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Picture Book Review – How Beautiful

HOW BEAUTIFUL

Written by Antonella Capetti

Illustrated by Melissa Castrillón

(Greystone Kids; $17.95; Ages 4-8)

 

 

How Beautiful cover

 

 

Starred Review – Booklist

 

Life is simple for the little caterpillar who appreciates sleeping, eating, and crawling around until an unknown thing calls him beautiful setting him off on an adventure in the forest to answer the question, “what does beautiful mean?” How Beautiful is written by Italian school teacher and picture book author Antonella Capetti and illustrated by bestselling picture book illustrator Melissa Castrillón.

Castrillón’s stunning illustrations capture the serenity and peacefulness the caterpillar feels while resting in the forest leaves. From the lovely warm golds and reds, we can imagine what life is like for the caterpillar as he talks to the bee and rests inside a red flower. “He never questioned anything.”

 

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Interior spread from How Beautiful written by Antonella Capetti and illustrated by Melissa Castrillón, Greystone Kids ©2021.

 

Soon a hand with thin fingers lifts the caterpillar off the ground. Caterpillar is confused by this unusual twig because it has no leaves and moves faster than any twig he has ever seen. The opposite page introduces a new scene with Unknown Thing standing in front of  the caterpillar (ódraws a pig-tailed girl in the distance) who says, “’You’re so beautiful.’ Then it gently laid him and the twig down, and as suddenly as it arrived, it went away.”

 The unquestioning little white bug with the big pink cheeks begins to question for the very first time, so he embarks on a journey to find out if others in the forest know what beautiful means. He begins by asking the big purple-hued bear with bees buzzing by. “’Oh, this is beautiful,’ the bear answered. Lifting up a honeycomb between its paws.” But the blackbird nearby disagreed.

 

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Interior spread from How Beautiful written by Antonella Capetti and illustrated by Melissa Castrillón, Greystone Kids ©2021.

 

Hmm, it was time to ask others living in the forest. Frolicking in the yellow leaves are three squirrels and the caterpillar asks them “What does beautiful mean?” Honeycomb is not their answer. Instead, they reply that they like dry leaves. Blackbird again disagrees. “Those are not beautiful. Those are fun.”

 

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Interior art from How Beautiful written by Antonella Capetti and illustrated by Melissa Castrillón, Greystone Kids ©2021.

 

Caterpillar begins to feel sad when he previously felt so content. The once happy-faced caterpillar is now depictd with a sad face as confusion takes over his thoughts. He asks a deer which ends up being no help. “If only he could go home to his leaf, and get rid of the blackbird and the bothersome question.” The page darkens as night sets in and the tired animals of the forest lay on the ground looking up at the sky. “How beautiful! They all exclaimed.” They finally agreed.

Capetti’s prose provide great conversation starters asking the reader, what do you consider beautiful? Why do two people (or animals) who are asked the same question give different answers? Teachers will be delighted to come up with questions to ask during storytime. Capetti’s story opens up a topic of self-discovery for young kids to understand that sometimes questions have more than one answer. How Beautiful is written and illustrated in a thought-provoking way, showing children that it is okay to question what they don’t know. This story shines a light on how the animals may have had different opinions about what is beautiful but by the end of the day, they all found something they could agree on.

  •  Reviewed by Ronda Einbinder

 

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Middle Grade Graphic Novel Memoir – Sylvie

 

 

SYLVIE

Written and illustrated by Sylvie Kantorovitz

(Walker Books US; $24.99, Ages 9-12)

 

 

As we approach the one-year anniversary of Sylvie’s publication, I had to share an overdue review of Sylvie Kantorovitz’s memoir that I only recently read. I’ve been playing catch-up following an extremely busy year during which I couldn’t help but notice how many excellent graphic novels were released.

Sylvie Kantorovitz’s compelling middle-grade graphic novel memoir about growing up in the late 1960s and 1970s France was just the book I needed to read last week. It didn’t hurt that I’m a Francophile, but even readers who don’t know the first thing about life in France will finish Sylvie feeling much more familiar with it.

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Interior art from Sylvie written and illustrated by Sylvie Kantorovitz, Walker Books US ©2021.

 

While Kantorovitz didn’t set out to write and illustrate a memoir (per her Author’s Note), memories of her childhood rose to the surface during her initial approach to drafting the novel and soon her own story took on a new life. Her candor, ambiguity at times, and relatability are what make Sylvie so rich, like the perfect crème brûlée or éclair au chocolat. Add to that her irresistible artwork (including maps which I adore, translated words to help non-French speakers, and other charming details such as chestnuts at the end of every chapter/section) and you have a novel as fresh and real as any contemporary one.

As a young girl whose family came to France from Morocco, Sylvie had to deal with anti-immigrant attitudes as well as anti-Semitism being the only Jewish family where she lived. And where did she live? Well, that’s another aspect of the novel that makes it stand it apart. Sylvie’s father was a principal at a men’s teaching college so the family was given housing on campus. The vast grounds of the school suited kids like Sylvie and her younger brother whose imaginations meant there was never a dull moment.

 

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Interior art from Sylvie written and illustrated by Sylvie Kantorovitz, Walker Books US ©2021.

 

Growing up, Sylvie faced the same dilemmas kids face today whether that’s friends moving away, friends you have doubts about or friends you crush on, frustration at sharing a bedroom, fitting in, finding your passion, and figuring out what you want to do the rest of your life. On top of that, when Sylvie’s father changed jobs, Sylvie’s family moved away from the teaching college to a city closer to Paris. While that meant leaving behind lovely memories it also meant new opportunities.

What I loved most about Sylvie was how introspective she was. She knew how much she loved looking after her brothers and sister―we see her family grow from one sibling to three―and other young kids. Maybe I’d be a good teacher she wondered. She thrived on alone time in her room doing art and taking outside art classes. Maybe I could be an artist but could I support myself that way? And she continually wondered what she would do in the future when her peers seemed to know exactly what their path in life was. She did not like the pressure she felt from her mother to either find a rich man to marry or pursue a career in a field that didn’t interest her. She was nurtured by a caring, inspiring father and confused by a moody, often angry mother while she navigated the important coming-of-age period of her childhood. The scenes when her parents argued and the question of the big “D” or divorce arose is something many readers will understand. When she once asked her father why he didn’t leave her mother he said he loved her, something Sylvie found difficult to fathom.

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Interior art from Sylvie written and illustrated by Sylvie Kantorovitz, Walker Books US ©2021.

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I expect many readers will enjoy reading about Sylvie’s quest for independence. Like when she finally gets a room of her own by moving upstairs to an unused storage room in the college building where her family lived. Whenever Sylvie had opportunities to study and practice art, the joy jumped off the pages right into my heart. Moments like those, captured so lovingly in the cartoon-style artwork and text, brought Sylvie’s experiences to life. I hope readers will find relevance and comfort in Sylvie’s honest and heartfelt story. The book is available in hardcover, paperback, and Ebook and is the reassuring read we could all use right now.

  • Reviewed by Ronna Mandel

 

Please click here to read a sample chapter. 

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Picture Book Review – Little Narwhal, Not Alone

 

LITTLE NARWHAL, NOT ALONE

BY TIFFANY STONE

ILLUSTRATED BY ASHLYN ANSTEE

(GREYSTONE KIDS; $17.95; AGES 4-8)

 

Little Narwhal Not Alone cover

 

 

Children’s poet and critically acclaimed picture book author Tiffany Stone has brought ocean life to the surface in Little Narwhal, Not Alone, a story that is based on the unlikely real-life friendship between two different species of whales—beluga whales and narwhals who usually do not interact.

Poetic, rhyming language flows through each page, while playful illustrations by Ashlyn Anstee guide the reader on this unexpected journey. We are introduced to the sweet little narwhal, with the blue and white tusk protruding from his head, who loves his frozen home. However, the mischievous little whale is also prone to wandering away. “But little narwhal longs to roam, to see the sea beyond this ice, past polar bears to brand-new sights. And so while others hunt and play, narwhal sets off on his way.”

 

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Interior spread from Little Narwhal, Not Alone written by Tiffany Stone and illustrated by Ashlyn Anstee, Greystone Kids ©2021.

 

Anstee’s childhood summers swimming in the waters of the Canadian west coast are reflected through her cool palette of colorful fish art and the greens of the “northern sky.” This little narwhal swims by schools of fish with Stone’s inviting onomatopoeia of SWISH SWISH! and WHEEEEE! sure to entice young readers to repeat out loud as they join the fun adventure.

Well, needless to say, the fun adventure may not be as much fun as Little Narwhal thought. While looking for narwhal friends to play with, he unexpectantly swims towards a new noise.  But instead of friends, he sees a boat propeller and dives deep to get away. “He swims … and swims … and swims some more. His flippers ache. His fluke is sore. But far off from his frozen home, little narwhal’s all alone.”

 

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Interior spread from Little Narwhal, Not Alone written by Tiffany Stone and illustrated by Ashlyn Anstee, Greystone Kids ©2021.

 

 

His head popping out from the green waters, the far-from-home narwhal sees something in the icy distance. When he reaches his destination he discovers whales that seem familiar yet at the same time look like nothing he has ever seen. Anstee draws beluga whales missing the protruding tusk, and readers are now aware that something is different about these whales. “They look like him-or close enough-though no one sports a twisty tusk.”

 

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Interior art from Little Narwhal, Not Alone written by Tiffany Stone and illustrated by Ashlyn Anstee, Greystone Kids ©2021.

 

Introducing the reader to the theme of acceptance and overcoming differences, Narwal’s wave hello is not understood by the beluga whales. He is determined to find something he shares with the white tuskless creatures so when the pod swims away he follows.

It’s easy to feel the narwhal’s initial sadness and discouragement, and want to reach through the page and give him a big hug. But soon enough  “all the whales begin to play. And … SQUIRT … the new whales welcome him!” Narwhal plays old games and new games with the beluga whales who have now become his friends.

 

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Interior art from Little Narwhal, Not Alone written by Tiffany Stone and illustrated by Ashlyn Anstee, Greystone Kids ©2021.

 

Marine Biologist, Marie Noel, Ph.D., explains in the back matter that a young narwhal was spotted in the St. Lawrence River estuary in Quebec, Canada, among a group of young belugas four years in a row. Typically, she says, beluga whales and narwhals do not interact but this young narwhal may have been adopted by the group of young belugas. Every summer, researchers are now keeping an eye on the whales of the St. Lawrence and this remarkable friendship.

The unique nature of this unlikely friendship tale makes Little Narwhal, Not Alone a powerful read for young children modeling that they may not be exactly like their friends, but despite differences, there are many things that can bring them together.

  •  Reviewed by Ronda Einbinder

 

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Picture Book Review – My Two Border Towns

MY TWO BORDER TOWNS 

Written by David Bowles

Illustrated by Erika Meza

(Kokila; $17.99, Ages 4-8)

 

 

 

Starred Reviews – Kirkus, Booklist, The Horn Book, Publishers Weekl

 

Two towns unite in a spirit of community, outreach, and transnational awareness through the compassion of a little boy and his father in David Bowles and Erika Meza’s My Two Border Towns. 

As he does every other Saturday, a boy living in South Texas prepares for a trip with his father to “[E]l Otro Lado”–a short ride to the other side of the border. He grabs his “special bag” of gifts before they leave; while on the road, he reflects on the items he’ll be giving to his friends.

 

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Interior spread from My Two Border Towns written by David Bowles and illustrated by Erika Meza, Kokila ©2021.

 

Once they’ve arrived, we see a warm and vibrant town, twin to the one where the boy lives, except for English which is “mostly missing” until  “it pops up like grains of sugar on a chili pepper.” Bowles’ fluid weaving of English and Spanish throughout the story also provides opportunities for further learning to those who want to dig deeper into the Spanish language.  Colorful and lively, Meza’s aerial and close-up illustrations of the setting are packed with details:  architecture, wall signs, street vendors, and facial expressions all have a story of their own. 

 

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Interior spread from My Two Border Towns written by David Bowles and illustrated by Erika Meza, Kokila ©2021.

 

Now that father and son are fueled up with breakfast from their favorite restaurant, it’s time to catch up with family and play a round of soccer. Grocery shopping and a visit to the pharmacist are next, but before they head home, Dad reminds his son of their last, “most important visit.” 

 

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Interior spread from My Two Border Towns written by David Bowles and illustrated by Erika Meza, Kokila ©2021.

 

Having all his supplies ready, the boy makes a quick visit to his friend who, along with a long line of people, is waiting, uncertain about the fate of his future. There are “entire families from the Caribbean and Central America. Refugees, Dad calls them. Stuck between two countries.”

The thought and care the boy has given to his gifts is evident as he unpacks them “explaining [his] choices” for each one to his friend.  Though his visit is short, it’s always bookended by love for his friends and a yearning for their freedom.  

 

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Interior spread from My Two Border Towns written by David Bowles and illustrated by Erika Meza, Kokila ©2021.

 

A must-have for caregivers and educators, My Two Border Towns opens doors to conversations about kindness, empathy, duty, and the complexities of immigration.

  •  Reviewed by Armineh Manookian

 

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Nonfiction Picture Book Review – Tu Youyou’s Discovery

TU YOUYOU’S DISCOVERY:
Finding a Cure for Malaria

Written by Songju Ma Daemicke

Illustrated by Lin

(Albert Whitman & Co.; $16.99, Ages 4-8)

 

Tu Youyous Discovery cover

 

In 2021 malaria is a preventable and treatable disease but it wasn’t always the case. Hundreds of thousands used to die from it annually but the mortality rate has declined since the medicine to cure it was approved. That’s why I was curious to read about Tu Youyou, the woman whose determination led to finding a cure for malaria and becoming the first Chinese woman to win a Nobel Prize. 

In Tu Youyou’s Discovery written by Songju Ma Daemicke with art by Lin, readers are brought back in time to Beijing, China in the 1930s. Youyou attended school when most girls her age stayed home but contracted tuberculosis as a teenager and had to drop out.

 

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Interior art from Tu Youyou’s Discovery: Finding a Cure for Malaria written by Songju Ma Daemicke and illustrated by Lin, Albert Whitman ©2021.

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Fortunately, she survived due to antibiotics prescribed by her physician but was greatly weakened. A steady diet of “her mother’s herb soups slowly nursed her back to full strength.” This sparked her interest in how both “modern and traditional” medicines had helped her get well. Always a compassionate person, Youyou chose to pursue a career in science in order to help save lives. Little did she know then what a major contribution she would ultimately make when in 1969 malaria, like Covid-19 now, swept across the world bringing death in its path. After graduating from Peking University, “in 1955” she “became a researcher at the China Academy of Traditional Chinese Medicine in Beijing.” As part of a research group, Youyou was determined to find a cure for malaria and was in the right place at just the right time.

 

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Interior art from Tu Youyou’s Discovery: Finding a Cure for Malaria written by Songju Ma Daemicke and illustrated by Lin, Albert Whitman ©2021.

 

Youyou traveled around the country to document cases in hopes of gaining new insight into the disease. She found it when she met a farmer who had cured his own high fever by eating a local plant called qinghao, known in English as sweet wormwood. In her lab, she and her team tried various methods to create a cure using the qinghao, but nothing worked. However, Youyou did not give up. Despite little to no funding for the latest equipment, Youyou’s team performed experiment after experiment with no luck.

Then what appeared to be a breakthrough came from an unexpected place. Studying her family’s indispensable “A Handbook of Prescriptions for Emergencies, an ancient Chinese remedy book,” Youyou revisited the qinhao remedy only to realize that the book recommended just soaking the herb in water when all along her team had been boiling it. Perhaps the healing part of the plant had been destroyed during the experiments. Much to her dismay, this too yielded no results. Again, Youyou persevered. Many male colleagues had questioned her commitment to traditional medicine but “After 190 unsuccessful experiments, the test result of sample 191 stunned the team.” Sample 191 completely killed the parasites and so in 1971 a successful cure had been found. And while Youyou initially credited her entire team in research papers, over time “other scientists finally realized how involved she had been in the discovery.” In October of 2015, Tu Youyou was awarded the Nobel Prize in Medicine at a ceremony in Stockholm, Sweden. Her commitment to finding a cure for malaria has saved millions of lives and continues to do so to this day.

 

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Interior art from Tu Youyou’s Discovery: Finding a Cure for Malaria written by Songju Ma Daemicke and illustrated by Lin, Albert Whitman ©2021.

 

I’m so glad Songju has introduced Tu Youyou to me and to children in such an accessible way. I felt as if, despite knowing the outcome, that I was right alongside a detective solving a mystery. This nonfiction picture book bio provides engaging STEM reading for budding scientists, doctors, and inventors and puts Youyou’s name up there alongside other women in STEM history makers such as Marie Curie, Marie Maynard Daly, and Ada Byron Lovelace. Lin’s nice use of contrasting flat color palettes creates bright illustrations that have a print-making quality to them. Songju shares how labor-intensive the six steps of the scientific method are (see back matter for this info) but also how crucial. While not all experiments yield life-changing results, Youyou’s story is a great example of how teamwork and not giving up can make a difference. I was surprised to learn in the Author’s Note that although the first clinical trials for the malaria medicine known as artemisinin took place in 1972, it wasn’t until 1986 that the drug gained approval from the Chinese government and started being used around the globe.

  •  Reviewed by Ronna Mandel
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Picture Book Review – The Bad Mood!

THE BAD MOOD!

Written by Moritz  Petz

Illustrated by Amélie Jackowski

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

 

The Bad Mood cover

 

 

Badger woke up in a bad mood! After working in his garden, he starts to feel better but knows he must make amends when he finds out that his grumpy, rude remarks from the morning have left his friends upset with him in The Bad Mood! written by Moritz Petz, with illustrations by Amélie Jackowski. Now available as an unjacketed hardcover, this beloved classic has been translated into more than ten languages.

Bad moods are quite contagious and relatable to most children and adults. Like Badger ultimately realizes, a bad mood can consume all of our senses. Jackowski’s drawing of Badger’s long face says it all as does Petz’s prose when Badger says, “I’m in a bad mood today! This might be dangerous. Maybe I’d better stay at home.” If only he’d gone with his gut.

Deciding that his forest friends should notice that he is in a bad mood, Badger angrily sets out to begin his day. “Everybody ought to know how miserable I feel.” The pale green sky is the only thing calm as he stomps away from the door of his treehouse causing the mail to fly out of the mailbox.

 

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Interior spread from The Bad Mood written by Mortiz Petz and illustrated by Amélie Jackowski, NorthSouth Books ©2021.

 

Turning the page, the reader is greeted by cheerful Raccoon with his long striped black-and-white tail and yoyo in hand. Raccoon does what we assume he does whenever he is greeted by a friend and wishes Badger a good morning. “’Good morning? What’s so good about it?’ Badger replied, and stomped off.” Raccoon stood there shocked that not even so much as a goodbye was offered!

 

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Interior spread from The Bad Mood written by Mortiz Petz and illustrated by Amélie Jackowski, NorthSouth Books ©2021.

 

Badger’s mood becomes more explosive when Moose asks if he slept well and Badger counters it is “none of your business.” Badger is pleased with his response liking that both Deer and Raccoon know he is in a bad mood. He continues along his walk and passes more friends and “He was as rude to them as he could be.” This becomes a teachable moment for parents and caregivers. A discussion on how to treat people may even be initiated by little ones who realize this behavior does not win friends.

After Badger’s walk, he begins to work in his garden and as he was “digging and weeding, the strangest thing happened. His bad mood just slipped right off him.” But when he went out to play with the animals in the late afternoon the woods were silent. Unfortunately, the tables had turned and Raccoon was in a bad mood. So were Squirrel, Mouse, and Hare.

 

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Interior spread from The Bad Mood written by Mortiz Petz and illustrated by Amélie Jackowski, NorthSouth Books ©2021.

 

It is then that Badger confides in Crow and the two come up with an idea to have a “bad-mood party.” Jackowski’s gorgeous art decorates the forest with smiling friends and colorful lanterns. Children see a happy scene when Badger asks for forgiveness and it’s given.

Petz’s words model for youngsters how to apologize when they have done something they are not proud of. This beautifully written story is sure to invite multiple reads. Its simple but valuable lesson, that it’s normal to sometimes be in a bad mood, reminds kids that taking a deep breath is much better than taking it out on your friends. The Bad Mood! needs to be added to the mindfulness section in school classrooms.

  • Reviewed by Ronda Einbinder

 

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Best New Children’s Christmas Books for 2021

 

A ROUNDUP OF
THE BEST NEW CHRISTMAS BOOKS FOR 2021

 

 

All of us at GoodReadsWithRonna.com wish you a warm and wonderful Christmas!

 

REVIEWS:

Jingle Bells Navidad coverJINGLE BELLS / NAVIDAD:
Bilingual Nursery Rhymes
(English & Spanish)
Written and illustrated by Susie Jaramillo
(Canticos; $10.99, Ages 0-6)

This 16 page bilingual, lift-the-flaps board book is not only beautiful to look at (its cover features foil accents), it stars the sweet little chickies from the Emmy-nominated series. What a delightful way to celebrate the holidays than by sharing the “Jingle Bells” song with children in both English and Spanish. There are cute characters in vibrant colors to enjoy including Mama Hen, a purple spider, an adorable elephant, a frog, and a bunny. Kids can have fun lifting the assorted flaps to find additional words such as warmth/calor, joy/alegria and others all while improving their bilingual language skills. A larger formatted board book ($14.99) with an accordion design offers the opportunity to read “Jingle Bells” on one side entirely in English and the other in Spanish. Visit canticosworld.com for free resources, activities, and more. For a limited time, the Encantos app is available for free.

  •  Reviewed by Ronna Mandel

 

Merry Christmas Gus coverMERRY CHRISTMAS, GUS
Written and illustrated by Chris Chatterton
(Penguin Workshop; $17.99, Ages 3-5)

Merry Christmas, Gus, is Chris Chatterton’s second book featuring the adorable grumpy hound dog, Gus. It seems there’s not much of anything that Gus likes about the holiday season until a puppy enters the picture, then, . . . maybe.

As in the first book, the art is LOL funny because of Gus’s gloomy expressions. My favorite part is the ending—sorry, you’ll have to read it yourself! The perfect gift for the not-really-into-it person on your holiday shopping list.

  • Reviewed by Christine Van Zandt

 

The Toys' ChristmasTHE TOYS’ CHRISTMAS
Written by Claire Clément
Illustrated by Geneviève Godbout
(Frances Lincoln Children’s Books; $17.99, Ages 3-7)

Let the cozy feeling of this sweet bedtime Christmas tale envelope your little ones as they drift contentedly off to sleep. I was enchanted by the premise of The Toys’ Christmas in which little Noah cannot fall asleep because his favorite stuffed animal FanFan is nowhere to be found. Enchanted by his going missing you might ask? No. I was enchanted by his devotion to Noah. FanFan, it seems, is on a secret mission along with all the other soft toys he meets up with on his long and special journey. Once a year the beloved toys travel to the North Pole. There they can “tell Santa what their child wants for Christmas. After all, they know their child best of all.” Well,  this just warmed my heart and I hope it does the same for your child. Rest assured FanFan returns to delight Noah who also is thrilled to have his Christmas wish come true. Coupled with Godbout’s gorgeous pastel and colored pencil illustrations in faded tones not unlike many of the much-loved toys after years of cuddling and washes, Clément’s gentle prose are sure to charm.

  • Reviewed by Ronna Mandel

 

Christmas Here I Come coverCHRISTMAS, HERE I COME!
Written by D. J. Steinberg
Illustrated by Laurie Stansfield
(Grosset & Dunlap; $5.99, Ages 4-6)

If you’re looking for a gift to bring to family, friends or neighbors before Christmas or on the day itself, look no further than Christmas, Here I Come!, one of the multiple books in the best-selling series. This paperback is packed with humorous and sentimental poems revolving around the holiday from choosing trees to jokes about fruitcake, from the joyful mess of wrapping paper to Santas around the world. There are even stickers at the end for further entertainment. One of my favorites is called “Peace on Earth” about two neighbors competing for the most lights on their homes until circuits blew. Another is “My Christmas Sweater” about the hilarity and comfiness of the traditional ugly sweater. There’s also a recurring Dear Santa Claus letter from a character called Bobby which many youngsters will find relatable. Stansfield’s art evokes the holiday spirit, capturing the abundant experiences detailed in Steinberg’s poetry.

  • Reviewed by Ronna Mandel

 

Joy to the World coverJOY TO THE WORLD!:
Christmas Around the Globe
Written by Kate DePalma
Illustrated by Sophie Fatus
(Barefoot Books; $17.99, Ages 4-10)

Joy to the World!, with its gold embossed lettering and accents on the cover, makes a great Christmas gift for families, friends, and anyone curious about the holiday traditions in 13 countries spanning from Argentina to Serbia. Peopled with diverse children and their families celebrating in special ways, this colorful picture book not only entertains but educates too.

Kids will see how in the Philippines Simbang Gabi lasts for nine days including daily worship. “We come every day, and they say if you do/Whatever you wish on day nine will come true.” Stars shimmer across this particular two-page spread, and beautifully bordered art (throughout the book and unique to that country) in a cheerful jewel-toned palette emanates joy and community. In Ethiopia, where people celebrate Genna on January 7, families gather around the mesob (a basket-like table) and feed one another “a large bit of food by hand.” I love that so many celebrations revolve around food in addition to family and faith rituals. Older readers will find even more helpful information in the back matter which expands on the brief rhyming info for each country that was depicted in earlier pages. This welcoming, upbeat picture book full of happy families brings world celebrations to your fingertips in a most delightful way.

  • Reviewed by Ronna Mandel

 

The Star Tree coverTHE STAR TREE
Written and  illustrated by Gisela Cölle

Translated by Rosemary Lanning (first published in Switzerland)
(NorthSouth Books; $17.99, Ages 4-8)

For a quiet story this busy holiday season, consider Gisela Cölle’s, The Star Tree. A mustachioed old man missed days of yore, far from sprawling urban life. No one even glances at the sky above anymore as they hurry through their busy days.

Cölle’s illustrations echo the rustic simplicity of the text. This timeless classic demonstrates that sometimes less can be more, and by taking that first step, a community can be brought together. You’ll feel inspired to cut out some stars too!

  • Reviewed by Christine Van Zandt

 

Carla and the Christmas Cornbread coverCARLA AND THE CHRISTMAS CORNBREAD
Written by Carla Hall with Kristen Hartke
Illustrated by Cherise Harris
(Denene Millner Books/Simon & Schuster BYR; $17.99, Ages 4-8)

I find food-themed picture books hard to resist. Do you? Carla and the Christmas Cornbread happily took me back to the ’70s for a story based on author, chef, and TV food personality Carla Hall’s early childhood memories.

Heading to her grandparents, with Mom driving, her older sister Kim sitting in the passenger seat, and Carla in the back seat beside a slew of gifts, she enjoyed the ride “watching the lights twinkle on the houses as we whiz by.” Carla was excited to see her grandparents and eat the scrumptious cornbread her grandma made. Spending time over Christmas at their home was clearly a highlight for her. From cooking cornbread together with Granny, hearing her grandpa “Doc” share stories about his time in France when he once ate snails, to searching the Christmas tree for the Black Santa ornament that looks just like her, these tender moments convey the warmth of family that meant so much to this young girl. Harris’s joyful art, full of attention to detail and a feeling for the era, complements this lovely story.

But when just before bedtime she bit into the cookie that was meant for Santa, Carla worried that she’d get in trouble. Certain that Santa would put her on his naughty list, Carla was relieved when Grandma, who heard Carla confess, suggested they make Santa “a special Christmas cornbread.” Despite caring reassurance from Doc that Santa probably got tired of all the cookies, Carla still felt sad. But all ends well when Christmas morning brings more than cheer for her and readers invested in seeing a happy outcome for Carla. Make sure to read to the very last page where a surprise illustration shows Santa nibbling on a tasty treat! Bonus: A cornbread recipe is included.

  • Reviewed by Ronna Mandel

 

Just Be Claus coverJUST BE CLAUS: A Christmas Story
Written by Barbara Joosse
Illustrated by Kim Barnes
(Sleeping Bear Press; $16.99; Ages 4-8)

This adorably illustrated picture book answers the question, what was Santa Claus like as a little boy? With a “round little belly that shakes when he laughs like a bowl full of jelly,” Clausie is different and “unusual” from the very start. His hearty “ho ho ho” laugh, creative flair for making “thingamajigs” with Grannie in his super secret workshop, and tendency to help the rival hockey team score make him stand out and “feel out of place.” He expresses his desire to be like the other kids, but Grannie assures him:  “You’re creative, thoughtful, and generous … Don’t try to be like anyone else. Just be YOU.” A snowstorm shuts the whole town down, blocking the train from delivering its large load of gifts. Clausie’s clever act of kindness not only saves Christmas Day but also helps him embrace his own unique, tender-heartedness. Wrapping this sweet holiday book are themes of empathy, love, and self-acceptance that can be explored any time of the year. 

  •  Reviewed by Armineh Manookian

 

The Christmas Owl coverTHE CHRISTMAS OWL: Based on the True Story
of a Little Owl Named Rockefeller 

Written by Ellen Kalish and Gideon Sterer
Illustrated by Ramona Kaulitzki
(Little, Brown BYR; $17.99, Ages 4-8)

Animal lovers will enjoy this heartwarming picture book, The Christmas Owl, by Ellen Kalish and Gideon Sterer. Based on a true story of a tiny owl trapped in a tree cut down and brought to the city, the story is seen through the eyes of Little Owl who wonders what happened and where she’s been taken. Throughout, she asks herself, Is this Christmas? By the end, she’s able to explain to her forest friends what the holiday’s all about.

While the illustrations by Ramona Kaulitzki bring the story to life, be sure to look in the back matter too. Actual photos of the owl are beyond cute and its release is so joyful. Peek under the dust jacket for a different cover image!

  • Reviewed by Christine Van Zandt

 

Merry Witchmas CoverMERRY WITCHMAS
Written by Petrell Marie Özbay and Tess La Bella
Illustrated by Sonya Abby
(Boyds Mill Press; $17.99, Ages 3-7)

Don’t let the word witch in the title fool you. Merry Witchmas isn’t about Halloween although you could start sharing it in October. It’s actually about a sweet witch named Ginger who adores all things Christmas. Whether that’s “a flying sleigh, a red-nosed reindeer” or the toys. But most importantly Ginger wishes for a visit from Santa. You see she lives in the “Invisible Forest” that wasn’t on Santa’s radar. Regardless, she always behaved thoughtfully to make it onto Santa’s “Nice List.” This year she’s decided to take things one step further and write to Santa so perhaps he’d believe she existed. She’d even include a map!

Ginger’s magic delivers the letter directly to Santa who checked his lists, then double-checked them. No witch named Ginger appeared. Since he didn’t believe in witches, he’d actually never sought them out. Yet if children could believe in Santa, why couldn’t witches exist too he wonders. That’s when the magic happens. Using Ginger’s map, Santa heads to the young witch’s magical land and at last, the two finally meet bringing Christmas joy to both. Kids will want to look at the fun details Abby’s included in her pleasing artwork that exudes warmth and humor. My favorite touch is Jingles the kitty cat reaching for Christmas cookies along with the holiday decorations in her home. With all the Christmas feels, this picture book is a fresh new take on the holiday and not giving up on your dreams.

  • Reviewed by Ronna Mandel

 

Santa in the City coverSANTA IN THE CITY
Written by Tiffany D. Jackson
Illustrated by Reggie Brown
(Dial BYR; $17.99, Ages 4-8)

Starred Reviews –Booklist, School Library Journal

Deja is super excited for Christmas but her classmates’ distrust about Santa ever visiting them in the city sends her on a downward spiral of doubt. “‘How does Santa get inside our house if we don’t have a chimney? …where [will Santa] park his sleigh?’” Deja asks question after question to her mom who, along with extended family and neighborhood friends, patiently answers each one. Answers provide a little relief, as evidenced through her refrain “‘Oh’ … Makes sense,” but Deja needs more proof. Cheerful illustrations of a diverse, vibrant urban setting full of the Christmas spirit emphasize the point: the very thing Deja is looking for is already around her beautiful neighborhood. A surprise on Christmas morning secures her heart that “magic really does find a way,” just like Mom has said all along. 

  • Reviewed by Armineh Manookian

 

Grumpy Monkey OhNo Christmas coverGRUMPY MONKEY OH, NO! CHRISTMAS
Written by Suzanne Lang
Illustrated by Max Lang
(Random House Studio; $18.99, Ages 3-7)

Beloved character Jim Panzee is back again, this time for the holidays, grumpier than ever. The weather has been “grizzly, drizzly” all week, his morning banana green, plus he accidentally stumbles into a puddle of mud. On top of everything else, his jungle friends insist he absolutely must be excited about the upcoming Christmas season. One by one, they take turns telling him how he “should” do one thing or another in order to properly celebrate:  write a card for Mom, wrap presents, “reflect quietly.” But to grumpy, miserable Jim “EVERYTHING STINKS!”–that is, until his gentle gorilla friend, Norman, helps Jim see things in a different perspective. Conversations about kindness and gratitude ease his burden and give strong reason to celebrate. Readers young and old will fall in love once more with Jim Panzee’s crankiness, expressed so perfectly by Lang’s fun and hilarious illustrations. 

  •  Reviewed by Armineh Manookian

 

A Simple Christmas on the Farm coverA SIMPLE CHRISTMAS ON THE FARM 
Written by Phyllis Alsdurf
Illustrated by Lisa Hunt
(Beaming Books; $17.99, Ages 3-8)

For those looking for a traditional, Christian-themed Christmas story, A Simple Christmas on the Farm is a great choice. Eager to start the festivities, a little girl living on the farm is reminded by her parents that they’re going to celebrate by “keeping things simple this year” with a focus on modest decorations, homemade gifts, and giving more than receiving. This spirit of simplicity is heightened all the more when the girl is inspired to host Christmas in their little red barn. Traveling into town with a tray of homemade cookies, she and her mother spread the word about their party, inviting everyone in the community. In the meantime, they prepare gifts and crafts for their guests. Step-by-step directions for these crafts are included in the backmatter. When everyone joins in on the special day, laughter, cheer, and a wonderful feast surround their large table, making this simple but big-hearted Christmas the best one ever.

  • Reviewed by Armineh Manookian

 

The Christmas Mitzvah coverTHE CHRISTMAS MITZVAH
Written by Jeff Gottesfeld
Illustrated by Michelle Laurentia Agatha
(Creston Books; $18.99, Ages 4-9)

If you’re looking for a feel-good story that hits all the right notes, The Christmas Mitzvah is it. Inspired by a true story, this touching picture book opens with “Al Rosen was a Jewish man who loved Christmas. It wasn’t his holiday. He had Hanukkah, the Festival of Lights. But what could be bad about peace on earth and goodwill to humanity?” I immediately cared about this man with the great attitude and big personality. Then I read on to learn that Al Rosen decided to use the Christmas holiday as a chance to deliver mitzvahs (good deeds) for people in his community. From that evening in 1969 Rosen offered to help out so workers could leave their jobs to be home with their families. No matter what the task, he took it on, doing so for over three decades. What a big heart he had! At first, it was Rosen, sometimes with his son, Jonathan. Then when Jonathan finished medical school, married, and had children of his own, everyone pitched in when possible, performing mitzvahs every Christmas.

What’s most impressive is the variety of work Al Rosen did, though he didn’t necessarily excel at it. He started by stepping in at Shorty’s local newsstand. After that word spread of Rosen’s good deeds. Requests came in and soon he was pumping gas and parking cars, tending bar, and taking tolls. Al Rosen’s mitzvahs saw no bounds. He and Jonathan even inspired Christian and Muslim friends who “did their jobs on the Jewish High Holidays.” In fact Rosen’s kind spirit led to people of various faiths helping others out on their holidays, paying it forward in the best possible way. When Al grew too old and finally had to call it quits, his mitzvahs left lasting memories and goodwill in his city. Agatha’s bold artwork adds vibrancy and humorous touches to the story. Rosen’s diverse community is celebrated in scene after scene conveying the camaraderie created by his mitzvahs. Gottesfeld’s included back matter so readers can learn more about the man behind the good deeds as well as the Hanukkah holiday. I hope young readers’ biggest takeaway from The Christmas Mitzvah is that you don’t have to be Jewish to do good deeds and spread kindness.

  •  Reviewed by Ronna Mandel

 

Christmas is Coming Cover CHRISTMAS IS COMING: Traditions from Around the World
Written by Monika Utnik-Strugala 
Illustrated by Ewa Poklewska-Koziello
Translated from Polish by Antonia Lloyd-Jones
(NorthSouth Books; $25, Ages 4 and up)

An international collection of legends and traditions can be found in Monika Utnik-Strugala’s nonfiction book, Christmas Is Coming!: Traditions from Around the World. This book satisfies many of your holiday questions. Of course, you’ll find info about Santa, but there’s much more. Such as how Swedish towns have candlelit processions on December 13, or how the Japanese have adopted Christmas but celebrate it with reindeer and pandas! In Mexico, Spain, and Columbia, the Day of the Holy Innocents (on December 28) is like our April Fool’s Day. Favorite sections of mine include food, decorations, plants, and finding good luck for the new year.

Full-color art by the talented Ewa Poklewska-Koziello adorns each page, enlivening people and their celebrations. While suitable for elementary-age kids who want to learn about more than just the US December 25 Santa Claus, older kids will have plenty to read. Overall, this lovely book promotes inclusivity and is one you’ll refer to repeatedly as a remembrance or to learn something new.

  • Reviewed by Christine Van Zandt

Good Dogs in Bad Sweaters coverGOOD DOGS IN BAD SWEATERS
Written by Rachel Wenitsky and David Sidorov
Illustrated by Tor Freeman
(G.P. Putnam’s Sons BYR; $13.99, Ages 7-10)

I am so glad I stuck with this energy-filled illustrated middle-grade book despite the introduction of multiple dog names making it hard at first to keep track. However, after the initial few pages, there was no denying the humor and personality of all the doggy characters, and I was pulled right in. The primary ones in this, the third book in the series revolving around Good Dogs daycare, are Hugo and his younger sister Waffles, King and his older sister Cleo, Lulu, and her new teacup pig pal, Buttercup. Another dog, Napoleon, seems to have matured in this book according to comments from the other dogs, but while appearing in various chapters and bringing a funny therapist’s perspective to various situations, he doesn’t have a chapter devoted to his p.o.v. Secondary characters who may have had heftier roles in the previous two books are Nuts the squirrel and Pickle the cat. Kids may note that each dog has a different font which is a nice touch. Not having read the previous books, I never once felt like that mattered since the storyline was pretty straightforward and engaging.

In addition to the dog pals knowing each other, we also get to know their human owners which adds more opportunity for amusing dialogue and antics. There are tons of butt sniffing, ball throwing, and peeing jokes that feel appropriate for this age group. The main plot point is that sweet puppy Waffles, about to celebrate her first Christmas, is hoping that Santadoodle will bring her something special except Hugo knows that won’t happen. What’s a loving big bro supposed to do? Make baby sister’s wish come true, of course! And if that means getting all the Good Dogs involved in his quest, so be it.

The shenanigans the crew get up to as they try to get their paws on Waffles’ gift had me smiling throughout. That’s on top of the bits about the ugly (but comfy) Christmas sweaters, Lulu being an Instagram influencer, and how the dogs deal with their families—the dynamics of which should resonate with readers. Several sub-plots concerning agility competitions to career choices are at once comical and heartwarming, reflecting the zany sensibilities of the book’s authors Wenitsky and Sidorov. A bonus for me is that the book includes many references to Hanukkah since several of the dogs come from Jewish or mixed-faith families. Mix that up with Tor Freeman’s fabulous, whimsical, and extremely satisfying illustrations and you’ll see why this marriage of talents works so well. Add this middle-grade book (some may call it an older chapter book) to your TBR lists for some charming canine comedy this holiday season.

  • Reviewed by Ronna Mandel

 

See last year’s roundup here.

Additional recommended Christmas reads this year include:

The Little Owl & The Big Tree: A Christmas Story by Jonah Winter & Jeanette Winter
Jan Brett’s The Nutcracker 
Santa Jaws by Bridget Heos
What the Dinosaurs Did the Night Before Christmas by Refe & Susan Tuma

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Picture Book Review – How to Change the World in 12 Easy Steps

HOW TO CHANGE THE WORLD
IN 12 EASY STEPS

Written by Peggy Porter Tierney

Illustrated by Marie Letourneau

(Tanglewood Publishing; $15.99, Ages 4-8)

 

How to Change the World cover

 

Starred Review –Kirkus

 

Before reading How to Change the World in 12 Easy Steps, a new picture book written by Peggy Porter Tierney and illustrated by Marie Letourneau, I had not heard about Eva Mozes Kor, the inspiration for this story. I wish I’d had the opportunity to attend one of the talks that she did around the country before she passed away in 2019. If you know what she experienced as a Mengele twin in Auschwitz, yet still survived along with her twin, Miriam, you’ll want to read about and share the wisdom she imparted that has likely positively influenced thousands of school children over the decades.

What I like most about this book is its simplicity and straightforwardness. It’s always encouraging and is never didactic. Rather, it’s full of common-sense suggestions that can bring more meaning and fulfillment into a child’s life. I loved the first spread in which a little girl says she can’t find her phone (in her messy bedroom) and her friend offers to help her clean up. “Start small” is that first step, and it’s one I often use for myself and my kids. The difference in Letourneau’s before and after illustrations are as calming for a reader as being in the tidy room must feel for the two girls.

 

How to Change the World int page5
Interior art from How to Change the World in 12 Easy Steps written by Peggy Porter Tierney and illustrated by Marie Letourneau, Tanglewood Publishing ©2021.

 

Not all of the examples presented are about doing good deeds. One of them says “Just be the best you that you can be.” Letourneau’s charming art shows a boy in a still life painting class content with the smiling-faced banana he’s finished painting while his classmates are still busy at work creating their own masterpieces. Another powerful two pages are devoted to forgiveness and how doing so can rid oneself of anger allowing more space for happiness. While this might be the most difficult concept for a child to integrate, it’s definitely one of the most rewarding. It was certainly Eva Mozes Kor’s overarching philosophy and what kept her going despite all the hardship she endured.

How to Change the World int page9
Interior art from How to Change the World in 12 Easy Steps written by Peggy Porter Tierney and illustrated by Marie Letourneau, Tanglewood Publishing ©2021.

 

While a fast read, How to Change the World in 12 Easy Steps, is also an important and timely one. Parents, caregivers, and teachers can choose to read either quickly or slowly leaving room for numerous conversations. I can see elements of tikkun olam at play in Tierney’s prose. In Judaism, this is the aspiration to behave and act constructively and beneficially—improving the world essentially, something Eva Mozes Kor was deeply committed to. The caring messages Tierney conveys, coupled with Letourneau’s diverse and emotive characters would make this book a welcome addition to any bookshelf. What a wonderful book to share with and inspire children as we approach the new year.

  • Reviewed by Ronna Mandel

 

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Children’s Picture Book Review – I Hear You, Forest

 

 

I HEAR YOU, FOREST

Written by Kallie George

Illustrated by Carmen Mok

(Greystone Kids; $17.95; Ages 3-7)

 

I Hear You Forest cover

 

When a child walks through the forest and hears its majestic sounds, we’re reminded by author Kallie George that the forest needs to be heard in I Hear You, Forest, with breathtaking illustrations by Carmen Mok .

As a new mom, George knows the importance of helping babies and toddlers juggle their emotions. And the simple words, “I hear you” let them know they are heard and they are respected. The story takes the reader on a walk, guided by the child protagonist, stopping to hear what the forest has to say while feeling George’s love of nature in the gentle prose. The full-page green palette, surrounded by yellow flowers and tiny birds, serenades the dark-haired girl taking time to metaphorically stop and smell the roses (although there are no roses just tall trees and happy wildlife).

 

I Hear You Forest int art1
Interior spread from I Hear You, Forest written by Kallie George and illustrated by Carmen Mok, Greystone Kids ©2021.

 

The young girl in the red jumpsuit lays motionless on the forest ground with yellow birds flying overhead, and white rabbits hopping happily across the grass. “Creak, creak. I hear you, Trees, stretching skyward. Are you trying to tickle clouds?”

 

I Hear You Forest int art2
Interior spread from I Hear You, Forest written by Kallie George and illustrated by Carmen Mok, Greystone Kids ©2021.

 

The words are simple but the message is strong, as Mok’s art shows her stopping to notice the nature around her. She is living in the present moment. Such a wonderful message to learn at a young age. What child hasn’t done this on a sunny day? Peaking behind the green leaves, the girl spies a nest with eggs. “So that’s where Robin hides her eggs.”

Interacting with her new forest friends, the child holds a blinking contest with a frog and sings along with the soft blue stream. Mok’s illustrations bring the reader into the story as if they too were sitting on a forest floor. Her face takes in the smells of nature standing under a squirrel-packed tree limb. “Nibble, nibble. I hear you, Squirrels, tasting treasures. Is it time to stop and snack?”

Through each lush and atmospheric page turn, we meet new animals and feel the empathy the child experiences for the beauty and marvel that surrounds her. Holding her mother’s hand, the girl simply says “I (heart) you, Forest.” As she turns, she witnesses the animals watching them walk away.

Sitting in my backyard as I write, listening to the birds singing nearby, I feel just what the young girl felt. It’s powerful, rewarding, and relaxing, too. I encourage parents to read this book to their children and then take them on a stroll through their local park or forest. You’ll truly enjoy the outdoors when you stop, listen and learn. I’m pleased to know this is the first in a series of books and look forward to reading the other books that follow because “The forest has lots to say … if you listen.” 

  • Reviewed by Ronda Einbinder

 

 

#nature #interconnectedness #communication #empathy #imagination #awareness

 

 

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Picture Book Review – Planting Friendship: Peace, Salaam, Shalom

 

PLANTING FRIENDSHIP:
Peace, Salaam, Shalom

Written by Callie Metler, Shirin Rahman,
and Melissa Stoller

Illustrated by Kate Talbot

(Spork; $17.99, Ages 5-8)

 

 

Planting Friendship cover

 

Review

Planting Friendship: Peace, Salaam, Shalom has landed on bookshelves at just the right time when the world needs more stories about coming together despite our differences. This uplifting joint effort by Callie Metler, Shirin Rahman, and Melissa Stoller introduces young readers to characters whose faith matches those of the authors: Christian, Muslim, and Jewish respectively. Adding to the appeal is the detailed art by Kate Talbot whose depictions of the three girls, Molly, Savera, and Hannah add recognizable elements of their religions that parents, teachers, and librarians can point out in various spreads.

 

Planting Friendship int1
Interior art from Planting Friendship: Peace, Salaam, Shalom written by Callie Metler, Shirin Rahman, and Melissa Stoller and illustrated by Kate Talbot, Spork ©2021.

 

Molly, Savera, and Hannah meet at school. All three have experienced first-day jitters, a great opening example of how we are more similar than we think. They also notice that each wears a necklace, yet another connection.  While the girls may come from different faith traditions, a hands-on class project of growing seeds into saplings brings them together. When nothing happens with their seeds, the girls consider what will work. Inspired by quotes from their families such as “Nana always says, ‘Things grow with care, kindness, and love,’” a new attempt is made to help the seeds thrive.

 

Planting Friendship int2
Interior art from Planting Friendship: Peace, Salaam, Shalom written by Callie Metler, Shirin Rahman, and Melissa Stoller and illustrated by Kate Talbot, Spork ©2021.
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While waiting for their seeds to sprout, Molly, Savera, and Hannah spend time getting to know each other. Here both the prose and art convey how each girl’s room reflects their religious and cultural background. As the friendship blossoms, so does respect and understanding. When spring arrives, the saplings that had been tended to by the girls with such care are ready to be planted in Peace Park. Even their trip to the park involves pitching in to help each other out whether sharing a shovel or steadying a friend on her feet. With trees of friendship now firmly rooted, Molly, Savera, and Hannah can look forward and focus on new ways of bringing people together. “In Peace Park and beyond.” Talbot’s illustrations bring warmth and fluidity throughout this picture book with the spread below being one of my favorites. Look closely to see the mosque on the left, the church near the bridge, and the synagogue in the foreground. In the back matter, there’s even an opportunity provided for readers to SPOT THE SEVEN OBJECTS IN THE GIRLS’ HOMES. With Hanukkah underway as this review posts, the scenes in Hannah’s bedroom where the girls play dreidel will resonate with many readers.
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Planting Friendship int3
Interior art from Planting Friendship: Peace, Salaam, Shalom written by Callie Metler, Shirin Rahman, and Melissa Stoller and illustrated by Kate Talbot, Spork ©2021.
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Sports, art, cooking, and theater are just some of the other ways people of diverse backgrounds, religions, and races can find connections. I like that in this story it’s about nature and the world around us. While writing this review I kept hearing the band War’s 1975 hit, “Why Can’t We Be Friends?” in my head, and perhaps it’s due to these lyrics. “The color of your skin don’t matter to me, as long as we can live in harmony.” For me, this applies to religions as well. And the harmony we see in the flourishing friendship between Molly, Savera, and Hannah demonstrates they feel the same way. Children will see that what makes us different is also something that can unite us when we’re open to finding common ground. 
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The next book coming out in 2022 is Building Bridges: Peace, Salaam, Shalom. And in 2023 you can look forward to reading the third book which finishes the series.

Buy the Book

https://www.indiebound.org/book/9781950169603

https://bookshop.org/books/planting-friendship-peace-salaam-shalom/9781950169603

 

Read about the Authors + Illustrator Here

Callie Metler

Shirin Rahman

Melissa Stoller

Kate Talbot

 

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Picture Book Review – Chicken Chickens

 

CHICKEN CHICKENS

Written and illustrated by Valeri Gorbachev

(NorthSouth Books; $18.95; Ages 4-8)

 

 

 

 

The charming Chicken Chickens by author-illustrator Valeri Gorbachev is back after 20 years, just in time to help a new generation of children overcome being labeled a “chicken” when feeling fearful about experiencing something new.

This 40-page picture book is about twin chickens who go to a playground with Mother Hen for the very first time. The soft colors of green, yellow, and brown bring warmth to a busy playground of cats on swings, turtles in sandboxes, and dogs on seesaws. When Mother Hen walks in holding each chicken’s fingers in hand, “The little chickens were a little scared. There was so much going on all around them.” Many children will be able to relate to that initial stimulus overload.

 

Chicken Chickens int1
Interior spread from Chicken Chickens written and illustrated by Valeri Gorbachev, NorthSouth Books ©2021.

 

Still holding each other’s fingers (hmm do chickens have hands?), the chickens freeze up with their beaks wide open, observing the flurry of activity going on around them. Gorbachev’s art perfectly conveys the poultry’s feeling of being overwhelmed by the crowds. Despite the park animals showing kindness by asking the chickens to play and welcoming them into the new environment, we hear the chickens say, “No, thank you,” they replied. “We’re just little chickens.”

They watch pigs spinning around on the merry-go-round, but decline the offer to join them since they might get dizzy. They look up at the big cats swinging but decline the offer to swing since they might fall off. When the reader turns the page, they are drawn into the blue sky and brown slide with smiling and laughing frogs and mice playing. With eyes wide open, the chickens decline. “We’re just little chickens.”

 

Chicken Chickens int2
Interior spread from Chicken Chickens written and illustrated by Valeri Gorbachev, NorthSouth Books ©2021.

 

When they get the courage to climb the stairs to the top of the slide, the twin chickens become immobilized when looking down. “Slide down!” shouted one of the frogs. “Don’t be such chicken chickens!” That’s when the big brown beaver with the white buck teeth climbs to the top of the slide and tells the chickens not to worry “Everybody is afraid the first time they slide.” Beaver suggests the chickens hold on to his tail as they slide together giving the chickens the confidence they need.

 

Chicken Chickens int3
Interior spread from Chicken Chickens written and illustrated by Valeri Gorbachev, NorthSouth Books ©2021.

 

This incredibly sweet story about conquering one’s fears is a wonderful addition to every home and school library. It’s a lesson not only in realizing that everyone has fears of some sort, but also models how important showing kindness and empathy is toward a friend who may be struggling in certain situations. I found this book extremely heartfelt, and am so pleased that it has been reprinted for children who never had the chance to read it the first time around. The play on words using chickens as the protagonists made me laugh. “Hurray for the chicken chickens!”

Click here to read a preview.

  •  Reviewed by Ronda Einbinder
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Our Favorite New Hanukkah Books for 2021

 

NEW HANUKKAH BOOKS FOR 2021
∼A ROUNDUP∼

 

Hanukkah menorah clipart

 

 

Baby Loves Angular Momentum on Hanukkah! coverBABY LOVES ANGULAR MOMENTUM ON HANUKKAH!
Written by Ruth Spiro
Illustrated by Irene Chan
(Charlesbridge; $8.99, Ages  0-3)

The popular Baby Loves Science board book series has notched up over 15  titles in the collection touching on myriad STEM subjects from quarks to coding. In Baby Loves Angular Momentum on Hanukkah! little ones are introduced to the holiday, and in particular, the dreidel or spinning top game played by Jewish families around the world. Using the dreidel, Spiro presents the fascinating physics’ concepts of torque (what makes a dreidel spin), angular momentum (spinning rather than falling over), friction (what slows down the dreidel), and gravity (what makes a slowing dreidel tilt, wobble and eventually fall down). The best part is how the dreidel game ties everything together. There’s even the added element of learning the Hebrew letters on the dreidel, Nun, Gimmel, Hay, and Shin which also represent the words “A Great Miracle Happened There.” Chan’s bold, cheerful illustrations will engage children even if they don’t necessarily grasp the info. To be honest, learning this topic via a board book is about my speed and I’m sure there are other parents out there who’ll feel the same. The book provides a great way to start science conversations for curious minds constantly asking, “Why?”

The Three Latkes coverTHE THREE LATKES
Written by Eric A. Kimmel
Illustrated by Feronia Parker-Thomas
(Kar-Ben; $7.99, Ages 4-8)

Award-winning author and storyteller, Eric A. Kimmel has created a simple and simply funny Hanukkah tale about three potato pancakes, one red, one yellow, and one gold, competing to see who is the best. Is it the type of potato they are, the kind of oil they’re fried in, or the type of topping they’re dipped in?  But what neither the lip-licking cat they ask to judge nor the latkes themselves never consider is exactly what that judging entails. Does the feline have a fave? I’m not going to spoil things except to say that I loved the surprise ending The Three Latkes delivers to readers who, if like me, were already tempted to dive into this book because of the cat and latkes on the cover. Kimmel consistently writes engaging books for the Jewish community and this one is no exception. Parker-Thomas’s art, achieved with lots of line work and playful details, is full of movement, expression, and warm tones.  Why not read this Hanukkah story aloud and have family members each play a role to add more fun to the story experience?

A RUGRATS CHANUKAH (POP CLASSIC)
Based on the series created by Arlene Klasky, Gábor Csupó, and Paul Germain

and the episode “A Rugrats Chanukah” written by J. David Stem and David N. Weiss
Illustrated by Kim Smith
(Quirk Books; $18.99, Ages 4-8) 

“In time for the Rugrats’ 30th anniversary, and 25th anniversary of the beloved Chanukah Special” comes a picture book version sure to be a hit with the whole family. And I for one could not be happier being reminded of the first time I watched the episode, then several years later sharing it with my children. Even if you never saw the special, A Rugrats Chanukah brings the entertainment to you in a 40 -page larger format picture book with illustrations by Kim Smith that make it feel as if you’ve stepped inside the original program and are watching like a fly on the wall.

Unfamiliar with the story? The story starts with funny endpapers that introduce readers to the main characters as a menorah sits atop a TV set. The Rugrats (Tommy, Chuckie, Phil, Lil, and Angelica) are at Tommy’s house and his mom is preparing the latkes. Meanwhile, Grandma Minka reads the little ones a story about Hanukkah (Chanukah in this book) where they learn about the bravery of Judah Maccabee. Here’s where one of my favorite lines appears. “A Maccababy’s gotta do what a Maccababy’s gotta do!” But Grandma Minka doesn’t finish the story and the babies speculate what all the activity going on at Tommy’s house, thinking it has something to do with birthdays. That’s when Tommy is close to blowing out the candles when Angelica stops him. 

Everyone heads to the synagogue to see Tommy’s Grandpa Boris in a play about the meaning of Chanukah only the Rugrats mishear and think the play is about “The meany of Chanukah!” The babies decide they must help Grandpa Boris and save him from the meany. The funny misunderstanding is further exacerbated when the meany accidentally collides with Angelica and makes her cry. Now the babies must put their plan into actiongetting the meany to fall asleep by reading them the Chanukah story. Will the Rugrats succeed? Like the miracle of Chanukah itself, the babies end up lighting the way and bringing everyone together in a heartfelt ending that is as warm and comforting as latkes with applesauce!


THE GOLDEN DREIDEL
Written by Ellen Kushner
Illustrated by Kevin Keele
(Charlesbridge; $15.99, Ages 7-10)

Starred Review – School Library Journal

This chapter book is a fast, entertaining Hanukkah read that feels more geared toward the younger readers in its category. Kushner blends fantasy and adventure with contemporary elements after introducing us to the main character, Sara, and her big extended family.

When the story opens Sara is admiring all the Christmasy decorations in her neighborhood. She’d love a tree, too, but her mom explains that Jews don’t have Christmas trees. Sara simply is not convinced that Hanukkah (Chanukah in this book) is anything special. “Why can’t we just have the same stuff as everyone else for once?” 

Sara, her mom, and her annoying older (though not by much) brother, Seth, are off to Aunt Leah’s house for a sleepover Chanukah party which neither sibling is keen to attend. Along with their cousins, Sara and Seth play dreidel, a game Sara finds boring, a foreshadowing of what’s to come. The party is in full swing when mysterious Tante Miriam shows up out of the blue and with more foreshadowing says, “It’s been some trip! Deserts, mountains, rivers . . . I crossed the Red Sea with all the rest. On the shore I danced, and then I sang and beat my drum and tambourine. . . . And then I collected a few things—you know, for the children.” From her immense satchel, Tante Miriam pulls out presents for the children. Sara, the last to get a gift, receives an oversized golden dreidel much to her displeasure. Before long, she and Seth are fighting over it when she accidentally throws it at the large plasma TV, shattering it. While Sara is to blame, all the kids get sent to bed.

Unable to sleep, Sara heads downstairs where she is distracted by a glowing light near the TV. That’s when she is transported through the cracked TV to a fantastical land by a girl with “crazy golden hair and sparkling eyes” who is totally into spinning. It turns out Tante Miriam’s dreidel gift is actually this very girl or Dreidel Princess, daughter of the Queen of Sheba and King Solomon. Once through the portal, it doesn’t take long for the Dreidel Princess to be kidnapped by demons who have escaped Solomon’s Cave. In this spin on The Nutcracker, rather than waging battle against an evil Mouse King, Sara finds herself needing to fight the Demon King, Ashmedai, to rescue the princess he has captured upon her return from Sara’s world. On her colorful journey to find the Dreidel Princess, Sara meets several interesting characters including the Queen of Sheba (my favorite of all the black and white illustrations). But ultimately it’s the Fool with his repertoire of riddles who provides the most help finding and then taking on the challenge the Demon King poses. Illustrator Keele has drawn the Fool aptly with wild hair, a sock as his hat, and a tie around his waist.

As the Dreidel Princess, this young girl possesses the power of the Tree of Life that her father, King Solomon transferred to her for protection. That power needs to be returned to the tree. Luck has it that the Demon King will let Sara and the Fool have the Princess back if they agree to play the Riddle Game. Readers, who have learned some riddles during Sara’s quest, will be happy to see Sara’s quick thinking stymie the opposition in order to free the Princess. After proving herself worthy of King Solomon’s praise, Sara asks him to help her right some wrongs. Now back at Aunt Leah’s, Sara awakens to a fresh new day with an enlightened perspective on Jewish history, dreidels, and likely will no longer balk at celebrating Hanukkah traditions in the future. Kushner’s book is an engaging read for kids not yet ready for longer middle-grade novels but eager for a satisfying holiday adventure.

 

Click here for last year’s Hanukkah roundup.

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Best New Picture Books for Thanksgiving 2021

A ROUNDUP OF

THE BEST NEW PICTURE BOOKS

FOR THANKSGIVING 2021

 

 

Thanksgiving Free clipart

Gratitude, generosity, and humor are just some of what’s being served up in three new picture books for Thanksgiving this year. I’ve chosen these stories, though not specifically for Thanksgiving (Thankful’s action takes place in December), because they present perspectives on community, connectivity, and caring that are the essence of the holiday. 

 

THANKFUL
Written by Elaine Vickers
Illustrated by Samantha Cotterill
(A Paula Wiseman Book; $17.99, Ages 4-8)

Reading this 48-page picture book is a gift to give yourself and your young children. It feels like being wrapped in a soft blanket, sipping hot cocoa, and sitting silently in reflection. Full of deliciously evocative, lyrical language, Thankful is the book to reach for to lift a child’s spirits when they might be feeling blue or to reaffirm positive things they know but cannot express.

Elaine Vickers brings readers into the home of a girl as she prepares her annual thankful paper chain “when the first snow falls.” As she writes, we’re treated to not only a glimpse of her bedroom, house, and family for whom she’s especially thankful, but the big (a new puppy) and small things (“… soup and socks and the spot under the covers where someone has just been sleeping.”) for which she is grateful. I found myself stopping on several spreads and nodding while marveling at the wonderfulness of what Vickers’ prose has conveyed whether it’s noting the friend who waits for her at recess or cherishing things that are soft and fresh like laundry, bread, and moss on rocks. The sweet, loving poem the child’s parents say at bedtime reminded me of what my dad used to say to me at night and in letters and made me squeeze the book a little harder like the hug this story is.

Samantha Cotterill’s delightful 3-D dioramas blend elements of Holman Wang’s diorama art and paper “cut-outs”—in this case including all the characters and the dog—reminiscent of those found in Lauren Child’s Charlie & Lola series. Her warm color palette adds to the cozy feeling of the story and pulls readers into the pages where they’ll want to study every last detail in each spread. Keep this book out for all to enjoy and consider making your own thankful paper chain this holiday season.

 

Cold Turkey coverCOLD TURKEY
Written by Corey Rosen Schwartz and Kirsti Call
Illustrated by Chad Otis
(Little Brown BYR; $17.99, Ages 4-8)
Available 11/23. Preorder a copy today.

There’s so much to enjoy in Cold Turkey, from the title, the wordplay, and the colorful alliteration, to the message of generosity, the animal humor, and the funny expressions in the artwork.

This deceptively simple tale, with the charm of Little Mole’s Christmas Gift or the ’80s classic Big Bird Brings Spring to Sesame Street and their theme of giving, is a winning winter read. In fact, you might just sh-sh-shiver (and smile, too!) along as Turkey wakes up on the farm one morning so cold that he has to bundle up in all his warm clothes.

When Turkey emerges from his home, he first encounters Sheep who is also freezing. Kind Turkey offers his distinctive red hat. Then Chick, who’s chilled to the bone, is the lucky recipient of Turkey’s mittens (you have to see where they get put), and poor Horse is faring no better hunkered down in the hay. Cow and Pig get lucky too at the selflessness of Turkey but where, you may wonder, does that leave naked Turkey? “Turkey tr-tr-trembled. He had loaned out all his loot. He wobbled homeward, cold and bare, in just his birthday suit.”

Well, his barnyard buddies have something in mind to fire readers’ imaginations and bring a bit of warmth and a slew of spot on synonyms to play as the story closes to a heart-warming end. Otis’s illustrations capture the inhospitable temperature outdoors as the animals seek ways to elude the cold. The story should have kids eagerly following along, reciting out load and waiting to see how things turn out for Cold Turkey and company. Grab your scarf and hat and a copy of this funny picture book today.

 

Our Table coverOUR TABLE
Written and illustrated by Peter H. Reynolds
(Orchard Books; $17.99, Ages 4-8)

Reynolds’ latest picture book features a violet cover, violet endpapers, and the main character called Violet, too. When the story opens she’s thinking fondly of the table where once so much activity happened. It had been there while meals were cooked, candles were lighted and memories made. Memories that clearly Violet cherished. Reynolds’ illustrations emphasize the current mood of Violet. Her longing looks appear in purple and only when she’s remembering days of family togetherness and love does full-color return. Since the color violet symbolizes sensitivity, it’s an appropriate color to have chosen.

Young Violet is affected by how her family has become distracted bringing disruption to all those previously shared activities. Her father is preoccupied with the TV, or big screen. Her mother, elsewhere in the house is looking at a smaller screen, her cellphone. Violet’s brother sits in front of his computer playing games online with his friends. While everyone seems to be at home no one was truly present. And that’s sad. Violet sad. Alone sad.

By introducing some magic into the story, Reynolds creates a way to spark change. When Violet notices the abandoned table begins shrinking she’s perplexed. When it vanishes completely in her hand she gets an idea. It’s time to start engaging her family again otherwise they too could go the way of the table and disappear. The joy and color start returning as, together with her parents and brother, they work on building a new table and new memories. The important and timely message of this story was not lost on me, someone who admittedly spends too much time in front of screens. This holiday season, when we’re gathered around tables, I hope readers will find their own special ways of being present and creating new memories.

NOTE: See Peter Reynolds at an in-person event in Los Angeles through Pages: A Bookstore on Thursday 11/18 at 3:30pm PST at the El Segundo Library. More information here.

 

See more Thanksgiving books reviewed here and here.

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Picture Book Review – Terrific Table Manners

 

TERRIFIC TABLE MANNERS

Written by Michelle Markel

Illustrated by Merrilee Liddiard

(Cameron Kids; $17.99, Ages 5-7)

 

 

 

 

As the busy holiday season approaches, I can’t think of a more timely book to share with your children than Terrific Table Manners, a humorous 64-page illustrated manual written by Michelle Markel with art by Merrilee Liddiard. The publisher’s blurb says, “Inspired by the classic Tiffany’s primer on manners for teens and featuring a familiar cast of characters, Terrific Table Manners is a modern take on table etiquette that follows the course of a proper dinner-party meal.”

To expand on that introduction, I’ll add how enjoyable I found this thoroughly modern approach to 21st-century manners geared for a younger reader. The primer is presented in rhyme (with a smattering of snark) and complemented by retro art with ample white space, lovely linework, and warm tones in a watercolor style. Aptly beginning with the invitation and RSVP chapters, Terrific Table Manners proceeds to the meal itself including the main course, vegetables, and dessert through to the dare-I-say dreaded and oft avoided thank you note.

 

Terrific Table Manners int1
Interior spread from Terrific Table Manners written by Michelle Markel and illustrated by Merrilee Liddiard, Cameron Kids ©2021.

 

Kids will learn about what to do and what not to do at a dinner party as they’re guided through by Mr. Faris (who went to manners school in Paris) and his co-host/teacher Prudence at the School of Manners and Etiquette. Together these instructors also cover essentials such as making conversation to which silverware to use for which course. That’s not all that matters during a meal. I was delighted to see cell phones mentioned and by mentioned I mean recommended to be shut off! “Cut the chicken off the bone. Bella, please turn off your phone.” While I did wonder how many 5-7 year-olds (the target audience) have telephones, I figured this might be a book an older tween sibling would enjoy since good manners apply to all ages.

 

 

Terrific Table Manners int2
Interior art from Terrific Table Manners written by Michelle Markel and illustrated by Merrilee Liddiard, Cameron Kids ©2021.

 

One of my favorite lines in the book happens during the main course. “Don’t hold utensils with your fists! Only cavemen eat like this!” Sound familiar? As the dinner-party class progresses, the children get more out-of-hand and the teacher/hosts become more frustrated and exhausted. Young readers and their parents may find this aspect the most relatable. Having kids sit still at a meal has often been a sore point in many families, and holiday time is no exception. Keeping chaos at bay is crucial to the etiquette pros but ultimately they don’t succeed as witnessed in the last two closing spreads.

 

 

Terrific Table Manners int3
Interior spread from Terrific Table Manners written by Michelle Markel and illustrated by Merrilee Liddiard, Cameron Kids ©2021

 

 

Perhaps all has not been for naught when readers see the lovely thank you notes at the end. Will children finish the book and admit they’ve gleaned a tip or two? We can only hope so! The two pages of back matter detail specific aspects of a dinner party, gently encouraging kids to use proper etiquette and see what a difference it makes even at home and in restaurants. 

  • Reviewed by Ronna Mandel
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Picture Book Review – Where’s My Cow?

WHERE’S MY COW?

Written by Susan Blackaby

Illustrated by Scott Brundage

(Sleeping Bear Press; $16.99; Ages 5-8)

 

 

Where's My Cow cover

 

Anxious Egret is afraid to fly beyond the pasture which means leaving his constant companion Cow. That is until Cow devises a way to stand out in a crowd so Egret will know where to fly and find her in Where’s My Cow? a heart-warming story by Susan Blackaby with illustrations by Scott Brundage.

A bucolic setting forms the calm backdrop for this charming picture book. The reader opens the book to sunrise with the herd of cows wandering the pasture, a flock of birds heading off to explore, and one egret in particular perfectly content perched on his friend cow’s head. Why not just remain when there is so much that can go wrong if one goes too far?

 

Where's My Cow int1
Interior spread from Where’s My Cow? written by Susan Blackaby and illustrated by Scott Brundage, Sleeping Bear Press ©2021.

 

The worldly cow with so many stories to tell is the perfect pal for the apprehensive egret. Riding on the cow’s rump, Egret enjoys tales about all the places Cow has been. “She knew about ukuleles and picnics. She discussed kites and kayaks. She had once tasted a toasted marshmallow. The cow’s stories gave the egret ideas.”

Brundage draws uncertainty in the egret’s eyes as he announces one sunny morning that he might be ready to fly. Cow listens with the facial expressions a concerned mom might give to a child whom she knows suffers from a bit of separation anxiety. Cow encourages the bird to see the beach, reinforcing the idea that Cow will be waiting the whole time. The dialogue between the two is so relatable for any child wanting to venture beyond their comfort zone but worried to leave a parent behind.

The problem is realized when the egret flies above the pasture only to look down and see the large herd, uncertain which one is his friend. Egret is so nervous he Ker-thumps to the ground to the surprised cow. “’I didn’t go,” said the egret. “How would I ever find you again?’”

 

Where's My Cow? int2
Interior spread from Where’s My Cow? written by Susan Blackaby and illustrated by Scott Brundage, Sleeping Bear Press ©2021.

 

Blackaby’s creativity is demonstrated with how best an anxious egret could locate his cow friend amongst the herd. The cow wags his ears but that is hard to see. “The cow thought about it. Next time I’ll switch my tail.” Great idea but all the “…tails switched and hitched every which way. Where’s my cow? WHERE’S MY COW?”

The illustrations of sea and sand take the reader along on the journey with Egret looking for ways to make the cow stand out. And with every bit of confidence he gains knowing he can now locate the cow, the egret creates his own adventures. The patient cow goes along with ribbons, seashells, and sticks tied to his body never complaining like any parent would do. “And at the end of the day, when the rosy sky is full of birds and the pasture is full of cows, the little egret wonders, Where’s my cow? And there she is.”

This book is recommended for any child wanting to explore the world but worried that their parent will not be there upon their return. This is a relatable story and a reassuring read to share before a young child goes off to their first birthday party, playdate, or any event that will separate them from those with whom they feel comfortable and safe.

  • Reviewed by Ronda Einbinder

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