You know that fab feeling you get when you hear a good joke and notice the corners of your mouth pushing out a huge smile? Well that’s also the feeling you and your children will get when reading B. J. Lee’s boisterous new book,There Was An Old Gator Who Swallowed a Moth with illustrations by David Opie. Yes, all it takes is one hungry alligator to get the action going in this Florida-animals-themed variation of the beloved cumulative rhyme There Was an Old Woman Who Swallowed a Fly and reminiscent of kidlit fave, A Fly Went By.
Soaking up the sun and minding his own business, the titular gator finds a winged visitor has landed on his snout. You can guess what happens but still be teased to read on.
“There was an old gator who swallowed a moth. I don’t know why he swallowed the moth. It made him cough.”
Gator then goes on to swallow a crab (I mean it did give him a jab!) And the slew of Sunshine State creatures eventually eaten also includes an eel, a ray, a pelican (see above), a panther, and a manatee. Opie’s illustration of ALL the animals squished inside gator’s stomach is spot on and one of my faves, but the one above where there’s still some room gives you a good idea of the vibe going on. While reading the book, be sure to take note of the expressions and body language depicting how no one wants to be anywhere near crab’s pinching claws.
You may think that when the gator swallows the shark his tummy will be full, but no, he and Lee don’t stop there and that’s exactly why the (belly) laughs will linger with every page turn. What a humorous way to learn about survival of the fittest in a Florida setting!
This guy’s just greedy enough and silly enough to gulp down the entire lagoon which pushes him beyond capacity if you get my drift. In a series of hysterical illustrations that work wonderfully together with Lee’s terrific tale, it’s conveyed how totally stunned and slightly repulsed the ejected animals are. And if the above artwork doesn’t hint at a whopping “Get ready! I’m about to go gator-wild!” I don’t know what will!
Share this fun story with anyone you know who loves a rip-roaring read aloud and watch the grins grow along with the gator’s gut.
PIPPA’S PASSOVER PLATE Written by Vivian Kirkfield Illustrated by Jill Weber (Holiday House; $17.99, Ages 4-8)
I’m always happy to welcome a new picture book with an original take on the holiday into the mix of Passover stories. Today I’m reviewing Vivian Kirkfield’s charming Pippa’s Passover Plate with illustrations by Jill Weber so you’ll have time to pick up a copy to read before and during your family’s upcoming Seders.
The premise of this read aloud tale told in rhyme is that Pippa the mouse cannot locate her Seder plate, a plausible predicament even for humans! The pressure’s on because this concerned pip squeak must find the plate before sundown and the start of her Seder (the traditional annual ritual where people of Jewish faith gather with friends and family to eat, read, share stories and celebrate the liberation of the Israelites from slavery in ancient Egypt).
Kirkfield clearly has fun with the verse and her meter is spot-on throughout the book:
“Pippa climbs up on a chair, stretches up–the cupboard’s bare! Teetor-totter–hold on tight! Weeble-wobble–what a fright!”
At the start of her search, Pippa asks Sphinx the cat if it’s seen the plate. After no luck there, Pippa is told to try Snake. Each time she must approach an ominous new creature, Pippa is filled with dread, and the following repeating and repeatable refrain …
“Quiver! Quaver! Shiver! Shake!”
… adds to the page turn appeal of the story since the little mouse must face her fears in order to find the missing plate. Her potential predators, however, don’t seem to want to do her harm.
When Owl wisely suggests that Pippa “question Golda Fish” (great name btw), it seems an easier, less scary task to undertake. Weber’s wonderful artwork here in addition to elsewhere in the book complements the text where Golda is described as quite enchanted with herself. Since a mirror isn’t available, a brass Seder plate in which she can admire her reflection is apparently the next best thing. I love Weber’s palate of all shades of yellow, a cheerful color to counter any feelings of danger when Pippa meets Sphinx, Snake and Owl. How the plate landed in the lake is up for debate so why not ask your child? I’m sure they’ll spin some wild tales. The good news is that Pippa can now prepare the Seder.
No longer fearful of the animals, Pippa invites them all to her Seder and the story ends with a frame-worthy illustration of the Seder plate, and the special food that goes on it. I do wish there had been one page of back matter that included a description of what each of the six food items represents in relation to Passover. Nonetheless that’s easily found online and the majority of readers will know and can explain that to their children. For teachers planning to read Pippa’s Passover Plate to a class, I recommend having this information on hand for inquiring minds. It also couldn’t hurt to include info on what matzo is and why a piece of it gets hidden during the Seder since it’s mentioned on the second to last page when the friends are gathered together to celebrate the holiday.
I recommend this adorable picture book which provides the perfect opportunity to discuss Passover traditions, especially for little ones ages 3-6 who will find Pippa’s plight engaging and most enjoyable. Happy Passover!
Reviewed by Ronna Mandel
Find a Passover book review from last year by clicking here.
THE NIGHT FLOWER: The Blooming of the Saguaro Cactus By Lara Hawthorne (Big Picture Press; $16.99, Ages 3-7)
The Sonoran desert is busy with all sorts of activity. Lara Hawthorne’s 32-page nonfiction picture book, The Night Flower: The Blooming of the Saguaro Cactus invites the reader to explore this lively world. The book’s rhyming lines are upbeat and evocative: “Around the saguaro, in the shining moonlight, the desert is festive and thriving tonight.”
Facts bookend the text, deepening a reader’s understanding about the wonderful saguaro cactus’s spectacular bloom which occurs only one night each year. “During this short period, their strong scent and brilliant white petals attract rare pollinators, including bats, moths, and doves.” For a few hours in the morning, the pollen’s shared with day creatures such as birds and bees.
Kids will like the “Did you spot . . .?” section at the end which encourages them to connect the descriptions of ten animals back to the story. The colorfully illustrated saguaro life cycle and glossary are in kid-friendly language to engage even the youngest child. I enjoyed the fresh perspective on animals such as the grasshopper mouse, a “fierce, furry hunter” which is “known to stand on its hind legs and howl at night.”
Hawthorne’s watercolor images introduce whimsy and beauty. This glimpse at something rare is educational and fun. I may have missed the saguaro’s amazing bloom, but, if our travels take us to the desert, I’ll keep a lookout for the gorgeous rainbow grasshopper.
The wonderful thing about nonfiction biographies is that, when done well, they will take us on a journey full of facts, stories, and struggles that will not only enlighten us but also keep us glued to the page, even when we know the outcome. The following books we’ve selected to share for Women’s History Month are excellent examples of recent biographies about extraordinary, trailblazing women whose legacies are enduring and whose contributions remain invaluable serving as powerful role models for generations to come. Find out more about Hedy Lamarr, Susan B. Anthony and Ada Byron Lovelace below.
Wallmark’s chosen a fascinating woman to profile in her illuminating picture book biography of Hedy Lamarr. The Hollywood legend was more than dazzlingly beautiful actress, she was a secret inventor whose “greatest invention was the technology known as frequency-hopping spread spectrum” which has played a crucial role in keeping “our cell phone messages private” and keeping our computers hack-free. Although she knew she was more than just her looks, Lamarr chose to hide this talent from public and didn’t sell her inventions.
Born in Austria in 1920 (100 years after Susan B. Anthony), Hedy was a curious child who, when other kids would likely be out playing, was pre-occupied with how things worked. Her father encouraged her interest in science and technology which no doubt had a positive impact on the young girl. She also had a love of cinema and pretending so it was no surprise she gravitated towards a career in the movies. “I acted all the time … I was a little living copybook. I wrote people down on me.” Eventually doors opened for Hedy when a famous film producer offered her a seven-year film contract. She left her homeland for the bright lights of Hollywood, had her name changed to Hedy Lamarr from Hedwig Eva Maria Kiesler and went on to star in films with some of the industry’s most popular leading men including Jimmy Stewart and Clark Gable.
With her wondering mind at work all the time, even after a day of filming, Lamarr always was thinking about a way to improve on things already in existence or to create something new. That was especially true during WWII. So when she met composer George Antheil, a former weapons inspector, she learned from him that the U.S. Navy, like the European ones, had trouble with the enemy jamming their weapons’ radio signals. Hedy wondered if there was a way to counter this. With the piano as the impetus for a new idea, Hedy thought there might be a way to change frequencies like playing the same keys on a piano in different octaves, and by doing so build a secure torpedo guidance system. And so, after a lot of hard work, they did. Together with Antheil they shared their invention and were told it was “red-hot” but it still needed more work to operate effectively. While the pair eventually received their patent, the Navy “refused to develop” this ground-breaking technology and even classified it as secret so no one else could use the idea. Ultimately they never earned a penny from this breakthrough.
Undeterred by her thwarted efforts to help her adopted homeland, Hedy found success by getting behind the war bond effort, selling millions. Lamarr also took time to meet with servicemen at the Hollywood Canteen and pitched in any way she could. She retired From the movie business in the late 50s and only in the last twenty years has been earning the recognition long overdue. Wu’s artwork is just the right amount of subject and space, and pulls us into every illustration, my favorite being the one where Lamarr and Antheil first meet at a dinner party. Her simple depictions of Lamarr’s big green eyes, sculpted nose and brown hair are terrific. Wallmark’s added a “Timeline” and “Secrets of the Secret Communications System” in the back matter for young readers to learn more about “jam-proofing” technology. I love how even the endpapers are filled with artwork and details about Lamarr. Plus readers will find a “Selected Bibliography,” “Additional Reading About Other Women in Stem” and a list of “Hedy Lamarr’s Films.” Award-winning author Wallmark’s also written picture book biographies about Ada Byron Lovelace and Grace Hopper. Add Hedy Lamarr’s Double Life to the list of must-read biographies.
Prepare to be impressed by the tireless commitment and inroads Susan B. Anthony made for women’s suffrage as detailed by Teri Kanefield in Susan B. Anthony: The Making of America, book #4 in this inspiring series in which each volume “tells the story of an American leader who helped shaped the United States” that we know today. My review copy is so dog-eared to mark the countless passages I wanted to return to. What Kanefield successfully does from the Prologue forward is thoughtfully convey the most important aspects of Anthony’s life so kids will see the evolution of her beliefs beginning with her Quaker upbringing, her teaching years and all the way through to her time lecturing across America as an abolitionist and women’s rights activist.
What comes across to the reader is that Anthony, born in 1820, prior to the Victorian era, from an early age held strong convictions that everyone should be treated as equals. At that time in our country’s history women were supposed to raise families and keep their noses out of politics and practically everything else unless it concerned homemaking. They were only allowed to work in a limited amount of jobs: teacher, seamstress or nanny. They were prohibited from owning property and, in the case of estrangement in a marriage, the man gained custody of the children. In fact, it was not uncommon for a man to have his wife committed to an insane asylum if he wanted out of the marriage.
The immoral slave trade was the most divisive issue, even among Quakers at that time. To Anthony, people of color as well as women were not second class citizens, destined to remain subservient to white men. This was considered a radical idea in the early 19th century and she did not have an easy path as she tried, along with her friend and fellow activist, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, to bring about change and a new amendment to the Constitution giving women the vote. Frederick Douglass was a friend with whom she worked to help first abolish slavery and then gain constitutional protection for free slaves. However, before slavery was abolished and even after, prominent politicians and leaders cautioned her to put her agenda for women’s rights on hold. This was unacceptable. Anthony, along with her friend and staunchest ally, Stanton, challenged the notion that women had to forgo their wants and needs and remained determined “to ride roughshod over obstacles, ignore critics, and take help wherever they could get it.” The support of Anthony’s large family was a constant throughout her life and I wonder how she’d have managed without them during the numerous times she was broke or in debt. Her intelligence and quick wit made her the ideal person to speak on behalf of the suffrage movement but it’s worth noting that she also gravitated towards defending anyone whose rights were being abused.
This well-researched biography is filled with maps, photos, flyers, posters and advertisements that help paint a picture of American society during Anthony’s life. Even something like a lady’s corset could be symbolic of the self-imposed restrictions 19th century women placed upon themselves due to societal norms that a woman should have an hourglass figure. “Girls as young as seven were laced into overly tight corsets.” Also included are Notes, a Time Line, Selected Writings of Susan B. Anthony, a Bibliography, Acknowledgments and an Index.
By the time she died at age 86, four states allowed women to vote but it wasn’t until President Woodrow Wilson and the start of WWI that an amendment to give women the vote would gain traction, ultimately becoming the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, also called the Susan B. Anthony amendment, in 1920, fourteen years after her death. Kanefield’s invaluable biography paints a portrait of an American hero whose convictions changed the course of American history
I told everyone about Ada Byron Lovelace after finishing Dreaming in Code. I had heard her name in regards to code but it ended there. I knew nothing of the back story that led to this brilliant woman’s presaging today’s computer era almost two centuries ago!
Ada Byron Lovelace was born in England at the end of 1815, just five years before Susan B. Anthony. Augusta Ada Byron, was the daughter of the celebrated poet George Gordon, Lord Byron, and his “prim, religious” wife, Anne Isabella Noel, called Annabella, a woman of wealth and intelligence. The couple did not remain together due to his philandering and squandering of money among other things so Ada, as she became known, was raised by a single mother. Annabella was a self-centered hypochondriac yet quite philanthropic at the same time and left it to nannies, governesses and tutors to raise her child while she spent time away visiting her newly inherited holdings and helping the coal miners under her employ. McCully engagingly details how Ada flourished from her education although she remained removed from society until her mother deemed it necessary to find her a husband.
Around this time Ada met Charles Babbage, “famous inventor, philosopher (as scientists were then called) and mathematician” who held Isaac Newton’s chair at Cambridge University. Theirs was to be a long and intense, though completely platonic, relationship as they discussed big ideas since both were passionate about math and science. Their friendship provided Ada with the outlet she needed for stimulation. However things grew complicated when she married William, Lord King who became the Earl of Lovelace and soon became a mother. Though not as cold as her own mother, Ada, too, found it difficult to parent when her loyalties lay elsewhere. These chapters were some of the most fascinating ones yet sad at the same time. She often felt ill and, as was common in the early 19th century, was prescribed Laudanum, a tincture of opium viewed as a cure-all. That addiction had to have contributed to her early death at age 37.
As Countess of Lovelace, Ada mixed with a cross-section of society and attended talks on science given by brilliant minds of the era such as Michael Faraday. Ada also wanted to help Babbage and his Analytical Engine and at the same time make her own mark in the science and math fields. Here’s where her genius shone through. While Babbage saw his invention as “arithmetical and numerical, rather than algebraical and analytical,” Ada believed the machine could do more than compute … “that numbers were symbols and could represent other concepts, is what makes Babbage’s engine a prototype-computer.” Sadly, Lovelace lived in era when women were overshadowed by men and women’s freedoms were limited. We can only begin to imagine what miraculous achievements she’d have made had she only lived longer.
With the very readable Dreaming in Code highlighting her meticulous research, McCully has shed light on Ada Byron Lovelace, an important historical figure whose contributions to the field of STEM are finally getting the recognition they deserve. I recommend this young adult nonfiction book for anyone seeking to get a better understanding of the era in which Lovelace lived and how she was inspired to think outside the box.
Reviewed by Ronna Mandel
Read about the friendship of Susan B. Anthony and Frederick Douglass here. Read another book, Dare The Wind, illustrated Emily Arnold McCully here.
ANGRY COOKIE Written by Laura Dockrill Illustrated by Maria Karipidou (Walker Books; $16.99, Ages 3-7)
Written byLaura Dockrilland illustrated byMaria Karipidou, Angry Cookie is a hilarious and clever way to engage young children with the topic of emotions. Ironically, the conversation begins because of Angry Cookie’s every effort to shut us out.
On the book jacket, Cookie warns us readers with an adorably menacing look, “You opened the book! You better not read it … I am very angry, and there is NOTHING you can do about it!” He calls us (silly) names, he bids us an abrupt farewell, and even tries to end the story prematurely with a curt “The end.”
Try as he may, he knows he can’t get rid of us. In fact, our presence begins to slowly shed light on his dark mood. Though he may feel anger gives him a sense of power, we see it’s his way of protecting his hurt feelings. Dockrill’s sense of humor creates a safe space for children to approach the issue of anger and the multiple layers of emotion it masks. When you’re angry every little thing gets on your nerves—even the fact that you have to use the “grown-up spicy” toothpaste when the “delicious, yummy, strawberry-pudding” one ran out. But it’s never about the toothpaste … or the bad haircut … or the ice cream parlor running out of your favorite “most wonderful vanilla sundae.” Underneath the anger, feelings of rejection, pain, and loneliness trouble Cookie. Illustrations wonderfully balance this vulnerable side of the story. Karipidou’s soft pastels create a friendly space with Cookie being at the center of many pages, drawing our attention to his voice (and, on two occasions, his butt!).
Once his anger is gone, Cookie can finally see the truth—that the person he found “annoying” is really the friend he needed to care about him and lend a listening ear. Feeling validated, Cookie can shed off his former perspective and start enjoying the things that previously bothered him. He can separate himself from his feelings and recognize that, though he was acting like a “grumpy lump,” he’s not the same cookie anymore.
This book is a wonderful resource parents, educators, and caregivers can use to talk to young children about how anger feels as they’re going through it themselves or when they notice it in someone else. Angry Cookie will leave readers feeling anything by angry.
The dynamic duo of Fishman and Greenberg, who created the award-winning picture book A Hundred Billion Trillion Stars, partners again for Power Up: Your Incredible, Spectacular, Supercharged Body. This time, the focus switches from the amazing universe to the world within. Bite-sized explanations help bring such immense topics within reach. The text centers around the fact we’re made of energy and everything we do takes energy. “You are a fireball,” “Look at your pinkie. That little finger has enough energy to light up one of the biggest cities in the world for an entire day.”
Greenberg’s art brings fresh perspectives to what could be boring textbook images such as the skeleton and muscular systems. Positive messages help kids learn that they need to care for their supercharged bodies by eating, sleeping, and exercising.
Kids who like numbers will get into their groove with the many statistics. Did you know we’re born with 300 bones, but as some fuse we eventually have only 206? Or that the calf’s seven muscles help you point your toes? Nonfiction has come a long way with interesting books such as this one that makes learning fun and reminds us that we can (literally) “light up the world.”
Fishman’s upcoming local appearances include two 11:00 a.m. Barnes & Noble Storytimes: Saturday, March 23rd in Encinitas (1040 N El Camino Real Drive) and Saturday, March 30th in Manhattan Beach (1800 Rosecrans Avenue).
BUTTERFLIES IN ROOM 6: SEE HOW THEY GROW Written and photographed by Caroline Arnold (Charlesbridge; $16.99, Ages 3-7)
Caroline Arnold’s newnonfiction picture book, Butterflies in Room 6, is both an educational and enjoyable read. Its release last week could not have been more timely, especially for those of us living in SoCal who have been privy to a rare treat of nature.
“Those black-and-orange insects that seem to be everywhere you look in Southern California aren’t monarchs and they aren’t moths. They are called painted ladies, and these butterflies are migrating by the millions across the state,” says Deborah Netburn in a March 12 Los Angeles Times article.
If Butterflies in Room 6doesn’t make you want to head back to Kindergarten, I don’t know what will. Arnold takes us into Mrs. Best’s classroom to witness first hand the amazing life cycle of a painted lady butterfly. Colorful and crisp photographs fill the the book and are most impressive when they accompany all four stages of this butterfly’s brief but beautiful life. The first stage is an egg. The second stage is a larva also know as a caterpillar. Following this is the pupa and third stage when the metamorphosis occurs that transforms the pupa into a butterfly. The forth or last stage is when the butterfly emerges as an adult and the cycle will begin again.
A host of illuminating facts are shared in easy-to-understand language complemented by Arnold’s fab photos. Helpful notations on each picture explains the process depicted. Seeing the faces of the delighted children engaged in Mrs. Best’s butterfly project is certain to excite young readers who may also be planning to participate in this “common springtime curriculum activity.” If there is no project on the horizon, this book (coupled with a video recommended in the back matter) is definitely the next best thing.
Obviously a lot goes into raising butterflies and Arnold provides step by step details so anyone thinking about this will know exactly what’s involved. Pictures illustrate the process from preparing the eggs sent via mail, to leaving food for the soon-to-be caterpillars and then shifting their environment to one that is ready for the pupa stage before moving the chrysalis (thin shell) covered pupa into a special “flight cage” that resembles a clear pop-up laundry basket. Ultimately butterflies emerge. This particular part of Butterflies in Room 6 will thrill every reader who has vicariously followed along with the class’s journey. When Mrs. Best allows each child to hold a butterfly before they fly away, whether to a nearby flower or to find a mate, the reader will feel a sense of joy at having been privy to this unique experience. I know I was!
The book contains enlightening back matter including “Butterfly Questions,” “Butterfly Vocabulary,” “Butterflies Online,” “Further Reading” and “Acknowledgements.” Arnold must have read my mind when she answered my question about the red stains on the side of the flight cage. Turns out they are due to the red liquid called meconium, “left over from metamorphosis.”
While the book should certainly find a welcome place on the shelves of schools and libraries, I also hope it will find its way into homes across the country so families can share in the wonder and delight of butterflies that Arnold’s words and photos perfectly convey.
Reviewed by Ronna Mandel
INTERVIEW WITH CAROLINE ARNOLD
GoodReadsWithRonna: First there was Hatching Chicks in Room 6 and now there’s Butterflies in Room 6. What was the history of how this second book came to be? Caroline Arnold: Several years ago, when I was doing an author visit at Haynes school in Los Angeles, I met Jennifer Best, a kindergarten teacher. Each spring, her students learn about life cycles. Two years ago I spent time in her classroom while they were hatching chicken eggs in an incubator. That resulted in my book Hatching Chicks in Room 6. At the same time, the class was also raising Painted Lady butterflies from caterpillars–watching the caterpillars grow in a jar, turn into chrysalises, and, after a week or so, emerge as beautiful butterflies. It seemed like the perfect sequel to Hatching Chicks in Room 6.
GRWR: Your photos are wonderful. How difficult is it photographing elementary school children whose awe at the butterfly project you capture so well? And the subject themselves – the images of the butterfly emerging from the chrysalis are an eye-opener! How hard was this?
CA: As with the book about chicks, I realized that the best way to tell this story was with photographs. I embedded myself in Jennifer Best’s classroom, which enabled me to follow the process along with the children and get the photos I needed. A challenge was that neither the children nor butterflies stayed still for long! My secret was to take LOTS of pictures. The story takes place in real time, so I had to get the photos I needed as they happened. There was no going backwards. For the close-up photos I raised butterflies at home. Even so, catching a butterfly emerging from its chrysalis isn’t easy. The whole process only lasts about a minute, so I had to watch constantly to catch it in time. And no matter how many times I watched a butterfly come out, it was always miraculous. GRWR: Where do you go to enjoy nature in L.A.?
CA: I am a bird watcher and like to go for walks on the beach and watch sandpipers and other shorebirds skitter at the edge of the waves or pelicans flying in formation. I also enjoy walks on the path along Ballona Lagoon in the Marina, another great place for birdwatching. But, one of the best places to enjoy nature is my own backyard and my neighborhood near Rancho Park. Ever since writing Butterflies in Room 6 I have been much more aware of the variety of butterflies that one can see in Los Angeles—monarchs, swallowtails, painted ladies, white and yellow sulphurs, and many more. Last year I bought a milkweed plant for my garden and was delighted to discover several weeks later monarch caterpillars happily eating the leaves. A surprising amount of nature is around us all the time—we just have to look!
A LITTLE CHICKEN Written by Tammi Sauer Illustrated by Dan Taylor (Sterling Children’s Books; $16.95, Ages 4 and up)
If your child enjoys sweet, pun-filled, read-aloud stories with an enjoyable mix of humorous artwork, a relatable subject and “the occasional lawn ornament,” pick up a copy of A Little Chicken to meet adorable Dot.
While not all poultry are petrified of every little thing, Dot sure is. From Taylor’s very first illustration in this picture book, readers will see from her school photo that Dot, the chicken, is being frightened by a spider. (NOTE: don’t miss the end papers.) She was indeed a scaredy cat chicken. Wolves, bears and even a lovely, fluttery butterfly terrified her.
Things went from scary to hairy pretty darn quickly when one day Dot knocked an egg out of the coop. Of course this was unintentional, but regardless, she couldn’t let her “soon-to-be sibling” roll away. Dot dashed for the egg but it remained just out of reach with funny obstacles around every corner. As the egg’s momentum carried it off towards the deep dark woods, Dot had to decide if she had it in her to brave the unknown. Was she more than fluff? ABSOLUTELY! She may have been a little chicken but she also knew what mattered in life.
This highly readable, entertaining picture book is perfect for parents prone to making sound effects. It cleverly lets youngsters know it’s okay to have fears but facing them may sometimes yield amazing results, in this case a precious baby sister.
Author Tammi Sauer’s chosen to focus on fear in a way that honors this feeling and provides an easy in for a discussion about this topic with children. The story flows smoothly and little ones will be rooting for Dot along with her farmyard fan club. Sauer’s wonderful way with words is evident in A Little Chicken and she uses all the right ones though quite economically because Dan Taylor’s hilarious illustrations say so much. All the animal characters that inhabit Dot’s world are not scary nor are the lawn ornaments. In fact, I rather hope they’ll make an appearance in another story. Definitely take a crack at this recommended read!
AWAY WITH WORDS: The Daring Story of Isabella Bird Written by Lori Mortensen Illustrated by Kristy Caldwell (Peachtree Publishing; $17.95, Ages 6-10)
Before Nellie Bly or Amelia Earhardt there was Isabella Bird and, thanks to this eye-opening new picture book biography, Away With Words: The Daring Story of Isabella Bird,children can read about what impressive inroads this English explorer made at a time in history when a woman’s place was in the home not out globetrotting around the world, and writing about it to boot!
This “unlikely candidate for adventure,” who never felt well as a child, was born in the Yorkshire countryside in 1831. Isabella Bird suffered from a multitude of ailments and rarely left the house. That worked for awhile because, according to Victorian societal norms that she would eventually challenge, “Young ladies wore dresses. / Young ladies didn’t go to school. / Young ladies stayed home.” Countless doctors couldn’t diagnose her with anything until one doctor recommended she get some fresh air. Her father took Isabella out with him on his horse and, with his encouragement, she made discoveries that would forever change the course of her life. “Out in the wild, Isabella forgot about her aches and pains. / She breathed in new ways to see and describe everything around her.”
Captured beautifully by Caldwell’s spread below, letters from relatives abroad and other news from overseas sparked a flame in Isabella. She felt deep inside that travel would feed her soul and she yearned for the possibilities it would provide but some days she could barely get up. The tide turned for the better when her doctor suggested a sea voyage and her parents agreed.
She boarded a mail steamer for Nova Scotia and from then on there was no looking back for this intrepid young woman. Her red leather notebook accompanied her wherever she went. I love how Mortensen weaves quotations of text from Bird’s own published books wherever it adds atmosphere to the story. Caldwell’s colorful illustrations pair perfectly with those lines. One of my favorites is, “There was a small bed with a dirty buffalo-skin upon it; I took it up and swarms of living creatures fell out of it …”
Her first book, The Englishwoman in America, was published in 1856, smack in the middle of Queen Victoria’s reign. But when her father passed away Bird chose to end her explorations. That ultimately led to a flare up of her ailments and an onset of doldrums that, at her sister’s urging, could only be allayed by journeying across five continents. It took grit and guts and bravery to gallivant solo around the world to myriad destinations lacking in creature comforts, but Isabella persevered. Thanks to her detailed record keeping of all the places she visited, the nine additional books she wrote became bestsellers. People craved reading about the exotic locales and peoples that they’d never see in their lifetime whether that be climbing up Kilauea volcano in the Sandwich Islands (Hawaii), trekking across the dangerous frozen Persian “desert at the roof of the world,” or befriending a “notorious outlaw.”
AsMortensen’sstory vividly demonstrates, the world was indeed Isabella’s home so it’s no surprise that in 1892, Bird was the first woman to ever be inducted into the Royal Geographical Society of London and a year later was presented to Queen Victoria. In 32 pages of lyrical prose, Mortensen shows young readers the personal growth and happiness that can come from travel and exposure to a vast range of cultures. Caldwell’s artwork includes just the right amount of soaring spirit a name like Bird implies.
Picture book biographies, when done well, provide a much needed window on the world of important people from the past that we might ordinarily never hear or read about. Away With Words: The Daring Story of Isabella Bird, does that and more. It offers inspiration and a role model for children who, long after Women’s History Month has ended, will no doubt want to seek out Bird’s impressions by turning to her original books to learn more about this trailblazer’s 19th century daring journeys. The back matter including an author’s note, a timeline of Bird’s travels and publications, Bird’s text quotations, and a bibliography make this nonfiction book ideal for both home and school. In fact, I’d give it as a gift to a child along with a journal to get them started on documenting their own travels, even if that’s just an outing to the zoo or a trip to another city.
Reviewed by Ronna Mandel
Visit other stops below on this enlightening blog tour from Peachtree Publishing:
When is a Holocaust book not a Holocaust book? When it’s Searching for Lottie, a contemporary fiction, historical and mystery novel that beautifully and sensitively conveys the connectivity the past has with the present. Author Susan L. Ross’s multi-layered story, which won the Sydney Taylor Manuscript Award and is a PJ Our Way selection, also emphasizes the importance of individual identity, the supportive role of family and friends, and the power of music.
Twelve-year-old Charlie (Charlotte) Roth has an assignment for 7th grade social studies, a family history project. She’s chosen to research her namesake, Great-Aunt Lottie (Charlotte) Kulka, a violin prodigy who likely died during the Holocaust. While living in Vienna, Charlie’s grandmother, Nana Rose (who was Great-Aunt Lottie’s younger sister) and Lottie’s mother escaped to safety in America. “When the Germans invaded Austria, the Jews were at the mercy of the Nazis.” Far from home, Lottie was not as lucky. She had been sent to continue her music studies in Budapest, Hungary so when her mother and sister fled Austria after her father’s arrest, Lottie vanished without a word and was always presumed dead.
Once Charlie begins digging into the past, her Nana Rose starts to reveal some details from the past that even Charlie’s mom wasn’t aware of. First there is the old black and white photo of her namesake. Then, when Charlie is given a diary and eventually a necklace that once belonged to Lottie, bits and pieces of the past begin rising to the surface causing Charlie to wonder whether her Great-Aunt might still be alive. Could she still be in Hungary? Or America? Charlie’s mom reminds her that “The Holocaust was a tragedy that touched every Jewish family,” and there may not be a happy ending. However, with the encouragement of her friends and family, and despite what she may discover, Charlie vows to find out what really happened to Lottie. It’s clear Charlie is going to be learning about herself and her family as much as she will about her long lost relative as her journey into the past continues.
Unusual incidents and people are discovered along the way that pull the reader into the story and make them feel invested in the outcome. It turns out that Lottie had played with the Vienna Philharmonic. Charlie, also passionate about the instrument, would like nothing more than to please her devoted Nana Rose by being selected for the concertmaster position after her upcoming audition. As Charlie prepares for the big day, her crush on a fellow musician, Devin, could become a distraction from both her violin dreams and her genealogical journey but she perseveres.
The many interesting and exciting things happening in every chapter serve to keep Charlie’s mind off the audition and Devin. There is never a dull moment as Charlie delves deeper into the mystery of Lottie’s disappearance. Exploring every lead for her family history project will ultimately give her a greater understanding of how the Holocaust impacted survivors and children of survivors, in Charlie’s case, her grandmother and mother. “‘After I had children of my own,'” ‘Mom said softly,’ “‘I realized––or at least, I understood a bit better—that my mother had to bury the sad parts of her life in order to live happily.'”
Ross has created a vibrant and resourceful young girl in the character of Charlie. Her hunt through history to uncover hidden truths about Lottie, if successful, will surely solve decades of doubt and we’re all rooting for her. It was hard for me to believe that, though based on Ross’s family, all the characters were fictional. They felt so real, their situations so possible. It’s helpful to read the Author’s Note to learn about Ross’s story inspiration. I found myself heading over to the Ellis Island Archives as I was reading the novel because, like Charlie, and the author, I too, have many unanswered questions about my Eastern European family.
Searching for Lottie will get tweens thinking and hopefully talking about the Holocaust, about their own heritage, and how we often need to look to our past before moving forward. I recommend this novel as it’s not only one of hope and inspiration, but it powerfully demonstrates how one determined young girl can make a difference.
Reviewed by Ronna Mandel
Happy Book Birthday to Searching for Lottie by Susan L. Ross
The Curseshas an undoubtedly awesome first line: “Wolf had been back from the dead for almost three weeks when we had our first midnight picnic of the year.” Best-selling author Laure Eve’s second book picks up smoothly from where The Graces left off, changing the narrator from River (the new girl in town with enigmatic magical powers) to Summer (her on-again-off-again BFF from the Grace family of witches).
This sequel expands the world of the Graces while keeping favorite characters close. The Graces are beautiful, rich, and alluring—and they have cool names. Complicated relationships advance between the people who love the Graces, hate them, or want to be them. High school drama is heightened as the teens try to master their supernatural powers.
Truth-seeker and air witch Summer questions the dreaded curse on the Grace family (they cannot marry for love). After some sleuthing, dangerous mysteries unfold and Summer struggles with how she’s inexplicably drawn to River, wondering whether to stay away or bring her into their coven.
The main story line revolves around Wolf and the problems accompanying his resurrection. Throughout, the characters grow and learn to navigate the complicated aspects of friendship, family, and love. Appearances can be deceptive and easy answers may not be the right ones but there’s surely magic in the world, if you’re open to it.
A flower in a field. 🌸 A star in the sky.✨ Simple things seen and sensed through the eyes of a child help them find and define their place in the universe in two beautiful new picture books from Candlewick Press and Nosy Crow.
STARDUST features a thoughtful young girl who tries and tries to shine as brightly as her talented older sister. She cannot knit as well, find a missing ring first, or design the best outfit for the costume competition. When she seeks solace under the starry night sky, her grandfather joins her for a quiet chat. Once there was nothing, he tells her, but after a BANG and a series of twinkles, stars were born. Willis sends the duo off on an imaginary journey to explore the subsequent creation of planets, moons, seas, trees and even, sisters!
Smith’s richly colored illustrations will carry young readers into the fantastical realm to introduce the Big Bang and how all is created from stardust. The tender relationship between the girl and her grandfather is light and sweet but never heavy-handed, leading to a delightful conclusion that reaches decades into the girl’s future.
The book jacket is generously speckled with silver stars and a shiny title, a bright and cheerful exterior feature that highlights and compliments this book’s encouraging message about being true to yourself.
A tiny red ladybug has captured a girl’s attention on the cover of Toni Yuly’s THE WHOLE WIDE WORLD AND ME. Open the book, and the ladybug creeps up a single blade of green grass. Suddenly a bright yellow flower dominates the page, as if from the bug’s perspective. Two boots arrive on scene, signaling the girl’s arrival and her tender exploration of the natural wonders that surround her.
Yuly’s captivating illustrations are a combination of ink, charcoal pencil, torn tissue, cut paper and digital collage. The colors are bold and textured, beautifully conveying the gritty beach, crisp blades of grass, and fuzzy cotton dandelion seeds. “I am a small part of it all,” proclaims the young naturalist, joyously exploring and connecting with the world around her. Readers will be duly inspired to get outdoors and join the fun.
★Starred Review – Kirkus Reviews
Reviewed by Cathy Ballou Mealey
Where obtained: I reviewed either an advanced reader’s copy from the publisher or a library edition and received no other compensation. The opinions expressed here are my own.
ABRAHAM LINCOLN PRO WRESTLER TIME TWISTERS BOOK ONE Written by Steve Sheinkin Illustrated by Neil Swaab (Roaring Brook Press; $13.99, Ages 7-10)
Don’t let the title, Abraham Lincoln Pro Wrestler, convince you that this totally entertaining and educational read is comprised of our 16th president traipsing around in a wrestling singlet. It is actually the first in a clever fiction chapter book series that features lots of laugh out load moments that kept me turning the pages to see how the two main characters, step-siblings Abby and Doc, would pull off some whimsical time travel twists that bring Abraham Lincoln’s presidency to life but could also change the course of history.
The story unfolds with the kids in Ms. Maybee’s history class being instructed to read aloud from their textbook section about Honest Abe. When the teacher tries to get her students involved, the general reaction is a resounding “BORING!” It turns out, though, that their disinterest has negatively impacted historical figures including Lincoln. Because of that, when Ms. Maybee’s class attempts to read about America’s influential president and his profound impact on our country’s history, the students can only find references to Abraham Lincoln essentially doing zilch—”sitting in a chair, reading or heading off to the outhouse.”
In an interesting scene that sets the stage for all the story’s zany action, Lincoln travels to the present to offer words of caution. “Saying I’m boring, groaning in agony when it comes time to read about history. As I said, today was just a warning. If you do it again—well, you’ll see.” The next attempt to study the 16th president also fails, but instead of Lincoln returning to the library storage room to warn Abby and Doc, Doc disappears into the same box (portal) that brought Lincoln to the present from 1860 Illinois. Abby follows and the two wind up outside of Lincoln’s house. There they meet Lincoln and his wife, Mary who tells them the election is tomorrow. With her husband no longer caring, Mary and the kids are worried. “Then we’re doomed! … The country will break apart! Everything we have worked for—all thrown away!” The kids feel awful, certain they’ve screwed with fate, especially after their dad, Mr. Douglass, also a teacher, impresses upon the two how important history is. “But knowing history makes you smarter, helps you understand the world better. Mostly, it’s just fun.”
The problem is Doc and Abby now need to get Abraham Lincoln engaged again while also getting their classmates to realize how much history matters. This may not be easy. When Lincoln hears about a school fundraiser, a pro wrestling match scheduled for that evening, he’d much rather quit the past and attend the big event. He just happens to be in the National Wrestling Hall of Fame! At the same time, Doc has time travelled back to election day with the gym teacher, Mr. Biddle, who earlier dressed as Honest Abe (a term he despised) for a special surprise presentation at school. His goal: get the real Lincoln concerned enough to step back into his rightful place and accept the presidency. I especially liked this part because of all the facts about Lincoln that Sheinkinshares and how the two Abes get up to all sorts of shenanigans along with Abby and Doc. There’s so much humor infused into this history lesson that readers will not even realize how much fun they’re having learning about a time when our country was so “bitterly divided, mainly over the issue of slavery.” Kids will breeze through the eighteen chapters and will be delighted to learn there are more books available already in this pleasing series. The cartoon-like illustrations by Swaab add to the silliness as well as offer an easy way into absorbing history for the more reluctant readers.
George Washington’s Secret Six, a young readers adaptation of the New York Times bestseller about George Washington’s top-secret spy ring that helped defeat the British, is a must-read for history buffs and anyone who relishes a riveting spy story filled with fascinating facts and bravery by the boatload. I’m so glad this book was written so that I could brush up on my Revolutionary War details, many of which I have long forgotten (or never knew!).
The stakes were high for General George Washington in 1776. With the British occupation seemingly never-ending, Washington and the Continental Army needed to get a leg up on the Redcoats who had recently conquered New York City, forcing Washington and his army into a hasty retreat. The British had the clear advantage. They had the might of the Crown behind them and the money, meaning they had ships, weapons, food and an army ready to do all it took to defeat the fledgling nation.
Knowing he had few options, Washington chose a different approach, one that, though financially not expensive, could ultimately cost lives if discovered. The general had to tread carefully and trust was an essential component in his plan. He’d form a team of undercover operatives so he and his troops could gain the advantage over the British. Set against the backdrop of 18th century Manhattan, Long Island and Connecticut, the story of the Culper Spy Ring, which was active until very near the end of the war, is an amazing tale of heroism and stealth, creativity and cunning.
Told in four parts with forty brief but engaging chapters, Kilmeade and Yaeger recount this overlooked intelligence network that played a significant role in America’s success. The Culper Spy Ring was comprised of a reserved merchant, a tavern keeper, a brash young longshoreman, a curmudgeonly Long Island bachelor, a coffeehouse owner, and a mysterious woman, possibly a socialite, known as Agent 355. Together they employed tactics such as using code, invisible ink and even going to work for the Loyalists in order to gain insider knowledge of upcoming battle plans, troop movements and even their secret code.
Middle grade readers will learn about Nathan Hale’s brief attempt to spy and how his lack of fitting in called him out as an imposter. The British’s foiled efforts to disseminate counterfeit money to ruin the economy is also explained. They’ll read about the important role the French played as America’s ally. They’ll find out how hard it was to operate without being detected and the clever ways the spies sent crucial information via land and sea (okay, the Long Island Sound to be exact) under cover of darkness. The authors clearly convey all the risks involved in these missions which could easily culminate in hanging and that’s what will keep kids involved. I constantly found myself wondering if one of the spies was going to be caught. The danger involved was palpable with every page turn. One of the most interesting sections of the book dealt with Benedict Arnold. I knew his name was synonymous with traitor but I honestly never knew the degree to which he sold out the Americans. The devotion to the cause of freedom knew no boundaries for the top-secret spy ring as depicted in George Washington’s Secret Six (Young Readers Adaptation). Who knows how things would have turned out were it not for the six patriotic spies?
Over 25 pages of excellent back matter are included for those who crave more details. Here readers will find several pages devoted to the postwar lives of the Culper Ring, information about the use of invisible ink and alphabetical codes, a comprehensive timeline, sources and an index. Another aspect of the book I liked was how black and white engravings, paintings, illustrations and photos were incorporated to firmly ground readers in the colonial time period. This well-researched true story resonated with me since many of events took place close to where I grew up on Long Island. I’m now eager to visit many of the locales mentioned if they still exist. Kilmeade and Yaeger have written a terrific nonfiction book that provides an accessible way to get tweens and teens interested in our country’s history, if they’re not already. Perhaps it will even prompt further reading about this critical time in the formation of the United States.
There are all kinds of love. Love for a parent, a grandparent, a sibling, a pet, a friend or in the case of Loved to Bits, the love of a stuffed animal. Stripy Ted has been everywhere and done everything with his owner, an imaginative young boy. During their adventures this plush pal has experienced all the fun two friends can have, but at a cost. Over time, Stripy Ted’s lost all his limbs and even an eye. But that hasn’t stopped him from joining the boy and for that the child is grateful. The fearless stuffed animal may be battered and worn, but “The truth was now, I liked him better. I could hold him in one hand. He fit right, just here.” The bond between boy and beloved teddy bear make for tender reading in this rhyming picture book. Filled with sweet illustrations that softly convey the depth of love between the pair, Loved to Bits makes not only a charming Valentine’s Day story, but a delightful year round bedtime tale.
I always wanted to be an aunt because of the special relationship I’d have with my niece or nephew. If I were an aunt, like the one in Auntie Loves You!, I’d want to do all the things she does with her little “bunny-kins bunny …” Together the pair go to the beach together, play games, sail boats and play hide-and-seek. The affection the bunnies share for one another is evident in all the illustrations which are tender and evocative. The font is large and the rhyme predictive making the story accessible for beginning readers and just the right length for a bedtime story. “We go together like sprinkles on cake, like kisses and hugs, or ducks on a lake.” I love the sweeping landscapes and can almost smell the sea air in the beach scenes. Another nice feature in this picture book is a presented to page for an inscription and date as well as a spread in the back matter with a place for “A Special Letter to My Favorite Bunny” and a beautifully designed page to paste a photo of child and auntie.
If you enjoyed Dragons: Father and Son, Dragons in Lovewill not disappoint. I bet you didn’t know that when flames shoot out of a dragon’s mouth it’s a sign of love. In this amusing picture book, Drake the young dragon gets kissed on the snout by his friend, Violet. “It left Drake feeling hot and confused.” He flies away, trying hard to hold back the fire building up inside but cannot. While he has to admit the kiss didn’t hurt, the feelings were not anything he’d been used to and so he decides he has to avoid his friend. In a dragon dad to dragon son chat, Drake finds out that breathing fire is how dragons show their love, but that might not be an easy thing for Violet to deal with. Drake continues to stay away … that is until he hears noises in the park and sees that his friend is being bullied. Those flames come in handy to fend off a bully. They singe the meanie, but don’t scare away any of Drake’s friends, especially Violet. In fact, it appears coming to his friend’s rescue has sparked a greater love. Lacroix’s prose and Badel’s art leave the ending up to kids to decide which provides a great jumping off point for discussion. Violet points to her cheek and seems to want Drake to give her a kiss, but will he? Kids are going to get a kick out of the humorous illustrations that are full of expression and capture the dynamic of this age group so well.
I know, the title Isle of You sounds like “I love you” and it’s supposed to because that’s really what matters most—to love yourself and know you are loved. Isle of You does a wonderful job of conveying a place children can go to inside themselves to make themselves feel better when they’re feeling sad, lonely or even angry. This is such a great idea. On the Isle of You everything is there to help improve a bad mood or feeling. “There’s the welcoming committee, waiting with wide-open arms. What would you like to do first?” Whatever your heart can imagine is there and all it takes is imagination. This type of positive visualization is sure to shift the blues to pinks, yellows and greens. And best of all, it offers a way to quiet any negative thoughts and replace them with ones that are bound to make them kids feel good. Swim in a waterfall? Sure! Relax on a hammock? Why not? “The choice is yours.” Try your favorite dessert, walk along the beach, make a wish on a starfish. This feel-good story is complemented by magical, and soothing artwork that will lift the spirits as it assures youngsters they are loved just before they drift off to sleep.
This sturdy 48-page board book featuring 35 full-page artworks is ideal for Valentine’s Day, Mother’s Day, Father’s Day or any birthday. And you don’t have to be into museums to appreciate the beauty of My Art Book of Love. The first book in Phaidon’s My Art Book collection, this gorgeous book will introduce little ones to all the joys of art in its many shapes, sizes, colors and mediums. I was thrilled to see such a diverse selection included in My Art Book of Love and impressed how the author was able to find such terrific examples to convey: Love is … , Love feels … , Love makes you …, Love looks like …, Love is everywhere., and Love is beautiful. Artists represented range from Klimt to Cassatt, Wiley to Warhol, Bechtle to Botero. There is much to enjoy in the pairing of Love feels … “Warm like the sun on your skin … ” with Boys in a Pasture by Winslow Homer or Love is everywhere. “And inside your home,” The Banjo Lesson by Henry Ossawa Tanner. I recommend this series, and this book in particular, to share with toddlers to foster the love of art in all its glory. Look out for My Art Book of Sleep, too.