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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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 Harlem—those 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
★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
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 herefor an essential Educator’s Guide. • Reviewed by Ronna Mandel
Kadir Nelson, in his interesting introduction to James Otis Smith’s graphic novel Black Heroes of the Wild Westpoints 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
★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. e
Written by Kelly DiPucchioand illustrated by Raissa Figueroa, Oonaintroduces 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.
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.
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.
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.
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 situation—the 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.
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.
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 Primermay 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
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
A Christmas book for readers of all ages and stages of childhood, Lara Hawthorne’s 12 Days of Christmascelebrates 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
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
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.
The bedtime journey begins when a clever worm narrowly escapes becoming dinner to a group of hungry baby birds. Clad in a cap, sock, and sneaker, we watch him jump from the nest to an urban rooftop garden, slowly making his way to his underground home. As he passes by the vegetables, we see their nighttime routine, each group of veggies adorable in its own right. While turnips “tuck… in tightly” and potatoes close their eyes, “[t]uckered out tomatoes hum … lullabies.” Like the affectionate smile of each vegetable, the friendly, humorous rhyme reassures and warms the heart.
It’s sheer fun learning the variety of ways veggies like to turn in. “[C]uddly” cauliflower, baby carrots, and baby lettuce enjoy “snuggling.” Rhubarbs delight in “reading stories to worn-out broccolis.” Giggles from little ones will surely ensue when they discover how eggplants dream—some about familiar places and some about galaxies far, far away. “Cranky corn” who “cover up [their] ears” because of a nearby veggie’s snoring will definitely be a familiar scene to readers young and old.
Vibrant colors in acrylic paint add to the playfulness. Bold borders in black outline edges, creating a safe space to rest and soak in the illustrations, appropriately printed on 100% vegetarian printmaking paper.
A delightful bedtime read-aloud, Goodnight Veggies is the perfect prelude to a good night.
Originally published in Spain, The Day Saida Arrived is a powerful story of friendship and love that bridges the gap between cultural differences.
The book begins by looking at the issue of immigration through the lens of a classmate whose heart is stirred with compassion to befriend a new student from Morocco. Reading the sadness and silence in Saida’s “large amber eyes,” the narrator sets out to find her friend’s words, thinking Saida has lost them. But after a discussion with her parents, the narrator realizes Saida indeed has words-yet she doesn’t want to “bring them out.” They are “different from the words” used in her new surroundings. The narrator’s father explains to his daughter: “In Morocco, … yours wouldn’t work either.”
Once the narrator understands this all-important lesson of seeing herself in the other person’s struggle, she sets out to help and learn from Saida. Together, in this reciprocal relationship, the two friends share a wealth of new words. Double page spreads of Arabic and English words playfully interact. Some are easily remembered, some are “carried off by the wind,” while those that were forgotten earlier return like “good weather.” In fact, throughout the pages we see graceful Arabic and bold English letters flying about, blown by the wind like butterflies, “sometimes look[ing] like flowers and other times like insects.” The illustrative theme of nature is beautifully consistent, comparing the process of language acquisition to the ebb and flow of the natural world.
Through poignant scenes and lyrical language, we see the girls’ mutual respect and friendship blossom. In trust and appreciation, they exchange stories and treats from each other’s culture. A side by side spread of the English and Arabic alphabets in the backmatter extends the opportunity for readers to learn.
A touching story that breaks boundaries, The Day Saida Arrived is a wonderful addition to the school and home library.
Find book resources including a Teacher’s guide and a coloring page here.
Here’s an interesting interview with the book’s translatorLawrence Schimel Read about author Susana Gómez Redondohere. See more art from illustrator Sonja Wimmerhere.
Reviewed by Armineh Manookian
Click here to order a copy of The Day Saida Arrived. e
Disclosure: Good Reads With Ronna is now a Bookshop.org affiliate and will make a small commission from the books sold via this site at no extra cost to you. If you’d like to help support this blog, its team of kidlit reviewers as well as independent bookshops nationwide, please consider purchasing your books from Bookshop.org using our affiliate links above (or below). Thanks!
Written and illustrated by Kataneh Vahdani, Kat and Juju is a gentle story of friendship, identity, and the courage to be your own self.
Kat is a tender-hearted little girl who finds “wonder in places no one else” thinks to look.
Vahdani’s illustrations direct our eyes to a curious play of shadows that fascinates Kat and helps us understand her unique perspective. Her connection to such things others don’t understand causes her to stand out as different. And her shy personality gets in the way of talking to the other children. Consequently, she often feels lonely.
Her hope lies in her upcoming birthday gift—a “very best friend” to call her own. On her special day, a big, red, fluffy bird named Juju arrives at her doorstep. Kat soon finds out that as loveable as he is, Juju is nothing like her. His loud and outgoing personality easily draws the attraction and affection of the other kids. As much as Kat wants to “let go” and join Juju’s “happy dance,” she can’t surrender the fear of what others will think of her.
Then a chance discovery of a vulnerable “birdie” (chick) in need of care helps Kat face her fear. With help and encouragement from best friend Juju, Kat nurtures the chick to health. Sometimes these caregiving activities feel safe and familiar to Kat, like feeding and giving medicine. However, at other times, they involve risk-taking and getting outside of her comfort zone, especially as Kat and Juju try to help the birdie learn to fly. Anxious and terrified, Kat nevertheless participates. Vahdani’s background in animation, and contrasting color palette provide a safe space for experimentation and exploration. Through this exciting and challenging process, Kat helps out her little friend and, just as important, discovers the freedom to be herself.
For little ones (including me) who may feel different for being on the quieter side, Kat and Juju shows that perseverance can lead to a “happy dance” of inner strength and self-affirmation.
Little sister Lulu loves her family: Mama, Daddy, and big brother Zane who “makes [her] laugh a lot.” Lulu’s given name is Luliwa which means “‘pearl’ in Arabic.” From Mama’s affectionate affirmations, Lulu knows she is as “unique and gorgeous” as the beautiful Kenyan pearl earrings her mother wears “all the time.”
As proud as she is about her identity, Lulu is equally frustrated at the confusion others feel about her biracial family and the hurtful, ensuing comments they make. This is a critical and eye-opening point in the book for both children and adult readers. The everyday, seemingly harmless comments and questions people ask are in fact questions that expose our deepest held biases and assumptions.
For Lulu, one particularly disturbing question is: “So, what are you?” In talking to her brother (who also confronts this question on a regular basis), Lulu learns how to respond to the fear and suspicion embedded in “THAT question”: self-love. Like Zane, Lulu coins her own “power phrase,” a bold and beautiful statement that emphasizes “not what” she is, “but who” she is. When her classmate, Billy, asks the distressing question, she proudly asserts her phrase. Lulu’s confidence in her own self-worth establishes a clear boundary, letting others around her know how she would like to be treated. Poh’s gentle and colorful illustrations echo Lulu’s quiet strength.
A must have for both the home and school library, Lulu the One and Only opens the door to nurturing conversations about diversity. Author Lynnette Mawhinney, who is biracial, includes a note in the back matter to further help families, caregivers and educators validate and support the experiences of biracial children.
Kiera and Grandma enjoy each other’s company and have a lot of fun together. From painting nails to knitting to baking “special occasion” molasses cookies based on an old, family recipe, Kiera learns a lot from Grandma. So it is strange when, seemingly all of a sudden, Grandma starts behaving in ways outside of her usual character.
Through a child-centered, gentle tone, Sharkey’s direct language addresses these changes. “Grandma’s brain is forgetting how to remember,” Kiera’s mother explains. For Kiera, the differences in who Grandma was and who she is now are painfully evident. Most touching are the small, subtle changes. Grandma’s long and “shiny” painted fingernails that once made a “rat-a-tat-tat sound on the table” are merely “bare and … short.” “No more rat-a-tat-tat.” I admire the book’s honest portrayal of the challenges in letting go and accepting the new reality of Alzheimer’s.
Yet, despite these challenges, Kiera discovers a way to be present with her grandmother by gifting a doll to Grandma. Kiera brings her own doll during her visits, and the two connect, nurturing their dolls in pretend play. Woo’s colorful illustrations contribute to this connection by focusing on the facial expressions of the characters, driving home the point that what matters most is the emotional bond the characters share as they engage in positive sensory experiences together. A helpful discussion in the back matter by author and advocate Judy Cornish provides a wonderful tool for parents, caregivers, and teachers.
A powerful story and important resource, A Doll for Grandma brings clarity and healing to families struggling to find connection with that special person living with Alzheimer’s disease.
The poems celebrate diversity, not only in terms of race and ethnicity, but in experience. Brantley-Newton welcomes all kinds of girls with differing hobbies, interests, likes, and dislikes. Girls can be an “Explorer,” a “Negotiator,” “Shy,” or just plain “Weird.” Each type of girl is recognized and validated.
Biblical principles weave throughout the poems. They call for making change in the world through kindness, grace, and “fight[ing] the good fight of love.” As “The Day I Decided to Become Sunshine,” “Warrior,” and “Girl Fight” emphasize, participating in this change is a willful decision girls can make. “I decided to be a light/ by holding a door/ open for others to come through.” “Respectfully/ with humanity/ and lovingly,” girls can empower the world by “fighting for … what [they] believe.”
Just as important, girls can empower themselves. Poems such as “I Love My Body,” “Gumbo Me,” and “My Crown” send positive body messages and celebrate the uniqueness of each girl. Each one is enough just for being herself. ”[T]o be the me/that I’m supposed to be” is one of the most life-giving statements a little girl can hear.
Framing Brantley-Newton’s reassuring words are her captivating illustrations. Layers of pattern, color, and texture overlap to energize and uplift, placing each girl in center stage so that every reader can see herself in these pages.
This book is like a blanket of love. It would make a wonderful gift for that upcoming (virtual?) baby shower, birthday party, first day of school, or any occasion caregivers want to send a clear message of appreciation to the little girl in their life.
Written by Jacqueline Véissidand illustrated by Merrilees Brown, Caspian Finds a Friendbegins with a quotation on its dedication page that captures the essence of the book: “What you seek is seeking you.” Written by the Persian poet Rumi, this profound statement hints at our deep connection to each other, even if we may not quite understand or see it yet. Through patience and quiet determination, we will certainly experience this truth.
From the first page, Brown’s illustrations are completely mesmerizing. The vastness of the “cold gray-blue sea” speaks to little Caspian’s loneliness and longing for a friend. The soft color palette and gentle lines indicating movement radiate outward. Everything in Caspian’s environment is casting out a light, past the great beyond of the sea. The lighthouse where he lives and even the sun are reaching out to seek love. Nearly every page is a double page spread helping readers connect with Caspian’s gentleness and faithfulness in “wondering, waiting, wishing for a friend.”
Though “no one arrives,” the little boy does not grow disheartened. Instead, he has a “new thought” and sends out to sea a message in a bottle. There’s an undeniable meditative quality in this process. We see Caspian emptying out his vase, rolling up his note to put inside, and placing the flower back in the vase-perhaps a gift to the receiver and a sign to us readers of his generous heart. In this step by step way, Veissid’s lyrical language slows us down, helping us feel safe and calm.
As days “sink into weeks [and] weeks into months,” Caspian’s hope never falters; his patience for a response gets rewarded. The little boy rows out to sea to meet his new companion, a bear who is just as eager as Caspian to make a new friend.
Caspian Finds a Friend is excellent for bedtime or anytime parents and caregivers are looking to settle little ones down. Themes of love, patience, friendship, and mindfulness will encourage readers (and listeners) to return to this story again and again. I find this book especially relevant for our current time as it shows us the power of our imagination to bring healing and comfort.
Eggs are Everywhere is a fun addition to the home library, especially for those interested in an Easter inspired book and activity set.
Once the easy to understand directions on the first page are read by an adult, little ones can explore and play on their own. Each page of this sturdy board book has a turning wheel at the edge of the page that is easy for little hands to use. Children spin the wheel to choose an egg they want to find. Then the game begins as they decide which flap to open to find the egg.
The flaps’ unique and playful themes are an added bonus to the fun. Children can find the eggs under a flower, a basket, a child’s hand, a tea cup, and even a larger, beautifully decorated egg. Illustrations are gorgeous and rich in earth tones. Each page has a dominant, background color that is dressed over by bold, oversized leafy patterns and graceful flowers offering an additional “lesson” of colors for youngsters.
Eggs are Everywhere provides the opportunity for children to return to the pages again and again to discover something new they may have missed on the previous read.
Hoppy Floppy’s Carrot Huntis yet another entertaining board book and game combination that involves opening up flaps. Along with Hoppy Floppy’s animal friends, readers help the bunny find “colorful carrots on the forest floor.”
The underside of each flap has funny and encouraging commentary. The silly items displayed under the “wrong” flap (such as a dug up cookie or ice cream “vegetable”) will surely bring out many chuckles from little ones. Each of the 12 pages has the same, sweet background done mostly in green to capture the forest colors. This way the color of each carrot is spotlighted, facilitating identification and memorization. A wide range of animals in the book allows for a secondary lesson. The small, friendly bird following along each page adds color and excitement to the game.
An additional bonus is the connection between the specific color of a carrot and the animal in search of it. Parents and caregivers can open conversations with little ones about how the color of the carrot matches that of something that animal is wearing or holding. The turning wheel at the end of the story helps us review the rainbow of carrots we’ve helped Hoppy Floppy find.
There’s no denying this egg shaped book is just right for Easter.
Author and illustrator of Hazel and Twig: The Birthday Fortune, Brenna Burns Yu introduces us to a second adventure featuring the beloved Korean-American mouse sisters in Hazel and Twig: The Lost Egg.
Hazel and Twig find a large egg in the field. Eager to make it their own, they take the egg home and make big plans for the care and growth of the baby bird that will soon hatch.
As Hazel shares the details with her Appa (Korean for father) of how she and Twig will build a nest, “fetch the worms, and … teach it to fly,” Hazel realizes Twig is missing. Quickly, though, she spots her little sister. In her relief, Hazel realizes the egg, too, is lost and not theirs to keep. It needs to be reunited with its family.
The all out family search for the lost egg’s nest presents a wealth of additional lessons in color, pattern, size, and numbers as family members compare the lost egg to others nestled in tree branches. When Hazel remembers not all birds live in trees but that “some birds live…on the riverbank,” she concludes the little lost bird in the big, pale blue egg is actually a duckling. After it hatches, the baby duckling and her older sister become good friends with Hazel and Twig.
Yu’s endearing illustrations help us enter the mouse family’s tiny world. Done in ink and watercolor, the illustrations capture flora and fauna in dainty forms and fragile shapes. The soft color palette and simple lines evoke comfort, safety, and hope. One particularly stunning page, inspired by the works of 18th century naturalist James Bolton, depicts nature’s creatures at home in their habitats.
Happy to have helped a family unite, Hazel shows thoughtfulness and maturity. Her growth sheds light to additional topics in the book: kindness, compassion, and self-sacrifice. Combined with Yu’s lovely illustrations, these themes will resonate with children of all ages.
A celebration of Easter and springtime, author Nadine Robert’s and illustrator Maja Kastelic’s Elsieexplores additional themes of love, family, and diversity.
The picture book introduces us to the Filpot family of seven bunny siblings who all enjoy going on fishing trips during “nice and sunny” Sundays—all except Elsie who prefers marching to the beat of her own drum. It’s clear the six siblings like to do things in the same predictable way as they have always done: “‘Last time, we went through the woods … We took the same path the time before.’” Dragged by her family to join the fishing excursion, Elsie instead prefers to explore her own path.
Despite the discouraging words she continuously hears, Elsie never wavers her independence. While others cast their lines in the water, Elsie uses a buttercup on her hook. While the others break for lunch, Elsie decides to feed her sandwiches to the ducklings. No matter what Elsie does, her way seems just plain wrong to her brothers and sisters, reminding me a little bit of the tension between brothers in the classic tale, The Carrot Seed. While the older brother insists his younger sibling’s attempts to grow and care for the seed are futile, the youngster’s quiet persistence pays off.
In the same way, Elsie peacefully resists her siblings’ pressure to conform. When her method of catching fish proves to be the most successful, her brothers and sisters finally recognize and appreciate her innovative, out-of-the-box thinking, so much so that they acquiesce to her suggestions and leadership.
Kastelic’s colorful illustrations bursting with blooms and patterns evoke the enthusiasm of venturing into the great unknown of the outdoors. Critical lessons of acceptance and difference make this book a wonderful read throughout the year.
Inspired by the “Sleeping Bunnies” nursery rhyme, Hop Little Bunniesis a lively read-aloud book, the third in our Easter round up that incorporates flaps.
Hughes’ illustrations, created in watercolor and ink, abound with peaceful, springtime colors and center the animals on each page to maintain our engagement with them. The narrator points out to us the sleeping bunnies in the field. “Shall we go and wake them in a merry tune?” s/he asks. As children open up the flaps one by one, they’re encouraged to call out, “WAKE UP, bunnies!” and direct the animals to “hop, hop, hop.” The next directive is to “STOP!” and stay quiet (“Sssssshhhhhh!”) while a new set of animals is found fast asleep.
In this pattern of quiet and loud, readers go through a series of adorable barnyard animals. First, readers are encouraged to stay silent and then to cheerfully wake them up. Toddlers and early elementary children will love the steady rhythm and rhyme and will be challenged, undoubtedly, to keep their giggles contained before bursting into their “wake up” call. While the day unfolds with bunnies hopping, lambs baaing, chicks cheeping, kittens meowing, and ducklings quacking, nighttime eventually falls, prompting us readers to “go and sing them a happy bedtime song.”
A fun and interactive book, Hop Little Bunnies provides the perfect balance of entertainment and follow-the-direction learning.
Written by award winning author-illustrator Jarvis,Follow Me, Flo!is a gentle lesson about not wandering away from a parent.
From the get-go we learn that little duckling Flo likes to do things her way. Instead of eating a healthy dinner of seeds and berries, preening herself clean, and going to bed in a neat row with her parents, Flo likes to eat ice cream treats, chase frogs through the mud, and join the flock of sheep during bedtime.
Knowing his daughter’s adventurous ways, Daddy Duck ”in his most serious deep duckie voice” tells Flo to carefully follow him on their way to visit Auntie Jenna. “‘No chasing or hiding’” or “‘you’ll get lost’” he warns. To help keep his daughter focused and entertained, Daddy sings a tune as they go “UP” the trail and “DOWN” a small waterfall and “IN” and “OUT” a hollow tree trunk. Jarvis’ bold and bright illustrations bring energy and movement to each scene.
Not entirely impressed by Daddy’s efforts, Flo creates her own song “the way that she like(s) it.” Singing in a “VERY high [and] VERY LOUD” voice, Flo soon gets carried away and strays farther and farther away from Daddy. (Incidentally, both versions of the “follow me” song provide good practice with opposites and prepositions.)
When Flo realizes she’s being followed by none other than Roxy Fox, she understands the importance of staying close to Daddy. By remembering Daddy’s song, she follows his directions and reunites with him. For being a good little duckling and following all of Daddy’s directions that day, Flo gets to lead Daddy the way home. Children will love the funny and surprising ending that reveals the places you’ll go when you follow a free spirit like Flo. (That almost sounds like a song!).
Appropriate for Easter and the spring season, Follow Me, Flo! provides an added lesson for parents and caregivers on how to lovingly guide and direct the little ones in their lives.