Sy Montgomery’sNew York Times best-selling memoir, How to Be a Good Creature: A Memoir in Thirteen Animals, inspired the picture book, Becoming a Good Creature. Herein she conveys her beliefs that we can—and should—learn from animals. Montgomery’s fundamental messages include “respect others,” “find good teachers,” and “see for yourself.” She encourages us to take a closer look at the world and everything inhabiting it. In doing so, we are bound to “love little lives” and find ways to nurture them because we’re all in this together.
While naturalist and adventurer Montgomery has led an extraordinary life, traveling the world and living with animals, we don’t have to fly far away to find something worth exploring.
During the pandemic, my family has discovered and interacted with previously overlooked insects in our garden. Becoming a Good Creature reinforces such behavior. It also shows that women can make their own families and forge their own paths.
Rebecca Green’s paintings, full of delightful animals, depict Montgomery from girl through woman and showcase how curiosity inspired her positive interactions with animals around the globe. For example, alongside the beautifully poignant illustrations of an octopus, a young Montgomery wonders what could we possibly have in common with them; the answer is playing! This uplifting book stresses the importance of communication and caring—much-needed actions for successful coexistence on our planet.
Click herethen scroll down the page to learn more about Rebecca Green’s artwork.
Read a review of another picture book about animals here.
I love everything about travel, the new sights, smells, tastes, and sounds. And getting there is also a big part of the excitement. But right now, staying home during the pandemic means we have to find other ways to get that thrill. There are travel programs and international webcams to watch, online museums to visit, and best of all, there are books to read. Take advantage of the variety of books that kids of all ages can enjoy for unique vicarious experiences. I hope you’ll share these books so that, while at home, your children can adventure both near and far simply by turning a page.
Help your kids become global citizens by introducing them to a vast array of fascinating destinations in this fabulous board book series. The 28-pages in Tiny Travelers Treasure Quest: India provide an engaging illustrated journey into the heart of India. My first trip to India was over 30 years ago and yet that trip has remained with me all these years because of the scenic beauty, the delicious food, the warm, welcoming people, and the majesty of the monuments such as the Taj Mahal and the Red Fort. Kids, parents, teachers, and librarians will love how the book is filled with facts about the “language, history, food, nature, music, and more,” in every colorful spread. There’s a seek-and-find element woven into the text that parents can choose to play with their children during the first reading, or return to the next time. Top that off with the rhyming prose, “Bollywood movies / are one of a kind. / They have dancing, singing / and costumes combined!” and kids will be hooked. Find more info and books in the series including China, Mexico, Puerto Rico atTinyTravelers.com.
Covering 15 topics, My First Book of London, a large-format picture book, is just one title in this fun series that combines vibrant graphic illustrations, brief narrative and simple words to give an overview of the most well-known attractions and things to do in this beloved city. I actually laughed out loud when on the first spread I saw that for Buckingham Palace not only was Queen Elizabeth II included, but also a Corgi! I wasn’t quite sure why a fire engine was featured, (must look that up) but I’m glad that the “flag-waving crowd” and “Changing of the Guard” were depicted. Arrhenius has zeroed in on London’s museums, too, one of my favorite things about this city. There is a museum for everyone’s interests, from the famed British Museum with its mummy collection to the V&A Museum (Victoria & Albert), my personal fave. Use the book as a dictionary, as a seek-and-find book, or simply as a wonderful way to get familiar with what makes this English city so popular.
The fourth book in this beautifully illustrated U.S. travel series is Lulu and Rocky in Indianapolis, informational fiction that is part story, part travelogue, and 100% interesting! The books all feature fox cousins, main characters Lulu and Rocky, and their penguin pal Pufferson. There is a welcome consistency in how each story begins the same way making it easy to read the books out of order. First readers get a sneak peek at Aunt Fancy composing a letter, then comes a map of the featured city (in this Indiana’s state capital), followed by Lulu receiving the purple envelope in which Aunt Fancy invites her to bring Pufferson to meet up with Rocky at the destination. Once together the trio embarks on an adventure in a different city that will make you want to pack your bags and hit the road to join them. Kids’ll discover that there is so much more to the “Hoosier’s paradise” than the famed motor race. In the backmatter’s two-paged “More to Know” section, each attraction visited is described in more detail so you can plan a future trip to Indy. Make sure to include the Children’s Museum of Indianapolis, the largest children’s museum in the world!
Another picture book for armchair travelers is the detailed 50 Maps of the World, recommended for tweens. Not your mother’s atlas, this large-format book is an easy way for kids to connect with our world through travel, culture, historical and current famous personalities, geography and animals without leaving home. There is a helpful intro so kids know what to expect before diving in. What I love about this book is not just how good it feels to hold in your lap, but I also appreciate how much info has been packed into every page so there are multiple ways to approach it. Take South Africa for example. Sometimes you may pick up the book to learn the key facts about its largest cities, population, official languages, etc. Other times you may want to find out about its natural attractions such as Hole in the Wall, Tugela Falls, or Kruger National Park. You can even study a timeline or discover who once called this country home such as Elon Musk, cricketer De Villiers, Nelson Mandela, inventor Thato Kgatlhanye, or actress Charlize Theron.
What makes Cities in Layers so cool and accessible is how it takes kids back in time to two previous eras in history per city in addition to the present time via fact-filled pages, bright visual maps, as well as info about people who lived there. There’s even a cleverly designed “die-cut element,” that “allows readers to really peel back layers of time.” This visually appealing large-format, 64-page picture book will delight tweens as they see the changes in the six famous cities unfold right before their eyes. Starting with an intro and a timeline, the book then covers Rome, Italy; Istanbul, Turkey; Paris, France; Beijing, China; London, U.K.; and New York City, U.S.A. Cities in Layers would be the perfect companion to stories from those time periods. When looking at London from 1863, kids could learn about authors from the Victorian era, or they could read about the Great Depression when checking out the map of NYC from 1931. What’s interesting is that Steele has chosen different centuries to focus on for each city so while the pages for Paris zero in on 1380, 1793, and today, the section on Istanbul covers 550 ce, 1616 as well as the present day. A two-page spread at the end ponders what future cities will look like while addressing population growth, the scarcity of resources, and technology. This fascinating read combines history, maps, architecture, and progress with its unique perspective that will no doubt spark interesting discussions.
Did you know Srinivasa Ramanujan was one of the greatest mathematicians the world has seen? I didn’t, but was thankful to come across The Boy Who Dreamed of Infinity by Amy Alznauerand learn a little bit about this man whose amazing accomplishments are still studied today.
Born in a small South Indian village in 1887, Ramanujan began questioning the world at an early age: “What is small? And what is big?” He spent endless hours writing and erasing on his slate, trying to capture his thoughts about numbers and size. “Ramanujan was a number theorist, a person who studies the properties and patterns of numbers.” This book’s examples make these large concepts easy to understand such as when Ramanujan takes food to the man by the river who claims to see odd creatures that aren’t there. To this, Ramanujan says, “Sometimes even invisible things can be real.” Kids can relate to this while their parents have a greater understanding of what Ramanujan meant.
This self-taught genius felt alone with his thoughts until reaching out to Cambridge University in England because of its great mathematical center where he finally connects with top mathematician, G. H. Hardy (whose pamphlet on infinity Ramanujan had recently discovered). Just six years after making that connection, Ramanujan died in 1920, at the age of thirty-two. “The profound originality of his ideas has been a source of inspiration for mathematicians ever since.”
Daniel Miyares’s lovely illustrations show us Ramanujan’s India blended skillfully with the boy’s thoughts. One of my favorite scenes discusses how numbers whisper to Ramanujan in his sleep; he tries catching ideas before they disappear. The accompanying art has multiple images of Ramanujan leaping and climbing on numbers, set against a night sky. Get this book for the kid in your life with big thoughts—whether anyone else can see them or not.
Click here to order a copy of The Boy Who Dreamed of Infinity. e Disclosure: Good Reads With Ronna is now a Bookshop.org affiliate and will make a small commission from the books sold via this site at no extra cost to you. If you’d like to help support this blog, its team of kidlit reviewers as well as independent bookshops nationwide, please consider purchasing your books from Bookshop.org using our affiliate links above (or below). Thanks! e Recommended Reads for the Week of 10/19/20
One Day in the Life of You and 59 Real Kids from Around the World
Written and illustrated by Matt Lamothe
(Chronicle Books; $12.99, Ages 5-8)
This Is How I Do It by Matt Lamotheis a great activity book to open kids’ eyes to the lives of children around the world and get them thinking about their own. Following the success of his picture book, This Is How We Do It: One Day in the Lives of Seven Kids from around the World, Lamothe was inspired by how one teacher in particular in Fiji was using the book to have children document their lives. The result is this unique activity book that focuses on different aspects of 59 real children’s lives from countries as varied as America to Vietnam, Bangladesh to Uruguay.
This hands-on 56-page book not only documents almost 60 kids’ lives from around the globe, but it provides an opportunity for young readers to get introspective and fill in the blanks about their daily life (when not in a pandemic). There’s even a die-cut opening in the cover, an inviting feature for children to put in a picture of themselves or draw one. Kids will also find the cool looking postcards and stickers in the back matter appealing for use in their own artwork or on the postcards Lamothe’s designed. A bonus is a fold-out map both in color and labeled with all the countries covered in the book. There’s also a blank map kids can fill in with the names of the places where they’ve visited, lived or want to see in the future. Parents or teachers might want to share with kids/students the website www.thisishowwedoitbook.com where “great resources for communicating with other kids” can be found.
From the very beginning of the book, in the “This is me,” illustration, Lamothe welcomes readers into the book with the warm faces of four international children. This is followed by a spread of “Hello” labels featuring the greeting shown in different languages from China, Kenya, Ukraine, Israel, Ethiopia, Iraq, and Greece. Readers will see different types of housing, beautiful views from out the windows, as well as assorted clothing the kids wear, what they eat for breakfast, lunch and dinner, how they get around, where they learn, who their teachers are, how their food is cooked, and what they get up to in the evening.
I like that the examples given are never boring, sometimes unexpected, and always thought provoking. In “This is how I get around” children learn that Lurongdeji, from China, “lives with his mom and grandmother, who are both farmers. They use a modified motorcycle to get around.” The front is a motorcycle, but the back has been altered into an open truck bed for carrying crops, tools, animals or whatever! In a mouthwatering spread titled “This is a fruit or vegetable that grows near me,” I was surprised to see a picture of a red seaweed called dulse that is dried and eaten as a snack on the west coast of Ireland. My favorite illustration would have to be the one showing some favorite books read around the world with blank lines for kids to fill in with their favorite book, too. It’s nice that Lamothe ends the tour with bedtime and the places where some of the children in the story sleep at night. But this is anything but a bedtime book. It’s ideal for daytime reading and dreaming and will definitely give children stuck indoors a chance for interesting armchair travel.
Reviewed by Ronna Mandel
Click here to read Dornel Cerro’s review of This Is How We Do It.
I’m so happy to share this interview with popular SoCal author, Alexis O’Neill. Her new picture book biography introduces Jacob Riis, a determined New Yorker born in Denmark, to a new generation of readers. It’s hard not to feel as though you’ve traveled back in time as you learn about Riis, who is best known for his moving photographs of the plight of the poor tenement dwellers in the late 19th century and early 20th century.
In Jacob Riis’s Camera, a penniless immigrant, who becomes a reporter and social activist, uses new flash powder technology to illuminate desperate tenement living conditions and brings about changes for children and their families.
GOOD READS WITH RONNA:Did you happen upon Jacob Riis’s photos one day and find inspiration to write this picture book or did you intentionally set out to write his story?
ALEXIS O’NEILL: I’ve always been interested in photography and photographers. I used to live pretty much with a camera in my hand, and when I lived in central New York, I belonged to the Syracuse Camera Club, one of the oldest in the nation. I met Riis’s photos when I was researching child labor issues for other projects. Then later, I read his autobiography, The Making of an American. He wrote so vividly and personally that I felt as if he were right beside me, chatting with me in my living room. That’s when I knew I wanted to write a book about him.
GRWR:Despite my familiarity with Riis’s haunting b + w photos, I had no idea how influential he had been during his lifetime. What fact or facts about Riis surprised you the most?
AON: I was really surprised that Riis didn’t consider himself a photographer. In fact, he later carelessly tossed his glass plate negatives into his attic. Then, just before a wrecking ball was about to destroy the family home, the images were rescued, thanks to photographer Alexander Alland, Sr., and donated by Riis’s son, Roger William, to the Museum of the City of New York.
GRWR:Riis was a champion of the poor as early as his youth in Denmark. What impact would you say his photos have had on the way this segment of our society is treated?
AON: Riis’s photos were revolutionary. They inspired accountability and gave documentary evidence that helped force compliance of landlords with sanitary and building regulations.
GRWR: How big a role did Riis’s immigrant background play in his career?
AON: Like most immigrants, he had a driving work ethic. He was an educated Dane with carpentry skills, but he had a hard time finding work in America. He did all kinds of menial tasks in order to survive. He experienced homelessness and hunger. He experienced injustices and wanted to fix them—not just for himself, but for others.
GRWR: Is there a particular photo of Riis’s that particularly resonates with you?
AON: To me, his most heartbreaking photo is “The Baby’s Playground.” A toddler with a shaved head and filthy dress stands in front of an overflowing public sink at the top of a dark staircase that has a railing held together with rope. The wall behind the baby is coming loose. No child should have to live like that.
GRWR:Obviously this nonfiction bio involved a lot of research. How did you choose what to include or leave out when his rags to not-so-riches-but-fame story is so fascinating? Was there a portion or time period of his life that was most difficult to nail down?
AON: Riis’s relationship with his Danish sweetheart was complicated, so I treated that with a broad brush stroke.
GRWR:Why do you think no professional photographer had captured the lives of shelters and tenement dwellers prior to Riis?
AON: At the time, most photographers made pretty portraits or, like Matthew Brady, recorded historical events. Riis, in contrast, showed the underbelly of life. I think that when Riis read about the invention of flash powder, it came at the right time for him. Photographs taken with this new technological tool helped him convince officials to make changes in the tenements.
GRWR:Do you attribute Riis’s success to his talent as a photographer, his perseverance, good timing or all three?
AON: I believe Riis’s success can be attributed to his determination and tireless work to tell a complete story of the social injustice experienced by impoverished city inhabitants. He lived during a time of great interest in social reform.
GRWR: As a former New Yorker and lover of NYC’s Tenement Museum, I’ve always admired Riis’s photos. Why do you think his accomplishments are not better known today?
AON: Riis’s photos continue to impress people, and his contribution was unique. In his advocacy for improving substandard housing, he was one among many of his contemporaries who also advocated for changing laws on child labor, suffrage, public health, housing, and schools.
GRWR: What’s one of your favorite illustrations by Gary Kelleyin your book?
AON: I love Gary’s illustration of Jacob giving a lecture and pointing to his photograph of a tenement mother holding her swaddled infant. As he talks, Jacob gestures to the poignant image. This image makes me wish I could have heard Jacob in person!
Alexis O’Neill is the author of several picture books including The Recess Queen, the winner of several children’s choice awards, and The Kite That Bridged Two Nations, a California Young Reader Medal Nominee. Her new picture book biographies are Jacob Riis’s Camera; Bringing Light to Tenement Children and The Efficient, Inventive (Often Annoying) Melvil Dewey (due Fall 2020). Alexis received the California Reading Association’s award for making significant and outstanding contributions to reading throughout California and is an instructor for the UCLA Extension Writers’ Program.
Thank you so much, Alexis, for sharing your insights about Jacob Riis and giving us the inside scoop about your new picture book biography, Jacob Riis’s Camera. It’s so great to know how many children will now have a chance to learn about Riis’s important contributions to society.
It’s hard to imagine that our 16th President, who faced one of the toughest challenges in American history, was at one time a curious, barefooted boy roaming the “hills and hollows” of his hometown, Knob Creek, Kentucky. In Honey, The Dog Who Saved Abe Lincoln, author Shari Swanson and illustrator Chuck Groenink depict a gentle boy whose tenderhearted rescues of vulnerable animals shed light on Abe’s early and strong sense of justice.
To adults like Mr. John Hodgen, the miller, Abe seems irresponsible for “‘fool[ing] [his] time away,’” stopping to right the wrong he sees all around him. But to young Abe the “‘many little foolish things’” are the harm and injustices he must counter: a frog trapped inside a snake’s mouth, a possum stuck “‘in a hollow stump,’” and a honey-colored dog whimpering from a broken leg.
Abe shows kindness for rescuing the dog he befriends and names Honey. Loyal friends, the two become inseparable and share many adventures. One such adventure turns particularly perilous as Abe gets stuck between two boulders inside a cave. Honey returns home alone to get help and leads the search party to the cave. Assisting Abe’s rescue in this way, Honey pays Abe “‘back for mending his broken leg’” confirming the young boy’s belief that Honey will always do “‘good things’” for him.
Accompanying this comforting story is Groenink’s soft and muted color palette. Many illustrations place either Abe or the natural surroundings of the Kentucky woodlands at the center of the page, emphasizing the close relationship between the two. Equally, Swanson’s words engage us readers with the terrain. Mr. Hodgen uses “his cane-pole whistle” to call out to Abe in the cave. We see Abe’s resourcefulness and experience when he uses the “soft bark of a pawpaw bush to wrap around the sticks” that help set Honey’s leg. Undoubtedly, the surrounding wilderness deeply influences young Abe’s character.
A “Timeline of Abraham Lincoln and His Animal Encounters,” an author’s note, and a map of “the area around Hodgen’s Mill where Abe grew up” in the endpapers add fascinating (and funny) details to Abe’s early and later life. We learn further of his fights against animal cruelty and his bringing in many animals into the White House (goats included!). We also learn the author’s source of this story, a book written by J. Rogers Gore who wrote down the many tales Austin Gollaher, Abe’s childhood best friend, shared about his and Abe’s adventures.
Honey, The Dog Who Saved Abe Lincoln is a perfect book not only for little ones who love animals and adventures, but also for parents who can learn a thing or two about lending grace and understanding to a most curious child.
Reviewed by Armineh Manookian
Find a fun activity kit and curriculum guide here.
No matter how many children’s books I read about Abraham Lincoln, I continue to learn something new in each one. Sometimes something I already knew, but had long forgotten, is presented in such a way that I’ll now always remember it. Both these experiences apply toThe Superlative A. Lincolnby Eileen R. Meyerwith art byDave Szalay.
Perfect for Lincoln’s Birthday (yesterday, 2/12), Presidents’ Day or National Poetry Month, Meyer’s nonfiction picture book contains 19 poems that vary in style and content. Each poem is also accompanied by a factual paragraph on the bottom of the page to put the poem’s subject in context. Best of all, teachers can use the superlative poem titles such as “Best Wrestler”, “Worst Room Name,” and “Strongest Conviction,” and couple them with the excellent activities offered on Meyer’s website, for an engaging Language Arts lesson.
Did you know our 16th president was an inventor? Thanks to Meyer, in “Most Likely to Tinker,” we read how Lincoln’s penchant for problem solving resulted in his being awarded a patent for a design that helped “boats float over shallow river spots …” I didn’t recall Lincoln being a doting dad, but in “Most Permissive Parent,” we get a glimpse via Szalay’s charming woodcut looking illustration of First Sons, Willie and Tad, taking full advantage of their father’s parenting style. Throughout the book, Szalay’s art humanizes Lincoln and events whether in scenes of him chopping trees or meeting Frederick Douglass with a firm and friendly handshake. There’s a warm, folk art quality about the illustrations that pairs them perfectly with all of Meyer’s telling poems.
One of my favorite poems, “Best Advice” addresses Lincoln’s signature beard. What a surprise it was to learn he was the first president to sport one! I had no idea that growing whiskers had been recommended in a letter to candidate Lincoln by eleven-year-old Grace Bell. Lincoln even met with her on his travels to offer thanks. In addition to his beard, most children probably associate Honest Abe with his stovepipe hat. It certainly came in handy as a writing surface and a convenient place to carry things. “Best Use of an Accessory” cleverly conveys the hat’s perspective. “We don’t need a leather briefcase. / We don’t want an attaché. / You can keep that canvas knapsack. / I’m a traveling valet.” And by the way, “Least Favorite Nickname” enlightens young readers about Lincoln’s dislike of the nickname Abe. They would be hard pressed to find anyplace where he personally used it, preferring to sign his name Abraham Lincoln or A. Lincoln as in the book’s title.
The back matter in The Superlative A. Lincoln includes an author’s note, a comprehensive timeline as well as book and website resources and a bibliography. I could easily describe every poem in the book because I thoroughly enjoyed them all, but I’ll leave that pleasure for you. Instead I’ve chosen to end my review with one of many popular A. Lincoln quotes:
“I want it said of me by those who knew me best, that I always plucked a thistle and planted a flower where I thought a flower would grow.”
A GREEN PLACE TO BE: The Creation of Central Park Written and illustrated by Ashley Benham Yazdani (Candlewick Press; $17.99, Ages 7-10)
Ashley Benham Yazdani’sA Green Place to Be: The Creation of Central Parkshines a light on a familiar subject in a new way. This historical nonfiction picture book gives a glimpse into 1858 New York City when the park’s design contest was held. Architect Calvert Vaux and park superintendent Frederick Law Olmsted teamed up to win.
Yazdani’s images capture the vast undertaking as Vaux and Olmsted draft the layout, called Greensward. I like the spread of the ten-foot-long drawing envisioning what could be done with the land. Though their design was entered after the deadline, they won but had to change the name to New York City’s Central Park.
Olmsted planned ahead—about 100 years ahead—using “the color and shape of each plant to create illusions in the landscape” so nature would be the focus for generations yet to come. “Amenities such as the Dairy were specifically built to help those living with less, and Olmsted’s and Vaux’s compassion for others is shown by their determination to create a park that welcomed all social classes.” The men were early environmentalists striving to conserve this patch of parkland in Manhattan.
Kids who like construction-type books will appreciate that boulders were blasted to bits. Nearly every piece of the swampy, sharp, and foul-smelling land was raised or lowered, rocks were relocated and reused. Thought was given on how to best move people through the park without disturbances from carriages.
The end matter sums up the lives of Olmsted and Vaux. A page of interactive questions with items kids can search for within the book adds an element of interactive fun. More detail is given on Seneca Village, the area of land which had to be cleared for the park. The freed African-Americans who lived there were first offered money, then forced out—a sad beginning to this story.
WILD LA: EXPLORE THE AMAZING NATURE IN AND AROUND LOS ANGELES Written by Lila M. Higgins & Gregory B. Pauly with Jason G. Goldman & Charles Hood, Natural History Museum, Los Angeles County (Timber Press, Inc.; $24.95, Ages 10 and up)
Wild LA is an ideal book for a person like me who loves Los Angeles for its many urban activities but needs nature for balance. Consider this new book your go-to guide when tired of the same old thing.
The 332-page full-color book is divided into three parts. The first, “Wild Los Angeles,” reviews ecology and natural history in ten categories such as “Water Writes the History of Los Angeles,” “Fire, Past and Future,” and “Migration” (birds, whales, and insects). “Los Angeles sits right in the middle of a four thousand-mile bird highway, a sort of endless conveyor belt of feathered critters coming and going throughout the year.” Billions of birds use this migration highway each year.
A favorite section for kids—or anyone who likes looking at pleasing pictures—may be “101 LA Species to Know.” Choose from “Birds,” “Insects and Spiders,” “Mammals,” “Reptiles and Amphibians,” “Snails and Slugs.” “Mushrooms, Slime Mold, and Lichen,” and “Plants.” Each category contains gorgeous photos and summaries. For example, male mallards molt (replace their feathers) in the late summer, becoming a duller color, and are flightless for a few weeks.
The final section, twenty-five “Field Trips,” conveniently provides three to four pages of information on each outing, including hand-drawn maps, tips, and trivia. Though I’ve frequented Griffith Park countless times, Wild LA still uncovered a wealth of interesting facts. I wasn’t aware of the three so-called Secret Gardens and will surely search them out on my next walk in the hills.
Locals and visitors alike will find this guidebook useful and a fascinating read. Keep it on hand or use it as a coffee-table book to page through, admiring the lovely photos which adorn every page.
AWAY WITH WORDS: The Daring Story of Isabella Bird Written by Lori Mortensen Illustrated by Kristy Caldwell (Peachtree Publishing; $17.95, Ages 6-10)
Before Nellie Bly or Amelia Earhardt there was Isabella Bird and, thanks to this eye-opening new picture book biography, Away With Words: The Daring Story of Isabella Bird,children can read about what impressive inroads this English explorer made at a time in history when a woman’s place was in the home not out globetrotting around the world, and writing about it to boot!
This “unlikely candidate for adventure,” who never felt well as a child, was born in the Yorkshire countryside in 1831. Isabella Bird suffered from a multitude of ailments and rarely left the house. That worked for awhile because, according to Victorian societal norms that she would eventually challenge, “Young ladies wore dresses. / Young ladies didn’t go to school. / Young ladies stayed home.” Countless doctors couldn’t diagnose her with anything until one doctor recommended she get some fresh air. Her father took Isabella out with him on his horse and, with his encouragement, she made discoveries that would forever change the course of her life. “Out in the wild, Isabella forgot about her aches and pains. / She breathed in new ways to see and describe everything around her.”
Captured beautifully by Caldwell’s spread below, letters from relatives abroad and other news from overseas sparked a flame in Isabella. She felt deep inside that travel would feed her soul and she yearned for the possibilities it would provide but some days she could barely get up. The tide turned for the better when her doctor suggested a sea voyage and her parents agreed.
She boarded a mail steamer for Nova Scotia and from then on there was no looking back for this intrepid young woman. Her red leather notebook accompanied her wherever she went. I love how Mortensen weaves quotations of text from Bird’s own published books wherever it adds atmosphere to the story. Caldwell’s colorful illustrations pair perfectly with those lines. One of my favorites is, “There was a small bed with a dirty buffalo-skin upon it; I took it up and swarms of living creatures fell out of it …”
Her first book, The Englishwoman in America, was published in 1856, smack in the middle of Queen Victoria’s reign. But when her father passed away Bird chose to end her explorations. That ultimately led to a flare up of her ailments and an onset of doldrums that, at her sister’s urging, could only be allayed by journeying across five continents. It took grit and guts and bravery to gallivant solo around the world to myriad destinations lacking in creature comforts, but Isabella persevered. Thanks to her detailed record keeping of all the places she visited, the nine additional books she wrote became bestsellers. People craved reading about the exotic locales and peoples that they’d never see in their lifetime whether that be climbing up Kilauea volcano in the Sandwich Islands (Hawaii), trekking across the dangerous frozen Persian “desert at the roof of the world,” or befriending a “notorious outlaw.”
AsMortensen’sstory vividly demonstrates, the world was indeed Isabella’s home so it’s no surprise that in 1892, Bird was the first woman to ever be inducted into the Royal Geographical Society of London and a year later was presented to Queen Victoria. In 32 pages of lyrical prose, Mortensen shows young readers the personal growth and happiness that can come from travel and exposure to a vast range of cultures. Caldwell’s artwork includes just the right amount of soaring spirit a name like Bird implies.
Picture book biographies, when done well, provide a much needed window on the world of important people from the past that we might ordinarily never hear or read about. Away With Words: The Daring Story of Isabella Bird, does that and more. It offers inspiration and a role model for children who, long after Women’s History Month has ended, will no doubt want to seek out Bird’s impressions by turning to her original books to learn more about this trailblazer’s 19th century daring journeys. The back matter including an author’s note, a timeline of Bird’s travels and publications, Bird’s text quotations, and a bibliography make this nonfiction book ideal for both home and school. In fact, I’d give it as a gift to a child along with a journal to get them started on documenting their own travels, even if that’s just an outing to the zoo or a trip to another city.
Reviewed by Ronna Mandel
Visit other stops below on this enlightening blog tour from Peachtree Publishing:
NATURE’S FRIEND: THE GWEN FROSTIC STORY Written by Lindsey McDivitt Illustrated by Eileen Ryan Ewen (Sleeping Bear Press; $16.99, Ages 6-9)
One of the best parts about reviewing children’s books is learning about someone or something new. That’s exactly what happened after readingNature’s Friend: The Gwen Frostic Storyby Lindsey McDivitt with illustrations by Eileen Ryan Ewen. You may have noticed that there aren’t a lot of traditionally published picture books about people with disabilities, but there are more now than there used to be and that’s a good thing. Authors like McDivitt are making a difference by writing about diverse individuals and topics which I truly appreciate and why I jumped at the chance to review Nature’s Friend.
This inspiring debut picture book biography introduces children to the art and writing of Gwen Frostic, someone about whom, as I mentioned above, I knew nothing prior to reading the book. And now I’m eager to see her art in person and you will be, too. Born in Michigan in 1906, Frostic contracted an illness as an infant that left her physically disabled. But with the positive influence of her mother, Gwen never avoided doing all the things that her brothers and sisters did. “I never knew I couldn’t do something,” is the overarching message of Nature’s Friend, a quote in McDivitt’s book that captures the essence of who Gwen was—a bright, creative and resourceful woman who never let perceived obstacles hold her back. She clearly was ahead of her time.
Gwen’s mother, a former teacher, could have taught her daughter at home because in the early 20th century it was more common for disabled children to stay at home. Instead, Mrs. Frostic “sent Gwen to school and pushed her to learn.” While the bullying might have painful, the young girl chose to focus on her academics and was an adept student. In fact, it was also due to her mother’s encouragement and guidance that Gwen’s weak hands grew stronger as her mother had her practice sketching. Gwen, who had embraced nature at an early age, would find later in life that this experience greatly influenced her career path.
At age 12, Gwen’s family moved to Detroit. It was there in high school that she learned mechanical drawing and other skills not typically part of a girl’s curriculum. Someone wrote in her yearbook, “Her brush, her pencil and her pen will make this world a better place!” But pursuing a career in art wasn’t necessarily going to provide for her. The tides turned in her favor when wealthy and influential people began purchasing her designs. What joy and satisfaction it must have been for Frostic when her art was chosen to be exhibited at the 1939 New York World’s Fair! Soon though her grand plans were put on hold due to WWII. She went to work at the Ford Motor Company to help the war effort by designing “tools for building the airplanes.”
In addition to Gwen’s airplane construction work, at home she remained drawn to art, eventually purchasing a printing press and starting her own business. Frostic called it Presscraft Papers Stationary Company and based it first in Frankfort, Michigan and then on the Betsie River to be closer to nature. The back matter states that Frostic created greeting cards and books that “celebrated Michigan plans and wildlife.” She was awarded countless honors in her lifetime and worked in her shop well into her 90s.
Ewen’s serene artwork conveys Frostic’s love of nature on every page. I also felt the movement and emotion as Gwen clenched her sketching pencil, smelled the fresh Michigan air in the beautifully rendered outdoor scenes and watched the changing fashions go by as Gwen matured. The illustrations, coupled with McDivitt’s honest and uplifting prose that applauds determination and individuality, promises hope and invites creativity (there’s a craft included at the end), make this a wonderful and worthwhile read for not only kids, but for adults too who may be unfamiliar with Frostic.
Everything about Gwen Frostic was unique, from her art to her attitude. Rather than let society define what she could and couldn’t do as a woman and as a person with disabilities, she wrote her own rules and lived happily and successfully by them. Considering the era she lived in, it’s especially encouraging to read about female trailblazers like Gwen Frostic who forged ahead with their talents allowing their heart to guide them.
“As long as there are trees in tiny seeds … there will be miracles on earth.” – Gwen Frostic, A Walk With Me
A clever travel maze of sorts, Around the World in 50 Ways is designed as a “choose-your-own travel adventure” where readers set off from London and try their hand at globetrotting with the goal of finishing up again in London. So much depends on what mode of transport or next destination is selected as to whether they’ll navigate the winning route the first time around. There are myriad means of travel and a plethora of possible routes, but beware of dead ends! Not to worry though because, like any good maze, readers just return to the beginning or the place where they ventured off incorrectly and try again. Along the way, kids will learn about some of the world’s most popular, exotic and interesting places while picking up fascinating facts—did you know Dhaka is the capital of Bangladesh or that Hanoi in Vietnam is sometimes called “The Paris of the East”?—and enjoying bright and bold illustrations. From Bangkok, Barcelona, Battambang, Berlin, Brussels, Budapest and Buenos Aires all the way to Tokyo, Toronto, Trondheim, Vancouver, Venice, Victoria, Wellington and Wuppertal with tons of exciting destinations in-between, there’s tons to see and do (164 pages worth to be precise). How to get from point A to point B? Try a bus, a cruise, a rental car, a ferry, a felucca, a tuk-tuk, a canoe, a jumbo jet, a rickshaw, a sled and lots more! Whether going abroad or enjoying a local staycation, fit this book into your itinerary. Click here for a link to cool Lonely Planet quiz.
My Vacation Scrapbook(with over 150 stickers) is full of creative activities that will keep kids entertained for hours and also jumpstart their imaginations as you head off on holiday or even on day trips to the zoo, national parks, Disneyland or other theme parks. Not only is this scrapbook a great way to help kids experience a vacation from a new perspective, it’s also going to become a unique time capsule of special experiences away from home. One of my favorite activities included in My Vacation Scrapbook is the Bar Code Decode where children can play secret agent by using bar codes from various vacation purchases to track down enemy spies around the world. Included for that is a map with starred cities and numbered coordinates making this an inviting game for the entire family. There’s a two-page spread where readers can glue or tape found objects and turn them into art, there’s a place for snack wrappers (never thought of including those in my scrapbooks!), a competition involving meal receipts and loads of pages to stick other prized momentous from the trip. Kids will be able to find lots to do with the stickers provided and at the back, there’s even a “handy pocket to collect your souvenirs” like postcards, stamps, receipts and used museum passes and transportation tickets. An elastic band secures all the treasures for future viewing and reminiscing. The assorted 40 pages are thin enough for doing some rubbings of textured items yet sturdy enough to withstand frequent use. This would make a wonderful going away gift when paired with a pack of crayons, tape, glue sticks and scissors (just remember scissors cannot be brought on an airplane).
This “fold-out, fact-filled poster” is a map of North America meaning included are Canada’s 13 provinces, America’s 50 states and 21 other countries plus 22 dependencies (territories that are governed by, or make up part of, another country.The range of destinations spans from Antigua and Barbuda to the U.S. Virgin Islands. If you’re a fan of geography this is a definite must-have, but even if you are unfamiliar with the map, it’s an interactive, educational and entertaining way to get to know North America. It’s easy to personalize the map with the over 180 stickers that say things like GOING HERE SOON, BEEN HERE!, I LIVE HERE plus hearts, stars, arrows, modes of transportation, sun, rain, clouds and other assorted weather stickers, as well as blank stickers to customize. When you’re done exploring, turn the map over for interesting details about places you’ve traveled to, plan to visit or may have on your “dream destination” list. Bring My Family Travel Map along on any upcoming road trips or play armchair traveler from the comfort of your home.
RAMADAN Written by Hannah Eliot Illustrated by Rashin (Little Simon; $8.99, Ages 2-4)
I’m happy to share Ramadan, the first book in a new board book series from Little Simon geared towards preschoolers called Celebrate The World. “The series aims to show readers how different cultures celebrate and cherish the holidays important to them.”
Alluding to the lunar calendar, Ramadan takes places in the ninth month of the year “when the crescent moon first appears in the sky …” With its 24 pages of ebullient illustrations, Ramadan is a cheerful and easy-to-understand introduction to the Islamic holiday observed by over a billion Muslims across the globe. Little ones learn that during the monthlong fast of Ramadan, eating occurs “only when it is dark outside,” and involves prayer, introspection and spending time with family and friends. Other important aspects of this holy holiday include being “thankful” and helping others. When the month has ended, Muslims celebrate Eid al-Fitr, also known as the Sweet Festival, for three days during which time they “pray” and “give each other gifts.”
Eliot has included just the right amount of information to pique a preschooler’s curiosity. The simple language that is used works perfectly with Rashin’s festive and upbeat artwork conveying the impression that both author and illustrator thoroughly enjoyed working on this book. That said, I have no doubt that readers will agree. The depiction of the crescent moon, the men kneeling in the mosque, and all the fabulous food scenes are sure to please. I look forward to all the other books in this series if they’re as well crafted as Ramadan. They’ll be popular for parents and educators alike for being apositive way to help youngsters understand and welcome traditions from near and afar.
Khan’s spare, rhyming text introduces readers to various shapes, but it’s much more than a book about shapes. Every spread spotlights a different aspect of Islam. For example, we learn that a minaret (with a cone-shaped roof) is the tower in a mosque from which the call to prayer is broadcast; a daff is a large circular drum; and the Ka’aba (a word which means “cube” in Arabic) is a holy temple in the city of Mecca. A glossary at the end of the book provides definitions and an author’s note explains the important connection between Islam, shapes, and geometry.
I savored every page of Amini’s exquisite mixed media illustrations. Vibrant colors and detailed patterns, including some incredible tilework, draw the eye in and keep it lingering long after Khan’s lilting, rhythmic text has been read. As an added bonus, every spread depicts a different country (though there’s no mention of it in the main text). In an interview with Deborah Kalb, Khan indicated that Turkey, Tanzania, and Malaysia are represented. I imagine that trying to guess where each scene is set could lead to some terrific conversations.
Usually, shape books are aimed at a very young audience, but Khan and Amini have added so many additional layers to the “shape” concept, that readers of all ages will surely be drawn to this beautiful book. And given that hate crimes against and harassment of Muslims have spiked in the past several years, a book that sheds light on their traditions and family life is especially important. After all, as Khan told School Library Journal in 2013, “Educating kids about different cultures is key to building tolerance and acceptance.”
While readers who practice Islam will enjoy seeing themselves on the pages of this gorgeously illustrated book, as a non-Muslim, I relished the opportunity to learn about some of the traditions, art, architecture, and culture surrounding the world’s second largest religion.
Author Hena Khan is on tour with her new chapter book, Power Forward, the first in a series. Click here to see if she’s coming to your town!
POWER FORWARD: ZAYD SALEEM CHASING THE DREAM (BOOK ONE) Written by Hena Khan (Salaam Reads; $16.99, paperback $6.99, Ages 7-10)
I have to admit—I don’t read a lot of books about sports. But that didn’t stop me from enjoying the first book in Hena Khan’s new chapter book series one bit. I bought a copy of Power Forward (Zayd Saleem, Chasing the Dream) for my nephew at one of Khan’s book signings (the first on her tour) then, as soon as I got home, read the entire thing in one sitting.
Fourth grader Zayd Saleem eats, sleeps, and breathes basketball. He’s on the D team (for now) but with practice he knows he can make the Gold team. Tryouts are two weeks away and he needs all the help he can get. That’s why he bails on his early morning violin practice and plays basketball instead—and he’s actually improving. But when Zayd’s mom discovers he’s been skipping violin and lying about it, the punishment is harsh: no basketball for two whole weeks. And that means no tryouts.
Zayd narrates his tale with a good dose of humor, but the humor never comes at the expense of emotions. We feel deeply for our narrator as he tries to make space for his own dreams while meeting his parent’s expectations. But something’s got to give—and Zayd will need to stand up for himself if he wants to keep those dreams alive.
Family plays a big role in this story and Khan does a terrific job of crafting real characters that we want to spend time with. Zayd’s got an annoying older sister, a fun-loving uncle, an adoring grandmother, an understanding grandfather, and parents who really want what’s best for their son—readers may find themselves wishing for an invitation to dinner.
Sports fans might open Power Forward for the basketball, but they’ll keep reading for the humor, honesty, and cozy warm feeling of being part of the Saleem family. And luckily, they won’t have to wait too long to join the fun again. The next two books in the series hit the shelves soon. Look for On Point (Zayd Saleem, Chasing the Dream, Book 2) on May 29, 2018 and Bounce Back (Zayd Saleem, Chasing the Dream, Book 3) on October 2, 2018. Let’s hope there are many more to come!
The book tells the true tale of folk artist Nek Chand. In the small village where Chand is born, recycling and repurposing objects is a way of life. Dented buckets become scarecrow hats. Scraps of fabric become blankets. Sticks become toy rafts. And woven throughout the texture of daily life, there are stories. Stories of kings and goddesses, geese and monkeys, jungles and temples fill Chand’s imagination until one day, using sand and sticks and rocks, he builds the world of his imagination on the banks of a river. When partition splits India into two countries, however, Chand and his family are forced to leave their village behind for the cold concrete of India’s first planned city, Chandigarh. Nivola’s watercolor and gouache illustrations show the stark contrast between the colorful village of Chand’s childhood and his life in the city, where variations of beige reign.
Chand feels he doesn’t belong in the city, but then, he claims a patch of unused jungle on the outskirts of town. Over many years, using found objects and half-dead plants, he builds a secret kingdom of walkways, sculptures, arches, flowering plants, and trees. It’s a place where stories come to life, where castaway items are reborn, and where Chand, at last, belongs. Though his garden comes to cover many acres, Chand’s creation remains a secret for 15 years. When it’s finally discovered, government forces threaten demolition, but the people of Chandigarh step in. Chand’s secret kingdom comes to be known as “The Rock Garden of Chandigarh” and, to this day, draws visitors in the thousands from all over the world.
Rosenstock’s text paints a vivid picture of Chand’s life in India as he battles “clouds of mosquitoes and slithering cobras,” walks past “plowmen singing behind oxen” and gathers “broken glass bangles in red, blue, and green.” With the added visual of Nivola’s illustrations, this story of a man who, quietly and with determination, created the world he imagined–simply because it brought him joy–truly comes to life.