This year World Butterfly Day is on Sunday, March 14 so we’ve rounded up three picture books that will help kids learn about these natural beauties, why they matter, and how we can help them since the Monarchs especially risk going extinct.
Blending story and facts, Deborah Hopkinson’s engaging 68-page picture book, Butterflies Belong Here: A Story of One Idea, Thirty Kids, and a World of Butterflies, takes us through a school year via girl new to the US. Just as monarch butterflies travel far, so did her family. The girl learns to read through books like her favorite one with a butterfly on the cover.
The text alternates between the girl’s journey from one spring to the next with her school class and that of the monarch butterfly. As seasons pass, she hopes to see a monarch but realizes that she may not. Monarch caterpillars only eat milkweed but butterflies have a hard time finding it. “Some people think of milkweed as a useless weed, so they’ve used chemicals to keep it from growing in fields and on farmland. In other places, climate change has been causing droughts that make it difficult for milkweed to grow.”
I can empathize with the girl as she realizes that the “problem is so big, and butterflies are so small.” Though uncomfortable standing in front of her class, the girl gains their support in planting a monarch way station which “needs at least ten plants, with two different kinds of milkweed, and nectar flowers.”
Throughout, Meilo So’s uplifting art enlivens the girl’s growth as she enacts the librarian’s words, “It’s surprising what such a tiny creature can do,” demonstrating the power when we come together as conservationists and activists. Monarch butterflies traverse up to 3,000 miles, from Canada through the US to Mexico. They do not recognize borders, seeking only safe passage to survive from one generation to the next.
Beyond being a heartfelt read, Butterflies Belong Here is a call to action, providing notes in the back matter on how to help by involving your community. This book belongs in your classroom or home, just as these beautiful pollinators belong in our lives.
Meeg Pincus’s nonfiction picture book, Winged Wonders: Solving the Monarch Migration Mystery, investigates where these beautiful butterflies travel, sweeping from Canada through North America, then seemingly disappearing. In 1976, through the work of people from all walks of life, the fact that millions of monarchs overwintered in Southern Mexico’s oyamel groves were finally officially documented because of tags placed on the butterflies.
Kids will enjoy how everyone pitched in: Fred the Canadian scientist, Norah a master organizer of collected data, plus thousands of “science teachers, backyard gardeners, and other curious souls.” The search unravels in a series of questions that figure out this fascinating migration. I appreciate that the back matter points out “history depends on who tells the story—Mexican poet and environmentalist Homero Aridjis asks: ‘Did the white scientists really “discover” the wintering sites that people in Southern Mexico knew about for centuries?’”
One of the book’s final questions, “So, who can make a difference for monarchs today?” is answered in Yas Imamura’s evocative art. The concluding “How to Help the Monarchs” section provides the shocking statistic that “habitats for monarchs are declining at a rate of 6,000 acres a day in the United States.” Steps we can do to help include planting pesticide-free milkweed (the only food the caterpillars can eat) and nectar plants for the butterflies, learning and educating others about the need for conservation, and treading more lightly on our planet—“use less plastic, electricity, water, chemicals; eat more plant-based, local foods.”
Zeena Pliska’s picture book, Hello, Little One: A Monarch Butterfly Story, shows the monarch butterfly life cycle through the eyes of a newborn caterpillar surrounded by the color green until Orange (a monarch butterfly) soars into view. A friendship grows with the caterpillar wanting to see and know everything while Orange provides gentle guidance. The expressive art by Fiona Halliday zooms in close, providing detail and personality.
Kids will enjoy this relationship story—barely realizing it’s also educational! While much of the book is uplifting, the truth of a monarch’s short existence is handled delicately, with Orange honestly saying they will not be back. The loss is acknowledged and mourned but the main character goes on, boosted by the remembrance of their time together.
I like the circular nature of the story and how personification makes the text accessible to even the youngest kids. Back matter includes detail about the stages: egg, larva (caterpillar), pupa (chrysalis), and adult (butterfly). Check under the book jacket for a second cover image.
My homebody nana sewed, cooked, and baked, unlike the senior center tennis champion nana in Nana Says I Will Be Famous One Daywritten by Ann Stottand illustrated by Andrew Joyner. She is incredibly involved in many aspects of her grandchild’s life so the obvious contrast between the two grandmas intrigued me. I was eager to learn about a real hands-on grandma. I know my nana loved me like this nana loves her grandson but the similarities end there. By the way, this nana is also a poodle-like character and her grandson is a precious pup.
From the first two spreads, readers realize that Nana and her grandson, the story’s narrator, are the two members of a mutual admiration society. “Nana was my very first word.” He then says, “My whole life, Nana has been my biggest fan. She comes to all my games and school events. I can usually find her in the front row.”
This set up works well with the puppy’s description of the various things that Nana does to always be there for him. That’s sweet of course. However, Nana has what I’d call a quasi pushy way to get front and center for the pup, and the examples of that behavior build beautifully throughout the book’s 32 pages. Whether she’s practically shoving her grandpup’s teammates off the bench at the pool or parking herself near the football field’s fifty-yard line to offer playing tips, her presence is ubiquitous.
At the pup’s basketball game, Nana suffers a setback “trying to get a front-row seat.” It’s actually good that Stott has shown a consequence for Nana’s in-your-face fawning. She is advised to stay off her injured foot. Never one to sit still, Nana is now forced to curb her active enthusiasm. Can she handle temporarily relinquishing her role as fan #1? Readers will be delighted to see there’s a very good chance that being on the receiving end of all the attention will make both Nana and her grandpup very happy. e
Stott’s taken a grandma’s adoration to an extreme and it’s fun, especially if parents or caregivers reading the story to a child know someone with similar qualities. Joyner’s canine characters are not just charming but full of expression and humor. Be sure to check out the art more closely for book title names in several of the illustrations. This is a terrific read for National Grandparents Day or any time spent with a fan. Rah-rah!
Reviewed by Ronna Mandel e Clickhereto order a copy of Nana Says I Will Be Famous One Day. 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 and its team of kidlit reviewers, please consider purchasing your books from Bookshop.org using our affiliate links above (or below). Thanks! e e Recommended Reads for Children Week 9/7 e DID YOU KNOW? e
Like Mother’s Day and Father’s Day, we also have a whole day dedicated to our grandparents. On the first Sunday after Labor Day, we celebrate National GrandparentsDay. This year the date falls on September 13. e In 1977, Senator Randolph, with the help of other senators, introduced a joint resolution to the senate requesting the president to “issue annually a proclamation designating the first Sunday of September after Labor Day of each year as ‘National Grandparents’ Day’.” e Congress passed the legislation, proclaiming the first Sunday after Labor Day as National Grandparent’s Day. On August 3, 1978, Jimmy Carter signed the proclamation, and the day was finally celebrated the following year. e The holiday experts at National Today share five facts about the holiday: e 1. It Has Its Own Song The official song for National GrandparentsDay is “A Song for Grandma and Grandpa” by Johnny Prill. 2. It Has Its Own Flower The official flower is the “forget-me-not” flower. 3. It’s Not Actually a Public Holiday Even though it was signed in as a national holiday it is celebrated more as an observance than a public holiday. 4. On Average 4 Million Cards Were Sent People are honoring their grandparents with cards, it’s the least we can do. 5. Highest Day for Visits in Nursing Homes There are many days you’d want to spend with your grandparents but National GrandparentsDay was on average the highest day for nursing home visits. Although you may not be able to see them in person this year, make sure to give them a call!
When I first set eyes on this gorgeous cover, which was only this past Friday, I was delighted. It perfectly conveys the spirit and vibrancy of author Moni Ritchie Hadley’s debut picture book, The Star Festival. Full disclosure: Moni and I are in a critique group together, so I was especially honored when she said she’d like me to share her book cover reveal.
I have loved so many of the Japanese festivals since I was a child and always gravitated towards those books in the library. I also have a thing for red bridges and this one in particular, with the koi fish swimming below, reminds me of the one at my happy place—the historic Japanese Garden at the Huntington Library, Art Museum, and Botanical Gardens—although that moon bridge is no longer a stunning lacquer red.
The main character, Keiko, is on the bridge, and her hand indicates she is looking for someone. A nice feature is how the illustrator, Mizuho Fujisawa, has wrapped the book cover in the festival scene. When you get the book, you’ll discover Keiko’s grandmother on the back cover, sitting alone, waiting. I like how the other people on the bridge are in shadow, so our eyes are immediately drawn to Keiko. The entire cover seems to glow, setting just the right tone for the book’s subject.
ABOUT THE COVER:
The cover shows the main character, Keiko, searching for her lost grandmother, Oba, at the Tanabata Festival, also known as the Star Festival. Dressed in a yukata (summer kimono), she is surrounded by colorful vendors, bamboo trees decorated with tanzaku (paper wishes), and the starry night that hosts the myth and origins of this celebration. Mizuho Fujisawa digitally brings this story to life with her bold color choices and precise details.
The Star Festivalwas inspired by three generations of females living together in Moni’s home. When Moni’s elderly mother came to live with her, a concept story developed depicting the similarities of the life of a baby and the life of a grandmother. Moni lived much of her childhood in Japan and attended many festivals such as this one, not knowing what she was celebrating. After some research, the Japanese Tanabata Festival was chosen as a backdrop to the story because of the beautiful imagery and the mythological origins of two star-crossed lovers prohibited from seeing each other.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Moni lived much of her childhood in Japan and attended many festivals such as this one. The Star Festival marks her picture book debut. She writes picture books, chapter books, and graphic novels for early readers. She is also creating a line of writing worksheets using mixed media art for elementary school educators. Moni lives in Los Angeles with her family, three dogs, and an occasional stray cat.
Visit her website (see below) for more information.
Hyewon Yum’s adorable picture book, Lion Needs a Haircut, reminds me of how much my son disliked getting his haircut when he was little. What I especially like is how Yum’s chosen to use lions, a dad and his cub, as the main characters since their manes are such powerful symbols.
The lion father lets his son know he needs a haircut, but the cub does not agree. When the big lion shows compassion, saying he understands his son’s fear, is he perhaps putting words into his son’s mouth or hitting the nail right on its head? Regardless, the cub continues to resist. When at last the little one says, “I just wanted my hair to look like yours,” the story presents a clever new twist that is so satisfying and entertaining. Suffice it to say that parents, caregivers and kids will get a kick out of some fun role reversal in this charming and sweetly illustrated story. •Reviewed by Ronna Mandel
The birthday boy, with the golden crown on his head, is anxious to receive a special house for his dolls when Grandpa stops by. Lo and behold, he comes bearing a … TOOLBOX! When Grandpa Gives You a Toolbox, written by Jamie L.B. Deenihan and illustrated by Lorraine Rocha shows how an unexpected gift can actually become the one you will always remember.
Lorraine Rocha paints colorful illustrations of the grandpa, the boy and his little brown dog who remains by his side throughout the story. The reader is taken on a journey of love via bright illustrations depicting the boy patiently listening to grandpa’s stories. Deenihan’s prose are written as steps on how to handle a situation that you really don’t have much interest in, but you do out of love—a great lesson for young kids to learn. “Next, compliment Grandpa as he shows photos of all the projects he’s built since he was a kid.”
The boy listens to his grandpa until he runs out of stories, but the reader learns that the stories stay in his memory. We see the boy and his dog playing with his doll as a sad looking yellow bird sits at the bottom of a big tree. “It’ll be easy to forget about Grandpa’s toolbox. Until you meet someone in need and have an idea.” That’s when the boy realizes that maybe the toolbox can be useful. Then the reader is taken on a whole new journey showing the beautiful bond between grandfather and grandson.
At the end, the boy is not only able to get that special doll house, but he gets it by building it with Grandpa by his side. “You and Grandpa will work together measuring and sawing, drilling and hammering, gluing and painting, until finally, you’ve built exactly what you wanted.” This heartwarming story melts your heart deeper when Deenihan not only dedicates the story to her own father, but explains how her husband Ricky was diagnosed with brain cancer in 2015. In honor of Ricky, along with brain cancer patients and childhood cancer patients, a gray ribbon and gold ribbon have been included in the illustrations to raise awareness and show support for all those affected by cancer. •Reviewed by Ronda Einbinder
There is so much to enjoy when reading Papa Brings Me the World. It’s first and foremost a daughter’s love letter to her dad who is often gone for long periods of time due to his job as a photojournalist. “His pictures and stories are windows into magical worlds.” In addition to being about the parent/child relationship, it’s also a travel story with great glimpses into foreign countries and their cultures that the father in his career, and ultimately together with his daughter Lu, visit. I’ve also never read a picture book about a photojournalist so I think it’s wonderful and enriching to expose children to the world this way.
This book resonated with me not because one of my parents was a photojournalist, but because they loved to travel and instilled that love in me. I eventually studied abroad and then worked in the travel industry for nine years sharing my passion for world travel via educational seminars. The influence this story’s father had on his daughter was what hooked me from the start. “I was born to explore. Just like Papa.” I love how Kostecki-Shaw incorporated all the different places the father visited into journal entries and items collected along the way. Her art, a beautiful blend of acrylic, watercolors, salt, pencil, rubber stamps and collage made me want to linger on every page.
The biracial family in Papa Brings the World to Me is a loving, compassionate one. While the little girl’s thoughts revolve around her father’s often exotic trips and his anticipated return home from each one, Mama holds down the fort and provides support in a frequently one parent household. Any child who has a parent that is often away from home will relate to Lu’s dreams of spending time together with her papa either at home or on the road. The book will likely also spark wanderlust in even the youngest child when learning in the back matter about the variety of places Papa visits. This beautiful picture book is a celebration of the unique father daughter bond and one I recommend for all girl dads to read with their daughters. •Reviewed by Ronna Mandel
★Starred Review – Publishers Weekly, School Library Journal
Soft pastel colors adorn the pages of this warm-hearted story of bravery throughout time as Big Papa takes his beloved grandson in a time machine (1950s automobile) telling him about times long ago in Big Papa and the Time Machine.
The beautiful artwork was the first thing to capture my attention, but it did not take long for the words to wrap around me as well. Bernstrom tells the story of his African American grandfather who fought through hardship only to come out brave, while reassuring the boy who is fearful about going off to school for the first time.
“Do I have to go to school?” “Yes,” Big Papa said. “I just wanna go home and watch TV.” “You scared,” Big Papa said. “I’m scared I’ll miss you.”
The kind grandfather with the long gray beard, orange hat, red bow tie and blue overalls kicks off the time travel going back first to Little Rock, Arkansas circa 1952. Here he is a young man hugging his own Mama ever so tightly. The grandson believes his grandfather is never scared. “No been scared lots of times,” Big Papa said. “But sometimes you gotta lose the life you have if you ever gonna find the love you want. That’s called being brave.”
Bernstrom takes readers through a series of experiences in the past: meeting Nana at a dance; his own daughter walking away from raising the boy and working hard labor, but he always ends with the same beautiful words “that’s called being brave.”
This is a story that I could reread over and over, and what a poignant story at this time in history. We are educated on the hardships this family overcame, but in the end they survived it all through love, perseverance and, of course, being brave. Bravo to Bernstrom for his words that transported me to Arkansas 1941 and 1952; Chicago 1955, 1957, and the year the grandson was placed in the grandfather’s care in 1986.
In the Author’s Note, Bernstrom explains the background to this story and how he wasn’t raised knowing his biological grandfather, but when they met his grandfather had stories upon stories to tell. Evans asks, “what is courage?” and explains that with every line of art there is a story just like there is a story in every word. I felt it in both the words and the art. A beautiful story definitely worth sharing with young readers. •Reviewed by Ronda Einbinder.
Billed as a manual for new fathers, Dadskills‘ subtitle immediately clues you in to the light-hearted read covering child rearing, from their arrival at home to their eventual departure. The six chapters (which include spot illustrations) include “Baby Wrangling,” “Dealing With Toddlers,” “The Single Digit Challenge,” “Managing the Tweens,” “Taming Teens,” and “Empty Nesting (or Not).”
Does father really know best? That’s what author Peterson is aiming for with his “We got this” fix-it guy approach to equipping men with the important skills they’ll need to be a first-rate and rad dad. “You’ll find here a breakdown on all the essentials so that you can feel a little more like ‘I’m witnessing a miracle’ and a little less like ‘What the hell is happening?'”
In the first chapter I was pleasantly surprised to find colic was addressed because, while it’s awfully uncomfortable for baby, it can also be exhausting and trying for parents who feel helpless to make their little one feel better. When our daughter had colic, it was my husband with his secure football hold that I could count on to quell her pain. In Chapter 3 dads are reminded to “enjoy this prehormonal phase of life.” And, as a book reviewer, how could I not love a section that emphasizes encouraging a young reader with tips such as “Make it a nightly habit,” integrate books into your home life, and read beyond books, for example, by playing games that require game card reading in order to practice skills and pronunciation.
Every chapter is full of invaluable information that will give dads the tools they need to solo or co-parent and make them smile while getting the inside scoop in a book created with their needs in mind. Peterson’s voice throughout the book is like that of a close friend’s. Dadskills will leave new dads feeling prepared for and less stressed about fatherhood. With its perfectly balanced blend of advice and wit, this fathering book for a new generation of dads will make a great gift for Father’s Day. •Reviewed by Ronna Mandel
This may not be your typical Mother’s Day, but you can still make it special. So, wherever you are, please consider adding a good book to any celebration that you may be planning. Support moms while also helping independent bookstores around the country when you make your reading selections. Check out Indiebound.org,Bookshop.org today or call your local independent bookseller for curbside pickup available in many parts of the country.
What’s wonderful about this unassuming little die-cut board book is that it’s full of surprises that will entertain parents as well as children. Adorably illustrated throughout, the book has a circle cut-out on the cover focusing in on the sweetest little bear . Each page turn reveals how much he loves spending time with Mommy, Daddy, and the two of them together. All kinds of hands-on treats await youngsters because there are flaps to lift and pages to flip as well as a big gatefold illustration and sturdy, glossy pages. Little Bear’s parents pass him between them, Daddy picks him up like an airplane and is comforted by him when he’s sad. My favorite spread is the one where Little Bear rubs noses with his mommy because that’s something my son and I always used to do. Not only ideal for Mother’s Day, Mommy, Daddy, and Me! would make a great Father’s Day gift or story time interactive read.
Part of the New Books for Newborns series, this 16-page board book would make a great baby shower or Mother’s Day gift. Hand in Hand’s gentle, soothing verse coupled with its charming illustrations will capture the attention of infants and toddlers. Created with the littlest readers in mind, the story introduces children to a little girl heading out to the park with her mom and a floral decorated ball. “Me/You/We, two/Hand in hand/Through and through.” Mother and child spend time together in all kinds of play and tender moments depicted in scenes that reassure children of their mother’s love. The read aloud quality of the prose invites sweet story times for little ones just becoming acquainted with books.
This moving debut picture book with its spare yet lyrically written text explores the extent to which a mother will go in her efforts to conceive a child via IVF. Sherhant honestly shares the emotional and difficult journey she experienced using metaphors that are beautifully illustrated by Keller. The purple and blue palette is just the right combination of warmth and heart. While not an adoption story, I felt the same strong message of commitment and love as I felt when reading I’ve Loved You Since Forever and Born From the Heart. “I loved you before I met you. I felt you in my arms before I could hold you. But the road was long, and the way was hard.” In an author’s note at the end, Serhant explains how she wanted to write this book “for mothers and fathers who have had a similar road to parenthood.” I’m so glad she channeled her quest into a picture book that will mean so much to so many families who’ll be able to read this to their miracle children one day. I have a friend with her first child from IVF due this fall and, having watched her heartbreak then hope this past year and half, I know just how much this book will resonate with her.
I’m so glad children have a picture book that celebrates an alternative family arrangement in such a positive way. The main character, Carol Olivia Clementine, is six-years-old. “I live with Mama Rose right now,” she explains. While the young reader never learns the reason for the separation, or the relationship between Mama Rose and Carol, that never detracts from the story. Duncan’s upbeat prose, and carefully placed gentle repetition, “My mother and father live far away. I wish we lived together. I wish that they were here,” lets us know that Carol is aware of her situation, yet happy and cared for as if she were Mama Rose’s own child. Mama Rose treats Carol just like any mom would whether that’s teaching her how to tell time, making her eat all her veggies, sending her upstairs to clean up her messy bedroom or complimenting her on a job well done.
Duncan tells us in the Author’s Note that her Aunt was raised with her by her mother and says “It is love that defines our relationships.” A family friend can serve as a mother, as can a guardian or another relative as was the case in Duncan’s household. Regardless of what brought Carol into Mama Rose’s home, Barlow’s charming and cheerful watercolor, gouache, colored pencil and gel pen illustrations feel hopeful. They depict a little girl who misses her parents—we see her make drawings of her parents and can spot a picture of them on Mama Rose’s wall—but who also accepts the love of Mama Rose. “Mama Rose is my home.”
“May loved to visit Grama every summer and watch the stars.” So begins this picture book that is definitely not just for Mother’s Day, though it does get its heart from the nurturing relationship of Grama and her granddaughter, May. “Then one cold day, May came to live with her.” From that the older reader can gather that May has lost her parents or perhaps Grama has just become her guardian for other reasons. Either way, she’s always there for May, to offer love, hugs and inspiration. What’s so sweet about this story is how the pair share the love of stars, birds and dreaming. Grama encourages May who, we learn from a succession of first day of school spreads over the years, has a passion for outer space. “May wanted to take off to the stars one day.” Winning at school fairs leads to a month at space camp where May’s dreams are finally realized. She’ll become the world’s youngest astronaut, but before she heads off anywhere, she must have a hug from Grama. What Nielander shows in her 40-page book’s text and illustrations is how important it is to reach for the stars while having someone on Earth who helps keep you grounded and confident. With that and a hug, who knows what else May might achieve in her life.
(One Elm Books; $16.99, eBook available, Ages 9-14)
The release of this fast-paced and interesting middle grade novel was scheduled around Major League Baseball’s Opening Day events. We all know that’s been delayed due to the pandemic, but there’s no reason kids cannot enjoy the thrill of baseball season between the pages of an engaging novel. Pop Flies, Robo-Pets, and Other Disastersoffers readers just that with its insider’s perspective on the sport along with the ups and downs of being on a team. But that’s only part of the story as the title hints. It’s a diverse novel set in Japan that addresses repatriation, dementia, special needs, and bullying. Read below to find out more. Also a pdf of discussion questions is available here.
Thirteen-year-old Satoshi Matsumoto spent the last three years living in Atlanta where he was the star of his middle-school baseball team—a slugger with pro potential, according to his coach. Now that his father’s work in the US has come to an end, he’s moved back to his hometown in rural Japan. Living abroad has changed him, and now his old friends in Japan are suspicious of his new foreign ways. Even worse, his childhood foe Shintaro, whose dad has ties to gangsters, is in his homeroom. After he joins his new school’s baseball team, Satoshi has a chance to be a hero until he makes a major-league error.
GOOD READS WITH RONNA: When did the idea hit you to write a middle grade novel about a school baseball team set in Japan?
SUZANNE KAMATA: Hmmm. I did write a picture book baseball story, which was published in 2009, at my son’s request. Around that time, I started writing an adult novel based on my husband’s experience as a Japanese high school baseball coach. Originally, Satoshi was a character in that novel. Later, maybe about ten years ago, a friend suggested that I write a YA novel about Koshien, the extremely popular Japanese national high school baseball tournament. I took Satoshi out of my adult novel and tried to write a YA novel about him. Even later, readers suggested that it seemed more like a middle grade novel, so I made adjustments. That’s the long answer. I guess the short answer would be that I never set out to write a middle grade novel about a school baseball team in Japan.
GRWR: Let’s talk first about the pop flies portion of your novel’s title. With Major League Baseball put on hold due to the Corona Virus, readers get to vicariously experience the sport in your book. Have you been a baseball mom and, because you write about it so convincingly, do you enjoy baseball?
SK: I do enjoy baseball. My husband was a high school baseball coach for 12 years, and I used to go to his games. So, first, I was a baseball wife. My son played baseball from elementary school throughout high school, and I also taught at a couple of high schools in Japan that were known for their strong baseball teams. I feel like I know a lot about high school baseball in Japan, but I often checked with my husband and son about the details. I read an early draft to my son, and he corrected a few things.
GRWR:Upon his return to his old school, Tokushima Whirlpool Junior High, a private school founded by his grandfather, the main character Satoshi Matsumoto’s old friends and classmates “are suspicious of his new foreign ways.” I love how your book honestly explores the struggles of this thirteen-year-old’s readjustment upon returning to rural Japan after three years living in Atlanta. Can you speak to the pros and cons of the international experience to help readers understand his mixed emotions and the changes that occur in people after a move abroad.?
SK: Personally, I feel that there are no cons to having lived or traveled abroad. I am sure that many kids in Japan don’t feel that way now, but when they grow up they will understand the value of these experiences. For my own children, having a foreign mom and growing up with additional cultural elements (like the tooth fairy, and macaroni and cheese, and speaking English at home) set them apart and perhaps made them feel a bit lonely at times. This was especially true since we lived in a small town in a conservative, somewhat remote part of Japan. However, I wanted them to understand that there was a world beyond the one that they lived in, that even though they were in the minority in the town where we lived, they had a tribe out there somewhere. When you live abroad, you start to look at your own country differently. You can see things that people who have never left cannot. I think, in many ways, you begin to appreciate your own country and culture more. In the book, Satoshi goes through the same thing.
GRWR:The novel’s supporting characters include Satoshi’s grandfather (Oji-chan) who now has dementia and once had a chance for a promising career in baseball before WWII, and younger sister, Momoko , age four, who has cerebral palsy and uses sign language to communicate and leg-braces or a wheelchair for mobility. Are they based on actual people in your life and how are special needs and disabilities treated in Japan?
SK: Yes and no. For many years, we lived with an elderly relative who showed signs of dementia, and my daughter is multiply disabled. She is deaf and has cerebral palsy, and, yes, she has leg braces, uses a wheelchair, and communicates mostly via sign language. But these characters are fictional.
As in the book, children with special needs and disabilities are not usually mainstreamed. There are separate schools for children who are deaf, blind, or who have intellectual or physical disabilities. For the record, my two children, who are twins, went to two different schools.
Children with disabilities, or some other difference, are sometimes bullied.
While accessibility is gradually improving, there is still a degree of shame in Japan surrounding mental health issues and disability. To be honest, certain members of my Japanese family don’t approve of my writing about disability so openly, even though I am writing fiction. However, I think it’s important to do so.
GRWR:A bully named Shintaro plays a prominent role in this story. He bullied Satoshi before his move abroad, and the fact that his dad has ties to gangsters makes him all the more scary. He picks on both Misa, a new student who is biracial and Satoshi, sometimes quite aggressively. Is bullying common in Japanese culture and how does the approach to dealing with bullying in school differ in Japan than in the U.S.?
SK: Bullying is a persistent problem in Japan. Typically, teachers try not to intervene, with the thinking that kids should try to work things out by themselves. Japanese schools have classes in morality, where they might discuss bullying, but most schools don’t have counselors, and some classes have up to 40 students, which is a lot for one teacher to manage.
GRWR:There’s a crucial part of the story where Satoshi’s ego is on full display when he chooses to ignore instructions from his coach. I was surprised by this display of disobedience, especially given all the examples of students being raised to be very respectful. Do you think there are too many rules in a Japanese student’s life and that’s why Satoshi preferred his life in America? Here is good spot to ask you to speak to any cultural differences about being a team player in the US and in Japan.
SK: Independence is valued more in the United States, whereas conformity is valued more in Japan. As a teacher, I have come into contact with many students who have gone abroad for a year or more. They are different when they come back. Generally, they enjoy the sense of freedom and self-expression that they experienced in the U.S. Satoshi enjoyed the more relaxed atmosphere of American school, and he finds it hard to buckle down. Also, in Japan, it’s not good to stand out. It’s better to be humble and to give credit to your teammates than to draw attention to your abilities.
GRWR:Satoshi’s grandfather has a therapeutic robo-pet seal known as Nana-chan. Where did this unusual idea come from because it’s sweet, funny and a plot driver as well?
SK: I first read about these therapeutic robo-pet seals in a Japanese textbook, and then I later saw one in person at a science exhibition. I was immediately charmed – a seal! How random! — and I wanted to put it into a story.
GRWR:I like that there are illustrations included by Tracy Bishop in every chapter although I only saw an ARC and am not sure if there were any changes made before publication. Did you always picture the novel with illustrations?
SK: No. Actually, I didn’t expect that the novel would be illustrated, but I love having my work illustrated, so I was very excited about it. I am glad that the illustrator is Japanese-American, and that she was familiar with what I wrote about. I was very happy with the final result.
GRWR:What advice can you offer to readers who may have international students at their schools here in America?
SK: As they say, “variety is the spice of life.” Make an effort to get to know people who are different from yourself. Be patient with students from other cultures when they make “mistakes” or do something differently from you. You can learn so much from people from other countries.
I would also encourage students to read books, such as mine, about kids in other countries and from other cultures. There’s nothing like a book to build empathy.
GRWR:Is there anything else you’d like to mention?
SK: If readers enjoy this book, perhaps they would be interested to know that I have written two other novels that have a connection to Japan, and are appropriate for middle grade readers – Gadget Girl: The Art of Being Invisible and Indigo Girl. Both feature Aiko Cassidy, a biracial girl with cerebral palsy who aspires to be a manga artist.
Thanks for the opportunity to talk about my writing!
Award-winning author Suzanne Kamata was born and raised in the United States, but has lived in Japan for over half of her life. Suzanne raised two kids and now lives with her husband in Aizumi, Japan.
Thank you so much, Suzanne, for your honest, enlightening replies. I loved learning about your experience as an ex-pat living and raising a family in Japan and how it’s informed your writing. I hope readers will get a copy of Pop Flies, Robo-Pets, and Other Disasters to find out all the things Satoshi dealt with upon his return to Japan. Good luck on your works-in-progress (an adult novel and several picture books), too.
If there’s a book you should read now, it’s If We Were Giantsby Dave Matthewsand Clete Barrett Smith. You may recognize the first author’s name as that of the world-renowned musician, environmentalist, and humanitarian. He’s teamed up with children’s book author Smith to write this timely middle-grade novel. Its underlying messages are about pulling together as a community, remembering the past, and taking care of nature. Kids will root for Kirra to find her way, and love the fun elements (such as living in trees and using their collective skills to become gigantic).
Hidden inside the walls of a dormant volcano, ten-year-old Kirra’s life is idyllic. Her people, the Zedu, respect nature and collaborate with one another, having assigned tasks. Kirra’s father is the Storyteller, the only Zedu who goes Outside—until recently, when Kirra begins to travel with him and learn this vocation. Her curiosity, however, leads her to make a grave mistake instigating the demise of her village by a violent new group called the Takers who seek only to conquer and destroy.
Jump forward four years and fourteen-year-old Kirra now lives aloft with the Tree People, taken in when she was in dire circumstances and treated with kindness ever since. To get by, Kirra must suppress memories of the past—until those memories become a reality.
The images by Antonio Javier Caparoprovide glimpses into Kirra’s world. Framed by intertwining branches, the natural colors underscore the importance of working harmoniously with nature.
I appreciate how the book engages the reader with quick-moving, interesting scenes yet also tackles big issues affecting us today. This story delves into what family means and how you fit in. For Kirra, it’s also a coming-of-age tale as she finally faces her demons and finds her way. e
Like the cumulative tale and nursery rhyme, “This is the house that Jack built,” Heuiser Hill’s text similarly “builds” the setting up of the dinner table. Grandad initiates the opportunity for a family gathering by constructing “this table,” and the rest of the family pitches in bit by bit—each one contributing a layer or detail that adds richness and diversity. The multifaceted colors, textures, and patterns in Kim’s illustrations reflect the movement and excitement in getting together. In simple lines and shapes, each page highlights the delighted facial expressions of the multicultural family members who have gathered to share a meal made from scratch.
In fact everything set on the table is a hands on, homemade creation. The “sunflowers picked by … cousins,” the “napkins sewn by Mom,” and the meal itself come straight from the heart. Every object has sentimental value. Even the everyday “forks and spoons and knives” honor those loved ones who have passed on. “Gifts from Dad’s grandma long ago,” the utensils allow past generations to be present at the table.
For those who love multicultural and multigenerational themes, Around the Table That Grandad Built is a wonderful addition to the home library. Equally important—especially in this day and age—are the opportunities the book provides to talk about essential values. Thankfulness, hard work, love, and selflessness can be discussed anytime you’re around the table. Consider sharing for Thanksgiving!
Roll With It was an easy choice for my to-read list because it deals with disability. As a disabled author myself, I feel disability representation in books for children is so important and I’m thrilled to see the number of books featuring this element of diversity growing. Author Jamie Sumner has a son with cerebral palsy—the same disability as her main character, Ellie—so I was confident that aspect of the book would be handled with authority and authenticity. What I wasn’t necessarily expecting is a story that packed such an emotional punch on so many different levels.
Ellie and her mom move in with Ellie’s grandparents to help out since her grandfather’s memory issues are getting worse. Life in her grandparents’ trailer park is not exactly ideal for Ellie physically and she dreads starting at a new school as not only “the new kid” but “the new kid in a wheelchair.” Before long though, she connects with two other classmates from the trailer park, the hilarious Coralee and ultra blunt Bert, and Ellie begins to love her new home. She must then convince her mom that they should stay put.
Ellie is relatable and plucky, with a touch of snarky sarcasm, all of which endeared her to me immediately. Her growth as a character had much less to do with the traditional “overcoming her limitations due to her disability” trope and much more to do with making friends, asserting herself, navigating the complex relationship between a tween kid and her mother, and handling her emotions related to her grandfather’s illness. She’s a regular kid with dreams of being a celebrity chef, who experiences the same feelings and challenges as lots of kids her age. The fact that she has CP and is a wheelchair user is neither the main focus of the story nor downplayed. Sumner strikes a perfect balance of making that aspect of Ellie’s life an integral part of the story without it be her only story. Similarly, Ellie’s Grandpa’s Alzheimer’s is treated deftly and not sugarcoated.
Roll With It is not only a fun and interesting read—it’s a great representation for middle grade readers who are wheelchair users themselves and for any reader interested in a moving story which provides insight into a POV not often seen in children’s books.
Guest Review by Karol Ruth Silverstein
Karol Ruth Silverstein writes all genres of children’s books and screenplays. Her debut novel Cursed (Charlesbridge Teen, 2019) is loosely drawn from her experience of being diagnosed with a painful chronic illness at 13. Originally from Philadelphia, she now lives with her two exceptionally fluffy cats, Ninja and Boo. You can read a review of her novel here.
As all budding young chefs and their parents know, it’s not easy getting a recipe just right. In the new picture book, Amy Wu and the Perfect Bao by Kat Zhang, these delicious dumplings are Amy’s nemesis. There are a lot of things that can go wrong; luckily, Amy’s Chinese-American family has got it down and will teach her step by step.
High-spirited Amy will appeal to kids who like expressive, relatable, and funny main characters (à la Fancy Nancy). Amy is skillful at many tasks—including eating bao all day—but it’s frustrating that her bao just don’t turn out right.
Charlena Chuacaptures Amy’s personality in the lively illustrations, from silly expressions (trying to tie her shoes while brushing her teeth) to earnest ones (focused on pinching the dough just right). Throughout, a cute white cat follows Amy’s escapades.
Kat Zhang’s uplifting story shows that imperfection tastes just as good and, with a little bit of ingenuity, kids can solve their problems by trying something new. Amy’s resourcefulness left me smiling; kids are amazing.
The book concludes with a time-consuming (3+ hours) but mouth-watering, in other words worth it, recipe for bao that I tested with my daughter. We appreciated the tip about cooking a spoonful of filling before making the dumplings—great advice which allowed us to adjust the flavors. Enjoy!
This charming picture book hit all the right notes with me. The cleverness of the prose and the gorgeous watercolor illustrations that were rendered digitally work together to make Grandpa’s Top Threes an easy-to-read and share, gentle approach to grief (in this case the grandpa’s) and the loss of a grandparent.
Henry is frustrated by his grandpa’s seemingly ignoring him, but his mom tells him to give it time. Parent and caregivers will immediately understand why. When Mom suggests Henry ask his grandpa “if he’d like a sandwich,” Henry puts the perfect spin on the question and engages his grandfather. “Grandpa, what are your top three sandwiches?” As Henry succeeds at getting his grandfather out of himself by continuing to ask for Grandpa’s Top Three, the two return to their loving relationship that existed before Henry’s grandmother’s death. The beautiful ending will tug at your heartstrings in the best possible way.
This moving story is meaningful in so many ways. It’s at once a book that will help youngsters discuss and process the loss of a beloved grandparent as well as a beautiful and poetic tribute to the grandparent grandchild relationship.
The picture book aptly unfolds in seasons where the young main character compares her grandpa to things in the world as varied as springtime, deep space, dreams and stories. “If all the world were springtime, I would replant my grandpa’s birthdays so that he would never get old.” Her other wishes convey to readers that this bright little girl knows her grandfather is ill and while the loss may come as no surprise, the overwhelming feelings of grief will. But thankfully she has special memories from Grandpa and a new journal handmade by him in which she can “write and draw” to express her sadness along with the worlds of love she shared with her grandfather.
Despite the subject of losing a beloved grandparent, the cheerful illustrations rich with expression help this picture book focus on happy times the grandfather and granddaughter have spent together. The terrific takeaway definitely comes from the subtitle, A Book of Remembering, which Grandpa’s Stories does perfectly.
I had a smile on my face the entire time I was reading My Grandma and Me. While I never had this close relationship with my grandmother, I enjoyed reading about Javaherbin’s deep abiding love for hers. This picture book, autobiographical and irresistible, takes readers to Iran where the author’s grandmother lived with her family. “When she cooked, I cooked. When she prayed, I prayed like her, too.” Mina’s grandmother welcomed her sweet shadow.
Like me, I’m sure you’ll fly through the pages and read again and again about how young Mina adored her grandmother and spent as much time with her as possible whether at home, next door at her friend Annette’s house or at the mosque. As Mina grows, so does her love and respect for her grandmother who was obviously a wonderful role model for the young girl.
What will also resonate with readers, in addition to the lovely recollections, are the simple moments of grandma and grandchild quality time. In the beginning of the book Yankey shows little Mina lying on her grandmother’s back during namaz, early morning prayer time. From that moment on the love between grandchild and grandparent emanates from every page during playtime, Ramadan and social visits. This enchanting celebration of the bond between generations is a rewarding and recommended read.
Reviews by Ronna Mandel
Other new recommended reads for Grandparents Day
Our Favorite Dayby Joowon Oh – a not-to-miss debut about special time together that will leave your heart full. It’s pure happiness in your hands.
Looking for Yesterdayby Alison Jay – this charming picture book about looking forward is a STEMish story with breathtaking illustrations you’ll want to look at over and over again and a grandparent grandson relationship that’s full of wisdom and wit.
You can also find a previous Grandparents Day book reviewhere.
I enjoyed hearing about this picture book’s artistic evolution when Molly was working on the illustrations (NOTE: We’re in the same picture book study group), but I hadn’t read the story or seen any sample spreads. What a thrill it’s been to finally read I Am a Thief! It’s a humorous, thoughtful, much needed tale about taking things, okay, STEALING things then facing the uncomfortable feeling of having done something wrong. Please read my review then get the inside scoop on illustrating the book by the artist herself, Molly Ruttan.
★Starred Review – Kirkus
The main character in I Am a Thief, Eliza Jane Murphy, is a star student having racked up all kinds of achievements and accolades at school. But when temptation in the form of a “brilliant green” stone on display in her classroom shouts her name, she heeds the call and swipes said item. Regret and guilt set in immediately and Raynor does a great job in her prose by conveying how these feelings overwhelm Eliza. Molly’s images wonderfully depict how riddled with remorse poor Eliza is. It’s not easy to capture the raw emotion of guilt but Molly succeeds especially in the scene where the menacing gemstone weighs heavy on Eliza’s conscience as she tries to swing with her friends. The challenge now is that while it was easy to nick the stone without anyone seeing her, Eliza worries that she’ll get caught trying to put it back.
The awful feelings follow her home. She proceeds to ask everyone if they’ve ever stolen anything. Her dad exclaims, “Never!” though his facial expression says otherwise as it appears he’s about to take a slice of cake from the fridge. Eliza’s mom says she took a magnet once, and even Grandpa George, Nana Iris and her dog James, the sausage thief, admit they’re not completely innocent.
Molly’s hilarious WANTED posters depicting all the guilty family members begin to get crowded with each page turn as Eliza realizes that almost everyone at one time or another has taken something whether it’s as small as a sugar packet or as big in Eliza’s mind as her theft of the stone.
The part that will especially please readers is when Eliza returns the stone to her teacher and, rather than chastising her student, tells her she’s brave. Owning up to her misdeed and its possible consequences takes guts. Here Eliza realizes that this one bad thing doesn’t define who she is nor should it. Her unburdening heals her and her “heart started singing again.”
I Am a Thief provides parents, caregivers and teachers an opportunity to explore with children the ramifications of taking things when they don’t belong to you, who ends up hurting the most when something is stolen, and how to right the wrongs we may do. I’m glad this book is out in the universe because it’s going to help a lot of families comfortably and honestly approach this important topic in a really relatable way. In fact, this clever and creative pairing of prose and pictures is likely to get you thinking about the behavior you’re modeling for kids the next time you go to grab a few packets of sugar at the coffee shop.
It’s so exciting to be a part of your fantastic blog! Thank you so much for having me!
I Am a Thief! by Abigail Rayner is my debut as an illustrator as you mentioned above. It came to me from NorthSouth Books via my wonderful agent, Rachel Orr. The second I read it I knew I wanted to jump in.
One thing that immediately hooked me into the story was actually not the obvious. I have no real memory of ever stealing anything when I was a kid—I was much too shy and intimidated by the world to ever step out of line! (Although I probably did steal a crayon or two from a restaurant!) But more so, I’m an identical twin, and the question of identity has always been fascinating to me. For Eliza to impulsively take a sparkling stone to keep for herself, and then to allow that stone, and that act, to redefine how she sees herself, is to me an incredibly interesting bit of human nature. I was hooked, and I decided to illustrate her identity crisis alongside her moral crisis.
I decided to have the green gemstone transform along with Eliza’s moral transformation. I started by showing it as a separate character (“The stone made me do it”) to a beautiful object (“I knew what I had to do”) to finally a lens in which Eliza could see a faceted world (“Everyone is a lot of things!”) I love crystals, and have held and admired many. It wasn’t too far of a leap for me to imagine that a crystal could encompass a journey.
Regarding her identity crisis, I decided to use the imagery of the cat burglar, because this image is an archetype and is immediately recognizable. Eliza’s perception of what a thief looks like would most likely be this—the Halloween costume version! Besides, it was really fun to draw!
As I was figuring all this out, I was filling my sketchbooks with notes and drawings. The story is full of characters, some written and some implied, and it was an amazing thing to watch Eliza and her whole extended family, her teacher and her classmates appear on the paper and take on a life of their own.
Abigail Rayner is a brilliant author and I can’t wait to see what she writes next. Hopefully I’ll have another chance to be her partner in crime!
Molly Ruttan’s illustration debut, I AM A THIEF! by Abigail Rayner from NorthSouth Books is available September 3, 2019, and has earned a starred Kirkus review. Molly’s author-illustrator debut, THE STRAY, is forthcoming from Nancy Paulsen Books/Penguin Random House in May 2020. Molly Ruttan grew up in Hastings-on-Hudson, New York, and holds a BFA in graphic design from the Cooper Union School of Art. She lives, works and creates art in the diverse and historic neighborhood of Echo Park in Los Angeles, California. Find Molly online at www.mollyruttan.com, on Twitter @molly_ruttan and on Instagram @mollyillo
A HUGE thanks to Molly for stopping by to share her unique I Am a Thief! artistic journey. It’s fascinating to get an inside perspective and I know it will add to everyone’s appreciation of this terrific new picture book.