributes to mentor as their final project. His District 12 girl is quite a letdown at first. Yet, once she’s in the spotlight, Lucy Gray proves to be a charmer and that may get her through for a while. Snow, at first, sees Gray’s performance in the Games merely as an assignment to score highly on but, soon, a complex relationship builds.

Suzanne Collins reveals the surprising origin of the Games. The book, as expected, is fast-paced with many plot twists. Snow and his classmates who are also assigned tributes are drilled by Dr. Gaul, the wonderfully creepy Head Gamemaker (who may just lock you in a cage in her lab for fun). She prods kids with questions such as what the Capitol’s strategy should be now that the war is over but may never truly never be won. When questioned whether there is a point to the neon colors of her snakes, she answers, “There is a point to everything or nothing at all, depending on your worldview.” These moments with Gaul reveal the book’s deeper messages about power, whether wielded with a weapon or a rose.

I’m a fan of the trilogy and very much enjoyed this glimpse into what happened decades before the girl on fire burst onto the scene and the screen. I would be happy to continue along with Snow, filling the gap, until the day he sees Katniss Everdeen become District 12’s first volunteer for the 74th Annual Hunger Games. The folk tune, “The Hanging Tree,” reaches across the years, uniting the stories.

 

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Picture Book Review – Dozens of Doughnuts


DOZENS OF DOUGHNUTS

Written by Carrie Finison

Illustrated by Brianne Farley

(G. P. Putnam’s Sons BYR; $16.99; Ages 3-7)

 

Dozens of Doughnuts cvr

 

 

Sharing batch after batch of homemade doughnuts is what thoughtful friends do. But what’s LouAnn the bear to do just before hibernation when her stomach growls from hunger and no doughnuts remain? Such is the predicament presented in Carrie Finison’s debut counting/math practice picture book DOZENS OF DOUGHNUTS with illustrations by Brianne Farley.

Farley’s fun art introduces the reader to a variety of delicious-looking doughnuts, each numbered to 24. Pink Sprinkles, Swirly, Jelly-Filled, and Nibbled (with a bite taken from this purple glazed doughnut) set the stage for the story to come.

A big brown bear is seen through her kitchen window busy stirring the big bowl of batter. She’ll eat some sweet treats, then, warm and well-fed, she’ll sleep away winter, tucked tight in her bed. The orange and yellow leaves show off the colors of fall as we see a beaver nearing the front door.

 

Dozens of Doughnuts int1
Interior spread from Dozens of Doughnuts written by Carrie Finnison and illustrated by Brianne Farley, G.P. Putnam’s Sons ©2020.

 

Although one dozen doughnuts are hot from the pan and ready for LouAnn the bear to devour, an unexpected DING-DONG! gets the story going in a whole new direction. Do you have enough for a neighbor to share? Woodrow the beaver asks. The reader counts the 12 red doughnuts on the large plate as LouAnn places 6 doughnuts on her plate and 6 doughnuts on Woodrow’s plate. Now the real counting begins.

 

Dozens of Doughnuts int2
Interior spread from Dozens of Doughnuts written by Carrie Finnison and illustrated by Brianne Farley, G.P. Putnam’s Sons ©2020.

 

With DING-DONG! after DING-DONG!, Finison’s rhymes welcome friend after friend at the bear’s front door. You’re welcome. Dig in! I’ll make more, says LouAnn. She measures and mixes as fast as she can. Clyde the Raccoon, Woodrow, and LouAnn are seen with four doughnuts on each plate, but note the smile leaving our kind-hearted bear’s face. Page after page, we see more friends arriving until there are no doughnuts remaining for our generous and exasperated hostess LouAnn.

She’s ready to sleep through the snow, ice, and sleet. But winter is near, and there’s nothing to eat! As the page turns, LouAnn lets loose a dramatic ROAR! and readers see the group of friends scram. Soon though they’re back, having realized they need to make things right for their pal. They return the kindness and become the bakers. (Another great lesson for young readers).

 

Dozens of Doughnuts int3
Interior spread from Dozens of Doughnuts written by Carrie Finnison and illustrated by Brianne Farley, G.P. Putnam’s Sons ©2020.

 

This sweet (after all it is about doughnuts) rhyming book is such an entertaining and clever way to teach kids how to count to 12 and also divide 12 by 2, 4, or 6. Conveying the importance of sharing is the icing on top. I felt empathy for LouAnn, who almost began hibernation hungry until her friends came through for her. Finison’s words show young readers why being considerate matters while cleverly sneaking in how to count and divide. Plus we see how many flavors of yummy doughnuts can be made!
NOTE: Read this book after a meal otherwise be sure to have donuts on hand!

  • Reviewed by Ronda Einbinder

 

 

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Kwanzaa Books for Children

CHILDREN’S BOOKS FOR KWANZAA 2020

 

Kwanzaa begins on December 26 and lasts one week. Learn more about this joyous African American holiday by sharing the books reviewed here.

 

 

Lil Rabbits Kwanzaa paperback cvrLI’L RABBIT’S KWANZAA
Written by Donna L. Washington
Illustrated by Shane W. Evans
(Katherine Tegen Books; $7.99, Ages 3-7)

Young readers will be easily charmed by Li’l Rabbit. Li’l Rabbit’s Kwanzaa, now available in a paperback edition, was originally published in 2010 but its story is timeless.

Despite being frustrated during Kwanzaa for multiple reasons in addition to being told he’s too little to help, Li’l Rabbit still looks forward to his favorite part of the weeklong holiday, Karamu, the festive meal served on the sixth night.

But Granna Rabbit is sick and can’t prepare the meal. “Kwanzaa,” Li’l Rabbit recalls his granna telling him, “is a special time when we help each other.” Her words set him off on a search for a Zawadi (gift, often homemade) to cheer her up. During his quest, various forest friends ask him what he’s doing, and after he explains they all remark how they, too, wish there was something they could do to help. It seems Granna Rabbit has always made time to help out these animals and her good deeds have meant so much to them. When Li’l Rabbit returns home empty-handed and disappointed, he is surprised to see the animals he’d encountered celebrating with food, fun, and friendship. What a surprise for Li’l Rabbit to learn from his granna that her spirits have been lifted not only because of what their thoughtful neighbors have contributed but most of all because Li’l Rabbit’s dream made it happen.

Evan’s buoyant illustrations bring the Kwanzaa festivities to life with their rich colors, patterns, and energy. This picture book will resonate with any child who has ever felt left out or too small to make a difference. I appreciated the back matter including The Nguzo Saba, The Seven Principles of Kwanzaa as well as a glossary of words that were used in the story.

 

Kwanzaa SpotHolidayseries cvrKWANZAA
A Spot Holiday Book
Written by Mari Schuh
(Amicus; $7.99, Ages 5 and up)

Many kids want to pick out books they can read by themselves to improve their skills and feel successful. Parents, teachers, and librarians can’t argue with that. Why not take a look at the Spot (an imprint of Amicus) Holiday series geared to emergent readers? The photographs are beautiful and the text is purposefully simple to encourage beginners while providing an engaging way into diverse cultures and traditions.

In Mari Schuh’s Kwanzaa, as well as all the other series’ books, children can enjoy a search and find feature at the beginning (see the art below), with pictures and words.

 

Kwanzaa int1
Interior photographs from Kwanzaa written by Mari Schuh, Amicus ©2020.

 

“The text uses high-frequency words and repeating sentence structures” empowering new readers while introducing them to new vocabulary via holidays many of their classmates, friends, and neighbors celebrate. Other books in the series include Ramadan, Diwali, Hanukkah, Easter, and Christmas. I’m glad to have discovered this series and look forward to sharing more Amicus books in the future.

 

Read a review of another diverse holiday picture book here.

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Christmas Books for Children Part 3

CHRISTMAS BOOKS

A ROUNDUP

PART 3

 

 

 

Christmas Count and Find cvrCHRISTMAS: A Count and Find Primer
Written and illustrated by Greg Paprocki
(Gibbs-Smith; $9.99, Ages 0-3)

I’ve been a fan of Greg Paprocki’s artwork and book design since first discovering his books several years ago. His latest holiday board book for toddlers, Christmas: A Count and Find Primer may be slightly too big for a stocking stuffer, but will easily fit into welcoming hands. Youngsters will happily search each of the 10 spreads to find the correct amount of holiday items corresponding to the respective number. Illustration “4” shows four “cookies and carrots,” but there are also four of many other things such as four stars, four pictures on the wall, four purple ornaments, and four stockings. I like how colors are also worked into the art so adults reading with children can point these out as well. “The last spread contains 10 more holiday-themed objects hidden throughout the book for little ones to find next.” Paprocki’s pleasing retro-style art is another reason to pick up a copy of this entertaining book.
• Reviewed by Ronna Mandel

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Mistle_coverMISTLETOE: A Christmas Story
Written and illustrated by Tad Hills
(Schwartz & Wade; $17.99, Ages 3-7)

If your children adore Tad Hills’s character Rocket, this Christmas they’ll fall for Mistletoe. The story begins with a sweet illustration of little Mistletoe who is enamored with all things Christmas. Readers will sense her anticipation to share her favorite holiday experiences like a walk in the snow with her elephant friend, Norwell. He, on the other hand, prefers to avoid the cold and remain cozy indoors sipping tea with his mouse friend beside a blazing fire. No matter how she tries, Mistletoe cannot coax her pal outside. A quiet walk in the snow inspires her and she hatches a creative plan that will not only get her friend outside, but will be the most wonderful gift for Christmas. Kids will excitedly turn the pages to see how much yarn Mistletoe’s surprise project entails (“… elephants are big!”) and watch with delight as she cheerfully offers the gift to Norwell. The spirit of friendship and giving shine in this new holiday book that families can enjoy for years to come. A sparkly cover and special “undies” art underneath the book jacket only add to the charm of Mistletoe. Here’s to more Mistletoe and Norwell tales in the future!
• Reviewed by Ronna Mandel

 

12DaysofChristmas cvr12 DAYS OF CHRISTMAS
Written and Illustrated by Lara Hawthorne
(
Frances Lincoln Children’s Books; $16. 99,
Ages 2-12)

Starred Review – Kirkus

A Christmas book for readers of all ages and stages of childhood, Lara Hawthorne’s 12 Days of Christmas celebrates the traditional song with double-page spreads of visual masterpieces. 

Hawthorne’s illustrations are reminiscent of folk art, festive colors dominant in classic Christmas red and green as well as shades of calming blue. There is a lot to see but bold patterns and vertical lines help the eye manage the details from one space to another.

As young readers listen to the original lyrics, they can dive into these detailed illustrations, playing a sort of I-spy game to find the items mentioned in the song. Older readers who are familiar with the popular Christmas song will enjoy singing aloud the lyrics. While readers explore the items, birds, and people mentioned in the text, they will also be acquainted with familiar, friendly pets that faithfully appear in each spread-making this book a perfect gift for that animal/nature lover on your list.

Secondary lessons abound: counting, memory strengthening, and identifying shapes. There is even a game in the backmatter – “everything from the song hidden in” a beautiful, busy scene that children can discover. An author’s note at the end explaining the Christian origins of the 12 days of Christmas and the history of the song is an added bonus. The fun of exploring The 12 Days of Christmas will undoubtedly last 12 months of the year.
• Reviewed by Armineh Manookian

 

Little Red Sleigh cvrLITTLE RED SLEIGH
Written by Erin Guendelsberger
Illustrated by Elizaveta Tretyakova
(Sourcebooks; $17.99, Ages 4-8)

Written by Erin Guendelsberger and illustrated by Elizaveta Tretyakova, Little Red Sleigh is a heartwarming Christmas story about dreaming big despite your size and experience. 

Tucked inside the corner of a quaint Christmas shop is Little Red who is longing to become “Santa’s big red sleigh.” Despite discouragement from her friends in the shop, Little Red’s determination to accomplish her goal leads her on a quest to meet Santa and “show everyone what she [is] made of.” 

Along her journey to the North Pole, she befriends others who lend a helping hand. Train takes her as far north as the tracks allow; Yellow Truck, who is on his way to deliver Christmas trees to Santa, offers a ride as well. 

Impressed by their skill, Little Red wonders if she’ll ever achieve the kind of experience they have. A beautiful refrain speaks to her heart. “Life builds up one car at a time,” says the Train. “Life…build[s] up one tree at a time,” says Yellow Truck. When a snowstorm changes her original plan to visit Santa, Little Red comes to understand how she is meant to build her life up:  “spreading joy, one child at a time.”   

Little Red Sleigh is perfect for bedtime or anytime you’d like to cozy up by the tree with a good book. • Reviewed by Armineh Manookian

 

Everybodys Tree coverEVERYBODY’S TREE
Written by Barbara Joosse
Illustrated by Renée Graef 
(Sleeping Bear Press; $16.99, Ages 4-8)

A little boy plants a little spruce tree, taking extra care to nurture its growth. As the years pass by, we watch both him and the tree grow up. Eventually, the little spruce becomes a magnificent, towering tree and the little boy a proud grandfather.

Joosse’s lyrical language highlights the love and care poured out on this tree, while Graef’s stunning illustrations center the spruce in double-page spreads, showcasing its evergreen majesty. The beauty of the tree (now approaching its end of life) is celebrated communally when it’s taken to the city for all to appreciate. As it winds its way from rural countryside to the big city, a sense of shared excitement and anticipation builds. People gather to watch the decorations being placed, “wait[ing] and wait[ing] and wait[ing]…everybody’s singing…for the lighting…of Everybody’s Tree!” And what a glorious tree it is, shining brightly and sharing its light for all, (including the cover which glows in the dark!).

If you’re looking for a quieter picture book this season, Everybody’s Tree is that gentle holiday story about the joy of sharing and community building. • Reviewed by Armineh Manookian

 

Click here for our recent roundup by Christine Van Zandt of 7 new Christmas books.
Click here for Ronna’s roundup of 5 new Christmas books.

 

Other notable new Christmas Books include Christmas Cheer; Merry Christmas; Rainbow Fish; The Christmas Feast; and a new edition of Mog’s Christmas.

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Christmas Books for Children Part 2

CHILDREN’S CHRISTMAS BOOKS 2020

A ROUNDUP PART 2

 

 

Free Clipart ivy ornament

 

 

 

 

TheTwelveBirdiesofChristmas cvrTHE TWELVE BIRDIES OF CHRISTMAS
Written and illustrated by Jennifer Sattler
(Sleeping Bear Press; $8.99, Ages Birth and up)

If you’re looking for a board book that’s full of feathered fun this holiday season, look no further than 24 pages of The Twelve Birdies of Christmas. Little ones will want to see the pictures again and again as a bunch of birdies recreate their own version of the beloved Christmas carol while getting up to all sorts of silliness across the pages. The 3 French hens illustration is my favorite and I also laughed at the 7 swans-a-swimming, but I’m sure your children will choose their own while singing along to Sattler’s new lyrics. If you want some context, the original version is included in the back of the book.

 

DINOSAUR CHRISTMAS
Written and illustrated by Penny Dale
(Nosy Crow; $16.99, Ages 2-5)

Calling all dino and transportation fans. The winning combination of dinosaurs and heavy-duty utility vehicles featured in Dinosaur Christmas will entertain the youngest revelers in your household. The premise is a simple one that will be satisfying to children. Santa’s stuck in the Northpole on Christmas Eve and only his dino pals have the brawn required to set his sleigh free. But the best part is the variety of transportation modes they use to get through the stormy weather to mount their rescue. There’s lots of repetition and onomatopoeia to add to the read-aloud experience of this sweetly illustrated picture book. “Team Dinosaur arriving. Arriving and starting to dig. Starting to dig out Santa’s sleigh. Scoop! Scoop! Scoop!” My son and daughter used to memorize books like this when they were little and no doubt your children will too. Kids can search the art for hidden polar bears and study both the front and back endpapers for pictures and names of all the dinosaurs and vehicles included in the story. 

 

LatkesforSantaClaus coverLATKES FOR SANTA CLAUS
Written by Janie Emaus
Illustrated by Bryan Langdo
(Sky Pony Press; $16.99, Ages 3-6)

Ideal for blended families, but definitely delightful for anyone to read, Laktes for Santa Claus is a clever Hanukkah meets Christmas spin on leaving cookies out for Santa on Christmas Eve. Even if it’s not Chrismukkah (when Christmas and Hanukkah overlap), this picture book still shows a way for Jewish children living with a non-Jewish step-sibling and/or step-parent how fun it is to share a bit of their Jewish holiday traditions during Christmastime. Emaus introduces readers to Anna, who is Jewish, as she emails Santa who she guesses must be tired of the same old cookies every year. She promises to leave him a special treat and then sets about to make that happen. Anna just has to figure out what Jewish food will work. Her step-brother Michael, intent on baking cookies, points out how most of Anna’s ideas will require a utensil which Santa will not have after coming down a chimney, hands full of presents. What can she offer that won’t make a massive mess? When she realizes that latkes can be noshed as finger-food, she’s excited to put them out along with Michael’s cookies. When the siblings discover all the food gone on Christmas morning, Michael is eager to work together with Anna to plan something unique for the next Christmas. The back matter includes recipes for both the latkes and the cookies so kids can try their hand at baking with an adult. I love how the cover features a menorah on the mantle as well as a Christmas tree welcoming readers of all faiths to dive into this fun story. There is some rhyme and onomatopoeia for reading aloud enjoyment and at 40 pages, the story flows quickly complemented by the colorful, comic-style art. Despite the title giveaway, young readers will want to see the process as Anna narrows down her choices for Santa. I enjoyed every page of this charming new picture book because it showed how there is not only room for compromise in every family, but how easily a new tradition can be created bringing everyone closer.

 

LittleMolesChristmasGift cvrLITTLE MOLE’S CHRISTMAS GIFT
Written by Glenys Nellist
Illustrated by Sally Garland
(Beaming Books; $17.99, Ages 4-8)

This story brought to mind the classic, Big Bird Brings Spring to Sesame Street. That story, about Big Bird buying a bouquet of flowers but ultimately giving them all away to his pals on his way home, is about the joy of sharing. The beauty in Nellist’s Little Mole’s Christmas Gift is the selfless generosity of the main character which exemplifies the true spirit of the holiday. Little Mole finds the perfect, “biggest, most beautiful” mushroom to bring home for his mother’s Christmas gift but along the way encounters forest friends in need of food, a pillow, an umbrella for protection. Mole knows his mushroom can make a difference, so rather than ignoring the cries for help, he offers part of the gift to each animal. He presents what remains of the mushroom to his grateful mother. Mama Mole understands and appreciates the kind-hearted gesture her child has made and that is indeed the greatest gift a mother could ask for. Garland’s charming illustrations bring a warmth and richness of color to the winter setting and will make kids want to read her other book in the series. A free Little Mole activity pack is available for download on the website too.

Santa.com coverSANTA.COM
Written by Russell Hicks & Matt Cubberly
Illustrated by Ryley Garcia
(Familius; $17.99, Ages 4-8)

Santa.com is a picture book that feels like an episode from children’s television and is certain to engage youngsters who might ordinarily prefer TV over books. Authors Hicks and Cubberly have come up with a neat storyline for a 21st century Christmas. At Santa.com gifts get handled robotically and are “delivered by peppermint drones.” Things run smoothly until the system gets hacked by a cyber Scrooge. Luckily Yo-Yo the elf knows from his Grandpa’s stories that Santa still exists and, with the help of his elf pals, might be coaxed out of retirement to solve the problem. I found the ending really the only slightly ambivalent part and leave it up to readers to come to their own conclusion about how Christmas got saved. I enjoyed the energy and movement Garcia’s art conveyed and the adorable characters he’s imagined. For tech-loving kids, this modern take on Christmas is an original read for the holidays.

  •  Reviewed by Ronna Mandel

Read Christine Van Zandt’s roundup of seven new Christmas books she loves by clicking here.

 

 

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Best New Christmas Books for Children


CHRISTMAS BOOKS ROUNDUP 2020

 

Free Clipart ivy ornaments

 

 

Welcome to our annual Christmas books roundup. Today author, editor, and reviewer Christine Van Zandt has chosen seven of her favorite new books for you to enjoy. We hope it gets you in a festive mood.

 

Hurry Santa coverHURRY, SANTA!
Written and illustrated by Tomie dePaola
(Little Simon; $7.99, Ages 1-5)

Tomie dePaola’s death this year hit the children’s lit community hard. Reading his posthumous Hurry, Santa! is bittersweet. The clever title led me to think that, certainly, all kids want Santa to hurry to their houses, yet, the twist here is that once Santa’s suited up, he faces the same dilemma that many bundled up kids do: he forgot to go potty before suiting up.

This 14-page board book gives Santa just enough time to get dressed and undressed again. As dePaola has in more than 260 children’s books, his art delights us. This book is a lighthearted farewell to his devoted fans. Note: Book says it was previously published as Get Dressed, Santa.

 

Christmas Parade coverCHRISTMAS PARADE
Written and illustrated by Sandra Boynton

(Little Simon, $7.99, Ages 3-6)

Sandra Boynton’s books are best-sellers because of her fun rhyme and lively art. Her 32-page board book, Christmas Parade, is another resounding hit. Kids will enjoy hearing the animal band boom boom and rat-a-tat-tat through town. I love that “chickens with silver bassoons [are] followed by piggies with Christmas balloons.” And Santa is (of course!) a rhino.

 

 

Christmas is Joy cvrCHRISTMAS IS JOY
Written and illustrated by Emma Dodd
(Templar Books; $14.99, Ages 2-5)

Emma Dodd’s 24-page picture book rhyming Christmas Is Joy shares holiday enthusiasm from a reindeer family’s perspective. As with Dodd’s other books, this one is beautifully crafted using minimal words to convey emotion. Heartwarming art captures the book’s cheerful theme; metallic silver accents add fun by evoking glistening snow and ice. This book is part of Emma Dodd’s Love You Books series.

The book’s smaller size (eight x eight inches) helps little hands easily hold on. Like a perfect cup of cocoa, the story comforts you: “Christmas is happiness, / smiles of surprise, / the warmth of affection / that lights up your eyes.”

 

MousesNightBeforeChristmas cvrMOUSE’S NIGHT BEFORE CHRISTMAS
Written by Tracey Corderoy
Illustrated by Sarah Massini
(Nosy Crow; $17.99, Ages 2-5)

Tracey Corderoy’s rhyming picture book, Mouse’s Night Before Christmas, uses Clement Clarke Moore’s famous first stanza to launch into a different direction, telling us  “it wasn’t quite so” that not a creature was stirring. Rather, little Mouse prowls about, wishing he “had a friend to give gifts to.” The story cleverly weaves in some original lines while spinning a new tale.

The art by Sarah Massini warms wide spans of white or gray with muted, lively colors. A nostalgic touch makes Mouse, Santa, and the town seem welcoming and familiar. My favorite scene is the surprise ending where the story reduces to two characters enjoying each other’s company—Mouse is irresistibly cute!

 

CometTheUnstoppable_cvrCOMET THE UNSTOPPABLE REINDEER
Written and illustrated by Jim Benton
(Two Lions; $17.99, Ages 4-8)

Starred Review – Booklist

A Jim Benton Christmas book—yes! If you’re like me and your shelves have more Dear Dumb Diary and Franny K. Stein books than you can count, then Benton’s Comet the Unstoppable Reindeer is the holiday book for you. In the beat of Clement Clarke Moore’s “The Night Before Christmas,” Benton’s story gives a glimpse of the mayhem at Santa’s workshop. When Comet breaks up a fight between two elves, Stinky and Stanky, he ends up with a broken leg, unable to fly. In the confusion, Santa forgets the toys, so Comet must figure something out.

The rhyming text flows easily when read aloud and Benton’s art keeps you laughing as cast-wearing Comet tries saving the night—if only Santa would answer his phone! Luckily, Comet’s a trouper when faced with the humungous bag: “He tried with a lever. / He tried with a hoist. / He tried till his forehead/ was reddened and moist.” Go, Comet, go!

 

MilosChristmasParade cvrMILO’S CHRISTMAS PARADE
Written and illustrated by Jennie Palmer
(Abrams BYR; $17.99, Ages 4-8) 

When it comes to Christmas, I always think of opossums—what, no I don’t! But, why not? “Milo’s family never missed the big Christmas parade. His passel came for the popcorn, sticky nuts, and bits of peppermint sticks. / Milo came for the view.” He’s fascinated with the parade and how people work on building it year-round. Readers will hope Milo’s dream of being in the parade comes true.

Milo’s Christmas Parade boasts adorable art, from the opossum wearing an ornament on his tail to his close-knit family helping out in the shop. Extra points for the book having a different (secret) image under its jacket.

 

Meerkat Christmas CoverMEERKAT CHRISTMAS
Written and illustrated by Emily Gravett
(Simon and Schuster BYR; $19.99, Ages 4-8)

If you enjoyed Emily Gravett’s Meerkat Mail, then check out Meerkat Christmas. When Sunny, a meerkat who lives in the Kalahari reads about what it takes to achieve the Perfect Christmas, he leaves the desert in search of the supposed elements to achieve holiday excellence.

While on his travels, he corresponds with his family back home. The seven festive lift-the-flaps (designed to look like Perfect Magazine and Sunny’s cards) feel realistic and are a fun way to tell pieces of the story.

Gravett’s vibrant art captures the humor as Sunny encounters obstacles around the world. My favorite holiday treats are the Kalahari candy canes. The recipe calls for 25 assorted snakes, red paint, white paint, and paintbrushes! “Bend each snake into a candy cane shape and hang on tree or cactus.” This book stands out for its interactive design and clever, hilarious art. Peek under the jacket for surprise alternate back and front cover images.

 

Click here for a roundup of Christmas books from 2019.

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A Q+A with Author Alexis O’Neill about Melvil Dewey

AN INTERVIEW WITH ALEXIS O’NEILL

Author of

The Efficient, Inventive (Often Annoying)

Melvil Dewey

 

EFFICIENT MELVIL DEWEY cvr

 

 

I’m thrilled to have Alexis back on GRWR to talk about her latest picture book biography and the quirky visionary she chose to write about.

BOOK SUMMARY:

Melvil Dewey’s love of organization and words drove him to develop and implement his Dewey Decimal system, leaving a significant and lasting impact in libraries across the country.

When Melvil Dewey realized every library organized their books differently, he wondered if he could invent a system all libraries could use to organize them efficiently. A rat-a-tat speaker, Melvil was a persistent (and noisy) advocate for free public libraries. And while he made enemies along the way as he pushed for changes–like his battle to establish the first library school with women as students, through it all he was EFFICIENT, INVENTIVE, and often ANNOYING as he made big changes in the world of public libraries–changes still found in the libraries of today!

Buy the book from your local independent bookseller.

The Efficient, Inventive (Often Annoying) Melvil Dewey
Written by Alexis O’Neill
Illustrated by Edwin Fotheringham
(
Calkins Creek; $18.99, Ages 7-10)

 

INTERVIEW:

Good Reads With Ronna: It’s like the history of Melvil Dewey has been hiding in plain sight all these years. I never gave much thought to his decimal system of book organization for libraries, and definitely never figured it out. What sparked your curiosity into the man and his contributions? 

Alexis O’Neill: I hadn’t given him much thought either, Ronna, until a librarian friend sent me a funny video she used to help teach kids the Dewey Decimal System. That made me realize I didn’t know a thing about the inventor of this seemingly ubiquitous system.

 

Melvil Dewey int1
Interior spread from The Efficient, Inventive (Often Annoying) Melvil Dewey, written by Alexis O’Neill and illustrated by Edwin Fotheringham, Calkins Creek ©2020.

e

GRWR: Apart from what Melvil Dewey is most famous for, what other ideas did you discover during your research phase that he championed which have impacted our lives? 

AON: Dewey really championed education for all. He was concerned about rural Americans as well as the waves of new immigrants having easier access to information. He also was a proponent of the Simplified Spelling movement, a precursor to today’s texting – getting rid of vowels and extra letters in words that hindered or were unnecessary to pronunciation – like “tho” for “though.” He chopped “Melville” down to “Melvil” but when there was an outcry, was convinced not to change “Dewey” to “Dui.”

 

GRWR: Let’s talk about Dewey’s dream of a librarian school at Columbia College where he was the chief librarian. Trustees did “not want women on their campus.” So how did he succeed?

AON: He got around them by following the spirit of the law and not the letter of the law. When Columbia College Trustees refused to have women on campus, Dewey bent rules to his needs: he opened his School of Library Economy in a storeroom over the chapel across the street. The entering class had seventeen women and three men.

 

GRWR: Dewey is referred to in the jacket flap as “EFFICIENT, INVENTIVE, and often annoying.“ Can you describe some of his quirky character traits?

AON: Even if Dewey had no fatal flaws (and he indeed had them), I still don’t think I’d be able to stand being in the same room with him for very long. He talked incessantly and rapidly. While the average American speaks at about 100-130 words per minute, one of Dewey’s students clocked him at a rate of 180 words per minute. When he tried to convince others about one of his ideas, he was like a dog on a bone. From a very young age and throughout his life, he obsessively kept lists of things such as his height, weight, assets, and more. And he fixated on the number 10, thus decimals. He wrote, “I am so loyal to decimals as our great labor saver that I even like to sleep decimally” (in other words, 10 hours a night.)

 

MELVIL DEWEY int2
Interior spread from The Efficient, Inventive (Often Annoying) Melvil Dewey, written by Alexis O’Neill and illustrated by Edwin Fotheringham, Calkins Creek ©2020.

e

GRWR: Melvil approached every endeavor and encounter in his life at 100 mph. The train visuals speeding through the pages of your story perfectly convey this energy. Do you think he moved at this pace because he had so much to accomplish in his lifetime that was predicted to be short after he inhaled smoke during a fire in his youth? 

AON: Dewey grew up in a deeply religious, restrictive household. He was always concerned with wastefulness and a desire “to leave the world a better place than when I found it.”  But when he was recuperating from a fire at his school as a teen, this desire became an obsession as did his preoccupation with efficiency.

 

GRWR: There are a lot of words printed in bold throughout the book. You also ask young readers several questions throughout it as well. Can you explain why? 

AON: I wanted readers to come along with the book’s narrator on a breathless ride in “real-time” as Dewey’s driving energy rushes through the years. I used present tense, direct questions, and bolded words to make the narrative voice break the fourth wall and emphasize the surprise the narrator feels while making observations about Dewey.

 

GRWR: What made Dewey fall out of favor in the public’s eye?

AON: A couple of decades into his career, Dewey was exposed as a racist, anti-Semite, and serial sexual harasser. He had created the Lake Placid Club that specifically excluded people of color, Jews, and other religious groups. And there had been justified complaints for years in the American Library Association, a group he helped found, about Dewey’s serial harassment of women. For his actions, he was censured by the NYS Board of Regents for his discriminatory practices, forced to resign from his positions as State Librarian and director of the library school, and ostracized by the ALA.

 

GRWR: How do you reconcile Dewey’s love of books and reading driving his initial motivation to help immigrants and those who cannot afford books with his bigoted views of Jews and others? 

AON: I really can’t reconcile or explain this.

 

MELVIL DEWEY int3
Interior spread from The Efficient, Inventive (Often Annoying) Melvil Dewey, written by Alexis O’Neill and illustrated by Edwin Fotheringham, Calkins Creek ©2020.

 

GRWR: Is it hard to write about someone whose personal views you may not necessarily like or agree with? 

AON: Dewey’s goal was to make the world a better place. So the question is, did his classification system make the world a better place? I believe it did. It expanded educational opportunities for the general public by making access to information more efficient. There are countless examples of artists, scientists, and others whose negative personal behaviors are hard to reconcile with their contributions, but their contributions have made significant, positive differences in so many lives.

 

GRWR: You used to write fiction and of late have switched to nonfiction kidlit, primarily biographies. What about writing fact-based stories appeals to you? And what do you think kids like about them? 

AON: I still write fiction, but I love American history! Early in my writing career, I wrote many articles for Cobblestone Magazine, and doing the research was a kick. Like me, I think kids are excited to know when something is real. Some facts–especially in history or science–just take my breath away.

 

GRWR: Where do you turn to for story inspiration? 

AON: Footnotes in books, articles, videos – lots of things spark ideas for stories. I never know where the next spark comes from or if it will flame into a book.

 

GRWR: If you’re able to divulge this info, what is on your radar for your next picture book? 

AON: Right now, I have a couple of fiction picture books circulating, and I’m working on a middle-grade nonfiction project. After so many years of writing “tight,” doing long-form work is challenging. I keep wanting to cut words!

Thanks for this opportunity, Ronna!

GRWR: What a treat it’s been to have you back here to share your insights about Melvil Dewey, Alexis. I will never look at those numbers in the library the same way again!

 

AON Headshot by SonyaSones
Author Alexis O’Neill photo courtesy of ©Sonya Sones.

BIO:

Alexis O’Neill is the author of several picture books including The Recess Queen, the winner of several children’s choice awards, and The Kite That Bridged Two Nations, a California Young Reader Medal Nominee. Her new picture book biographies are Jacob Riis’s Camera; Bringing Light to Tenement Children and The Efficient, Inventive (Often Annoying) Melvil Dewey. Alexis received the California Reading Association’s award for making significant and outstanding contributions to reading throughout California and is an instructor for the UCLA Extension Writers’ Program.

 

 

Website: www.alexisoneill.com

Facebook: www.facebook.com/alexis.oneill.9

Twitter: @AlexisInCA

Instagram: @Alexis2017

 

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Picture Book Cover Reveal – A Brief History of Underpants

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IT’S TIME FOR AN UNCOVER REVEAL!

Did that get your attention?

 

Are you curious for a sneak peek?

 

Okay then, here it is …

 

 

ABriefHistoryofUnderpants cvr

 

Presenting …

 

A BRIEF HISTORY OF UNDERPANTS

Written by Christine Van Zandt

Illustrated by Harry Briggs

(becker&mayer! kids; $9.99, Ages 4-8)

 

Publication Date: April 13, 2021

AVAILABLE FOR PREORDER NOW – DETAILS BELOW

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MY REACTION:

If you follow this blog you’ll know that Christine is a regular contributor and has reviewed such a wide variety of books over the years from board books to young adult novels. I’m thrilled to have her on the receiving end this time around.

Additionally, as a critique partner of Christine’s, I’ve seen this book in its various iterations so to at last see her vision brought to fruition with such humorous artwork is a joy. When her debut turned out to be a nonfiction title as opposed to a fiction one, it was quite an unexpected but super surprise. Then seeing that the cover also featured a reveal wheel, well that just made the wait all the more worthwhile. Turn the wheel slowly to get glimpses of four kinds of undies covered in this 48-page paperback picture book including bloomers, boxers, briefs, and schenti (Egyptian loincloth). If you’ve heard of some other type of underpants they’re likely covered here!

I had such a grin on my face the first time I laid eyes on the cover of A Brief History of Underpants. I love how the book design uses an eye-catching bright yellow circle inside a blue one, to immediately pull our focus to the boy in his red boxers. The red detail on his socks is fun, too. The iconic look of illustrator Harry Briggs’s (a graduate of Art Center College of Design nearby in Pasadena) comic-style art will make the interior spreads shine when coupled with Christine’s punny undie descriptions. The cover character with his black outlining, the kid-friendly fonts, plus the shadowing on the word underpants is a nod to the Captain Underpants series and lets kids know this is definitely going to be an interesting and entertaining read. 

 

STORY INSPIRATION:

The idea for A Brief History of Underpants came about at school—sort of. Christine has been a book volunteer since kindergarten. Other than working with kids in the classroom and bringing in or patching books, that meant helping kids, parents, and teachers select books at the school’s week-long annual Book Fair.

In 2019, nonfiction books were the big thing, prominently featured in displays. Many parents veered their kids toward them. But Christine noticed time and again that kids resisted, stating “nonfiction books are boring” even though many wonderful nonfiction books were offered. These comments led to Christine and her family brainstorming what else could be done to make nonfiction more accessible to kids.

Humor was already a part of Christine’s writing, so writing a funny book was a natural choice, but the right topic was key. Christine’s fourth-grader suggested underwear because kids love underwear. When Christine researched books on this topic, she found they seemed too long. Taking a new angle, she condensed the world history of underpants into short, fast scenes, and the book was born.

 

Author Christine Van Zandt photo by Marlena Van Zandt
Author photo ©Marlena Van Zandt

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Even though Christine Van Zandt is the author of A Brief History of Underpants, she hasn’t found fossilized underwear, but she loves uncovering interesting historical facts that make great books for kids.

She lives in Los Angeles, California, with her husband, daughter, two cats, and a monarch butterfly sanctuary.

 

FIND CHRISTINE ON SOCIAL MEDIA:

Website: https://christinevanzandt.com/

LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/christine-van-zandt/

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/christine.vanzandt.9

Instagram: christinevanzandt9

 

TO PREORDER CLICK BELOW:

Barnes & Noble

Amazon

IndieBound

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