Six New Children’s Passover Books for 2023
CHILDREN’S PASSOVER BOOKS FOR 2023
I love the variety of this year’s Passover picture books. They’re clever and inclusive and will inspire imagination. I hope these stories are ones that children will request again and again. You’ll also see how in different books, Seder is sometimes capitalized and sometimes not and how many different ways there are to spell matzah. Enjoy!
Written by Tziporah Cohen
Illustrated by Yaara Eshet
(Groundwood Books; $19.99, Ages 3-6)
If Magic Treehouse were a picture book and went under the tablecloth, it would be Afikomen. This time travel adventure unfolds after three children (and one adorable little dog) at a Passover Seder make off with the Afikomen (as Cohen explains in the Author’s Note, this is one Ashkenazi tradition she experienced growing up) and hide under the dining room table.
This engaging and imaginative wordless picture book works wonderfully with its comic-book-style panels that show the children transported back in time to when Moses was a baby. As they emerge from under the table their clothing has changed to fit into their ancient Egyptian surroundings.
Eshet’s illustrations, created with ink and watercolor, pair perfectly with this timeless tale, but in this version, the children are not only there to witness history but contribute to it as well. As we know from the Torah, Pharaoh was killing Israelite boys, so when Moses was born, his mother hid him in a basket she prepared. Cohen’s chosen to have the kids standing in the bullrushes along the Nile River when they first glimpse Miriam and her mother place baby Moses in the basket and send him off.
There is further drama as the basket gets caught in the bullrush and the children have to set it afloat again. Next, they see young Egyptian boys tossing rocks into the river so they distract them with frogs. Adding to the tension of keeping Moses safe is an alligator getting dangerously close to the basket. The children’s noise-making scares the creature away. At one point they wave to Miriam who has been watching the basket from the other side of the river. When the basket stops moving, they take it. Miriam waves back as the children seek the Pharaoh’s daughter who is sitting with her maids and other nobility along the Nile across from them. When the time is right, they set the basket adrift so that it will land near the princess and Moses will forever be protected.
Even though I know the Torah story well, I enjoyed how together Cohen and Eshet have created this moving new dimension to the tale. When their time travel brings them back home, the main characters are tired and the Seder is just about over. Yet, a lovely surprise touch awaits readers as the parents open the Afikomen bag and find something other than the half-broken piece of matzo that readers first see at the beginning of the story. This is a beautiful reimagining of The Finding of Moses tale that will be enjoyed by the entire family giving every reader the opportunity, with their own words, to make the story their own. • Reviewed by Ronna Mandel
EASTER EGGS AND MATZO BALLS
Written by Janie Emaus
Illustrated by Bryan Langdo
(Sky Pony Press; $19.99, Ages 3-6)
Every so often the holidays of Easter and Passover overlap as it does in this picture book about a blended family. This dual faith story introduces readers to Michael whose new stepsister, Anna, celebrates Passover. He wants to be sure the Easter Bunny who always visits him includes something special for Anna in the Golden Egg it brings. Incidentally, Michael’s concerns are communicated to the Easter Bunny via texts on an electronic device!
So when Anna cannot find the Passover placemats she likes to color, the Seder plate puzzle she enjoys playing with, or the Afikomen bag used to hide the half piece of matzo during the Seder, she is brought to tears. Even more suspicious is why even the matzo has disappeared. And Aunt Evie says the stores won’t have more for several days. What’s a Seder without looking for the hidden Afikomen? If Michael hasn’t taken the missing Passover items, who has?
Meanwhile, the Easter Bunny is shown in Lando’s humorous illustrations trying to stuff all these unique Passover items into the Golden Egg. Those scenes are complemented by a repeated rhyming phrase “I hopped and wiggled my nose./Push. Pat. Squish. Squash./I can’t get the egg to close.” Michael knew then he had to text the Easter Bunny to make things right. He hopes the Golden Egg will be found during the Easter egg hunt but it eludes him and Anna.
What a lucky surprise then when Michael sits on the piano bench where Grandpa usually hides the Afikomen. Instead, he discovers the Golden Egg with some matzo inside! Now both Michael and Anna can search for the Afikomen together. Back matter includes recipes for chicken soup and matzo balls as well as a glossary of Passover and Easter terms perfect for interfaith families. A colorful and fun read even when the holidays don’t overlap!
• Reviewed by Ronna Mandel
Written by Judy Press
Illustrated by Amanda Gulliver
(Kar-Ben Publishing; $19.99 Hardcover, $8.99 Paperback, Ages 3-8)
I adore a jolly good pirate tale and this one’s got rollicking rhyme as well, making for a rewarding Passover read-aloud. Whether ye be one who’s into a swashbuckling sea adventure or one who prefers the landlubber life, Press has covered her bases going from ship to shore in this clever approach to the seder.
The main pirate, Captain Drew, is getting everyone ready for the seder. “They swabbed the wood deck./.They shined the brass rails./They cried out ‘Heave-ho!’ as they raised the ship’s sails.” But as she prepares the seder plate, bad weather not Elijah, makes an appearance.
A terrible storm at sea spells danger. Children will feel the boat rocking as Gulliver’s delightful yet never frightening illustrations convey the power of crashing waves. Matzoh balls rolling off the plank is a whimsical touch. Captain Drew and her crew must abandon ship to seek safe grounds. Once the vessel reaches land, the captain assures her crew she knows what to do. That’s when readers see a house with an open door as if awaiting their arrival. They’re welcomed to a seder where the story of the exodus from Egypt along with all the traditional Passover foods is shared. And rather than ruin this pleasing surprise, I must say here that you’ll never guess who asks the Four Questions, another treat kids will love. As the skies clear, Captain Drew and company bid farewell and return to sea having enjoyed a perfect Passover seder in the company of new friends. Youngsters will feel more than satisfied too at this happy ending.
• Reviewed by Ronna Mandel
AN INVITATION TO PASSOVER
Written by Rabbi Kerry Olitzky and Rabbi Deborah Bodin Cohen
Illustrated by Mariia Kolker
(Kalaniot Books; $19.99, Ages 4-8)
I thoroughly enjoyed this spirited Passover picture book. Its title is a clue to what the story’s about. This year, Hannah’s extended family cannot attend the seder at her house so Hannah asks her parents if she can invite some friends. Hannah’s parents embrace this great idea along with their daughter who’s keen to make individual invitations that share several meanings of Passover.
As preparations get underway, Hannah’s mom tells her that Passover is “a celebration of springtime and the hope for new beginnings.” Then she adds that it’s not just about looking forward but reflecting back, to “also remember our history.” That might seem like enough reasons to celebrate but Hannah’s dad chimes in how the holiday is about “freedom for the Israelites and for us today.” It also means eating food everyone loves and that includes matzah ball soup!
I loved how, when Hannah’s diverse group of friends begin arriving, each child brings a special and thoughtful gift based on how they interpreted the invitation. Hannah’s friend Sammy notes how in India spring is celebrated by flying kites so she’s brought one to the seder. Hannah’s pal Ha-Joon brings a beloved Korean dish called kimchi. He explains how the food is a spicy bitter vegetable that not only is a delicious food, but it harkens back to bitter memories of the days when Israelites were enslaved. As guests show up, the illustrations depict the family dog, Mitzi, eyeballing all the food. Kolker’s art also illustrates a beautifully arranged table with a seder plate filled with foods representing various aspects of the Israelites’ struggle to be free. Eventually, Hannah explains Passover to her guests while incorporating their meaningful gifts into the story.
Back matter further includes a glossary as well as details on the how and why of Passover and how remembering our history, freedom, springtime, and great food all play an important role in how we celebrate today. What a terrific book to add to your Jewish holidays library!
Email the publisher for an Activity Guide.
• Reviewed by Ronna Mandel
THE NOT-QUITE-PERFECT PASSOVER
Written by Laura Gehl
Illustrated by Olga and Aleksey Ivanov
(Albert Whitman & Co.; $17.99, Ages 4-8)
Not everything works out the way you plan but it can still turn out well. That’s the story behind Gehl’s picture book The Not-Quite-Perfect Passover, part of the Ruby Celebrates! series that includes other Jewish holiday stories about Hanukkah, Purim, and Rosh Hashanah.
Gehl introduces readers to a family of three: Dad, Ruby, and little brother Benny. They are seated around the kitchen table, with a blue backdrop, eating cereal from bowls in art by Olga and Aleksey Ivanov, a husband and wife team with more than one hundred book collaborations.
Dad has good news and bad news and Ruby wants to hear the good news first. They will be hosting their very first seder. The bad news is that Bubbe broke her leg so needs to skip the hosting duties this year. Ruby excitedly begins writing the “to-do” list when little Benny knocks over a glass of milk onto the paper. Ruby sighs.
She tries to cook when Benny drops an egg. She designs hand-written invites, but Benny scribbles all over them. Ruby starts to cry. Ruby waits for Benny to leave the room when Dad tells her that she placed stamps in the left-hand corner of the envelopes and wrote the wrong date. Hmm … It’s not just the little brother that makes mistakes.
Ruby knows Benny is just trying to help when he brings her a stuffed animal. Ruby realizes they may not have the perfect Passover, but what’s more important is that they are able to cheer up Bubbe.
Relatives arrive and soon all are seated for dinner. That’s when Benny, who’s been asked to toss the plastic frogs when the plagues portion of the Haggadah is read, throws out a real frog. It leaps onto the table causing quite a commotion. I’m not sure how a real frog wound up in a basket with plastic frogs, but the family laughs which is all that matters. In fact, Bubbe says they never laughed so much during Passover before. The sweet moments shared between the siblings in these scenes are quite endearing.
The back matter explains the spring holiday and how it commemorates the Exodus, which is when the Jewish people were freed from slavery in Egypt. This is another great Passover read that shows kids it’s okay not to be perfect. It’s a lovely reminder that the importance of the holiday is being together no matter what’s going on in your home or the world. • Reviewed by Ronda Einbinder
Written and illustrated by Ann D. Kofsky
(Apples & Honey Press; $17.95, Ages 5-8)
The Passover seder is considered a time to sit still, but that’s a big ask for Miri, who, along with her cat Abby, imagines a more playful seder while hiding under the dining room table in Ann D. Koffsky’s latest picture book Under-The-Sea-Seder.
Miri has ‘shpilkes’ (lots of energy in Yiddish) and is bored during the reading of the Haggadah. This alone should resonate with young readers. She munches loudly on the matzah, spins in her seat, and raps using a kiddish cup as her microphone. Abby the cat sees no problem with her behavior but her mom and dad are not happy with the distraction.
Koffsky uses a combination of digital and traditional tools to create charming art depicting the family gathered around the table and the white tablecloth with a fish print design. It’s that fish print design that sparks Miri’s titular adventure.. At first, a single fish appears swimming out of the cloth and then the reader sees the seder sub. “Let’s go for a ride!” says Miri.
Miri steers her way through the story swimming alongside Abby— who only wants someone to give her snacks—and around her imaginary seder table with yellow and pink smiling sea monsters. “Why is this night different than all other nights?” Can you guess the answer? “On this night there are three sea monsters.”
The story concludes when Mom and Dad call her out of her fantasy and back into reality, asking her to sing seder songs. And for that, she is able to be loud and have fun!
Koffsky gives great suggestions in the back matter on ways to act, sing, move, and play during the Passover seder. There are fun ideas for families to introduce to this year’s seder, and traditions that can be repeated year after year no matter how old you get. • Reviewed by Ronda Einbinder
Children’s Picture Book – You Can! Kids Empowering Kids
YOU CAN!: KIDS EMPOWERING KIDS
Written by Alexandra Strick
Illustrated by Steve Antony
(Candlewick Press; $18.99; Ages 4-8)
FROM THE PUBLISHER:
Young people share valuable advice—words they wish they had heard growing up—to inspire, reassure, encourage, and say You’re enough, just as you are.
You Can! Kids Empowering Kids uses simple phrases with powerful meanings on a journey with fourteen imaginary characters “as they grow from birth to eighteen.” Author Alexandra Strick’s prose opens each page with “You can …” placed alone in the left-hand corner, with inspirational messages spread throughout the book showcasing the power kids have while growing up.
Illustrator Steve Antony’s eye-catching colorful penciled art finished digitally, depicts children growing up before our eyes, and along the way they are being brave, exploring new worlds, and sharing feelings with a friend.
Below is a wonderful spread of kids lined up on the floor listening to a new friend playing the flute. One girl sticks her tongue out at a boy but the reader finds them hugging and “forgiving others and yourself” when seen again as teens. Watching the characters grow from babies to young adults was a fabulous way to experience them believing in themselves, dreaming big, and supporting each other.
Whoever young readers identify with, Antony’s diverse art provides the opportunity for children to be able to locate someone that resembles themselves or their actions. The closing pages show what becomes of our new friends. The girl in the wheelchair is an important figure sitting in front of a podium, while the boy with red hair grows up to become a pilot.
One page is filled with crowds of kids gathered together in costumes. There is a child dressed as a purple clown who prefers to follow along, while another walks with a cane choosing to lead the way. (Canes and wheelchairs are not going to prevent any of these kids from doing what they wish to do.) Turning the page, we read “do something big by doing something small, inspire and encourage others, stand up for what you believe in, and make a difference.” The words “Climate Action Now!” head up a spread of kids picking up trash and collecting water bottles. We see kids working together uplifting each other and remaining friends.
An angled font for “do things you couldn’t do yesterday” accompanies a girl dressed in a green suit and cap swimming the ocean with two friendly whales by her side. When she grows up, we see a drawing of her again dressed in green taking photos of fish in the sea. Each child is matched to a color throughout the story, in this way readers can flip back to the beginning of the pages to remind themselves of the character’s backstory. This was a creative way to follow along with the group of children.
Readers see that it’s not just about doing things for others but doing things for themselves as well. Kids are cheered on as they run a race but it’s not about winning or losing, “Just give it a try,” Strick shares. The blind runner strapped to the guided runner is just one example of this positive and inspiring picture book.
The blue sky covers the last spread above with the kids all grown up standing on a green hill with the words “You can believe in yourself, be the best you can, be kind, dream big, and be yourself,” above their heads. That pretty much says it all right there.
In back matter, Strick explains the research behind the picture book, while Antony draws faces of himself and Strick in a zoom room with real kids from all backgrounds. The kids are asked what they feel is important to say in the text. It was heartwarming to learn that these are the words of the young contributors. This book belongs in every classroom to be read to students as a lesson in social-emotional learning. In a world full of chaos, it was gratifying to read a book that gives kids hope. Strick, from the U.K., is the co-founder of Inclusive Minds, a collective for people who are passionate about inclusion, diversity, and accessibility in children’s literature.
- Reviewed by Ronda Einbinder
Five Children’s Books for Women’s History Month
FIVE CHILDREN’S BOOKS
WOMEN’S HISTORY MONTH
∼ A ROUNDUP ∼
JUST WILD ENOUGH:
Mireya Mayor, Primatologist
Written by Marta Magellan
Illustrated by Clémentine Rocheron
(Albert Whitman & Co.; $17.99, Ages 4-8)
Picture book biographies such as Just Wild Enough are exactly why I love nonfiction and why I especially love Women’s History Month. Part of the She Made History collection, this book brings primatologist Mireya Mayor to the attention of young readers and might just plant the seed for some of them to study the fascinating and important field of primatology.
From a young age, animals were always a part of Mayor’s life. She could never have enough pets whether they were cats, dogs, rabbits, birds, a chicken, or a snapping turtle. At the same time, she felt that nothing was quite wild enough. This phrase is often repeated and is backed up by many impressive examples throughout the bio.
While she attended university, Mayor was also an NFL cheerleader for the Miami Dolphins. Yet her dream to be a primatologist persisted. People she knew couldn’t see why she’d want to visit jungles and study primates. In fact, one of my favorite lines in the book is when some researchers told her she didn’t look like a scientist. Magellan writes “But what does a scientist look like, anyway?”
Much to everyone’s surprise, Mayor eventually ended up on the island of Madagascar to study inky-black lemurs. There she was hired by National Geographic “as its very first woman wildlife TV reporter.” Still, nothing she experienced was quite wild enough. Her tenacity took her deep into one of the last virgin rainforests. Always one to look closer, Mayor discovered a new species of mouse lemur. But finding that species also meant the need to speak with the prime minister since the mouse lemur’s habitat was being devastated. Using fire, people stripped “the trees from the rain forest for fuel.” When Mayor met him she asked if he could declare the rain forest a national park thus ensuring the mouse lemurs’ survival. He agreed!
Magellan’s chosen to introduce kids to an inspirational woman in a well-balanced presentation of the life of a primatologist. I enjoyed learning about Mayor’s colorful and conscientious life. The art helps young readers see what some of Mayor’s responsibilities were and the text helps them understand her motivation. Dubbed the female Indiana Jones, she continues to this day to promote the protection of endangered species and the importance of conservation. Rocheron’s artwork takes us on the football field and into the jungles with illustrations that work well in this bio but would also look great on a TV show. Four pages of back matter include a Glossary, Author’s Note, About Mouse Lemurs, and Anjanaharibe-Sud Special Reserve.
The Story of Dolly Parton and Her Big Dream
Written by Robyn McGrath
Illustrated by Ellen Surrey
(LBRY/Christy Ottaviano Books; $17.99, Ages 4-8)
I know very little about Dolly Parton so I couldn’t wait to dive into this picture book. What I learned is that Dolly grew up in the Great Smoky Mountains of Tennessee and is the fourth of twelve children so it’s no surprise she became a performer. What better way to make your presence known?
Dolly’s musical prowess showed up when she was five years old and “composed her first song about her handmade corncob doll, Tiny Tasseltop.” She could be found singing to her animals at home or in church and loved listening to the Grand Ole Opry on the radio on Saturdays along with her family. The music moved her. The Partons occasionally found time for music sessions together playing “some Appalachian porch pickin’ music.” Dolly easily moved from instrument to instrument learning as she went. And, growing up dirt poor, Dolly channeled unpleasant experiences of bullying into her music, her musical dreams motivated by her mama’s singing and stories. Dolly’s primary dream was to be onstage at the Opry but was always told the same thing – she was too young.
Did that stop Dolly? Like the other women in this roundup, Dolly didn’t take no for an answer and persevered. And though she had farmwork to take care of, she still wrote and sang songs, never losing sight of her dream. Her uncle Bill observed her talent and after Dolly got her first guitar, he not only encouraged her but helped her get her first radio and TV gigs. Despite being well received by audiences, that didn’t mean an automatic entrée for Dolly into the Grand Old Opry.
Then one day Dolly’s big dream was realized when “another singer agreed to let Dolly go onstage in his place at the Grand Ole Opry!” After three encores that night, the rest is history. Dolly went on to dazzle audiences on TV as her career took off. To this day her singing and songwriting still thrill fans and she’s added philanthropy to her playbook. Back matter details her literacy, health care, and marriage equality initiatives. I got a kick out of her Dollyisms also included. Here’s my favorite from the book: “The way I see it, if you want the rainbow, you got to put up with the rain.” The pairing of McGrath’s prose with Surrey’s art is a winning combination. It was probably not easy to narrow down what to focus on in such a storied life, but McGrath’s homed in on highlights such as her close family life and self-confidence that help readers understand Dolly’s drive. You can also feel Dolly’s energy in the bold illustrations.
A LIFE OF SERVICE:
The Story of Senator Tammy Duckworth
Written by Christina Soontornvat
Illustrated by Dow Phumiruk
(Candlewick Press; 18.99, Ages 5-9)
Soontornvat shows readers how there is so much more to Illinois Senator Tammy Duckworth’s life than meets the eye. Her commitment to serving our country has remained steadfast despite facing a life-changing accident in 2004.
Written using a straightforward chronological structure, this bio shares that Tammy was born in Bangkok, Thailand, and growing up she and her family moved around Southeast Asia. Because of her father’s job working for the United Nations, she saw people from all walks of life who had been displaced due to war and were living as refugees. Her caring about others was instilled at a young age and never left her.
When her father lost his job, he moved everyone to Hawaii where at times Tammy was the sole breadwinner. Her drive and caring never faltered and she worked hard at school despite the family’s tough financial situation. After high school, Tammy continued on to college and graduate school knowing she wanted to serve her country, just not how.
Tammy found fulfillment in the ROTC, then joined the Illinois Army National Guard. She also fell in love and got married. Fascinated by aviation, she mastered operating a Black Hawk helicopter eventually becoming her unit’s commander. When the US decided to invade Iraq, Tammy did not agree but chose to stay with her company in Balad, Iraq as battle captain. Near the end of a mission, on Nov. 12, 2004, her helicopter was struck by a rocket-propelled grenade. Tammy almost didn’t survive. The result – one leg lost and one partially lost from the knee down. And though the pain was debilitating, Tammy’s fellow vets provided motivation. She’d get better and return to combat. But that was not to be.
In rehab for 13 months, Tammy was the most senior ranked vet and soon found she was helping others navigate benefits and other challenges they encountered. With this experience under her belt it was no surprise she was asked to run for Congress. And though she lost the first time, she didn’t the second time! Not one to shy from breaking the glass ceiling, Tammy also won her Senate race where “she racked up a long string of firsts,” including being the first female amputee to serve in Congress, and the first senator to give birth while in office. To this day Tammy Duckworth is a force to be reckoned with as she fights for disability rights, immigration, and refugee protections, helping vets find work, and supporting family needs.
Dow Phumiruk’s art brought Tammy into my home (and heart) as I followed her childhood to her military years to her rise and influence in politics. Together with Soontornvat’s thoughtful prose, A Life of Service introduces young readers to a role model worthy of a place in Women’s History Month and Women’s History in general. I am glad to have learned her story. Backmatter includes a helpful timeline of major events in Tammy’s life, suggested reading as well as her “Ongoing Legacy of Service.”
The Beauty of Annie Malone
Written by Eve Nadel Catarevas
Illustrated by Felicia Marshall
(Creston Books; $18.99, Ages 7-10)
Annie’s story is one of perseverance and success, and more impressive since it happened around the turn of the 19th century when Black women were denied the same opportunities as whites. Annie’s neighbor and friend, Lillie even said to her, “Black girls like us grow up to be maids, washerwomen, or cooks.” But from a young age, Annie found herself interested in hair care as Black women were seeking “the same fashionable hairstyles white women had.” She was determined to follow her own path.
As a girl, Annie had friends and family coming to her for she had a way with Black women’s hair. And she knew it was going to be her destiny. That vision took her from strength to strength.
Annie asked her herb doctor Aunt Mary to create a product a product to help make hair grow. Too many women she knew had bald patches from harsh hair straightening products and remedies “to tame rebellious curls and kinks.” Aunt Mary’s product launched Annie’s career. When Annie decided to make one even better, she called it “Wonderful Hair Grower” and charged 25 cents for it. With her growing beauty business, Annie moved to Brooklyn, Illinois and sold her products from a horse-drawn wagon.
Annie’s company continued to thrive and relocated to St. Louis. There, she expanded her line of self-care items to include shampoo, conditioner, soap, and lipstick. “She named her company Poro, a West African word for physical and spiritual growth.’ Because Black women’s products weren’t sold in stores, Annie went door-to-door selling. As demand increased, she trained women to ” operate their own hair salons.” She even launched Poro Beauty College! At one point she had 75,000 beauty agents worldwide and even had a store at St. Louis World’s Fair in 1904!
So now, when you hear that Sarah Breedlove was the first self-made Black female millionaire because of her hair-care company Madam C.J. Walker, you’ll know that in fact she was trained by Annie Malone who can truly claim that accomplishment. I enjoyed how Catarevas brought Annie’s story to life buoyed by occasional quotes such as “One dime will do,” said by Aunt Mary who charged her niece that sum for her hair-growing mixture. Coupled with Marshall’s illustrations that had an oil painting quality because of the visible brushstrokes, Catarevas grounds readers in an era where change was on the horizon, and entrepreneurs like Annie who reached out and grabbed opportunities could realize her dreams.
JOSEPHINE AND HER DISHWASHING MACHINE:
Josephine Cochrane’s Bright Invention Makes a Big Splash
Written by Kate Hannigan
Illustrated by Sarah Green
(Calkins Creek; $18.99, Ages 7-10)
Sometimes I wonder if all our household conveniences have already been invented but there was a time when this was not the case. In the 1870s and ’80s, following the civil war, inventors were hard at work around the world developing new products and devices to make life easier in homes, on farms, in offices and factories, and at hospitals. Enter Josephine Garis Cochrane, a woman with a neat idea.
Green’s full-page illustrations depict a woman who is wealthy enough to have a maid. She also probably grew up not lacking the necessities in life being the daughter of a bridge builder and great-granddaughter of a steamship designer. It didn’t hurt that inventiveness was in her blood. So, when Cochrane noticed what bad condition her dishware was in from all the handwashing it had endured, she knew there had to be a better way. While there had been an earlier version of a dishwasher that “just splashed water around,” Josephine wanted her invention to actually clean.
After trying to fashion the dishwasher herself, Josephine enlisted the talents of a mechanic, George Butters, to help her. At first, things looked bright but when Josephine’s husband died, she was ready to throw in the towel. But we know, since there’s a book about her, she didn’t throw in the towel. Instead, with George’s assistance, she “tested and tinkered and pushed and persevered until she was satisfied.” You’ll note how Hannigan’s use of water and cleaning-related language to share her story is spot on (pun intended!).
At last, her dishwasher was ready to be patented! But without investors, Josephine’s nascent business could not succeed. Those male investors were not likely to bet on a business run by a woman in the late 19th century. Fortunately for this enterprising woman, she decided to exhibit her invention at the Columbian Exposition (aka the Chicago World’s Fair) in 1893. Not only did her dishwasher win first place for “best mechanical construction” it also won her orders from across the country. Hotels, restaurants, schools and even hospitals wanted one. “The Garis-Cochrane Dish-washing Machine Company soon outgrew the backyard shed.” Her company grew and thrived. Well into her seventies, Josephine continued to sell her dream with the ultimate goal of getting it into homes.
I chose to review this story because the topic is so relatable and also because it’s not a cradle-to-grave biography. It focuses on Cochrane as a grown woman determined to create the best possible dishwasher in order to free up people to have time to enjoy other activities. Hannigan’s included several quotes throughout the book from Josephine that attest to her spirit. When others might have given up, she never did. Green’s lively and lovely artwork added to my enjoyment. I’m glad she included pictures of the patents, too. Comprehensive back matter sheds light on what it was like for a woman inventor and business owner to try to get her product out into the world when modern appliances such as toasters and irons were not to be seen until 1913, the year Josephine died. More pages are devoted to Notable Women Inventors and a Timeline of Fascinating Inventions.
ADDITIONAL RECOMMENDED READS
Queen of Southern Cooking, Edna Lewis
Written by Melvina Noel
Illustrated by Cozbi A. Cabrera
(Cameron Kids; $18.99, Ages 4-8)
Available for Pre-order now
A STORY IS TO SHARE:
How Ruth Krauss Found Another Way to Tell a Tale
Written by Carter Higgins
Illustrated by Isabelle Arsenault
(Abrams BYR; $19.99, Ages 4-8)
I AM TEMPLE GRANDIN
(Ordinary People Change the World)
Written by Brad Meltzer
Illustrated by Christopher Eliopoulos
(Rocky Pond Books; $16.99, Ages 5-9)
Ethelda Bleibtrey Makes Waves of Change
Written by Elisa Boxer
Illustrated by Elizabeth Baddeley
(Sleeping Bear Press; $17.99, Ages 6-10)
A TAKE-CHARGE GIRL BLAZES A TRAIL TO CONGRESS:
The Story of Jeannette Rankin
Written by Gretchen Woelfle
Illustrated by Rebecca Gibbon
(Calkins Creek; $18.99, Ages 7-10)
The Songwriting, Hit-Singing, Guitar-Picking Dolly Parton
Written by Suzanne Slade
Illustrated by Edwin Fotheringham
(Calkins Creek; $18.99, Ages 7-10)
CLOAKED IN COURAGE:
Uncovering Deborah Sampson Patriot Solder
Written by Beth Anderson
Illustrated by Anne Lambelet
(Calkins Creek; $18.99, Ages 7-10)
Darshana Khiani Interviews Mirror to Mirror Author Rajani LaRocca
DARSHANA KHIANI INTERVIEWS RAJANI LAROCCA,
MIRROR TO MIRROR
(Quill Tree Books; $19.99, Ages 8-12)
Rajani LaRocca, recipient of a Newbery Honor and Walter Award for Red, White, and Whole, is back with an evocative novel in verse about identical twin sisters who do everything together—until external pressures threaten to break them apart.
Darshana Khiani: What was your initial inspiration for writing this book?
Rajani LaRocca: Mirror to Mirror started with a single poem. In April 2020, I took an online workshop with renowned poet Lesléa Newman in which she talked about several types of formal poetry, including the ghazal—a poetic form, often set to music, that is popular in South Asia and the Middle East. Inspired by the workshop, I wrote a ghazal about a twin lamenting that her sister had changed and the two were no longer close.
So then I started thinking: why did these two grow apart? What happened to them? And I started to create the characters. Because ghazals are often sung, I knew that the twins would be musical. I also thought that one would be hiding a secret that was eating away at her—and that secret would be the heart of her separation from her beloved twin.
DK: What were the challenges (literary, research, psychological, logistical) in bringing the text to life?
RL: One challenge I faced was the same one I always face when writing a dual-POV book: how do I make the voices distinct from one another? How do I make sure each one moves the story forward? At first, I wrote Maya’s voice in poetry and Chaya’s in prose, but that felt jarring. When my editor suggested I change it so that both voices were in poetry, that felt much better, but I still had to work hard to make the voices different from one another using the content and attitude in the poems, as well as structure, imagery, and word choice. The book starts with a couple of short paired poems, each titled “She’s the One,” where the twins express how they think about each other. These poems were drafted during that first revision, and I thought they vividly set the tone of the book and established the viewpoints of each twin.
I interviewed several sets of identical twin sisters for this story, and it was fascinating! Not only were they closer than other siblings, but some described each other as “soulmates.” They told me stories about eerie connections they had, and how no matter what else was going on in their lives, their bond was unshakable.
But there is room for misunderstanding even in the closest relationships. I tried to create a story where each twin thinks she’s doing something to help the other, but instead drives a wedge between them.
2020-2021 were difficult years for me and my family. Thanks to the pandemic, we had to contend with separation, illness, anxiety, and death. It was challenging to write a book at this time, but I had to keep going.
DK: What do you hope young readers get from this book?
RL: I wanted to explore anxiety and mental health in a poetic way. I wanted to show that people can struggle not only with symptoms but also with telling others, even those who know them, that they are struggling. I wanted to depict the helplessness we can feel when someone we love is going through something hard.
I hope that young readers understand that we all go through difficult times, even when we are surrounded by friends and family. I hope they learn that although we may sometimes struggle with anxiety and depression, we don’t have to deal with these feelings alone, and it’s important to share with those we love and trust because only through sharing can we start to get help.
DK: You are a doctor and a prolific award-winning writer, so clearly you’ve got this writing thing figured out. What do you feel are the key ingredients to keep the writing flowing?
RL: You’re too kind, Darshana! I feel very fortunate to be writing books for young people today. Here’s my advice:
- Write what you love, what you’re interested in, what makes you happy. Don’t worry about what anyone else is writing.
- Write a lot! I always try to have multiple projects going.
- Figure out what’s most challenging for you to do, and work on that when you’re at your best. For example, drafting (as opposed to revising) novels is challenging for me, so when I’m working on drafting a novel, I make sure to devote time to this in the morning when I’m refreshed and less likely to get interrupted. In contrast, I find that I can draft a picture book or revise something (long or short) at just about any time.
- Live your life! It’s important to do things other than write to feed that writing soul. Spend time with family, friends, and in nature.
- Support your friends and other creators.
- Don’t be too hard on yourself. In publishing, there are only so many things we can control—including making our books as good as they can possibly be.
- Have fun! I always try to write from a place of joy.
BUY THE BOOK:
The Silver Unicorn Bookstore: https://silverunicornbooks.
Link to Publisher page including activities, discussion topics, etc.
An educator’s guide is forthcoming.
Purchase Mirror to Mirror on Rajani’s website.
Rajani LaRocca was born in India, raised in Kentucky, and now lives in the Boston area, where she practices medicine and writes award-winning books for young readers, including the Newbery Honor-winning middle grade novel in verse, Red, White, and Whole. She’s always been an omnivorous reader, and now she an omnivorous writer of fiction and nonfiction, novels and picture books, prose and poetry. She finds inspiration in her family, her childhood, the natural world, math, science, and just about everywhere she looks. Learn more about Rajani and her books at www.RajaniLaRocca.com. She also co-hosts the STEM Women in KidLit Podcast.
LINKS TO SOCIAL MEDIA:
Darshana Khiani is an author, engineer, and advocate for South Asian children’s literature. She is infinitely curious about the world and enjoys sharing her findings with young readers. If she can make a child laugh even better. Her debut picture book, How to Wear a Sari (Versify), was an Amazon Editors’ Pick. She enjoys hiking, solving jigsaw puzzles, and traveling. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with her family and a furry pup. You can visit Darshana here.
Review of 2023 Newbery Winner – Freewater
by Amina Luqman-Dawson
(Little, Brown BYR; $16.99, Ages 10+)
Awards: John Newbery Medal, Coretta Scott King Author Award
An Indiebound Bestseller
★Starred reviews: Booklist, Horn Book, Kirkus Reviews, Publisher’s Weekly, and School Library Connections
“A gripping story of friendship, survival, and courage as a group of young children overcome trauma and fear to pursue freedom for themselves and their community.”
Freewater is the award-winning novel by Amina Luqman-Dawson published a little over a year ago. It opens with the harrowing flight of two enslaved children, twelve-year-old Homer and his younger sister Ada, from the Southerland Plantation. Their escape goes horribly wrong when their mother, Ruth, returns to rescue Homer’s friend Anna and is captured. The two siblings, pursued by slavers and their dogs, stumble into a nearby swamp and flounder in an unfamiliar world.
Bravely forging ahead in the unfamiliar and frightening environment, the children are rescued by Suleman, a formally enslaved man, who takes the exhausted children to Freewater. Homer and Ada are welcomed to this hidden village, a safe haven for its formerly enslaved residents and their freeborn offspring. The supportive community draws the children into their society, beliefs, and traditions, which are based on a complex relationship with the swamp.
Homer, wracked with guilt, is determined to rescue his mother and makes plans to return to Southerland to rescue her. When his new friends learn of this, they help Homer organize a rescue. Meanwhile, at Southerland, clever Anna is making plans to disrupt the plantation daughter’s wedding in order to flee with Ruth. Will Anna manage to escape? Will Homer and his new friends be able to rescue his mother … without getting caught?
In a compelling, multi-voiced narrative, five children, some freeborn, some formerly enslaved, relate the story from their POV. Even the plantation owner’s youngest daughter, Nora, contributes to the narrative, describing her struggle to understand the implications of slavery. Through their narratives, the reader learns about the children’s pasts, secrets, traumas, fears, and dreams.
The author imagines a fascinating world, not just of survival in the swamp, but of a nurturing society and culture flourishing there. Family life and supporting the community are paramount. Jobs and tasks include weaving vines into rope, hollowing out giant trees for shelters or boats, tending to the crops, and hunting and fishing. Sky bridges made from rope help the community travel safely above the ground where they cannot be seen or caught by slavers or militia. Huge, moving partitions, woven out of branches and leaves are created to close off parts of the swamp for protection. A few members, like Suleman, stealthily visit the plantations at night to “liberate” supplies (like matches) that cannot be made in the swamp.
Luqman-Dawson has populated the story with well-developed characters and a richly described setting, both beautiful and deadly. The author does not hesitate to include the horrific treatment of African Americans by white people. Woven into the story’s many dramatic events are moments of friendship, selflessness, joy, and even budding young love.
The author’s endnote details the historical background including references to African American scholars working on Maroon society in the Great Dismal Swamp, which was the inspiration for this story. Visit Luqman-Dawson’s website to see a video of her summary of Freewater and more resources on the Dismal Swamp.
- Reviewed by Dornel Cerro
Vicky Fang Interviews Elisa Boxer, Author of Hidden Hope
VICKY FANG INTERVIEWS ELISA BOXER,
How a Toy and a Hero
Saved Lives During the Holocaust
(Abrams BYR; $19.99, Ages 4-8)
★ Starred review – School Library Journal, Booklist
Vicky Fang: Elisa, HIDDEN HOPE is such an inspiring book. I love that you’re able to share a story that is so historically rich in such a compelling way. How did you come up with the idea for this book?
Elisa Boxer: Vicky, thank you so much. Great to be here with you. The idea for this book began when I first saw this photo on Yad Vashem’s website:
Yad Vashem is the World Holocaust Remembrance Center in Israel, and this hollowed-out wooden duck is part of the artifacts collection. When I learned that this duck was made with a secret compartment to hide documents from the Nazis during World War Two, and that the French Resistance worker who used it to smuggle those documents was a teenager, I knew this was a story I wanted to tell.
VF: It’s such a fascinating story! In addition to writing children’s books, you’re also a journalist. How does your background as a journalist affect your work as a children’s book author?
EB: I definitely combine the two on a daily basis. Whether it’s doing research, conducting interviews, writing a narrative, distilling complex issues down to manageable bits of information, or zeroing in on areas of emotional resonance with the audience, the processes with journalism and book writing are very similar. And the result, telling a (hopefully) compelling story with a strong emotional takeaway, is always my goal.
VF: I would say you’d definitely succeeded with HIDDEN HOPE. In the backmatter, you also talk about your personal connection to this topic … could you share a bit about that?
EB: My personal connection is two-fold: Both sides of my family are of Eastern European descent, and relatives on each side were killed during the Holocaust. As both a journalist and an author, I definitely feel compelled to help shine a light on these atrocities. But also, growing up, I often felt like I had to hide my Jewish voice because my childhood was filled with so many personal and hurtful incidents of Antisemitism. I wasn’t strong enough back then to stand up to hate; to expose injustice. So in a way, I suppose I’m making up for lost time. When I first saw that picture of the duck, it struck me that here is this artifact, in an international museum, on display for all to see. And yet it was never supposed to be there, according to Hitler’s plan. If anything, it was supposed to be in his intended “museum of an extinct race.” As were all Jewish artifacts and all Jewish signs of life. So on a personal level, as I mention in my Author’s Note, I want to help bring more and more stories like this out of the darkness and into the light.
VF: Could you talk about your experience in writing this book? Was it hard to spend so much time on such a difficult topic?
EB: It’s so interesting, this question has come up quite a bit. People ask whether it’s been hard to write about such a dark topic. And while there’s no question that this was an unimaginably devastating time in history, the whole point of the Holocaust was to create a master race and erase the Jewish people from the face of the earth. And yet so many of us are here writing about it. We’re bringing these stories to light. We’re the descendants that were never supposed to be here. And not only are we here, we’re raising our voices to tell the stories that the Nazis never wanted told. There is something incredibly uplifting and empowering about that. I never want to stop doing it.
VF: What a wonderful message, thank you. Amy June Bates’ illustrations also do such a good job of highlighting the mood and the action of HIDDEN HOPE and I love that there’s an Artist’s Note in the end from her. What did you think when you first saw her illustrations?
EB: Oh I love Amy’s Artist’s Note too! And exactly about highlighting the mood and the action. I have been researching the French Resistance for years, and have so many images in my mind. But Amy has an incredibly unique gift for creating old-world style art that takes you back and makes you feel like you’re right there, in the middle of it all, riding along with Judith and the duck on the streets of Paris. I was in awe of her work from the time I first saw her preliminary sketches. Her art is so authentic that it makes the whole book feel like an artifact in itself. One of the most powerful details to me is the contrast of vibrant, saturated color from Judith’s beret with the more muted, cloudy, shadowy watercolor illustrations that so perfectly capture the somber feel of what was happening. A recent Booklist review highlighted one of my favorite spreads: “One particularly haunting spread casts the reader’s gaze through a jagged, broken windowpane to bear witness to soldiers’ cruelties.” I mean, the art on every page is extraordinary, but that scene really stands out.
VF: What do you hope young readers take away from this story?
EB: Initially, I wanted to tell this story because it’s so full of hope and intrigue and I wanted young readers to find inspiration in this little-known hero who was filled with determination in such a dark time. And I wanted this book to take its place alongside others that are opening up wider conversations about Antisemitism. But as I began really feeling into the deeper layers, which for me comes during the writing process, I began to realize that this is, ultimately, a story about the importance of never having to hide the truth of who you are. Although certainly nothing can be directly compared to the horrors of the Holocaust, I do think many of us have aspects of ourselves that maybe we feel unsafe showing to the world. I actually found myself asking some uncomfortable questions, like: “Where and with whom do I feel like I have to hide the full truth of who I am?” These aren’t always conscious questions. But I do hope one of the takeaways for young readers (and older ones too) is deciding to show up in any given situation as the most authentic version of who they are. Not hiding. Bringing their fullest selves into the world.
VF: I think that’s such a wonderful aspect of your books. You tell such specific and inspiring stories, but the themes are so big and universal. You’ve written a wide range of wonderful nonfiction picture books, from COVERED IN COLOR: Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s Fabrics of Freedom to SPLASH!: Ethelda Bleibtrey Makes Waves of Change. How do you find story ideas and decide which ones to pursue?
EB: With nonfiction picture books, I’m looking for that “YES!” in my gut that keeps drawing me back to the topic. I’m initially looking for inspirational people, places, or events that I find intriguing enough to spark my curiosity and make me want to dig deeper. And then there has to be something more. For example, with SPLASH! Ethelda Bleibtrey Makes Waves of Change, it was impressive that Ethelda was the first American woman to win an Olympic gold medal in swimming. But when I learned that she used swimming to help heal from polio, and that she got arrested for standing up to sexist laws that said all women had to swim with socks, I knew this story had the potential to inspire young readers to break barriers in their own lives.
With COVERED IN COLOR: Christo & Jeanne-Claude’s Fabrics of Freedom, I knew that Christo and Jeanne-Claude were a dynamic duo who created massive displays of public art like wrapped buildings and islands. But when I researched more about Christo’s background, I learned he grew up under Nazi rule and then under Communism. This fascinated me, how someone whose childhood was filled with so much suppression could dream up and generate these wild, large-scale, outside-the-box creations. And so this became a story about courage, and pushing the limits of what appears to be possible, and creativity that refuses to be contained. So with each topic, in order to pursue it as a book, there has to be the potential for a strong inspirational theme and emotional takeaway.
VF: So what’s next for you?
EB: Right now I’m looking forward to this book launching into the world on March 14th! I’m so happy to have heard from teachers around the country who will be incorporating it into their Holocaust education curriculum, and am looking forward to virtual author visits to support that.
Next year, I have four more books on the way: DEAR YOUNGER ME: What 35 Trailblazing Women Wish They’d Known as Girls (Rowman & Littlefield), THE TREE OF LIFE: How a Holocaust Sapling Inspired the World (illustrated by Alianna Rozentsveig, published by Penguin/Rocky Pond Books), BEAM OF LIGHT: The Story of the First White House Menorah (illustrated by Sophia Moore, published by Penguin/Rocky Pond Books) and one that hasn’t been announced yet. 2024 is going to be a busy year! Meanwhile, I’m working on more picture books, as well as a middle-grade novel and a middle-grade collective biography that I’m really excited about.
EB: Thank you so much for this interview, Vicky. And to Ronna, for hosting us. And to everyone who supports our books!
VF: Thank you, Elisa, for sharing your personal story behind this beautiful book, HIDDEN HOPE: HOW A TOY AND A HERO SAVED LIVES DURING THE HOLOCAUST. It’s been an inspiring conversation!
BUY THE BOOK:
Local indie for signed copies (type in the comments how you’d like the book inscribed): https://www.printbookstore.com/book/9781419750007
Elisa Boxer is an Emmy and Murrow award-winning journalist whose work has been featured in publications including The New York Times and Fast Company. She has reported for newspapers, magazines and TV stations, and has a passion for telling stories about people finding the courage to create change. She is the author of several nonfiction picture books including The Voice That Won the Vote, A Seat at the Table, One Turtle’s Last Straw, SPLASH! (a Junior Library Guild Gold Standard Selection), Covered in Color (called “compelling from cover to cover” in a Kirkus starred review) and Hidden Hope (called “an important true account to add to all collections” in a School Library Journal starred review). Elisa lives in Maine, and has more children’s books on the way. Visit her at https://www.elisaboxer.com/
Links to social media:
Illustrator’s website: https://www.amyjbates.com/
Vicky Fang is a product designer who spent 5 years designing kids’ technology experiences for both Google and Intel, often to inspire and empower kids in coding and technology. She started writing to support the growing need for early coding education, particularly for girls and kids of color. She is the author, and sometimes illustrator, of nineteen new and upcoming books for kids, including the Layla and the Bots series, Invent-a-Pet, I Can Code board books, Friendbots series, and the forthcoming Ava Lin series, Best Buddies series, AlphaBot, and The Boo Crew Needs You! You can visit Vicky at vickyfang.com.
Children’s Book Review – Gracie Brings Back Bubbe’s Smile
GRACE BRINGS BACK BUBBE’S SMILE
Written by Jane Sutton
Illustrated by Debby Rahmalia
(Albert Whitman & Co.; $17.99, Ages 4-8)
Author Jane Sutton and illustrator Debby Rahmalia’s picture book, Gracie Brings Back Bubbe’s Smile, was easy to enjoy. It brought me back to my childhood as I recalled all the Yiddish words my parents and other relatives used when I was growing up. I knew conversations were about money when I heard them use the word gelt. When kinder was mentioned, they were talking about me, my brother or my cousins. Yet this book is so much more than a book to introduce Yiddish to young readers. It’s a sweet, thoughtful story about how Gracie comes up with a way to help her grieving Bubbe (grandma) following her Zayde’s (grandfather) death.
Rather than come right out and tell Bubbe what she’s doing, Gracie uses her genuine curiosity to take her grandmother’s mind off her husband’s death by having her focus on something else. What a mature approach!
Gracie may not have been grieving to the extent that her Bubbe was, but she still felt the loss. Her late Zayde had taught her many things and she missed spending time with him. And she could not help but notice how sad Bubbe was. So when Bubbe told her she didn’t feel like drawing a picture together and called her Bubala, recalling how “Zayde and I loved using Yiddish words together,” Gracie grew interested in finding out more.
By asking Bubbe to teach her Yiddish words, Gracie is able to help her grieving grandmother engage and at the same time continue doing something meaningful. They can spend time together as Bubbe shares more Yiddish words and their meanings while keeping the memory of Zayde alive. In the end, not only does Gracie bring back Bubbe’s smile, but she also bonds with her in joyful new ways that heal them both. Sutton’s tenderly written multigenerational story of bereavement and healing is treated with care in Rahmalia’s cheerful illustrations that depict Bubbe’s loving relationship with her granddaughter. With its unique Yiddish angle, this picture book is a thoughtful, educational, and accessible read for children processing a loss.
- Reviewed by Ronna Mandel
Young Adult Book Review – The Island
by Natasha Preston
(Delacorte Press; Paperback Original $12.99, Ages 12+)
The Island is the latest YA thriller from New York Times’ best-selling author, Natasha Preston. Six teen influencers are invited to spend an exclusive weekend at a not-yet-opened amusement park island resort. The main character is seventeen-year-old Paisley who posts about crime; her knowledge of that topic may be helpful when, one by one, the eleven people on this remote island begin to disappear. Then a storm and power outage hit. The influencers are trapped there along with the island’s staff, the strange billionaire owner, and a killer. Spur-of-the-moment friendships and alliances form as the kids are chased through ghoulish amusement park rides. With links to the outside world broken, it’s all about surviving the weekend retreat when surely someone’s parents will realize these usually online kids aren’t just out of touch but in dire trouble.
This fast-paced read will keep you guessing who’s committing the gruesome murders. Being trapped on Jagged Island feels like the ultimate escape room—without any place to escape to! The Island was hard to put down because I kept trying to figure out the killer’s identity and motive, especially as fewer and fewer people were left. The conclusion surprised me.
- Reviewed by Christine Van Zandt (www.ChristineVanZandt.com), Write for Success (www.WriteforSuccessEditing.com), @ChristineVZ and @WFSediting, Christine@WriteforSuccessEditing.com
Something Wild by Molly Ruttan – A Guest Post + Giveaway
A GUEST POST
BY AUTHOR-ILLUSTRATOR MOLLY RUTTAN
SOMETHING WILD BLOG TOUR
Author-illustrator Molly Ruttan deftly explores the butterflies of anxiety that come with stage fright as well as the joy and magic that comes with facing our fears in SOMETHING WILD (Nancy Paulsen Books; on sale February 28th, 2023; ISBN: 9780593112342; Ages 3 – 7; $18.99), a delightful picture book that depicts a young girl’s preparation for her first violin recital. —Penguin Young Readers
Praise for Something Wild:
★ “The denouement is a lovely testament to the best magic of which we are capable… combines sweetness, imagination, and gentle humor. Though this tale will appeal to all readers, it will especially resonate with introverts. Brava!” – Kirkus Reviews, starred reviews
What a thrill to have a guest post by Molly Ruttan on GoodReadsWithRonna. I marvel at her constantly evolving creativity, enthusiasm, and tireless support of pre-published (me) and published authors, illustrators, and like her, author-illustrators. I hope you will enjoy this candid recollection of how her childhood experiences helped inform Something Wild. And don’t forget to visit all the other sites on Molly’s blog tour and enter our great giveaway. So, without further ado, HEEEEEEEERE’S MOLLY!
Before I begin, I would like to take this moment to thank you for inviting me onto your blog, and to acknowledge the hard work you put into it every day. It shows! Your blog has great reviews and amazing roundups. I am truly awed by you, and all the other excellent bloggers out there—you really make a difference in the KidLit community. What would we all do without you?? A big Hats Off to you!
In today’s guest post, I’m going to tell the personal story behind one of the questions I get asked a lot regarding my new picture book, Something Wild: Did the idea for it come from my own experience as a musician? Short answer— Yes, as a matter of fact, it did!
It is often said that, as children’s book writers and illustrators, we should write about what we know. Something Wild is about stage fright, and this is something I have absolutely known from the time I was quite small. I’m not sure why I was so shy, although it might have had something to do with being a twin, and being slightly behind other kids in social skills when I entered school. In any case, one of my earliest memories is freezing up during a class play in kindergarten—I was so scared I couldn’t speak. I even remember the line I was supposed to say: “It’s a hamburger.” One of the other kids had to improvise and say it for me!
When I entered second grade my mom signed me up for violin lessons. I loved playing, but then in third grade, the recital came along. Even though I was hidden in the orchestra, I was terrified. But what really upset me was after it was over. My dad proudly told me I was the only one in the orchestra that was swaying to the music as I played. I guess he thought I would feel special —but I was completely horrified and mortally embarrassed that I had stood out. I quit the orchestra and stopped taking lessons. My poor parents never knew why; if only I had had a book that could have given me a way to talk to them about it! The silver lining to this story is that my mother started playing the viola for herself, (she had played cello as a child.) When I quit, I think she realized she had wanted it for herself the whole time!
The stage fright did not go away as I got older. In middle school, I was failing French class because when I would get up in front of the class to do the required skits, my mind would go blank and I couldn’t speak. The fails were bringing down my grade-point average, so my art teacher convinced the school and my parents to let me and my sister bypass taking a language. (It was clear by then that we would be going to art school, and art schools didn’t require foreign language credits, at the time.)
When I was a teenager, I started playing drums. I would joke that even though it was loud, the drum kit was my armor (plus I was always in the back!). Still, stage fright was no fun and no laughing matter. I used to get so nervous before shows that I would be physically sick. But I loved the music and the camaraderie. Once I started playing, the intense physical nature of drumming would channel the nervous adrenaline out of my system, so I was able to keep performing into my adulthood.
Many people have stage fright, and there are many tips and tricks out there that are supposed to help. What helped me was when I realized that I could rely on my body and my discipline to pull me through, in spite of my mind, which was busy spinning out! This awareness gave me a great sense of comfort. It helped the stage fight dissipate, especially once I was on stage. All I had to do was remember to get out of my own way—let my hands and my body take over, focus on feeling love for the music—and something wild would happen!
I also came to realize the truth that any time we have practiced, prepared ourselves, and then truly faced our fears, the resulting feeling of joy and magic, and the promise of coming out the other end more empowered, comes into view. This is the place I aspire to, and the place I wanted my main character, Hannah, to land.
As an adult, I still have stage fright but writing and illustrating Something Wild has helped me process it, and when I feel it coming on, it always helps me to remember my own book! As a kid, I would have also greatly benefitted from a book like this. My biggest desire is that Hannah’s story will provide a comforting and entertaining journey for other anxious kids (and adults) to embrace — and hopefully, something wild will happen for them, too!
BUY THE BOOK:
To contact Molly, purchase books, and view her book trailers, go to https://linktr.ee/mollyruttan
Molly Ruttan is an author/illustrator of children’s books. She grew up making art and music in Hastings-on-Hudson, New York, and earned a BFA from the Cooper Union School of Art. Molly now lives in the diverse and historic neighborhood of Echo Park in Los Angeles, where her family has recently grown with the joyful addition of a granddaughter. She played violin as a child, and now plays drums, sings in a community choir, and has just started learning the viola. She loves exploring all kinds of fine art and illustration mediums, including making her own animated book trailers. Her life is full of art, music, family, friends, and all kinds of pets and urban animals.
Molly’s titles include her author/illustrator debut, The Stray, (Nancy Paulsen Books); I Am A Thief! by Abigail Rayner, (NorthSouth Books); and Violet and the Crumbs: A Gluten-Free Adventure by Abigail Rayner (NorthSouth Books). Something Wild is Molly’s second author/illustrated book and has received a starred Kirkus review. She has two additional books forthcoming. Molly is represented by Rachel Orr at Prospect Agency, www.prospectagency.com
Find Molly on Social Media:
Other websites to visit:
EXCLUSIVE TWITTER ONLY GIVEAWAY
Enter our Twitter giveaway for a chance to win a special Prize Package from Molly Ruttan! This exclusive opp includes a 12×12 art print; a 4×6 sticker sheet; a “2” round sticker & a tote bag! Follow @molly_ruttan & @goodreadsronna on Twitter, comment about what you do to soothe your anxiety, & RT. We’d love to hear from you! The giveaway ends at 11:59pm on 3/9/23. One winner will be chosen at 6pm PST on 3/10/23. Eligible for US & Canada only.
Elisa Boxer Interviews Author Kirsten W. Larson
KIRSTEN W. LARSON
THE FIRE OF STARS
(Chronicle Books; $18.99, Ages 5-8)
★Starred Reviews – Kirkus, Publishers Weekly, School Library Journal, Shelf Awareness
Elisa Boxer: I’m so happy to be here interviewing my Soaring 20s colleague and friend Kirsten W. Larson about her newest picture book, The Fire of Stars: The Life and Brilliance of the Woman Who Discovered What Stars are Made Of. It’s an absolutely stellar book! Kirsten weaves together two stories in one: The creation of a star, and the evolution of astronomer Cecilia Payne, who discovered what stars are made of …
Kirsten, you make the dual narrative structure look easy. But I know it is anything but! Did you set out with the intention to write a dual narrative? If not, at what point in the process did you decide on this format?
Kirsten W. Larson: This was a last-minute decision, believe it or not. In May 2017, my agent Lara Perkins (of Andrea Brown Literary Agency) and I were preparing to sub this book as a run-of-the-mill picture book biography. Meanwhile, I was working on a blog post featuring Hannah Holt’s query letter for THE DIAMOND AND THE BOY (Balzar + Bray, 2018). The book itself was still over a year away from release, but the query stuck with me. Hannah pitched her biography of Tracy Hall, who invented lab-produced diamonds, as “a two-tale picture book—a turn and flip. … The two stories meet in the middle with a shared phrase.”
That was a total lightning bolt moment. I finally saw a way to add more hooks to my story and appeal to readers of both biography and informational books – by telling two stories at the same time. I went back and added the story of star formation alongside Cecilia’s formation as a star scientist.
EB: That’s fascinating! The story is so seamlessly woven, I never would have guessed that it was a last-minute decision. What was the most challenging part about writing a book with this structure?
KWL: I think what sets this book apart from other parallel biographies (and made it very challenging to write) was the idea of having a shared line of text on every spread that applied to both stories – the star and Cecilia. It seemed like a good idea when I came up with it, but then it proved to be much harder to pull off. At one point I told Lara I couldn’t do it, and we should forget about it. But she kept encouraging me. She knew I could do it. But it was so, so hard.
Then, once I was working with editor Melissa Manlove of Chronicle Books, she had the additional idea of wanting to be able to read those shared lines only, without the additional text about Cecilia, and have it make sense for the youngest readers. The whole thing was a real puzzle, but I’m so happy we were able to get everything to work. It makes this book truly special.
EB: I’m so glad that Lara kept encouraging you, and that you stuck with it. You’ve created the perfect mentor text for aspiring authors of dual narratives. What advice would you give them?
KWL: I think this is a case where you have to be careful about the form not overtaking the writing, much like when you are writing poetry or even lyrically. For me, it helped to plot out both stories independently, step by step. I nailed down Cecilia’s major plot points, asking myself questions like “What’s the inciting incident?” “What’s the all is lost moment?” etc. Then I wrote down step-by-step how stars formed before trying to line the two stories up and brainstorming what language might connect them. I am a very visual writer, and I actually thumbnailed the stories in my journal trying to match things up and experimenting with language. You can see some of my journal pages here.
EB: I love the scene at the beginning, where Cecilia’s mother sets her down in the snow, and she expects a warm blanket, but instead finds her toes freezing! “It’s the first time Cecilia learns things aren’t always as they seem,” is such a powerful statement that foreshadows her discoveries to come. At what point in your research did you come across that particular anecdote, and how instrumental was it in building your scenes and threading that theme?
KWL: The theme of this book was always the “ingredients” of a successful scientist, characteristics like being a good observer, curiosity, passion, and persistence. The book always showed how Cecilia exhibited those characteristics even as a child. For example, the scene where she watches slimy slugs in the garden was there from the start as was the scene about the bee and the bee orchid, which really set her on her quest for discovery.
But, to your question, I came across that story of Cecilia and the snow very early on in my research. Yet even though I knew about that story from the beginning, I didn’t include it until I started working on the parallel structure! I needed something that came before Cecilia in the dust and dirt of the garden, something that nodded to the star she would become.
That’s when I added this moment in the snow. I just tracked down a document on my computer when I “unwrote” Cecilia’s story, summarizing what needed to happen spread-by-spread in a line or two. That’s the last thing I wrote before I pieced the two stories together.
EB: Those same ingredients of curiosity, passion, and persistence clearly apply to you and your research as well! Can you tell us a bit more about your research process?
KWL: This book was a bit of a departure from my usual research process. Typically, I like to start with secondary sources for context before digging into primary sources to hear my characters’ voices in letters, diaries, and autobiographies.
At the time I started my research, there weren’t many book-length secondary sources about Cecilia at all. Dava Sobel’s GLASS UNIVERSE wasn’t out yet, nor was Donovan Moore’s biography. So I moved pretty quickly to primary sources like Cecilia’s published autobiography, her oral history from Harvard, and her research papers including her dissertation.
I did a lot of research around the edges, including the women who worked at Harvard Observatory and the field of astronomy and astrophysics to understand what was known in the field of astronomy at the time Cecilia was working. I talked to physicists and astronomers to discern the magnitude of her contributions.
EB: How much of yourself do you see in Cecilia?
KWL: What I’ve learned through this book and WOOD, WIRE, WINGS is that “STEM people” and “creative people” have so much in common. We’re all creative. We’re all problem solvers. We all take feedback. We all fail. So, yes, I feel a great affinity for Cecilia, especially that feeling of being lost and feeling hopeless, as well as that thrill of the shiny bright moment when an idea comes together and a new piece of knowledge or art comes into the world.
EB: Speaking of shiny and bright and everything coming together, Katherine Roy’s illustrations are breathtaking. What was it like seeing her preliminary sketches and watching them evolve?
KWL: Katherine’s work on this book is incredible, and it’s such a thrill to see her splattering paint and using toothbrushes to give the impression of star formation.
The original visual idea for this book, which I put in art notes for our editor, was to split the story horizontally, with the star’s story on the top and Cecilia’s below. I saw some early sketches, and it wasn’t working the way we hoped. The star story seemed very disconnected from Cecilia’s. When Katherine shifted the two stories to a side-by-side the whole thing really started coming together. This just goes to show you the tremendous power of illustrators who know far more about visual storytelling than authors do. This book was such an adventure!
EB: I couldn’t agree more, from a reader’s perspective, that this book is an incredible adventure! One of my new all-time favorite picture books. Thank you so much for giving all of us a peek into your process.
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Click here for the publisher page for a good way to access activities, discussion topics, etc.
Social Media Links: @kirstenwlarson @kroystudio (Twitter) @chroniclekids
Kirsten used to work with rocket scientists at NASA. Now she writes books for curious kids. Kirsten is the author of the picture books: 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, illustrated by Katy Wu (Clarion, 2021), THE FIRE OF STARS: The Life and Brilliance of the Woman Who Discovered What Stars Are Made Of, illustrated by Katherine Roy (Chronicle, February 2023), and THIS IS HOW YOU KNOW, illustrated by Cornelia Li (Little, Brown 2024). She also is the author of the middle-grade, graphic nonfiction, THE LIGHT OF RESISTANCE, illustrated by Barbara McClintock, (Roaring Brook, 2023), along with 25 nonfiction books for the school and library market. Kirsten lives near Los Angeles with her husband, lhasa-poo, and two curious kids. Visit her website at https://kirsten-w-larson.com
Elisa Boxer is an Emmy and Murrow award-winning journalist whose work has been featured in publications including The New York Times and Fast Company. She has reported for newspapers, magazines, and TV stations, and has a passion for telling stories about people finding the courage to create change. She is the author of several nonfiction picture books including The Voice That Won the Vote, A Seat at the Table, One Turtle’s Last Straw, SPLASH! (a Junior Library Guild Gold Standard Selection), Covered in Color (called “compelling from cover to cover” in a Kirkus starred review) and Hidden Hope (called “an important true account to add to all collections” in a School Library Journal starred review). Elisa lives in Maine, and has more children’s books on the way. Visit her at https://www.elisaboxer.com