I’ve had this book on my TBR shelf for way too long and should have reviewed it sooner, but I’m so happy to finally be able to share it with you now. The Artist Who Loved Cats grabbed my attention when it arrived via mail because its cover was gorgeous and full of cats. In fact, I recognized one cat in particular, le Chat Noir.
If you’ve ever traveled to France or are a francophile like me, you too may recognize artist Théophile-Alexandre Steinlen’s famed black feline. It’s impossible to miss reproductions of Le Chat Noir images sold at almost every bookseller’s stand either in postcard, purse, keychain, or print form when strolling along the banks of the Seine in Paris. His advertising posters from the late 1800s and early 1900s featuring bicycles, cocoa, and chocolat are also well-known.
Author Susan Bernardo was inspired to write this picture book “during a trip to Paris in 2014” when she stayed in Montmartre “and found a lovely little bronze cat sculpture in an antiques store,” near her AirBnB. As a student in Paris, I lived close to Montmartre and yet never considered the backstory of the prolific artist whose beautiful art decorated our dorm room walls and still remains so popular. I’m delighted Bernardo has created a book to introduce Steinlen’s story to children.
Steinlen seemed destined to draw cats. As a child growing up in Switzerland he sketched them in “every which way.” But, following advice from his father, he began a career in textiles and fabric design. Eventually, the artist felt eager “to embrace the creative life.” Paris in the 1880s was a vibrant hub for artists, musicians, writers, and dancers. That’s why Steinlen moved there in 1881. Through a fellow Swiss ex-pat pal and Le Chat Noir cabaret owner, the artist was hired to do illustrations for the Montmartre cabaret’s newsletter. His cats became the talk of the town and things took off from there. While the story is charmingly narrated in rhyme by the antique shop cat, and can at times be uneven, the reason to read this book with children is to spark curiosity not only about the artist Steinlen, but about other countries, and the arts too. Bernardo’s biography conveys the essence of what made Steinlen tick. He clearly was able to capture in his art just what the public wanted.
Steinlen’s artwork celebrated the ordinary everyday things in life which he encountered and though we may know him for his posters, he also made sculptures, storybooks, and songbook covers. And kids who love kitties will not be disappointed with how frequently Steinlen’s feline friends appeared in his art. His love of cats is evident throughout this book.
Fletcher’s fabulous illustrations fill every page with the kind of exuberance that probably emanated from Steinlen’s presence. Her Parisian scenes will take you back in time as will her cabaret and studio spreads. Each illustration provides a chance for children to count cats and check out their antics.
Bernardo’s used the cat bronze sculpture as a clever jumping-off point to discuss the artist’s life but she also takes the opportunity to point out how old items like those found in an antique shop can unlock myriad mysteries and feed children’s imagination. She’s even included a fun search and find activity at the end of the book. In addition to locating antiques, children are told to look out for certain famous people of Steinlen’s era including artist Toulouse-Lautrec and musician Maurice Ravel. Readers will learn from the detailed backmatter that “Steinlen used his art to protest social injustice and war and to celebrate the lives of working people.” His work influenced many other artists but ultimately his passion was for his art to make the world a better place.
This seven-book roundup covers wickedly wonderful Halloween season reads. From a gentle book about the fall season to spooky ghouls, goblin-witches, ghosts, vampires, a witch’s hut, and a haunted house, we’ve got you covered.
With whimsical art in blacks, whites, and grays offset with oranges and foil accents, The Little Kittenembodies the spirit of autumn. Leaves blow across the pages, bringing movement that propels Ollie on her adventure. As promised by the title, there is a little kitten, but also Ollie’s cat, Pumpkin. Nicola Killen’s art and storyline
beautifully convey the playful, loving spirit of this book. It’s a pleasure to see a gentle story that’s engaging and fulfilling—it even has a surprise ending, shh!
I’m a sucker for a great book title and just had to read Marcus Ewert’s She Wanted to Be Haunted—plus, what a great idea! As promised, Clarissa, an “adorable and pink” cottage finds herself disappointed with her appearance. Her father is a castle and her mother a witch’s hut, but Clarissa got the short end of the broomstick with her undeniable cuteness. “Daisies grew around her, / squirrels scampered on her lawn. / Life was just delightful! / —and it made Clarissa yawn.”
What kid hasn’t felt bored when things were mellow and nice? Susie Ghahremani’s hand-painted artwork brings Clarissa to life in (dreaded!) upbeat colors. Inside, on Clarissa’s fuchsia, wallpapered walls, we sneak a peek at her family’s photos and, yes, she’s surely the oddball of the bunch. My favorite scenes involve the surprise ending. If you want to know if Clarissa’s attempts to gloom-down her appearance work, you’ll have to read the book. Trust me, the ending is awesome! Click here for a coloring page.
Scritch Scratch—the title of this middle-grade novel by Lindsay Currie will get under your skin as all good spooky books should. Because, of course, this sound is made by the ghost haunting Claire. Prior to this, science-minded Claire absolutely did not believe in ghosts and found her Dad’s ghost-themed bus tour and book embarrassing. So why did this ghost choose her? Claire’s too afraid to sleep and should have plenty of time to solve this mystery. However, since her BFF’s hanging around with the new girl, Claire may need to figure it out alone.
I’ve never been on a haunted bus tour, but, after reading this book I want to if they’re all as interesting as the one in this story. “Forgotten” facts about Chicago are cleverly woven in—what a great way to sneak in a history lesson! Click here for a discussion guide.
This book opens with a warning from the Embassy that “[b]y signing, you hereby accept all responsibility for any death, dismemberment, or condemnation to the Eternal Void that results from reading.” How irresistible! When Jake Green receives a kind of creepy package in error, a fun adventure ensues dodging bonewulfs and their master Mawkins (a grim reaper). Accompanied by ghosts Stiffkey, Cora, and, an adorable fox named Zorro, the unlikely group tries to avoid being sent into the Eternal Void—a fate worse than death.
Will Mabbitt’s well-developed characters are very likable and Taryn Knight’s art plays up the humor. I appreciate the Embassy of the Dead’snew ideas about ghosts and their companions such as Undoers (someone who helps a ghost trapped on the Earthly Plane move on to the Afterworld). Mabbitt nails a perfectly written ending. I’ll gladly follow Jake and his friends onto the next book in the series. Click here to read a sample chapter.
Fans of the beautifully made Ologies series won’t be disappointed in the latest addition, Ghostology. Packed full of stories, this book will keep you haunting its pages because there’s so much information from psychics and mediums, to fakes and frauds. Want to know what’s in a ghostologist’s field kit (sketchbook, accurate timepiece, and, of course, a ghost-detecting device, just to name a few items), or how to hunt ghosts? You’ve come to the right place. Pay attention to the “Types of Ghosts” chapters.
Beyond reading, the book is a sensory experience with its sealed pages, official documents envelope, flaps, and textures. If there’s such a thing as a coffee table kid’s book, this is it. The icy blue color scheme of the cover is offset by a large faceted red “gem.” Raised letters just beg you to run your hand over them and invite you to look inside. The thought and detail in this book are phantom-astic!
★Starred Reviews – Booklist, Kirkus, Publishers Weekly, School Library Journal
In Aliza Layne’s middle-grade graphic novel, Beetle & the Hollowbones, Beetle is a twelve-year-old goblin-witch being homeschooled by her gran. Beetle, however, would rather hang out with her current BFF Blob Ghost at the old mall (where they are inexplicably trapped). When Beetle’s previous BFF, Kat Hollowbones, returns home after completing her sorcery apprenticeship at a fast-track school, their friendship isn’t the same. Kat’s aunt Marla is the wonderfully drawn skeletal antagonist.
With well-developed characters and plenty of action, this fast-paced book will bewitch you. The struggles of moving through school and friendships falling apart are accurately depicted. The panels, grouped into chapters, capture your attention with their fantastic illustrations, engaging colors, and lively text. I like how Layne includes some concept art at the end, inspiring other artists with a behind-the-scenes peek.
Vampires Never Get Old: Tales with Fresh Bite is a YA short story anthology with the goal to “expand on and reinvent traditional tellings.” How awesome is that?? Editrixes Zoraida Córdova and Natalie C. Porter’s story, “Vampires Never Say Die,” is a suspenseful, modern tale about a teen and vampire who meet online. They also provide the introduction and insightful commentary after each piece, delving into the many areas of the vampire myth. There are so many wonderful things in this collection; I’ll give you a few nibbles to whet your appetite.
“Bestiary” by Laura Ruby is set in a near dystopian future; Jude works at the zoo and has a special connection with animals. This story stood out for me because the reader must piece together the truth. It’s quite a different twist on thirst and the theft of blood and humanity.
“Seven Nights for Dying” by Tessa Gratton opens with the line, “Esmael told me that teenage girls make the best vampires” (because they’re “both highly pissed and highly adaptable, and that’s what it takes to survive the centuries”). We follow Esmael’s chosen girl through a week of uncertainty as she considers joining the undead. This cleverly layered story demands to be reread to truly appreciate Gratton’s well-crafted words.
Weaving in old superstitions, “The Boy and the Bell” by Heidi Heilig expands upon the Victorian tradition of burying their loved ones with a bell (allowing them to call for help if mistakenly buried alive). Set at the turn of the century, Will is a graverobber for all the right reasons—he wants to become a doctor, and “acquiring” freshly buried bodies allows him to trade for a spot at the back of the amphitheater where dissections take place. With only a few glimpses at Will’s thoughts, we find out volumes about his struggles.
This anthology breathes life into the short story and lets readers appreciate the many perspectives and styles from a very talented array of writers. My favorites tend to have unexpected endings. There’s something for everyone. Just read it already!
ADDITIONAL RECOMMENDED READS FROM RONNA e IT’S HALLOWEEN, LITTLE MONSTER Written by Helen Ketteman Illustrated by Bonnie Leick (Two Lions; $17.99, Ages 3-7) e When I began reading It’s Halloween, Little Monster, one of the Little Monster series of picture books, I thought I was reading about the first time I took my son out trick-or-treating 15 years ago. All he had to do was see one or two kids in scary costumes and he hightailed it home before anyone could say boo! I’m so glad Helen Ketteman wrote this picture book because I’m sure it’s going to help make the first Halloween experience for reluctant little ones a lot easier.
In this gentle rhyming story, Little Monster heads out for Halloween accompanied by his dad. The reassuring presence of a parent sets the tone. Dad will be right there to calm Little Monster’s fears no matter who or what they encounter. “Don’t fret Little Monster. / See there in the street? / That’s not really a ghost— / it’s a kid in a sheet!” e Together the pair see all kinds of spooky creatures while trick-or-treating, but the dad anticipates what might frighten his child and is always one step ahead. I like how the papa monster not only comments on assorted pirates, witches, and vampires but scary sounds, too. Leick’s muted blue and purple toned palette of the detailed illustrations will only add to the enjoyment of this charming Halloween read. It’s an enjoyable pairing of prose and art. By the time the surprise ending happens, Little Monster’s smiling just like the children having this story read to them. e e
OTHER RECOMMENDED HALLOWEEN SEASON READS: e CHRISTOPHER PUMPKIN by Sue Hendra and Paul Linnet with art by Nick East (Board Book for Ages 0-3, Little Brown BYR) e THAT MONSTER ON THE BLOCKby Sue Ganz-Schmitt with art by Luke Flowers (Picture Book Ages 4-8, Two Lions) e THE REVENGE OF THE WEREPENGUINby Allan Woodrow with art by Scott Brown (Middle Grade illustrated novel for Ages 8-12, Viking BYR)
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When Zack’s four legged best friend JoJo gets old, sick and dies, he is left heartbroken until his friend Emily explains that “an invisible leash connects our hearts to each other. Forever.” Author Patrice Karst, and illustrator Joanne Lew-Vriethoff, of the bestselling The Invisible String, tell a heartwarming story about permanent loss in the companion book The Invisible Leash, that pulls on the heartstrings of all ages.
The rich colors of the book’s main characters contrast wonderfully throughout the story with the soft almost translucent colors of their deceased pets depicted alongside them. This succeeds in showing the reader that the pets are always with them as the two friends take an enlightened journey through their neighborhood. Zack’s multicultural parents try to comfort him, but “Zack stomped off and when his bedroom door slammed, it shook the whole house with sad.” Such a strong emotion conveyed with just one evocative sentence.
Lew-Vriethoff shows Zack folding his arms in disbelief listening to Emily explain, “But Zack, don’t you believe in the wind? Even if you can’t see the Invisible Leash, you can feel it.” Zack listens with annoyance coming up with reasons the invisible leash theory could not be true. Emily’s excitement is shown in the illustrations as she stretches her arms wide and tells him that, “when you love an animal and they love you back, that gives the Invisible Leash the magic power of infinity to stretch from here all the way to the beyond.” Zack wants to believe his beloved dog JoJo is close by. “I wish I could believe, Emily. I wish that so much.”
Karst’s writing takes the reader on a poetic journey as she writes, “Warm winds swirled around the two friends gazing at the evening sky. Frogs croaked and crickets started chirping as the stars began to gather. Soon, a smile widened across Zack’s face.”
We see drawings of JoJo and Emily’s cat Rexie touching paws with invisible leashes circling all the friends. Emily holds her heart in excitement as she realizes that the pets can see the same moon that they see. The pets’ faded images snuggle by their best friends, while the friends look up at the moon and we feel the love they all have for each other.
As the children sleep, dogs, cats, birds, deer and bears that left this world run free throughout the night. “It was the still of night, Zack, Emily and the rest of the world’s children were now fast asleep in their cozy-comfy beds. And as the moon smiled down upon them from high above, it lit up the millions and billions of Invisible Leashes … connecting them ALL.”
The Invisible Leash was given to me at a time when I was mourning the loss of my own beloved dog, Charlie, who left me way too soon. I picked up this book and I cried. I then read it to my adult son and once again I cried (I believe he was also touched). When I picked up the story for a third time I had a smile on my face. I feel my Charlie sitting by my side with his face resting on my leg as I write this review, and feel him connected by his Invisible Leash. Karst explains at the conclusion of the story that this book is dedicated to her precious dog CoCo. She says she always knew the Invisible Leash was real, but now gets to share her news with the whole wide world. Thank you, Patrice Karst, I’m glad you did.
SUMOKITTY Written and illustrated by David Biedrzycki (Charlesbridge; $18.99, Ages 5-8)
“Fall down seven times; get up eight.” These words reveal the central message of SumoKitty, a heartwarming story about never giving up. Set in a Sumo wrestling training center, a hungry stray cat is given a job chasing mice in exchange for food. All is well until the kitty gains so much weight he can no longer hold up his end of the bargain and is kicked out of the center.
With words of wisdom shared by Kuma, the head rikishi (wrestler), we journey with Kitty on his path back to mice-chasing shape. Kuma tells Kitty, “After the rain, the earth hardens,” adding “When life gets tough, Kitty, it makes you stronger.” Kitty is determined to get back into the center and imitates the rikishi’s training, the way only a feline can. “When he attacked the teppo (striking post), I attacked my scratching post.” When Kitty gets another chance to earn his keep, he uses many of the Sumo moves he’s observed, successfully ridding the training center of mice and earning the name SumoKitty!
Youngsters will delight in following kitty on his journey from hungry stray to official mouse chaser and finally, a beloved and respected member of the Sumo wrestling family.
Author/illustrator Biedrzycki includes many Japanese terms related to Sumo wrestling, providing readers with an added layer of authenticity. His varied illustration layouts, from full-page spreads to comic book style blocks of action, keep the reader engaged and entertained.
The many wise sayings woven throughout SumoKitty add depth and complexity to this sweet, uplifting story. Each quote provides an opportunity to discuss its deeper meaning and children will identify with and root for Kitty as he perseveres, and is ultimately triumphant. Readers will be comforted by the fact that as hard as life can become, what matters most is that, like SumoKitty, we must we never ever give up.
Award-winning creator Salina Yoon captures your little one’s attention with this adorable children’s board book, Halloween Kitty (A Wag My Tail Book). The orange and white tabby has a sturdy orange felt tail that little hands can easily move by pulling a tab or touching the tail itself. The cute kitty wants to find a friend but the animals she encounters are all too busy. Luckily, her persistence pays off. This 12-page book is suitable for preschoolers on up. Even adults will feel drawn to zen-like pleasure of wagging the tail. Makes a great party gift!
Give Me Back My Bones! reminds me of a modern version of the “Dem Bones” song—you know, “the toe bone’s connected to the heel bone.” However, Kim Norman’s picture book changes the story from a spiritual to a fun romp at the ocean bottom where a stormy night has scattered a skeleton’s bones. Her smart rhyme summons the reader to “Help me find my head bone, / my pillowed-on-the-bed bone, / the pirate’s flag-of-dread bone— / I’m scouting for my skull.”
Kids will unwittingly learn a bone’s name and function as they seek the bones—some are being absconded by various creatures. The lively beat of the lines is fun to read aloud as the skeleton is pieced back together until, once again, ready to set sail.
Bob Kolar’s art expands the playfulness of the book; bones seem to glow against a muted backdrop of ocean water. Sea critters lend a friendly fin, tail, or tentacle. I like how the skeleton, true to pirate fashion, has a peg leg in place of one of its tibia bones.
Don’t forget to peek under the jacket for a full-length “bone-rattling” poster. This extra detail elevates the book from a great read to one you’ll want to buy.
As much as I love Halloween, the classic story of Bunnicula had somehow eluded me. But, a pet rabbit who may be a vampire sounded irresistible and I was not disappointed. The book pulls you right in from the Editor’s Note (explaining how the manuscript was delivered to her door by a “sad-eyed, droopy-eared dog”) to first-person narration by Harold, the Monroe’s family dog. We soon discover that the problem is a new edition to the family: a black and white bunny found in the movie theater showing a Dracula movie.
Harold already shares the household with Chester the cat. Adding another animal takes some adjusting but weird things start happening to vegetables. For example, a tomato turns white and seemingly has teeth marks! As Harold and Chester try to solve this mystery, we discover the true charm of this book is crafty elusion. Is Bunnicula a vampire rabbit? What do you think?
This 40th anniversary pocket-sized edition has a plush red velvet cover and an Introduction by James Howe about the story’s origins and various renditions over the past four decades. Throughout, Alan Daniels’s art enlivens the story with humor and detail. At the end, best-selling authors Max Brallier, Holly Black, and Dav Pilkey share their personal experiences about this book. Bunnicula has six popular sequels and a spin-off series Tales from the House of Bunnicula and Bunnicula and Friends.