SEVEN GOOD YEARS:
An Interview with Wombats are Pretty Weird Author-Illustrator Abi Cushman
VICKY FANG INTERVIEWS ABI CUSHMAN
WOMBATS ARE PRETTY WEIRD
(GREENWILLOW BOOKS; $19.99, Ages 4-8)
Wombats might be pretty weird, but they’re pretty awesome, too! Wombats Are Pretty Weird is funny, kid-friendly, and informative, and features sidebars, comic panels, extensive backmatter, and a map. Acclaimed author-illustrator Abi Cushman’s nonfiction debut contains everything anyone could ever possibly want to know about wombats!
Vicky Fang: Abi, WOMBATS ARE PRETTY WEIRD is such a funny and informative book! I love how you use humorous dialog and illustrations to introduce so much fascinating information about wombats! How did you come up with the idea for this book?
Abi Cushman: Thank you, Vicky! I’ve been obsessed with wombats ever since I studied abroad at the University of Melbourne in Australia in 2001. I learned on a guided hike that wombats are the only animals in the world that have cube-shaped poop. This very odd tidbit of information along with the fact that wombats are adorable quickly made them one of my favorite animals.
But it didn’t occur to me to write about them in a book until 2018 after I’d written several other fiction picture books. I was thinking about the cube poop fact, and I thought it would be funny to make a little comic where a wombat makes a tower out of its cubes of poop (similar to how a kid would make a tower out of blocks) and then is just really proud of how tall it was. I wasn’t sure at that point if there was enough there for a book, so I did more research, gathered more weird facts about wombats, and gained momentum.
VF: I love that scene in the book with the cube poop tower! Hilarious. Could you tell us about your process in writing this book?
AC: I started with a lot of research about wombats. I listened to podcasts, watched videos, and read everything I could about them. Then I compiled the weirdest, most interesting facts. The next step was to see if I could make a joke about each fact. I have pages and pages in my sketchbook of facts plus doodles. I tried to come up with as many jokes as possible, and then and then really hone in on the funniest dialogue, facial expressions, and scenes.
Once I was satisfied with the jokes, I worked on putting them together in a dummy (a rough mockup of the book) in a way that made sense and that would also build to a final scene with all the wombats together.
VF: I love the addition of the snake adding color and commentary throughout the book. What made you decide to include the snake in a book about wombats?
AC: Adding the snake was a way for me to put a stand-in for the audience in the book. He could react and make comments that the reader was thinking when learning about these very weird animals. And this animal character had to be something other than a wombat. After all, the wombats wouldn’t consider themselves weird at all. In their world, it’s strange when poop is round. I chose a snake specifically because I wanted an animal that could technically live in the same area as a wombat, but was vastly different from them.
VF: Your illustrations do such a wonderful job of balancing humor and information. You’ve written funny books before (SOAKED! and ANIMALS GO VROOM! are so good!), but what was it like writing and illustrating non-fiction for the first time?
AC: Writing and illustrating non-fiction for the first time was a wonderful challenge. For this book, which includes factual information but also talking animals and other silly stuff, it was very important to me that kids didn’t think the facts were made up. One of the things I was very careful about was to ensure the narration was factual and accurate, and then have the wombats and snake react to those facts in the illustrations and speech bubbles. That way there was a clear separation.
For research, I consulted science journals and talked to wombat experts to verify and ensure the way I phrased things was correct. It was pretty wild to me that my work entailed being knee-deep in these dense scientific papers, trying to distill the information and make sense of them, and then using that to make the best poop joke I could.
For the illustrations, I wanted them to be very accessible and fun, but I also wanted them to show a decent resemblance to actual wombats and to clearly convey scientific information where appropriate. So I used a lot of references. I looked at photos of wombats’ feet, watched videos of them moving, and really studied the differences between three species. Then I drew them using hair dryers and wearing party hats.
VF: Can you talk about how you approach humor? Do you have any tips for writers who want to write funny books?
AC: The books I find funniest always contain a bit of absurdity. So that’s something I like to play with a lot in my books. For this book with weird animal facts, it was a chance to push the absurdity in the actual facts to a higher level.
For example, one of the facts in the book is that there are three species of wombats: the southern hairy-nosed wombat, the northern hairy-nosed wombat, and the bare-nosed wombat. And I just thought the names were pretty silly. So I wanted to play with that idea of hairy (or unhairy) noses and push it further into absurdity by having two of them talk about nose hair styling to the annoyance of the bare-nosed wombat.
I think with humor, you have to let yourself be pretty vulnerable. I put everything I think is funny into a story and then show it to people with the full knowledge that a lot of the jokes will absolutely not land. But I have NO IDEA which ones those are. The trick is to put the weirdest, totally out-there jokes into your story and then see how many you can get away with.
VF: That’s such great advice, and it has clearly paid off for you. What do you hope young readers take away from this book?
AC: I hope this book will get kids excited about wombats and animals in general. There is so much in the natural world that is bizarre and captivating. Kids have a natural curiosity so I think it’s our job as authors to foster and encourage it. I also hope kids come away with the idea that being weird is a good thing. It’s what makes all of us special and unique. And finally, I just hope kids laugh and find this enjoyable to read.
VF: I love that. I feel like you’ve definitely accomplished those goals with this book and kids are going to love it. So what’s next for you?
AC: I am currently polishing up the next book in the “[Not So] Serious Guide” series. This follow-up to WOMBATS ARE PRETTY WEIRD is all about the very strange, very tough FLAMINGO! And I’m happy to report that Joey the snake is back to experience it all with the reader. This book is scheduled to release in the summer of 2024.
I also recently finished illustrating a wonderfully clever book written by Charlotte Offsay called THE QUIET FOREST. This book will be released in March 2024 from Paula Wiseman Books. It’s about a very mischievous mouse who starts a chain of chaos in a formerly quiet forest, and it involves a lot of very disgruntled forest animals. It’s a ton of fun, and I’m really excited about it. This was the first time I illustrated a book I didn’t write, and it was fun to see how Charlotte’s words and my pictures came together.
VF: Those both sound fantastic! I look forward to seeing them next year. Thank you so much for sharing your journey for WOMBATS ARE PRETTY WEIRD with us. I’ve learned so much from chatting with you and from getting a peek at this hilarious book!
AC: Thanks so much for the interview, Vicky! This was fun. And I’m looking forward to chatting with you again later this summer about your upcoming book, THE BOO CREW NEEDS YOU!
VF: Looking forward to it too! Thank you again for sharing your insights with us today, Abi!
BUY THE BOOK:
Click below for a local indie to purchase signed copies (type in the comments how you’d like the book inscribed): https://www.banksquarebooks.com/book/9780063234437
Publisher’s Page: https://www.harpercollins.com/products/wombats-are-pretty-weird-abi-cushman
SOCIAL MEDIA LINKS:
Author/Illustrator Website: https://abicushman.com
Abi Cushman is the author-illustrator of SOAKED! (Viking, 2020), ANIMALS GO VROOM! (Viking, 2021) and WOMBATS ARE PRETTY WEIRD (Greenwillow, 2023).
She has also worked as a web designer for over 15 years. She runs two popular websites of her own: My House Rabbit, a pet rabbit care site, and Animal Fact Guide, which was named a “Great Website for Kids” by the American Library Association. Did you know that wombat poop is cube-shaped? You do now! (And no, you’ll never un-know that.)
Abi lives in a small Connecticut beach town with her family. In her spare time, she enjoys running, playing tennis, and eating nachos. (Yes, at the same time.)
She is represented by BookStop Literary Agency and is a proud member of the Soaring 20s, a group of picture book authors and illustrators who debuted in 2020/21.
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.
Picture Book Review – Finley: A Moose on the Caboose
A REVIEW BY MICHELLE JING CHAN
FINLEY: A MOOSE ON THE CABOOSE
WRITTEN BY CANDACE SPIZZIRRI
ILLUSTRATED BY CHANTELLE & BURGEN THORNE
(GNOME ROAD PUBLISHING; $18.99, AGES 4-8)
Finley: A Moose on the Caboose is an adorable picture book. Set in A, Alaska, the book follows Finley, a gentle giant of a moose who just wants to ride the train across Alaska and greet all the passengers. However, the conductor does not allow this, citing the rule that wild animals are not permitted to ride the train.
Finley attempts to make his dream come true through a variety of fun and zany disguises, but his attempts are fruitless. When the train encounters a problem that only a giant moose can solve, Finley finally gets the chance to prove his worth and make his dream a reality.
• Guest review by Michelle Jing Chan
BUY A BOOK:
Support a local indie bookseller – www.readsandcompany.com
Author Candace Spizzirri
website – www.candacespizzirri.com
Illustrators Chantelle and Burgen Thorne
Reviewer Michelle Jing Chan
Michelle Jing Chan is a queer Chinese American artist who grew up in Colorado and now lives in the Pacific Northwest. Inspired by nature, cultural folklore, and fantasy, Michelle captures the magic in everyday moments through her art. She aspires to illustrate diverse, empowering stories her younger self would have loved.
When she’s not drawing, she can be found attempting new recipes, reading, or watching spooky TV shows. Visit Michelle at www.michellejingchan.com or on social media @michellieart.
An Interview with The Glow Show Author-Illustrator Susi Schaefer
AIXA PÉREZ-PRADO INTERVIEWS
ABOUT HER NEW PICTURE BOOK
THE GLOW SHOW
(SOURCEBOOKS EXPLORE; $14.99, AGES 4-8)
Glow is a bioluminescent squid who loves to dance and twirl. And the faster he twirls, the brighter he GLOWS! He loves to show off his skills … and becomes quite a show-off with a bad attitude. He doesn’t like sharing the spotlight. And when he ditches his friends in search of fans, he loses his glow! Can Glow find his way home—and if he does, will his friends take him back?
As readers follow Glow’s journey, they’ll learn all about bioluminescence and fascinating ocean creatures along the way.
Aixa Pérez-Prado: Congrats on your picture book, THE GLOW SHOW! How did you get into creating books for young readers?
Susi Schaefer: Thank you so much for the interview. I was born and raised in Austria, where I completed an apprenticeship as a glass painter. That style still influences my illustrations today.
Once I reached my early twenties, I got a case of Wanderlust and came to the U.S. to work as a nanny. While reading tons of picture books to the kids, I fell in love with the format. Eventually, I studied graphic design and worked in that field for many years.
And once I had my own kiddos, I decided to try my hand at illustrating and writing. With the help of the SCBWI and my critique groups, I steadily improved my craft until I landed an agent in 2016. THE GLOW SHOW will be my third book.
APP: Tell us what inspired this book.
SS: I am a huge nature lover and have always been fascinated by the ocean, partially because I grew up in a landlocked country. Soon after arriving here, I got my scuba diving certification to explore the underwater world for myself.
Then, a few years ago, we had a lot of bioluminescent plankton in the surf here in Southern California. I really became interested in glowing marine life.
Also, I wanted to tell a story about friendship versus followers or fans. And that’s how that idea for THE GLOW SHOW was born.
APP: Can you share your process?
SS: For this book, I started by illustrating a finished underwater scene, including a purple, bioluminescent squid. I loved the character so much that I began to write a messy first draft of the manuscript. After a couple of revisions, I created the dummy. The feedback from my critique group was very positive, and I decided to share the idea with my agent. She loved it and helped me refine the dummy. And then, we sent it out on submission and found a wonderful home.
My illustration process is digital collage combined with traditional watercolor washes. First, I create manual sketches on paper, then bring them into Procreate on my Apple iPad Pro and finalize each file in Photoshop on my Mac.
APP: Are you working on any projects you can tell us about?
SS: Yes, I am thrilled to share that I have recently signed two more contracts, one as an illustrator for a book scheduled for publication later in 2023 and the second as an author/illustrator for a book coming in 2025.
APP: Where can people find you out there?
SS: swww.susischaefer.com and on Twitter @susischaeferart and on Instagram @susischaeferart
BUY THE BOOK:
Click here to buy the book from Bookshop.org
Born and raised in the Austrian Alps, Susi Schaefer trained as a glass painter in the medieval town of Rattenberg. After moving to Southern California for sun and adventure, Susi studied graphic design. She’s the illustrator of ZOO ZEN by Kristen Fischer, author-Illustrator of CAT LADIES and THE GLOW SHOW. Susi lives in North Tustin, California, with her family. www.susischaefer.com
Twitter @susischaeferart and on Instagram @susischaeferart
Aixa Pérez-Prado is a native of Argentina who immigrated to the US as a small child. She is a writer, illustrator, translator, sensitivity reader and professor with a PhD in Social Science and Education. Aixa has lived in several different countries, and draws inspiration for her stories and illustrations from diverse locations. Her passion is writing and illustrating picture books aimed at giving diverse children a chance to see their multilayered identities represented through stories that resonate with heart and humor. Aixa writes in Spanish and English and enjoys mixing languages in her prose. Similarly, she loves illustrating by employing different techniques in a whimsical style that includes watercolor, acrylic, ink, and digital. She especially enjoys combining all of these elements through collage. Her 2023 books are CITY FEET (Reycraft), and OUR WORLD: ARGENTINA (Barefoot Books), and coming in 2024, MERCEDES SOSA: THE VOICE OF THE PEOPLE (Lee & Low). Aixa is represented by Joyce Sweeney from the Seymour Agency.
Amanda Davis Interviews Tiffany Golden, Author of I Want To Be Big!
AMANDA DAVIS INTERVIEWS TIFFANY GOLDEN,
I WANT TO BE BIG!
ILLUSTRATED BY SAWYER CLOUD
(PAGE STREET KIDS; $18.99, AGES 4-8)
Amanda’s Review of I WANT TO BE BIG:
“I WANT TO BE BIG is an imaginative and creative read about the desire to grow up and how it may not always be as exciting as it seems. Golden’s text is playful and fun, while the repetition of “big” throughout is sure to be a hit for multiple read-alouds. Cloud’s illustrations are emotive and help bring the themes of familial love to life!”
- Top three favorite children’s books of all time? Aw, c’mon. That’s like asking who’s your favorite kid. Of all time?! I love THE DAY YOU BEGIN by Jacqueline Woodson; my nephew and I even went to see the play at the Bay Area Children’s Theater in Berkeley, CA. THE VERY HUNGRY CATERPILLAR by Eric Carle, classic. My niece and I always read that one. Also, WHEN SADNESS COMES TO CALL by Eva Eland. My aunt sent that one to me after my sister’s passing.
- Coffee, tea (or neither)? Decaf tea lattes for the win!
- Where is your safe place? Always the ocean.
- Dogs, cats, (or neither)? I’m allergic to most of our furry friends, but human babies and toddlers are amazing.
- Early bird or night owl? Night owl from day one.
- Three words to describe what it takes to make it in the kidlit world … Love and observation.
Okay, now down to the serious stuff….
AD: Did you always know you wanted to be an author/illustrator? Have you explored other paths or had/have other jobs?
Tiffany Golden: Even though I didn’t illustrate I WANT TO BE BIG! Sawyer Cloud did an amazing job, I always knew I wanted to write. I wanted to create the stories I wanted to see and knew that I had to be a writer to do that. I thought I’d be a screenwriter, though. My undergraduate degree is in film and television. For steady work, I became a Teaching Artist (which is exactly what it sounds like—an artist teaching their craft), and then my love for creating with and for children blossomed. I then wanted to make stories for families to share together.
I think I was afraid to admit I wanted to be an author/illustrator. I thought doing “art-adjacent” stuff like graphic design would be enough, coupled with writing. But, when I was really honest with myself, I wanted to be an author/illustrator. I decided to learn to draw in my mid-forties. It’s so fun and challenging to learn a whole new skill. I most likely won’t illustrate every one of my books, but it will be special when I do. Similar to when illustrators tackle writing.
AD: What inspires your work?
TG: My work is mostly inspired by the people I love, especially my late sister, Nicole. I’ve found that one way for me to honor someone is to put their legacy on the page somehow. It can be as simple as a name, a characteristic, or a life viewpoint. I’m surrounded by a wonderful family, each with unique perspectives and mannerisms.
I’m also inspired by my culture. There are so many unique experiences within Black culture, there’s always something to write about, amplify, and celebrate. It is truly a gift.
AD: What advice do you have for fellow kidlit creatives?
TG: Create community. Kidlit is a welcoming and warm world. Make sure you get to know other creators in it. I’ve made so many meaningful connections in critique groups, workshops, book release groups, and many more! Grow your network with wonderful creatives!
TG: Thank you for interviewing me, Amanda, and thanks for hosting us, Ronna! Thanks to all those for reading and supporting my work!
BUY I WANT TO BE BIG!:
Bookshop to support local bookstores
Amazon for all other purchases
Click here for an activity guide.
TIFFANY GOLDEN writes picture books, middle-grade, and YA fiction, mostly inspired by her experiences as a Black, disabled woman. She is also the winner of Lee and Low’s New Visions Award for 2021. She teaches creative writing to third-to-fifth grade students, is a member of SCWBI, and received the Judith Tannenbaum Teaching Artist Fellowship.
Find out more at www.tiffanygolden.comon Twitter @mstee13 and Instagram @tiffany.golden.13
Amanda Davis is a teacher, artist, writer, and innovator who uses her words and pictures to light up the world with kindness. Amanda is the author of MOONLIGHT MEMORIES, 30,000 STITCHES: THE INSPIRING STORY OF THE NATIONAL 9/11 FLAG, and a yet-to-be-announced forthcoming title. She also has poetry and illustrations featured in The Writers’ Loft Anthology: Friends & Anemones: Ocean Poems for Children. When she’s not busy creating, you can find her sipping tea, petting dogs, and exploring the natural wonders of The Bay State with her family and her rescue pup, Cora. You can learn more about Amanda at www.amandadavisart.com and on Twitter @amandadavisart and Instagram @amandadavis_art.
An Interview by Rajani LaRocca with I’m an American Author Darshana Khiani
AN INTERVIEW WITH DARSHANA KHIANI
ABOUT HER NEW PICTURE BOOK
I’M AN AMERICAN
ILLUSTRATED BY LAURA FREEMAN
(Viking BYR; $19.99, Ages 4-8)
Rajani LaRocca: What was the inspiration for this book?
Darshana Khiani: My initial inspiration came in the Summer of 2017, I watched a YouTube video of a White man conversing with an Asian man about being American. Even though the Asian man answered every question with an answer that was similar if not the same as the White man’s answers, it didn’t matter. The White man would not “see” the 4th generation U.S. born ethnically Chinese man as an American. I was flabbergasted. When is one considered an American? Initially, I wrote a narrative story about a biracial child questioning his identity. Unfortunately, the draft didn’t feel like a picture book and had veered from the heart which was “If America is your home and you believe in the ideals/values of this country then you are American, regardless of color, ethnicity, or even citizenship.” From a conference critique, I received a suggestion to create a concept book with layered text, set in a diverse classroom. The American values would be prominently featured in the main text with the student’s family backstory in the secondary text.
RL: What kind of research did you do? How did you decide which people/which stories to include?
DK: Since this book covered immigration history at a higher level, I first started with a middle-grade nonfiction text on immigration history and then dug deeper into specific events and facts delving into topic-specific books.I wrote copious notes of whatever details were significant or interesting to me. I created a spreadsheet with all the different values and then marked which groups had stories or experiences that could help showcase that value. This was important since I wanted to capture as much diverse representation as possible from older immigrant stories to newer ones, immigrants from different regions of the world, as well as those groups who are non-immigrants.
RL: Laura Freeman’s art is stunning! Was there a lot of revision once the illustrations came in?
DK: There was plenty of revision of the text for a few of the vignettes for accuracy and sensitivity reasons, and even some shuffling around of page spreads for story flow. All good stuff. There weren’t any changes needed as a result of the art. I agree Laura’s art is breathtaking and I do hope she gets some professional recognition for it. I don’t think this was an easy book to illustrate.
RL: What do you hope young readers get from this book?
DK: No matter who you are or how you came to the United States, if you believe you are an American then you are. Also for people who’ve been here for generations, to realize that the reasons people immigrate today such as the need for safety or basic human rights is no different than the reason people immigrated in the 17th through 19th centuries. Despite our differences and challenges as a nation is it our values that we continuously strive and try to uphold that make us American.
BUY THE BOOK:
Click here to purchase I’m an American.
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.
Children’s Picture Book Review – My Grandpa, My Tree, and Me
MY GRANDPA, MY TREE, AND ME
Written by Roxanne Troup
Illustrated by Kendra Binney
(Yeehoo Press; $17.99, Ages 4-8)
There’s a timeless, feel-good quality to Roxanne Troup’s debut fiction picture book My Grandpa, My Tree, and Me, illustrated by Kendra Binney. After finishing it, I wanted to sit back and imagine myself in the bucolic surroundings where the story takes place.
Binney’s appealing artwork transported me to a pecan orchard for the first time where the action unfolds as a little girl spends time with her grandfather and narrates, “My grandpa planted a tree for me on the day I was born.” She also tells us that, despite having an orchard full of pecan trees, Grandpa’s favorite tree is that particular one, thus establishing the strong bond these two characters share.
Through changing seasons starting in winter when it’s pruning time, and the annual growth cycle of the orchard, we learn how pecans mature and are harvested. At the same time, the special relationship between the child and her grandpa exudes from the warm, muted illustrations coupled with Trout’s lyrical prose. I especially felt that each time I read the lovely repeating phrase “But not my tree.” In spread after spread the young girl describes how the other pecan trees are treated en masse as part of the commercial harvesting process, while hers receives individualized care from her grandpa. Together the two tend to her tree with love and respect which also serves as a metaphor for their relationship.
At last, when the husks open, it’s harvest time. The joy is palpable on the page. Then “Grandpa attaches a padded arm to his tractor. It hugs the trees’ trunks and shakes until leaves and twigs and pecans rain down.” When it’s her turn and with Grandpa there to savor the experience, the girl uses a long pole to make the pecans drop. The orchard’s pecans will be collected by the harvester for sale but the girl’s pecans will be baked into a scrumptious pecan pie. And, not to spoil the beautiful ending, suffice it to say that Troup and Mother Nature’s miraculous cycle of growth delivers a delightful and very satisfying dénouement in this touching layered tale.
Troup, who is not a newcomer to writing, knows how to tell an engaging and tender story while infusing interesting information into it, clearly owing to her extensive nonfiction background. The pacing of My Grandpa, My Tree, and Me moves forward easily like the seasons in the orchard. There’s a soothing rhythm to the language that makes the book an ideal read any time of the day, including bedtime. Did you know that pecans are considered a native nut to North America? Find an All About Pecans note detailing the history of the commercial pecan industry along with a helpful glossary in the back matter.
Download a free teacher’s guide here.
- Reviewed by Ronna Mandel
NOTE: I’m thrilled that Roxanne is a reviewer at this blog so subscribe today so you don’t miss her thoughtful coverage.
Children’s Books for Earth Day 2023
A ROUNDUP OF CHILDREN’S BOOKS
FOR EARTH DAY 2023
THE TREE AND THE RIVER
by Aaron Becker
(Candlewick Press; $18.99, Ages 5-9)
★Starred Reviews – Horn Book, Foreward Reviews, Kirkus Reviews, Publishers Weekly, School Library Connection
Aaron Becker’s wordless picture book, The Tree and the River, shows how humans impact a specific plot of vibrant land. The time-lapse process he uses is fascinating and powerful. Some of the imagery is fictionalized yet this doesn’t take away from the understanding that people’s cities, industry, and war wreak havoc on the land.
I like how the almost totally destroyed landscape can, with a simple acorn, reestablish itself, giving the book (and our world) the possibility that we can recover from damage inflicted.
Beyond the stunning illustrations, Becker did so much more: he prepared by constructing a scale model which he then slowly transformed with clay and wood over many months. The book was inspired by “the rich history of layered civilizations” in Granada, Spain. Be sure to peek under the dust jacket for an alternate image.
THE FOREST KEEPER:
The True Story of Jadav Payeng
Written by Rina Singh
Illustrated by Ishita Jain
(NorthSouth; $18.95, Ages 5-9)
Rina Singh’s picture book, The Forest Keeper, introduces us to a tribesman from Majuli named Jadav Molai Payeng who labored in isolated anonymity for thirty years, growing a forest on an abandoned sandbar in a remote corner of northeastern India. He began in 1979 when the river burst its banks and left hundreds of water snakes to perish in the hot sun. When he sought help from elders and the forest department, he was told “trees don’t grow on sandbars” and was given a bag of bamboo seedlings. His diligence and dedication created habitats for a number of creatures in this 1,359-acre oasis—larger than New York’s Central Park.
The soft-focus illustrations by Ishita Jain bring India’s beauty alive. I particularly like the tiger, elephants, and dramatic trees filled with birds in the twilight.
This book reminds us that Earth Day truly is every day, and that one person can make a huge difference. Be sure to look under the dust jacket for a bonus image that reinforces this story’s humble beginnings. Read an exclusive interview with illustrator Ishita Jain here.
WATER: How We Can Protect Our Freshwater
Written by Catherine Barr
Illustrated by Christiane Engel
(Candlewick Press; $18.99, Ages 5-9)
Catherine Barr’s picture book, Water: How We Can Protect Our Waterways, is broken down into easy-to-follow sections from “The First Water on Earth” through “It’s Water Action Decade!” The facts are thorough yet explained simply. It’s mind-blowing that only 3% of all water on Earth is freshwater; three-quarters of it exists in glaciers and polar ice sheets. I like how each section has an item that relates to a specific place: “These girls in sub-Saharan Africa can go to school because they have a water pump and tap in their village.” This makes the issues feel real and connects us all around the planet.
Christiane Engel’s detailed illustrations bring the world and its water sources to life such as the polluted rivers in India and salmon leaping up a fish ladder in Scotland (because their migration path has been dammed). The brightly colored art is something kids can look over again and again, finding new things each time.
The “How Can I Use Water Wisely?” section at the end is conveyed in a fun, wraparound style. Suggestions include realizing that most everything we use takes water to make and visiting local lakes or rivers to discover the animals and plants living there—if we care about something, we’re more likely to want to help protect it. Taking a few minutes to better understand our water is time well spent.
SOMETHING HAPPENED TO OUR PLANET
Kids Tackle the Climate Crisis (Something Happened series)
Written by Marianne Celano and Marietta Collins
Illustrated by Bhagya Madanasinghe
(Magination Press; $19.99, Ages 4-8)
In Marianne Celano and Marietta Collins’s Something Happened to Our Planet: Kids Tackle the Climate Crisis (Something Happened series), a young girl is worried about the far-reaching effects of plastics in our waterways. Encouraged by her family, she decides one person can make a difference so she starts an Earth Control group at her elementary school to make improvements in the cafeteria.
I enjoyed the illustrations by Bhagya Madanasinghe, especially the facial expressions of the unnamed main character. We feel the ups and downs these kids experience as their desire to help is met with setbacks.
Truly remarkable is the information provided in the Reader’s Note: facts beyond what’s found in similar texts, including a Q&A section to help parents answer hard questions posed by kids. While this section is huge, it’s manageably divided and the possible steps we can all take to mitigate climate change are surprisingly doable with suggestions such as reducing food waste, eating less meat, and using “art and music to give hope and remind others about the importance of nature and a sustainable planet.” This book is a must-have in classrooms, libraries, and at home. The publisher’s website contains several helpful downloadable pdfs.
A Messy Dive into Trash, Refuse, and Our World
Written by Rebecca Donnelly
Illustrated by John Hendrix
(Henry Holt BYR; $21.99, Ages 8-12)
★Starred Reviews -Hornbook Magazine, Kirkus Reviews
Being able to “talk trash” in a way that’s engaging and even funny at times is quite an accomplishment. Rebecca Donnelly succeeds in her middle-grade book, Total Garbage: A Messy Dive into Trash, Refuse, and Our World. It is messy because we’re talking about the mountains of things we cast aside.
The text is guided by simple questions: “What is garbage, where does it come from, where does it go, why do we make so much of it, and how can we do better?” For such an overwhelming issue, the underlying message is hopeful yet does not shy away from the massive scope of this problem, acknowledging there’s no quick solution. Something we can all do is to buy less and use less, keeping in mind what it took to make that item and understanding that things don’t just go away because there’s not such place as “away.”
The book’s blue font is appealing and illustrations by John Hendrix add some levity. I would love to see informative and optimistic books like this one being used in classrooms because being oblivious about the garbage problem really stinks.
- All Five Books Reviewed by Christine Van Zandt (www.ChristineVanZandt.com), Write for Success (www.WriteforSuccessEditing.com), @ChristineVZ and @WFSediting, Christine@WriteforSuccessEditing.com
THE DAY THE RIVER CAUGHT FIRE
Written by Barry Wittenstein
Illustrated by Jessie Hartland
(Simon & Schuster BYR; $18.99, Ages 4-8)
In award-winning author Barry Wittenstein’s eye-opening narrative nonfiction picture book, children are brought back in time to the year of a moon landing, Woodstock, the Vietnam War, and the Stonewall Rebellion. But do they know that this was also the year before Earth Day was founded? Or that a big event that led to its creation was the Cuyahoga River in Cleveland catching fire?
Yes, the river caught fire and it wasn’t the first time! “Since 1886, it happened thirteen times.” Pollution from big industry covered the water in “a thick, gooey layering of sludge, oil, and sewage …” So when KABOOM! flames rose in what would ordinarily have been rather frightening, most citizens viewed it as no big deal. Only it was a big deal! Rivers are not supposed to burn. However, since the Industrial Revolution, rivers around the world were treated as dumping sites with no concern for the health of their inhabitants in the water or nearby.
Thankfully, Cleveland’s Mayor Carl Stokes made his voice heard. The “exploding river” even made it to the cover of Time magazine, but Cleveland was not alone. Fires on rivers were happening in other cities too. Ultimately, Congress passed the Clean Air and Clean Water acts, though these are still under attack today.
Not long after, on April 22, 1970, the first Earth Day took place and more people made their voices heard. It was time to start caring for the planet we all call home. Earth Day is now celebrated around the world with a billion or more people taking part in hundreds of cities. The history of the fire and the lead-up to the first Earth Day is illustrated by Jessie Hartland in colorful gouache. The folk art style spreads will especially resonate with young readers with their warmth and whimsy. I cannot pick a favorite scene since there were multiple spreads I loved, particularly due to her depiction of people (Note: big hair lady on riverboat cruise).
53 years on, this important global movement continues with efforts to curb climate change and all forms of pollution. Seven pages of back matter include a compelling author’s note, a time line, reads and resources, and a black and white photo of an earlier Cuyahoga River fire in 1952. And though the Cuyahoga River eventually got cleaned up, and fish returned, that can easily change if enforcement of environmental laws grows lax and restrictions that help the environment get lifted. Wittenstein’s informative prose is a call to action that none of us can ignore.
ANOTHER BAND’S TREASURE:
A Story of Recycled Instruments
by Hua Lin Xie
Translated by Edward Gauvin
(Graphic Universe; $14.99, Ages 8-12)
Xie’s graphic novel debut was inspired by the true story of Favio Chávez, a musician and educator from Paraguay who founded the Recycled Orchestra of Cateura in 2006. To me, this quote at the end speaks volumes, “The world sends us its garbage. We give it back music.”
The story’s main characters are Diego, a musician and music instructor, his friend, Nicolas, a carpenter, and Ada and her younger brother Daniel. They come from a single-parent home, and they, like many of the residents in this poor village likely live hand to mouth. The kids find entertainment treasure hunting on the landfill while their mother would like them to contribute to the household. There is little excitement or motivation in the children’s lives. That is until Diego puts out a flyer offering music lessons. In hopes of helping the kids grow emotionally by exposing them to music and self-expression, Diego and Nicolas also hope this will keep local kids out of trouble.
The graphic novel is divided into seven chapters as the relationships with the students, Diego and Nicolas develop. At first, it’s only Nicolas who scavenges amongst the discards of the landfill for usable items to turn into instruments. Before long, as the kids’ pride in what they’re a part of blossoms, it’s wonderful to watch them start searching for potential musical instruments. Maybe this could be a drum, or maybe a violin.
When Diego receives an invitation from the mayor for the orchestra to perform at a musical event in Asunción, everyone is not only thrilled for a chance to visit the capital but honored at being recognized. So much so that Ada and Daniel tell every single person they meet heading home and shout it from the top of the landfill. “Hey, clouds! We’re going places!!” Of course, they’re a hit and so begins a journey to play concerts all over the world! In an epilogue, Daniel has grown up and now, when he is on summer break, he and other children from the first class come back to Diego’s new class to help out new students and return the kindness that changed their lives.
Seamlessly translated from the French original, this English version has almost no color. Executed in muted greyish-black tones, the art looks like pen and ink but may have been created digitally. The choice of color or lack of it conveys the dullness of life alongside a landfill. The only time color appears apart from the cover is when a guitar is made from an orange-striped paint can. This middle-grade graphic novel is a hopeful story and a beautiful tribute to the dream and dedication of Favio Chávez. Find out more at www.recycledorchestracateura.com.
- Reviewed by Ronna Mandel
Additional Recommended Reads for Earth Day
NO WORLD TOO BIG:
Young People Fighting Global Climate Change
Written by (Charlesbridge Publishing; $18.99, Ages 5-9)
Fourteen Scientists and Fourteen Ways We Can Save Our Planet
by Laura Gehl
(Millbrook Press; $24.99, Ages 9-14)
Three Picture Books for Ramadan and Eid al-Fitr
PICTURE BOOKS FOR RAMADAN AND EID AL-FITR
~ A ROUNDUP ~
Written and illustrated by Natasha Khan Kazi
(Versify; $18.99, Ages 4-8)
★ Starred Review – School Library Journal
I’m a big fan of personification in picture books so I was curious how Kazi would bring the moon to life in her new Ramadan story. In her debut, she shows a cheerful crescent moon grinning at a diverse group of Muslims across the planet.
Ready for a month of peace and fasting from sunrise to sundown, people are busy cleaning and preparing. Moon’s view of celebrants takes us first to Egypt, then to Turkey. We learn the early morning meal is called Suhoor. The daylight hours are devoted to good deeds and kindness. When Moon glances down at Indonesia, it’s time to break the fast at Iftar. Here we’re treated to a spread of a dining room table filled with all the delicious foods of the holiday including dates. In the United Kingdom, Moon lights the way for children “delivering baskets of dried fruit and honey-soaked pastries.” Zakat, or charity during Ramadan, is discussed by leaders of the community in New Zealand. One example is by putting coins in sadaqah jars for those in need.
As the days pass, Moon grows fuller. So by the time this story reaches Somalia, it is full, signaling the halfway mark of the holiday. An Iman leads worshippers in the nightly prayer of Taraweeh. One of my favorite spreads, in rich purples and blues, is about breaking bread with people of different faiths. Set in the United States. Moon has reached its last quarter and is shaped like a loaf of bread that has risen. In Dubai Moon gets a glimpse of smiles and hennaed hands. A gorgeous star-lit outdoor scene greets a new Moon in Argentina as she “magically melts into mulberry and lavender hues.” People fill the streets as the month of fasting nears its end. First India for Chaand Raat, the night of the moon, and then for our return back to where everything in Kazi’s picture book began, in Egypt for the joyful Eid al-Fitr festivities. The positive energy of Kazi’swarm art, achieved using scanned watercolor textures and digital pencil, and uplifting prose pulsates from the pages!
The endpapers depict the phases of the moon and back matter includes an Author’ Note, a Ramadan Glossary, illustrations of different foods, and Ramadan items such as the lantern, the sadaqah jar, the traditional skullcap, and more. A rewarding read now and for years to come!
THE NIGHT BEFORE EID
Written by Rashin KheiriyehIllustrated by
(Christy Ottaviano Books; $18.99, Ages 4-8)
★ Starred Review – Kirkus
Introduce your children to Eid al-Fitr, the Muslim holiday that begins with a crescent moon above, by sharing this heart-warming new picture book.
Zain is so excited that Teita has finally arrived from Egypt. Everyone will help her make the delicious dessert called ka’ak that she is known for. She’s brought along special ingredients, too. The mouth-watering cookies take time and patience to make and though Zain is eager to get started, author Khalil takes us back to Egypt via several fabulous flashback spreads to when Zain’s Mama and Teita were younger. That was a time when the whole family would stay up all night to bake the ka’ak and then offer them as gifts to others. Those three pages of recollections convey the significance of this tradition that Zain’s family continues.
Zain brings the cookies to school where they are a hit even with his class’s pickiest eater. This is a super scene because it’s inclusive—there’s a student in a wheelchair, a Black student, a White student, one girl in a headscarf, and one boy wearing a yarmulke. When Zain’s teacher wants the recipe he is filled with pride. Wait until he tells Teita! You can feel the love emanating from the huge hugs and smiles he shares with his teita once home.
The charming illustrations, which include a lively kitty popping up in fun poses and places, have a childlike quality that I find appealing and feels so right for this story. They were created using mixed media including acrylic, oil, ink, spray paint, crayon, and pencil on watercolor paper. The saturation of colors such as pink, orange, and teal adds vibrancy to this tale that is already so full of life.
Seeing the scenes when Mama was a child helps reinforce how the memories of time spent together during the holiday are a cherished part of the experience. Young readers are treated to not only the history of ka’ak going back to the pharaohs’ rule but to the fun involved when everyone pitches in now to help prepare them. Khalil’s prose makes us almost taste their sweetness and shows how important it is to honor this joyful tradition. Six pages of back matter end the book with an explanation of Eid, a ka’ak time line, lovely author photos, and a recipe to try your hand a ka’ak making. Don’t miss this timeless intergenerational story!
Written by Shirin Shamsi
Illustrated by Manal Mirza
(Barefoot Books; Available in Hardcover $17.99, Paperback $9.99, + Spanish, Ages 4-9)
I loved where this wonderful story went and how the title can be interpreted to refer to more than one blessing that occurs in Zahra’s Blessing. One clue is given in Nirza’s beautiful cover artwork.
The story begins at bedtime with the main character, Zahra, telling her teddy bear that during the Ramadan moon, her mama says “… blessings are all around us during this month.” So Zahra prays for a sister, someone to bake with. I’m adding play with, read to, and love because it’s clear Zahra is a girl full of love.
One blessing during the holiday is to give to others so along with her Mama, Zahra chooses clothing to box up and donate. Afterward, she realizes that she cannot find Teddy, her stuffed animal, despite a thorough search. This loss weighs on her. A sister could help her look for Teddy.
When they bring their items to a refugee shelter, they will also spend time there volunteering. And though Zahra is missing her beloved Teddy, her mother explains the shelter residents have lost so much more since fleeing their homelands. That helps Zahra understand their difficult circumstances. Mama introduces Zahra to “someone special,” a young refugee named Haleema who is painting. This a second clue kids might not pick up on. They may also not get that Haleema refers to her parents in the past tense. Her Baba was an artist she tells Zahra. Her mama was an architect. Here I must note I did wonder if kids will infer Haleema’s parents had died. What is clear is that Zahra and Haleema bond over painting, reading stories, and then breaking the fast together. Soon it was time to go home and I was moved when Zahra longs to find Teddy so she can give him to Haleema who was sad to see her new friend go. Moments like this demonstrate Zahra’s maturity and humanity.
Over Ramadan, Zahra and Haleema spend more time together, growing closer every day. Just before “Eid Day dawned dazzling bright” Zahra’s parents share a delightful secret with her which readers ultimately learn a few spreads later. Zahra’s wish for a sister has come true in the most wonderful way so when Eid festivities end, this family of three grows to a family of four with Haleema! There was no denying the blessing of Ramadan that Zahra’s family could feel.
The two pages of back matter explain the holiday, and its customs, and also address displacement, shelters, and foster care. The interconnectedness of Shamsi’s lyrical writing with Mirza’s jewel-toned, ebullient art makes this a standout story for children. Zahra’s Blessing presents a story of empathy, kindness, and the joy of giving in an engaging and accessible way while beautifully blending the richness of Ramadan and Eid.
- Reviewed by Ronna Mandel
Picture Book Review – Light Speaks
Written by Christine Layton
Illustrated by Luciana Navarro Powell
(Tilbury House Publishers; $18.95; Ages 4-8)
From the Publisher:
“An enchanting picture book about the joyful, mysterious, awe-inspiring messages of light.”
This beautiful book begins with light’s first daily message to a young child: Awake
And continues to explain all the ways light speaks to us—in our daily lives…
and throughout space and time—covering both natural and manmade light sources.
Christine Layton’s spare, poetic text leaves plenty of room for illustrator, Luciana Navarro Powell’s luminous art to shine in this nonfiction concept book. Young listeners will pour over Powells’ beautiful art as they listen to Layton’s lyrical, mysterious text while older readers delight in unraveling its mystery. (And for those who just can’t wait, Layton provides a more detailed, scientific look at some of the abstract concepts in the book like the way light “echoes off planets and moons” or “tells lies.”
Light Speaks would make an excellent science and ELA text for the classroom—especially when paired with more straightforward nonfiction like Light Waves by David Adler and Anna Raff (Holiday House, 2018)—as it would lend itself to cross-curricular discussions about science and poetry.
- Reviewed by Roxanne Troup
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)
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