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Picture Book Review by Armineh Manookian – The Garden We Share

 

THE GARDEN WE SHARE

Written by Zoë Tucker

Illustrated by Julianna Swaney

(NorthSouth Books; $18.95; Ages 4-8)

 

The Garden We Share cover

 

Seasons bring change–in the garden and in life–in author Zoë Tucker and illustrator Julianna Swaney’s tender, intergenerational story, The Garden We Share, about love, loss, and hope.

 

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Interior spread from The Garden We Share written by Zoë Tucker and illustrated by Julianna Swaney, NorthSouth Books ©2022.

 

Walking into a community garden on a crisp spring morning, a little girl and her elderly friend plant seeds, “each little dot full of hope and promise.” Elderly friends join in to help and share each other’s company as they pass the time together, waiting patiently until the plants finally “burst into life” and the garden is “a riot of color.” Swaney’s soothing palette of olive greens, mustard yellows, peachy reds, and poppy-pumpkin oranges provides spaces filled with warmth and comfort. 

 

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Interior spread from The Garden We Share written by Zoë Tucker and illustrated by Julianna Swaney, NorthSouth Books ©2022.

 

 

Sometimes relaxing under the sun and sometimes busy with garden work, the little girl and her friend take their treasures into the kitchen, processing the beautiful bounty they’ve collected–all of which culminates into a jubilant feast for the whole community. 

 

 

The Garden We Share int3
Interior spread from The Garden We Share written by Zoë Tucker and illustrated by Julianna Swaney, NorthSouth Books ©2022.

 

As the season grows cold, petals “fall, and colors fade,” the little girl’s special friend is sadly “gone.” All she’s left with are the seeds of last season’s crops. But as the spring season returns anew, those “tiny dots” she plants spring up “big memories” of patience, stewardship, and fellowship.

 With quiet and calming overtones, The Garden We Share invites gentle conversations about death while lovingly cultivating a spirit of hope.

  • Reviewed by Armineh Manookian
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Middle Grade Book Review – Singing with Elephants

SINGING WITH ELEPHANTS

Written by Margarita Engle

(Viking BYR; $16.99, Ages 8-12)

 

Singing With Elephants cover

 

 

Starred reviews – KirkusPublishers Weekly

 

Struggling to belong, Cuban-born eleven-year-old Oriol discovers her voice in Singing with Elephants, a beautifully moving middle-grade novel in verse written by Newbery honoree and Pura Belpré Award-winning author, Margarita Engle.  

The story takes place in 1947 in Santa Barbara where Oriol lives with her family. She helps take care of injured animals in her parents’ veterinary clinic, located near a “wildlife zoo ranch” that has connections to Hollywood (6). Grieving the recent death of her grandmother and facing hardships at a school that is unwelcoming to immigrants, she struggles with loneliness–until she befriends “la poeta” Gabriela Mistral who has moved near Oriol’s home (12). While the meeting (and subsequent story) is fictional, the poet is a real person, the first Latin American winner of a Nobel Prize in Literature. Oriol is relieved to have found someone who speaks her native tongue, but little does she know the unexpected gift she’ll be receiving from her new friend: learning the language of poetry. 

These lessons are for all of us. “There is no better home for emotions than a poem,” la poeta advises, “which can easily be transformed into a song” (27). The book is rich with simple yet profound expressions of love, loss, heartache, and wholeness. As we learn along with Oriol, poetry is the soul’s way of singing, whether that soul is human or animal. This lesson becomes more apparent as Oriol’s connection to the animals she cares for grows stronger and stronger, in particular her relationship with a pregnant elephant named Chandra whose rhythmic sways and sounds remind her of poetry.

Through her mentor’s gentle encouragement and guidance, Oriol’s writing blossoms–from using it as a source of healing to using it as a force for change. Bit by bit, she “no longer yearn[s]” for Cuba and Abuelita “every moment of every day” (106). And when a famous movie star takes special interest in Chandra, Oriol drafts “poetry-petition[s],” eventually organizing a protest against animal abuse (188). Fighting for her beloved elephants, Oriol finds a sense of belonging. 

Singing with Elephants is the kind of book readers will want to read again and again, catching the pieces of poetry missed from the previous read. An author’s note at the end details Cuban cultural traditions as well as Gabriela Mistral’s life. A list of further readings about and by the poet is also included.

  • Reviewed by Armineh Manookian
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Picture Book Review – I Am You: A Book About Ubuntu

 

 

I AM YOU:
A Book About Ubuntu

Written by Refiloe Moahloli

Illustrated by Zinelda McDonald

(Amazon Crossing Kids; $17.99, Ages 4-8)

 

 

 

 

Starred Review – School Library Journal

 

Originally published in South Africa, I Am You:  A Book About Ubuntu written by Refiloe Moahloli and illustrated by Zinelda McDonald, is a stunning visual and textual reminder of our shared humanity that could not be more timely.

An ancient philosophy of many African cultures, ubuntu means “I am, because you are” and embraces the idea that “a person is a person through other people.” Opening lines emphasize this interconnectedness:  “When I look into your eyes, I see myself.” On the following page, readers will need to turn the book vertically to enjoy a spread that illustrates this love, not only for others but for the natural world and all creation. 

 

iamyou int1
Interior spread from I Am You: A Book About Ubuntu written by Refiloe Moahloli and illustrated by Zinelda McDonald, Amazon Crossing Kids ©2022.

 

In loving, lyrical language, Moahloli’s text helps us realize that though the time we spend with others and the kindnesses we share may seem like small, inconsequential acts,  they’re in fact powerful expressions of our deep love for each other and for our own selves. “[W]hen I laugh as I hear you laugh, when I hold your hands as you cry, I love you, and I love myself, too.” Similarly, if we choose to “hurt,” “tease,” or “ignore” another, we are committing those very acts on ourselves.   

 

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Interior art from Interior spread from I Am You: A Book About Ubuntu written by Refiloe Moahloli and illustrated by Zinelda McDonald, Amazon Crossing Kids ©2022.

 

 

Rendered in digital media, McDonald’s bold and beautiful jewel-toned illustrations place an endearing cast of characters front and center in virtually every page. Readers are drawn into the smiling faces and welcoming gaze of an inclusive group of children from all backgrounds and abilities, playing together in country, city, and oceanside settings. 

A great conversation starter for themes of community, friendship, kindness, and love, I Am You shines light on the truth that we are all one. 

     •Reviewed by Armineh Manookian

 

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Picture Book Review – Amah Faraway

AMAH FARAWAY

Written by Margaret Chiu Greanias 

Illustrated by Tracy Subisak 

(Bloomsbury Children’s Books; $18.99, Ages 4-8)

 

Amah Faraway cover

 

Starred Reviews – School Library Journal, Shelf Awareness

 

Cultural connections, intergenerational love, and adventure-seeking await readers in author Margaret Chiu Greanias and illustrator Tracy Subisak’s touching Amah Faraway

Since “[v]ideo chats [aren’t] the same as real life,” Kylie is nervous about visiting her Amah who lives so far away in Taipei, despite their weekly time together online. Once they arrive, Amah encourages Kylie to explore the city together,  “Lái kàn kàn! Come see!” But Kylie finds everything strange:  Amah’s apartment, dining with her extended family, city life, the night market. Everywhere they go, Kylie hesitantly “trail[s] behind Amah and Mama.”

 

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Interior art from Amah Faraway written by Margaret Chiu Greanias and illustrated by Tracy Subisak, Bloomsbury Children’s Books ©2022.

 

But on the day they visit the hot springs, something changes for Kylie. Dipping her toe in the warm water, she relishes in the joy of that moment and, in the days to follow, all the other experiences Taipei has to offer. From this point on, Greanias cleverly flips the lines of the story, repeating the same lines as the first part, but this time in reverse order with slight changes in context and punctuation to emphasize Kylie’s wholehearted embrace of the culture around her. 

 

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Interior art from Amah Faraway written by Margaret Chiu Greanias and illustrated by Tracy Subisak, Bloomsbury Children’s Books ©2022.

 

Amah’s welcoming refrain has now become Kylie’s. “Lái kàn kàn!” she calls out to Amah and Mama as she leads them to the places Amah has taken her before, only now Kylie sees them with fresh, new eyes. Energetic lines in a soft color palette weave through the book which includes Taiwanese Mandarin text in speech bubbles inviting readers to join in on the fun. 

Included in the back matter are the Taipei sights mentioned in the story,  meanings behind Taiwanese foods, and a note from both the author and illustrator about their experiences visiting their own grandmothers in Taiwan.

An engaging story set in a vibrant, diverse city, Amah Faraway illustrates how to face your fears by leaning on familial love.

  •  Reviewed by Armineh Manookian
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Picture Book Review – My Two Border Towns

MY TWO BORDER TOWNS 

Written by David Bowles

Illustrated by Erika Meza

(Kokila; $17.99, Ages 4-8)

 

 

 

Starred Reviews – Kirkus, Booklist, The Horn Book, Publishers Weekl

 

Two towns unite in a spirit of community, outreach, and transnational awareness through the compassion of a little boy and his father in David Bowles and Erika Meza’s My Two Border Towns. 

As he does every other Saturday, a boy living in South Texas prepares for a trip with his father to “[E]l Otro Lado”–a short ride to the other side of the border. He grabs his “special bag” of gifts before they leave; while on the road, he reflects on the items he’ll be giving to his friends.

 

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Interior spread from My Two Border Towns written by David Bowles and illustrated by Erika Meza, Kokila ©2021.

 

Once they’ve arrived, we see a warm and vibrant town, twin to the one where the boy lives, except for English which is “mostly missing” until  “it pops up like grains of sugar on a chili pepper.” Bowles’ fluid weaving of English and Spanish throughout the story also provides opportunities for further learning to those who want to dig deeper into the Spanish language.  Colorful and lively, Meza’s aerial and close-up illustrations of the setting are packed with details:  architecture, wall signs, street vendors, and facial expressions all have a story of their own. 

 

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Interior spread from My Two Border Towns written by David Bowles and illustrated by Erika Meza, Kokila ©2021.

 

Now that father and son are fueled up with breakfast from their favorite restaurant, it’s time to catch up with family and play a round of soccer. Grocery shopping and a visit to the pharmacist are next, but before they head home, Dad reminds his son of their last, “most important visit.” 

 

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Interior spread from My Two Border Towns written by David Bowles and illustrated by Erika Meza, Kokila ©2021.

 

Having all his supplies ready, the boy makes a quick visit to his friend who, along with a long line of people, is waiting, uncertain about the fate of his future. There are “entire families from the Caribbean and Central America. Refugees, Dad calls them. Stuck between two countries.”

The thought and care the boy has given to his gifts is evident as he unpacks them “explaining [his] choices” for each one to his friend.  Though his visit is short, it’s always bookended by love for his friends and a yearning for their freedom.  

 

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Interior spread from My Two Border Towns written by David Bowles and illustrated by Erika Meza, Kokila ©2021.

 

A must-have for caregivers and educators, My Two Border Towns opens doors to conversations about kindness, empathy, duty, and the complexities of immigration.

  •  Reviewed by Armineh Manookian

 

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Best New Children’s Christmas Books for 2021

 

A ROUNDUP OF
THE BEST NEW CHRISTMAS BOOKS FOR 2021

 

 

All of us at GoodReadsWithRonna.com wish you a warm and wonderful Christmas!

 

REVIEWS:

Jingle Bells Navidad coverJINGLE BELLS / NAVIDAD:
Bilingual Nursery Rhymes
(English & Spanish)
Written and illustrated by Susie Jaramillo
(Canticos; $10.99, Ages 0-6)

This 16 page bilingual, lift-the-flaps board book is not only beautiful to look at (its cover features foil accents), it stars the sweet little chickies from the Emmy-nominated series. What a delightful way to celebrate the holidays than by sharing the “Jingle Bells” song with children in both English and Spanish. There are cute characters in vibrant colors to enjoy including Mama Hen, a purple spider, an adorable elephant, a frog, and a bunny. Kids can have fun lifting the assorted flaps to find additional words such as warmth/calor, joy/alegria and others all while improving their bilingual language skills. A larger formatted board book ($14.99) with an accordion design offers the opportunity to read “Jingle Bells” on one side entirely in English and the other in Spanish. Visit canticosworld.com for free resources, activities, and more. For a limited time, the Encantos app is available for free.

  •  Reviewed by Ronna Mandel

 

Merry Christmas Gus coverMERRY CHRISTMAS, GUS
Written and illustrated by Chris Chatterton
(Penguin Workshop; $17.99, Ages 3-5)

Merry Christmas, Gus, is Chris Chatterton’s second book featuring the adorable grumpy hound dog, Gus. It seems there’s not much of anything that Gus likes about the holiday season until a puppy enters the picture, then, . . . maybe.

As in the first book, the art is LOL funny because of Gus’s gloomy expressions. My favorite part is the ending—sorry, you’ll have to read it yourself! The perfect gift for the not-really-into-it person on your holiday shopping list.

  • Reviewed by Christine Van Zandt

 

The Toys' ChristmasTHE TOYS’ CHRISTMAS
Written by Claire Clément
Illustrated by Geneviève Godbout
(Frances Lincoln Children’s Books; $17.99, Ages 3-7)

Let the cozy feeling of this sweet bedtime Christmas tale envelope your little ones as they drift contentedly off to sleep. I was enchanted by the premise of The Toys’ Christmas in which little Noah cannot fall asleep because his favorite stuffed animal FanFan is nowhere to be found. Enchanted by his going missing you might ask? No. I was enchanted by his devotion to Noah. FanFan, it seems, is on a secret mission along with all the other soft toys he meets up with on his long and special journey. Once a year the beloved toys travel to the North Pole. There they can “tell Santa what their child wants for Christmas. After all, they know their child best of all.” Well,  this just warmed my heart and I hope it does the same for your child. Rest assured FanFan returns to delight Noah who also is thrilled to have his Christmas wish come true. Coupled with Godbout’s gorgeous pastel and colored pencil illustrations in faded tones not unlike many of the much-loved toys after years of cuddling and washes, Clément’s gentle prose are sure to charm.

  • Reviewed by Ronna Mandel

 

Christmas Here I Come coverCHRISTMAS, HERE I COME!
Written by D. J. Steinberg
Illustrated by Laurie Stansfield
(Grosset & Dunlap; $5.99, Ages 4-6)

If you’re looking for a gift to bring to family, friends or neighbors before Christmas or on the day itself, look no further than Christmas, Here I Come!, one of the multiple books in the best-selling series. This paperback is packed with humorous and sentimental poems revolving around the holiday from choosing trees to jokes about fruitcake, from the joyful mess of wrapping paper to Santas around the world. There are even stickers at the end for further entertainment. One of my favorites is called “Peace on Earth” about two neighbors competing for the most lights on their homes until circuits blew. Another is “My Christmas Sweater” about the hilarity and comfiness of the traditional ugly sweater. There’s also a recurring Dear Santa Claus letter from a character called Bobby which many youngsters will find relatable. Stansfield’s art evokes the holiday spirit, capturing the abundant experiences detailed in Steinberg’s poetry.

  • Reviewed by Ronna Mandel

 

Joy to the World coverJOY TO THE WORLD!:
Christmas Around the Globe
Written by Kate DePalma
Illustrated by Sophie Fatus
(Barefoot Books; $17.99, Ages 4-10)

Joy to the World!, with its gold embossed lettering and accents on the cover, makes a great Christmas gift for families, friends, and anyone curious about the holiday traditions in 13 countries spanning from Argentina to Serbia. Peopled with diverse children and their families celebrating in special ways, this colorful picture book not only entertains but educates too.

Kids will see how in the Philippines Simbang Gabi lasts for nine days including daily worship. “We come every day, and they say if you do/Whatever you wish on day nine will come true.” Stars shimmer across this particular two-page spread, and beautifully bordered art (throughout the book and unique to that country) in a cheerful jewel-toned palette emanates joy and community. In Ethiopia, where people celebrate Genna on January 7, families gather around the mesob (a basket-like table) and feed one another “a large bit of food by hand.” I love that so many celebrations revolve around food in addition to family and faith rituals. Older readers will find even more helpful information in the back matter which expands on the brief rhyming info for each country that was depicted in earlier pages. This welcoming, upbeat picture book full of happy families brings world celebrations to your fingertips in a most delightful way.

  • Reviewed by Ronna Mandel

 

The Star Tree coverTHE STAR TREE
Written and  illustrated by Gisela Cölle

Translated by Rosemary Lanning (first published in Switzerland)
(NorthSouth Books; $17.99, Ages 4-8)

For a quiet story this busy holiday season, consider Gisela Cölle’s, The Star Tree. A mustachioed old man missed days of yore, far from sprawling urban life. No one even glances at the sky above anymore as they hurry through their busy days.

Cölle’s illustrations echo the rustic simplicity of the text. This timeless classic demonstrates that sometimes less can be more, and by taking that first step, a community can be brought together. You’ll feel inspired to cut out some stars too!

  • Reviewed by Christine Van Zandt

 

Carla and the Christmas Cornbread coverCARLA AND THE CHRISTMAS CORNBREAD
Written by Carla Hall with Kristen Hartke
Illustrated by Cherise Harris
(Denene Millner Books/Simon & Schuster BYR; $17.99, Ages 4-8)

I find food-themed picture books hard to resist. Do you? Carla and the Christmas Cornbread happily took me back to the ’70s for a story based on author, chef, and TV food personality Carla Hall’s early childhood memories.

Heading to her grandparents, with Mom driving, her older sister Kim sitting in the passenger seat, and Carla in the back seat beside a slew of gifts, she enjoyed the ride “watching the lights twinkle on the houses as we whiz by.” Carla was excited to see her grandparents and eat the scrumptious cornbread her grandma made. Spending time over Christmas at their home was clearly a highlight for her. From cooking cornbread together with Granny, hearing her grandpa “Doc” share stories about his time in France when he once ate snails, to searching the Christmas tree for the Black Santa ornament that looks just like her, these tender moments convey the warmth of family that meant so much to this young girl. Harris’s joyful art, full of attention to detail and a feeling for the era, complements this lovely story.

But when just before bedtime she bit into the cookie that was meant for Santa, Carla worried that she’d get in trouble. Certain that Santa would put her on his naughty list, Carla was relieved when Grandma, who heard Carla confess, suggested they make Santa “a special Christmas cornbread.” Despite caring reassurance from Doc that Santa probably got tired of all the cookies, Carla still felt sad. But all ends well when Christmas morning brings more than cheer for her and readers invested in seeing a happy outcome for Carla. Make sure to read to the very last page where a surprise illustration shows Santa nibbling on a tasty treat! Bonus: A cornbread recipe is included.

  • Reviewed by Ronna Mandel

 

Just Be Claus coverJUST BE CLAUS: A Christmas Story
Written by Barbara Joosse
Illustrated by Kim Barnes
(Sleeping Bear Press; $16.99; Ages 4-8)

This adorably illustrated picture book answers the question, what was Santa Claus like as a little boy? With a “round little belly that shakes when he laughs like a bowl full of jelly,” Clausie is different and “unusual” from the very start. His hearty “ho ho ho” laugh, creative flair for making “thingamajigs” with Grannie in his super secret workshop, and tendency to help the rival hockey team score make him stand out and “feel out of place.” He expresses his desire to be like the other kids, but Grannie assures him:  “You’re creative, thoughtful, and generous … Don’t try to be like anyone else. Just be YOU.” A snowstorm shuts the whole town down, blocking the train from delivering its large load of gifts. Clausie’s clever act of kindness not only saves Christmas Day but also helps him embrace his own unique, tender-heartedness. Wrapping this sweet holiday book are themes of empathy, love, and self-acceptance that can be explored any time of the year. 

  •  Reviewed by Armineh Manookian

 

The Christmas Owl coverTHE CHRISTMAS OWL: Based on the True Story
of a Little Owl Named Rockefeller 

Written by Ellen Kalish and Gideon Sterer
Illustrated by Ramona Kaulitzki
(Little, Brown BYR; $17.99, Ages 4-8)

Animal lovers will enjoy this heartwarming picture book, The Christmas Owl, by Ellen Kalish and Gideon Sterer. Based on a true story of a tiny owl trapped in a tree cut down and brought to the city, the story is seen through the eyes of Little Owl who wonders what happened and where she’s been taken. Throughout, she asks herself, Is this Christmas? By the end, she’s able to explain to her forest friends what the holiday’s all about.

While the illustrations by Ramona Kaulitzki bring the story to life, be sure to look in the back matter too. Actual photos of the owl are beyond cute and its release is so joyful. Peek under the dust jacket for a different cover image!

  • Reviewed by Christine Van Zandt

 

Merry Witchmas CoverMERRY WITCHMAS
Written by Petrell Marie Özbay and Tess La Bella
Illustrated by Sonya Abby
(Boyds Mill Press; $17.99, Ages 3-7)

Don’t let the word witch in the title fool you. Merry Witchmas isn’t about Halloween although you could start sharing it in October. It’s actually about a sweet witch named Ginger who adores all things Christmas. Whether that’s “a flying sleigh, a red-nosed reindeer” or the toys. But most importantly Ginger wishes for a visit from Santa. You see she lives in the “Invisible Forest” that wasn’t on Santa’s radar. Regardless, she always behaved thoughtfully to make it onto Santa’s “Nice List.” This year she’s decided to take things one step further and write to Santa so perhaps he’d believe she existed. She’d even include a map!

Ginger’s magic delivers the letter directly to Santa who checked his lists, then double-checked them. No witch named Ginger appeared. Since he didn’t believe in witches, he’d actually never sought them out. Yet if children could believe in Santa, why couldn’t witches exist too he wonders. That’s when the magic happens. Using Ginger’s map, Santa heads to the young witch’s magical land and at last, the two finally meet bringing Christmas joy to both. Kids will want to look at the fun details Abby’s included in her pleasing artwork that exudes warmth and humor. My favorite touch is Jingles the kitty cat reaching for Christmas cookies along with the holiday decorations in her home. With all the Christmas feels, this picture book is a fresh new take on the holiday and not giving up on your dreams.

  • Reviewed by Ronna Mandel

 

Santa in the City coverSANTA IN THE CITY
Written by Tiffany D. Jackson
Illustrated by Reggie Brown
(Dial BYR; $17.99, Ages 4-8)

Starred Reviews –Booklist, School Library Journal

Deja is super excited for Christmas but her classmates’ distrust about Santa ever visiting them in the city sends her on a downward spiral of doubt. “‘How does Santa get inside our house if we don’t have a chimney? …where [will Santa] park his sleigh?’” Deja asks question after question to her mom who, along with extended family and neighborhood friends, patiently answers each one. Answers provide a little relief, as evidenced through her refrain “‘Oh’ … Makes sense,” but Deja needs more proof. Cheerful illustrations of a diverse, vibrant urban setting full of the Christmas spirit emphasize the point: the very thing Deja is looking for is already around her beautiful neighborhood. A surprise on Christmas morning secures her heart that “magic really does find a way,” just like Mom has said all along. 

  • Reviewed by Armineh Manookian

 

Grumpy Monkey OhNo Christmas coverGRUMPY MONKEY OH, NO! CHRISTMAS
Written by Suzanne Lang
Illustrated by Max Lang
(Random House Studio; $18.99, Ages 3-7)

Beloved character Jim Panzee is back again, this time for the holidays, grumpier than ever. The weather has been “grizzly, drizzly” all week, his morning banana green, plus he accidentally stumbles into a puddle of mud. On top of everything else, his jungle friends insist he absolutely must be excited about the upcoming Christmas season. One by one, they take turns telling him how he “should” do one thing or another in order to properly celebrate:  write a card for Mom, wrap presents, “reflect quietly.” But to grumpy, miserable Jim “EVERYTHING STINKS!”–that is, until his gentle gorilla friend, Norman, helps Jim see things in a different perspective. Conversations about kindness and gratitude ease his burden and give strong reason to celebrate. Readers young and old will fall in love once more with Jim Panzee’s crankiness, expressed so perfectly by Lang’s fun and hilarious illustrations. 

  •  Reviewed by Armineh Manookian

 

A Simple Christmas on the Farm coverA SIMPLE CHRISTMAS ON THE FARM 
Written by Phyllis Alsdurf
Illustrated by Lisa Hunt
(Beaming Books; $17.99, Ages 3-8)

For those looking for a traditional, Christian-themed Christmas story, A Simple Christmas on the Farm is a great choice. Eager to start the festivities, a little girl living on the farm is reminded by her parents that they’re going to celebrate by “keeping things simple this year” with a focus on modest decorations, homemade gifts, and giving more than receiving. This spirit of simplicity is heightened all the more when the girl is inspired to host Christmas in their little red barn. Traveling into town with a tray of homemade cookies, she and her mother spread the word about their party, inviting everyone in the community. In the meantime, they prepare gifts and crafts for their guests. Step-by-step directions for these crafts are included in the backmatter. When everyone joins in on the special day, laughter, cheer, and a wonderful feast surround their large table, making this simple but big-hearted Christmas the best one ever.

  • Reviewed by Armineh Manookian

 

The Christmas Mitzvah coverTHE CHRISTMAS MITZVAH
Written by Jeff Gottesfeld
Illustrated by Michelle Laurentia Agatha
(Creston Books; $18.99, Ages 4-9)

If you’re looking for a feel-good story that hits all the right notes, The Christmas Mitzvah is it. Inspired by a true story, this touching picture book opens with “Al Rosen was a Jewish man who loved Christmas. It wasn’t his holiday. He had Hanukkah, the Festival of Lights. But what could be bad about peace on earth and goodwill to humanity?” I immediately cared about this man with the great attitude and big personality. Then I read on to learn that Al Rosen decided to use the Christmas holiday as a chance to deliver mitzvahs (good deeds) for people in his community. From that evening in 1969 Rosen offered to help out so workers could leave their jobs to be home with their families. No matter what the task, he took it on, doing so for over three decades. What a big heart he had! At first, it was Rosen, sometimes with his son, Jonathan. Then when Jonathan finished medical school, married, and had children of his own, everyone pitched in when possible, performing mitzvahs every Christmas.

What’s most impressive is the variety of work Al Rosen did, though he didn’t necessarily excel at it. He started by stepping in at Shorty’s local newsstand. After that word spread of Rosen’s good deeds. Requests came in and soon he was pumping gas and parking cars, tending bar, and taking tolls. Al Rosen’s mitzvahs saw no bounds. He and Jonathan even inspired Christian and Muslim friends who “did their jobs on the Jewish High Holidays.” In fact Rosen’s kind spirit led to people of various faiths helping others out on their holidays, paying it forward in the best possible way. When Al grew too old and finally had to call it quits, his mitzvahs left lasting memories and goodwill in his city. Agatha’s bold artwork adds vibrancy and humorous touches to the story. Rosen’s diverse community is celebrated in scene after scene conveying the camaraderie created by his mitzvahs. Gottesfeld’s included back matter so readers can learn more about the man behind the good deeds as well as the Hanukkah holiday. I hope young readers’ biggest takeaway from The Christmas Mitzvah is that you don’t have to be Jewish to do good deeds and spread kindness.

  •  Reviewed by Ronna Mandel

 

Christmas is Coming Cover CHRISTMAS IS COMING: Traditions from Around the World
Written by Monika Utnik-Strugala 
Illustrated by Ewa Poklewska-Koziello
Translated from Polish by Antonia Lloyd-Jones
(NorthSouth Books; $25, Ages 4 and up)

An international collection of legends and traditions can be found in Monika Utnik-Strugala’s nonfiction book, Christmas Is Coming!: Traditions from Around the World. This book satisfies many of your holiday questions. Of course, you’ll find info about Santa, but there’s much more. Such as how Swedish towns have candlelit processions on December 13, or how the Japanese have adopted Christmas but celebrate it with reindeer and pandas! In Mexico, Spain, and Columbia, the Day of the Holy Innocents (on December 28) is like our April Fool’s Day. Favorite sections of mine include food, decorations, plants, and finding good luck for the new year.

Full-color art by the talented Ewa Poklewska-Koziello adorns each page, enlivening people and their celebrations. While suitable for elementary-age kids who want to learn about more than just the US December 25 Santa Claus, older kids will have plenty to read. Overall, this lovely book promotes inclusivity and is one you’ll refer to repeatedly as a remembrance or to learn something new.

  • Reviewed by Christine Van Zandt

Good Dogs in Bad Sweaters coverGOOD DOGS IN BAD SWEATERS
Written by Rachel Wenitsky and David Sidorov
Illustrated by Tor Freeman
(G.P. Putnam’s Sons BYR; $13.99, Ages 7-10)

I am so glad I stuck with this energy-filled illustrated middle-grade book despite the introduction of multiple dog names making it hard at first to keep track. However, after the initial few pages, there was no denying the humor and personality of all the doggy characters, and I was pulled right in. The primary ones in this, the third book in the series revolving around Good Dogs daycare, are Hugo and his younger sister Waffles, King and his older sister Cleo, Lulu, and her new teacup pig pal, Buttercup. Another dog, Napoleon, seems to have matured in this book according to comments from the other dogs, but while appearing in various chapters and bringing a funny therapist’s perspective to various situations, he doesn’t have a chapter devoted to his p.o.v. Secondary characters who may have had heftier roles in the previous two books are Nuts the squirrel and Pickle the cat. Kids may note that each dog has a different font which is a nice touch. Not having read the previous books, I never once felt like that mattered since the storyline was pretty straightforward and engaging.

In addition to the dog pals knowing each other, we also get to know their human owners which adds more opportunity for amusing dialogue and antics. There are tons of butt sniffing, ball throwing, and peeing jokes that feel appropriate for this age group. The main plot point is that sweet puppy Waffles, about to celebrate her first Christmas, is hoping that Santadoodle will bring her something special except Hugo knows that won’t happen. What’s a loving big bro supposed to do? Make baby sister’s wish come true, of course! And if that means getting all the Good Dogs involved in his quest, so be it.

The shenanigans the crew get up to as they try to get their paws on Waffles’ gift had me smiling throughout. That’s on top of the bits about the ugly (but comfy) Christmas sweaters, Lulu being an Instagram influencer, and how the dogs deal with their families—the dynamics of which should resonate with readers. Several sub-plots concerning agility competitions to career choices are at once comical and heartwarming, reflecting the zany sensibilities of the book’s authors Wenitsky and Sidorov. A bonus for me is that the book includes many references to Hanukkah since several of the dogs come from Jewish or mixed-faith families. Mix that up with Tor Freeman’s fabulous, whimsical, and extremely satisfying illustrations and you’ll see why this marriage of talents works so well. Add this middle-grade book (some may call it an older chapter book) to your TBR lists for some charming canine comedy this holiday season.

  • Reviewed by Ronna Mandel

 

See last year’s roundup here.

Additional recommended Christmas reads this year include:

The Little Owl & The Big Tree: A Christmas Story by Jonah Winter & Jeanette Winter
Jan Brett’s The Nutcracker 
Santa Jaws by Bridget Heos
What the Dinosaurs Did the Night Before Christmas by Refe & Susan Tuma

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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.” 

 

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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.  

 

 

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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. 

 

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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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Picture Book Review – The Boy and the Sea

THE BOY AND THE SEA

Written by Camille Andros

Illustrated by Amy Bates

(Abrams BYR; $17.99, Ages 6-8)

 

 

 

 

Written by Camille Andros and illustrated by Amy Bates, The Boy and the Sea is a contemplative, thought-provoking story that depicts growing up as the ebb and flow of questions not easily answerable. 

The story begins with the main character, a little boy, who lives by the sea. Like the sea, the boy is sometimes “dark and dangerous” and at other times “tranquil and tender.” These descriptors become refrains as we watch the boy grow from his elementary and adolescent years into adulthood, wondering and wrestling all the while with the thoughts that surface with each life stage

 

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Interior spread from The Boy and the Sea written by Camille Andros and illustrated by Amy Bates, Abrams BYR ©2021.

 

Lifelong friends who know each other intimately, the boy and the sea feel “the pull of something more,” something bigger. This deep dive into life’s purpose and meaning leads to many questions. “Some … [have answers] … but many [do] not.” The boy is drawn back to the sea for answers that, in turn, pull him deeper still into life’s mystery. Andros’ sparse and lyrical text combined with Bates’ sometimes calming, other times distressing blue palette encourage us readers to pause and hone our skills in listening, examining, and learning. 

 

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Interior spread from The Boy and the Sea written by Camille Andros and illustrated by Amy Bates, Abrams BYR ©2021.

 

While children in the older picture book age range will pick up on the book’s self-reflective nuances, younger readers will find intrigue in its quiet, meditative pull. The Boy and the Sea is a great bedtime read to let go of a racing mind and wind down from a busy day. 

  •  Reviewed by Armineh Manookian
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Picture Book Review – The Cot in the Living Room

 

THE COT IN THE LIVING ROOM

Written by Hilda Eunice Burgos

Illustrated by Gaby D’Alessandro 

(Kokila; $17.99, Ages 4-8)

 

 

The Cot in the Living Room cover

 

A Junior Library Guild Selection 
Starred Review – BookPage 

What’s it like to walk in someone else’s shoes? Author Hilda Eunice Burgos and illustrator Gaby D’Alessandro show us how in The Cot in the Living Room

A young girl longs to spend the night on the cot in her living room. “Mami says it’s for guests” only, but to the girl the cot symbolizes freedom and possibilities: having the whole living room to herself, enjoying the lights from the George Washington bridge coming in through the big window, watching television, and even sneaking in a midnight snack.

 

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Interior spread from The Cot in the Living Room written by Hilda Eunice Burgos and illustrated by Gaby D’Alessandro, Kokila ©2021.

 

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When throughout the week neighborhood children take turns spending the night on the cot, the young girl feels it’s absolutely “not fair” that she doesn’t get to enjoy this privilege. But what she doesn’t realize is the fear and discomfort each guest struggles through as they are separated from their parents who are working the night shift. 

I love the way the illustrations highlight the girl’s jealousy by magnifying the supposed delight each guest will have spending the night on the cot. An endless supply of candy-colored food, fun, and games in exaggerated sizes emphasize the disconnect between the young girl’s idealization of the cot and the reality of her guests’ feelings about it. For them, the cot is a poor substitute for home. 

 

 

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Interior spread from The Cot in the Living Room written by Hilda Eunice Burgos and illustrated by Gaby D’Alessandro, Kokila ©2021.

 

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When the young girl finally does get the opportunity to spend the night on the cot, strange and scary noises give her insight into their loneliness. Modeling her parents’ kindness and caregiving, the girl finds a creative way to make her guests feel like a part of the family.

Parents and educators searching for themes of compassion, empathy, and sacrifice will find them in this touching picture book.

  •  Reviewed by Armineh Manookian
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Picture Book Review – Brave as a Mouse

BRAVE AS A MOUSE

Written and Illustrated by Nicolò Carozzi 

(Random House Studio; $17.99, Ages 3-7)

BraveasaMouse cover

 

Starred Review – Booklist

 

A brave hero doesn’t always mean a big hero in Nicolò Carozzi’s beautifully worded and illustrated picture book Brave as a Mouse, his debut picture book in the US. 

Through simple text and stunning art, Carozzi draws our attention to Mouse’s new friendship with the homeowner’s fish. Mouse asks the fish, “Would you like to play?” and with a simple “YES!” both creatures enjoy each other’s company, swimming together. Mouse blows through a straw, and the fish enjoys jacuzzi-style bubbles. 

 

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Interior spread from Brave as a Mouse written and illustrated by Nicolò Carozzi, Random House Studio ©2021.

 

However, the fun stops when other housepets want to “play.” Three ominous shadows cast on the wall next to the fish’s bowl are plain but powerful images foretelling of the dangers ahead. 

As the homeowner’s beloved fat cats encircle the fishbowl, Mouse has a “wild … bold … [and] brave idea” to entice the three to follow him, all the way to the pantry where they gorge themselves on cat food.

 

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Interior art from Brave as a Mouse written and illustrated by Nicolò Carozzi, Random House Studio ©2021.

 

While the felines sleep off their big meal, Mouse uses the time to fulfill an even wilder, bolder, and braver idea that includes the help of other mice living in the house. Straight lines, calm, muted colors, and minimalist illustrations keep us focused on the rescue plan. Children and adult readers will enjoy the action-packed adventure as Mouse risks his own safety to protect his new friend. A more subtle, though important theme is the infectious nature of Mouse’s bravery and kindness.

 

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Interior art from Brave as a Mouse written and illustrated by Nicolò Carozzi, Random House Studio ©2021.

 

For those interested in quieter books on themes of friendship and compassion as well as those who like a good old fashion story when the good guys win, this picture book will delight again and again. 

 

  •  Reviewed by Armineh Manookian 
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Kids Picture Book Review – Ruby’s Reunion Day Dinner

RUBY’S REUNION DAY DINNER

Written by Angela Dalton

Illustrated by Jestenia Southerland

(HarperCollins Children’s Books; $17.99, Ages 4-8)

 

 

Rubys Reunion Day Dinner cover

 

 

Written by Angela Dalton and illustrated by Jestenia Southerland, Ruby’s Reunion Day Dinner adds layers of food and family fun with fair warning:  this story will make readers hungry! 

Ruby’s family is getting together to make their annual dinner. But it’s “not just any dinner-[it’s] a soul food dinner.” She knows each family member has a special dish for the reunion that only they make. She wants to create her very own “signature dish” but struggles to find what exactly that will be and how she’ll make it. 

 

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Interior spread from Ruby’s Reunion Day Dinner written by Angela Dalton and illustrated by Jestenia Southerland, HarperCollins BYR ©2021.

 

Encouraged by Momma’s loving nudge, Ruby searches the kitchen to find out how she can contribute to the meal making. Through the “bustle,” “babbl[e],” and “crack and sizzle” of meal preparation, she approaches one busy grown-up to the next offering to help. But each one hesitates to oblige for fear Ruby might hurt herself. “Lil’ Bit” (as Ruby’s Aunties and Grammy lovingly call her) may have to wait til “next year.” 

 

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Interior art from Ruby’s Reunion Day Dinner written by Angela Dalton and illustrated by Jestenia Southerland, HarperCollins BYR ©2021.

 

Dalton’s mouth-watering language combined with Southerland’s warm and vibrant illustrations takes us on a culinary journey allowing us a sneak peek at what is being served. Passing by delicious dish after delicious dish, Ruby meanders outside discouraged and disheartened she hasn’t been able to make her mark on the dinner menu-only to discover the very thing that’s been missing all along. Providing “sweet relief from the heat,” Ruby’s signature dish promises to return at next year’s reunion.  

Intergenerational love, culture, persistence, and determination are rich ingredients that spice up this sweet story.

  • Reviewed by Armineh Manookian
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Five Recommended Reads for Kids – Black History Month 2021

 

FIVE CHILDREN’S BOOKS FOR BLACK HISTORY MONTH

∼A ROUNDUP∼

 

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This year choosing books to include in our Recommended Reads for Kids – Black History Month Roundup has been more difficult than ever because there are dozens of excellent ones being published and more on the way. Here is just a small sample of great reads, from picture book to graphic novel to young adult fantasy that are available for kids and teens to enjoy.

 

 

TheABCsofBlackHistory cvrTHE ABCs OF BLACK HISTORY
Written by Rio Cortez
Illustrated by Lauren Semmer
(Workman Publishing; $14.95, Ages 5 and up)

A NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER
Starred Review – Kirkus

The ABCs of Black History is the kind of inspiring book children and adults will want to return to again and again because there is so much to absorb. In other words, it’s not your mother’s ABC book. Written in uplifting rhyme by Pushcart Prize-nominated poet Rio Cortez, this gorgeous 60-page picture book is at once a look back in time and a look to the future for young Black children. However it is recommended reading for children of all races and their families.

Cortez has shined a lyrical light on places, events and figures familiar and less familiar from Black history with comprehensive back matter going more in depth. Take H for example: “H is for Harlemthose big city streets! / We walked and we danced to our own jazzy beat. / When Louis and Bessie and Duke owned the stage, / and Langston and Zora Neale Hurston, the page.” J is for Juneteenth and S, which gets double coverage, is for scientists and for soul. Adding  to the hopeful tone of Cortez’s rhyme are Semmer’s bold and vibrant graphics which jump off the page. The dazzling colors pull you in and the variety of composition keep you hooked.

The ABCs of Black History is a book you’ll want to read together with your young ones and let your older children discover and savor on their own. It’s not only a visual and aural treat, it’s a sweeping celebration and exploration of Black culture and history that is beautiful, compelling, thought provoking and thoroughly unputdownable!
• Reviewed by Ronna Mandel

 

WE WAIT FOR THE SUN
Written by Dovey Johnson Roundtree and Katie McCabe

Illustrated by Raissa Figueroa  
(Roaring Brook Press; $18.99, Ages 4-8)

Starred Reviews – Booklist, Kirkus, and Publishers Weekly

Adapted from the final chapter of Dovey Johnson Roundtree’s autobiography Mighty Justice, We Wait for the Sun is an intimate look at a tender moment in Dovey’s childhood. The book opens with a preface about the main character, Dovey, who grew up to be a legendary figure in the fight for racial equality-all through the influence of her beloved grandmother, Rachel Bryant Graham. Dovey loved to share stories of Grandmother Rachel; this book is the story she loved best. 

In “the midsummer night” when it’s “dark and cool,” Dovey and her grandmother walk “through the darkness toward the woods” to pick blackberries. Lyrical language and textural illustrations awaken the senses and draw us into their adventure.

Other women join in and the trip goes deeper still into the forest. Staring at Grandma’s shoes, Dovey is literally following her grandmother’s steps into the darkness. But Grandma Rachel provides comfort and reassurance. “If you wait just a little, your eyes will learn to see, and you can find your way.” 

Through such examples of wisdom and encouragement, it’s clear to see why Grandma Rachel was such an inspiration to Dovey and her later work as a civil rights lawyer. As they sit in the forest and listen to its  “thousand sounds,” a double page spread shows an aerial view of their meditative moment, immersed in the magic of their surroundings. 

And when they reach the berries, they’re every bit worth the wait-plump, juicy, and sweet-like the lush layers of purple, blue, and pink illustrations that display a beautiful berry-colored world as dawn, bit by bit, turns to day. Wrapped in each other’s arms, Grandma and Dovey watch the sun rise in its golden splendor. Grandma’s steadfast waiting for the light, despite the present darkness, is a moving message of hope, resilience, and bravery.

Back matter includes an in-depth note from co-author Katie McCabe chronicling Dovey’s fight against barriers in the law, military, and ministry. For anyone interested in the powerful ways family and history intersect, We Wait for the Sun is a must-have in every library.  • Reviewed by Armineh Manookian

 

Opening the Road coverOPENING THE ROAD:
Victor Hugo Green and His Green Book
Written by Keila V. Dawson
Illustrated by Alleanna Harris
(Beaming Books; $19.99, Ages 4-8)

While white Americans eagerly embarked on carefree car travel around the country, in 1930s Jim Crow America the road was not a safe or welcoming place for Black people. In Opening the Road: Victor Hugo Green and His Green Book, Keila V. Dawson explores the entrepreneur Victor Green and his successful The Negro Motorist Green Book which was borne out of dire need.

Young readers will learn about the limitations that were in place restricting the freedoms of Black Americans to have access to the same conveniences whites did due to segregation laws. For instance, a road trip for a Black family meant bringing food, pillows, and even a portable toilet since most establishments along a route were for whites only. The same applied to hotels, service stations, auto-mechanics and even hospitals. And in “Sundown” towns, where Blacks could work but not live, those individuals had to be gone by sunset or risk jail or worse.

In this fascinating 40-page nonfiction picture book, Dawson explains in easy-to-understand prose exactly what obstacles faced Black travelers and why Green, a mail carrier, together with his wife Alma, decided to publish a directory. Inspired by a Kosher guide for Jews who also faced discrimination, Green began collecting information from people on his postal route about where safe places were in New York.

Eventually, with word-of-mouth expanding interest in Green’s book, he began corresponding with mail carriers nationwide to gather more recommendations for The Negro Motorist Green Book on more cities. Soon everyone from day-trippers to celebrities were using the Green Book. Green even made a deal with Standard Oil for the book to be sold in Esso gas stations where it “flew off the shelves.” Harris’s illustrations take readers back in time with colorful, realistic looking scenes of big old cars, uniformed service station attendants and locations in Black communities that opened their doors to Black travelers. Apart from a break during WWII, the book was sold until the need for it finally ended with the last edition in 1966-67.

Equality both on and off the road was the ultimate goal for Black Americans. That may have improved somewhat from when the first Green Book was published in 1936, but Victor did not live to see the Civil Rights Act of 1964 enacted, having passed away in 1960. However there is still a long road ahead because, unlike Victor’s Green Book, racism has not disappeared and being Black while driving can still be dangerous, even deadly.

Dawson dives into this in her five pages of back matter that include a clever roadway timeline graphic from the beginning of Green’s life in 1892 until the Green Book ceased publication. This is a helpful, thoughtfully written book to share with children to discuss racism, and a good way to begin a discussion about self-advocacy, ingenuity, and how to treat one another with respect. It’s also a welcome example of how Green channeled his frustration and dissatisfaction into a guide that ultimately changed people’s lives for the better. Click here for an essential Educator’s Guide. • Reviewed by Ronna Mandel

 

black cowboys cover origBLACK HEROES OF THE WILD WEST
Written and illustrated by James Otis Smith
with an introduction by Kadir Nelson
(Toon Books; HC $16.95, PB $9.99, Ages 8+)

Junior Library Guild Selection
Starred Review – Booklist

Kadir Nelson, in his interesting introduction to James Otis Smith’s graphic novel Black Heroes of the Wild West points out that cowboys, ranchers, homesteaders and other people from the Old West (west of the Mississippi River “during and after the American Civil War”) were historically portrayed in books, movies and TV through a white lens. In reality up to “a third of the settler population was African American.” I couldn’t wait to find out more about Mary Fields, known as “Stagecoach Mary” in her day, Bass Reeves, the first black Deputy U.S. Marshal west of the Mississippi, and “mustanger” Bob Lemmons, perhaps the original Texas horse whisperer.

All three individuals were forces to be reckoned with. First there’s Mary Fields, born into slavery in Tennessee. In her lifetime, she maintained fierce loyalty to friends, loved children, was generous to a fault, and had strength and energy second to none. She’s most noted, however, for her reputation as a banjo strumming, card playing, first African American female stagecoach driver who never missed a delivery and was not easily thwarted by wolves or bad weather.

I was blown away learning about Bass Reeves’s bravery in outwitting some murderous outlaws on the Most Wanted List. In the account Smith shares, Reeves single-handedly put himself into a dangerous situation by turning up as an impoverished loner looking for any kind of work to earn his keep. By cleverly offering up his services to the mother of the villains, earning her trust, and ultimately that of the bad guys too, he was able to capture them completely off guard. This plus thousands of other arrests cemented his place in history. The best part was how Smith’s illustrations conveyed Reeves in the particular scenario of capturing the outlaws by surprise which in turn surprised and satisfied me immensely.

Last but definitely not least is Bob Lemmons who was hired to corral wild mustangs and whose humane technique was not deadly to any of the horses, something other mustangers had not been able to manage. Smith takes readers on a journey of the senses along with Lemmons as he follows a group of mustangs he intends to wrangle, and details in both art and text how eventually Lemmons becomes one with the stallion leading the “manada” (mares and colts). “Bob knew their habits, their body language, their sounds. Like them, he flared his nostrils sniffing for danger.” You don’t have to be a horse lover to be impressed how Bob’s slow and steady approach made the mustangs think he was one of them.

Eight comprehensive pages of fascinating back matter round off this excellent middle grade read that will no doubt have tweens eager to find out more about these and other Black heroes. • Reviewed by Ronna Mandel

 

The Gilded Ones coverTHE GILDED ONES
by Namina Forna
(Delacorte Press; $18.99, Ages 12 and up)

Starred Review – Booklist
A NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER

The Gilded Ones is book one of a West African-inspired epic fantasy series that will grab you from its first page. When girls turn sixteen, they must undergo The Ritual of Purity where they are bled to see if they can become a member of their village. However, if a girl’s blood runs gold, then she’s found impure and faces a fate worse than death. If Deka’s father had the money, he would have sent her to the House of Purity the year before the ritual, keeping her protected from sharp objects. Instead, Deka must be careful while she worries and prepares.

When Deka fails, she’s tortured until a mysterious woman she names White Hands offers an option out. The empire’s being attacked by seemingly invincible Deathshriek creatures. Deka becomes an alkali soldier fighting alongside other girls like her with powers that make them nearly immortal.

Namina Forna says, “The Gilded Ones is a book about my anger at being a woman. Sierra Leone was is very patriarchal. There were things I was expected to do as a girl because I was a girl.” This emotion is harnessed into the story, revealing societal inequities in an intricately woven plot that will surprise and enflame you.

Deka has the best “sidekick” ever—a shapeshifter called Ixa. Though there are elements of romance, it’s strong females who rule the plot. This book provides a fresh look at the “gods and goddesses” trope. The Gilded Ones is fierce, brutal, and relevant. Read it. • Reviewed by Christine Van Zandt (www.ChristineVanZandt.com), Write for Success (www.Write-for-Success.com), @ChristineVZ and @WFSediting, Christine@Write-for-Success.com

 

Click here to read another Black History Month review.
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Additional Recommendations:

Ruby Bridges This Is Your Time by Ruby Bridges (Delacorte Press)
The Teachers March! by Sandra Neil Wallace and Rich Wallace w/art by Charly Palmer (Calkins Creek)
Stompin’ at the Savoy by Moira Rose Donohue w/art by Laura Freeman (Sleeping Bear Press)
Overground Railroad by Lesa Cline-Ransome w/art by James Ransome (Holiday House)
R-E-S-P-E-C-T: Aretha Franklin, the Queen of Soul by Carole Boston Weatherford w/art by Frank Morrison (Atheneum BYR)
Finding a Way Home by Larry Dane Brimner (Calkins Creek)
Changing the Equation: 50+ Black Women in STEM by Tonya Bolden (Abrams BYR)

 

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Kids Picture Book Review – Oona

OONA

Written by Kelly DiPucchio

Illustrated by Raissa Figueroa

(Katherine Tegen Books; $17.99; Ages 4-8)

 

 

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Starred review – School Library Journal

 

Written by Kelly DiPucchio and illustrated by Raissa Figueroa, Oona introduces us to an adorable mermaid whose adventurous spirit is  “sweet … and a little bit salty, like the ocean where she live[s].” 

In fact, Oona was born to be a treasure hunter when she was “no bigger than a scallop.” Her curiosity for finding bigger and better valuables puts her in some precarious situations but with trusted pet Otto by her side, she safely discovers all kinds of gems. 

 

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Oona from Katherine Tegen Books Text copyright 2020 by Kelly DiPucchio Illustration copyright 2020 by Raissa Figueroa

 

One item, though, is particularly impossible to collect: an “extra sparkly” crown “stuck deep in [a] rift.” Oona’s resourcefulness and determination motivate her to try and try again, but natural forces in the sea-plus a terrifying, toothy surprise-hinder her efforts. 

 

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Oona from Katherine Tegen Books Text copyright 2020 by Kelly DiPucchio Illustration copyright 2020 by Raissa Figueroa

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A ship plank that bumps her head “(hard!)” is the last straw. Oona quits trying to get that crown and deserts her beloved sea; yet, she knows in her heart that’s where she belongs.

When treasure washes up on the seashore, Oona’s passion for tinkering is reignited. With her homemade invention, she braves the depths of the rift to try for the crown once more. But the real treasure she finds is experiencing what she’s capable of creating.

The beautiful and lush illustrations completely submerge us into Oona’s underwater world. Shapes are soft, edges rounded, and the jewel-toned color palette is gentle and calm, all echoing Oona’s quiet confidence. I particularly enjoy the way light emanates from the background of the illustrations giving hope and energy to Oona’s searches. 

Oona is a treasure trove of multiple layers to hook in a wide range of readers. Mermaid fans, marine life enthusiasts, explorers, and crafters will undoubtedly enjoy this message of persistence and self-belief.  

  •  Reviewed by Armineh Manookian

 

Click here to read another review by Armineh.

 

 

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Kids’ Book Review – The Poisoned Apple

THE POISONED APPLE:

A Fractured Fairy Tale

Written and illustrated by Anne Lambelet

(Page Street Kids; $17.99, Ages 4-8)

 

 

PoisonedApple cover

 

THE REVIEW:

Good effortlessly thwarts evil in this reimagined Snow White story, The Poisoned Apple:  A Fractured Fairy Tale, by author/illustrator Anne Lambelet

Irritated with a princess who is much too wholesome and “sweet” for her own good (how dare she be!), a witch is on the search for rare ingredients to concoct a “single apple-poisoning spell.” Kids will get a kick out of watching the witch carefully collect these ingredients in her hopes of getting rid of the princess once and for all; some ingredients on her list include such delightfully repulsive items as the toenail of a giant monster. 

 

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Interior spread from The Poisoned Apple: A Fractured Fairy Tale written and illustrated by Anne Lambelet, Page Street Kids ©2020.

 

Readers will equally love seeing the spooky font and haunting artistry whenever the words “the poisoned apple” are repeated in the text. It adds to the humor by highlighting the seriousness of the situationthe princess does, after all, accept the apple easily. But the phrase also hints at the unlikeliness of anything dangerous from actually happening due to the ripple effect of kindness. 

Goodness has a way of growing as the princess’s compassion for her hungry friend, one of the seven dwarfs, leads her to give the apple to him. In turn, when he notices “a couple of hungry forest animals,” he passes on the snack to them. They also show pity to a “foraging squirrel” who is “desperate for something to feed her babies.” Kids will erupt with laughter when they notice the horror and disappointment in the witch’s face as her perfect plan crumbles. She follows the squirrel, climbing ever higher and higher on the tree until a hilariously illustrated double-paged spread exposes the natural consequences of her greed. (Readers will enjoy holding the book up vertically to get the full effect). Down and down she falls, and when she comes to, a special gift awaits her, given by the squirrel out of genuine concern. The adage, what comes around goes around, plays out perfectly in this last scene. 

 

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Interior spread from The Poisoned Apple: A Fractured Fairy Tale written and illustrated by Anne Lambelet, Page Street Kids ©2020.

THE ART:

Lambelet’s gorgeous illustrations, rich in texture, muted colors, and geometric shapes capture this intersection of whimsy and mystery. For those who enjoy a bit of dark humor and clever retellings of classic tales, The Poisoned Apple is an excellent choice. NOTE: Remove the jacket cover to enjoy the lovely illustration beneath.

Click here for a fantastic activity guide.

If you’d like to read more fractured fairy tales, click here for a roundup of recommendations.

 

  • Reviewed by Armineh Manookian

 

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Christmas Books for Children Part 3

CHRISTMAS BOOKS

A ROUNDUP

PART 3

 

 

 

Christmas Count and Find cvrCHRISTMAS: A Count and Find Primer
Written and illustrated by Greg Paprocki
(Gibbs-Smith; $9.99, Ages 0-3)

I’ve been a fan of Greg Paprocki’s artwork and book design since first discovering his books several years ago. His latest holiday board book for toddlers, Christmas: A Count and Find Primer may be slightly too big for a stocking stuffer, but will easily fit into welcoming hands. Youngsters will happily search each of the 10 spreads to find the correct amount of holiday items corresponding to the respective number. Illustration “4” shows four “cookies and carrots,” but there are also four of many other things such as four stars, four pictures on the wall, four purple ornaments, and four stockings. I like how colors are also worked into the art so adults reading with children can point these out as well. “The last spread contains 10 more holiday-themed objects hidden throughout the book for little ones to find next.” Paprocki’s pleasing retro-style art is another reason to pick up a copy of this entertaining book.
• Reviewed by Ronna Mandel

e

Mistle_coverMISTLETOE: A Christmas Story
Written and illustrated by Tad Hills
(Schwartz & Wade; $17.99, Ages 3-7)

If your children adore Tad Hills’s character Rocket, this Christmas they’ll fall for Mistletoe. The story begins with a sweet illustration of little Mistletoe who is enamored with all things Christmas. Readers will sense her anticipation to share her favorite holiday experiences like a walk in the snow with her elephant friend, Norwell. He, on the other hand, prefers to avoid the cold and remain cozy indoors sipping tea with his mouse friend beside a blazing fire. No matter how she tries, Mistletoe cannot coax her pal outside. A quiet walk in the snow inspires her and she hatches a creative plan that will not only get her friend outside, but will be the most wonderful gift for Christmas. Kids will excitedly turn the pages to see how much yarn Mistletoe’s surprise project entails (“… elephants are big!”) and watch with delight as she cheerfully offers the gift to Norwell. The spirit of friendship and giving shine in this new holiday book that families can enjoy for years to come. A sparkly cover and special “undies” art underneath the book jacket only add to the charm of Mistletoe. Here’s to more Mistletoe and Norwell tales in the future!
• Reviewed by Ronna Mandel

 

12DaysofChristmas cvr12 DAYS OF CHRISTMAS
Written and Illustrated by Lara Hawthorne
(
Frances Lincoln Children’s Books; $16. 99,
Ages 2-12)

Starred Review – Kirkus

A Christmas book for readers of all ages and stages of childhood, Lara Hawthorne’s 12 Days of Christmas celebrates the traditional song with double-page spreads of visual masterpieces. 

Hawthorne’s illustrations are reminiscent of folk art, festive colors dominant in classic Christmas red and green as well as shades of calming blue. There is a lot to see but bold patterns and vertical lines help the eye manage the details from one space to another.

As young readers listen to the original lyrics, they can dive into these detailed illustrations, playing a sort of I-spy game to find the items mentioned in the song. Older readers who are familiar with the popular Christmas song will enjoy singing aloud the lyrics. While readers explore the items, birds, and people mentioned in the text, they will also be acquainted with familiar, friendly pets that faithfully appear in each spread-making this book a perfect gift for that animal/nature lover on your list.

Secondary lessons abound: counting, memory strengthening, and identifying shapes. There is even a game in the backmatter – “everything from the song hidden in” a beautiful, busy scene that children can discover. An author’s note at the end explaining the Christian origins of the 12 days of Christmas and the history of the song is an added bonus. The fun of exploring The 12 Days of Christmas will undoubtedly last 12 months of the year.
• Reviewed by Armineh Manookian

 

Little Red Sleigh cvrLITTLE RED SLEIGH
Written by Erin Guendelsberger
Illustrated by Elizaveta Tretyakova
(Sourcebooks; $17.99, Ages 4-8)

Written by Erin Guendelsberger and illustrated by Elizaveta Tretyakova, Little Red Sleigh is a heartwarming Christmas story about dreaming big despite your size and experience. 

Tucked inside the corner of a quaint Christmas shop is Little Red who is longing to become “Santa’s big red sleigh.” Despite discouragement from her friends in the shop, Little Red’s determination to accomplish her goal leads her on a quest to meet Santa and “show everyone what she [is] made of.” 

Along her journey to the North Pole, she befriends others who lend a helping hand. Train takes her as far north as the tracks allow; Yellow Truck, who is on his way to deliver Christmas trees to Santa, offers a ride as well. 

Impressed by their skill, Little Red wonders if she’ll ever achieve the kind of experience they have. A beautiful refrain speaks to her heart. “Life builds up one car at a time,” says the Train. “Life…build[s] up one tree at a time,” says Yellow Truck. When a snowstorm changes her original plan to visit Santa, Little Red comes to understand how she is meant to build her life up:  “spreading joy, one child at a time.”   

Little Red Sleigh is perfect for bedtime or anytime you’d like to cozy up by the tree with a good book. • Reviewed by Armineh Manookian

 

Everybodys Tree coverEVERYBODY’S TREE
Written by Barbara Joosse
Illustrated by Renée Graef 
(Sleeping Bear Press; $16.99, Ages 4-8)

A little boy plants a little spruce tree, taking extra care to nurture its growth. As the years pass by, we watch both him and the tree grow up. Eventually, the little spruce becomes a magnificent, towering tree and the little boy a proud grandfather.

Joosse’s lyrical language highlights the love and care poured out on this tree, while Graef’s stunning illustrations center the spruce in double-page spreads, showcasing its evergreen majesty. The beauty of the tree (now approaching its end of life) is celebrated communally when it’s taken to the city for all to appreciate. As it winds its way from rural countryside to the big city, a sense of shared excitement and anticipation builds. People gather to watch the decorations being placed, “wait[ing] and wait[ing] and wait[ing]…everybody’s singing…for the lighting…of Everybody’s Tree!” And what a glorious tree it is, shining brightly and sharing its light for all, (including the cover which glows in the dark!).

If you’re looking for a quieter picture book this season, Everybody’s Tree is that gentle holiday story about the joy of sharing and community building. • Reviewed by Armineh Manookian

 

Click here for our recent roundup by Christine Van Zandt of 7 new Christmas books.
Click here for Ronna’s roundup of 5 new Christmas books.

 

Other notable new Christmas Books include Christmas Cheer; Merry Christmas; Rainbow Fish; The Christmas Feast; and a new edition of Mog’s Christmas.

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