Written and illustrated by Kataneh Vahdani, Kat and Juju is a gentle story of friendship, identity, and the courage to be your own self.
Kat is a tender-hearted little girl who finds “wonder in places no one else” thinks to look.
Vahdani’s illustrations direct our eyes to a curious play of shadows that fascinates Kat and helps us understand her unique perspective. Her connection to such things others don’t understand causes her to stand out as different. And her shy personality gets in the way of talking to the other children. Consequently, she often feels lonely.
Her hope lies in her upcoming birthday gift—a “very best friend” to call her own. On her special day, a big, red, fluffy bird named Juju arrives at her doorstep. Kat soon finds out that as loveable as he is, Juju is nothing like her. His loud and outgoing personality easily draws the attraction and affection of the other kids. As much as Kat wants to “let go” and join Juju’s “happy dance,” she can’t surrender the fear of what others will think of her.
Then a chance discovery of a vulnerable “birdie” (chick) in need of care helps Kat face her fear. With help and encouragement from best friend Juju, Kat nurtures the chick to health. Sometimes these caregiving activities feel safe and familiar to Kat, like feeding and giving medicine. However, at other times, they involve risk-taking and getting outside of her comfort zone, especially as Kat and Juju try to help the birdie learn to fly. Anxious and terrified, Kat nevertheless participates. Vahdani’s background in animation, and contrasting color palette provide a safe space for experimentation and exploration. Through this exciting and challenging process, Kat helps out her little friend and, just as important, discovers the freedom to be herself.
For little ones (including me) who may feel different for being on the quieter side, Kat and Juju shows that perseverance can lead to a “happy dance” of inner strength and self-affirmation.
★Starred Reviews – Kirkus Reviews, School Library Journal
Whale sang a song of happiness and hope, day after day, night after night for his ocean friends. But even with the roaring waves above him, Whale thought how quiet and lonely the sea could be in award-winning and best-selling author and illustrator Anna Pignataro’s lyrical picture book The Heart of A Whale.
Gorgeous watercolor illustrations of blues and greens take the reader through the ocean floor as Whale sings “a cheerful symphony for a sad urchin,” and “an orchestra for a ballet of ocean flowers.” Yet as he buoys spirits, bringing magic and wonder to the other sea creatures, Whale wonders why he has no song to fill his empty heart.
Whale sings while swimming through “the seagrass taller than the forest and through the wild and tangled undergrowth.” But even with all the sea creatures and sounds around him he feels “how quiet the sea could be at times.” Pignataro illustrates Whale curled up in a fetal position with only the blue ocean by his side. The reader feels the sadness Whale is holding deep inside, even if on the outside he is surrounded by millions of sea creatures. But as he lies alone he lets out a sigh.
“His sigh drifted away like a wish,” and Pignataro’s illustrations change to a sea of big fish and small fish in varied shapes and sizes gathering together for Whale. The sigh passes “over dreaming turtles and forgotten treasures and reaches other whales in the sea “all the way to the whale with the empty heart.” Pignataro touches the reader further by illustrating the pink heart alone in the whale.
The tender wordless spread of Whale meeting another whale while smiling at each other brings optimism. Following an eager page turn, the next page spread reveals the two whales together singing about “happiness and hope, magic and wonder” and the reader knows Whale’s heart is full.
This sweet book of friendship and kindness is a great read for both parents and teachers. It introduces young kids to the importance of empathy, and how we should remember that even if someone looks happy on the outside they may feel lonely on the inside. Children can never hear the message enough of how we must all look out for each other. Pignataro’s poetic language and lush illustrations invite discussion between adults and children on the importance of listening, and understanding the emotions of others, a social emotional lesson one is never too young to learn. This book belongs on every preschool and kindergarten classroom bookshelf, and would be helpful in some higher grade classrooms as well.
Two wonderful new books with a Hanukkah theme are reviewed below. However, though both books are Hanukkah-themed, these particular choices convey more about family and togetherness, an important part of the holiday, than about the Hanukkah story itself.
I loved the feeling Hanukkah Hamster gave me as I was reading. Edgar, the cab driver, finds a hamster in his cab and, being a bit lonely living away from family in Tel Aviv, reluctantly brings him home. Gently but hesitantly he incorporates the animal into his Hanukkah celebrations. As Edgar dreads having the real owner claim the hamster, and sharing pictures of his “lost” hamster on his cell phone, it becomes clear that the little rodent, now called Chickpea, has become a big part of Edgar’s family. To my delight, a surprise, big-hearted resolution saves the day. I could easily see this story being read aloud to an elementary school library audience where kids might not know about lighting candles on a menorah, but certainly can relate to a lost pet! Ceolin’s artwork adds just the right mix of warmth and light to this terrific tale! Buy the book here: Hanukkah Hamster
All-of-a-Kind Family HANUKKAH, which is based on the classic books by Sydney Taylor, and written by Emily Jenkins and illustrated by Caldecott Award-winning artist Paul O. Zelinsky, is a gorgeously illustrated longer picture book set in the turn of the century. With a glossary of terms and various notes from author and illustrator, you could easily use this book to cook up some delectable potato latkes!
Being from a large family with three sisters (and the lone brother), I can relate to this new story by Jenkins. The youngest girl, Gertie who is four-years-old, has older siblings and is always wanting to do whatever the older sisters are doing—even when it’s clear she is too young. As the day progresses and the special latkes are being prepared (“… potatoes peeled, and potatoes grated, onions chopped …”) Gertie just demands to be included in the kitchen, but her tantrum sends her to her room until Father kindly finds a way for Gertie to take part in the festivities. Jenkins’ rhythmic text makes you almost drool over the wonderful smells invoked from the baking the family is doing. Zelinsky’s illustrations capture the era completely and fill them with emotion, exuberance and tenderness. This is a classic story of family with warmth, joy and love all cooked in those delicious latkes! See the author page here for her NY tour dates.
• Reviewed by Maureen Palacios, Owner Once Upon a Time Bookstore
NOTE: Good Reads With Ronna makes no commission or profit from the sale of any book in this post. Our goal is to encourage the love of reading great books while supporting local independent bookstores.
Here are last year’s recommended reads for Hanukkah.
THE CARE AND FEEDING OF A PET BLACK HOLE Written and illustrated by Michelle Cuevas (Dial BYR; $16.99, Ages 8-12)
“The story began on an afternoon the color of comets, with a girl dressed all in black. A sad girl. A girl with a hole in her heart, and darkness on the horizon.” The year is 1977 and eleven-year-old Stella Rodriguez, the protagonist in The Care and Feeding of a Pet Black Holeby Michelle Cuevas,loves science. She’s fascinated by the upcoming Voyager launch and visits NASA to give Carl Sagan a recording to take to space—one of Stella and her (deceased) father, laughing and telling jokes. The Voyager will carry all the “wonderful sounds of Earth” but Stella’s younger brother, Cosmo, asks “Are there sad sounds too?”
Stella’s turned away at NASA, but a black hole who seems to want to be her pet follows her home. She names him Larry, short for Singularity, a place of infinite gravity at the heart of a black hole. Using puppy training books, Stella learns to care for and train her black hole. When, like all unruly pets, Larry consumes inappropriate things, Stella realizes he could serve as a repository for items she wants out of her life along with their corresponding memories. Maybe nothingness is better than the pain of remembering.
Cuevas’s illustrations intersperse her text, adding visual interest. When Stella enters the black hole, the pages turn black. The interstellar adventure inside Larry is riotous fun involving the kids, their puppy, the smelly classroom hamster, an assortment of discarded things, and the family’s bathtub. The Care and Feeding of a Pet Black Hole is an entertaining and lighthearted story surrounding the gravity of Stella’s aching grief.
Eventually, Stella realizes even if she has a hole in her center “that’s okay, because it’s full of such beautiful, beautiful things.” In the clever appendix, “A Beginners Guide to the Care and Feeding of Black Holes,” Stella Rodriguez graciously summarizes all she has learned.
I know, I know, there are SO many Sandra Boynton books that beg to be read aloud including Moo, Baa, La La La!, The Going to Bed Book, Barnyard Dance!and Blue Hat, Green Hat, in fact I still can recite many of them after first reading them over 20 years ago. But Hippos Go Berserk!has a special place in my heart because both my children adored it and would not let me donate it when they grew too old for picture books. My copy is from 1996 although the book was first published in 1977.
When I think about what makes a story great to read aloud, I think about readability. Is the story easy for a parent, teacher, caregiver or child to read or do words slow them down? Can people take turns reading or pretending to be the characters? Are the pictures depicting some readily understood interpretation of the text? Does the book make you feel good when reading it? Is there fun repetition or engaging language? Can kids anticipate what comes next? Anyone looking at me reading Hippos Go Berserk!, even as an adult, will see a huge grin appear on my face after turning from page one to page two.
“One hippo, all alone, (page one) calls two hippos (page two) on the phone.” (page three)
So simple you may think, but the artwork Boynton’s created speaks volumes. First there’s a sad, lonely hippo on page one who decides to make a phone call to two friends. The mood of the story changes with just a flip of the page! Things are looking up. The bonus is that it’s also a counting story which will hook kids who are eager to see where Boynton is taking the tale. Her hippos’ eyes and posture convey such a range of emotion that youngsters will want to linger on every page to make their assessment of everyone the hippo has invited and NOT invited over. The illustration of five hippos that arrive overdressed cracks me up every time I see it. Will they be invited in to join the other guests? Are they too posh for the crowd or will they fit right in? Help kids count how many hippos have come over, and they’ll be amazed how quickly the initial two friends who were called have now multiplied. Soon word is getting out that a cool party is underway and a big reason why eight hippos sneak in the back. Seeing them tiptoe softly, with one trying not to giggle too loudly, is part of Boynton’s brilliance. Until at last …
ALL THE HIPPOS GO BERSERK!
The letters are deliberately in all caps, and the bold type invites readers to use an outside voice. The scene is wild. The joint is jumping and hippos everywhere are having a blast, except maybe the ones hired to serve the hors d’oeuvres. With so much zaniness going on, Hippos Go Berserk! will be read over and over again, each time with some new discovery being made in the party spread. Soon kids will know the story by heart, helped by the rollicking rhyme and whimsical artwork. The all-night party must come to an end and before you know it even “The last two hippos go their way.” Somehow though, readers aren’t disappointed because there’s hope that the lone hippo, sitting by the phone just like when the book began, will inevitably pick up the receiver and make another call.
I don’t know if, all those years ago when I first read Hippos Go Berserk!to my children, I knew that Boynton wrote this delightful story when she was a student at the Yale School of Drama, but now I completely understand why her hippos are so darn dramatic not to mention adorable!
THE WONDERLING Written and illustrated by Mira Bartók (Candlewick Press; $21.99, Ages 10-14)
Read Our Author Q & A Today & Attend a Book Signing on Friday, 11/10 in West Hollywood Scroll down to find out more!
The Wonderling, written and illustrated by Mira Bartók and soon to be a major motion picture, garnered a great amount of attention, and deservedly so, even before the book deal was done. Reminiscent of classic literary odysseys and the best of contemporary fantasy, with a sprinkling of steampunk, The Wonderling opens in a thrillingly dreadful orphanage for young groundlings – part creature, part human. In this Home for Wayward and Misbegotten Children, all pleasures, especially music, are forbidden. But the hero of the story, a young one-eared fox-like groundling yearns for friendship and love. All he has is a half memory of a special song that will lead him to his destiny. After staging a daring escape with the help of a small mechanical bird, Trinket, the Wonderling sets off on a glorious adventure through forests and wild country, to the shiny city of Lumentown, ruled over by the High Hats, where he will discover the mysterious Songcatcher and unlock the secrets of his past.
Written in stunning prose and decorated with Mira’s exquisite illustrations, The Wonderling is a hugely enjoyable and original fantasy filled with vivid and eccentric characters and a plot that twists and turns. You will find echoes of King Arthur, of Dickens, of Kenneth Grahame; you will find brave mice in armor, and giant crows that terrorize the skies; you will find innocence, humor, hope, and ultimately triumph.
GOOD READS WITH RONNA INTERVIEWS MIRA BARTÓK:
GRWR: Can you please speak to the world building you so brilliantly created for The Wonderling – did you have certain places and buildings in mind when you wrote the novel and drew the map?
BARTÓK: The settings I created for the book came from various places—books, images online, dreams, my imagination, and travel. I probably gleaned the best ideas from looking at Gustav Doré’s images of 19th century London and Henry Mayhew’s 19th century descriptions of London’s poor. Peter Ackroyd’s Biography of London was also essential, as was actually walking about in that wonderful city. I also spent many hours looking at maps from classic children’s books and in library archives. The feeling of Gloomintown, the City Below the City, came from a combination of re-reading Dickens’s Hard Times, looking at old engravings of London’s sewer system, and studying Doré’s illustrations of Dante’s Inferno. A crazy mix!
GRWR: I’m thrilled there’s going to be a second book because I cared about your characters, well the good ones anyway! Who did you have the most fun imagining and why?
BARTÓK: I definitely had the most fun writing about Quintus, my Fagin/Artful Dodger Rat groundling! Mostly because he’s funny, he loves to make up songs (therefore, I get to make up his lyrics), and he’s complicated. He’s a thief, a rogue, and an opportunist, but he’s also a really good guy.
GRWR: In addition to sharing a strong sense of hope and tolerance, your story also touches upon the power of dreams. Do dreams influence your writing?
BARTÓK: I can’t even begin to tell you how much! Sometimes entire scenes are mapped out in my dreams. I have very epic dreams populated with many different kinds of creatures. If only I could sleep all the time and have some machine transmit my dreams directly into books, I’d probably finish my books sooner!
GRWR: The Wonderling gives a voice to the marginalized. I especially liked when Arthur, who was marginalized himself as a groundling, befriended Peevil, the mouse and Trinket, the bird. Was that one for all and all for one teamsmanship one of your intentions?
BARTÓK: Not really. I knew Arthur would make one good friend, but I had no idea he would make so many. I realized half way through writing the book that part of his journey is learning that he has friends who have cared about him all along.
GRWR: Wire, Miss Carbunkle, Sneezeweed, Mardox the manticore and even His Excellency the powerful White Hat, were so vivid and nasty, yet so unique in character. How difficult was it to create the villains?
BARTÓK: Easy as pie! I lOVE creating villains! But Miss Carbunkle was harder to write about since she has more of a backstory. She is and will continue to be the most complex villain, therefore she is the most interesting and difficult to write about. She will transform a little in Book Two, and her character will deepen in surprising ways. The Man with the White Gloves and Wire are really sociopaths and will continue to be nasty little fellows in Book Two. And I will, I am sure, have a ball writing about them!
GRWR: What is it about the Victorian era that interests you?
BARTÓK: I think that era appeals to me because I see such a parallel between the Industrial Revolution and all the problems we are going through today. And in London, things were exceedingly hard for children, women, immigrants, and the poor. When I read about the nightmarish working conditions for children in the coal pits during that time, and how horrible living conditions were for poor immigrants living in Spitalfields, it’s hard not to think of the sweat shops of today, or the global refugee crisis, and the rise in homelessness. The Victorian Era was also a time of great and wondrous technological inventions, just like today. And like today, people often didn’t think of the ramifications of the technology they created, for better or for worse.
GRWR: Quintus, your Fagin of sorts, is an intriguing individual. What can a character like him bring to the story for young readers who may not be familiar with any Dickens?
BARTÓK: I think he can bring a sense that some characters who do bad or illegal things aren’t always bad through and through. Sometimes there’s a good reason for their misconduct. And there’s also room for them to change and grow.
AUTHOR BIO: Mira Bartók is a writer and artist whose New York Times best-selling memoir, The Memory Palace: A Memoir, won the National Book Critics Circle Award for Autobiography. The Wonderling is her first novel for young readers. She lives in Western Massachusetts.
MEET MIRA BARTÓK THIS FRIDAY IN WEST HOLLYWOOD!
Mira Bartók discusses and signs The Wonderling at Book Soup on November 10th
Event date: Friday, November 10, 2017 – 7:00 p.m. Event address: Book Soup 8818 Sunset Boulevard West Hollywood, CA 90069
Below is an abbreviated schedule of upcoming appearances. Find a full listing of Bartók’s events on her website. · Monday, November 13 in Portland, OR: Public book reading and signing at 7 p.m. at Powell’s Books at Cedar Hills Crossing, 3415 SW Cedar Hills Blvd., Beaverton, OR 97005 · Saturday, December 2 in New Salem, MA: New Salem Town Library reading and signing event from 2-4 p.m. at Swift River School, 149 West St., New Salem, MA 01355 · Wednesday, December 13 in Northhampton, MA: Local author series event from 7-8:45 p.m. at Forbes Library, 20 West Street, Northampton MA 01060
LA LA LA: A STORY OF HOPE Written by Kate DiCamillo Illustrated by Jaime Kim (Candlewick Press; $17.99, Ages 4-8)
★Starred Review – Publishers Weekly
“Everyone can sing,” we are generally told. Then, at some point children may get pegged down as tone deaf or some variation of “you sound bad when you sing.” But what does that mean? Isn’t singing really about the joy escaping a child’s chest when they let out their own individual sound?Don’t we all know how to breathe? Don’t we all have the right to sing? La La Laby Kate DiCamillo and illustrated by Jaime Kim made me ponder that.
Kim’s gorgeous illustrations, imbued with so much meaning and emotion in this virtually wordless picture book, show the intense feelings a child has when their song is left undiscovered. Alone.
We all know what it’s like to feel alone, and arguably children even more so as they struggle daily to find a friend … that one friend who will answer their song back with their own unique spin.
I read this story on a day that I deeply needed it. And I will share it with any child who innately understands that we are meant to connect. And if we can connect …. we can truly sing.
One of the most heartbreaking moments in the story is when the little girl is alone and clearly in grief. How often do we forget that children grieve a loss of connection in life? The loss of a special toy. The loss of being a baby. The loss of a parental figure when going to school.
Share this story with them. Give them reassurance that connection is always there … we just have to keep singing our way to it.
La La La is uplifting, a gift of hope for anyone who has let their voice ring out, even when there isn’t a response back. It’s about the courage it takes to continue singing, even in our darkest moments. And right now, we need all the songs of the heart. We need connection more than ever, and this book is a lovely reminder of that.
In less than 80 words, Tough Guys (Have Feelings Too)manages to convey the important message to children that everyone (except perhaps robots) experiences a wide range of emotions despite any appearances to the contrary. Negley, a well-known illustrator, opens with a wrestler in a locker room feeling nervous while young readers see his opponent waiting in the ring. Then an astronaut is floating in space clutching a photo of his family far, far away. “You might not think it, but tough guys have feelings too.”
Ninja best friends can have a disagreement and feel sad or misunderstood. Superheroes, despite being on top of the world, can feel lonely, cowboys can get embarrassed, pirates searching for treasure can feel frustrated, strong, gallant knights don’t always succeed “No matter how strong.” These and other examples of “tough guys” we may think never experience a “down” moment are all depicted showing their honest feelings. My favorite illustration, and perhaps one of the most powerful, has to be the big burly biker shedding tears over the squirrel in the road he likely has hit accidentally. The message, that it’s okay to get upset, may not be unique, but the way it’s conveyed to children is. The colorful artwork, coupled with the brief yet befitting narrative, allows parents to open a dialogue about feelings and emotions and the need to be authentic.
Don’t miss pointing out to children the endpapers in the front of the book showing the young boy, who is ultimately seen reading together with his dad at the story’s end, pretending to be all the characters depicted in Tough Guys (Have Feelings Too), and the endpapers in the back of the book showing the same boy doing all that pretend play alongside his dad. Sharing this picture book with preschoolers is a wonderful way to reinforce the point that there is absolutely nothing wrong with having feelings, and that when they do indeed have a feeling of anger, fear, or embarrassment, they’re not alone.
In Elwood Bigfoot: Wanted Birdie Friends!all Elwood Bigfoot wants is a friend – preferably a feathered, flittery bird friend! But his earnestly clumsy bigfoot-y manner gets in his way time after time. How can a lonely, large, LOUD Bigfoot get close to his avian amigos-to-be?
Elwood tries the direct approach first, chasing after swooping birds and hollering for the birdies to come back. Alas, they only fly away. His next idea is to live in a tree, where he can be closer to the birds. His dedicated handiwork produces a lovely, log cabin style tree house perched against the mountainside. Surely his new neighbors, the birds, will welcome him.
Alas, the birds seem shy. So Elwood tries to disguise himself, dressing like a bird from head to toe with feathers, beak and feet. Experiencing a modicum of success, Elwood thinks he’s finally about to break the barriers to feathered friendship. He shouts for joy! Alas (once again!) the birdies fly away.
Esbaum’s charming, lyrical text is delightful to read aloud and incorporates intriguing, playful vocabulary. She perfectly captures Elwood’s sense of loneliness in ways that a child can easily connect to, and she conveys his upbeat, hopeful and innovative spirit in appealing ways. While readers see that making friends is not always easy, learning to take the perspective of others is an essential part of the process.
Wragg’s illustrations turn Elwood into a marvelous, huggable furball. With a jaunty fedora and sarfari-style binoculars, Elwood is well-equipped for his bird-watching exploits. A single triangular fang and four-fingered, three toed shagginess add to Elwood’s monstrous appeal. Wragg also turns out an impressive flock of feathered friends throughout the pages, and displays them prominently on the book’s endpages. Whimsical and colorful, the birds’ tiny round eyes and pointy beaks reveal an impressive range of tender and comical emotions.
Elwood Bigfoot : Wanted Birdie Friends! is a sweet tale of patience, persistence and friendship. Young readers may look hard at the birds in the yards and trees around them, wondering if they are among Elwood’s best buddies. Don’t miss this encouraging story about dreams that do come true.