A young girl longs to spend the night on the cot in her living room. “Mami says it’s for guests” only, but to the girl the cot symbolizes freedom and possibilities: having the whole living room to herself, enjoying the lights from the George Washington bridge coming in through the big window, watching television, and even sneaking in a midnight snack.
When throughout the week neighborhood children take turns spending the night on the cot, the young girl feels it’s absolutely “not fair” that she doesn’t get to enjoy this privilege. But what she doesn’t realize is the fear and discomfort each guest struggles through as they are separated from their parents who are working the night shift.
I love the way the illustrations highlight the girl’s jealousy by magnifying the supposed delight each guest will have spending the night on the cot. An endless supply of candy-colored food, fun, and games in exaggerated sizes emphasize the disconnect between the young girl’s idealization of the cot and the reality of her guests’ feelings about it. For them, the cot is a poor substitute for home.
When the young girl finally does get the opportunity to spend the night on the cot, strange and scary noises give her insight into their loneliness. Modeling her parents’ kindness and caregiving, the girl finds a creative way to make her guests feel like a part of the family.
Parents and educators searching for themes of compassion, empathy, and sacrifice will find them in this touching picture book.
Award-winning author and illustrator Melanie Watt, well known for herScaredy Squirrel picture book series, has created her first graphic novel, Scaredy Squirrel in a Nutshell, featuring a squirrel beset by many (and often improbable) fears about life outside his beloved nut tree. To his credit, Scaredy Squirrel confronts each challenge with an elaborate and hilarious action plan that’s often doomed to failure. From the potential alien landing to deadly dust bunnies, Scaredy Squirrel not only has a plan but a backup as well (play dead).
Since childhood, Scaredy Squirrel has kept himself and his nut tree safe from dreaded “trespassers” who could damage his tree. Who knows when a mammoth may want to uproot it? Or a cat might scratch it. So Scaredy Squirrel has developed a strategy to protect the tree. He places objects around his tree to distract the trespassers, such as a fake tree for the mammoth to uproot or a scratching post for the cat.
However, there’s a downside to this ambitious plan: these objects get dusty and from the dust springs notorious dust bunnies! So this quick-thinking squirrel comes up with a detailed plan to prevent dust bunnies … vacuum all the decoy objects! All well and good until the vacuum gets clogged and now Scaredy Squirrel must develop a plan to unclog the vacuum cleaner. As you can imagine, more problems emerge which entail more plans and greater chaos. Inevitably (despite playing dead) he finds himself face to face with a real bunny who would like to be his friend. Which of course necessitates a new plan …
Watt’s familiar cartoon-like illustrations go nicely with the graphic novel format. Simple geometric shapes are used to create the characters and setting. Faces are wonderfully expressive. Panels are well organized on the pages with a clean and uncluttered look, making this book perfect for newly independent readers. Witty word plays and expressions such as “going out on a limb” and “dust bunnies,” keep the narrative lively and make this a good read-aloud as well. Delightfully quirky features include a “Nutty (Table of) Contents,” and some silly and interactive features to be taken before it is “safe” to begin the story.
Parents, caregivers, and teachers are sure to appreciate that, despite the zany humor of the book, Scaredy Squirrel manages to demonstrate, in a light-hearted way, how children can face their fears and develop problem-solving skills such as writing down action plans, to face real-life challenges. While the age is listed as 6-9, younger children would certainly enjoy having the story read to them.
Reviewed by Dornel Cerro
Click here and here to read more squirrel stories.
Swimming season is upon us so I’ve invited author Stephanie Wildman to talk about her new picture book, Brave in the Water, for parents and caregivers of reluctant swimmers to share with children.
Thank you so much, Ronna, for having me on your blog. I’m excited to tell your readers about my debut picture group Brave in the Water and to encourage them to get in the water!
Learning to swim can be daunting. I should know – I didn’t learn until I was twenty-six years old! I didn’t want my own children to grow up afraid, so I took them for swim lessons at an early age. They both became competitive swimmers. One founded and coached an award-winning swim program for vulnerable youth. One swam for Team USA in the 2008 Olympics, winning a gold medal. So getting them in the water was one thing I did right as a parent, not passing on my own fear. I hope this book reaches children who might be afraid like I was and shows them that they can have fun in the water.
More about the book:
Diante is afraid to put his face in the water, but he is torn because he would like to play in the pool with other children. He’s not afraid to hang upside down on the monkey bars, though, and he’s surprised to learn his grandma is afraid to be upside down in an inverted yoga pose. Can Diante help Grandma and become brave in the water?
Spoiler alert: He can and he does. Grandma tells Diante about the feathered peacock yoga pose that she aspires to do. Diante wants to try it. Grandma explains that “Breathing is important for trying something new.” They practice slow, deep inhalations and exhalations together.
Before trying the pose Diante learns to control his breathing (pranayama).
He wonders if pranayama can help him put his face in the water. He goes back to the pool to try and thinks for a long time, finally remembering pranayama. Finally, step by step, slowly breathing Diante enters the water and puts his face in. He is on his way to learning how to swim.
Here is what Bonnie Tsui, New York Times best-selling author of Why We Swim and Sarah and the Big Wave, said about Brave in the Water in her back cover blurb:
“Being brave is something we work on all our lives. Stephanie Wildman shows us how to help each other through — one breath at a time — to reach the essential joy of the water.”
By the way, I would love you to check out my debut group NewBooksforKids.com. I have been lucky to meet this group of kidlit debut authors, all with books I want to buy and read. Remember you can always support children’s books by requesting your local library to order them or by buying one for a Little Free Library. This group will give you some great ideas.
Thanks again Ronna. See you in the water!
About the Author:
Stephanie M. Wildman served as John A. and Elizabeth H. Sutro Chair at Santa Clara Law and directed the school’s Center for Social Justice and Public Service before becoming Professor Emerita. Her books include: Brave in the Water (2021); Privilege Revealed: How Invisible Preference Undermines America 2d (2021) (with contributions by Armstrong, Davis, & Grillo); Race and Races: Cases and Resources for a Diverse America 3d (with Delgado, Harris, Perea, & Stefancic) (2015); Social Justice: Professionals Communities and Law (with Mahoney & Calmore) (2013); Women and the Law Stories (with Schneider) (2011). She is a member of the Writers Grotto. She is a grandmother, mother, spouse, friend, good listener, and she is able to sit “criss-cross apple sauce” thanks to her yoga practice.
Where to buy the book:
The book is available for order anywhere books are sold. Here are some links for purchasing online:
A brave hero doesn’t always mean a big hero in Nicolò Carozzi’s beautifully worded and illustrated picture book Brave as a Mouse, his debut picture book in the US.
Through simple text and stunning art, Carozzi draws our attention to Mouse’s new friendship with the homeowner’s fish. Mouse asks the fish, “Would you like to play?” and with a simple “YES!” both creatures enjoy each other’s company, swimming together. Mouse blows through a straw, and the fish enjoys jacuzzi-style bubbles.
However, the fun stops when other housepets want to “play.” Three ominous shadows cast on the wall next to the fish’s bowl are plain but powerful images foretelling of the dangers ahead.
As the homeowner’s beloved fat cats encircle the fishbowl, Mouse has a “wild … bold … [and] brave idea” to entice the three to follow him, all the way to the pantry where they gorge themselves on cat food.
While the felines sleep off their big meal, Mouse uses the time to fulfill an even wilder, bolder, and braver idea that includes the help of other mice living in the house. Straight lines, calm, muted colors, and minimalist illustrations keep us focused on the rescue plan. Children and adult readers will enjoy the action-packed adventure as Mouse risks his own safety to protect his new friend. A more subtle, though important theme is the infectious nature of Mouse’s bravery and kindness.
For those interested in quieter books on themes of friendship and compassion as well as those who like a good old fashion story when the good guys win, this picture book will delight again and again.
A Junior Library Guild Gold Standard Selection ★Starred Reviews – BookPage, The Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books, The Horn Book, Kirkus Reviews, Publishers Weekly, School Library Journal, Shelf Awareness
Andrea Wang and Jason Chin’snew picture book, Watercress, tells a story with that one word alone. This vegetable embodies a family’s experiences from the great famine years until today in the US. Wang’s spare, lyrical text shows us the range of emotions felt by the girl whose parents excitedly stop to pick watercress from the side of the road, much to the girl’s chagrin. Her feelings brew throughout the story until painful memories shared bring about an understanding.
Fans of Jason Chin’s gorgeous watercolor images will not be disappointed. The family’s many dimensions come alive on the page, reflecting today’s struggles and those long ago.
This book is relatable to people from immigrant families as myself, or any kid who’s been embarrassed by some things their family does—and who hasn’t?! Watercress is top-notch for its ability to convey a world of information and a wide range of moods.
The text and illustrations are flawless. There’s even a secret book cover image once the paper cover is removed. The accolades for Watercress are merited. It is definitely one of my top 2021 picks.
Itty-Bitty-Kitty-Corn, written by Shannon Hale and illustrated by LeUyen Pham, begins on the front endpapers with Kitty who is gazing admiringly at a picture of a unicorn. But how, she wonders, can she make herself into one?
She gets an idea and takes out her crafts box, removing paper, paint, and glue. She makes herself a colorful horn out of paper and ties it to her head with a piece from her purple ball of string. Now, the text takes off with Kitty looking in the mirror and seeing a unicorn in the reflection. “She feels so perfectly unicorn-y.” But much to her dismay, Parakeet and Gecko tell her she’s not a unicorn, just a cat, bursting Kitty’s bubble of happiness as a unicorn. This scenario repeats itself with Kitty becoming more and more dejected. It is not until she meets Unicorn who shows Kitty that she herself is actually a Kitty-Corn just like her, that Kitty is able to be who she really is and sees Unicorn for who she is too.
At forty-eight pages, this length exceeds today’s standard for a fiction picture book title and allows for a more relaxed reading experience with the young listener. Each page has very few words and lots of white space which allows the expressive illustrations to shine through. The most ardent of non-cat lovers will melt at the sight of Kitty.
Everyone, both children and adults alike, has an idea of how we perceive ourselves and how we want to be perceived by others. This is our reality when we look in the mirror each day and when we venture out into the world. Itty-Bity-Kitty-Corn’s positive message of instilling in children the notion that they can be anything they want to be, no matter the naysayers they may come across is very self-affirming. We should all have the confidence that Kitty finds in her friendship with Unicorn to be our true selves and see others in their true light as well.
Karen Yin’s debut picture book is truly original, packed with rollicking rhyme, and an important story presented in bold vibrant art from Nelleke Verhoeff. In other words, it’s got all the things a young reader would want in a read-aloud! And then some (100 some to be exact!)
From my first glimpse of the cover, with its beautiful, shiny raised letters along with lots of yellow—which always pulls me in—I was hooked by the look of Whole Whale. Then I dove in and was not disappointed. In fact, I was overjoyed that Yin chose to write this story about tolerance, inclusion, and making room at the table for everyone. We can never have too many picture books out there modeling for kids the benefits of working together to make those who may feel left out, how to be welcomed in. The best part is there is nothing didactic about the presentation. The humor and art provide the way into the story and the suspense keeps young readers engaged and turning the pages.
The premise is a surprisingly simple one starting with the title page depicting a hint of water rising from an as yet unseen whale’s spout. Then comes an almost completely white opening spread with only a sheep, a cat and a spider telling readers what to expect. “An empty page? It’s time to play!/The animals are on their way.” This is followed in the next spread with “One hundred might fit in this tale,” then the especially catchy refrain, “But can we fit a whole blue whale?” Here young readers will spy a different tail (or fluke).
Little by little a bevy of brightly colored beasts fill up the pages of this larger—12×12—formatted book. Kids can spot some animals showing concern on their faces, others enjoying the company. The group, whimsically illustrated by Verhoeff, continues to grow and grow with the refrain repeated for kids to shout out loud. But with so many crowding in to make room for the whale, will chaos or bullying ensue? “So, if they all can get along/One hundred might fit in this throng.”
Kids’ll adore the interaction Verhoeff has depicted amongst the animals as they attempt to make space for Whale. Yin has played with language wonderfully throughout and introduces fun words like throng and unveil as well as a few collective nouns for animals. A big reward is in store for staying the course, a double gatefold four feet long at the end.
While I don’t recommend this book for bedtime, I absolutely recommend it for ALL other times of the day! In fact, I encourage any adult reading it with a child to suggest they bellow out the refrain as they wait in giddy anticipation. Back matter lists the 100 animals in the book, a search-and-count challenge children are certain to accept. I hope you enjoy the WHOLE book as much as I did!
The dill-ightful title of this new picture book, Sloth & Squirrel in a Pickle by Cathy Ballou Mealey with adorable art by Kelly Collier, will immediately grab you even if it doesn’t immediately grab sloth whose slow motion throughout the story is one of the recurring elements that make it hysterical to read-aloud. I’m talking Lucy and Ethel hysterical. You may not see my smile as I’m writing this, but trust me it’s here now and was for every page as I was eager to see how things played out for the pair of pickle-packing pals.
This humorous friendship tale begins with Squirrel deciding he’d like to get a bike to go FAST!, but after seeing the price tag at the bike shop, realizes it’s too costly. Sloth points out that the pickle company next door is seeking pickle packers. If they work hard, together the two should be able to earn enough to afford the bike.
In their interview, the friends meet Mr. Peacock who Collier has imagined with bushy eyebrows, a stern face, and office accessories all in a pickle green palette. Perfect! This character cracked me up. I could even hear his voice as he preps his new employees to start working. It doesn’t take long for Squirrel and Pickle to discover that the packing process is slippery hence much breakage. By noon they haven’t packed more than six jars. More comical chaos ensues when, given a second chance, Sloth unknowingly makes a major LOL mess of labeling and the new hires are fired.
With the money earned from the six successfully packed pickle jars, and lots of free, unsellable jars of pickles now in their possession, the friends are nowhere closer to buying the bike. That is until a melting ice pop incident—it simply cannot be eaten fast enough by a sloth—leads to the invention of a cool new, no-brain-freeze alternative to ice pops. Suddenly the money comes pouring in and the pals purchase the bike. Sadly, Sloth’s lethargy makes going fast on the bike as Squirrel had previously envisioned a non-starter. Sloth, however, has a better idea that even at his pace will bring them up to speed.
Between Cathy’s witty plot, prose, and characters and Collier’s creative illustrations that must be carefully studied for all the added touches readers might not see at first, Sloth & Squirrel in a Pickle beautifully addresses the “What if” question many authors ask themselves when developing a story: What if a slow animal and a fast animal became friends? In this case, the friendship endures despite the differences and it flourishes as the pals persevere in their pursuit of a bike. This well-crafted and extremely funny picture book is a great way to discuss cause and effect and determination. It also shows kids that money doesn’t grow on trees even if Sloth hangs out in one. Money has to be earned and then the joy of having bought something with the fruit (or pickle) of one’s labor tastes especially sweet or in this funny case maybe salty too!
Let’s give a round of applause to moms everywhere on Mother’s Day with this great selection of Mother’s Day books that perhaps express what children cannot. The pandemic has been a challenge and moms, you stepped up to the plate, or should I say multiple plates, and made things work. Sometimes it wasn’t easy. You wondered if your hard work was appreciated or how long you’d be able to keep the smile on your face. Sometimes you didn’t smile and that’s okay. There were a lot of gray days but you never forgot what it means to be a mother, a grandmother, or caregiver. And those you love are taking this day to remember you and let you know how much they care. Thank you and Happy Mother’s Day!
The precious board book, a love letter to mommies, is a companion to Leo Loves Daddy, and a wonderful way to share the joy of reading together with mother and child. With diverse characters and warm tones in 18 delightful pages, Ruth Hearson illustrates the tender relationship Leo and Mommy share. Anna McQuinn’s gentle rhymes take the reader through the daily activities, “At yoga class, Mommy lifts Leo with ease. Riding home through the park, Mommy speeds like the breeze.” McQuinn’s Lola Reads series includes Lola Reads to Leo, Lola Gets a Cat, and Lola Loves Stories, all illustrated by Hearson. This is a great Mother’s Day read highlighting the special bond kids share with their moms. • Reviewed by Ronda Einbinder
Part of the An Every Day Together Book collection, I Love Mommy Every Day is a sweet book celebrating moms. “Mommy feels like home, a comforting presence wherever I am,” says a blonde-haired child with large purple glasses as she snuggles in bed, while Mommy is reading by her side. Alicia Mas brings the reader in with her eye-pleasing art of various mommies with their children. Her blues, oranges, pinks, and reds surround Otter’s descriptions of all the different kinds of mommies. Turning to the last page, the reader comes across a list that reads, “What do you love best about your mommy?” Numbered from one to three, these questions offer the opportunity for parents to talk to their kids, or have them write (or dictate) on a separate paper, about what makes their mommy so special and lovable. They provide a fun activity for teachers to give students to create an unexpected yet personalized Mother’s Day gift. • Reviewed by Ronda Einbinder
This picture book put a smile on my face as I read through each page trying to decide if I was Zen Mom or Organized Mom, while also wondering which one my adult children would choose. Aura Lewis’ colorful illustrations of trendy moms, outdoorsy moms, and working moms depict, page-by-page, all kinds of moms. Which one are you? The book opens with “What is a Mom?” then explains that moms are not just biological, they are stepmoms, adoptive, foster moms, and even moms-to-be. My favorite pages were under the heading Moms around the World, showing the reader that in Finland, Aiti, gives birth and then is given a box of essentials from the government, and babies can even sleep inside the box; and in India the new mom, Maan, often goes back to her own mom to help her adapt to parenthood. This playful book also conveys genuine gratitude, concluding with, “Thank you to your mom, their mom, and all the moms yet to come.” This is a great read throughout the year.• Reviewed by Ronda Einbinder
New York Times’ best-selling author Susanna Leonard Hill’s new picture book, Dear Grandma, recognizes all the ways grandmothers are awesome. Written as a letter that begins, “Dear Grandma, Do you know you’re the best?” Each scene shows funny and loving ways: “You’re a jungle gym climber, jump rope rhymer, / storyteller, secret hideout dweller . . .” Grandmas soothe the bad days and nightmares away. They’re also with you through the seasons, whether living close by or staying in contact across the miles.
John Joseph echoes the text’s positive vibes in his colorful illustrations capturing children of the world interacting with their grams. The two-page wordless spread where a toy dragon comes to life is my favorite piece of art; it’s quite funny.
A perfect gift book to show grandma how much you appreciate everything she does. • Reviewed by Christine Van Zandt
Most of the time my family eats simply, but, sometimes, I want to make something special. Two yeast recipes I need to fine-tune are English muffins and focaccia so I was happy (and surprised) to find Claire Saffitz’s versions in her Dessert Person cookbook. Don’t fear, there are loads of delicious desserts including cakes, pies, tarts, bars, and cookies along with a category called Fancy Desserts featuring croquembouche and so forth. Check the Recipe Matrix, which plots out recipes on a grid by difficulty level and total time—an at-a-glance time-saver. Read the thorough instructions before beginning to ensure you have the ingredients, time, and equipment.
Because kumquats were in season, I made Ricotta Cake with Kumquat Marmalade. The cake was a hit with a flavor reminiscent of German cheesecake. Its kumquat marmalade topping elevated this dish from comfort food to showstopper. I’ll make the cake again, swapping in a different seasonal topping.
Another recipe my family really enjoyed was Clam and Fennel Pizza with Gremolata, which begins with the Soft and Pillowy Flatbread recipe. (Store-bought pizza dough can be swapped out, but freshly made flatbread is a treat.) After the flatbreads are parbaked, top with the previously cooked clam, garlic, fennel, olive oil, and crushed red pepper flakes mixture. Bake again, then finish off with a gremolata of flat-leaf parsley, fennel fronds, garlic, lemon zest, and kosher salt. There won’t be leftovers, guaranteed!
Beyond making these amazing creations, the photos are eye candy for us cookbook geeks. The gorgeous Black Sesame Paris-Brest is an image I’m drawn to. This bicycle wheel-shaped French pastry recipe replaces the traditional pastry cream for one made with black tahini. Other pastry cream options include chocolate or coconut variations.
I’ll keep looking at the beautiful pictures as I work my way through the recipes. From relatively simple Miso Buttermilk Biscuits to the two-months-to-make Fruitcake, there are dozens of delectable choices. This is a cookbook I will seek out—as the subtitle promises—to receive “guidance for baking with confidence.” What a wonderful treat for Mother’s Day. • Reviewed by Christine Van Zandt
Jet the Cat, the picture book debut from Phaea Crede with another debut for illustrations by Terry Runyan, is a story all the kids and adults will have fun reading. I can almost hear their giggles. It all started when Phaea got inspired by her mom’s cat Eddie. Eddie, unlike other cats, loved to take baths.
“I tried to imagine what other cats might think if they caught Eddie happily splashing around. I figured another cat (named Tom in the story) would look down on Jet, maybe even tell her she wasn’t a real cat if she liked water.”
Tom represents people who think they should tell people what they can or can’t do. Phaea dealt with many Toms in her life. Imagine that one girl even told her that her “name couldn’t really start with a P if it sounded like an F!”
But even though her inspiration was Eddie, when she started drafting Jet’s manuscript, she realized this story was also about something else: her dyslexia. Phaea loved writing stories, but her disability made her give up writing creatively.
“ I decided at age eight that real writers didn’t have dyslexia. Thirty-one years later, I have officially proven myself wrong!”
After revising Jet the Cat (Is Not a Cat) a solid fourteen times (shout out to her critique group Friends with Words), she submitted her story to Lisa Rosinski, senior editor of Barefoot Books. And Barefoot Books and Lisa Rosinski were perfect matches to such a conscious and fun book.
Jet the Cat is a book filled with colorful spreads and repetition. After cat Tom tells Jet she is not a real cat because she loves water, Jet goes on a journey to figure out which animal she can be. But of course, Jet can’t be any of these animals. She can’t be a frog because she sings too loud. She can’t be a bird because she can’t fly. And poor Jet can’t figure out who she is until …
I do not want to spoil the end, so make sure to get a copy of Jet the Cat (Is Not a Cat) to discover the fantastic ending and to read it to your children to make them laugh and think: Are we all the same or does each one of us have a little bit of Jet, the Cat? I LOVE IT!!!
Good Reads With Ronna is delighted to appear on day three (see schedule below) of the Perdu Blog Tour! I hope you’ll take the time to not only read the book review, but to also watch all the fantastic videos that Peachtree Publishing has shared with us.
Richard Jones makes his welcome debut as both author and illustrator with this tale of a lost (perdu in French) dog seeking a forever family. And may I just add here that Perduis precious! Both the main character and the story itself. With his sweet face gracing the book’s cover, it’s easy to be captivated by his faraway, lonely look.
While we never learn where Perdu has come from because he certainly didn’t tie the neck scarf himself, it’s easy to let that mystery go in favor of the bigger mystery at the heart of this moving story—will he ever find a loving home?
Readers first glimpse Perdu on the title page, head down, red scarf around his neck, and walking through a field. As he carries on his journey, he notes that, unlike a nearby fallen leaf, he has no place to be. Poor Perdu!
He wanders over a bridge on the outskirts of town where he’s noticed by a little girl sporting a distinct red knit pom-pomed hat. Determined to find his “somewhere,” like everyone else, the sweet lost little dog continues his search and wanders into the big, anonymous city.
At the same time as Perdu, intimidated by the city size and its throngs of people, the little girl continues her day out with her mother. I love how, at this point in the book, Jones has zoomed in on the girl whose path keeps crossing that of Perdu’s. She is perhaps outside a library or other notable building with a massive lion statue (a nod to The Snow Lion) while Perdu stands at the top of the statue. I wonder if parents or kids will spy him first.
My favorite illustration is the one when the child spots Perdu sitting outside an expansive cafe window where she and her mom are dining. He’s hungry now and tired and cannot resist the temptation of an open door. Inside he wreaks havoc and is reprimanded by patrons. It’s a demoralizing experience for Perdu yet at the same time things probably cannot get much worse.
In a lovely park scene, where both the girl and Perdu have ended up following the restaurant ruckus, the child approaches the dog. She’s holding Perdu’s signature red neck scarf which he lost when he dashed away during the cafe commotion.
Not a lot of words are needed when the simple act of giving back the scarf to the lost dog speaks volumes about the girl’s empathy and Perdu’s trust. It’s a gentle, loving moment that bonds the pair and fills readers’ hearts with hope.
Jones has given young readers a feel-good story about friendship, trust, kindness, and belonging highlighted by the beautiful, inviting art that solidifies the tale. Jones achieves this warm look with paintings he then edits in Adobe Photoshop. I came away from the story feeling happy for both Perdu and the red-hatted girl knowing that they had both truly found each other for all the right reasons.
Julius and Macy like to play heroes. Julius pretends he’s the defender of the forest, while Macy has a quieter strength. When their snack disappears one night, they decide to track down the only one who could have taken it―the Night Goblin. They both have to be brave in their own ways, and they ultimately discover that the real thief isn’t anything like they imagined.
With its endearing characters, this gently told tale reminds us that we each have courage within us and that kindness can make all the difference.
INTERVIEW WITH ANNELOUISE MAHONEY
GoodReadsWithRonna: Congratulations on your author-illustrator debut, Annelouise! Does it feel surreal right now after all your hard work to hold Julius and Macy: A Very Brave Night in your hands? How long has it been since you first began this creative journey in general and specifically for this picture book?
Annelouise Mahoney:Hi Ronna. Thank you so much for having me over today. Yes! Surreal is the perfect word for how it feels. Surreal and grateful! It’s been a long journey into picture books. It took about 10 years of serious focus to break into children’s books and of those 10 years, it took 5 years for the making of Julius and Macy.
GRWR: I adore bravery stories since I was not the bravest of kids, nor were my children. Tell us how you decided on this topic for your picture book.
AM: I adore bravery stories too! I didn’t set out with a definite topic for this book at the beginning. It was more finding the characters that resonated with me and asking questions as I drew them over and over again. So the characters came first. The more I drew Julius and Macy the clearer their story became.
GRWR: Burning question. Are you more Julius or more Macy?
AM: That’s a fun question! Honestly, I think I’m a little bit of both. I love to go after something I’m passionate about but feel bravest with someone by my side. I feel the younger me is more adventurous like Julius, but the older me is more cautious like Macy.
GRWR: Please walk us through your approach to writing and illustrating. Did you conceive the text first and then illustrate it, vice versa, or did everything happen simultaneously?
AM: I’ve learned to stick to the illustrations first. Not full illustrations, but loose sketches of ideas, and build from there. I gather all the loose sketches into a folder and begin placing them into a small thumbnail template. The template is an 8×11 piece of paper where I can see the story in one place. When I can see the story, and feel the visual narrative is working, then it’s time to add the words. This part of the process takes a long time for me. It’s a lot of experimenting to get the words right. If I start with the text too soon, I usually end up straying from my story.
GRWR:Can we talk about your gorgeous artwork and how you create it?
AM: In the beginning when I’m moving away from the very loose thumbnail sketch and planning out the compositions for each spread, I use Post-it notes to redraw certain elements, or add to what I already have. This part of the process takes a long time for me. It’s figuring out compositions and looking for how to express a feeling. I’m also looking for areas that may be repetitive and looking for the most interesting way to show the story. There is a lot of experimenting happening at this stage. The Post-it notes help me to not get attached to any single idea as I can just take it off or move it around without having to redraw the whole spread.
When I think what’s happening on the page is working, I scan the sketches into the computer and make the images bigger in photoshop. I’m looking for more specific information I can give to each spread, making sure the compositions work within the trim size and add the text to make sure everything reads well in the space.
This dummy stage will then repeat as I go through revisions with my agent and then my editor until the story is fleshed out and polished.
Once the story is polished, I begin all over again with small thumbnails but this time I’m focusing only on color. For Julius and Macy: A Very Brave Night, I made a color guide to help me navigate the color choice for each spread before going into final art. I found this part extremely helpful because I was painting in watercolor and I had to know how I was going to approach each painting.
I then repeated the process of scanning in the tiny thumbnails in Photoshop and making them much bigger to fit into the book template. I was interested to see where I need to focus on adding details and how the images read in the true size of the book. It’s checking and double-checking that the text will fit and I’m getting the color transitions right. Once the loose wash looks right and I can see where I’m going, I took large sheets of Arches 140lb cold press watercolor paper and cut them down a little larger than print size.
I painted each page in watercolor, with lots and lots of wash layers. I would work on a few spreads at a time so there was time for the paint to dry, and time to look away from a work in progress. There is an uncomfortable moment in each illustration where it looks ugly and messy and doesn’t feel like it will work before it does. When the painting was dry and complete, I scanned each painting into the computer and used photoshop and my Wacom tablet to set each painting into the picture book template provided by my publisher, Two Lions.
GRWR: Now that you have one book under your belt, are you busy with promoting it, or are you also making time for more artistic pursuits?
AM: Promotion does take a lot of time, and I’m enjoying this moment very much. But yes, I’m working on two other book dummies at the moment and I’m hoping to get them submission-ready soon.
GRWR: Do you have a routine you like to stick to when working on a project?
AM: I really need to be flexible as a working mom and often bring my book dummies, Post-it notes and pencils with me wherever I go. As far as a routine, I definitely wake up early each day before the demands of my family take over, and I work at night when there is another wave of calm. Those precious hours are protected for when I really need to concentrate.
GRWR: Is there a spread in Julius and Macy that really resonates with the child in you and the mother in you?
AM:Oh wow, what a beautiful question. The spread of the book with panels of Julius and Macy walking into and through the dark cave resonates with me as a mother. When my daughters were very young they would slip into pretend play very easily. They craved adventure and enjoyed little scary moments where they were challenged to be brave. The Los Angeles zoo has a man-made cave meant for little ones to explore. We’d visit it often and my girls would become more and more brave to venture through it, their imaginations on fire as they explored every corner.
As an author, I find writing a children’s book a bit like walking in the dark. There are times when I don’t know where I’m going, I can’t see the story, I can easily spook myself, but there is the need to keep going even if the unknown feels scary. As a child, I craved adventure stories and had a very active imagination. I think I’d be excited to walk into a cave, as long as I had a friend beside me and it wasn’t completely dark.
GRWR: What would you love for children to take away from reading your book?
AM: I would love children to explore what bravery means to them and see the many ways they’ve been brave in their own life. I’d like children to know that there is a unique form of bravery to reach out to someone, especially when you notice someone struggling to belong, as well as the bravery and trust to reach back.
GRWR: Has anyone in particular been influential in your kidlit career?
AM:I had a brave moment myself, and enrolled in a class taught by Marla Frazee at Art Center College of Design. She lit the way for me when I was really struggling to understand the craft of writing for children. She taught in a way I could understand by breaking things down to get to the heart of the story, finding the emotion in the art, trusting what your sketches are trying to tell you. Most importantly, when writing as an illustrator, stick to the sketching first. I’m still learning and growing, but those lessons influence how I write and how I create a book.
GRWR: What important lesson or invaluable piece of advice have you learned along the way in your children’s publishing experience that you’d like to share today?
AM: I believe that if you want to write for children, be passionate about it. Really put in the time and love to learn the craft. Be passionate about what you are working on. Publishing takes time and you want the love for your story to carry you through the rejections, revisions, and care that will ultimately polish your book better than you could ever do alone.
GRWR: What can we expect next?
AM: I hope to make many more books! That’s really all I want to do. Whether I have the honor of working with another author to create a book together or have the opportunity to publish more of my own stories. It’s the greatest privilege to make books for kids.
GRWR: Is there anything I haven’t asked that you’d like to mention?
AM: I’d like to mention to your readers that I have activity pages that correspond to my book available for download on my website. www.WoodlandAbbey.com
Also, I’m a member of a wonderful group of children’s book authors, The Picture Book Scribblers. We are all available for school visits paired by theme or individually. You can find us here https://picturebookscribbl.wixsite.com/home
Thank you so much, Ronna. It’s been an absolute pleasure to chat with you today!
GRWR: What a wonderfully frank and informative interview. Thank you, Annelouise, and best of luck with Julius and Macy: A Very Brave Night. e e
Annelouise Mahoney has worked in animation for DreamWorks, DIC Animation, Sony, and Saban Entertainment. She has also worked as a coloristfor Marvel and Image Comics on such series as Uncanny X-Men, Generation X, and others. This is her first picture book, and it was inspired by the depths of her daughters’ friendships and the many ways they are brave, especially with someone on their side. She loves to explore the forest, can’t resist a cave, and has a lot of love for all those named Julius in her life. Annelouise lives in Southern California with her family. Learn more about her atwww.woodlandabbey.com. e Order your copy ofJulius and Macy: A Very Brave Night: Mahoney today.
1. Enter our Twitter giveaway @goodreadsronna for a chance to win a signed copy of Julius and Macy: A Very Brave Night together with aspecial Giveaway Prize Package from Annelouise that includes an 8×11 print of cover, a sticker sheet, and a round sticker. Eligible for U.S. only. One winner will be selected at random and announced at 6 pm PDT on Friday, April 9.
WIN! WIN! WIN! WIN!
2. Additionally, five lucky winners will each receive three fabulous books celebrating the art of making and keeping friends, including Julius and Macy: A Very Brave Night, courtesy of Two Lions. Details and entry form can be found here (US addresses).
Click here to read another recent author-illustrator interview.
In The Elephant in the Room, when middle-schooler, Sila Tekin’s mother is stuck in Turkey trying to get her immigration paperwork in order, the loneliness is almost unbearable for her and her father, Alp. Sila’s newly withdrawn demeanor prompts her school to pair her with autistic classmate Mateo Lopez in a special program that has the kids spending time together at the end of each school day. The point is to help both kids socialize more and, after a slow, silent start, they eventually begin getting to know each other.
Life changes dramatically for Sila and Mateo when Alp is hired to fix an old truck owned by widower, Gio, who lives on a non-working farm on the outskirts of town. Sila and Gio seem to form an immediate bond, even before they discover that Gio’s late wife was Sila’s beloved second-grade teacher. When an odd string of coincidences leads to Gio rescuing a young elephant named Veda from a failing circus, Sila and Mateo wind up with the most awesome summer job ever—caring for Veda. Sila connects to the young pachyderm on a deep level, realizing that, like her, Veda must really miss her mother. A reunion of either mother-daughter pair feels out of reach, but with a team of caring friends—maybe it’s not.
Author Holly Goldberg Sloan has another deeply heartfelt hit on her hands. Again employing the multi-POV device she uses so brilliantly, she lets readers see and feel the unfolding of these extraordinary events through various characters’ eyes. Veda’s POV is used sparingly but impactfully, and even the supporting animal characters—a flock of undisciplined flamingos, a ravenous bear, and a loyal dog—whose POVs we’re not privy to, are well-drawn, quirky, and fun.
Both kids are battling quiet storms within, which makes them interesting and empathetic. Gio is wonderfully complex. His desire to rediscover meaning in life, coupled with voluminous lottery winnings, propel him to take on caring for Veda, somehow feeling it’s something he has to do. His connection with Sila seems similarly fated, and their special bond serves as the glue for all of the characters. A story of hope, longing, love, and action, The Elephant in the Room will show middle-grade readers that things—people, animals, situations—are not always what they seem and that they’re not always as powerless over circumstances as they sometimes feel.
If I enjoy saying this book’s title, kids will definitely delight in repeating Don’t Call Me Fuzzybutt! They’ll be eager to read the entire book because, sticks and stones aside, what child hasn’t had a run-in with name-calling? And when you’ve got the talented team of Robin Newman and Susan Batori taking on the topic, it promises to be entertaining while making an important point.
Neither Bear nor Woodpecker means to hurl names at one another or hurt each other’s feelings, but sometimes it happens from pent-up frustration. This time it happens when Bear is settling down to hibernate for winter. Because he’s a very light sleeper, Bear makes preparations to assure he is not disturbed. Unfortunately, the tree he has cut down to make a solid door for his den was the location of Woodpecker’s homes.
Woodpecker asks Rabbit, Mouse, and Squirrel if they’ve witnessed the chopping incident. No luck. Fortunately, his own detective skills lead him to discover that Bear is the culprit so he begins to peck, peck away at Bear’s door. Angered by the commotion, Bear asks the three other animals “Who’s the pesky FEATHERBUTT making that noise?” When Woodpecker gets wind of the name-calling, he confronts Bear. While he doesn’t deny it, Bear is more concerned about getting his shut-eye and leaves for his den, further exacerbating the situation.
Soon after, Woodpecker wakes up Bear to tell him how upset he feels at being called a name in front of everyone. Tension builds beautifully both in Newman’s prose and Batori’s art. Bear is annoyed at having his sleep interrupted and Woodpecker is mad at his houses being destroyed. Now it’s Bear’s turn to get called a name and you can just guess what that is, right? FUZZYBUTT! Once again the meddlesome forest friends have inserted themselves into the drama by blabbing about the big scene they witnessed. Bear, bothered big time, stomps off to bed seething before tears start falling.
Now it’s Woodpecker’s turn to make amends and he does so by apologizing to Bear. With newfound respect for one another, the pair concoct a housing plan that is sure to make them both happy, but from a distance! Plus Bear can hibernate knowing that in 243 1/2 days he’ll have a new friend to hang out with.
Batori’s digital artwork, mimicking “colored pencils and watercolor,” makes an already appealing story irresistible. Her characters are charming, her color palette is rich and woodsy and her composition pulls us in immediately. The art, together with Newman’s humorous and skilled writing, offers a totally relatable read-aloud for parents, caregivers, teachers, and librarians that will spark meaningful conversation about conflict resolution, gossip, and the hurt caused by name-calling. I’m happy Bear and Woodpecker worked things out and kids will be, too! Just be prepared to hear FUZZYBUTT a lot more frequently in your home after reading this fabulously funny picture book.
Much loved and accepted by his more colorful friends, Mo is the one who, in time, begins to feel different. He finds no pleasure playing hide-and-seek and he doesn’t have dazzling plumes like his pals.
With their encouragement, he often shrugs off his self-doubt. That is until a sign announcing The Annual Dance in The Rain event, the biggest day in the jungle, reinforces Mo’s feeling of being different. He can’t have his blues brightened at the Color Salon, or find a reason to shop at the Bird Boutique like all the others. To him his bird feathers are boring.
When he feels down, Mo’s friends continue to build him up with caring words like “Colors don’t make the bird!”, “You’re still a peacock!” and “Go, Mo, Go!” Does it help? Temporarily. Mo knows he lacks those bright, bold, beautiful feathers of his peacock peers. But when a dark storm on the night of dance makes it impossible for anyone to see, and the peacocks are tripping over each other’s trains and in a general fowl mood, Mo, watching the action from a distance, realizes he actually does possess something special. His bright and brilliant glowing white feathers light up the darkness and the dance. The night’s festivities are illuminated, and fantastic, even for Mo!
Now that everyone can see, Mo, at last, sees something too—that what he had all along that made him different is what makes him unique and wonderful. Singh’s story about the power of friends and a supportive community is delightful and will lift readers’ spirits as they watch Mo’s spirits rise and shine. I love how Singh introduces us to a character so beloved by his friends who at first is unable to see his own self-worth while everyone else can.
Adding to the inspiring quality of Singh’s tale are Fizer Coleman’s lush illustrations in jewel tones created digitally with traditionally painted gouache and watercolor textures. Together they offer readers not only a charming and visually appealing read, but a helpful one in regards to social and emotional development as well. It’s great for parents, teachers, and librarians to have such a positive picture book celebrating diversity and differences for this age group. The book concludes with interesting back matter about peacocks—the national bird of India and features “a fact sheet on these beautiful creatures, their environment, their behaviors, and more!” Did you know that a group of peacocks is called a party? Well, party on now with Mo and company in Birds of a Feather.