You know that fab feeling you get when you hear a good joke and notice the corners of your mouth pushing out a huge smile? Well that’s also the feeling you and your children will get when reading B. J. Lee’s boisterous new book,There Was An Old Gator Who Swallowed a Moth with illustrations by David Opie. Yes, all it takes is one hungry alligator to get the action going in this Florida-animals-themed variation of the beloved cumulative rhyme There Was an Old Woman Who Swallowed a Fly and reminiscent of kidlit fave, A Fly Went By.
Soaking up the sun and minding his own business, the titular gator finds a winged visitor has landed on his snout. You can guess what happens but still be teased to read on.
“There was an old gator who swallowed a moth. I don’t know why he swallowed the moth. It made him cough.”
Gator then goes on to swallow a crab (I mean it did give him a jab!) And the slew of Sunshine State creatures eventually eaten also includes an eel, a ray, a pelican (see above), a panther, and a manatee. Opie’s illustration of ALL the animals squished inside gator’s stomach is spot on and one of my faves, but the one above where there’s still some room gives you a good idea of the vibe going on. While reading the book, be sure to take note of the expressions and body language depicting how no one wants to be anywhere near crab’s pinching claws.
You may think that when the gator swallows the shark his tummy will be full, but no, he and Lee don’t stop there and that’s exactly why the (belly) laughs will linger with every page turn. What a humorous way to learn about survival of the fittest in a Florida setting!
This guy’s just greedy enough and silly enough to gulp down the entire lagoon which pushes him beyond capacity if you get my drift. In a series of hysterical illustrations that work wonderfully together with Lee’s terrific tale, it’s conveyed how totally stunned and slightly repulsed the ejected animals are. And if the above artwork doesn’t hint at a whopping “Get ready! I’m about to go gator-wild!” I don’t know what will!
Share this fun story with anyone you know who loves a rip-roaring read aloud and watch the grins grow along with the gator’s gut.
ANGRY COOKIE Written by Laura Dockrill Illustrated by Maria Karipidou (Walker Books; $16.99, Ages 3-7)
Written byLaura Dockrilland illustrated byMaria Karipidou, Angry Cookie is a hilarious and clever way to engage young children with the topic of emotions. Ironically, the conversation begins because of Angry Cookie’s every effort to shut us out.
On the book jacket, Cookie warns us readers with an adorably menacing look, “You opened the book! You better not read it … I am very angry, and there is NOTHING you can do about it!” He calls us (silly) names, he bids us an abrupt farewell, and even tries to end the story prematurely with a curt “The end.”
Try as he may, he knows he can’t get rid of us. In fact, our presence begins to slowly shed light on his dark mood. Though he may feel anger gives him a sense of power, we see it’s his way of protecting his hurt feelings. Dockrill’s sense of humor creates a safe space for children to approach the issue of anger and the multiple layers of emotion it masks. When you’re angry every little thing gets on your nerves—even the fact that you have to use the “grown-up spicy” toothpaste when the “delicious, yummy, strawberry-pudding” one ran out. But it’s never about the toothpaste … or the bad haircut … or the ice cream parlor running out of your favorite “most wonderful vanilla sundae.” Underneath the anger, feelings of rejection, pain, and loneliness trouble Cookie. Illustrations wonderfully balance this vulnerable side of the story. Karipidou’s soft pastels create a friendly space with Cookie being at the center of many pages, drawing our attention to his voice (and, on two occasions, his butt!).
Once his anger is gone, Cookie can finally see the truth—that the person he found “annoying” is really the friend he needed to care about him and lend a listening ear. Feeling validated, Cookie can shed off his former perspective and start enjoying the things that previously bothered him. He can separate himself from his feelings and recognize that, though he was acting like a “grumpy lump,” he’s not the same cookie anymore.
This book is a wonderful resource parents, educators, and caregivers can use to talk to young children about how anger feels as they’re going through it themselves or when they notice it in someone else. Angry Cookie will leave readers feeling anything by angry.
A LITTLE CHICKEN Written by Tammi Sauer Illustrated by Dan Taylor (Sterling Children’s Books; $16.95, Ages 4 and up)
If your child enjoys sweet, pun-filled, read-aloud stories with an enjoyable mix of humorous artwork, a relatable subject and “the occasional lawn ornament,” pick up a copy of A Little Chicken to meet adorable Dot.
While not all poultry are petrified of every little thing, Dot sure is. From Taylor’s very first illustration in this picture book, readers will see from her school photo that Dot, the chicken, is being frightened by a spider. (NOTE: don’t miss the end papers.) She was indeed a scaredy cat chicken. Wolves, bears and even a lovely, fluttery butterfly terrified her.
Things went from scary to hairy pretty darn quickly when one day Dot knocked an egg out of the coop. Of course this was unintentional, but regardless, she couldn’t let her “soon-to-be sibling” roll away. Dot dashed for the egg but it remained just out of reach with funny obstacles around every corner. As the egg’s momentum carried it off towards the deep dark woods, Dot had to decide if she had it in her to brave the unknown. Was she more than fluff? ABSOLUTELY! She may have been a little chicken but she also knew what mattered in life.
This highly readable, entertaining picture book is perfect for parents prone to making sound effects. It cleverly lets youngsters know it’s okay to have fears but facing them may sometimes yield amazing results, in this case a precious baby sister.
Author Tammi Sauer’s chosen to focus on fear in a way that honors this feeling and provides an easy in for a discussion about this topic with children. The story flows smoothly and little ones will be rooting for Dot along with her farmyard fan club. Sauer’s wonderful way with words is evident in A Little Chicken and she uses all the right ones though quite economically because Dan Taylor’s hilarious illustrations say so much. All the animal characters that inhabit Dot’s world are not scary nor are the lawn ornaments. In fact, I rather hope they’ll make an appearance in another story. Definitely take a crack at this recommended read!
ABRAHAM LINCOLN PRO WRESTLER TIME TWISTERS BOOK ONE Written by Steve Sheinkin Illustrated by Neil Swaab (Roaring Brook Press; $13.99, Ages 7-10)
Don’t let the title, Abraham Lincoln Pro Wrestler, convince you that this totally entertaining and educational read is comprised of our 16th president traipsing around in a wrestling singlet. It is actually the first in a clever fiction chapter book series that features lots of laugh out load moments that kept me turning the pages to see how the two main characters, step-siblings Abby and Doc, would pull off some whimsical time travel twists that bring Abraham Lincoln’s presidency to life but could also change the course of history.
The story unfolds with the kids in Ms. Maybee’s history class being instructed to read aloud from their textbook section about Honest Abe. When the teacher tries to get her students involved, the general reaction is a resounding “BORING!” It turns out, though, that their disinterest has negatively impacted historical figures including Lincoln. Because of that, when Ms. Maybee’s class attempts to read about America’s influential president and his profound impact on our country’s history, the students can only find references to Abraham Lincoln essentially doing zilch—”sitting in a chair, reading or heading off to the outhouse.”
In an interesting scene that sets the stage for all the story’s zany action, Lincoln travels to the present to offer words of caution. “Saying I’m boring, groaning in agony when it comes time to read about history. As I said, today was just a warning. If you do it again—well, you’ll see.” The next attempt to study the 16th president also fails, but instead of Lincoln returning to the library storage room to warn Abby and Doc, Doc disappears into the same box (portal) that brought Lincoln to the present from 1860 Illinois. Abby follows and the two wind up outside of Lincoln’s house. There they meet Lincoln and his wife, Mary who tells them the election is tomorrow. With her husband no longer caring, Mary and the kids are worried. “Then we’re doomed! … The country will break apart! Everything we have worked for—all thrown away!” The kids feel awful, certain they’ve screwed with fate, especially after their dad, Mr. Douglass, also a teacher, impresses upon the two how important history is. “But knowing history makes you smarter, helps you understand the world better. Mostly, it’s just fun.”
The problem is Doc and Abby now need to get Abraham Lincoln engaged again while also getting their classmates to realize how much history matters. This may not be easy. When Lincoln hears about a school fundraiser, a pro wrestling match scheduled for that evening, he’d much rather quit the past and attend the big event. He just happens to be in the National Wrestling Hall of Fame! At the same time, Doc has time travelled back to election day with the gym teacher, Mr. Biddle, who earlier dressed as Honest Abe (a term he despised) for a special surprise presentation at school. His goal: get the real Lincoln concerned enough to step back into his rightful place and accept the presidency. I especially liked this part because of all the facts about Lincoln that Sheinkinshares and how the two Abes get up to all sorts of shenanigans along with Abby and Doc. There’s so much humor infused into this history lesson that readers will not even realize how much fun they’re having learning about a time when our country was so “bitterly divided, mainly over the issue of slavery.” Kids will breeze through the eighteen chapters and will be delighted to learn there are more books available already in this pleasing series. The cartoon-like illustrations by Swaab add to the silliness as well as offer an easy way into absorbing history for the more reluctant readers.
While I never tire of alphabet books, I do see quite a lot so honestly, the more distinct, the better to catch my eye and then keep me reading. Owls Are Good at Keeping Secrets: An Unusual Alphabet fits that bill to a T. Tt: Toads are terrific at tongue twisters. See what I mean?
O’Learydoesn’t waste a minute pulling readers into her adorable, smile inducing descriptions for every animal she’s included. In fact, I bet she had a blast coming up with all their different personality traits and quirks, helping to set this picture book apart from others. Some will catch you off guard: Dd: Dragons cry at happy endings. I love that there are no flames involved, just pure emotion and Pp: Penguins love a big family get-together.Who knew they were such party animals? My fave, the one that gets me laughing out loud, is Rr: Raccoons are always the first to arrive for a party because that sounded just like me. Which letters will resonate with your child? Will it be Ww: Wolves don’t like being told to smileor possibly Yy: Yaks giggle at their own jokes? Find alligators, elephants, meerkats and many more and use the often funny, thought-provoking descriptions to start a conversation about what makes everyone unique.
The choice of animals and their clever corresponding stories will entertain even those who feel they’re too old for alphabet books. Grant’s charming artwork in a warm, muted color scheme with ample white space allows the focus to center on the endearing animals and their actions. From photograph-taking foxes in the field with a parent waiting in the den below to a hedgehog observing the night sky, there is something for everyone in Owls Are Good at Keeping Secrets, an especially appealing approach to learning the letters A-Z.
Teach Your Giraffe to Ski. Although the chalet is cozy, nothing will deter Giraffe from donning skis and gliding with ease. A cautious child protagonist sticks close by, offering emotional support and practical advice to the novice skier.
Elbee adeptly mixes humor with tips on safety, etiquette and introductory ski technique. Giraffe grins through the typical goofs and gaffes associated with learning something new. Eager and fearless, Giraffe’s enthusiasm is tempered by the child’s caution and protective concern. Once she’s mastered the basics, they head to The Big Scary Slope! Readers will cling to the edge of their lift seats anticipating a slick, speedy, swerving conclusion to this snowy, sporting tale.
Gowdy’s cartoon-like illustrations are bright and colorful, incorporating a playful menagerie of unlikely skiers. The gleeful expressions of Giraffe and timid trepidation of the child are counterbalanced between spots and full page spreads. Slipping, sliding and gliding are conveyed via whipping scarf tails, swerving ski trails and exuberant snowy splatters. Whether you are bunny slope bound, black diamond material, or even a lodge loafer, Teach Your Giraffe to Skiis tons of fun.
Scarlet finds a magic paintbrush that does her bidding, creating fairies, unicorns and princesses that are perfect masterpieces. But losing the magic brush creates a dilemma for Scarlet. After she searches high and low for the magic brush, she tries painting with regular, non-magical brushes. While the results disappoint her, she doesn’t give up. In a clever twist, Stoller makes her protagonist get creative; painting with her left hand, trying a homemade brush and even using her fingers.
Sonke fills the pages with soft blue clouds and sparkling stars, framing Scarlet and her range of canvases with colorful detail. The magic paintbrush has emotional, animated expressions, and observant readers will enjoy following a faithful pooch that trails Scarlet throughout her artistic quest.
Scarlet’s Magic Paintbrushis an open invitation for young artists to explore ideas of perfection and frustration when it comes to mastering technique and finding a personal style. The magical paintbrush element will appeal to many, while the celebration of self-expression and creativity ultimately shine as the most important aspect of original work. A perfect book to pair with paint and canvas for budding artists!
Reviewed by Cathy Ballou Mealey
Where obtained: I reviewed either an advanced reader’s copy from the publisher or a library edition and received no other compensation. The opinions expressed here are my own.
MAXIMILLIAN VILLAINOUS Written by Margaret Chiu Greanias Illustrated by Lesley Breen Withrow (Running Press; $16.99, Ages 4-8)
THE REMEMBER BALLOONS Written by Jessie Oliveros Illustrated by Dana Wulfekotte (Simon and Schuster; $17.99, Ages 5-9)
are reviewed today by Cathy Ballou Mealey.
The monster members of Max’s family cannot understand why he is SO good and not at all villainous, as they are. MAXIMILLIAN VILLAINOUS is kind, helpful and constantly scrambling to make amends for his family’s mischievous misdeeds. When Max brings home a bunny, his family decides to offer him the ultimate test. He must complete three devious, villainous tasks in order to keep his sweet, fluffy and otherwise unsuitable pet.
Max and bunny do try to tackle their tricky To Do list, but they are too nice! They fail repeatedly and humorously, although they persist in finding creative solutions. Eventually Max begins to despair that he can succeed in behaving badly. Will he be forced to give up his beloved rabbit? With comic antics and heart-tugging earnestness, eager readers will be delighted to discover whether Max and his bunny can uncover a solution that saves the day.
Withrow’s adorable illustrations are colorful, bright and filled with expression. Max and his family are clearly monsters, adorned with horns, fangs and claws, but they are also incredibly child-friendly, cute and appealing. Clever, whimsical elements are tucked onto every page for young readers to discover. Greanias’ playful dialogue and crisp pacing enhance the odds that MAXIMILLIAN VILLAINOUS will become a read-it-again, monstrous favorite in many homes.
In THE REMEMBER BALLOONS, debut author Oliveros features a three-generation family coping with an elderly grandfather’s memory loss. Using colored balloons to represent treasured memories, each family member carries bunches ranging from small to large. “This one’s my favorite,” says the young boy narrator as he points to a blue balloon. It’s filled with special scenes from his birthday party. “When I look at it I can see the pony again. I can still taste the chocolate frosting.”
But Grandpa’s balloons are beginning to slip away, one by one, as his memories start to fade. The narrator struggles with sadness and anger as he witnesses his grandfather’s decline, metaphorically paired with the shrinking number of balloons. His helplessness is palpable, as is his deep love for his grandfather. When even a most precious memory of a special fishing trip is lost, the boy’s parents step in to offer consolation. Although it is bittersweet when the boy discovers that the number of his balloons continues to grow, the tale arrives at a comforting and heartwarming conclusion that will satisfy all.
Wulfekotte’s adept illustrations place detailed vignettes of special memories within a broad spectrum of delicately tinted balloons. The family, in soft, black and white lines and gray shading, is often nestled in close, companionable connection. Settings are simple and understated, allowing the significance of the balloons to hold the focus.Oliveros uses clear, direct language to relay this poignant story in a manner that keeps it accessible for a wide range of readers. THE REMEMBER BALLOONS beautifully expresses the enduring love and importance of family memories in a gracious and meaningful book. Kirkus, starred review
Reviewed by Cathy Ballou Mealey
Where obtained: I reviewed either an advanced reader’s copy from the publisher or a library edition and received no other compensation. The opinions expressed here are my own.
THE LYING KING Written and illustrated by Alex Beard (Greenleaf Book Group Press; $17.95, Ages 4-8)
★Starred Review – Kirkus
Alex Beard’sfourth book in his Tales from the Watering Hole series is the fifty-four-page picture book, The Lying King. The bright-white uncluttered backgrounds direct focus to a self-confident warthog lacking a moral compass who aspires to be king. Though the animals notice his misbehavior, they merely “think on it sadly,” too few willing to vocalize their concerns. The warthog’s lies begin small but soon (outrageously) propel him to leadership.
Clever illustrations enhance the story line’s depth. Beard’s stylistic swirls found on the main character are echoed in the beautifully drawn peacocks and in some of the birds. The king’s fanciful crown has four tall spire-shaped points topped with ruby-red accents. Rhyming hand-lettered text gives the book a handcrafted feel.
Comical asides add another layer of fun. In a scene where the text states, “He turned loyal subjects against one another, by making each question the aims of the other,” the side note has the king declaring, “White zebras with black stripes are better than black zebras with white stripes.” In response, the zebras concernedly ask one another, “Which are you?”
While parents may read The Lying King as a political allegory, children will delight in the modern images and engaging rhyme offset by a story that feels old-fashioned. Parabolic lessons include the importance of being honest, fair, and authentic.
Ultimately, the piggish king’s words ensnare him. Awakening from their stupor, the kingdom’s animals realize, “A lying pig should not be the king.”
It’s bedtime and Grace begins sharing her day with her father who gently reflects her feelings: disappointment at not being able to wear her purple shirt, anger at finding out her favorite cereal is “all gone,” repentance for having lashed out at Mom, and betrayal for not being recognized for her creativity (in using a purple marker to transform her white shirt into her favorite color). As spunky Grace narrates her day, it’s clear to us readers she’s more concerned about telling a good story than disobeying her parents. “No, Silly, you can’t run away to your room,” she tells her dad after he incorrectly assumes the bedroom is her go-to runaway hideout. I like how Dad playfully adds to the drama of her story: “Like a princess in a tower,” he compares her to after Grace explains she was “Banished to [her] bedroom.”
These endearing exchanges between father and daughter are enhanced by Ongaro’s colorful illustrations. Double page spreads guide the story. On the left side of the page we see the written words (Dad’s words are in orange and Grace’s are in purple-of course!) and the day’s events are illustrated on the right. This technique makes reading the story, for even very little ones, easy and fun to follow. Hand sketched and digitally colored, the illustrations feel warm and safe, especially in details like the scalloped fringes on Mom’s sleeves and kitchen tablecloth.
While the subject matter of running away can be controversial, the lighthearted interaction between parent and child encourages respect and space for children’s emotions. After all, when Grace finally decides to run away, she remembers and obeys a fundamental house rule. “I’m not allowed to cross the street!” she tells her father and solves her predicament by following her mother’s suggestion. Camped out in the yard, Grace is in her pop up tent, steps away from the kitchen and Mom’s cookies. In fact, this presence of food (and the comfort it connotes) I felt was a quiet nod to Where the Wild Things Are. Max returns from his adventure to find dinner on the table, piping hot–as if he never really ran away from home in the first place.
While our darker emotions can make us feel miles away, our parents’ love and validation always bring us back home.
(A Neal Porter Book/Roaring Brook Press; $17.99, Ages 4-8)
★Starred Reviews – Booklist, Kirkus
Aaron Reynolds (Creepy Carrots, a Caldecott Honor winner) channels his inner dude to bring us Dude! a one-word, wickedly funny 40-page picture book featuring a beaver and platypus who go surfing. The ingenuity of this book is how the inflections of one word carry the story line.
Kids will delight in this amusing friendship story that includes bird poop and ice cream—not together, of course. Dude! can be joyfully read aloud by all ages, encouraging the reader to act out the word with enthusiasm.
The no-trees-were-killed digital art by Dan Santat (The Adventures of Beekle: The Unimaginary Friend, Caldecott Medal winner) adds lively and colorful action to the text. Each character’s facial expression captures the moment. And, if you’ve ever wondered how a shark can wear a pair of swimming trunks, you’ll find the answer here.
Beyond the text and illustrations, this book can be an opening for a conversation about the ability to interpret vocal nuances and facial expressions. Or, Dude, just let the book add a scoop of fun to your day.
ALBIE NEWTON Written by Josh Funk Illustrated by Ester Garay (Sterling Children’s Books; $16.95, Ages 5-9)
Happy Book Birthday to author Josh Funk and illustrator Ester Garay on the publication of their terrific new picture book, Albie Newton, today! I know I’m not alone when I say how excited I get when a Josh Funk book arrives on my doorstep. I carefully unwrap the package, cradle the book in my hands, study the cover close up (this one’s a dazzling red I first saw when the cover was revealed on social media), smell the new book smell, feel the smoothness of the pages and then savor the surprise of his story. And, like previous Funk picture books, this one does not disappoint. It’s witty like so many of Funk’s books and is written with well-metered rhyme and no superfluous words or sentences to tell the tale of the titular main character. To put it another way, it simply works wonderfully like one of Albie Newton’s well constructed inventions!
Albie Newton is smart, but when his passion for inventing collides with his desire to make friends, it causes a bit of a brouhaha in his new preschool. Watch out what you’re doing fellow preschoolers because the new kid in class, Albie Newton, just may have his eye on what you’re playing with. The thing is that while Albie thinks his plan to “construct a special gift before the school day ends,” will win him friends, it ends up doing the opposite.
How’s a child prodigy to know? Taking things from others, whether it’s for your top secret invention or not, is not looked upon kindly by other kids. If you seem to show off too much or swipe things without asking, that’s bad manners. People may actually misconstrue such behavior and label it self-centered, single-minded and rude. Fortunately classmate Shirley is clued in. Certain kids excel in some ways and not in others. Shirley realizes Albie is oblivious to the havoc he is unintentionally wreaking and wonders if maybe his cool creation can take everyone’s mind off the mess he’s made trying to forge new friendships. Will they let Albie off the hook? As it turns out, Shirley’s one darn clever preschooler, only in a different way than Albie.
With Albie Newton, Funk has honed in on the meaningful topic of a child’s desire to make friends while not necessarily knowing how to do it. Just because Albie doesn’t know the right way to go about befriending others doesn’t mean he can’t learn how nor does it mean that having friends doesn’t matter to him.
Garay’s upbeat and eye-catching illustrations will charm and entertain Albie Newton readers. I would recommend looking at the artwork more than once to catch all the clever things she’s included. From the cute kitty, the fabulous facial expressions and the colorful kids’ clothing to the pictures hanging on the wall, random book titles and ultimately Albie’s invention itself, there is so much to enjoy. The diverse classroom population and student names also provide a positive representation for youngsters to see and hear when they read the picture book or are being read to.
Albie’s social skills may not be as fine tuned as his inventions, but that doesn’t mean his heart’s not in the right place. It often takes a caring person like classmate Shirley in this case, to gently lead the way.
BUT THE BEAR CAME BACK Written by Tammi Sauer Illustrated by Dan Taylor (Sterling Children’s Books; $16.95, Ages 4-6)
In the charming new picture book, But the Bear Came Back by Tammi Sauer with illustrations by Dan Taylor, it’s a classic case of “You Don’t Know What You Have Until It’s Gone” which so many of us know oh too well.
What’s an unsuspecting kid supposed to do? When a hulking brown bear toting a tiny blue suitcase knocks on his front door, eager to enter and become friends, a little boy (the story’s narrator) sends him away with the reminder that “bears do not belong in houses.” The sweet and gentle looking bear is persistent and on his second visit he’s got a flamingo in tow. Once again the big guy is told to leave. Determined to become pals, Bear returns not once but multiple times, intent on insinuating himself into the little lad’s life, all in the nicest possible way. Taylor’s tender and top notch illustrations clearly depict the boy’s displeasure with the bear’s benign presence, but it’s not easy to stop a bear from wanting to read together, paw paint or commandeer the bathtub.
When finally the story’s narrator yells for the bear to go home, Bear departs and doesn’t come back. That’s when the youngster soon finds out that doing things he had done with the bear are now no longer fun alone. So he enlists the help of his neighbors and posts missing bear signs in the vicinity. He even sets out a bowl of berries. When he’s finally convinced Bear will never return, the boy is delighted to get just one more knock on the door. The bear has come back and the narrator is truly grateful. The final line, “And that was that,” is a wonderful rhetorical device we see repeated many times throughout the story so that when Bear does indeed come back it is not only expected, but fitting and satisfying.
But the Bear Came Backprovides a welcome conversation starter to have with kids. I can imagine parents and/or teachers pausing at certain points while reading the story with children to chime in and say, “He sure didn’t appreciate Bear when he was around, did he?” or “Is this a good way to make a friend or keep one?” The narrator’s behavior in the beginning of the book versus in the end are examples of what the right and wrong ways to treat other people are, how to be respectful and how important it is to be grateful for our friends (old and new) and family because “You Don’t Know What You Have Until It’s Gone.”
I HAVE A BALLOON Written by Ariel Bernstein Illustrated by Scott Magoon (Paula Wiseman Books; $17.99, Ages 4-8)
It’s a clear and clever case of the balloon is always redder as opposed to the grass is always greener in Ariel Bernstein’s debut picture book, I Have a Balloonfeaturing illustrations by Scott Magoon. I absolutely adored this story because it not only took me back to my childhood, but reminded me of so many episodes I had to navigate with my children when the dreaded sharing demon reared its ugly head. I appreciated the slow, steady build up of this timeless tale that takes the dislike of sharing to humorous new heights.
Owl’s got a lovely red balloon he’s pretty darned pleased with. Monkey would like it. Owl says no. Persistent in his pursuit, Monkey offers to trade something of his in return. Owl’s not interested. But it would make Monkey SO HAPPY! Forget about it! Forget the teddy bear Monkey’s willing to swap. Or the sunflower. Or for that matter, the robot or the hand drawn picture of ten balloons. No. No. No. Not a ball or a pin. But something about the sock with a star and a perfectly shaped hole seems to suck Owl in. Suddenly the play potential of this single sock is just so appealing that the tides turn. Following creative, circular prose, readers end up at a similar point from where the drama of this delightful book began.
From the playful book jacket flap copy spoiler alert of: This is NOT a book about sharing to Bernstein’s spot on prose pitting Owl and his special, it’s mine and I’m not sharing it red balloon vibe to Monkey’s earnest desire to possess said balloon, I couldn’t read this book fast enough to find out what happens. From Magoon’s subtle yet oh so successful depictions of the the pair’s interaction (check out Owl’s expressive eyes!) to the perfect (and sweet) finish, I Have a Balloon is wonderfully entertaining. In fact I can’t think of a parent, teacher, caregiver or relative who hasn’t encountered this exact situation. Tightly told, tongue-in-cheek, and relatable, I Have a Balloon is guaranteed to garner grins when shared with kids. A truly treat of a read!
HOW TO GROW A DINOSAUR Written by Jill Esbaum and illustrated by Mike Boldt (Dial Books for Young Readers; $17.99; Ages 2-5)
If you’re looking for a gift for a child who is about to become an older sibling, look no further than Jill Esbaum’s hilarious and practical guide to big siblinghood, HOW TO GROW A DINOSAUR with artwork by Mike Boldt. Here’s a description from Penguin Random House:
Good news: Your mom’s hatching a baby! Bad news: Babies take their sweet time. And when the baby finally hatches? He’s too little to play! He mostly screeches, eats, burps, sleeps, and poops. He doesn’t even know he’s a dinosaur! That’s where you come in. You can teach the baby just about everything–from peek-a-boo to roaring to table manners to bedtime. Growing a dinosaur is a big job, but you’re perfect for it. Why? Because one thing your baby brother wants more than anything . . . is to be just like you.
INTERVIEW: I was lucky enough to sit down for a chat (via Facebook Messenger) with Jill to talk about the book, finding time to write, and the perks of being a kidlit author.
Colleen Paeff:I love the way HOW TO GROW A DINOSAUR is playful and funny, but it’s also a legitimate how-to guide for older siblings. Did the manuscript start out that way or did it evolve over time?
Jill Esbaum: Thanks, Colleen! That evolved over time. I wrote it to be a simple, entertaining book, but it sort of took on a life of its own. My editor grabbed onto the possibilities right away.
CP:Did you send it to your agent first or did it go straight to your editor?
JE: I sent it to my agent, Tricia Lawrence. I had my Dial editor, Jessica Dandino Garrison, in mind, though, and asked Tricia to send it to her first. It seemed like the kind of goofy humor she might like.
CP:So, you had worked with this editor before?
JE: Yes. We had worked together on both I HATCHED and I AM COW, HEAR ME MOO!
CP:Is it easier to work on something with an editor you’ve worked with before?
JE: Definitely, because you (sorta) know what might work for her/him and what probably won’t.
CP:How long was the process from first draft to publication for HOW TO GROW A DINOSAUR?
JE: I sent it to Tricia in May of 2015, and by October we had an offer. The process didn’t really start until March, when the contract was finally buttoned up. So March, 2016, to January, 2018. Not bad.
CP:Is that faster than usual? Or is that normal for you?
JE: That was about the same as my other recent books. I once waited nearly 5 years, though, so 2 years felt like lightning speed. My last 5 (or so) books have all been about 2 to 2 and a half years from sale to publication.
CP:Wow. That seems fast!
JE: Still seems fast to me, too. My earlier books were mostly 3-year books.
CP:I’m curious about the ratio of stories you write to stories you sell. Do you have many manuscripts in the proverbial “drawer” or do you sell most of what you write?
JE: That’s hard to say right now. My agent has 6-7 picture book manuscripts that started to make the rounds last year. Considering my entire career, though, I suppose I sell…50% of what I write? That’s probably just because I refuse to give up on some that deserve the drawer. I can’t help tinkering with rejected stories in hopes of making them irresistible the next time out. That persistence has often paid off for me. An offer came in last month for a picture book that had been rejected 7-8 times since I wrote it in 2014.
CP:Do you usually work on one project at a time or several?
JE: Several. Right now, I have a chapter book, 3 picture book manuscripts, and a nonfiction project all front and center on my computer desktop.
CP:Are you someone who writes every day or do you have a more flexible schedule? And how do you squeeze it in around farm work, grandchildren, school visits, and teaching a summer writing workshop?!
JE: I don’t feel like I’ve been doing a very good job of it lately, honestly. Working on that. But I can’t always make writing my priority. Family comes first, always. One thing that has also been squeezing out writing time lately is handling the business side of being published. I don’t love it, and it’s a huge time suck. Long, leisurely days of “Hmm, what should I work on first?” are VERY few and far between, these days.
CP:But it seems like you’re so prolific!
JE: I don’t feel that way. I always feel like I should be writing more. For instance, I wrote a quick draft of a new picture book and sent it to my online critique group about 10 days ago. They’ve all weighed in, and I’m chomping at the bit to start tweaking. But I haven’t yet been able to make the time. Part of that is because I have a new book out and am doing my best to promote it, including my first-ever launch party this next weekend. Partly it’s because the flu sidelined a grandson’s babysitter, so I stepped in there. Grammy duty is one of the best parts of my life!
CP:Is hanging out with your grandkids a big source of inspiration for you?
JE: It is! And I hadn’t really expected that. My fingers are tightly crossed for a project going to its final yes/no meeting next month that springs entirely from a moment I experienced while babysitting my granddaughter. Crazy.
CP:I know you write both fiction and nonfiction. Do you have a soft spot for one over the other?
JE: I suppose I have a soft spot for fiction, but only because that comes entirely from my own imagination, and it’s a blast to see that come to life. I love writing nonfiction, too, because all the information I need is easily available to me, and all I have to do is figure out a way to make it engaging for kiddos.
CP:Let’s get back to HOW TO GROW A DINOSAUR. I love the parts in the story where the text is vague, but the illustrations show something alarming, or moving, or downright hilarious. Did your manuscript go to the illustrator with art notes or was that all him?
JE: I did include brief art notes here and there. But much of it was left for the illustrator’s imagination. I don’t think I had an art note for the page in which the baby dino is teething on the cat. And that turned out to be one of my favorite illustrations.
CP:Yes! I love that one. And I love the one where the big brother roars and scares the baby. They both look so sad.
JE: I feel very fortunate that both Jessica and the illustrator, Mike Boldt, understood what I was trying to do.
JE: My favorited unexpected detail is that Mike inserted picture books here and there with titles that are plays on books of his or mine. There’s I Don’t Want To Be a Stegosaurus (from his book with Dev Petty, I Don’t Want To Be a Frog); I Hatched; and I Am T. Rex, Hear Me Roar! (from my I Am Cow, Hear Me Moo!) Too funny. Illustrators are brilliant.
CP:Yes! I love those, too. And I love how all the illustrations in the books are dinosaurs. It’s so clever.Did you see any artwork while it was in process or did you have to wait until it was complete?
JE: I did get to see the black and white sketches. It was obvious even then that this one would be special.
CP: Do you sometimes feel a sense of trepidation when you give up your manuscript to an illustrator?
JE: No, I never feel that way. I’m always excited to see what they bring to the story. Seeing their sketches feels like unwrapping a gift.
CP:What’s next for you?
JE: I have a couple of nonfiction books coming out in March. Picture book-wise, two projects are in the pipeline that I can’t yet talk about. And my fingers are tightly crossed for a third. Meanwhile, I’ll be writing whenever I can squeeze it in. Enough of that, and projects eventually get finished.
CP:What do you wish you’d known when you first started writing for children?
JE: I don’t think there’s anything I can say I wish I’d known. Getting to this point in my career has been one long, slow learning process, of course. But I can’t wish I’d had shortcuts, because everything that’s happened has made me a stronger writer.
CP:That’s good to know!
JE: The BEST thing that’s happened in the past 20 years: If anybody had told me, early on, that in 20 years I’d have this many amazing and talented author/illustrator friends all over the globe I would have thought that person was nuts. I mean, I live in Iowa; how would I meet them? Ha. Enter the internet. And SCBWI conferences and literature festivals. Meeting so many terrific book people has been one of the highlights of my life.
CP:It’s definitely one of the perks of this business. Thanks so much for doing this, Jill!
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.