THE RABBIT LISTENED by Cori Doerrfeld is a book that, as a preschool teacher, I want to thrust into parents’ hands to read over and over again with their preschool/TK/Kinder children. Quick to the point, with language that works around a universal issue that children (and adults) must handle, while not talking down to the intended audience.
Emotional intelligence, empathy, the very things we need so much in this world, resonate loudly and clearly in this gorgeous story. Doerrfeld’s illustrations are touching and relatable throughout each character’s struggle to cope with the problem at hand.
The young protagonist, Taylor, has built something from his imagination that took no little skill to master with his hands. He’s worked so hard on his block creation, only to have it knocked down in a rubble of despair and lost hope. His animal friends want to help. They want to fix, throw away, remind him of better creations yet to come. Taylor, however, doesn’t need this. The animals all walk away, frustrated by their inability to help him, missing an opportunity to connect with his pain.
Then rabbit hops over. Rabbit is quiet. Rabbit listens. Rabbit doesn’t tell Taylor how or when or why he should get over his loss. Rabbit is there, and stays with the boy throughout his processing of an event gone wrong. And when the young protagonist is ready to rebuild again, rabbit is there to support him.
How often do we seek comfort from someone and get the opposite from a well meaning heart? Sometimes we simply need to be allowed our feelings, our disappointment and ill thoughts. Then, and only then, when we are ready, can we consider beginning again.
I recommend this book highly for anyone who struggles to help a child cope when they are just not READY for all the suggestions on how to move forward.
Give them the time and space.
Give them permission to vent.
Support them when they are ready to build again. And always listen.
THE DIGGER AND THE FLOWER Written and illustrated by Joseph Kuefler (Balzer & Bray; $17.99, Ages 4-8)
★Starred Review – Kirkus,School Library Journal
The Digger and the Flowerby Joseph Kuefler adds a welcome new dimension to the popular construction trucks theme: thoughtfulness about the area being destroyed. When Digger finds a flower, watching over it becomes his hobby. His level of involvement escalates when the flower’s land is surrounded; eventually, it succumbs to new building.
Digitally created images contrast Digger’s sunny yellow with the muted black, gray, and white urban surroundings. The bright blue and green of the small flower imbues this cityscape, awakening something within Digger and compelling him to act. Even without the text, this vivid story is delightful.
In Joseph Kuefler’s 48-page picture book, we are shown humanity and kindness—a powerful message that addresses our need to care for the environment and one another. Yet, the book can also be read simply as another cool story about big machines.
GROUNDHUG DAY Written by Anne Marie Pace Illustrated by Christopher Denise (Disney-Hyperion Books; $17.99, Ages 3-5)
Groundhug Day is a picture book delight that seamlessly weaves a heartwarming and credible friendship story together with Groundhog Day and Valentine’s Day holidays. Making a themed book that can be read on more than a few days each year is a feat few authors and illustrators attempt, but the winning combination of Anne Marie Pace and Christopher Denise have managed to pull this off quite successfully!
Moose is planning a Valentine’s Day party and he’d like to celebrate with all his pals. There is however just one little hitch. While Bunny, Porcupine and Squirrel can attend, if Groundhog sees his shadow on Groundhog Day, he’ll “go back into his hole for six more weeks.” In other words, he won’t emerge in time for February 14th festivities. So it’s no surprise that when Groundhog comes out and sees his shadow, he’s quick to head back down, but hints there’s more to it than that. Ever the intuitive one, Moose thinks perhaps his pal is afraid of shadows. Determined to show Groundhog that shadows aren’t scary at all, Moose enlists help from his friends to demonstrate “just how awesome shadows are.”
Here’s where young readers, already drawn into the story, will be treated to several beautiful pages of illustrations (in addition to to all the other striking artwork in warm welcoming tones) showing what wonderful things shadows are and can do. It’s easy to feel the joy both author and illustrator felt about creating this lovely picture book. More fun times are in store because, despite no longer being fearful of shadows, Groundhog must still get his six weeks of sleep! This tale, honoring the support that genuine friendship offers, is both a sweet and satisfying read that has all the feels you’d want from a picture book.
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.
SNAPPSY THE ALLIGATOR AND HIS BEST FRIEND FOREVER (PROBABLY) Written by Julie Falatko Illustrated by Tim Miller (Viking BYR; $16.99, Ages 4-8)
Rarely, is a sequel to a fantastic picture book better than the first.
Don’t get all excited. Alright, it’s not necessarily BETTER, but by golly it sure is just as incredible as the first and every page enjoyable to the fullest.
Snappsy the Alligator and His Best Friend Forever (Probably) written by Julie Falatkoand illustrated by Tim Miller is a picture book all kids can appreciate in terms of friendship woes. From as early as they can talk with friends, children are ready to define their friendships into categories––quickly going from “You’re my best friend!” to “You’re not invited to my party!” within the course of a day or even hours.
What’s so terrific about this book is the way you see two friends who are at odds find a way to share their joy. Sometimes friends need space, sometimes friends need a breather before they can play. And that’s okay.
Tim Miller’s comic style illustrations bring Snappsy and Bert’s (the narrator) struggle to find common ground to life with laugh out loud scenarios cleverly constructed by Julie Falatko.
At one point Bert exclaims, “Let’s play pinochle! Wear pizza hats! Braid my hair!” to an exasperated Snappsy who just wants time to himself and has no clue what pinochle is or how in the world to braid a chicken’s hair. As Snappsy spends time alone he realizes how much fun it is to be with his friend Bert, and invites him in to play.
Don’t miss the chance to share Snappsy The Alligator and His Best Friend Forever (Probably), a new and entertaining read by the same team behind Snappsy the Alligator (Did Not Ask to be in This Book). My preschool kids request this book multiple times daily and I never tire of reading it aloud and hearing their giggles of sheer delight.
HOW TO CATCH A MONSTER Written by Adam Wallace Illustrated by Andy Elkerton (Sourcebooks Jabberwocky; $10.99, Ages 4-8)
Plus a Rafflecopter Giveaway
A USA Today Bestseller!
From the creators of the New York Times bestselling How to Catch a Leprechaun and How to Catch an Elf!
There’s a monster in my closet,
with claws, and teeth, and hair,
and tonight, I’m going to scare him!
He lives just right through there …
Get ready to laugh as a young ninja heads into the closet to meet the monster that’s been so scary night after night! But what if things aren’t what they seem and our monster isn’t scary at all? What if our ninja hero is about to make a friend of the strangest sort?
GO BIG OR GO GNOME Written by Kirsten Mayer Illustrated by Laura K. Horton (Imprint, $16.99, Ages 3-7)
is reviewed today by Cathy Ballou Mealey.
There may be princess stories and fairy tales a plenty, but good goblin or troll tales can be difficult to find. Now Go Big or Go Gnome, written by Kirsten Mayer and illustrated by Laura K. Horton provides a lighthearted and entertaining look at life from a verdantly impish perspective.
A tiny gnome named Al lives and works in a lush green garden. He trims shrubbery alongside a crew of friendly fellows who bathe birds, fluff dandelions, and rake rocks. While the gnomes keep busy tidying the sweet scenery, they are also grooming impressive “imperial beards and illustrious mustaches.” Everyone, that is, except Al. Al has nary a whisker on his smooth pink cheeks. This bothers Al tremendously, because he dreams of participating in the Beards International Gnome-athlon.
Desperate times call for desperate measures, so Al attempts to enter the contest by faking a beard using tiny white butterflies. They fly away and expose his trickery, so he tries again with a squirrel tail, and then with some moss. Thinking he’s doomed to be a plain, bare-faced gnome forever, Al heads home to trim some topiary and keep himself busy. Luckily he still has his clippers in hand when his best friend Gnorm has an emergency – sap is stuck in his beard! He snips, clips and trims Gnorm’s whiskers into an award-winning look. What will the other gnomes think of Al now?
Mayer’s sweet and upbeat tale is a funny fantasy addition to the beard-book genre. Clever language and gnomish word puns add to the appeal. Her text is a delightful set-up for illustrator Horton, who maximizes the opportunity to create inventive, elaborate and impressive beard styles on a pleasant array of diminutive creatures. She also establishes a imaginative garden setting accented with birds, flowers and mushrooms, using a green and blue palette that offsets the gnomes’ de rigueur red pointed caps and boots.
Clever and cute, Go Big or Go Gnome is an encouraging tale for young readers in search of their special talents and ready to embrace their true selves far before they reach the whisker-sprouting years.
Reviewed by Cathy Ballou Mealey
Where Obtained: I reviewed a preview copy of Go Big or Go Gnome from the publisher and received no other compensation. The opinions expressed here are my own.
Matthew Cordell’s notable picture book, Wolf in the Snow, balances a chilly winter landscape with warm sentiments of kindness. A young girl in a red triangular-shaped parka loses her way home from school when snows obliterates the path. At the same time, the severe weather separates a wolf cub from its pack. The two youngsters find one another and the girl’s thoughtfulness sets the story’s tone.
The only words in this book are plaintive sounds: whines, barks, howls, exhausted huffing. Children not yet literate can easily follow the images. Be sure to view the pictures before the title page which convey important information about the girl, her parents, and their dog. These also start us with the idea that, though the girl becomes lost, she is not alone—help will come, though not necessarily in the manner expected.
Blowing snow illustrations are bookended by ones of cozy comfort, communicating a safe opening and conclusion. Icy storm and natural colors contrast sharply with the bright jackets worn by adults and children. Wolves are depicted with distinction.
Animal lovers will appreciate the resounding connection between humans and creatures. Wolf in the Snow reminds us that helping one another is an idea without boundaries.
MERVIN THE SLOTH IS ABOUT TO DO THE BEST THING IN THE WORLD Written by Colleen AF Venable Illustrated by Ruth Chan (Greenwillow Books, $17.99, Ages 4-8)
is reviewed today by Cathy Ballou Mealey.
Lots of letters and cute, colorful animals fill the picture book page stage in Mervin the Sloth is About to do the Best Thing in the World. Mervin moves so, so, slowly, just as one might expect a sloth to do. Thank goodness for the quirky cast of energetic and inquisitive characters that show up to pepper him and his red panda buddy with questions!
The title of the book drops slowly into the book pages and hangs as a continuous prop for a bird, gazelle, prairie dogs and many other animals. Puzzled by the meaning of the title, they all make suggestions about exactly what it isill he fly? Dig? Or even go “gazelling”? It’s a great opportunity for reading partners to imagine and discuss what activities other species might think are the “Best Things in the World.”
So slowly, almost imperceptibly, Mervin’s arms are lifting up. Does this offer any clues to impatient readers? Will he fight a shark? Turn into a robot? The animals wait, wait, wait. Their quirky speech bubbles get quieter, then a little testy, before they stride off to more thrilling adventures. But Red Panda patiently persists – he must know Mervin better than anyone. In fact, he just might be Mervin’s best friend!
Chan masterfully builds suspense by adding comic critters one by one onto a simple background, allowing young readers to get to know their personalities through goofy expressions and funny speech bubbles. By the middle of the book, the pages have filled with a colorful riot of animals, bubbles, and letters crowding Mervin, who steadfastly maintains his center stage placement. Venable’s simple, silly dialogue compels readers to continue flipping pages until the final reveal.
It’s high time that a picture book combined a red panda and a sloth as main characters, and Mervin the Sloth is About to do the Best Thing in the Worldwill definitely appeal to young readers that appreciate their comic and cuddly friendship.
Click here for Mervin’s sloth-themed paper craft and more!
Where Obtained: I reviewed a copy of Mervin the Sloth is About to do the Best Thing in the World from the publishers and received no other compensation. The opinions expressed here are my own.
WE FOUND A HAT Written and illustrated by Jon Klassen (Candlewick Press; $17.99, Ages 3-7)
We Found a Hat concludes Jon Klassen’s terrific hat trilogy. In this book, two turtles find a hat. One hat. It looks good on both of them, creating a dilemma.
Unlike Klassen’s other “hat” books, this one is told in three parts: Finding the Hat, Watching the Sunset, and Going to Sleep. Each section advances the story with Klassen’s expected deadpan humor. With slim text (less than two hundred words), the images carry the story.
As night begins to fall in the desert, the two turtles settle in. One, however, can’t quite take his eyes off the hat. We expect the turtle to misbehave—that’s been the theme in the other two books. Does it? As the stars come out and the other turtle falls asleep, we find out.
Jon Klassen is the author and illustrator of many award-winning books, including the first two books in the hat trilogy: Caldecott Medal recipient, This is Not My Hat, and the Theodor Seuss Geisel award winner, I Want My Hat Back. His minimal text and clever illustrations meld to bring us unexpected conclusions.
DEAR DRAGON Written by Josh Funk Illustrated by Rodolfo Montalvo (Viking BYR; $16.99, Ages 4-8)
★ starred review – Kirkus Reviews
Back in the olden days when kids still wrote letters, I had a pen pal named Melanie Vafiades from London. I never met her so for all I know she could have been a dragon like George’s pen pal in dear Dragon (I mean don’t most dragons live there?), or perhaps she was a unicorn (England’s full of enchanted forests, right?). I’m all for active imaginations and making new friends sight unseen which is exactly what author Josh Funk’s new picture book inspires. Kids’ll love the premise of this endearing story that pairs human students (unbeknownst to them but not their teachers) with dragons as pens pals.
Between Funk’s cheerful, well-paced rhyming text (the students were told to put their correspondence in verse) and Montalvo’s light-hearted, inviting illustrations, readers will get a strong sense of how the two main characters grow from being reluctant about having to actually write something to someone they don’t know, and do it in rhyme no less, to discovering interesting things about each other over the course of the assignment.
The illustrations capture how George, the human, and Blaise, the dragon, innocently interpret the descriptions in each other’s letters based on their personal paradigms. Consider George’s science project volcano (see first image above) as compared to Blaise’s real one, or George’s backyard cardboard fort (see second image) versus Blaise’s and you’ll get the point both author and illustrator have humorously driven home. As the two students continue to write, readers will notice the degree of familiarity increase with every new letter. What ensues when our earthbound boy and his new flying, fire-breathing friend ultimately meet up in person can only be described as pure positivity in picture book form. Funk’s story presents the perfect opportunity to reinforce the important message that you simply cannot judge a book by its cover, although the cover of dear Dragon is pretty darned adorable!
It’s the adventure of a lifetime when best friends—and self-proclaimed superheroes—defeat bad guys of their own invention.
It’s wonk ’em time when Bucky and Stu have to stand up to Phat Tyre, TrashMan and Hose-Nose. No matter that the bad guys are all made out of household items that Bucky and Stu have assembled themselves—these bad guys don’t stand a chance against the boys’ power moves. Still, it’s quite a surprise when their latest villain, the giant Mikanikal Man, gets zapped during a lightning storm and comes to life! The battle—and thrill—of a lifetime ensue. Full of surprises and laughs, this upbeat, action-packed story celebrates imagination, creativity, and friendship in even the most unexpected forms. Cornelius Van Wright’s hilarious illustrations are full of surprises and are perfect for portraying the high-speed antics of two enthusiastic boys.
Q & A:
GRWR: This is a wonderfully imaginative and humorous tale that actually encourages and celebrates make believe and pretend play. How or when did the seed of this story get planted in your mind?
Cornelius Van Wright: Thank you for your kind compliment. The seed to this story came a couple of years ago when I painted a picture of a boy playing chess with a robot. I painted it for fun but people asked me what was the story behind it. So I thought about the picture and slowly this story came to me.
GRWR: As an author/illustrator, does the story come first or do you picture the characters and draw them then see where they take you?
CVW: For me the images always come first. I tried writing words first but it did not work for me. I see the world in images.
GRWR:Bucky and Stu remind me of so many kids at this age – inventive and full of big ideas. Were you primarily interested in exploring the friendship aspect of this book or the adventure the boys seek?
CVW: The relationships came before everything else. Bucky and Stu’s adventure is based on their relationship and that relationship extends to the Mikanikal Man.
GRWR:Is there one particular spread in the book that’s your favorite and why?
CVW: Visually I enjoyed the scene when the boys face certain DOOM after ticking off Mikanikal Man. But story wise, I care for the scene where The Mikanikal Man Spins Bucky and Stu around and around and the boys say, “We can fly!” This was the boys’ inner dream becoming reality.
GRWR:Do tummy rumbles take your mind off whatever you’re doing like they do for Stu and the Mikanikal Man?
CVW: Yes, this part is autobiographical.
GRWR:Are the boys modeled after anyone you know?
CVW: Bucky and Stu are modeled after two friends I met my first year in college. One was very thin and angular (Bucky) and his best buddy was rounder with shaggy blond hair (Stu). I always wondered what they were like as kids. So this was my first sketch of what I thought they would look like.
GRWR:What would you like the takeaway for readers of this story to be?
CVW: I would love for kids to play using their creativity and imagination.
GRWR:Who were some of your favorite authors and illustrators as a child and who do you admire now?
CVW: As a child my mother bought me lots of Little Golden Books and Big Little Books (many of which I still have). Today I admire Jerry Pinkney’s art and Mo Willems’s and Oliver Jeffers’s storytelling.
GRWR:What would you use in your office to build your own Mikanikal Man?
CVW: Lots of Amazon boxes and empty towel rolls!
GRWR:Can you tell us what you’re working on now?
CVW: I am continuing exploring kids going into imaginative lands and using their wits (and anything else on hand) to get them out of trouble! I make the sketches into books (with Scotch Tape bindings) and show them to publishers.
Check out the downloadable CCSS-aligned curriculum guide here.
Cornelius Van Wright wrote and illustrated When an Alien Meets a Swamp Monster, and has also illustrated several other picture books, including Princess Grace (by Mary Hoffman) and Jingle Dancer (by Cynthia Leitich Smith). His work has appeared on Reading Rainbow and Storytime and has been exhibited with the Society of Illustrators. He lives in New York City.
BRINGING THE OUTSIDE IN Written by Mary McKenna Siddals Illustrated by Patrice Barton (Random House BYR; $17.99, Ages 3-7)
The essence of childhood play is beautifully conveyed in Mary McKenna Siddals’ sing songy picture book, Bringing the Outside In. In this ode to outdoor pleasures, four pals spend carefree time galavanting in nature and their joy is contagious. Siddals’ rhymes and Barton’s seasonal artwork make every page loads of fun to read aloud and look at any time of year.
I must add here that even if there were no lovely, action-filled illustrations by Patrice Barton, you could still imagine the scene easily: kids dashing about with rain jackets and umbrellas, splishing and sploshing to their hearts’ content. Whether in the garden or at the beach, in the rain or in the snow, the children always find something to do outside. Then, when they’re inside, they can delight in the memory of having been together by looking at photos.
Siddals has included simple yet catchy repetition to engage the youngest of readers who’ll want to have the story read over and over. Bringing the Outside In is a great book to encourage outdoor play with the promise of wonderful treasures of nature to discover everywhere.
WHERE’S THE PARTY? Written and illustrated by Ruth Chan (Roaring Brook Press; $17.99, Ages 3 to 6)
– is reviewed today by Cathy Ballou Mealey.
Filled with silly charm and endearing characters, Ruth Chan’s debut picture book WHERE’S THE PARTY? is a cheerful delight for fans of parties, plans, cats and cake.
Georgie, our furry feline hero, is the hostess with the mostest when it comes to special celebrations. He’s gathered friends for pool parties, topiary competitions, Pie Day, and ice cream truck fests. So it is no surprise when he wakes up with a smile on his face, ready to plan a spectacular party, choose the biggest cake in the bakery, and invite all his friends.
With his furry arms wrapped around a triple-tiered pink, white and blue party cake, Georgie sets out to each friend’s doorstep to issue his invitations in person. Alas, his best friend Feta the dog is too busy making pickles, and Lester the mouse has to untangle a string of lights. Ferdinand the mole can’t be enticed from his hole, and Sneakers (non-specific species) is intently snipping away at his latest evergreen masterpiece.
One by one, Georgie realizes he will not be able to round up any guests for his fiesta. His party hat droops, his whiskers dangle dejectedly, and he nibbles at the party cake to console himself. Eventually it is dark and there is no cake remaining, so Georgie trudges home. But wait, it can’t end there can it? No! Of course one’s picture book friends always come through in magnificent fashion, and it is best to discover the tiny, delightful details for oneself.
Chan’s critters are simple and goofy, with exaggerated features like buck teeth, floppy ears, and fanged underbites. Georgie the cat is a wide-eyed, cuddly character, full of strong feelings that he expresses clearly in toddler-like fashion. Chan tucks tiny, noteworthy details into every illustration, slyly winking at urban architectural excesses and applying silly Scarry-style labels on mugs, posters and cross-stitch samplers.
A super fun Activity Guide available on the publisher’s website provides a cake recipe, printable cake toppers, a party hat pattern, games and coloring pages. Download your own at this link and get ready to party!
ROSE AND THE WISH THING A Journey of Friendship Written and Illustrated by Caroline Magerl (Doubleday Books for Young Readers; $16.99, Ages 3 – 7)
… is reviewed today by Cathy Ballou Mealey
A delicate, rich tale, Rose and the Wish Thingis, as its subtitle suggests, a “journey of friendship” between a young girl and the magical creature that springs from her imagination as the result of a wish.
On the first page, Rose stares wistfully, perhaps glumly, from her window. She’s a small figure looking out at a large, unfamiliar cityscape. Boxes are unpacked, and Mama puts her to bed with stories and shadow puppets, but Rose can’t sleep. She looks out from her new window with a telescope that resembles a simple, curled cardboard tube. Then she wishes for … something. Far away, that something – a long eared, soft muzzled furry critter – awakes. Straightaway, it sets off on a journey to Rose in a battered, tagged, stamped box.
And what a journey! In enthralling double page spreads Magerl depicts the creature riding gondola- style through a snowy mountain pass, then blown higher than the clouds by a striped sail, and washed over turbulent seas above cresting waves. These elegant travel scenes, intricately hashed with tiny black lines, show the tiny animal, brave and steadfast, battling the elements on its quest.
Rose waits. And waits. She snuggles with her dog, beats a saucepan drum, draws her wish creature, and worries that the thing will not come. Eventually her family begins to help in her search, heading out into their new city to find the sea and “listen to the hush and growl of the waves.” The box and the creature finally reach their destination, washing near the pier. Rose’s mother helps her stretch far, far out to pluck her new friend from the water.
Magerlalternates the large, exciting spreads of the Wish Thing’s journey with vignettes from Rose’s warm, caring home life, compelling the reader to keep turning the pages. The tale unfolds at a gentle pace, perfectly balanced between lilting text and soft, misty illustrations. The mysterious look of the Wish Thing, accompanied on its travels by playful flying fish-birds, adds to the enchanting, magical air of the story.
This Australian import, first published under the title Hasel and Rose will fascinate young readers who ponder faraway lands or imagine unconventional travel. For those who have also felt new and alone, this tale of longing and friendships found will touch a deep chord.
Reviewed by Cathy Ballou Mealey
Where Obtained: I reviewed a copy of ROSE AND THE WISH THING from the publisher and received no other compensation. The opinions expressed here are my own.