Strong is the kind of feel-good picture book that demonstrates to children, through a real-life example, the benefits of being true to themselves and following their dreams.
In this accessible biography, readers learn how, from an early age, Rob Kearney showed an affinity for lifting heavy things whether that was milk bottles or bags filled with groceries. As he grew so did his strength. He could easily pull a tug-of-war rope or lift cheerleaders sky-high. This powerful ability made him feel good about himself as his interest in weightlifting blossomed. “But Rob’s favorite sport was weightlifting. It required him to use every muscle in his body.” Sentences like this one give readers a wonderful understanding of what it was that appealed to Rob and why he ultimately pursued weightlifting as a career.
Rob’s life was forever changed after being introduced to the Strongman competition at age 17. He learned it was SO much more than lifting heavy weights. To qualify, he’d have to be able to pull a vehicle, flip an enormous tire, lift a log over his head, and lots more that’s described in fascinating backmatter. The art and prose depict how committed Rob became and how he trained before school by running, swimming, and lifting all sorts of things. At his fittest, he could lift over 400 pounds which is more than a refrigerator!
Without ever stating the main character’s queerness outright, the authors describe how, when not in his workout garb, Rob had a truly original style with his hair cut in a Mohawk, along with a flair for dressing in bright, bold colors and patterns that were 100% him. They also show Rob coming in last place at his first competition which is realistic as well as smart to demonstrate to children. People do not automatically win. Success takes hard work. And Rob was determined. He also was in love. Chanani’s vibrant art pairs perfectly with the text and reflects Rob’s personality in all its Strongman glory. A favorite spread of mine is below.
While training Rob met Joey who motivated Rob to be himself. While it’s not clear how long after meeting Joey Rob went on to win the North American championship, what is clear is that Rob’s personal growth helped him overcome any challenges such as bullying and self-doubt he may have had on his journey. This picture book, full of hope and positivity is recommended for any child questioning their self-worth. Rob’s candid Author Note on how being openly gay helped “smash stereotypes” about sexual orientation and perceived strength reminds me of my former gay roommate in London who was a proud tri-athlete in the ’80s when laws still criminalized homosexuality. I believe this book does a great job of acknowledging and encouraging any children feeling unsure about themselves whether that relates to their sexuality or their self-confidence.
Reviewed by Ronna Mandel
Also highly recommended:
THE RAINBOW PARADE Written and illustrated by Emily Neilson (Dial BYR; $17.99, Ages 4-8)
The Torah is called the Tree of Life. Just as a tree is always growing and changing, the Torah’s ideas can help us grow and change, too. Yoga can do the same. Both can help us strengthen ourselves, calm our minds, and learn to appreciate the world around us.
Written by rabbi and certified yoga instructor Mychal Copeland, I Am the Tree of Life encourages us to explore both the world of yoga and the stories of the Bible and find meaning in both.
GoodReadsWithRonna: Congratulations on your great honor, Rabbi!What a pleasure to have you as our guest today.
“How might it feel to stand at Mount Sinai? To dance at the red sea?” are the inviting opening words to your lovely picture book. This gentle and meaningful introduction to yoga through Torah exploration is a wonderful idea for a story. Please share your inspiration with us. Is this a practice you use with children?
Rabbi Mychal Copeland:This book came together organically, doing yoga with children at Jewish summer camps and synagogues. We imagined, together, which stories we could form with our bodies. I loved seeing kids use their imagination and how easily they understood what it means to embody, or become, an animal, object, or character. Those ideas evolved over many years into the poses in the book, alongside poses I brought into my adult Jewish yoga classes based on the weekly Torah readings and holidays.
GRWR:The beautiful blend of the spiritual and physical come together seamlessly in I AM THE TREE OF LIFE. What do you feel your book offers to youngsters especially now when they have been coping with an unprecedented pandemic?
RMC: Parents of young children are striving to bring grounding, healthy practices into their kids’ lives, especially during this pandemic. Yoga teaches adults and children that we can regulate our own breathing, calm ourselves down when necessary, pay attention to what we are feeling, and to be empowered in our bodies. Children have lost their daily opportunities for movement, so I’ve been thrilled to hear that this book has helped them get moving during this time. I hope that has, in turn, connected them to their spiritual selves and to the world around them as they embody a mountain, tree or a fish.
GRWR:I love how there’s a boat pose to signify Noah’s Ark. Did you have trouble finding poses to correlate to the various stories? Or did you select the stories based on existing poses?
RMC: I have been teaching yoga in a Jewish context for many years, and in my practice I connect the poses to the weekly Torah portion or Jewish holiday wherever there is a meaningful link. I have collected so many poses that fit perfectly with our stories. In fact, I had a tough time choosing which ones to drop to make the book the right length for children!
GRWR:Do you have a particular favorite illustration and if so, why?
RMC: The book is based around the image of the tree, both as a metaphor for our Torah and of our bodies. The cover so perfectly brings those images together with a child coming into Tree Pose against the backdrop of a tree so we can see how our feet are like roots, legs like a trunk, and arms like branches. I also love the way he integrated the Torah stories we are about to read into the Tree of Life while we are forming Tree Pose on the opening pages. I also love the Crescent Moon, because Andre so beautifully captured the sweeping feeling of this pose and the story in Genesis.
GRWR:The book is filled with a variety of wonderful Torah stories. Is your hope that, in addition to wanting to try yoga, children reading your book might also become interested in further Jewish study?
RMC:Yes! My hope is that the short glimpses into the Torah stories will pique a child’s curiosity to know the full stories. Perhaps at a Passover seder, they will hear the Exodus narrative and remember that they tried a yoga pose from that formative story. If they feel like that story is theirs because they embodied it, even better. I hear so many young adults say that they don’t feel Jewish enough, that they didn’t learn enough to feel it’s theirs, or that the Jewish community doesn’t accept them as being fully Jewish. My hope is that our upcoming generation of kids feel like they own their own Judaism. It is not someone else’s tradition that they are peering into. It is wholly theirs to live, learn, and create.
GRWR:I love how at the end of the book you address what’s Jewish about yoga. For those reading who do not yet have the book, what’s your answer?
RMC: Yoga emerges from the Hindu philosophical tradition. Jews have a long tradition of being open to learning and incorporating wisdom from other traditions that surround us (medieval liturgy based on Arabic poetry, piyyut, is another great example). But movement also has a long history in Judaism. Our ancient rabbis discussed how to move our bodies during prayer, recognizing that words are not the only way to pray. One medieval Jewish mystic matched Hebrew letters and vowels with head movements. Other kabbalists envisioned different aspects of God as a chart in the shape of a tree, the Tree of Life, and mapped that chart onto the human body. And Hasids used body movements to enhance their prayer.
So yoga is a practice that Jews are borrowing, but spiritual movement is not new to our people.
GRWR: This is such a feel good, calming read. What other Jewish or non-Jewish children’s books have you enjoyed reading for your own writing inspiration?
RMC: Howard Schwartz and Kristina Swarner’s Gathering Sparks (a Sydney Taylor Award winner) has been such an inspiration to me, inviting children to contemplate a complex spiritual, mystical idea in a way that is both relatable and calming. Their book, Before You Were Born, has that same mystical, whimsical quality. I have also been heavily influenced by Rabbi Sandy Sasso’s work (In God’s Name, God’s Paintbrush and so many others), bringing a depth of spiritual conversation to an ecumenical audience.
GRWR:What else would you like to mention about your experience writing the book?
RMC:In early conversations with Apples and Honey Press, we wanted to make sure that the children pictured in the book would represent the diversity of the Jewish community. They brought Brazilian artist, André Ceolin, to the project and I am overjoyed with the illustrations. Portraying children of color in books does not solve the deep-seated issues we face in the Jewish community or our larger American culture. Yet making sure People of Color are represented in Jewish children’s literature is one way we can show kids they are visible in Jewish life, while showing white children that a diversity of racial and ethnic backgrounds is what Jewish looks like. We can offer the next generation an invitation to connect themselves to Jewish stories and other Jews.Collectively, we can make intentional choices about which stories and images are passed on.
INTERVIEW WITH ANDRE CEOLIN:
GRWR:Congratulations on your great honor!What a pleasure to have you as our guest today, André.
On the very first spread of the book readers see the tree of life pose along with the tree itself representing the Torah. Can you speak to some of the wisdom shown on the different branches of the tree, the preview of stories to come, and how you imagined this particular illustration?
André Ceolin: Both Ann Kofsky, from Behrman House, and Rabbi Mychal have given me the guidelines and important insights for that illustration, coming up with the idea of the tree showing the passages in each branch.
The tree is strong and healthy, and each branch of it shows an image which represents a passage from the Torah. For me it shows that the wisdom from each passage lead us to a balanced, steady and healthy life.
GRWR:Can you please tell us how you created the artwork? Was it done digitally? And what made you choose this color palate? How long did it take to complete the illustrations?
AC: On a piece of paper and using a good pencil, I always start with several small sketches, the size of a thumbnail, for each illustration to be done. In doing so, I experiment several approaches, having a general idea of the drawing structure, without being distracted by the details.
After evaluating all the miniature sketches, I shoot some photos of the best ones and then, start to work at the computer in a bigger and more detailed version, which will be sent later to the editors and authors for evaluation .
Once approved, I get started with the final version of the illustration, more elaborate and colorful. This step is made digitally as well.
Regarding the color palates, each drawing has its own one in order to express the feeling and the time period in which the story takes place.
Normally, it takes from 2 to 4 days for each illustration, from the sketches to the final version, depending on its complexity.
GRWR:Do you have a particular favorite illustration and if so, why?
AC:The illustration with Jonah inside the giant fish is my favorite, because it was really fun to illustrate that monster-fish. Besides, the image shows some tension, at the same time that it shows hope.
GRWR: You made all the poses look so easy and fun. Did you have to learn yoga to be able to illustrate this book?
AC:Yes, I had to learn a little bit about Yoga, despite not being able to do many of the poses (maybe one day I will take some Yoga classes). Rabbi, through her feedback helped me a lot to correct and make right each of the poses illustrations, as shown in the book.
GRWR:Who are some of the illustrators who have influenced your art?
AC:There are many artists whose work I admire. Stephen Michael King, Rodney Mathews, Rebecca Dautremer and Edivaldo Barbosa de Souza are some of the artists who inspire me.
GRWR:Is there anything else you’d like to mention about your experience illustrating this book?
AC:Illustrating The Tree of Life was a very rich and enjoyable experience in which, in addition to learning about yoga, I learned about the wisdom of the Torah and Jewish culture.
GOODREADSWITHRONNA THANKS YOU BOTH SO VERY MUCH FOR YOUR THOUGHTFUL REPLIES!
You can find Mychal getting into yoga poses while teaching, writing, reading Torah, and even leading Shabbat services at Congregation Sha’ar Zahav in San Francisco. Mychal is both a Reconstructionist and Reform rabbi, earned a masters and teaching credential from Harvard Divinity School, and is a certified yoga instructor, fusing Jewish spirituality with movement through yoga. She co-edited Struggling in Good Faith: LGBTQI Inclusion from 13 American ReligiousPerspectives (SkyLight Paths, 2016) and I Am the Tree ofLife: My Jewish Yoga Book (Apples & Honey Press, 2020) is her first children’s book. She leads yoga sessions that are steeped in Jewish thought and prayer, melding breath and posture practice with Jewish ideas. Her interests span Jewish magical texts, interfaith dialogue, Jewish issues of inclusion, and teaching Judaism as a spiritual path.
Clickherefor my Facebook page where people can find me and yoga opportunities for their kids.
André Ceolin is a self-taught illustrator from Brazil He started his first attempt at sketching around the age of four when his father brought home some reams of paper from work. It was in that moment that he fell in love with painting and drawing. André initially got a degree in pharmacy at UNIMEP. Though he worked in this field for several years, his artistic passion was too strong to ignore. As a young father, he was surrounded by beautiful children’s books and was always drawn to the spontaneity of the imagery. He then decided to switch gears and studied at School of Visual Arts in NYC, Melies, and Escola Panamericana de Artes to develop a signature look and learned new illustration techniques. He illustrated his first book “Um Dia na Vida de Micaela” de Cauê by Steinberg Milano, published by Editora Roda & Cia in 2009. Ever since, he has illustrated over 20 books by great publishers in Brazil such as Roda & Cia, Saber e Ler, SM, Moderna, FTD, Editora do Brasil, Editora Abril. He loves working with books targeting juvenile readers from the very young age to middle-grade and young adult. When not illustrating, he creates toys and small sculptures for his son. He also enjoys bicycling, playing his guitar, and, singing. Visit his websitehere.
In John David Anderson’s One Last Shot, twelve-year-old Malcolm Greeley navigates life carefully. School is endured, and his home life is a minefield where he painstakingly interprets what’s said—and what’s not said—to keep the peace between his contentious parents. He’s sure that if he can just do everything right, then things between his mom and dad will get better, that they have to.
Malcolm doesn’t realize he needs a friend until Lex’s miniature golf ball and her comical call of “Five!” lands at his feet. With an unwanted push from his wacky golf coach, Malcolm soon finds a something in Lex he’s been sorely missing. While his steadfast mother accepts and understands him, Malcolm is unsettled around his father, an award-winning jock of many sports, who pushed Malcolm into Little League. When Malcolm is given an out, he takes it, only to be subtly pressured into competition mini golf. With Dad, it’s all about winning, but Malcolm’s not wired that way no matter how he tries. He’s a natural at putting, yet dreads the competitive aspect. The voices in his head add to the stress of executing each shot perfectly.
Though I don’t typically gravitate stories centered around competitive sports, I picked up One Last Shot because I’m a fan of Anderson’s other books Granted and Posted (also middle grade). One Last Shot’s a winner with its fully developed, imperfect characters. I appreciated the creative manner in which the story unfolds; the structure adds interest. Each of the eighteen chapters opens with the description of a mini golf hole and closes with how Malcolm scored on that hole. Sandwiched between, we’re shown Malcolm’s life in flashback scenes.
This would be an ideal read for a kid with parents in the bitter pre-divorce stage since Malcolm comes to understand his parents’ troubles are not about him and cannot be fixed by him. Sometimes, parents need to split up for their own good—an upsetting time that’s hard to live through, but, hopefully, better in the long run.
What a treat it was to read Artie Bennett’s new picture book biography,The True Story of Zippy Chippy: The Little Horse That Couldn’t(NorthSouth Books; $17.95, Ages 4-8) with illustrations byDave Szalay! Bennett, who’s best known for his humorous picture books in verse, hit the daily double by bringing out both the humor and humanity (equus-ity?) in this charming tale of a horse destined for fame, but not the winning races kind. You’ll no doubt be champing at the bit for a chance to read Zippy Chippy’s story after my interview with Artie Bennett below.
Zippy Chippy is descended from the leading legends of horse racing. He is destined for greatness and glory.
But . . . when the starting bell rings, it’s anybody’s guess what Zippy will do. Will Zippy go for a gentle trot around the track or stop and smell the roses? Or, perhaps, never even leave the starting gate?!
With mischief in his makeup, he’s known to stick his tongue out at people and chew up the hats of passersby. And he’s always trying to break out of his stall. What’s an owner to do? Try and try again! After all, he believes in Zippy—and, besides, the horse is now a part of the family. But as Zippy’s losses mount, a funny thing happens. People start to take notice of the hapless, cupcake-eating horse. Could it be that they’re betting on Zippy to win?
This remarkable story of the famed racehorse who lost every race is sure to win your heart!
Good Reads With Ronna:Artie, this picture-book biography is like nothing else you’ve written before. What motivated you to pursue this horse’s tale and diverge from your funny nonfiction writing in verse?
Artie Bennett: Yes, you’re right, Ronna. This one is very different. I like to say it’s a horse of a different color for me. For one thing, it was something of an experiment to see if I could write in prose. I wasn’t sure myself. My five previous picture books (The Butt Book, Poopendous!, Peter Panda Melts Down!, Belches, Burps, and Farts—Oh My!, and What’s Afoot! Your Complete, Offbeat Guide to Feet) are all in inspired verse. And I’m quite comfortable writing that way. I’ve worked hard to make the verses sing. I constantly tinker, and then when I’m finally satisfied, I tinker some more. But I knew I would have to take a different tack to write the tale of this remarkable horse. I had to transcend my impulse to rhyme. Curiously, the fact that Zippy Chippy’s own name rhymes may have drawn me to the subject, as well as helped to satisfy my itch to versify.
It was serendipity that drew me to the tale. I stumbled upon a newspaper article about the horse and knew right away that this story would resonate with young readers, just as it resonated with me. And after visiting the retired racehorse at his home in upstate New York, I was never more certain. Youngsters will identify with Zippy Chippy. He may have lost every single one of the 100 races he ran (Zippy won zip), but in the process, he became a folk hero, just like his champion ancestors. Zippy teaches us that just being in the game is enough. And he reminds us that sometimes we need to stop and smell the roses.
GRWR:Aside from being one of the losingest horses in racing history, what else did you learn about Zippy Chippy during your research that made you care about sharing his story?
AB: I was drawn to his quirkiness and his mischievous nature. And there was our shared love of ice cream, though I don’t know if he’s a three-scooper, like me! Free-spirited Zippy Chippy was always breaking out of his stall to go for a nice gallop. He was quite volatile in his youth and often ornery. He was known to kick and bite. He would even try to bite the other horses at the finish line. People were afraid to be around him. In fact, after Felix Monserrate, his third owner, acquired him, he greeted Felix with a sharp bite on the back. But despite being a terror to his handlers—which included the farrier, who fit Zippy with shoes—Zippy was always gentle and loving with Felix’s young daughter, Marisa. Once, eight-year-old Marisa went missing. Felix searched everywhere and finally found her in Zippy’s stall, being nuzzled by the temperamental horse, though the area was off limits to most everyone for safety’s sake. Zippy would blossom under the loving guidance of Felix, and he developed a strong familial bond with Marisa.
There were so many interesting aspects to Zippy Chippy’s story. One was how he happened to acquire his singsongy name. Another wonderful anecdote was how Felix had set up an exhibition race between his horse and a minor-league outfielder. His hope was that a victory, any victory, would boost Zippy’s morale. But the fleet-footed ballplayer bested Zippy in the forty-yard sprint.
Zippy Chippy is a model of determination and stick-to-itiveness. He raced until he was fifteen years old, giving it his all, whereas many racehorses retire by age four. There was a time, earlier in Zippy’s racing career, when Felix tried to retire him, but Zippy wouldn’t hear of it. He became crestfallen and stopped eating. Though defeat never disheartened Zippy, retirement did. Felix had to bring him back to the track for his own well-being. Because the horse was descended from so many legendary racehorses, including Man o’ War, Bold Ruler, War Admiral, Buckpasser, and Northern Dancer, racing was in his blood. He just wasn’t terribly good at it.
When I learned that Zippy Chippy was still alive, though quite ancient by horse standards, I made it my goal to write his story—and find a publisher—before the horse passed. This became something of a horse race, too. I’m so happy to note that Zippy, who will be 29 years old in April 2020, is still with us, lovingly looked after at Old Friends at Cabin Creek Farm, as the book publishes. I wanted the book to be a tribute to a living, breathing legend, not a eulogy. And I’m hoping that youngsters who are as moved by his story as I was may even pay him a visit.
GRWR:Your trademark sense of humor shines through many aspects of recounting this fascinating true story. Was it difficult to balance that with certain serious aspects of Zippy Chippy’s life and unsuccessful racing career?
AB: That’s a wonderful question. Yes, it was a balancing act. And it took me a while to find just the right tone. Writing in prose helped. Verse seems to invite mirth and laughter, but prose can be sober-sided. I had to rein in my sense of humor, for there are serious dimensions to the story. There’s a poignancy here that would be undermined by humor—how Zippy Chippy escaped the slaughterhouse by the skin of his teeth. But a touch of humor does uplift the tale. I love how Dave Szalay’s marvelous illustrations strike just the right balance, too, with many touching, memorable images.
GRWR: Can you explain the appeal of a horse who’d rather stop and smell the roses instead of competing against other horses, a dark horse, so to speak, for winning hearts, not races?
AB: I think Zippy Chippy is the quintessential Everyman, or Everyhorse, and therein lies his appeal. Few of us are blessed with exceptional athletic prowess, yet we still love to compete, to play the game. Zippy continued to run—and continued to love it!—even as he was amassing a rather lopsided won-loss record. But as his losses mounted, Zippy became a star attraction. And his oddball behavior just added to his appeal. Ever unpredictable, he would occasionally succumb to “dwelling,” failing to leave the starting gate at the sound of the bell. What was extraordinary was that later in his career, the horse often ran as the favorite to win, according to the betting line, despite his protracted lack of success. Racing fans were pulling for him. Spectators would besiege Felix for his autograph. Zippy had developed a cult following. He was the ultimate underdog. Horses are very intuitive animals and can pick up on people’s emotions, so Zippy would have known, and rejoiced, if he had won.
GRWR:For 15 years, Felix, Zippy Chippy’s owner, kept entering the unmotivated horse in races. That had to have been so frustrating for him. Why do you think he persisted?
AB: Yes, it must have been. But he was the horse’s biggest champion. He believed in Zippy with all his heart and felt, when he acquired the horse, that he would be the one to bring out the horse’s dormant greatness. Part of why he persisted was because he couldn’t disappoint the horse. We saw how Zippy spiraled into depression when Felix tried to retire him earlier in his career. And because he loved Zippy, he couldn’t let the horse down. He was also an eternal optimist and may have felt that the next race would be the one that Zippy would win, the one that would drape them both in glory. So there would always be one more race. And Zippy was actually highly motivated, though his idiosyncrasies might sometimes interfere with his motivation.
GRWR:What would you like young readers to take away from this picture book?
AB: I would love young readers to find inspiration in this book, but also acceptance. Inspiration can be found in the arc of Zippy’s story, as his popularity grew and grew from such inauspicious beginnings, despite his pedigree. He would even be featured in People magazine, though he was posed alongside a tortoise. Acceptance in the fact that we aren’t all blessed with the same gifts—and that’s okay, too. We need to accept our limitations, just as we celebrate our strengths. As Felix says, “Not everyone can be a winner.” But the important thing is to try. That’s where true courage lies.
GRWR:Has this experience motivated you to try your hand at more nonfiction in prose?
AB: Yes indeed. Though my first love will always be writing in verse, it’s not my only love. In fact, I’ve an idea for another crackerjack children’s biography, also with a protagonist ripe for revival. I’m doing research as we speak. But I also have ideas for more books in verse, so I hope to be moving back and forth between worlds. Additionally, I have two riotously funny joke and riddle books out (The Universe’s Greatest School Jokes and Rip-Roaring Riddles and The Universe’s Greatest Dinosaur Jokes and Pre-Hysteric Puns), so when I’m bubbling over with jokes (Knock, knock . . .) and riddles, there’s always that outlet.
GRWR:Is there anything else I haven’t asked that you’d like to add?
AB: Because I’m a word lover, I’ve tried to use a rich, creative vocabulary in telling the story. You’ll find words like “rambunctious,” “shenanigans,” “wafting,” “ballyhooed,” and much more, words that are evocative and fun to say. I hope young readers will make these words their own. And lastly, I want to thank you, Ronna, so very much for giving me the opportunity to share this captivating story. I’m deeply appreciative.
GRWR: Right back at you, Artie. I learned so much from your thoughtful replies and hope everyone makes tracks to pick up a copy of The True Story of Zippy Chippy:The Little Horse That Couldn’tto find out more about this truly unique horse.
Artie Bennett is an executive copy editor by day and a writer by night. He is the author of an inspiring picture-book biography of a hapless, though beloved, horse: The True Story of Zippy Chippy: The Little Horse That Couldn’t. He is also the author of a quintet of hilarious rhyming picture books: The Butt Book, his first “mature” work and winner of the Reuben Award; Poopendous!, his “number two” picture book; Peter Panda Melts Down!, an adorable departure from derrières and doo; the explosively funny Belches, Burps, and Farts—Oh My!; and his latest, What’s Afoot! Your Complete, Offbeat Guide to Feet, which is guaranteed to knock your socks off. And if that’s not enough, he’s the author of two riotous joke and riddle books: The Universe’s Greatest Dinosaur Jokes and Pre-Hysteric Puns and The Universe’s Greatest School Jokes and Rip-Roaring Riddles.
He and his wife, Leah, live deep in the bowels of Brooklyn, New York, where he spends his time moving his car to satisfy the rigorous demands of alternate-side-of-the-street parking and shaking his fist at his neighbors. The Show Me Librarian says: “Bennett’s use of rhyme is excellent; his stanzas flow and exude joviality in a manner that few writers since Dr. Seuss have truly mastered. Simply put, these books are a joy.” The Huffington Post says: “It appears there is no topic Mr. Bennett can’t make funny and educational.” VisitArtieBennett.com. . . before someone else does!
Want to read more of Artie’s books? Here’s alinkto my review of a personal fave.
It may be the last day of April, but I hope that won’t stop anyone from bringing poetry into the lives of children. Here’s a roundup of some recommended reads not just for National Poetry Month, but for every day of the year. Let the joy of a wonderful poem inspire kids. I know many people, myself included, who still can recall poems from their childhood. What a testament to the power of a great poem!
I chose Home Run, Touchdown, Basket, Goal! because the title was just so good, plus the idea of poetry for young athletes also seemed like a clever concept. The twelve poems, all rhyming, range from baseball to tennis and include others about biking, gymnastics, karate, ice skating, soccer and swimming and feel appropriate for the recommended age group. There are some super, energetic lines that kids will relate to, in this example, about football: Go long! I shout. You get the hint. You’re headed for the end zone—sprint! The sports selected are as diverse as the children participating. Every illustration shows both girls and boys, children of color and I even spotted one bald child although no child with a visible disability was depicted. Landry uses a pale palate of watercolors in simple spreads that each bleed off the page and convey movement and emotion. My favorite illustration is of three girls, mouths wide open, as you’d imagine, arms linked in friendship and for fun, cannonballing into a pool. Score!
I remember when my children were into all things ‘train.’ That meant playing with toy trains, reading train stories and traveling on trains too. Clackety Track is an ideal pick
for youngsters already loco for locomotives or eager to learn more about them. A variety of Brown’s poems, rhyming and not, cleverly cover interesting types of this transportation mode. “Steam Engine” for example, pays homage to the powerful granddaddy: Biggest beast you’ve ever seen. Gobbling up a coal cuisine. One hundred tons of steel machine. Belching out a steam smoke screen. Other poems tell of snow plows, zoo trains, underground trains, sleeper trains and more. Handy train facts at the end add to the book’s appeal and I like how they’re presented in the body of train. Christoph’s engaging, retro-style illustrations bring a cool look to the book. I especially liked the Swiss electric train spread because it reminded me of the ones I used to travel on when I lived in Europe. Kids are going to want to study every detail included in the artwork just like my children used to and then compare them to the real deal when they next travel by rail.
New and old poems by powerhouse poets from Kwame Alexander to Allan Wolf, all selected by the late Paul B. Janeczko, fill this fabulous collection that will inspire young readers. Have your child or student write their own How To poem and see where it takes them. You may laugh, cry and be surprised just like the emotions the poems in this anthology evoke. Kids’ imaginations will be fed by this feast of words and subjects. This 48-page picture book opens with “How to Build a Poem” by Charles Ghinga, Let’s build a poem made of rhyme with words like ladders we can climb, … Then 32 more follow including the humorous “Rules” by Karla Kuskin, “How to Bird-Watch,” a Tanka by Margarita Engle, “On the Fourth of July” by Marilyn Singer and proof how so few words can say so much, the book ends with April Halprin Wayland’s “How to Pay Attention.” Close this book. Look.
I absolutely adored the artwork by Richard Jones, too, and find it hard to pick a favorite because like the myriad poems, there are just too many great illustrations to note. But I’ll try: the expansive shades of orange image with a solo astronaut suited up in white that accompanies Irene Latham’s “Walking on Mars” is one I keep revisiting; the tail end of a dog in the scene of two friends making snow angels complements “How to Make a Snow Angel” by Ralph Fletcher; and Pat Mora’s “How to Say a Little Prayer” features a girl and her cat asleep on her bed that could be in a forest or her bedroom and reflect’s the poet’s lines, Think about a sight you like—yellow flowers, your mom’s face, a favorite tree, a hawk in flight—breathing slowly in and out. Pick your faves to read-aloud before bedtime or devour The Proper Way to Meet a Hedgehog in its entirety. A Junior Library Guild Selection
Leslie Bulion’s Superlative Birds succeeds by having that re-readability factor because of its poems, its subject matter, its facts and its artwork. While it’s not a grammar book, the superlative refers to the trait or characteristic that a certain bird has demonstrating “the highest or a very high degree of a quality (e.g. bravest, most fiercely ). Headings give a clue. For example the “Most Numerous” would have to be the queleas bird whose adult population is an estimated 1.5 billion! The bird with the widest wingspan is the albatross and the jacana, with its long, long toes can actually walk on a lily pad and not sink! And which bird has the keenest sense of smell? Why it’s the turkey vulture. A charming chickadee leads readers on the journey with informative speech bubbles and science notes for each bird helps us get the inside scoop on what makes the bird tick, or sing or scavenge. The gorgeous illustrations introduce us to the bird and there’s always something extra like an action or a funny expression to note in each image whether that be a mouse in a rowboat, a fleeing lizard or frightened rodent. Kids will LOL at the skunk covering his nose from the repulsive stink of the hoatzin, the smelliest bird. I noticed as I read that Bulion incorporated many different forms of poetry into the book and in the poetry notes in the back matter she describes what form of poem she used. There’s also a glossary, resource info and acknowledgements. And if you’re like me, you’ll check out the end papers because the ones in the beginning of the book are slightly different in one particular way than the ones at the end. If you’re keen on finding a new way to foster a love of birds and poetry coupled with crisp art and tons of detail, this may be the best book out there. ★Starred Reviews – Booklist, Kirkus, The Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books.
As I read the first poem in The Day The Universe Exploded My Head, a humorous and enlightening picture book, ideal for middle graders, I thought of the Rolling Stones’ classic “Sympathy for the Devil” and the line Please allow me to introduce myself because that’s exactly what the character of Sun does in the first poem called “The Sun: A Solar Sunnet, er, Sonnet.” In this 14 line poem Sun introduces itself to readers in a more serious tone than its title and illustration, yet manages to convey the “gravity” of its existence. Wolf’s 29 poems always educate but entertain too so they are sure to grab and hold the attention of even the most reluctant of tween readers. Raff’s whimsical artwork that accompanies each poem gets it right by often anthropomorphizing planets, moons and stars who rock accoutrements and accessories from sunglasses and skirts to bow ties and baseball caps. It also includes cartoon-like images of astronauts, children and even Galileo.
Kids will learn while getting a kick out of poems that range from concrete “Black Hole”; sonnet, “Mars”; and rap, “Going The Distance” and many more that guarantee enthusiastic read-aloud participation. Wolf’s poems cover the universe and space exploration and share facts in such a fun and rewarding way. I think if I had to memorize facts about space, using poetry would be an excellent way. “Jupiter”: I’m Jupiter the giant. The solar system’s mayor: I’m gas and wind and clouds wedged into thick lasagna layers. Other poems pay tribute to “The Children of Astronomy,” those who died throughout the history of spaceflight, the moon, and eclipses. Four pages of back matter round out this explosively enjoyable book that’s truly out of this world.
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.
Written by Toni Buzzeo
Illustrated by Tom Froese
(Abrams Appleseed; $9.99, Ages 2-4)
Little ones will love learning all the cool terminology and designs for all the boats in the harbor when they get their hands on Whose Boat? I know I did! Just imagine the fun you’ll have pointing out the various parts of these boats and figuring out which boat goes with which person. With the help of this colorful, 16-page gatefold board book from the folks who brought you Whose Tools? and Whose Truck?, kids can become mini-experts of all sorts of boats and who operates them such as the patrol boat operated by the Harbormaster, the tugboat operated by the Tugboat Pilot, the car ferry operated by the Car Ferry Captain (always a favorite in our family), the lobster boat operated by the Lobsterperson, the emergency lifeboat operated by the Coxswain, the fireboat operated by the firefighters, and last, but definitely not least, toy boats for water play operated by kid power!
When kids memorize the question, “Whose Boat is That?” and the corresponding reply, it won’t take long before they take over the roll of tour guide when you visit a harbor near home or on holiday. They’ll thoroughly enjoy lifting the seven sturdy gatefolds to reveal the answer to the question each time it’s posed. Make a game out of it and quiz each other on the parts of the boats (I’d lose that easily) and watch how fast they pick up all the details.
Smoke billows up. Cool water flows. Whose boat is that? Do you know?
Buzzeo’s taken a popular nonfiction topic and made it fun for the youngest of boat fans. And Froese, whose stylized illustrations have a vibrant and retro feel about them somewhere between Dan Yaccarino and Salvatore Rubbino, makes turning each page a treat. Head to your local independent bookseller and pick up all three books for handy reference at home or give them as a preschooler birthday present to all the curious kids in your life.
Written by Baptiste Paul
Illustrated by Jacqueline Alcántara
(NorthSouth Books; $17.95, Ages 4-8)
“is a debut masterpiece of collaboration and skill,” says reviewer Ozma Bryant.
In a friendly game of soccer (futbol), the magic of not only the sport but the players involved, comes into brilliant light splayed across the pages of The Field, a debut picture book by Baptiste Paul.
With a tropical rainstorm threatening the game, the players band together, solidifying their connection through love of playing ball and sportsmanship. Challenges such as the weather won’t intrude on this precious time together. The story, I might add, is really about a group of kids—the “main character” is never mentioned by name but she’s on all the pages.
My favorite moment is when one of the opposing players is knocked down, and our main character, in her white jersey #3, reaches her hand out to him on the muddy ground asking, “Ou byen? You okay?” He responds, “Mwen byen. I’m good.” You can practically reach out and touch the splattered mud and rain that splashes across the pages as the players muscle on through, seeing the game to completion.
The sun creeps back out as the game continues, even as Mamas call the players home. Hearing a firm command “Vini, abwezan! Come now!” the children end the game then go their separate ways to rest up and rejuvenate for a new day of play.
Caked with mud and filth, children slip into tubs of warm water, smiling … reveling in the magic that is a game well played. Dreams of new games and friendship forming float overhead, as the field lingers even in sleep.
Alcántara’s gorgeous art propels the reader forward with spare language infused with Creole words from the author’s native home in the Caribbean. The author of this amazing story explains in the back matter that Creole is rarely written, mostly spoken, and so new words are constantly being added or old ones modified in this language. A Creole Glossary is also included.
One of my dear friends hails from Haiti, and speaks Creole. He was the initial reason I was excited to read this book and learn from it. One of the first things I learned from him was that soccer was also ‘futbol’. When I saw the young girl on the cover, I wanted to put this book into his young daughter’s hands immediately. I must ask if she plans to watch the FA Cup this weekend!
I am so thankful for this incredible book and hope to share it with many readers who can also identify with its themes of friendship, connection, teamwork and not giving up in the face of adversity.
THE DIGGER AND THE FLOWER Written and illustrated by Joseph Kuefler (Balzer & Bray; $17.99, Ages 4-8)
★Starred Review – Kirkus,School Library Journal
The Digger and the Flowerby Joseph Kuefler adds a welcome new dimension to the popular construction trucks theme: thoughtfulness about the area being destroyed. When Digger finds a flower, watching over it becomes his hobby. His level of involvement escalates when the flower’s land is surrounded; eventually, it succumbs to new building.
Digitally created images contrast Digger’s sunny yellow with the muted black, gray, and white urban surroundings. The bright blue and green of the small flower imbues this cityscape, awakening something within Digger and compelling him to act. Even without the text, this vivid story is delightful.
In Joseph Kuefler’s 48-page picture book, we are shown humanity and kindness—a powerful message that addresses our need to care for the environment and one another. Yet, the book can also be read simply as another cool story about big machines.
We’re thrilled to once again participate in #MCBD2018 by sharing a review of42 Is Not Just a Number,a fantastic middle grade biography by award-winning author, Doreen Rappaport, focusing on the life of legendary athlete, Jackie Robinson.
It’s hard to believe I live less than 10 miles away from places in Pasadena that played such an important role in Jackie Robinson’s life, yet I never knew all their significance. After reading Rappaport’s 42 Is Not Just a Number, kids will understand why Jackie Robinson was destined to help break down the color barriers that existed in his lifetime, and is considered an American hero and champion of civil rights. Who knows when African-Americans would have been allowed in Major League Baseball had it not been for Robinson’s courage and determination? In fact, this past summer was the 70th anniversary of that sport’s desegregation, but it was not an easy feat to accomplish in the Jim Crow era with its rampant racism, segregation and discrimination.
In this meticulously researched biography packed with eye-opening stories and quotes, Rappaport takes us from Jack “Jackie” Robinson’s childhood through his college and military years to his baseball career, and concludes with his early death at age 53. The chapters flow easily and Rappaport shares just the right amount and choice of information to engage young readers, whether they’re sports fans or not.
Robinson, born in 1919, was raised by a single mom along with his four siblings. One of them, Mack, became a track and field silver medalist in the 1936 summer Olympics in Berlin when another black man, Jesse Owens, took home gold. Mama or Maillie, Robinson’s mother, moved the family from Georgia to Southern California when Jackie was just a one-year-old in hopes of giving her family a better life. The racial climate of Pasadena at that time, though not as restrictive and oppressive as the Jim Crow South, was still segregated, something that young Jackie could not tolerate. He was quick to lose his temper at the injustice he saw and got into trouble a lot. However, with the positive guidance of Reverand Karl Downs, Jackie, who excelled in all sports, learned to channel his frustration and anger in other ways. No matter what sport he played, his speed, skill and quick learning brought accolades. But despite his talent, there was no chance to pursue a career if playing on a team meant integrating with whites. It just wasn’t done or accepted by many. After serving in WWII, Jackie joined the Kansas City Monarchs in the Negro Baseball League and was scouted by the Montreal Royals, a farm team of the Brooklyn Dodgers. That’s how Jackie’s abilities were recognized and within a year the trailblazing Dodgers’ manager, Branch Rickey, signed him with the Dodgers, shirt #42! However Jackie had to steer clear of controversy. “I’m looking for a ballplayer with guts enough not to fight back,” Rickey told Jackie upon bringing him onboard the team. Jackie knew the manager was right and that if he was going to effect change, Rickey’s advice had to be heeded although at times it was almost impossible.
Jackie’s star was rising and Black Americans from hundreds of miles away traveled to see this amazing talent steal bases, hit home runs and shine. Despite all the acclaim, Jackie continued to face prejudice at every turn. Ultimately it was Jackie’s spirit and convictions that won over fans’ hearts across the country. “In a nationwide contest of the most respected men in America, Jackie was ahead of President Truman and WWII heroes General Dwight D. Eisenhower and General Douglas MacArthur …” 42 Is Not Just a Number deftly chroniclesthis inspirational man’s impact not only upon his sport but also upon his era. I am confident young readers will agree.
Review by Ronna Mandel
ABOUT MULTICULTURAL CHILDREN’S BOOK DAY:
Multicultural Children’s Book Day 2018 (1/27/18) is in its 5th year and was founded by Valarie Budayr from Jump Into A Book and Mia Wenjen from PragmaticMom. Our mission is to raise awareness of the ongoing need to include kids’ books that celebrate diversity in home and school bookshelves while also working diligently to get more of these types of books into the hands of young readers, parents and educators.
Current Sponsors: MCBD 2018 is honored to have some amazing Sponsors on board.
We’d like to also give a shout-out to MCBD’s impressive CoHost Team who not only hosts the book review link-up on celebration day, but who also works tirelessly to spread the word of this event. View our CoHosts HERE.
TWITTER PARTY Sponsored by Scholastic Book Clubs: MCBD’s super-popular (and crazy-fun) annual Twitter Party will be held 1/27/18 at 9:00pm.
SHE PERSISTED: 13 American Women Who Changed the World
Written by Chelsea Clinton
Illustrated by Alexandra Boiger
(Philomel; $17.99, Ages 4-8)
★ Starred Review – Publishers Weekly
She Persisted, Chelsea Clinton’s historical picture book, celebrates thirteen strong and inspirational American women who overcame obstacles because they persisted. Featured are Harriet Tubman, Helen Keller, Clara Lemlich, Nellie Bly, Virginia Apgar, Maria Tallchief, Claudette Colvin, Ruby Bridges, Margaret Chase Smith, Sally Ride, Florence Griffith Joyner, Oprah Winfrey, and Sonia Sotomayor. The book’s opening line, “Sometimes being a girl isn’t easy” sets the tone. With perseverance comes progress.
Each woman’s legacy is summarized in only one paragraph and includes the motivational words “she persisted”; the text is offset by corresponding images and a relevant quote. More personal than a history textbook, these bite-size biographies share a glimpse into the adversity overcome to achieve individual dreams. The book’s concluding words, “They persisted and so should you,” reinforces camaraderie and illuminates the message that, if you stick with it, you, too, can evoke change.
Alexandra Boiger’s watercolor and ink images contrast muted tones alongside bright colors to effectively showcase these important moments. The opening two-page spread includes pictures of fourteen women; though not mentioned in the text, Hillary Clinton is depicted here.
She Persisted would make an encouraging gift for young girls “stepping up” through grades in elementary school. It would seem fitting that Chelsea Clinton write an accompanying book for boys.
Chelsea Clinton is the author of the New York Times bestselling It’s Your World: Get Informed, Get Inspired & Get Going! and, with Devi Sridhar, Governing Global Health: Who Runs the World and Why? She is also the Vice Chair of the Clinton Foundation, where she works on many initiatives including those that help to empower the next generation of leaders. She lives in New York City with her husband, Marc, their daughter, Charlotte, their son, Aidan, and their dog, Soren. You can follow her on Twitter at @ChelseaClinton or on Facebook at www.facebook.com/chelseaclinton.
Alexandra Boiger grew up in Munich, Germany, and studied graphic design before working as an animator in England and then at Dreamworks SKG in the United States. She is the author and illustrator of Max and Marla, and the illustrator of more than twenty picture books including the Tallulah series, and When Jackie Saved Grand Central. She has received the Parents’ Choice Award and has been featured on numerous state reading lists. Alexandra lives in California with her husband, Andrea, daughter, Vanessa, and two cats, Luiso and Winter. You can visit her online at www.alexandraboiger.com.
NADIA: THE GIRL WHO COULDN’T SIT STILL
Written by Karlin Gray
Illustrated by Christine Davenier
(Houghton Mifflin Harcourt; $17.99, Ages 6-9)
Nadia: The Girl Who Couldn’t Sit Stillintroduces us to Nadia Comaneci in the village of Oneşti, Romania, when Nadia is a young girl. In the humorous, vibrant illustrations, the reader experiences Nadia’s love of climbing trees and her impatient and fearless attempts at roller skating and bicycle riding. When Nadia clambers up the family’s Christmas tree and sends it toppling over, Nadia’s parents sign her up for gymnastics lessons.
From there, Nadia is spotted one day at school by gymnastics coach, Bela Karolyi, and joins his new gymnastics school. Six-year-old Nadia diligently practices her moves until she masters them. We are shown her failures during early competitions but Nadia perseveres and makes the 1976 Romanian Olympic team. In this competition, though Nadia shines, the audience is astounded when her score reads only 1.00. We soon discover the scoreboard had not been programmed to display numbers above 9.99. Instead of a 1.00, Nadia had scored a perfect 10.00! She goes on to repeat her astounding score seven more times, winning five Olympic medals.
Though parents may be familiar with the story of Nadia Comaneci, Nadia: The Girl Who Couldn’t Sit Stillretells Nadia’s story in an approachable manner for a new generation. Children will follow Nadia’s journey up to age fourteen, when she wins Olympic gold. Nadia grows from a girl who can’t sit still to one who learns to harness and direct that energy. She gives new meaning to the old adage, “practice makes perfect.”
When the 2016 Summer Olympics open, families will be following gymnastics teams and rooting for their favorites. Reading Nadia’s story is an inspirational and timely accompaniment.
Read more about author Karlin Gray here.
Read more about illustrator Christine Davenier here.