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Sydney Taylor Book Award 2022 Blog Tour – Dear Mr. Dickens Q+A

WELCOME TO DAY TWO OF THE STBA BLOG TOUR!

 

STBA22 Blog Tour graphic

 

FEATURING INTERVIEWS WITH

AUTHOR NANCY CHURNIN

&

ILLUSTRATOR BETHANY STANCLIFFE  

DISCUSSING THEIR

HONOR-WINNING PICTURE BOOK

DEAR MR. DICKENS

 

 

Dear Mr Dickens cover

 

Starred Review – School Library Journal
2021 National Jewish Book Award Winner – Children’s Picture Book
2022 Sydney Taylor Book Award Honor for Picture Books
Chicago Public Library Best Informational Books for Younger Readers 2021
The Best Jewish Children’s Books of 2021, Tablet Magazine


BOOK SUMMARY

In Eliza Davis’s day, Charles Dickens was the most celebrated living writer in England. But some of his books reflected a prejudice that was all too common at the time: prejudice against Jewish people. Eliza was Jewish, and her heart hurt to see a Jewish character in Oliver Twist portrayed as ugly and selfish. She wanted to speak out about how unfair that was, even if it meant speaking out against the great man himself. So she wrote a letter to Charles Dickens. What happened next is history. (Albert Whitman & Co.; $16.99, Ages 4-8)

GREETING

Welcome to the GoodReadsWithRonna blog today, Nancy and Bethany. Congratulations on Dear Mr. Dickens being recognized with a Sydney Taylor Honor in the children’s picture book category! I’m happy to be able to talk to you both about Eliza Davis, Charles Dickens, and his history of negatively portraying Jewish characters in his writing and how that changed because of Eliza’s letters.

INTERVIEW WITH AUTHOR NANCY CHURNIN

GoodReadsWithRonna: Nancy, you mention in your acknowledgments that Dear Mr. Dickens had a long, joyful journey. Please tell us more about when and why you decided to dig into this not well-known but enlightening correspondence which is the basis for the book

Nancy Churnin: When I was a child, my mother always encouraged me to read whatever I wanted. The only time she questioned me was when I fell in love with the books of Charles Dickens. She couldn’t understand how I could like a writer that had created the ugly Jewish stereotype of Fagin in Oliver Twist. Didn’t I understand, she asked me, how that character fueled antisemitism, leading readers to believe that all Jewish people were liars and thieves like Fagin?

 

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Interior spread from Dear Mr. Dickens written by Nancy Churnin and illustrated by Bethany Stancliffe, Albert Whitman & Co. ©2021.

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She was right. Ugly Jewish stereotypes were part of what made people lack compassion for the Jewish people who were tortured and killed in the Holocaust – where we lost so many family members. These were the kind of images that made neighborhood bullies persecute her and other Jewish children growing up in New York City. I wished I could have written Dickens a letter asking him why someone who had so much compassion for children and the poor could treat the Jewish people with such antipathy. Flash forward to 2013, three years before my first book, The William Hoy Story would be published, when I was in the library researching baseball and I flitted around the computer screen, landing on an article about Dickens.

That’s when I found two lines in an article that mentioned Eliza Davis, a Jewish woman who wrote to him – just as I’d dreamed of doing!—and changed his heart, inspiring him to write his first compassionate Jewish character, Mr. Riah in Our Mutual Friend. I had to know more! But all the article had was snippets from one of the letters. I asked the librarian for help. She found three places that had the letters: the University of Southampton in England, where you had to make a special appointment to view them; and two places in the U.S., one of which was at the University of North Texas rare book collection, less than 40 minutes from my home.

I called the University of North Texas librarian who put me in touch with Professor J. Don Vann, a Dickens scholar that had found Charles Dickens and His Jewish Characters, a 1918 out-of-print book from Chiswick Press in England that contained the letters and donated it to the library. Don and his now late wife Dolores, invited me to tea to discuss Eliza Davis. That’s when I felt compelled to turn this story into a book that I could share with my mother. I had rejections at first from editors that didn’t think a story about letters was exciting enough. It didn’t fit into the usual biography template as it wasn’t the story of either person’s life, but rather an encounter that changed their lives and changed the way English people who read Dickens thought about the Jewish people. I visited The Charles Dickens Museum in London in 2014, deepening my research. But even when my career as a published author began taking off in 2016, Dear Mr. Dickens sat there, waiting, not seeming to fit into any category anyone wanted. It just seemed to be a story that needed to simmer and be revised as I grew more confident in my ability to tell the story the way it needed to be told.

Finally, in 2020, Wendy McClure, my then editor at Albert Whitman, asked if I had something new. She said, for the first time, she wasn’t looking for biographies, but stories about history-changing encounters and events. I pulled Dear Mr. Dickens out of the drawer and gave it to her. She loved it right away. So did her editorial team. It was acquired with dizzying speed for a manuscript that had been waiting years to dance at the ball. But it was worth every moment. Because Wendy and our illustrator, Bethany Stancliffe, really got the story. When it went to print, it said everything I had wanted and hoped to say. I couldn’t wait to share it with my mother. When I did, she held it in her hands and read it over and over. Her face softened. I felt an old pain dissolve as she forgave Dickens – and me. We hugged as she read this true story about how people can, sometimes, change for the better if you speak up, persist and then, when the person who does wrong makes amends, forgive.

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GRWR: We’re often told as children’s book writers to make the main characters kids but Eliza Davis is a woman and mother of 10 children. As an adult and Dickens fan, I found the information you shared about Eliza’s positive influence on Dickens fascinating. What do you think makes her a compelling character for young readers to learn about and what can they take away from the book?

Nancy: The most compelling stories for me are the journeys not of a person, but of a person’s dream. In most cases, those dreams start in childhood, so it’s natural to start the book with the character as a child. That’s not the case for Eliza Davis in Dear Mr. Dickens. She didn’t grow up dreaming of writing Charles Dickens a letter! But I had grown up dreaming that. I could put the urgency I felt as a child into what she did as an adult. I also did something I’ve never done in a picture book before. I appealed to young readers by starting my book in the second person: “Think of someone famous you admire. What would you do if that person said or wrote something unfair? Would you speak up? Would you risk getting that person angry? Eliza Davis did.” I believe these are questions that kids – and all ages – can relate to. I believe these are questions that can lead kids – and all ages – to speak up, stand up, and become upstanders when they see someone do or say something that isn’t right.

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Interior spread from Dear Mr. Dickens written by Nancy Churnin and illustrated by Bethany Stancliffe, Albert Whitman & Co. ©2021.

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GRWR: When doing your research for Dear Mr. Dickens, was there one particular piece of information you uncovered (included or not included in the book) that has had an impact on you? 

Nancy: I hope people will read the Author’s Note which gives context to how important Eliza’s action may have been in historical impact. England was once one of the most hostile places for Jewish people. In 1275, centuries before Nazis introduced the yellow star, King Edward I decreed that Jews older than seven had to wear a large yellow badge of felt shaped like the tablet of the Ten Commandments on their outer clothing. Jewish people were segregated and had to live in restricted areas, were forbidden to lend money, and were unwelcome in trade guilds. In 1290, England expelled Jews who refused to convert; this was two centuries before the Spanish expelled their Jewish people during their Inquisition.

After Eliza Davis helped Dickens see the Jewish people with understanding and compassion, he not only created the kindly Mr. Riah, he advocated in his magazine for them to be treated fairly. Dickens wasn’t the only advocate for Jewish people, but his influence was enormous. Everyone from all classes, chimney sweeps to the Queen of England, read and revered him. Attitudes began to change during his lifetime. The Jews Relief Act of 1858 allowed Jews to serve in Parliament for the first time. I credit the change in English attitudes for the welcoming way that Great Britain opened its arms to thousands of Jewish refugee children during the Kindertransport at the start of World War II.

Eliza Davis wasn’t powerful or famous. All she did was write a letter. But speaking up and not backing down when justice is at stake can make a powerful difference. That’s what I learned from Eliza Davis. That’s what I hope young readers – and all readers – take to heart.

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GRWR: Can you speak to your passion for writing nonfiction and also about sharing the stories of notable and in Eliza’s case less notable Jewish individuals?

Nancy: I love and read every genre and I hope, someday – maybe soon – to expand the type of books I write. But I’ll always pay homage to true stories — my mother’s favorite — because, as she’s told me, real people doing great things remind us that we can all do great things, too.

When I look for people to write about, I’m drawn to those who might not be known otherwise – such as Eliza Davis — or who have aspects of themselves that might not otherwise be known – such as Charles Dickens and his evolving view of Jewish people. I feel that every time I shine light on otherwise forgotten people, I’ve helped bring them back into our living, collective heart because it’s only when we have forgotten people or their deeds that they truly disappear.

 

Dear Mr Dickens int3
Interior spread from Dear Mr. Dickens written by Nancy Churnin and illustrated by Bethany Stancliffe, Albert Whitman & Co. ©2021.

 

I’m honored that Dear Mr. Dickens was given a Sydney Taylor Honor because Sydney Taylor provided positive Jewish role models for Jewish children like myself at a time when they were scarce. At first, Sydney Taylor’s All-of-a-Kind Family books were like a little island in a sea of books about non-Jewish characters or Jewish characters that were ugly stereotypes. But since the awards were founded in 1968, they’ve done enormous good in encouraging the creation of books with positive Jewish role models for kids that need Jewish windows, mirrors and sliding glass doors. I’m grateful for this encouragement from the Sydney Taylor Book Award Committee and for the Notable award for A Queen to the Rescue, the Story of Henrietta Szold, Founder of Hadassah (and for my 2019 Notable for Irving Berlin, the Immigrant Boy Who Made America Sing). Now, with sons planning marriages and, I hope, with grandchildren around the corner, I feel more passionate than ever about the mission bring more Jewish stories into the world that fill children’s hearts with courage, hope, and determination to heal the world.

 

INTERVIEW WITH ILLUSTRATOR BETHANY STANCLIFFE

GRWR: Bethany, what struck you most after reading Nancy’s manuscript?

Bethany Stancliffe: I was immediately impressed with the wonderful portrayal of Eliza in this story. Nancy’s writing beautifully captured what it must have felt like to be in Eliza’s shoes.

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GRWR: How much research did you have to do to bring 19th century London, and in particular Eliza Davis and Charles Dickens, to life?

Bethany: It was important to gather a lot of visual references to make sure my illustrations were true to the characters and settings. Studying information and images documenting Charles Dickens and Victorian England was a significant step in the design process. There weren’t many photographs of Eliza available so it was a pleasant challenge to design her character in a way that conveyed her personality.

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Interior spread from Dear Mr. Dickens written by Nancy Churnin and illustrated by Bethany Stancliffe, Albert Whitman & Co. ©2021.

 

GRWR: One of my favorite illustrations is the one where two scenes, Dickens in his home and Eliza in hers, flow together with sheets of correspondence. Do you have a favorite spread and if so, what about it do you love?

Bethany: Thank you! One of my favorite spreads to paint was the scene of Eliza and her son walking together to post a letter to Mr. Dickens. While I was illustrating this book I had a toddler of my own running around which really helped me appreciate that Eliza was speaking up not only for herself but for others who may not be able to do so for themselves.

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Thank you both so very much for taking the time to share your experiences working on Dear Mr. Dickens. I’m also grateful that many misconceptions I and perhaps others had about Charles Dickens have been cleared up and hope everyone will read the book to see how one person’s voice made such a powerful impact.

 

BIOS

Nancy Churnin1
Author Nancy Churin Photo credit: Kim Leeson

 

Nancy Churnin is the award-winning author of multiple picture book biographies. The former theater critic for the Dallas Morning News and Los Angeles Times San Diego Edition, she’s now a full-time writer and peace negotiator between her dog and cats. She lives in North Texas.

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See the entire blog tour schedule on the AJL blog: https://jewishlibraries.org/2022-blog-tour/

Find more information about the Sydney Taylor Award here: https://jewishlibraries.org/sydney_taylor_book_award/

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Nonfiction Picture Book Review – Tu Youyou’s Discovery

TU YOUYOU’S DISCOVERY:
Finding a Cure for Malaria

Written by Songju Ma Daemicke

Illustrated by Lin

(Albert Whitman & Co.; $16.99, Ages 4-8)

 

Tu Youyous Discovery cover

 

In 2021 malaria is a preventable and treatable disease but it wasn’t always the case. Hundreds of thousands used to die from it annually but the mortality rate has declined since the medicine to cure it was approved. That’s why I was curious to read about Tu Youyou, the woman whose determination led to finding a cure for malaria and becoming the first Chinese woman to win a Nobel Prize. 

In Tu Youyou’s Discovery written by Songju Ma Daemicke with art by Lin, readers are brought back in time to Beijing, China in the 1930s. Youyou attended school when most girls her age stayed home but contracted tuberculosis as a teenager and had to drop out.

 

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Interior art from Tu Youyou’s Discovery: Finding a Cure for Malaria written by Songju Ma Daemicke and illustrated by Lin, Albert Whitman ©2021.

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Fortunately, she survived due to antibiotics prescribed by her physician but was greatly weakened. A steady diet of “her mother’s herb soups slowly nursed her back to full strength.” This sparked her interest in how both “modern and traditional” medicines had helped her get well. Always a compassionate person, Youyou chose to pursue a career in science in order to help save lives. Little did she know then what a major contribution she would ultimately make when in 1969 malaria, like Covid-19 now, swept across the world bringing death in its path. After graduating from Peking University, “in 1955” she “became a researcher at the China Academy of Traditional Chinese Medicine in Beijing.” As part of a research group, Youyou was determined to find a cure for malaria and was in the right place at just the right time.

 

Tu Youyou's Discovery int2
Interior art from Tu Youyou’s Discovery: Finding a Cure for Malaria written by Songju Ma Daemicke and illustrated by Lin, Albert Whitman ©2021.

 

Youyou traveled around the country to document cases in hopes of gaining new insight into the disease. She found it when she met a farmer who had cured his own high fever by eating a local plant called qinghao, known in English as sweet wormwood. In her lab, she and her team tried various methods to create a cure using the qinghao, but nothing worked. However, Youyou did not give up. Despite little to no funding for the latest equipment, Youyou’s team performed experiment after experiment with no luck.

Then what appeared to be a breakthrough came from an unexpected place. Studying her family’s indispensable “A Handbook of Prescriptions for Emergencies, an ancient Chinese remedy book,” Youyou revisited the qinhao remedy only to realize that the book recommended just soaking the herb in water when all along her team had been boiling it. Perhaps the healing part of the plant had been destroyed during the experiments. Much to her dismay, this too yielded no results. Again, Youyou persevered. Many male colleagues had questioned her commitment to traditional medicine but “After 190 unsuccessful experiments, the test result of sample 191 stunned the team.” Sample 191 completely killed the parasites and so in 1971 a successful cure had been found. And while Youyou initially credited her entire team in research papers, over time “other scientists finally realized how involved she had been in the discovery.” In October of 2015, Tu Youyou was awarded the Nobel Prize in Medicine at a ceremony in Stockholm, Sweden. Her commitment to finding a cure for malaria has saved millions of lives and continues to do so to this day.

 

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Interior art from Tu Youyou’s Discovery: Finding a Cure for Malaria written by Songju Ma Daemicke and illustrated by Lin, Albert Whitman ©2021.

 

I’m so glad Songju has introduced Tu Youyou to me and to children in such an accessible way. I felt as if, despite knowing the outcome, that I was right alongside a detective solving a mystery. This nonfiction picture book bio provides engaging STEM reading for budding scientists, doctors, and inventors and puts Youyou’s name up there alongside other women in STEM history makers such as Marie Curie, Marie Maynard Daly, and Ada Byron Lovelace. Lin’s nice use of contrasting flat color palettes creates bright illustrations that have a print-making quality to them. Songju shares how labor-intensive the six steps of the scientific method are (see back matter for this info) but also how crucial. While not all experiments yield life-changing results, Youyou’s story is a great example of how teamwork and not giving up can make a difference. I was surprised to learn in the Author’s Note that although the first clinical trials for the malaria medicine known as artemisinin took place in 1972, it wasn’t until 1986 that the drug gained approval from the Chinese government and started being used around the globe.

  •  Reviewed by Ronna Mandel
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13+ New Halloween Books for 2021

 

 

BEST NEW HALLOWEEN BOOKS

A ROUNDUP

 

 

 

 

 

Spookytale coverSPOOKYTALE (An Abrams Trail Tale)
Written by Christopher Franceschelli

Illustrated by Allison Black
(Abrams Appleseed; $14.99, Ages 0-3)

Christopher Franceschelli’s latest book in his Abrams Block Book series is Spookytale, an interactive board book. We travel along with a boy, girl, and dog to their far-off destination: a haunted house. This journey takes them through the woods, across the bridge, and so forth. Each scene has die-cut pieces that lift to reveal fun Halloween-themed surprises. Fun hole-punched areas add textural interest.

The simple text is offset with rich illustrations by Allison Black. Pages have a lot going on; in subsequent readings, kids will find something new. Done in autumnal tones with pops of bright colors, costumed kids and smiling monsters are equally cute. The final scene is a dramatic quadruple gatefold that reveals all the festivities inside the house.

  • Reviewed by Christine Van Zant

 

TrickorTreat Bugs to Eat coverTRICK OR TREAT, BUGS TO EAT
Written by Tracy C. Gold
Illustrated by Nancy Leschnikoff
(So
urcebooks Explore; $10.99, Ages 4-8)

I love Halloween books and Tracy C. Gold’s Trick or Treat, Bugs to Eat is one of my favorites to date. The words are set to the “Trick or Treat, Smell My Feet” rhyme: “Hear my calls / bounce off walls, / echoing as darkness falls.” From there, Gold has gotten clever by presenting a story about a bat out trick-or-treating, weaving in lots of animals facts. For example, we learn bats are nocturnal, use echolocation, and they sure eat a lot of bugs—up to a thousand insects each night!

Coupled with the exceptional text is Nancy Leschnikoff’s outstanding art. I don’t know how many times I exclaimed, “It’s so cute!” while I read this book, but the expressive bat really is that adorable. Surrounding scenic art is just as great (love the raccoon!). The nightscape is rendered in appealing shades of blues and purples.

At only eight-by-eight inches, this 32-page picture book fits well in small hands. Between the engaging story, excellent art, and informative back matter, this book’s got it all.

  • Reviewed by Christine Van Zandt

 

Poultrygeist coverPOULTRYGEIST
Written by Eric Geron
Illustrated by Pete Oswald
(Candlewick Press; $16.99, Ages 4-8)

Kids will cluck out loud upon reading this chicken-centric ghost tale children’s book. In a nutshell (or should I say eggshell?), the story opens with an unsuspecting chicken getting run down by a massive truck and becoming a ghost. I mean, why was he crossing the road in the first place, right?

Soon, all the other local animals that have been hit by vehicles gather around the newly dead chicken to explain the ropes. The humor in this fast-paced read is that they want the newly deceased fowl to begin haunting, only this “spring chicken” has no desire to frighten others. In fact, at one point he turns to the reader and asks, “Pssst? Are you OK?” The sweet surprise is when the fryer asserts himself, accidentally scaring off the troublesome spirits.

The story comes hilariously full circle when the scene switches from the pleased poultrygeist to a squirrel crossing the same dangerous roadway. Pete Oswald’s expressive art in Poultrygeist adds another fun layer to this dark and delightful Halloween story that perhaps unintentionally and hilariously drives home the point to look both ways when crossing

  • Reviewed by Ronna Mandel

 

How to Haunt a House coverHOW TO HAUNT A HOUSE
Written
by Carolyn Crimi
Illustrated by Edward Miller
(Albert Whitman; $16.99, Ages 4-8) 

Carolyn Crimi’s rhyming picture book, How to Haunt a House, features ghosts in a classroom being taught the teacher’s “special ghost technique” for haunting. Groana, Moana, and Shrieky are assigned three houses; all goes well until the last one which proves to be a challenge. The ghosts must figure out something new that will scare the ghouls who live there. It’s got to be tough when, instead of fleeing, “the small girl kissed those scrawny rats.”

Comical illustrations by Edward Miller enhance the text’s humor. His evocative characters are a kick; I especially like the skulking, glaring black cats. The book’s underlying message, “Do not give up! You’ll find a way!” is tackled lightheartedly yet still shows how, sometimes, you need to come at a problem from a new direction in order to solve it.

  • Reviewed by Christine Van Zandt

 

If You Ever Meet a Skeleton coverIF YOU EVER MEET A SKELETON
Written by Rebecca Evans
Illustrated by Katrin Dreiling
(Page Street Kids; $17.99; Ages 4-8)

I never thought I would want to meet a skeleton until I met the adorable protagonist in If You Ever Meet A Skeleton written by Rebecca Evans, who was inspired to write this story after meeting a skeleton in a museum.

Sleeping underground with other skeletons and a few bugs, Skeleton climbs to the surface looking for a friend. He finds three kids dressed in costumes on Halloween night. Dreiling illustrates the skeleton with a piece of blond hair giving the reader a feel for what he looked like before his demise. Evans’ rhyming words take what could be a scary topic and turn it into a humorous read. “Skeletons might seem spooky—white bones without the skin, no eyes, no ears, no lips, just one big toothy grin.”

Children dressed as witches, pirates, and ninja warriors with round faces and toothy grins are not sure what to make of this unusual creature, but Evans takes the reader through a wonderful understanding of how a skeleton, thought different from themselves, can be friend material. “Skeletons have no guts, so they aren’t brave like you. They’re scared of nighttime shadows and owls that say ‘whoooo.’”

This is a great addition to the fall reading list for the school classroom. And how great it is to have a friend who will go “trick-or-treating with you then share their chocolate bar, just like best buddies do.”

  • Reviewed by Ronda Einbinder

 

Boo Stew coverBOO STEW
Written by Donna L. Washington
Illustrated by Jeffrey Ebbeler
(Peachtree; $17.99, Ages 4-8)

A little girl named Curly Locks who loves to cook is the heroine of Boo Stew, a Goldilocks and the Three Bears fractured fairy tale. This Halloween story features food that won’t tempt your taste buds but just might be the right food to feed a scary soul or three.

It seems the Scares of Toadsuck Swamp might be hungry and while they’re invading homes to steal food, they’re causing chaos, especially at the mayor’s house. After they chase him out with an ominous “Gitchey Boo, Gitchey Bon! Gitchey Goo, Gitchey Gone!” the blacksmith, and the chicken rancher also try to vanquish the scary villains with no luck.

Curly Locks, fearless and clever, steps up and entices the Scares with her Boo Stew. With its moose ear broth, toenail clippings, and gnat juice, Boo Stew does the job. A deal is struck and the creatures head back to the swamp. The townsfolk get a Scare-free Toadsuck and Curly Locks … well she gets to prepare all sorts of concoctions for the appreciative Scares since no one else will eat her cooking anyway! Washington has taken the Goldilocks tale and spun a unique, engaging Halloween story. Ebbeler’s colorful, detailed, and dynamic illustrations set a tone that’s just right for this humorous picture book.

  • Reviewed by Ronna Mandel

 

The Ghouls' Guide to Good GrammarTHE GHOULS’ GUIDE TO GOOD GRAMMAR
Written by Leslie Kimmelman
Illustrated by Mary Sullivan
(Sleeping Bear Press; $16.99; Ages 4-8)

Learning proper grammar can be quite daunting for young kids, especially for those still learning over Zoom, but Leslie Kimmelman has created a fabulous storytime picture book that can be read during the Halloween season or any time of the year. The Ghouls’ Guide To Good Grammar is a hilarious take on how different a sentence can read if a comma is misplaced or other grammar isn’t correct. Sullivan’s illustration of a sweet young girl holding a bowl of cat food for Sylvester reads “Time to eat, Sylvester.” But when the giant ghoul with sharp teeth peeks around the corner with all eyes on the little grey and white cat he thinks “Time to eat Sylvester.” A very different and dastardly meaning when the comma is removed!

Turning the page, the reader learns that “contractions are two words shortened and combined with an apostrophe to make one word.” This sounds confusing until the reader visually sees Sullivan’s colorful drawing of six ghouls surrounded by bugs and spilled soda in “Ghouls’ really gross bedroom.” Kimmelman changes the location of the apostrophe to read “Ghoul’s really gross bedroom” and now we see it was one mischievous ghoul who made the mess all on his lonesome.

This treat of a story concludes with a Ghoul Grammar Quiz asking the reader which of the sentences shown has no mistakes. The Ghouls’ Guide to Good Grammar is an ideal teaching tool for a parent or a teacher to use to transform the often tough topic of punctuation into a frightfully fun learning experience.

  • Reviewed by Ronda Einbinder

 

There's a Ghost in this House coverTHERE’S A GHOST IN THIS HOUSE
Written and illustrated by Oliver Jeffers
(Philomel Books; $27.99, Ages 4-8)

I may not be the target age range for this creative book but I had a blast reading it. First of all, There’s a Ghost in this House is less a straightforward picture book―although Jeffers has illustrated it with a little girl, some adorable (and giggling in places) ghosts, and lots of striped clothing―and more a seek-and-find interactive story so children can be in control of how many ghosts they’d like to discover over the course of 80 pages.

Jeffers has taken found black and white photos of an imposing 18th-century mansion and then brought in bits of color with the addition of the young girl narrator/guide. Readers join her to tour the house as she looks for ghosts which are printed white on transparent vellum paper throughout the book and appear when the paper is placed against the b+w house interiors. That’s such a fantastic idea because I never knew what poses the ghosts would be in and where exactly they’d show up each time. 

Since the ghouls are not menacing in the least, children can enjoy this book without fear. Parents and caregivers can admire the cleverness of the presentation while also deciding how many ghosts to expose.

  • Reviewed by Ronna Mandel

 

Brains! Not Just a Zombie Snack coverBRAINS! NOT JUST A ZOMBIE SNACK
Written by Stacy McAnulty
Illustrated by Matthew Rivera
(Henry Holt BYR; $18.99; Ages 4-8)

Matthew Rivera illustrates a green zombie girl with a red scar across her forehead seeking brains to eat in Brains! Not Just A Zombie Snack. Focusing on the fascinating science of the body, STEM picture book author Stacy McAnulty teaches the reader about the importance of the brain and how, without it, reading a picture book would be impossible. This educational read breaks down the five senses of touch, sound, sight, smell, and taste and how the brain receives messages from these senses. What better time than Halloween to explore this subject?!

Zombie Girl is desperate for some brain to eat and in her search for this delectable snack, the reader discovers “Neurons! They do the work, and you have about 86 billion of them.” Zombie holds up two cans of Neurons and Glial Cells with anxious eyes ready to eat. “When you learn something new, like how to add numbers, play the piano, tie up a zombie, you aren’t making more neurons—you’re making new and stronger pathways.”

My brain took in a whole lot of information that I was not aware of such as a 75-year-old human’s brain is 10 percent smaller than max size (so 2.7 pounds-ish) instead of 3 pounds in a grown-up human. The best advice the reader learns is that “if you want to run away from a zombie later. You’ll want your cerebellum.”

The helpful back matter includes Brain Facts such as A human brain is only about 2-3 percent of an adult’s body weight, but it uses almost 20 percent of the body’s energy. I also was surprised to learn that Albert Einstein’s brain was stolen by Dr. Thomas Harvey and cut into 240 blocks to be studied upon his death. This is something I would like to learn more about!

  • Reviewed by Ronda Einbinder

 

Poison for Breakfast coverPOISON FOR BREAKFAST
by Lemony Snicket

Chapter Spot art by Margaux Kent
(Liveright; $17.95, All Ages)

Lemony Snicket’s Poison for Breakfast will certainly be a hit with his fans because the author’s style is quite unique, a word which here means “weird in undefinable ways.” Though marketed to older MG and YA readers, this book appeals to adults as well. This true story begins when Mr. Snicket (as he prefers to be addressed) finds a bewildering and frightening note under his door that reads, “You had poison for breakfast.”

We go along with Mr. Snicket as he reviews each item consumed for breakfast to uncover the culprit. He meanders to locations where the breakfast items originated. Though we eventually discover what’s behind this mystery, the pleasure is in the circuitous journey told in a way that only Lemony Snicket can, complete with endnotes elaborating topics touched upon.

I enjoy the distinctive structure, odd tidbits, and repetition. So, make yourself a poached egg as Mr. Snicket recommends, and settle in for a fun read. A list-maker myself, I find Mr. Snicket’s lists particularly amusing. And, as a writer, knowing the three rules of writing will undoubtedly help me better my craft. They are: (1) Include the element of surprise, (2) Leave something out, and, (3) Well, no one really knows the third rule.

  • Reviewed by Christine Van Zandt

 

The Ghoul Next Door coverTHE GHOUL NEXT DOOR 
Written by Cullen Bunn
Illustrated by Cat Farris
(Harper Alley; $12.99, Ages 8-12)

Get your ghoul on with The Ghoul Next Door, a terrific new middle-grade graphic novel featuring just enough ghouls, ghosts, and atmospheric underworld to make you read it in one sitting and then start all over again.

Welcome to Anders Landing, est. 1692, a place sought out by accused witches to avoid the witch hunts and trials of Salem taking place the same year. Things go downhill quickly for main character Grey who, after picking up an unlucky penny, takes a shortcut to school through the local cemetery. Grey doesn’t want to lug his bulky Salem Witch-themed school project the long way like his superstitious friend, Marshall. When Grey trips on an open grave and drops his project in it, he panics. Looking down he sees his cemetery project grasped by a monster-ish hand. Then, it’s gone.

That evening something enters his bedroom and begins leaving gifts, not the birthday present sort, but finger bones, a doll of his likeness, and assorted other items that freak him out. This creature clearly likes Grey and replaces the original cemetery model with an even better one. Grey may score points in class with the new project, but Marshall thinks it’s best to tell some adults about all the creepy goings-on. While he initially didn’t believe Grey, he’s now changed his mind after a trip to the cemetery where he gets a glimpse of the ghoul. Lavinia, as she’s called, saves Grey from an army of rats and a friendship begins. In foreshadowing the story’s conflict, she warns the two humans to keep mum about what they know or they risk the ire of those underground and put her in jeopardy.

Readers learn that the ghoulish creatures that live below the surface (Grey and Marshall are considered human surface dwellers), aside from enjoying eating the newly dead, greatly dislike and mistrust humans and fear discovery. As payback, they kidnap Marshall leading Grey and Lavinia on a dangerous mission underground to rescue him before he’s killed. What ensues is a page-turning adventure with the right mix of dialogue, fantastical and haunting art, and heart, although technically I don’t think a ghoul has one. The friendship of Lavinia and Grey challenges the ‘no contact with humans’ rule laid out by Lavinia’s community and feels satisfying and fresh (although using that word here feels kind of ghoulish). She risks everything for Grey while he also puts his life on the line to help both his old and new friends and ultimately himself. Read this in the daytime if you live anywhere near a cemetery.

  • Reviewed by Ronna Mandel

 

THE HALLOWEEN MOONThe Halloween Moon cover
Written by Joseph Fink
(Quill Tree Books; $16.99, Ages 10-13)

What if time stood still and it could be Halloween forever? The candy part is tempting, but if everyone you loved had fallen into a deep, otherworldly sleep, it might not be so sweet. That’s exactly what 13-year-old protagonist Esther Gold is dealing with in Joseph Fink’s imaginative novel, The Halloween Moon. Blending fantasy and magic in a contemporary Southern California setting, Fink opens the book with a prologue detailing a robbery of something seemingly quite small which proves to have huge significance in the story. 

Esther lives for Halloween but her best friend, Agustín, does not. So when Esther’s parents announce she has aged out of trick-or-treating, having become an adult at her bat mitzvah, she realizes she’ll have to circumvent this new rule. When that plan involves Agustín, he seems game. Did he agree a bit too easily? Did she like that he did? Those are just a few of the questions Esther faces on this very long Halloween night set under a huge orange Halloween moon. 

Odd goings-on occur as Esther and Agustín notice only a motley crew of trick-or-treaters with shadowy faces are out and about. Their clicky sounds are creepy too. Plus all the people usually into the holiday aren’t answering their doors. The pair soon discover that a sleeping spell has been cast over the community. An urgency hits when Esther realizes her little sister has gone missing. That’s also what brings Esther together with bully Sasha Min who has often lobbed anti-semitic and other hurtful insults her way. But since Sasha’s distraught over her kidnapped brother and unwakeable mother, she agrees to team up with the other two intrepid trick-or-treaters to find out what’s going on. Along the way, the teens take the rare awake adult, next-door neighbor, Mr. Gabler, onboard as they try to reverse the spell and bring the interminable Halloween nightmare safely to an end 

I enjoyed this book because, in addition to the mystery the teens hope to solve, readers get inside Esther’s head and learn that she’s been having difficulty accepting change in her life. Whether the change is about her giving up trick-or-treating, her changing feelings for Agustín, watching Grandma Debbie getting older and frailer, or about what might happen when she moves up into high school the following year, Fink ties Esther’s growth into the Halloween adventure in a satisfying way. The dynamic shared between Esther and Sasha as they try to resolve past conflicts is also one that should resonate with readers. Horror fans will note references to John Carpenter and the horror film genre in general.

  • Reviewed by Ronna Mandel

 

HAPPY HOWL-O-WEEN MAD LIBS  
by Mad Libs

(Mad Libs; $6.99, Ages 8-12)

Mad Libs are one of those things: we all know and enjoy them. As a parent, I wholeheartedly encourage playing Mad Libs whenever a boring moment strikes. Yes, they’re hilarious and spark the imagination, but also (secret parent trick) drill home the parts of speech: adverb versus adjective and so forth. And if you’re a little rusty, no fear. Following the instructions, there’s a “quick review” that easily explains that, for example, when an exclamation is called for, they mean something like “Wow!” “Ouch!” or “Ick!”

The Happy Howl-o-ween version takes all the best stuff about this holiday and mixes it up with the fill-in-the-blank fun of Mad Libs. There are 63 themed stories to create in three categories: Monster Mash, Trick or Treat (both by Tristan Roarke), and Day of the Dead (by Karl Jones).

Whether you’ve done these a million times or are just introducing them to a young child, pick up a copy for your car as a way to pass some time with laughs and learning.

  • Reviewed by Christine Van Zandt

 

vampires hearts other dead things coverVAMPIRES, HEARTS, & OTHER DEAD THINGS
by Margie Fuston
(Margaret K. McElderry; $18.99, Ages 14 and up) 

Instead of celebrating her senior year, Victoria won’t give up on her terminally ill dad—even when her family is told there are no treatment options left to pursue. Her mom and sister seem better at letting go. Victoria, instead, turns to the passion of all-things-vampire that she shares with her father and decides it’s up to her to save him. Ten years ago, a vampire announced himself to the world, but, after some mishaps, the vampires went back into hiding. Victoria takes that trip to New Orleans she’d planned on doing with her dad and, while there, vows to find and get bitten by a vampire so she can save her father by turning him into one too.

The grief Victoria struggles with is realistically handled, as is the complex connection she has with Henry (her neighbor, former BFF, and maybe boyfriend). As in all good love stories, a bit of a love triangle comes into play, but the heart of the story involves Victoria’s relationships with her family and Henry. Messy emotions are laid bare in a hauntingly beautiful setting. I like how Victoria’s quest leads her through ever-increasing challenges that test her resolve to follow through with this plan.

A new, vital addition to the vampire lore. Not only does this story add its own flair, but it explores previous books and movies—a pleasing touch for vampire aficionados.

  • Reviewed by Christine Van Zandt

 

 

ADDITIONAL RECOMMENDED HALLOWEEN READS 

 

BOO! BAA! LA LA LA!
Written and illustrated by Sandra Boynton
(Little Simon; $5.99, Age 0-5)

 

 

Vampenguin coverVAMPENGUIN
Written and illustrated by Lucy Ruth Cummins
(Atheneum BYR; $17.99, Ages 4-8)

 

 

 

The Haunted Mustache coverTHE HAUNTED MUSTACHE: Book #1 Fright Nights
Written by Joe McGee
Illustrated by Teo Skaffa
(Aladdin; $6.99, Ages 7-10)

 

 

 

 

What Lives in the Woods coverWHAT LIVES IN THE WOODS
Written by Lindsay Currie
(Sourcebooks; $16.99, Ages 8-12)

 

 

 

 

 

 

THE GHOSTLY TALES OF THE QUEEN MARY
by Shelli Timmons
(Arcadia Children’s Books; $12.99, Ages 8-12)

 

 

 

 

 

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Children’s Picture Book Review – Saturday at the Food Pantry

 

SATURDAY AT THE FOOD PANTRY

Written by Diane O’Neill

Illustrated by Brizida Magro

(Albert Whitman & Company; $16.99, Ages 4-8)

 

 

Saturday at the Food Pantry cover

 

 

Part of Albert Whitman & Company’s Social and Emotional Learning collection, Saturday at the Food Pantry by author Diane O’Neill and illustrator Brizida Magro encourages discussions about food insecurity and highlights the truth that all of us need help sometimes.

As their food supply dwindles and Mom pours the last cup of milk to make her special “fancy milk” drink, Molly learns they’ll be visiting a food pantry the next day. “What’s a food pantry?” Molly asks. “It’s a place for people who need food,” Mom answers. “Everybody needs help sometimes.” 

 

Saturday at the Food Pantry int1
Interior art from Saturday at the Food Pantry written by Diane O’Neill and illustrated by Brizida Magro, Albert Whitman & Co. ©2021.

 

 

In gentle ways, O’Neill and Magro illustrate the characters’ hesitance and anxieties while they wait in line for the pantry to open. Molly sees her classmate, Caitlin, standing in line with her grandmother. To Molly’s surprise, Caitlin expresses feelings of shame for being there. Walking back to her mom, Molly feels confused. Is “there something wrong with needing help?” Once inside, even Mom “look[s] like she want[s] to be invisible.” But Molly reminds her, “Everybody needs help sometimes.” Later, Molly points out to Caitlin ways they themselves helped “cheer up” the grown-ups in the pantry.  

 

 

Saturday at the Food Pantry int2
Interior art from Saturday at the Food Pantry written by Diane O’Neill and illustrated by Brizida Magro, Albert Whitman & Co. ©2021.

 

 

Open, honest conversations between Caitlin’s grandmother and Mom about finding and keeping employment allow for a safe space to share. Muted illustrations using straight, geometric lines provide a sense of structure, order, and calm. With minimal background in the settings, Magro allows readers to focus on each individual character, driving home the point: everyone is important, everyone needs help, and most of all, we need each other. A note in the back matter for adults and caregivers about food insecurity by Kate Maehr, Executive Director and CEO of the Greater Chicago Food Depository, provides additional details on child hunger and resources to help. 

 

Saturday at the Food Pantry int3
Interior spread from Saturday at the Food Pantry written by Diane O’Neill and illustrated by Brizida Magro, Albert Whitman & Co. ©2021.

 

 

Whether in the classroom or family room, readers young and old can benefit from this positive, heartfelt message of hope.

  •  Reviewed by Armineh Manookian
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Best New Books for Back-to-School 2021

10 BACK-TO-SCHOOL BOOKS

∼A ROUNDUP FOR 2021∼

 

 

backtoschool pencil clipart

 

 

Back-to school this year is not only the start of a new school year, for many it’s also a return to in-person learning in over a year. For others, it’s really the first time ever to attend daycare, preschool, or elementary school. This selection of ten assorted books highlights all the things that returning to school means for kids.

 

 

MEET YOUR SCHOOL!: An All About Me Book
Written by Cindy Jin

Illustrated by Melissa Crowton
(Little Simon; $7.99, Ages 1-5)

Cindy Jin’s upbeat 12-page school-shaped board book, Meet Your School!: An All About Me Book, features a variety of animals making their way through a school day. A nice overview is given of what kids can expect, from the main classrooms to the art room, gym, cafeteria, library, and music room. The rhyming couplets reinforce what can be found in each area: “The library is filled with books of all kinds / to teach and inspire bright, young minds.”

The illustrations by Melissa Crowton depict cute, colorful animals interacting happily in various situations. Each page has fun lift-the-flaps for further exploration. Overall, this book has a lot to discover while also providing a positive message as to what school is all about. – Review by Christine Van Zandt

 

HowtobeKindinKindergarten cvrHOW TO BE KIND IN KINDERGARTEN:
A Book For Your Backpack
Written by D.J. Steinberg
Illustrated by Ruth Hammond
(Grosset & Dunlap; $8.99; Ages 3-5)

 My eyes were instantly attracted to the colorful book cover illustration of an apple being shared on the school playground with a new friend, while classmates throw balls and glide down the slide, introducing readers to acts of kindness in How To Be Kind in Kindergarten: A Book for Your Backpack.

A book for your backpack is a perfect subtitle for this small hardcover book that reads rhythmically, teaching hidden lessons to kids first entering the new world of school. The fun-to-read story includes a diverse mix of abilities, races, and genders. Kids should have no problem finding themselves in one of Hammond’s realistic drawings.

Steinberg opens the story with the question, “Are you in kindergarten? Is that really true? How in the world did you get so big? So smart and funny, too!” The story moves into the classroom with posters of 1, 2, 3, and ABC so a child sees what a kindergarten classroom looks like. Kindness is threaded through each page as Steinberg points out, ‘Cause you’re the kind of kid who always shows you care.

This book shows kids what an impact they can make in their new school, whether cheering up a sad new friend or including a shy friend in a game. This truly is an ideal backpack book and should be read on the first day of school, the middle of the school year, and at the end of the school year because kindness is needed year-round. – Review by Ronda Einbinder

 

whats in dragons backpack coverWHAT’S IN DRAGON’S BACKPACK?
Written by Joan Holub

Illustrated by Christopher Lee
(Little Simon; $8.99, Ages 3-5)

The eye-catching cover of Joan Holub’s, What’s in Dragon’s Backpack? gleams with metallic dragon scales and the backpack-shaped 14-page board book has a cut-out handle just the right size for small hands. Inside, the fun rhyming couplets give us a glimpse of what Dragon’s got in there: “Stickers, charms, a message, and some homework that he fried. Oops!”

Each page has lift-the-flaps for further exploration adorned with Christopher Lee’s adorable art. The faces on his dragons, such as on the mock A Dragon’s Tale book, are top-notch. I also really like the subtle math lessons showing three flames equals one on-fire number three. Other teaching elements include groups of shapes that, once you peek beneath the flap, combine to make a sword.

Educational, interactive, and fun, this engaging book is sure to be a hit with kids who are starting school and donning backpacks. It can also be a conversation starter about what should be inside your child’s backpack to make school days a success. – Review by Christine Van Zandt

 

ISABEL AND HER COLORES GO TO SCHOOL
Written by Alexandra Alessandri
Illustrated by Courtney Dawson
(Sleeping Bear Press; $16.99, Ages 4-8)

It’s the first day of school, an English-speaking school, but Isabel only speaks Spanish. Isabel is a charming and irresistible main character and I cared about how she felt going into unknown territory, alone. Her reluctance is understandable. She doesn’t know English and is scared of what it will be like. Isabel sees things in gorgeous colors and through art and doesn’t realize how quickly she will pick up the new language. “English sounded wrong, like stormy blues and blizzard whites.” Isabel preferred the warm, cheerful colors of Spanish.

Ultimately her language learning is facilitated by one good friend but her limited grasp of English initially gets in the way. Isabel’s thoughtful art saves the day and new friendship blossoms. The interplay between Alessandri’s beautiful prose and Dawson’s flowing art makes every page a delight to behold. This cleverly presented bilingual picture book also includes Spanish to English translations in the back matter but for English speakers, most of the Spanish words can be understood in the context of the story. – Review by Ronna Mandel

 

My School Stinks! coverMY SCHOOL STINKS!
Written by Becky Scharnhorst
Illustrated by Julia Patton
(Philomel; $17.99; Ages 4-8)

School really does stink when one classmate is a skunk and the teacher is unBEARable. So, when little Stuart tells Mom his classmates are wild animals she says all kids are wild animals in debut author Becky Scharnhorst’s hysterical read-aloud with drawings by Julia Patton.

The originality of this story told in diary form starting on the first day of school and ending at Open House, when Mom and Dad realize they have sent their young child, Stuart, to a school full of animals, takes the reader through the first seventeen days of school. Stuart attempts to play along with his classmates when the monkeys hang him upside down. He’s then caught by Patricia the Porcupine pricking him with her many quills. Stuart journals P.S. The deep breaths still aren’t working. P.P.S. Neither are the happy thoughts P.P.P.S. I’m not going back tomorrow!

As Stuart continues to journal he also begins to make friends. Charlie the Crocodile apologizes for biting his fingers and becomes Stuart’s new best bud. This sweet story can be read for school storytime or by a parent before bed. I laughed on entry September 15 when Scharnhorst writes P.S. Mom doesn’t understand how a skunk got in the storage closet. I guess she’ll find out at Open House. I was anxious for Open House to find out how Mom and Dad would react to realizing they sent their child to the wrong school, but Stuart repeats what they told him on the first day of school Mom and Dad told me to take deep breaths and THINK HAPPY THOUGHTS. This was a great lesson for his parents. I just hope they let him stay friends with a crocodile! Patton’s detailed artwork adds to the whimsy with letters written on notebook paper and characters drawn with big teeth and round glasses. The P.S. notes were a fabulous extra touch. – Review by Ronda Einbinder

 

WE WANT TO GO TO SCHOOL:
The Fight for Disability Rights
Written by Maryann Cocca-Leffler + Janine Leffler
Illustrated by Maryann Cocca-Leffler

(Albert Whitman; $16.99, Ages 4-8)

Oh, how I’d love for this nonfiction picture book to be required reading in all schools! I could not believe as I read it that prior to President Ford signing the Education for All Handicapped Children Act (EAHCA) in 1975 with its Individualized Education Plan (IEP), children with disabilities did not have the right to a free, appropriate, public education. But the book really focuses on the lawsuit in 1971 called Mills v. Board of Education of the District of Columbia, the District Court ruling in 1972 that led to this important act being implemented, and the seven school-aged children and their families who made it happen.

We Want to Go to School is narrated by author-illustrator Cocca-Leffler’s daughter, author Janine Leffler, whose own inclusive experience as a student with Cerebral Palsy (CP) receiving various special assistance in school contrasts to what students prior to her would have experienced.  She explains how prior to the ’70s, students with disabilities either didn’t go to school, stayed in hospitals, or were sent to special schools at a huge expense to families. If they were allowed into some schools, these children were segregated in separate classrooms. There was little chance to interact with mainstream students. That is until Peter Mills, Janice King, Jerome James, Michael Williams, George Liddell, Jr., Steven Gaston and Duane Blacksheare decided they’d had enough of being left out. Of course, the schools objected, finding reason after reason why students with disabilities should not be able to attend. Their parents were having déjà vu.

Wasn’t public school supposed to be for everyone? Wasn’t that the lesson learned in Brown v. Board of Education in 1954 when segregation because of the color one’s skin was the issue. So the families fought back. They began to meet others facing the same school challenges and there was power in numbers. The news of the lawsuit spread so that pretty soon “more families joined the lawsuit.” It then became a class action suit. “18,000 students from the Washington, D.C. area were also not receiving a public education because of their disabilities.” Would the judge presiding over the case agree? YES! And the positive outcome of this lawsuit led to big changes for students with disabilities with “federal laws guaranteeing public education for all children.

I loved the energy of Cocca-Leffler’s art, especially the spread where she’s filled the page with faces of 1,000 kids and tells readers to imagine those 18,000 DC students, and the 8 million US students denied an education because they had disabilities. Powerful! Five pages of back matter include information on Disability Education Rights, a timeline, Author Notes, and an enlightening Note from Paul R. Dimond, Plaintiffs’ Attorney in the Mills v. Board of Education of the District of Columbia. I’m grateful for these change-makers. They paved the way for future students with disabilities who continue to benefit from their commitment to equal rights in education for all. – Review by Ronna Mandel

 

TheNightBaaforetheFirstDayofSchool coverTHE NIGHT BAAFORE THE FIRST DAY OF SCHOOL
Written by Dawn Young
Illustrated by Pablo Pino
(WorthyKids; $17.99, Ages 4-8)

The Night Baafore The First Day of School blends the counting element, the rhyme and hilarity of Sandra Boynton’s Hippos Go Berserk with the irresistible art of Mark Teague’s Pigsty. As the main character Bo—the star of two previous books I haven’t yet read—attempts unsuccessfully to fall asleep due to day-before-school-starts jitters, he calls on sheep to help. The catch is they make it more difficult to sleep with the ruckus they create. Poor Bo, aware of the hours slipping away, is desperate. He offers them a snack if they’ll stop, but when that doesn’t work he calls an emergency meeting. Only then a mysterious shadow of a monster appears further exacerbating the chaos. 

There’s as much for readers to enjoy in Young’s wild storyline as there is in Pino’s zany and action-packed illustrations. The counting of sheep from 1 to 10 as they get up to no good adds an engaging layer to the book. Then, reversing that to eventually count back down as it gets later and later, is such fun and a great way to involve young readers. I love how the 10 sheep all wear number necklaces to identify themselves. Kids may want to study each spread more closer upon further reads to see what each individual sheep is doing with the supplies Bo has prepared for his backpack. The massive mess is mighty fun to look at. Tension builds with each page turn as we wonder if Bo will get any shut-eye and manage to catch the bus to school. And the humor surrounding every sheep-filled episode encroaching on Bo’s time to sleep is a delight in this rhyming romp of a read-aloud. – Reviewed by Ronna Mandel

 

NORMAN’S FIRST DAY AT DINO DAY CARE
Written and illustrated by Sean Julian
(NorthSouth Books; $17.95, Ages 4-8)

Norman, a very small, almost invisible dinosaur compared to all the other dinos at Mrs. Beak’s play group, is shy. This may resonate with young readers experiencing a similar emotion when just starting school and being away from home. Julian’s rich artwork is charming in how it depicts Norman hiding (except his tail always adorably sticking out) in various situations where the text also states “he was very good at hiding.” In the beginning, before Norman makes friends, parents can ask children to see if they can spot him in the illustrations as he avoids interaction.

My favorite part of the picture book is when Norman confides in Mrs. Beak that he really wants to join the other dinos but feels shy. “It’s okay to be shy,” Mrs. Beak replied. “It’s a special part of who you are.” When she asks the dinos to perform in pairs, Norman teams up with big, loud Jake who despite his size, admits he’s rather nervous too. The two share a laugh and come up with a magical performance that not only satisfies (and perhaps comforts) children but provides the perfect conversation starter for parents and teachers to discuss shyness. I’m not sure it was deliberate, but I appreciated Mrs. Beak’s rainbow door and her rainbow mug, another welcoming feature to this warm and reassuring read. – Review by Ronna Mandel

 

SCHOOL IS COOL! (A Hello!Lucky Book)
Written by Sabrina Moyle
Illustrated by Eunice Moyle
(Abrams Appleseed; $16.99; Ages 5-9)

School Is Cool was written and illustrated by sisters Sabrina Moyle and Eunice Moyle founders of Hello!Lucky, their award-winning letterpress greeting card and design studio.

Targeting the child who has already had some school experience, this story begins on the beach where the rhinoceros, dog, and platypus are chilling out until they realize Tomorrow’s the first day of school! The expressive drawings tell it all when the dog almost drops his ice cream cone and the rhino jumps from his floatation device. The friends are worried kids won’t like your hair. Or how they talk. Or what they wear.

Eunice Moyle’s bold, captivating illustrations depict all sorts of animals arriving for their first day by school bus and bikes. They line up awaiting a handshake from the animal teacher, in popping bright greens and oranges and a happy yellow sun, a perfect complement to the welcome the smiling animals.

This book expresses the true feelings many kids have when it’s time to say goodbye to Mom and home now replaced by an unfamiliar teacher and classroom where they must learn the new rules. What if your teacher calls on you—and the answer is five, but you said … 2. It’s ok to say “I don’t know.” Everyone is here to grow.”

The back flap states that the Moyle sisters use their creativity and humor to inspire kindness, empathy, self-awareness, and service and in doing so dedicate this book to teachers everywhere. You are the coolest! Thank you for all you do! – Review by Ronda Einbinder

 

TWINS VS. TRIPLETS #1:
Back-to-School Blitz

Written by Jennifer Torres
Illustrated by Vanessa Flores
(Harper Chapters; HC $15.99, Paperback $5.99, Ages 6-10)

It looks like it’s going to be three times the trouble at school for David Suárez. With new neighbors, the Benitez triplets adding to what’s already an annoying presence by his other neighbors, the Romero twins, David must navigate third grade and not lose his cool. His goal after all is to be captain of the Globetrotters, the geography club, and that requires an uncluttered mind. Except the Benitez triplets and Romero twins are messing with him and everyone else.

When David is tasked with monitoring the playground (trouble maker prime turf), he fears it may be made off-limits for everyone if the five tricksters continue getting up to no good. And that is looking more and more likely when both sets of mischief-makers aim to rule recess with their pranks and pushy personalities.

This early chapter book, filled with humorous black-and-white illustrations, works well with its mix of Spanish words and expressions along with comments at the end of most chapters noting a reader’s progress. I like how Back-to-School Blitz includes a diverse group of students and some interesting geography information (David’s favorite subject) that ends up playing an important part in keeping the bullies in check. A couple of things jumped out at me like having the triplets together in one class which I thought wasn’t typically done. Another time, after causing a distraction, the triplets sneak out of class early without the teacher, Mr. Kim, noticing. But I’m an adult and if the kids reading this first book in a new series don’t mind, that’s great because as the book ends, there’s some unusual digging going on in the sandbox, and surely more pranks to come in book #2. – Review by Ronna Mandel

 

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The Star Festival or Tanabata Matsuri – A Guest Post by Moni Ritchie Hadley

FIND OUT IN THIS GUEST POST

WHY DEBUT AUTHOR MONI RITCHIE HADLEY

CHOSE TO WRITE ABOUT THE STAR FESTIVAL 

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StarFestival CVR

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Starred Review – School Library Journal

THE STAR FESTIVAL, also known as the Tanabata Matsuri, takes place in Japan on the seventh day of the seventh month. It is celebrated on July 7th in regions following the gregorian calendar and August 7th of the lunar calendar.

I researched many beautiful landscapes and images, knowing that one would eventually become the backdrop of my story. Which were my top choices, and how did I choose?

Hanami Matsuri, the Cherry Blossom Festival, takes place in the Spring determined by the sakura, or cherry blossom, forecast in particular regions. Sometimes performances and tea ceremonies are performed under the trees, but the main activity is to picnic under the pink-blossomed sky.

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Hanami Festival
“Hanami Festival” by dvdhaven :-) is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

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Hina Matsuri has many names, the Japanese Doll Festival, Girl’s Day, and the Peach Festival, due to the time of year that it’s held-March 3rd. Originally, dolls made of paper and straw were sent down a river to set misfortunes adrift. In modern times, fancier dolls displayed inside homes invite prosperity and happiness.

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 Hinamatsuri Japanese Doll Festival or Girls' Day
“Japanese Doll Festival, Girls’ Day: Hinamatsuri, Kyoto; ひな祭り、ひな人形、京都” by Nullumayulife is licensed under CC BY 2.0
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Yuki Matsuri, the Sapporo Snow Festival, is celebrated in Hokkaido, a colder region of Japan. Famous for its ice sculptures, this modern-day festival began in 1950 when a group of high school students sculpted snow figures in Odori Park. Contests are held every February and attract visitors from all over the world.
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Yuki Matsuri Japanese Ice Temple photo by Aaron Quigley
“Yuki-Matsuri Japanese Ice temple” by Aaron Quigley is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
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The festival that became the backdrop to my story is equally beautiful to all of these mentioned. It was the folklore behind the Star Festival that drew me in. Orihime and Hikoboshi, two star-crossed lovers, forbidden to see each other but once a year, cross the Milky Way bridge and meet on the day of the Tanabata, offering a parallel to Keiko, my main character, crossing a sea of celebration to find her Oba or grandmother.

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Keiko's bridge The Star Festival
Interior spread from The Star Festival written by Moni Ritchie Hadley and illustrated by Mizuho Fujisawa, Albert Whitman & Company ©2021.
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In a few days, you can celebrate the Tanabata Matsuri in your home or town. Gaze at the stars and make a tanzaku (paper wish) to hang on a tree.

Wishes come true at the Star Festival!

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             • Guest Post by Moni Ritchie Hadley
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Author Website: MoniRitchie.com
On Twitter and Instagram – @bookthreader
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Illustrator Website: Mizuho Fujisawa
On Instagram @mizuhofujisawa
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Cover Reveal for Picture Book Chicken Frank, Dinosaur!

Cluck,

Cluck,

Cluck,

ROAR!!!

        It’s a bird,

              It’s a dinosaur!

                     See for yourself in …

CHICKEN FRANK, DINOSAUR!

Written by S.K. Wenger

Illustrated by Jojo Ensslin

(Albert Whitman & Co.; $16.99, Ages 4-8)

 

Chicken Frank Dinosaur cover reveal

 

 

Guest post by Moni Ritchie Hadley 
Author of The Star Festival
@bookthreader

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MY REACTION:

It’s a cover reveal for picture book Chicken Frank, Dinosaur! and it definitely invites intrigue! 

A chicken steps into the imprint of a gigantic claw. The white bird takes center stage with a body resembling a halved teardrop composed against a green, feathered-grass background. Tying in the white of the chicken, the quirky, bold lettering in the title, shouts, read me! The cover clearly portrays a bird with an investigative mind on a mission. Illustrator Jojo Ensslin’s simple shapes, contrasting colors, and gentle shading offer young readers the perfect engagement. 

SHAUNDA’S REACTION:

“I fell in love with the cover as soon as I saw it! I think it captures Chicken Frank’s perception of his connection to a T. rex perfectly, as well as his interest in exploring and accepting the belief that he IS a modern dinosaur! Jojo Ensslin did a fantastic job of bringing Chicken Frank and his friends to life.”

STORY INSPIRATION:

One of Shaunda’s first jobs out of college involved capturing, banding, and tracking wild birds for a research study. At the time, she didn’t realize that all the different birds were actually modern dinosaurs!

Fast forward to a change in career, and an idea was born!

“Inspiration for Chicken Frank, Dinosaur! came from a fun class discussion after watching Jack Horner’s Ted Talk video about dinosaurs and birds. My students were enthralled and amused by the idea that dinosaurs still walk among us … in the form of a chicken! Some students bought into it. Others didn’t. A lively debate followed, and the sparks for Chicken Frank, Dinosaur! began to stir.”

A PEEK INTO THE WRITING PROCESS:

“After being inspired to write Chicken Frank, Dinosaur!, it took me about a year to get the story into shape and submission-ready, another 6 months or so of R&R with the publishing editors, 1 day to get that R&R rejected, 1 hour at 3 am to completely rewrite the story in a different structure, and another 3 months to find the courage to resubmit the manuscript, which was ultimately accepted for publication. Thank goodness for strong beliefs and second chances!”

ABOUT THE STORY:

Cluck-a-doodle-ROAR! Chicken Frank is on a mission to prove to his fellow farm animals that he’s related to a T. rex because of evolution! But no one believes him—until DNA test results show Alligator Ike on Frank’s family tree. What will happen when he shows up at Frank’s family reunion? Complete with chicken and dinosaur tidbits, this 32-page picture book blends information with a fictional, humorous, comic style. The creators made sure to add just what young readers crave, chuckles and heart.

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author sk wenger for picture book cover reveal

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

I have the pleasure of being in a debut picture book group with Shaunda, and here’s what I know about this fascinating author. Not just a writer, she also holds a degree in a self-designed major in environmental and social sciences from the University of Vermont. As a high school teacher, Shaunda has been honored with educational awards. While Chicken Frank, Dinosaur! is her first picture book, kids may have seen some of her writings about science published in the educational market. A nature lover at heart, she is an avid hiker, swimmer, and plant lover. Visit her website for more fun facts and to find out more about her debut in October 2021.

SOCIAL MEDIA:

Twitter: @SKWenger  

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/SKWengerChildrensAuthor

 

  • When preordering your copy of  Chicken Frank, Dinosaur! please support your favorite local independent bookshop.
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GIVEAWAY:

Head over to S.K. on Twitter to enter her generous picture book manuscript critique giveaway! 

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Click here to see the cover reveal for picture book, The Star Festival, Moni’s debut.

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Kids Picture Book Review – The Big Beach Cleanup Blog Tour

THE BIG BEACH CLEANUP

Written by Charlotte Offsay

Illustrated by Katie Rewse

(Albert Whitman & Co.; $16.99, Ages 4-8)

 

 

TheBigBeachCleanup cover

 

 

In Charlotte Offsay’s debut picture book, The Big Beach Cleanup, the main character, Cora, is looking forward to the upcoming Crystal Beach Sandcastle Competition which she intends to win. So you can imagine her disappointment when a sign at the beach says it’s “Postponed due to beach conditions.” And what are those conditions you might wonder? The ever-growing problem of plastic and other kinds of trash that wash ashore from the ocean in addition to being left by people are ruining our beaches.

Together with her mom, the pair clean up what they can but four hands will never be enough. The next day Cora and her mom return, this time with Grandpa in tow, but the task of collecting the vast amount of litter and empties feels daunting for just six hands to tackle. Cora’s grandfather also explains how animals mistake the trash for food which further concerns the little girl. Clearly this pollution is wreaking havoc on the environment and its inhabitants. Then Cora comes up with a plan.

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Interior spread from The Big Beach Cleanup written by Charlotte Offsay and illustrated by Katie Rewse, Albert Whitman & Co. ©2021.

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Maybe six hands aren’t enough to pick up all the trash, but many hands might be. So Cora creates flyers to post all over town with her mom’s help. When initially people don’t seem to respond to the flyers, Cora’s mom explains that people are busy and there are lots of ways to reduce trash such as cutting back on one-use items and not littering.

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Interior spread from The Big Beach Cleanup written by Charlotte Offsay and illustrated by Katie Rewse, Albert Whitman & Co. ©2021.

 

Undeterred, Cora continues to ask friends and neighbors to help her in a big beach cleanup and soon “more and more and more hands joined together.” So many people pitch in for this community effort initiated by one very motivated and caring young girl that before long the competition is back on! And though ultimately Cora does not win the contest, she can claim a much bigger and enduring prize—the knowledge and self-satisfaction of having made a difference.

Katie Rewse’s art is at once simple yet expressive and optimistic for a topic like pollution. Her emphasis on conveying the variety of garbage that washes up on the beaches and is left by humans will help children get a good sense of what a big mess the trash, especially plastics, is causing for our planet.

Offsay shares important and easy-to-grasp information for young readers to learn in a relatable way. After seeing how the abundant beach litter disrupts the sandcastle event, children will hopefully realize the impact that they as individuals can have and feel empowered to fight for the cleanliness of our oceans and our beaches. Perfect for Earth Day, The Big Beach Cleanup would also be a welcome year round read for homes, schools and libraries who view environmental conservation not as an option, but as a necessity. An added bonus to buying the book is that all author proceeds from the book are being donated to Heal the Bay.

Click here to buy a book and support a local indie bookstore.

Click here to read about another environmental-themed picture book.

 

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Picture Book Review – The Big Sibling Getaway

THE BIG SIBLING GETAWAY

Written and illustrated by Korrie Leer

(Albert Whitman & Company; $16.99; Ages 4-8)

 

TheBigSiblingGetaway cvr

 

 

In The Big Sibling Getaway, author-illustrator Korrie Leer introduces us to Cassie, a new big sister who just needs quiet, a feeling every older sibling experiences at some point.

With a WAH! WAH! WAH!, these onomatopoeia words perfectly describe the frustration of having to accept change in our lives that we don’t necessarily ask for—like welcoming a new sibling when all you’ve known is having parental attention exclusively. Well, that’s what happens to Cassie who needs a break from the crying of her new baby brother.

 

TheBigSiblingGetAway INT02
Interior art from The Big Sibling Getaway written and illustrated by Korrie Leer, Albert Whitman & Co. ©2020.

 

“There was one box left.” Cassie climbs into the last empty box that carried the new baby items, covering her ears and closing her eyes tightly but “Cassie still heard crying. And so… ”VROOM! Cassie’s imagination transforms the box into a car taking her on a much needed escape. Leer illustrates Cassie’s cardboard car driving up and down the valleys. The soft blues of the ocean, and browns of the sand are peaceful until interrupted by baby wailing.

Leer continues Cassie’s journey as she goes SPLASH! in the ocean and WHOOSH! as she “soared next to birds and through clouds.” But still she heard whimpering. Cassie finally makes it to the moon without a person in sight. “Peace and quiet at last.” Alone with her box and the yellow stars above her, our young heroine lays quietly on her back (savasana pose in yoga) but does she really want complete silence all the time?

 

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Interior art from The Big Sibling Getaway written and illustrated by Korrie Leer, Albert Whitman & Co. ©2020.

 

When Cassie finds her much needed quiet time, it shows the reader how important taking time for yourself is. However Cassie also realizes that going solo to the moon can be a bit lonely. Sitting on top of her upside down brown box she wishes she had someone to share her imaginary getaways with and realizes maybe having a little brother isn’t so bad after all.

This story reminded me of my own daughter who was not pleased to welcome a new brother. I wish I had this story to read to her when she was young. These simple words of sibling love will resonate with new older siblings. The Big Sibling Getaway is a charming bedtime story, and a great baby shower gift for any mom expecting a second baby’s arrival on the scene.

  •  Reviewed by Ronda Einbinder

 

 

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Picture Book Cover Reveal – The Star Festival

Are you ready?

You sure?

Then here it is …

 

StarFestival CVR

 

Presenting …

THE STAR FESTIVAL

Written by Moni Ritchie Hadley

Illustrated by Mizuho Fujisawa

(Albert Whitman & Co.; $16.99, Ages 4-8)

 

Publication Date: April 1, 2021

AVAILABLE FOR PREORDER NOW – DETAILS BELOW

 

MY REACTION:

When I first set eyes on this gorgeous cover, which was only this past Friday, I was delighted. It perfectly conveys the spirit and vibrancy of author Moni Ritchie Hadley’s debut picture book, The Star Festival. Full disclosure: Moni and I are in a critique group together, so I was especially honored when she said she’d like me to share her book cover reveal.

I have loved so many of the Japanese festivals since I was a child and always gravitated towards those books in the library. I also have a thing for red bridges and this one in particular, with the koi fish swimming below, reminds me of the one at my happy placethe historic Japanese Garden at the Huntington Library, Art Museum, and Botanical Gardensalthough that moon bridge is no longer a stunning lacquer red.

The main character, Keiko, is on the bridge, and her hand indicates she is looking for someone. A nice feature is how the illustrator, Mizuho Fujisawa, has wrapped the book cover in the festival scene. When you get the book, you’ll discover Keiko’s grandmother on the back cover, sitting alone, waiting. I like how the other people on the bridge are in shadow, so our eyes are immediately drawn to Keiko. The entire cover seems to glow, setting just the right tone for the book’s subject.

 

Star Festival CVRABOUT THE COVER:

The cover shows the main character, Keiko, searching for her lost grandmother, Oba, at the Tanabata Festival, also known as the Star Festival. Dressed in a yukata (summer kimono), she is surrounded by colorful vendors, bamboo trees decorated with tanzaku (paper wishes), and the starry night that hosts the myth and origins of this celebration. Mizuho Fujisawa digitally brings this story to life with her bold color choices and precise details.

 

STORY INSPIRATION:

The Star Festival was inspired by three generations of females living together in Moni’s home. When Moni’s elderly mother came to live with her, a concept story developed depicting the similarities of the life of a baby and the life of a grandmother. Moni lived much of her childhood in Japan and attended many festivals such as this one, not knowing what she was celebrating. After some research, the Japanese Tanabata Festival was chosen as a backdrop to the story because of the beautiful imagery and the mythological origins of two star-crossed lovers prohibited from seeing each other.

 

Author Moni Ritchie HadleyABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Moni lived much of her childhood in Japan and attended many festivals such as this one. The Star Festival marks her picture book debut. She writes picture books, chapter books, and graphic novels for early readers. She is also creating a line of writing worksheets using mixed media art for elementary school educators. Moni lives in Los Angeles with her family, three dogs, and an occasional stray cat. 

Visit her website (see below) for more information.

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Preorder your discounted copy today at Bookshop.org
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Picture Book Review – Hound Won’t Go

HOUND WON’T GO

Written by Lisa Rogers

Illustrated by Meg Ishihara

(Albert Whitman & Company; $16.99, Ages 4-8) 

 

Hound Won't Go cover

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Hound Won’t Go, written by Lisa Rogers and illustrated by Meg Ishihara, tells the story of a stubborn basset hound who calls all the shots during a walk with his human. When he lies down in the crosswalk, she can’t get him out of the intersection, not even with a treat or a tug on the leash. As horns blare, she is worried, while Hound is adorably if smuglysatisfied. Finally, a storm breaks with terrifying claps of thunder. Hound changes his mind and drags his human all the way home, double-time. 

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Interior spread from Hound Won’t Go written by Lisa Rogers and illustrated by Meg Ishihara, Albert Whitman & Co. ©2020.

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I love this book, and not just because I love basset hounds. The writing is crisp, with one or two rhyming sentences per page. The diction can be understood by the youngest listeners but is still interesting and specific. “Light flashes/Hound dashes,” the text begins, as Hound and his human enter the crosswalk. Soon, though, “Traffic delay/Hound’s in the way.” Rogers conveys a lot of personality in few words: 

Time to go.

Hound says no.

Drivers frown.

Hound lies down. 

Anyone who has cared for a strong-willed but amiable dog recognizes the frustration and even embarrassment that the human feels. But all readers will feel calm, safe, warm, and happy by the time the contretemps resolves with, “Rain puddles./Hound cuddles.” 

While the text makes a good case for how adorable this obstinate fellow is, Meg Ishihara’s art makes it impossible not to love him. She uses Hound’s eyes, mouth, and posture to show all his moods, ranging from playfully defiant to rub-my-belly relaxed. Working in Photoshop and Procreate, Ishihara paints Hound using digital brushes with lots of texture to emulate real paint strokes. He has long velvety ears, short legs, and a rich tri-color coat. Black outlines lend him a cartoony feel, although in some illustrations the definition comes from contrast between bold colors rather than actual outlines. In the first half of the story, there are vibrantly colorful cars, bicycles, and clothing, but the backdrop is gray and white. When the thunderclap sets Hound in motion, however, the background comes to life, too. Hound bolts through a park full of greenery and flowers to reach his home furnished in warm welcoming colors. 

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Interior art from Hound Won’t Go written by Lisa Rogers and illustrated by Meg Ishihara, Albert Whitman & Co. ©2020.

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I recommend this book for all ages, and especially, but not exclusively, to dog lovers. I shared Hound Won’t Go with my favorite three-year-old, and she loved completing the rhymes, for some odd reason putting the most gusto into anticipating the word “No.” She has requested the book several times since, even over video chat. Just what the doctor … or vet? … ordered: a picture book that both the reader and the listener can enjoy, over and over.

Click here for an activity kit. On Rogers’ website there’s also a fun hound craft for kids.

•Reviewed by Mary Malhotra

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Five New Children’s Books for Independence Day

INDEPENDENCE DAY 2020
RECOMMENDED READS FOR KIDS
-A ROUNDUP-

 

Clip Art Independence Day

 

The selection of books here, while not necessarily being about July 4th or the Revolutionary War, all have to do with our country, and what it means to have gained our independence and become a democracy. I hope the books inspire children to read more on the topics covered, and to think about how they can make a difference, no matter how small, in their own communities.

 

Free for You and Me cvrFREE FOR YOU AND ME:
What Our First Amendment Means
Written by Christy Mihaly
Illustrated by Manu Montoya
(Albert Whitman & Co.; $16.99, Ages 4-8)

When at last America declared itself free from British rule, the Constitution was written “with rules for every institution.” However, something more was needed to guarantee five “of the most fundamental American freedoms,” and so the First Amendment, along with nine others (and making up the Bill of Rights) was drafted.

Using verse, occasional speech bubbles, and bright, diverse, kid-centric illustrations, Free for You and Me explains in easily understandable language just what these powerful 45 words represent. Kids will enjoy seeing other kids on the pages debating the meaning of the expression, “It’s a free country” making this picture book ideal for classroom discussion or for any budding historians and legal scholars.

Mihaly explains how our First Amendment means “we the people of the United States have five important freedoms,” many of which we see at work on a daily basis. Americans are guaranteed “freedom of religion, freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom to gather in a peaceful rally or protest, and the freedom to tell our leaders what we want them to do.” If your child has recently marched with you in a protest, that’s due to our First Amendment rights.

In this book, kids learn the importance of the First Amendment through the example of a mayor who wants to shut down their playground. They organize a rally and get signatures on a petition in an effort to save it. Other good examples are presented as in the case of Freedom of Speech. Readers find out about Congressman Matthew Lyon who was arrested and spent four months in jail in 1798 for criticizing President John Adams. This would never have happened were it not for a law Adams and his Federalist government passed called the Sedition Act. Once Jefferson was elected, the Sedition Act expired. I had never heard about this before, but my 19-year-old son had so a lively conversation ensued.

The timeliness of this educational picture book will not be lost on those who support a free press, the right to free speech and to assemble peacefully, as well as the freedom of religion and freedom to petition the Government for redress of grievances. Mihaly, a former lawyer, understands the principles upon which our democracy was established. With her knowledge of the First Amendment, she succeeds in conveying the freedoms it entails in an engaging and accessible way for young readers. We can never take these hard-fought for liberties for granted. Four pages of back matter go into more detail.  •Reviewed by Ronna Mandel

VOTE FOR OUR FUTURE!
Written by Margaret McNamara
Illustrated by Micah Player
(Schwartz & Wade; $17.99, Ages 4-8)

Starred Review – Kirkus

The students of Stanton Elementary School aren’t old enough to vote when their school closes every two years on the Tuesday after the first Monday of November. That’s when it turns into a polling station. They are, however, are old enough to spread the word in Vote for Our Future!

The diverse cast of characters, energetically represented in bold and vivid illustrations, introduce a topic that is timely for all ages. McNamara’s sweet and intuitive children first ask “what’s a polling station?” The children’s eyes widen as they learn that “the reason people vote is to choose who makes the laws of the country.” LaToya with her big pink glasses raises her hand and says, “we should all vote to make the future better.” But Lizzy reminds her that they just aren’t old enough.

So what are they old enough to do? Player illustrates boys and girls from all backgrounds looking through books and “searching online to find all kinds of information. They even took a trip to their local election office and picked up forms.” The research shows that “kids have to live with adult choices. The kids of Stanton Elementary School were ready to spread the word.”

McNamara takes the reader through the small town where Cady and her mom make flyers. They pass them out to a busy dad, who didn’t even know there was an election, to Nadiya and her auntie, wearing hijabs on their heads, who go door to door telling neighbors that “voting is a right.” Player’s vibrant and colorful art of people from various ethnic groups shows the reader that all people have the right to vote.

With each excuse from adults that the children are given, an even better comeback is heard in return. “I don’t like standing in lines,” one lady tells Nadiya. Nadiya’s auntie doesn’t like standing in lines either, but Nadiya says if you can stand in line for coffee you can stand in line to vote. I love how fearless the kids are when the adults come up with excuses for why they aren’t voting and how the kids don’t take no for an answer.

Player shows “people voting for the first time, and the fiftieth time, with their sons and daughters, their nieces and nephews, their brothers and sisters, their cousins and friends.” When voting was complete and the ballots were counted, Stanton Elementary went back to being a school and “the future began to change.”

McNamara writes in the back matter titled Get Out The Vote! that when adults vote for people and causes they believe in, they speak for us and make laws that are good for everyone in the country. She lists various Acts that have been signed to prompt further discussions between adults and kids. Player’s drawings of stickers such as Yes, I Voted help to get the message across that voting does matter and that every vote really can make a difference. Have the primaries happened in your state? If not, get out and vote! • Reviewed by Ronda Einbinder

For Spacious Skies coverFOR SPACIOUS SKIES:
Katharine Lee Bates and the Inspiration
for “America the Beautiful”
Written by Nancy Churnin
Illustrated by Olga Baumert
(Albert Whitman & Co.; $16.99, Ages 4-8)

I loved getting to know the origin story for the beloved song so many people think is our national anthem, but isn’t. I also learned that not only was the poem that was later turned into a song, written by a woman, but a very independent one at that.

Katharine Lee Bates was raised by her widowed mother who “grew and sold vegetables to help Katharine go to school.” Katharine’s smarts led to higher education and her passion for the written word led to her career as an author and professor at a time when young women were encouraged to pursue marriage and homemaking. She was also a reformer. In addition to teaching, Katharine worked hard to improve the lives of those most vulnerable in society, while also using her talents to help the suffrage movement.

A summer teaching job took her across the country by train from Boston to Colorado where she first glimpsed America’s boundless beauty. On July 4, 1893 Katharine’s mind was flooded with “memories of the ocean” as she set eyes on amber stalks of wheat swaying in the Kansas fields. A trip up to Pike’s Peak and its majestic views clearly inspired her to compose the poem we know and love. It was first published on July 4, 1895 and, with each additional publication, underwent several revisions. In 1910 it was paired with the famous melody by composer Samuel A. Ward we still sing today. This terrific and inspiring biography with its glorious Grandma Moses-esque illustrations perfectly blends the story of Katharine Lee Bates’s life and career, and country with the poem that celebrates its expansive splendor. Back matter and a timeline round out this recommended read.
•Reviewed by Ronna Mandel

We the People coverWE THE PEOPLE:
The United States Constitution
Explored and Explained
Written by Aura Lewis and Evan Sargent
Illustrated by Aura Lewis
(Wide Eyed Editions; $24.99, Ages 10-14)

Even adults can take advantage of this comprehensive look at our Constitution because of the colorful and inviting picture book format designed with middle grade readers in mind. Plus it’s the kind of book you’ll want to keep on hand to refer to, especially when kids ask questions you may be unable to answer.

This quote from the authors on the intro page speaks volumes about what you can expect when you pick up a copy of We the People: “… we believe that having a deeper understanding of our Constitution can inspire change. Anyone can understand how the government works, and every single person has the power to get involved and make a difference.”

The 128 pages of the book are divided up into brief, digestible chapters, with plenty of white space so that your eye can travel to the most important parts quickly. The authors have included excerpts from the Constitution which have been paraphrased in kid-friendly English so they’re easily understood especially when presented as they relate to our daily lives.

One of my favorite sections was about the 19th Amendment, ratified in 1920, intended to guarantee that “no one can be denied the right to vote because of their gender.” The chapter features a bottom border illustration of both the suffragettes on the left holding signs and modern day protestors on the right also carrying signs. The spread (like those throughout the book) has interesting factoids such as the one about young conservative Tennessee politician, Harry Burns, whose mother influenced his decision “that tipped the scales in favor of the 19th Amendment.” On the four pages devoted to this amendment there are also thought provoking questions that a teacher or librarian can pose to their students.

There is so much wonderful information to absorb that I recommend readers take in a few chapters at a time to let the facts sink in. One particular chapter that, leading up to this year’s presidential election, might prompt discussion is about the 12th Amendment and the electoral college. Everyone who reads We the People will likely find something covered that will resonate with them whether it’s about the rights of the accused, term limits, or D.C.’s residents (now looking for statehood) being given the right to vote for president. Get this book today and you’ll get the picture!
•Reviewed by Ronna Mandel

STAR-SPANGLED:
The Story of a Flag, a Battle, and
the American Anthem
Written by Tim Grove
(Abrams BYR; $19.99, Ages 10-14)

Starred Review – Kirkus

Okay, I’m going to embarrass myself here and admit I did not know the “Star-Spangled Banner,” our national anthem, was about a battle against the British over a fort in Baltimore. I mean I knew it was about a battle based on the lyrics and I knew the battle fought was with the British, and that’s it. I’m not even sure I was taught the anthem’s history in school. Now, thanks to Tim Grove’s well-researched historical nonfiction novel, I’ve been educated and kids can be, too. Oh and by the way, this occurred during the War of 1812 (which incidentally lasted until 1815).

Told from various perspectives, because what better way to convey the complexity of history than from more than one angle, Grove’s book introduces readers to a host of British and American characters. We meet Mary Pickersgill, (a sewing business owner specializing in flags or colors), Thomas Kemp (a Baltimore shipyard owner), Francis Scott Key, (a thirty-five-year-old lawyer with six children), Rear Admiral Sir George Cockburn (a top British military officer in the Chesapeake Bay region), and 10 others whose stories are woven together to bring the full picture of the intense battle to light. Star-Spangled also addresses the background of the war and events leading up to battle to help put its significance in context. If America lost Baltimore, our young country’s independence could be at stake. Grove notes that Pickersgill, Kemp, and Key were all slave owners and that Key, was a “tireless opponent of the slave trade” yet in his role as a U.S. attorney for Washington, D.C., opposed abolitionists. He was also “a leading proponent” of the colonization movement, something I definitely did not know about.

As we meet each person, we learn the role they played in the the book’s subheading, The Story of a Flag, a Battle, and the American Anthem. In fact, Star-Spangled reads like an Erik Larson novel where all the events are building up to the major one so anticipation is high despite knowing the outcome. And don’t be surprised if you become so engrossed that you finish the book in one go!

I had an advance review copy so I was unable to see the full-color photographs from the final edition, but my copy did contain the fascinating archival material interspersed throughout the book. There’s actually a photo of the “flag that Key saw. Over the years, before the flag came to the Smithsonian Institution, people cut various pieces off for souvenirs.” There’s also a photo of Francis Key’s “original draft of his poem.” This contains four verses and is preserved at the Maryland Historical Society.

Back matter includes an author’s note, a timeline, a glossary, endnotes, a bibliography, and an index. Don’t miss your chance to get a copy of this enlightening book. I hope it finds its way onto bookshelves in classrooms and libraries around the country so our rich history can be better understood and discussed. •Reviewed by Ronna Mandel

 

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Picture Book Review – Too Sticky!

TOO STICKY!
Sensory Issues with Autism

Written by Jen Malia

Illustrated by Joanne Lew-Vriethoff

(Albert Whitman & Company; $16.99, Ages 4-8)

 

Too Sticky cover

 

Holly loved experiments.
But not today.
It was slime day.
And she didn’t want to
touch anything sticky.

 

My son has sensory processing issues which we first noticed when he was a baby. He cried when hearing the vacuum cleaner, coffee grinder, car horns, and blaring music. As he got older he also actively avoided loud people, shouting and rough and tumble behavior from his peers. These were not the only things that clued us into his sensory challenges. He didn’t like touching sand or walking on it, and never got into Play Doh, unlike his older sister, because of the smell and consistency. His diet was and still is limited, but he’s faced a lot of these sensory issues head on and has learned ways to adapt. He even traveled to Japan last summer, tried a host of new foods and was flexible when encountering the many different customs there.

Not everyone understands the challenges that children face with sensory processing issues that often accompany autism. Author Jen Malia, a woman who lives with autism and sensory issues does. It’s fantastic that Too Sticky! is available to help open people’s eyes and to encourage empathy for kids coping with sensory stimuli that can be overwhelming, and even immobilizing at times. You may also not be aware that it’s not as easy to recognize in girls.

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Interior artwork from Too Sticky! Sensory Issues with Autism written by Jen Malia and illustrated by Joanne Lew-Vriethoff, Albert Whitman & Company ©2020.

 

We meet the main character, Holly, at breakfast time at home. Lew-Vriethoff’s expressive and upbeat illustrations offer an excellent example of how kids like Holly react negatively to something that to other kids may seem like nothinggetting sticky pancake syrup on her hands. From both the art and prose, readers know immediately what makes this young girl uncomfortable. Holly is also reminded that “her science class would be making slime today” which gets her worrying.

 

interior art9 Too Sticky
Interior artwork from Too Sticky! Sensory Issues with Autism written by Jen Malia and illustrated by Joanne Lew-Vriethoff, Albert Whitman & Company ©2020.

 

What’s also terrific in this same scene is how Holly’s older sister, Noelle, is understanding and apologizes after her fork falls on the floor making a loud and sudden noise. Here Malia adds that Holly replies, “It’s okay,” because that social skill was taught to her by her father. Family support, guidance and modeling acceptable behavior are crucial for children on the spectrum.

At school, Holly’s mother explains to her second grade teacher, Miss Joy, that during slime play, Holly would like to have soap and water at her desk because “She doesn’t like sticky hands.” I remember having to discuss these same types of things with my son’s teachers since my son wasn’t old enough to self-advocate.

Throughout the school day, Holly dreads the approaching slime time. In fact she’s unable to focus on much else. She begins the science experiment reluctantly with the less difficult portion sensory-wise. Miss Joy then finds a clever way to get the overly cautious student to feel curious and involved. Her encouragement and compassion are evident in her dialogue and her poses. What could have been an upsetting experience turns out to be a positive one. It helps, too, that Holly’s not teased by her classmates and that her accommodations have been taken into consideration.

 

int art12 Too Sticky
Interior artwork from Too Sticky! Sensory Issues with Autism written by Jen Malia and illustrated by Joanne Lew-Vriethoff, Albert Whitman & Company ©2020.

 

Since the main character experiences “the world differently” than her neurotypical classmates, readers see that it’s hard for Holly to navigate the many uncomfortable situations she faces at school. Her sensory issues and autism color a lot of her reactions and moods which is quite common. While the premise of Too Sticky! may appear straightforward and easily resolved, for children like Holly, such is not the case in real life.

Malia adds a candid Author’s Note describing how both she and her daughter live with Autism Spectrum Disorder and her goal in writing the picture book. With one out of every fifty-nine children in the U.S. diagnosed with ASD, it’s important more children, parents, teachers and caregivers learn about how these children experience the world. With Holly, readers on the spectrum can see a mirror on themselves. Too Sticky! is the ideal read not only for parents and children with these sensory issues, but for anyone wanting to understand the experience and struggles kids like Holly deal with on a daily basis. The backmatter also includes an easy slime recipe perfect for indoor science activities and silliness.

  •Reviewed by Ronna Mandel

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Halloween Picture Books 2019 – A Roundup

BEST NEW PICTURE BOOKS FOR HALLOWEEN

A ROUNDUP

PART 3

free clip art pumpkin

 

 

Skulls book coverSKULLS!
Written by Blair Thornburgh
Illustrated by Scott Campbell
(Atheneum BYR; $17.99, Ages 4-8)

For Halloween or any day for that matter, Skulls! will entertain young readers with its eye-opening facts and fun watercolor illustrations featuring oblong faces and childlike representation.

Blair Thornburgh’s hit the nail on the head with this unique picture book that introduces kids to an important part of the human body via an adorable young narrator. Made up of twenty-two different smaller bones, the skull accounts for “about 10 percent of our body weight” but we often don’t think about it. When we do, as Thornburgh points out so perfectly, it’s absolutely amazing, kind of gross and thoroughly entertaining.

We tend to take for granted how a skull is “like a car seat for your brain,” keeping it safe and in place. It’s also actually full of holes otherwise it would be so much heavier. “But most important of all: skulls are not trying to be scary.” Once kids learn about all the cool skull-related things shared in Skulls!, they’ll probably want to share them with you, especially the jaw and mouth ones. And when they do, they’ll probably ask for a grilled cheese sandwich which means they’ve learned something. After they’ve eaten they’ll probably thank you for helping their “skull grow hard and strong.” In turn, you can use your mandible bone and connecting muscles to smile.

Happy Halloween Pirates book coverHAPPY HALLOWEEN, PIRATES!
Written by W. Harry Kirn
Illustrated by Inna Chernyak
(Clever Publishing; $12.99, Ages 3 and up)

Happy Halloween, Pirates! is a large-sized, kid-friendly, 18-page lift-the-flap board book that’s a rollicking, rhyming read aloud for Halloween. Toddlers will love hearing the story then peeking under the flaps to see what treasures the illustrator has buried beneath.

Shiver me timbers! A pirate crew receives an invitation via crow to a Halloween party. The action starts immediately as they and assorted pirate ship creatures (a cat, some mice) plan their costumes.

Next the pirates go ashore to have some fun with friends galore. They find the haunted party house and join in the festivities. Whoa! The kids who invited their sea-faring pirate pals surprise them by dressing up as pirates themselves on board a mini pirate ship! Between the flowing rhyme, the interactivity of the flaps and the vibrant artwork, children will stay entertained this Halloween as they play with and say Happy Halloween, Pirates! And who doesn’t enjoy a pirate party?

Ghastly Ghosts Book CoverGHASTLY GHOSTS
Written by Teresa Bateman
Illustrated by Ken Lamug
(Albert Whitman & Co.; $16.99, Ages 4-8)

My level of manageable frightening can be found in Ghastly Ghosts. This pleasing and well paced rhyming picture book starts off by setting a Halloweenish mood, but the main character, Old Dave, refuses to be scared by the moaning noises emanating from coal shed. The rhyme works wonderfully in moving the story forward with a subtle upbeat vibe so as not to make little ones’ (or my) hair stand on end. The art style is appealing with a lovely palette that also keeps the fright level slight.

Old Dave wishes for some company as it gets lonely up in the middle of nowhere which is exactly where he lives. But alas, no one goes out on a night so dark and freezing, and if they do it’s not to the place where a ghostly choir can be heard loudly saying, “Ghastly ghosts in the old coal shed!” Oh how I admire Old Dave’s guts. Rather than cower at the scary sounds, our hero faces off with the spirits who he reckons might also enjoy the warmth of his cottage once he replenishes his coal supply. Still more of the “Ghastly ghosts …” chorus erupts, but they’re interrupted by brave Old Dave. “I know. I do. I’d like to bet you’re cold ghosts too.” Together with the ghosts, Old Dave’s coal pail gets filled and everyone is welcome in his now warm and cozy place. “In fact, they’re quite good company. His friendless nights are history.”

clever little witch book coverCLEVER LITTLE WITCH
Written by Muon Thi Van
Illustrated by Hyewon Yum
(Margaret K. McElderry Books; $17.99, Ages 4-6)

Clever Little Witch is more of a sibling tale than a Halloween one, but since witches abound during this season, it still feels appropriate to share. Plus Thi Van has written a story that will definitely resonate with older kids who’d like nothing more to get rid of their younger siblings.

In this charming picture book narrated by Little Linh, we learn instantly from her that she’s “the cleverest little witch on Mãi Mãi Island” if she does say so herself! She tells us what she needs which are a broomstick, a book of spells and a rare and magical pet. What she doesn’t need is an annoying baby brother who does things like ride her broom without asking, chew pages from her spell book or use her magical mouse “as a flashlight.” Yup, the little guy’s gotta go!

Baby Phu is offered around by his older sister, but no one on the island has any desire to take her little bro off her hands. Nope, not the troll, not the forest fairy queen and not the Orphanage for Lost and Magical Creatures. Youngsters will get a huge kick out of these scenes when the reasons why Baby Phu is rejected are explained. The troll, for instance, got hiccups from the last baby brother he ate.

When Little Linh turns to her magical book of spells she sees that “Baby Phu had eaten half the spell.” Clever as she was, she could certainly figure out what the rest was and transform her brother into a goldfish. When the spells go awry and she creates first a frog, then a seal and finally a dragon that steals her wand, things are not looking good. The story’s heroine chases the dragon on her broom. But when the dragon’s tail accidentally knocks down the broom and Little Linh begins falling, guess who comes to her rescue before she crashes to the ground? YESthe dragon, much to her surprise! Does the dragon stay a dragon or does he turn back into Baby Phu who becomes more appreciated? Ahh, you’ll have to visit Mãi Mãi Island to see for yourself! Hyewon Yum’s illustrations of acrylic gouache and color pencil are full of energy. The variety of colors she uses exudes a warm and happy feeling with every page turn. What a sweet, humorous and imaginative sibling story to share with kids!

Ginny Goblin Cannot Have a Monster cvrGINNY GOBLIN CANNOT HAVE A MONSTER FOR A PET
Written by David Goodner
Illustrated by Louis Thomas
(HMH BYR; $17.99, Ages 4-7)

Starred Review – Kirkus Reviews

Ginny is a force of nature and, though perhaps not the best role model for children, will definitely make them laugh and maybe even answer back to the narrator speaking right to them, and that’s just what an ideal read aloud like Ginny Goblin Cannot Have a Monster for a Pet should do.

As I read this picture book, the follow-up to Ginny Goblin is Not Allowed to Open This Box, I thought about a little girl some 22 years ago. No matter what her parents told her, she’d do the opposite. I always worried about her, but she’s actually doing great now that she got all those wild escapades out of her system … and a horse as a pet.

What’s so fabulous about this story is that Ginny’s crazy antics ultimately get her just what she wanted in the first place which is a goat, a non-monsterish pet unlike all the unbelievable others she goes in search of page after riotous page to drive her point home. Whether it’s on a beach where the narrator hopes “she’ll find a tropical fish, or a cute little hermit crab,” Ginny always has something else in mind and goes for it. In one case that means going into the deep, dark sea in a submarine seeking a kraken. We’re reminded that krakens “are unfathomable monsters, and Ginny Goblin cannot have a monster for a pet.” I can just hear the kids at story time repeating that phrase and loving it.

So what do you suppose happens next? You guessed it, as will young readers. Down she goes into a cave in search of a dragon. That sized pet won’t fit in a house will it? So of course Ginny’s taken to a forest where birds who make great pets live. Ha! Instead Ginny catches a basilik, but a magical pet isn’t the answer either. If you think she’s done thinking about getting a monster for a pet because she’s distracted by a visit to a space museum, think again. Ginny commandeers a rocket to outer space where an acid-spitting alien is on her agenda but not the narrator’s.

Goodner skillfully brings the readers and Ginny back to Earth where the idea of a pet like a goat is suddenly looking a lot better than it originally did! Paired with Thomas’s whimsical gouache and pen-and-ink artwork, Goodner’s prose take youngsters on an amusing and mischievous  journey that will delight them and anyone lucky enough to read the story to them.

  • Reviewed by Ronna Mandel

 

Read another Halloween Books Roundup here.

 

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