As their food supply dwindles and Mom pours the last cup of milk to make her special “fancy milk” drink, Molly learns they’ll be visiting a food pantry the next day. “What’s a food pantry?” Molly asks. “It’s a place for people who need food,” Mom answers. “Everybody needs help sometimes.”
In gentle ways, O’Neill and Magro illustrate the characters’ hesitance and anxieties while they wait in line for the pantry to open. Molly sees her classmate, Caitlin, standing in line with her grandmother. To Molly’s surprise, Caitlin expresses feelings of shame for being there. Walking back to her mom, Molly feels confused. Is “there something wrong with needing help?” Once inside, even Mom “look[s] like she want[s] to be invisible.” But Molly reminds her, “Everybody needs help sometimes.” Later, Molly points out to Caitlin ways they themselves helped “cheer up” the grown-ups in the pantry.
Open, honest conversations between Caitlin’s grandmother and Mom about finding and keeping employment allow for a safe space to share. Muted illustrations using straight, geometric lines provide a sense of structure, order, and calm. With minimal background in the settings, Magro allows readers to focus on each individual character, driving home the point: everyone is important, everyone needs help, and most of all, we need each other. A note in the back matter for adults and caregivers about food insecurity by Kate Maehr, Executive Director and CEO of the Greater Chicago Food Depository, provides additional details on child hunger and resources to help.
Whether in the classroom or family room, readers young and old can benefit from this positive, heartfelt message of hope.
In this tale set in the ancient Inka (sometimes spelled Inca) empire, Little Chaski has a big job: he is the Inka King’s newest royal messenger. On his first day delivering messages he stops to help several creatures in need along the way, causing him to nearly miss his sunset deadline. But the kindness he bestowed on these animals winds up helping him in surprising ways. Descriptive language and bold illustrations give readers insight into Little Chaski’s nervousness and excitement as he runs the Inka Trail, working earnestly to fulfill the responsibilities of his new role.
Colleen Paeff:Hello, Mariana! There is so much I want to talk to you about, but let’s start with your most recent book. Run, Little Chaski: An Inka Trail Adventure, which I had the pleasure of seeing when it was just a manuscript! Congratulations on the two starred reviews and the Junior Library Guild Gold Standard selection! Can you explain to our readers what a chaski is?
Mariana Llanos:Hi Colleen! I’m excited to be talking about it with you! You’ve seen this story from its first drafts. The word chaski means messenger in Quechua. Chaskis were a relay system of messengers used during the Inka Empire. They delivered official messages through the vast territory of the Tawantinsuyu. When the Spanish invaded, they were so impressed by the organization of this system, they even kept it running for some more years.
CP: Did you first hear about chaskis as a child growing up in Perú, or did you learn about them later in life?
ML:I learned about chaskis in Perú. They’re an important part of Peruvian history and culture so I learned about their system in school. The word chaski is also used as a name for different tourism-based businesses so I was familiar, although I did research more in-depth when writing this book. I read several non-fiction books to make sure I was getting everything right. I discovered there was a lot more to learn about the Inka, since the studies of their culture keep on advancing and more theories develop. Writing a book rooted in your own culture is a huge responsibility to bear on one’s shoulders. I really wanted to get it right.
CP:You manage to pack so much information into the backmatter of this book. You talk about the Inka empire, animals of the Andes, chaskis, and more–and it’s all told in a way that the youngest readers will understand. Did you know from the start the book would have an informational aspect to it or did that develop over time?
ML: It evolved. In the beginning I had an author’s note with some information about the Inka and the Chaskis, but then my editor, Kate DePalma, thought it would be best to break down the information. I really like it now because it’s easier to see and process, especially for young readers. The team at Barefoot Books took what I had already written in the author’s note and added more sections. Later, I went over it and made corrections, and added additional information.
CP: In 2017 you received an Oklahoma Human Rights Awards from the Oklahoma Universal Human Rights Alliance, and the United Nations Association Oklahoma City Chapter. That must have been such an honor. How does writing for children help you to address human rights?
ML: It was an honor that I take very seriously. I feel like writing for children allows me to plant a seed of peace. It allows me to offer a mirror and a window. All children have a right to live in peace and they should have the right to see themselves reflected in books. Books allow kids to imagine a world that is inclusive for all, they allow them to dream of a fair and just society. Through books we can also tackle big important issues like climate change, sustainability, so that’s the direction I’m heading with my stories. Writing for children is a tremendous responsibility.
CP:Your book Luca’s Bridge/El Puente de Lucatackles immigration and deportation—very tough topics—but it’s also about resilience and family. What was the process of writing that book like? How did you find a way to add hope to such a difficult story?
ML:There was a lot of crying involved. It’s such a tough topic, but it was a story I wanted to tell. In the story, Luca’s parents are deported as they’re undocumented, while he is an American citizen but has to travel to Mexico with his parents. It is reversed from the immigration stories we usually hear, but I knew from the news that there are thousands of children in this situation. I know I couldn’t give this story a traditional satisfying ending, but I knew I had to at least weave some hope into it. As an immigrant myself I know how terrifying the thought of being deported is, but I also tried to put myself in Luca’s shoes. To me, as long as I have laughter, music, and family I’d know that eventually, I would be okay. It was important to offer my readers an opportunity to empathize with a person in this situation. We often hear a lot of judgment against people who are undocumented, but what would YOU think if you were part of a mixed-status family, like so many in the United States?
CP:You did such a wonderful job of putting the reader in Luca’s shoes. And the illustrations by Anna López Real add such a beautiful, dreamy quality to the story. What did you think when you first saw them?
ML:Colleen, there was even more crying! They are so evocative and powerful. Anna is such a talented person and couldn’t be happier to have shared Luca with her. It was a similar feeling when I saw Run Little Chaski’s illustrations. I had no idea they could make the story so much fun. I am in constant awe of the talent of the illustrators I’ve been paired with.
CP: In addition to writing (and raising a family and working!), you do a lot of school visits. How do you fit it all in!? Do you have any favorite productivity hacks you can share with us?
ML: I schedule everything in my phone calendar. If I don’t immediately add it to the calendar, then forget it, it won’t happen. It took me a long time to learn to organize myself, but I think I have managed to learn to block my time. My mornings are for my writing and school visits. Afternoons for other work and kids. Family always comes first though, so I don’t feel bad if I have to cancel anything when my family needs me.
CP:In addition to being a traditionally published author, you have also self-published some books. What’s the biggest bonus to each of the different types of publishing?
ML: I have really enjoyed my journey in self-publishing. The biggest bonus is that I tell the stories I want to tell however I want to tell them. Self-publishing allows me to be creative without having to stick to industry standards for format, word count, long waits, even language. On the other hand, it is very hard to get noticed and for picture books, it gets expensive—I’m not an illustrator. But self-publishing is a great way to get our stories out, and I would consider it again to publish in Spanish as traditional publishing still doesn’t publish many authentic books in Spanish written by Spanish-speaking authors from the U.S. Most of what’s published in Spanish in the U.S, are translations, which is fine (there are very good translations of great books), but I think it’s a big bonus when the author writes in their own native language too.
CP: This past year, you started teaching writing classes in Spanish. Can you tell us a little about your classes?
ML:Yes, I began giving workshops about publishing. My goal is to reach Spanish-speaking people who want to begin publishing their stories. Most are bilingual, but like me, feel more comfortable speaking in their language, so this class is directed to them. One of my classes is an overview of the publishing industry. How to go from writing to publishing and the different paths to publish our stories. The class that I’m putting together now is called “El abc de los cuentos” and it will be about craft.
CP: That sounds terrific! In addition to teaching and school visits, what’s next for you?
ML: Currently, my awesome agent, Sera Rivers, is submitting my manuscripts. We have two chapter book series out on sub and a couple of PBs. Hopefully, I’ll get good news in the next few weeks. Everything in publishing moves slowly, but I keep myself from biting my nails by writing more and more stories.
CP:That’s an excellent strategy. I use it myself! Thanks for chatting Mariana. And good luck with your submissions!
ML: Thank you so much for having me, Colleen. My fingers and toes are crossed for my manuscripts and yours too. Thanks, everyone, for reading.
Mariana Llanos is a Peruvian-born writer of children’s books and poetry. She was raised in Lima, Peru, and moved to the United States in 2002. In 2013 she self-published her first book, Tristan Wolf. Nine books later, Mariana debuted as a traditionally published author in 2019 with Luca’s Bridge/El Puente de Luca (Penny Candy Books, illustrated by Anna Lopez Real). This book was selected as a 2020 ASLC Notable Book. Her next book Eunice and Kate (2020, Penny Candy Books, illustrated by Elena Napoli) won the Paterson prize Books for Young People 2021. Her latest book Run Little Chaski(2021, Barefoot Books, illustrated by Mariana Ruiz Johnson) is a JLG Gold Standard Selection and received starred reviews from Kirkus and SLJ.
In The Perfect Plan, author/illustratorLeah Gilbert takes the reader along on a magical journey with Maya, the main character who hopes to build a special place for dreaming and playing in the forest. Through perseverance and teamwork, she builds a fort grander than anything she could have imagined in Gilbert’s enchanting second picture book.
Transporting readers through spreads of tall brown trees and tiny yellow birds, Gilbert’s art encompasses all the beauty of an inviting forest. Tiny Maya gazes upward toward the sky envisioning a tree fort with a ladder to climb and windows to see out of. “’It will be the most INCREDIBLE and WONDERFUL tree fort in the world!’ she imagined.”
Maya is a determined child, and quite the planner, and returns to her bedroom with her black cat by her side to research and design the perfect tree fort. “When she was sure she had thought of everything, she headed outside.”
With her perfect page turns, Gilbert returns the reader to the colorful green forest and the most perfect spot to build a fort. Gilbert depicts Maya pulling and pushing and thinking, but having trouble building a fort alone. Maya realizes that sometimes in life we need help and asking for help is okay. She begins by selling the idea of a fort to three little brown beavers. “I’m building the most OUTSTANDING and ORIGINAL tree fort in the world! Will you help me?” and of course they eagerly agree.
Gilbert’s beautifully expressed words convey that not everyone is good at every job. This is an awesome reminder for both parents and kids! We see that beavers are great at cutting and chopping branches, but not so good at dragging heavy items. Gilbert introduces the kind moose and tells him that she is building “the STRONGEST and STURDIEST tree fort in the world!” Two big brown bears happily agreed to build and stack the frame, and the yellow birds with their natural ability to fly high “twisted and twirled, weaved and wound. Now all the branches were secured.”
When Maya and the animals scanned the finished fort, Maya began to think something was missing only to be interrupted by a big storm. Maya ran for cover looking back at the fort, while worried that it would be ruined. But upon returning to the spot “Maya couldn’t believe her eyes. ‘It’s Perfect.’” Gilbert paints delightful purple flowers that have bloomed from the rain and the fort is now “far more than she had even imagined it would be.”
Gilbert celebrates creativity and shows children the importance of perseverance and teamwork. Kids see that magical things can happen when putting their heart and soul into something. The words can be re-read with new meanings found in the message each time, while the soft colorful art inspires kids to get out a paintbrush and create their own hideaway.
If you’re looking for an empowering new take on fairy tale princesses, look no further than Tracy Marchini’spicture book Princesses Can Fix It!This homage to The Twelve Dancing Princesses shows readers that princesses (and princes) can do whatever they set their minds to, no matter what anyone else thinks.
At the start of the book, we learn that there is a problem in the King’s castle. The alligators from the moat have escaped and are now running about inside! The three princesses, Margaret, Harriet, and Lila, have an idea how to help. Unfortunately, the King wants them to only focus on proper princess activities rather than their passion for inventing and building. Throughout the book, the girls secretly work on their creation to fix the problem and prove their father wrong.
Julia Christians’colorful and dynamic illustrations bring the characters to life and give the book a whimsical flair on every page. This, combined with the book’s poetic structure and use of repetition also gives the book excellent read-aloud potential.
Most of all, what I love about Princesses Can Fix it!is how it manages to be both silly and meaningful at the same time. This charming picture book is about three clever and committed young girls building a contraption to solve their alligator infestation. At the same time, it’s also about how they stand up for themselves and persevere, something that should motivate little girls and boys eager to pursue their passions in the face of societal expectations.
Guest Review by Mary Finnegan
Click any of the below links to purchase the book:
In Kirsten Hall’s fun 16-page interactive board book, The Kids on the Bus: A Spin-the-Wheel Book of Emotions, we meet a variety of animals with different emotions. Set to the tune of the familiar song, lines include, “The bear on the bus laughs, ‘Hee, hee, hee, . . . all ’round the town.’” This novelty book is shaped like a school bus.
Melissa Crowton’s lively and inclusive illustrations are set within a soothing sky-blue background. My favorite character is the backpack-wearing, skateboard-riding blackbird. The expressive animals have fun causing a ruckus until the driver has to shush them.
While you can read the book or sing along, be sure to utilize the important social-emotional learning (SEL) elements. The sturdy spinning wheel allows kids to identify their feelings by choosing moods such as silly, angry, or shy.
Part of a 23-book series featuring the same cute baby, Leslie Patricelli’s latest board book, Mad, Mad, MAD, lets off a little steam. As is true in life, sometimes we’re happy, sometimes we’re sad, and sometimes we’re screaming, roaring mad. The contradictory feelings are shown through the art with clearly communicated expressions, and short, rhyming text: “No, I won’t go! / I don’t want to stay.” Dad’s face on this page perfectly captures his confusion—relatable to most parents as they try to understand what their young children need.
When Baby realizes they want to stop feeling this way, trying things such as taking a walk or doing deep breaths eventually helps. The back matter lists additional ideas that may alleviate angry feelings such listening to music, reading, or taking a bubble bath. This book’s social-emotional learning (SEL) guidance can gently help our children more effectively manage their emotions.
Susie Jaramillo’s recent board book in the Canticos series, Feelings: Bilingual Firsts, tackles emotions by showing the word for a mood in English with its Spanish translation on the left-hand side: brave / valiente. Lift the flap on the right-hand side to see vibrant art depicting that mood along with questions such as “Can you show me a surprised face?’ or “How does feeling shy look?” These questions are also provided in Spanish.
The colorful art includes a child, an array of animals, several chicks, and a star. I really liked the angry elephant calf. Cute illustrations coupled with simple text make this an easy way to introduce another language at home. Not only will this book help kids identify their own moods, but another important aspect of social-emotional learning (SEL) is the ability to recognize other people’s needs and feelings.
This lift-the-flap board book, Peek-a-Mood, by Giuliano Ferri presents animals whose faces are hidden behind their hands. Questions such as, “How do you think I feel?” and “Why am I hiding?” pique a child’s curiosity. Behind the hands, you’ll find that the first monkey’s frown provides a clue that it is upset, while the second monkey’s downturned open mouth goes on to reveal it is scared.
An array of artfully depicted mammals draws the reader in. The darling monkey that asks if you can make a silly face too, is adorable! This interactive book concludes with “Show me how you feel!’ Behind the human’s hands is an unbreakable mirror—how fun is that?!
Exploring and identifying emotions is a key part of child development and social-emotional learning (SEL). Peek-a-Mood makes it fun to try figuring out nonverbal emotional cues.
Welcome to Day Four of The Wall and the Wild Blog Tour!
Scroll up or down for the full tour graphic.
The Wall and the Wild, the debut picture book from Christina Dendy with vibrant art by Katie Rewse is in its own lovely way, a call of the wild. Lured in by the cover illustration, I was beckoned on by the gratifying marriage of language and illustrations.
As the story opens, readers see a treetop view of a young girl, Ana, creating a garden. However, she’s overly picky about what she selects. There can be no flaws in what seeds she plants and her face shows when she is dissatisfied. “YOU, stay out THERE” Ana warns the disorderly WILD which, like nature, is really all around her. What doesn’t appear perfect she “throws into the untidy WILD.” With the WILD presented early on by Dendy as a character, my curiosity was piqued.
Intent on keeping her plot pristine, Ana constructs a stone wall, and soon her garden bursts with color and an abundance of beautiful flowers, fruits, and vegetables. Not only do friends come by to admire Ana’s garden, but so do creatures big and small. This feast for the eyes might please others, but Ana seems to only focus on the negative. I love how the author has added another important layer for children in this story about how limiting perfectionism can be. Ana finds and plucks plant intruders from the WILD whose presence mars the overall neat appearance. These weeds weren’t something Ana could tolerate. So, once again, along with more imperfect seeds, she tosses them all away.
Now Ana is more determined than ever. She adds onto her stone wall to prevent the WILD from coming in. Yet, rather than thrive in these conditions, Ana’s perfectly tidy garden seems to wither. The illustrations convey a quality of dullness. When visitors dwindle along with the plants’ health, Ana begins to question her intentions. Perhaps she was too controlling? Maybe it’s time to see what’s out in the WILD where all her discards have gone. “On the other side, voices babble, footsteps patter, and sunlight beams.” There’s a lightness to the prose and a hint at what’s to come.
To her surprise, a world of remarkable beauty awaits Ana beyond her wall. Here I grew excited to see Ana grow along with the WILD garden that’s flourished in spite of her efforts to thwart it. Seeing her realize that, as Dendy mentions in her back matter on ecosystems, “Seeds don’t need to look the same or ‘perfect’ to grow into perfectly beautiful, healthy plants,” is a rewarding moment in the story.
This lovely message of caring for all and how there’s room for everyone at the table or in the garden is as rich as the soil that Ana first tended. Something I missed on the first reading, but noted later on and truly appreciated as someone coming from a family with hearing loss is that Rewse has included the main character wearing hearing aids in her art. I can easily see this charming picture book included in classrooms’ STEM curriculums and as a great way to encourage outdoor, nature-based learning.
Good Reads With Ronna is thrilled to be the third stop on the Good Night, Oppy!Blog Tour. I didn’t hesitate to join in when I heard thatJames McGowan’sdebut picture book was about the Mars rover, Opportunity. I live less than a mile or so from NASA’s JPL (Jet Propulsion Lab) where the rovers are created, maintained, and communicated with so I was eager to learn more about Oppy. She was first launched in 2003 when I still lived abroad and was raising children, with little time to think about planetary exploration.
In McGowan’s story, he’s anthropomorphized the rover and introduced us to Oppy, one of two rovers on the Red Planet in 2004 searching for signs of past life. He blends the fictionalized narrative of hard-working and fun-loving Oppy, a solar-and-battery-powered robot roaming Mars and reporting back to her handlers on Earth, with fascinating scientific facts on most spreads. Plus, the onomatopoeia of the sound effect “Ping! Ping!” before a command from Earth adds an extra atmospheric touch that kids will enjoy repeating.
Readers learn that Oppy, as an Interplanetary Detective, remained in daily contact with “Teams of scientists and engineers …” who command and operate spacecraft using the Deep Space Network (a system of huge antennae throughout the solar system). I always wondered how that worked! In fact, my friend’s husband was one of those JPL experts who, among other key responsibilities, received Oppy’s real-life signals on Earth. Equipped with cameras and other equipment for info transmission, Oppy’s job was to photograph and navigate Mars, report back and explore, explore and explore. In fact, over her lifetime she trekked twenty-eight miles providing invaluable information about the Red Planet for scientists and engineers.
Having successfully dodged many potential disasters, things changed for Oppy in June of 2018 when she went to recharge her battery. She needed a place where the sun could reach her solar panels unobstructed, but a powerful dust storm approached. Getting a message to Earth was impossible as layer upon layer of dust covered her panels. Oppy’s power was running low. With the sun obscured, she’d be unable to recharge. She managed to outrace the worst of the storm and transmit one last time to Earth before losing power forever.
What a game changer the rovers have been! Some of Oppy’s finds have been groundbreaking including her discovery of the mineral hematite on the surface of Mars meaning that at one time there had been groundwater. Another time Oppy got stuck in a sand dune and the process of getting her out required clever commandeering (see art above). That unfortunate experience also helped future rovers and technicians know what areas to avoid! Oppy was productive and persevered well beyond what the teams had ever expected. McGowan’s Author’s Note explains that both Opportunity and her sister rover, Spirit, were designed for ninety-day missions yet Spirit worked for six years while Oppy “worked for almost fifteen years!”
Carter’s expansive illustrations in an array of red tones depict the vastness and dryness of Mars. Spreads are never stagnant and present an expressive Oppy on the go, investigating, soaking up the sun, and receiving commands from Earth that dictate which activities to pursue. I like how several times we’re transported to JPL command central for a different perspective of Oppy’s daily life. And, as the massive storm that ultimately ended Oppy’s career bore down on Mars, I felt sad when Oppy fell silent. By humanizing the rover, McGowan’s made Oppy’s contributions feel that much more important than they already are. Presenting Oppy’s story in this way makes it more compelling to younger readers and those more reluctant to pick up a STEM book. I learned so much and children will too. Such a great way to make kids care about our universe. Thank you and good night, Oppy! If you want to read more about Good Night, Oppy!, check out the other bloggers on the tour listed below.
Meet Burt, he’s a ten-lined June (or watermelon) beetle. Burt has feathered antennae, a large body, a sticky abdomen, and can flail his legs when he falls on his back (but needs assistance flipping over). He notices that other insects have special or “super” abilities. A bumblebee is a “super hard worker” and ants can carry heavy loads. So what makes Burt special? Well, he’s trying to figure this out. As Burt meets more insects and learns about their amazing features, he wonders what his “super” ability is. Would winking count? How about hanging out around porch lights? Trying to imitate other insects’ super abilities doesn’t work either and Burt continually ends up on his back.
When Burt discovers a spider web with insects trapped in it, he’s amazed to find that their super abilities cannot free them from the web. As the venomous spider taunts Burt, he realizes he does have some super abilities. Burt’s a hugger and he happens to be sticky, too. Furthermore, he’s big and heavy enough to tear up the spider’s web when he falls on it, saving the other insects–and landing on his back once again. This time he has very grateful friends to help him flip over!
Cheerful and upbeat humor shines in this book. Commenting on his feathery antennae, Burt notes “it’s a style choice.” Gentle quips are exchanged between characters. When the spider, firmly stuck to Burt’s abdomen, asks “is this ever going to end?” Burt replies “I guess you’re stuck with me. Get it?” Exaggerated bodies and expressive faces, especially “bug” eyes, add to the enjoyment.
Spires has created a graphic novel designed for younger readers, especially those new to the graphic novel format. The panels are clean and well organized, without a lot of distractions. The number of characters and speech bubbles in a panel are kept to a minimum and the print is bold and slightly larger than usual. This book is appropriate for independent readers or as a read-aloud for emerging readers.
The book includes some themes which could be used to invite children to discuss character and friendship. Burt’s search for what makes him unique is something children also explore for themselves. Perseverance is a challenge for children, but Burt’s positive “can do” type of behavior in the face of repeated failures may encourage them to keep trying. He takes care of his friends and “doesn’t bite because that’s not how you make friends.”
Lastly, this graphic novel engages children in the natural world around them, weaving in factual information about insects and including “awesome insect super facts” in the back matter. Hopefully, it will inspire children to continue exploring the world of insects and their “super” abilities.
Back-to school this year is not only the start of a new school year, for many it’s also a return to in-person learning in over a year. For others, it’s really the first time ever to attend daycare, preschool, or elementary school. This selection of ten assorted books highlights all the things that returning to school means for kids.
Cindy Jin’s upbeat 12-page school-shaped board book, Meet Your School!: An All About Me Book, features a variety of animals making their way through a school day. A nice overview is given of what kids can expect, from the main classrooms to the art room, gym, cafeteria, library, and music room. The rhyming couplets reinforce what can be found in each area: “The library is filled with books of all kinds / to teach and inspire bright, young minds.”
The illustrations by Melissa Crowton depict cute, colorful animals interacting happily in various situations. Each page has fun lift-the-flaps for further exploration. Overall, this book has a lot to discover while also providing a positive message as to what school is all about. – Review by Christine Van Zandt
My eyes were instantly attracted to the colorful book cover illustration of an apple being shared on the school playground with a new friend, while classmates throw balls and glide down the slide, introducing readers to acts of kindness in How To Be Kind in Kindergarten: A Book for Your Backpack.
A book for your backpack is a perfect subtitle for this small hardcover book that reads rhythmically, teaching hidden lessons to kids first entering the new world of school. The fun-to-read story includes a diverse mix of abilities, races, and genders. Kids should have no problem finding themselves in one of Hammond’s realistic drawings.
Steinberg opens the story with the question, “Are you in kindergarten? Is that really true? How in the world did you get so big? So smart and funny, too!” The story moves into the classroom with posters of 1, 2, 3, and ABC so a child sees what a kindergarten classroom looks like. Kindness is threaded through each page as Steinberg points out, ‘Cause you’re the kind of kid who always shows you care.
This book shows kids what an impact they can make in their new school, whether cheering up a sad new friend or including a shy friend in a game. This truly is an ideal backpack book and should be read on the first day of school, the middle of the school year, and at the end of the school year because kindness is needed year-round. – Review by Ronda Einbinder
The eye-catching cover of Joan Holub’s, What’s in Dragon’s Backpack? gleams with metallic dragon scales and the backpack-shaped 14-page board book has a cut-out handle just the right size for small hands. Inside, the fun rhyming couplets give us a glimpse of what Dragon’s got in there: “Stickers, charms, a message, and some homework that he fried. Oops!”
Each page has lift-the-flaps for further exploration adorned with Christopher Lee’s adorable art. The faces on his dragons, such as on the mock A Dragon’s Tale book, are top-notch. I also really like the subtle math lessons showing three flames equals one on-fire number three. Other teaching elements include groups of shapes that, once you peek beneath the flap, combine to make a sword.
Educational, interactive, and fun, this engaging book is sure to be a hit with kids who are starting school and donning backpacks. It can also be a conversation starter about what should be inside your child’s backpack to make school days a success. – Review by Christine Van Zandt
It’s the first day of school, an English-speaking school, but Isabel only speaks Spanish. Isabel is a charming and irresistible main character and I cared about how she felt going into unknown territory, alone. Her reluctance is understandable. She doesn’t know English and is scared of what it will be like. Isabel sees things in gorgeous colors and through art and doesn’t realize how quickly she will pick up the new language. “English sounded wrong, like stormy blues and blizzard whites.” Isabel preferred the warm, cheerful colors of Spanish.
Ultimately her language learning is facilitated by one good friend but her limited grasp of English initially gets in the way. Isabel’s thoughtful art saves the day and new friendship blossoms. The interplay between Alessandri’s beautiful prose and Dawson’s flowing art makes every page a delight to behold. This cleverly presented bilingual picture book also includes Spanish to English translations in the back matter but for English speakers, most of the Spanish words can be understood in the context of the story. – Review by Ronna Mandel
School really does stink when one classmate is a skunk and the teacher is unBEARable. So, when little Stuart tells Mom his classmates are wild animals she says all kids are wild animals in debut author Becky Scharnhorst’s hysterical read-aloud with drawings by Julia Patton.
The originality of this story told in diary form starting on the first day of school and ending at Open House, when Mom and Dad realize they have sent their young child, Stuart, to a school full of animals, takes the reader through the first seventeen days of school. Stuart attempts to play along with his classmates when the monkeys hang him upside down. He’s then caught by Patricia the Porcupine pricking him with her many quills. Stuart journals P.S. The deep breaths still aren’t working. P.P.S. Neither are the happy thoughts P.P.P.S. I’m not going back tomorrow!
As Stuart continues to journal he also begins to make friends. Charlie the Crocodile apologizes for biting his fingers and becomes Stuart’s new best bud. This sweet story can be read for school storytime or by a parent before bed. I laughed on entry September 15 when Scharnhorst writes P.S. Mom doesn’t understand how a skunk got in the storage closet. I guess she’ll find out at Open House. I was anxious for Open House to find out how Mom and Dad would react to realizing they sent their child to the wrong school, but Stuart repeats what they told him on the first day of school Mom and Dad told me to take deep breaths and THINK HAPPY THOUGHTS. This was a great lesson for his parents. I just hope they let him stay friends with a crocodile! Patton’s detailed artwork adds to the whimsy with letters written on notebook paper and characters drawn with big teeth and round glasses. The P.S. notes were a fabulous extra touch. – Review by Ronda Einbinder
Oh, how I’d love for this nonfiction picture book to be required reading in all schools! I could not believe as I read it that prior to President Ford signing the Education for All Handicapped Children Act (EAHCA) in 1975 with its Individualized Education Plan (IEP), children with disabilities did not have the right to a free, appropriate, public education. But the book really focuses on the lawsuit in 1971 called Mills v. Board of Education of the District of Columbia, the District Court ruling in 1972 that led to this important act being implemented, and the seven school-aged children and their families who made it happen.
We Want to Go to School is narrated by author-illustrator Cocca-Leffler’s daughter, author Janine Leffler, whose own inclusive experience as a student with Cerebral Palsy (CP) receiving various special assistance in school contrasts to what students prior to her would have experienced. She explains how prior to the ’70s, students with disabilities either didn’t go to school, stayed in hospitals, or were sent to special schools at a huge expense to families. If they were allowed into some schools, these children were segregated in separate classrooms. There was little chance to interact with mainstream students. That is until Peter Mills, Janice King, Jerome James, Michael Williams, George Liddell, Jr., Steven Gaston and Duane Blacksheare decided they’d had enough of being left out. Of course, the schools objected, finding reason after reason why students with disabilities should not be able to attend. Their parents were having déjà vu.
Wasn’t public school supposed to be for everyone? Wasn’t that the lesson learned in Brown v. Board of Education in 1954 when segregation because of the color one’s skin was the issue. So the families fought back. They began to meet others facing the same school challenges and there was power in numbers. The news of the lawsuit spread so that pretty soon “more families joined the lawsuit.” It then became a class action suit. “18,000 students from the Washington, D.C. area were also not receiving a public education because of their disabilities.” Would the judge presiding over the case agree? YES! And the positive outcome of this lawsuit led to big changes for students with disabilities with “federal laws guaranteeing public education for all children.
I loved the energy of Cocca-Leffler’s art, especially the spread where she’s filled the page with faces of 1,000 kids and tells readers to imagine those 18,000 DC students, and the 8 million US students denied an education because they had disabilities. Powerful! Five pages of back matter include information on Disability Education Rights, a timeline, Author Notes, and an enlightening Note from Paul R. Dimond, Plaintiffs’ Attorney in the Mills v. Board of Education of the District of Columbia. I’m grateful for these change-makers. They paved the way for future students with disabilities who continue to benefit from their commitment to equal rights in education for all. – Review by Ronna Mandel
The Night Baafore The First Day of School blends the counting element, the rhyme and hilarity of Sandra Boynton’s Hippos Go Berserk with the irresistible art of Mark Teague’s Pigsty. As the main character Bo—the star of two previous books I haven’t yet read—attempts unsuccessfully to fall asleep due to day-before-school-starts jitters, he calls on sheep to help. The catch is they make it more difficult to sleep with the ruckus they create. Poor Bo, aware of the hours slipping away, is desperate. He offers them a snack if they’ll stop, but when that doesn’t work he calls an emergency meeting. Only then a mysterious shadow of a monster appears further exacerbating the chaos.
There’s as much for readers to enjoy in Young’s wild storyline as there is in Pino’s zany and action-packed illustrations. The counting of sheep from 1 to 10 as they get up to no good adds an engaging layer to the book. Then, reversing that to eventually count back down as it gets later and later, is such fun and a great way to involve young readers. I love how the 10 sheep all wear number necklaces to identify themselves. Kids may want to study each spread more closer upon further reads to see what each individual sheep is doing with the supplies Bo has prepared for his backpack. The massive mess is mighty fun to look at. Tension builds with each page turn as we wonder if Bo will get any shut-eye and manage to catch the bus to school. And the humor surrounding every sheep-filled episode encroaching on Bo’s time to sleep is a delight in this rhyming romp of a read-aloud. – Reviewed by Ronna Mandel
Norman, a very small, almost invisible dinosaur compared to all the other dinos at Mrs. Beak’s play group, is shy. This may resonate with young readers experiencing a similar emotion when just starting school and being away from home. Julian’s rich artwork is charming in how it depicts Norman hiding (except his tail always adorably sticking out) in various situations where the text also states “he was very good at hiding.” In the beginning, before Norman makes friends, parents can ask children to see if they can spot him in the illustrations as he avoids interaction.
My favorite part of the picture book is when Norman confides in Mrs. Beak that he really wants to join the other dinos but feels shy. “It’s okay to be shy,” Mrs. Beak replied. “It’s a special part of who you are.” When she asks the dinos to perform in pairs, Norman teams up with big, loud Jake who despite his size, admits he’s rather nervous too. The two share a laugh and come up with a magical performance that not only satisfies (and perhaps comforts) children but provides the perfect conversation starter for parents and teachers to discuss shyness. I’m not sure it was deliberate, but I appreciated Mrs. Beak’s rainbow door and her rainbow mug, another welcoming feature to this warm and reassuring read. – Review by Ronna Mandel
School Is Cool was written and illustrated by sisters Sabrina Moyle and Eunice Moyle founders of Hello!Lucky, their award-winning letterpress greeting card and design studio.
Targeting the child who has already had some school experience, this story begins on the beach where the rhinoceros, dog, and platypus are chilling out until they realize Tomorrow’s the first day of school! The expressive drawings tell it all when the dog almost drops his ice cream cone and the rhino jumps from his floatation device. The friends are worried kids won’t like your hair. Or how they talk. Or what they wear.
Eunice Moyle’s bold, captivating illustrations depict all sorts of animals arriving for their first day by school bus and bikes. They line up awaiting a handshake from the animal teacher, in popping bright greens and oranges and a happy yellow sun, a perfect complement to the welcome the smiling animals.
This book expresses the true feelings many kids have when it’s time to say goodbye to Mom and home now replaced by an unfamiliar teacher and classroom where they must learn the new rules. What if your teacher calls on you—and the answer is five, but you said … 2. It’s ok to say “I don’t know.” Everyone is here to grow.”
The back flap states that the Moyle sisters use their creativity and humor to inspire kindness, empathy, self-awareness, and service and in doing so dedicate this book to teachers everywhere. You are the coolest! Thank you for all you do! – Review by Ronda Einbinder
It looks like it’s going to be three times the trouble at school for David Suárez. With new neighbors, the Benitez triplets adding to what’s already an annoying presence by his other neighbors, the Romero twins, David must navigate third grade and not lose his cool. His goal after all is to be captain of the Globetrotters, the geography club, and that requires an uncluttered mind. Except the Benitez triplets and Romero twins are messing with him and everyone else.
When David is tasked with monitoring the playground (trouble maker prime turf), he fears it may be made off-limits for everyone if the five tricksters continue getting up to no good. And that is looking more and more likely when both sets of mischief-makers aim to rule recess with their pranks and pushy personalities.
This early chapter book, filled with humorous black-and-white illustrations, works well with its mix of Spanish words and expressions along with comments at the end of most chapters noting a reader’s progress. I like how Back-to-School Blitz includes a diverse group of students and some interesting geography information (David’s favorite subject) that ends up playing an important part in keeping the bullies in check. A couple of things jumped out at me like having the triplets together in one class which I thought wasn’t typically done. Another time, after causing a distraction, the triplets sneak out of class early without the teacher, Mr. Kim, noticing. But I’m an adult and if the kids reading this first book in a new series don’t mind, that’s great because as the book ends, there’s some unusual digging going on in the sandbox, and surely more pranks to come in book #2. – Review by Ronna Mandel
A child, mother, and grandmother travel all the way to the end of the earth in this picture book that celebrates multigenerational love—perfect for fans of Drawn Together and Alma.
“I want to see what’s at the end of the earth!”
Sejal, Mommy, and Pati travel together to the southern tip of India. Along the way, they share meals, visit markets, and catch up with old friends.
For Pati, the trip retraces spaces she knows well. For Mommy, it’s a return to the place she grew up. For Sejal, it’s a discovery of new sights and sounds. The family finds their way to Kanyakumari, where three oceans meet, and delight in making it to the end of the earth together.
This own voices picture book celebrates the beauty of India and the enduring love of family.
My Little Golden Book About Kamala Harris, written by Rajani LaRocca and illustrated by Ashley Evans
Help your little one dream big with a Little Golden Book biography all about the first female Vice President Kamala Harris! The perfect introduction to nonfiction for preschoolers!
This Little Golden Book about Kamala Harris–the first woman, first African American woman, and first Indian American woman to be elected Vice President of the United States–is an inspiring read-aloud for young girls and boys.
The Secret Code Inside You: All About Your DNA, written by Rajani LaRocca and illustrated by Steven Salerno
Learn about the secret code that is DNA in this vibrant and informative picture book!
Why can’t humans breathe underwater? Why are some people tall and others short? Why do we resemble our parents and grandparents? This book explores all this and more in flowing, rhyming text, explaining cells, DNA, and genetics in a way that is simple and easy for children to understand. Colorful and brilliantly illustrated, The Secret Code Inside You illustrates that while DNA may be the blueprint for how a person looks, what you choose to do with your body is entirely up to you!
Colleen Paeff:Rajani, congratulations on an incredible three years! As a big fan of your work––and of you as a person––it has been such a joy to watch your career take off. You burst onto the kidlit scene in 2019 with your deliciously fun middle-grade novel Midsummer’s Mayhem and followed it up with the picture book Seven Golden Rings in 2020. Now, in 2021, two more highly acclaimed MG novels, Red, White, and Whole and Much Ado About Baseball, and two wonderful picture books, Bracelets for Bina’s Bothers and Where Three Oceans Meet, have already hit bookshelves. Plus, two additional picture books, My Little Golden Book About Kamala Harris and The Secret Code Inside You: All About Your DNA are coming out in the next few weeks! You are a book-making machine, Rajani! But, seriously, are you a book-making machine?
Rajani LaRocca: Haha, not really! I do love writing, and I try to write a lot. But having six books come out in one year is mainly due to a combination of good luck and coincidence. Some of those stories I wrote quickly, and others took years. Of my books publishing in 2021, two were sold in 2018, two in 2019, and two in 2020! I’m incredibly fortunate!
CP: Ok. So you’re mortal like the rest of us. In that case, what would you say are the five most important productivity tools, mindsets, or life hacks that enable you to be such a prolific writer while also working as a primary care physician?
RL: Ooh, this is such an interesting question! I would say:
Write a lot. Capture ideas when they come to you, and when you feel like writing, do it—even if you only have a few minutes. I like to have multiple projects at various stages going at once so when I’m “stuck” on one thing, I can move forward on something else. Productive procrastination!
Figure out what’s hard for you, and save your “clear head” time for that. I find writing novel first drafts challenging, so I try to work on my drafts in the morning, before I get caught up with work and email and my brain turns to mush. But I’ve found that I can revise at almost any time, including the evening and late at night. And I can also work on picture book manuscripts at any time.
Give yourself time if you need it. Some stories need years to take shape … and that’s ok!
Set deadlines for yourself. This can be as simple as an upcoming critique group meeting you want to submit something for, or a workshop or conference that you need to prepare for.
Exercise, walk, shower, meditate, and do other things that get your subconscious mind going. That will help you figure out your stories!
CP: That’s all such great advice. Thank you! So, what does a typical day look like for you?
RL:It depends on whether I’m in the office seeing patients. On those days, I try to get up early, write or exercise (depending on what’s more urgent), head to work, and then squeeze in some writing after dinner. On days I’m not in my office, I try to write early, then walk the dog, exercise, and keep writing in between checking messages for work and doing other errands, cooking, etc.
CP:In the author’s note for Where Three Oceans Meet, you mention that, though the book is fiction, it was inspired by a childhood trip you took when you were visiting extended family in Bangalore, a city in Southern India. What was it like to see such a deeply personal story come to life through Archana Sreenivasan’s illustrations?
RL: Archana lives in Bangalore, where most of my extended family lives! She is such an incredible illustrator — from her first sketches, I knew she was the perfect person to illustrate this book! As a South Indian woman, she was able to depict the clothing, the scenery, and the food in such an authentic way.
She put a lot of details about her own grandmother into the art, so this is a very meaningful book to both of us.
CP: It sounds like you were both really lucky to come together on this project. It was clearly meant to be! I grew up with Little Golden Books (The Poky Little Puppy was my favorite!), so I was really excited to see you’d written a Little Golden Book about Kamala Harris. What was your favorite Little Golden Book and how did the Kamala Harris book come about?
RL: I grew up on Little Golden Books — The Poky Little Puppy was my favorite, too! I love that generations of readers have grown up reading these stories.
I was so thrilled to be able to write a Little Golden Book about our remarkable Vice President! When the publisher approached my agent in November 2020, I had to say yes! But they needed my draft the next month, so it was an extra fun challenge to research and write a book in that time frame. They signed on the incredible illustrator, Ashley Evans, and then the book came together very quickly!
CP:How amazing that it all came together so fast! In another one of your picture books, The Secret Code Inside You: All About Your DNA, you explain DNA to the youngest readers––which already sounds tricky––but you do it in rhyme. What an impressive feat! Tell me about the process of writing this book. Was it a rhyming text right from the start?
RL: This was the first picture book I ever wrote! It was always in rhyme, which is not easy, especially with a nonfiction book explaining the basics of genetics to young readers! I tried very hard to un-rhyme it, but the book persisted (and perhaps insisted?) on staying in rhyme. It wasn’t until years later, after the book had been sold, that I realized why my brain insisted that the book be written in rhyming verse. DNA nucleotides always pair up in the same way: adenine with thymine, and cytosine with guanine, which is similar to the “pairing” that occurs with rhyming words!
The Secret Code Inside You: All About Your DNA explains the basics of genes and chromosomes and discusses why baby animals look like their parents and we look like our family members. But it also touches on the limits of DNA, and how our choices also determine who we become. It contains back matter with more DNA facts and an experiment that kids can do at home!
CP: I LOVE that experiment and I can’t wait to try it and that makes perfect sense about why it had to rhyme! You host a fabulous podcast with Artemis Roehrig called STEM Women in KidLit which has featured Melissa Stewart, Vicky Fang, Kirsten Larson, Jennifer Swanson, Stacy McAnulty, and so many more incredible authors! Have you noticed any similarities between all these STEM-focused women?
RL:Thanks so much! Artemis and I have had such a wonderful time doing the STEM Women in KidLit Podcast and talking to a wide variety of women with STEM backgrounds who write or illustrate books for kids. One of the common themes we’ve noticed among these creators is that they all have a sense of wonder about the world we live in and how it works, and they feel compelled to share this wonder with young readers. Another common theme is that these creators are willing to try different things and risk failure—because hypothesizing, experimenting, and learning from failure are all part of the STEM process as well.
CP:Of course! That makes perfect sense. At the start of this interview, we talked about making room for the different parts of your work life. I wonder if you’d mind talking about making room for different parts of your emotional life, as well. I know you lost a beloved family member to Covid-19 and it happened at a time when you were having so much success in your writing life. It must have been difficult to balance the sorrows and joys brought on by two such wildly contrasting life events. What helped you through it?
RL: This has been such a difficult time for the entire world. All I can say is that there is still joy to be found in the midst of sorrow, and the people we love stay with us long after they’re gone. One side effect of all this time spent at home with family is that we try to enjoy the little moments and live in the present. It’s not always possible, but we keep trying.
CP: Thank you, Rajani. What powerful reminders. So, what’s next for you?
RL: I have a picture book and another middle-grade novel coming in 2022!
I’ll Go and Come Back will be published by Candlewick on March 29, 2022. It’s a picture book about a little girl named Jyoti who visits her family in India and feels lonely and homesick. Then her grandmother makes her feel better through play and reading and food. When the grandmother visits the girl in the U.S. and feels homesick herself, Jyoti makes her feel better. This story, which is close to my heart, is built around a phrase people use in Tamil: they never say “goodbye,” but instead “I’ll go and come back,” which holds the promise of return. It’s the first book I sold, way back in March 2018.
My next middle-grade novel with HarperCollins comes out in fall 2022. It’s called Switch, and it’s about musical twin sisters who grow apart, impersonate each other at their summer camp on a dare, and find that music helps them find their way back to each other.
CP: Those sound terrific! I can’t wait to add them to my growing Rajani LaRocca collection. Thanks for making time to chat and best of luck with all your upcoming books!
RL: I loved chatting with you, Colleen! Thanks so much for having me and for asking such great questions!
Rajani LaRocca was born in India, raised in Kentucky, and now lives in the Boston area, where she practices medicine and writes award-winning novels and picture books, including Midsummer’s Mayhem (2019), Seven Golden Rings (2020), Red, White, and Whole (2021), Bracelets for Bina’s Brothers (2021), Much Ado About Baseball (2021), and more. She’s always been an omnivorous reader, and now she is an omnivorous writer of fiction and nonfiction, novels and picture books, prose and poetry. She finds inspiration in her family, her childhood, the natural world, math, science, and just about everywhere she looks.
With a nod to Richard Scarry, this inventive picture book surprises readers with every turn of the page!
Hiss! Screech! Roar! It’s a noisy day in Bumperville! But are the sounds what you think they are? That Honk! must surely be a goose. But turn the page and it’s the taxi that a goose is driving! Using cleverly placed die-cuts, this inventive book hints at what is making the sound, but with each turn of the page, it’s an eye-opening surprise and part of an unfolding story that is part guessing game and part giggle-inducing caper. Abi Cushman is the master of surprise and silliness in this absolutely delightful picture book.
Colleen Paeff:Happy book birthday and congratulations on the release of your second picture book, Animals Go Vroom! Kids are going to love all the unexpected surprises in this book. The way you use die-cuts is so clever. Were they a key element of the story from the start or did they evolve over time?
Abi Cushman: Thank you, Colleen! I am so thrilled to be here. And congratulations to YOU on your wonderful upcoming debut picture book, The Great Stink: How Joseph Bazalgette Solved London’s Poop Pollution Problem. It is so wonderfully told, and the illustrations by Nancy Carpenter are fantastic.
CP:Thank you! I love Nancy’s illustrations, too!
AC: To answer your question, yes! I always envisioned die-cuts in the book. My initial thought was about how animal sounds and vehicle sounds sometimes overlap. And so I wanted the book to be a guessing game where readers had to guess who or what was making the sound.
Die-cut windows are a wonderful device for guessing game type books because they give a little peek at the next spread, and then the page turn offers the reveal.
CP: I love the way even the background characters in Animals Go Vroom!have their own stories that play out over the course of the book. That must have been so much fun to illustrate! Can you tell me about coming up with those stories?
AC: Some of the background characters are inspired by family members. The sloth using the walker is based off of my grandmother who would cover great distances at the mall using her walker. She had a cap she’d wear whenever she’d go out. The two bunnies in the background of the bus scene are a tribute to my two house rabbits, Cosette and Coco.
And then I chose other background characters based on the sounds they make. The artist sea lion shouts out, “Art? Art?” and the baby crow points out the car by calling out, “Cah! Cah!”. The baby crow is actually also based on my son who would do the same thing every time he saw a car when he was younger.
CP:How fun! I can’t believe I didn’t pick up on those sounds! And for more fun, outside of the book, I noticed that you have an Animals Go Vroom! memory game on your website. (It took me 46 seconds and 13 moves to solve it.) How did you come up with that idea and did you create it yourself? If so, how did you develop such impressive skills?!
AC:I have been a web designer/developer for over 15 years, so that coding experience definitely has benefits. Although I don’t specialize in making online games, I was able to find some open source code for a memory game, and then I tweaked it to work on my website and to use the images I created for all the cards. I actually had intended to make a memory game for my first book, Soaked!, but I didn’t have enough time. But Animals Go Vroom! actually worked even better for this sort of game because there is a large cast of characters to choose from.
CP: It definitely seems perfect for a game like that. You dedicated this book to your mom “who really loves snakes.” Is that true? Did you have pet snakes in the house when you were growing up?
AC:I showed this illustration:
to my brother over a family Zoom so he could see how I made his headphone-wearing daughter into a character in the book, and my mom blurted out, “Oh no! Gross!” And we were all kind of laughing because although we all know she does NOT care for snakes or worms, we thought a cartoony-looking snake drawing might be ok.
I didn’t set out to make a book that largely featured snakes, but that’s where the story took me since they make that wonderful hissing sound. I thought, “How can I make it so that my mom HAS to read this book with a bunch of snakes?” And so I dedicated it to her, and she did say recently that the illustration of the kid snake on the dedication was okay. 🙂
And so to answer your second question, NO. There was absolutely no chance of us having pet snakes when I was growing up.
CP:Hahaha! I love that your family shows up in so many different ways in this book. Did you base any other characters on people you know?
AC:Oh yes. I mentioned earlier that the baby crow is my car-loving son, and the kid snake is based on my niece who wore headphones the entire time we were on a family vacation one time. The mama snake is me. Actually the bear in Soaked!is also me. I guess I follow that advice, “Write what you know.” since I apparently just put myself in all my books.
CP:For StoryStorm 2020 you advised people to keep an ugly sketchbook and said the practice freed you up to do the drawings that inspired your debut picture book Soaked!(Viking Children’s Books, 2020). Is there any correlation between the vengeful sketchbook chipmunk at the end of that post and the chipmunk car salesman in Animals Go Vroom? And did any other ugly sketchbook characters make it into this second book?
AC:Hahaha maybe this is the vengeful chipmunk’s origin story. A car salesmunk who becomes disillusioned with life after getting bonked in the head with a flat tire just hours after making his first sale.
But yes, the whole concept of the book came about from this Ugly Sketchbook character: a sea lion flying a jet going RAWRR!
This specific character didn’t end up in the final book, but another sea lion made it into the story as an artist just trying to share their beautiful art with everyone.
CP:I loved the sea lion’s paintings! And I loved the otter taxi passenger, too. I happen to know that he is a published author. I read his research project “Funny AND Female” and noticed that he didn’t ask YOU to talk about being a funny woman in kidlit. (He’s got some nerve!) So, talk to me about being funny. Where do you find inspiration for your humor? Do you have any tried and true tricks to bring humor to a scene?
AC:I find inspiration everywhere- TV, movies, books, my family. Unexpected random or absurd things are often very funny. So I like playing around with creating a pattern and then disrupting it with something ridiculous. Being specific helps create that absurd moment. For example, in Soaked!, I create a pattern in the first spread. “Not that badger. Not that bunny.” and then I disrupt it with something specific and out-of-place. “Not that hula-hooping moose.”
When I was thinking about a passenger for the taxi in Animals Go Vroom!, it was tough because really, it could be ANYONE in the backseat. So I made it fun by thinking of someone who would look glorious with a monocle (an otter, of course), and then I thought it would be pretty ridiculous if in every scene he was eating a different meal and was totally oblivious to the traffic jam. I started with tea because that would be a great contrast to the goose who was having a fit about being stuck behind the bus. And then the next spread, the otter is eating a filet of fish on a plate with a fork and knife. How did he get this fancy meal? Where did he get the utensils? In the next scene, he has an ice cream cone. Did he have the ice cream in the taxi the entire time? Why didn’t it melt? Does he have a freezer in there? I like creating scenes where the reader does a double-take and thinks, “Wait a minute- WHAT?? What’s going on there?” It’s a treat for the curious kid who takes a closer look at the pictures and sees that secondary storyline happening in the background.
CP:You teach a couple of classes at Storyteller Academy. What do you enjoy most about teaching other picture book creators?
AC:Most people enrolled at Storyteller Academy have committed to making a real go at improving their craft. So it is incredibly satisfying to see them put in the work every week and make huge gains in their stories. I really believe that if you put in the work- which is to read and analyze current picture books, think about a compelling concept or character, and then just keep plugging away, that you can become a published author. But a lot of people give up. So it is wonderful to see the dedication from Storyteller Academy students. And I can’t wait to see the manuscripts I’ve critiqued become published books in a couple of years.
CP:That’s definitely something to look forward to. Speaking of craft, what are three tools of the illustrator’s craft that you wouldn’t want to be without?
AC: 1. My Bic mechanical pencil. I use a mechanical pencil to draw all the characters in my books. I like that the pencil always stays sharp.
My Wacom Cintiq tablet. I color all my illustrations digitally using Photoshop and my tablet. I like to apply the color this way because it is easy to correct mistakes, experiment with color, and keep the color palette consistent across spreads. I can also zoom in to apply details. e
Google image search. Even though my books feature anthropomorphic animals, I still use a lot of reference photos. When thinking about a mouse riding a unicycle, I’ll look at photos of mice to imagine what one would look like sitting upright on a seat. How would its leg look while pedaling? Then I’ll look at photos of unicycles. How can I modify this unicycle if the rider had short (mouse) legs? And now what would it look like if that mouse was not only riding a unicycle but also holding a large cupcake? I have to use my imagination, but I still try to base parts of it on real-life so the illustration looks plausible.
CP:That’s fascinating. So, when you’re working on a story, do the pictures usually come first or is it the words? Do you find one is easier than the other?
AC: I usually think of a very general concept first. For Soaked!, I thought about how when you’re stuck in the rain, it actually becomes pleasant after you become thoroughly soaked. The idea of changing your perspective despite the situation staying the same was intriguing to me. Then for a couple months after that, I kept drawing a bedraggled soggy bear looking very disgruntled in the rain. But the whole thing flew together once I thought of the voice of Bear, the main character. The voice drove the story and the words came pouring out.
For Animals Go Vroom!, I again thought of the concept first: sounds that both animals and vehicles make. After brainstorming sounds and animals, I started to see a chain of events forming, so I made a book dummy to see how it would all work with the die-cuts. I started with a small dummy and gradually increased the size with each revision. From there, I was able to draw in a lot more details as it got closer to its final size, and secondary storylines started forming through the illustrations.
When I’m working on a story, I often see images in my head, and I’ll quickly jot them down as very ugly doodles. I’ll also write down little snippets of text. So in terms of what’s easier for me, I think it’s easy for me to picture little moments in a story. But what is hard is actually rendering those imagined scenes and characters properly in the final art. It’s tough to match the idealized images in my head. Plus, doing the final art is so labor-intensive, and there’s also a deadline. But that being said, it is AMAZING when the art director shows you a PDF of the book with the text properly typeset over the full-color art. It makes all those long hours worth it.
CP:I bet! What’s next for you?
AC: I have an unannounced picture book in the works that I’m very excited about. It’s an informational picture book that I would have LOVED as a kid. It’s a book where hopefully kids will be laughing and learning at the same time.
CP:That sounds wonderful, Abi. Thanks for taking the time to chat with me. And congratulations, again, on your terrific new book!
All artwork and photos courtesy of Abi Cushman.
Abi Cushman is the author-illustrator of Soaked!(Viking, 2020) and Animals Go Vroom! (Viking, 2021). She has also worked as a web designer for over 15 years, creating websites for libraries, towns, and local businesses. She runs two popular websites of her own: My House Rabbit, a pet rabbit care resource, and Animal Fact Guide, which was named a Great Website for Kids by the American Library Association. In her spare time, Abi enjoys running, playing tennis, and eating nachos. (Yes, at the same time.) She lives on the Connecticut shoreline with her husband and two kids.
The story begins with the main character, a little boy, who lives by the sea. Like the sea, the boy is sometimes “dark and dangerous” and at other times “tranquil and tender.” These descriptors become refrains as we watch the boy grow from his elementary and adolescent years into adulthood, wondering and wrestling all the while with the thoughts that surface with each life stage
Lifelong friends who know each other intimately, the boy and the sea feel “the pull of something more,” something bigger. This deep dive into life’s purpose and meaning leads to many questions. “Some … [have answers] … but many [do] not.” The boy is drawn back to the sea for answers that, in turn, pull him deeper still into life’s mystery. Andros’ sparse and lyrical text combined with Bates’ sometimes calming, other times distressing blue palette encourage us readers to pause and hone our skills in listening, examining, and learning.
While children in the older picture book age range will pick up on the book’s self-reflective nuances, younger readers will find intrigue in its quiet, meditative pull. The Boy and the Sea is a great bedtime read to let go of a racing mind and wind down from a busy day.
THE STAR FESTIVAL, also known as the Tanabata Matsuri, takes place in Japan on the seventh day of the seventh month. It is celebrated on July 7th in regions following the gregorian calendar and August 7th of the lunar calendar.
I researched many beautiful landscapes and images, knowing that one would eventually become the backdrop of my story. Which were my top choices, and how did I choose?
Hanami Matsuri, the Cherry Blossom Festival, takes place in the Spring determined by the sakura, or cherry blossom, forecast in particular regions. Sometimes performances and tea ceremonies are performed under the trees, but the main activity is to picnic under the pink-blossomed sky.
Hina Matsuri has many names, the Japanese Doll Festival, Girl’s Day, and the Peach Festival, due to the time of year that it’s held-March 3rd. Originally, dolls made of paper and straw were sent down a river to set misfortunes adrift. In modern times, fancier dolls displayed inside homes invite prosperity and happiness.
Yuki Matsuri, the Sapporo Snow Festival, is celebrated in Hokkaido, a colder region of Japan. Famous for its ice sculptures, this modern-day festival began in 1950 when a group of high school students sculpted snow figures in Odori Park. Contests are held every February and attract visitors from all over the world.
The festival that became the backdrop to my story is equally beautiful to all of these mentioned. It was the folklore behind the Star Festival that drew me in. Orihime and Hikoboshi, two star-crossed lovers, forbidden to see each other but once a year, cross the Milky Way bridge and meet on the day of the Tanabata, offering a parallel to Keiko, my main character, crossing a sea of celebration to find her Oba or grandmother.
In a few days, you can celebrate the Tanabata Matsuri in your home or town. Gaze at the stars and make a tanzaku (paper wish) to hang on a tree.
When Izzy the mouse’s brain fills up with more and more bubbles of unwanted thoughts he escapes to a special spot to quiet his mind in Christine Peck and Mags DeRoma’s interactive picture book Too Many Bubbles: A Story About Mindfulness, the first in the Books of Great Character series, with illustrations by Mags DeRoma.
My focus was omnipresent when I began writing this review, and even though I have taught mindfulness, reading this book was a reminder of the importance of deep breathing to escape the crazy bubbles in my own mind. DeRoma’s soft blue illustrations of Izzy riding his two-wheeler in his blue striped shirt and red helmet with “only one little thought bubble. It bubbled up one day, a rough day, and just hung there.” We all know those days, but Izzy’s thought bubbles just wouldn’t go away.
DeRoma illustrates two bubbles with squiggly lines above Izzy’s head. The reader doesn’t know what is bothering Izzy, but whatever it is his thoughts just won’t go away. That night Izzy is wide-awake when he should be sleeping, while his stuffed red mouse is fast asleep. Of course, the mouse sleeps with a toy mouse. And the next day Izzy is trying so hard to go through his day as he climbs the slide at the park while more bubbles appear. “At first, it was simply peculiar. But when another popped up, and another, and another, they started to really get in the way of things.” It’s easy to feel the sadness in Izzy’s blue face.
Trying to enjoy a spaghetti dinner is not easy when Izzy’s mind is crowded with more bubbles. It was inevitable that “Izzy was pushed clean off the page.” Red, pink, blue, yellow, and orange bubbles cover the center spread with no Izzy in sight. When the reader turns the page, a red-faced Izzy fills the two-page spread and instead of giving up Izzy knows “something had to be done.”
We all have that special spot we like to escape to when challenges set in. Mine is sitting in my yard listening to the birds and squirrels run by. Izzy’s spot is the beach. As Izzy digs his little mouse toes in the sand, “there was a little more space for all the bubbles.” Watching a little white bear blow his bubbles towards the sea, our protagonist looks up and “Izzy took a deep breath in. Izzy let the deep breath out.”
The interactive book concludes when the reader is asked to assist Izzy by gently blowing on the bubbles. This is a fabulous way to teach mindfulness breathing to children. Izzy’s big deep breath makes everything a little bit brighter as the bubbles float away into the sky.
A LITTLE MORE MINDFUL is included in the back matter exploring ways kids can let go of thoughts taking over their day. “What is mindfulness? It is being aware in the present moment,” DeRoma and Peck explain. The mindfulness exercises are great tools for teachers to assist their students, or parents to share with their kids when a day is not going the way it should. And the adult reader can utilize these tools as well. Peck and DeRoma are founders of the boutique kids brand, Silly Street, whose mission is to help children grow character through play—and they’re also sisters-in-law.
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.