Lisa Wheeler’s latest picture book, Someone Builds the Dream, uses rhythmic lines to pay homage to the tradespeople who make things happen. For example, behind an architect are the workers who “guide the saws, plane the logs” because “someone needs to pound the nails.”
The structure reveals how tasks are accomplished while recognizing the workforces who labor possibly underappreciated or even unknown. Wheeler’s clever lines fit together like a well-oiled machine. Scenes finish with, “Someone has to build the dream,” drumming that message home, creating anticipation for the next repetition of this phrase.
The acrylics and colored pencil illustrations by Loren Long proudly show a diverse array of people. “Frontline” job positions are supported by those who “set the text, run the press, and load the reams” (for authors) or “tighten bolts, steer the crane, drive machines” (for the scientist creating cleaner energy sources). Long’s art provides a timeless feel and beautifully captures workers in action, bringing the story alive with movement.
This book succeeds on many fronts and would be a welcome addition to homes, schools, and libraries. We see that no one can do it alone and understand the importance of appreciating everyone on the team. Be sure to peek beneath the book jacket for a second cover image. Truly a five-star book in all regards.
In Kirsten Hall’s fun 16-page interactive board book, The Kids on the Bus: A Spin-the-Wheel Book of Emotions, we meet a variety of animals with different emotions. Set to the tune of the familiar song, lines include, “The bear on the bus laughs, ‘Hee, hee, hee, . . . all ’round the town.’” This novelty book is shaped like a school bus.
Melissa Crowton’s lively and inclusive illustrations are set within a soothing sky-blue background. My favorite character is the backpack-wearing, skateboard-riding blackbird. The expressive animals have fun causing a ruckus until the driver has to shush them.
While you can read the book or sing along, be sure to utilize the important social-emotional learning (SEL) elements. The sturdy spinning wheel allows kids to identify their feelings by choosing moods such as silly, angry, or shy.
Part of a 23-book series featuring the same cute baby, Leslie Patricelli’s latest board book, Mad, Mad, MAD, lets off a little steam. As is true in life, sometimes we’re happy, sometimes we’re sad, and sometimes we’re screaming, roaring mad. The contradictory feelings are shown through the art with clearly communicated expressions, and short, rhyming text: “No, I won’t go! / I don’t want to stay.” Dad’s face on this page perfectly captures his confusion—relatable to most parents as they try to understand what their young children need.
When Baby realizes they want to stop feeling this way, trying things such as taking a walk or doing deep breaths eventually helps. The back matter lists additional ideas that may alleviate angry feelings such listening to music, reading, or taking a bubble bath. This book’s social-emotional learning (SEL) guidance can gently help our children more effectively manage their emotions.
Susie Jaramillo’s recent board book in the Canticos series, Feelings: Bilingual Firsts, tackles emotions by showing the word for a mood in English with its Spanish translation on the left-hand side: brave / valiente. Lift the flap on the right-hand side to see vibrant art depicting that mood along with questions such as “Can you show me a surprised face?’ or “How does feeling shy look?” These questions are also provided in Spanish.
The colorful art includes a child, an array of animals, several chicks, and a star. I really liked the angry elephant calf. Cute illustrations coupled with simple text make this an easy way to introduce another language at home. Not only will this book help kids identify their own moods, but another important aspect of social-emotional learning (SEL) is the ability to recognize other people’s needs and feelings.
This lift-the-flap board book, Peek-a-Mood, by Giuliano Ferri presents animals whose faces are hidden behind their hands. Questions such as, “How do you think I feel?” and “Why am I hiding?” pique a child’s curiosity. Behind the hands, you’ll find that the first monkey’s frown provides a clue that it is upset, while the second monkey’s downturned open mouth goes on to reveal it is scared.
An array of artfully depicted mammals draws the reader in. The darling monkey that asks if you can make a silly face too, is adorable! This interactive book concludes with “Show me how you feel!’ Behind the human’s hands is an unbreakable mirror—how fun is that?!
Exploring and identifying emotions is a key part of child development and social-emotional learning (SEL). Peek-a-Mood makes it fun to try figuring out nonverbal emotional cues.
“Would knowing how you were going to die change the way you choose to live?” That question drove coauthors Jessica Koosed Ettingand Alyssa Embree Schwartz to write their YA, Fade into the Bright. From the opening pages, eighteen-year-old Abby’s voice pulled me in: “Obviously, it happened right before Christmas. Because don’t all extremely shitty things happen right around the holidays?” This refers to the news Abby and her older sister Brooke receive from their estranged father. In his brief letter, they discover he’s tested positive for Huntington’s disease. The girls have a 50/50 chance of also carrying the gene for this fatal degenerative brain disorder (described as Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and ALS all rolled into one). Typical onset happens between your thirties and fifties.
Both sisters decide to undergo the required six-month pre-testing genetic counseling. Older sister Brooke tests negative, but Abby’s not so lucky. Suddenly, her plans to attend college—and do pretty much anything else with her life—seem futile; Abby escapes to a remote part of Catalina Island to stay the summer with her aunt. (Though I live in Los Angeles and have visited Catalina, the book’s setting provided me with scenery I had not experienced: “rugged and rustic, completely removed.”)
The story unfolds, alternating between chapters in the present day and those flagged as “before.” I like the designation of “before” because it’s true, when something life-changing happens there is that moment before it happened, then everything else follows. Abby’s ups and downs feel real as she wonders what to do while she waits for symptoms to appear. A job at the beach keeps her busy enough to keep panic mostly at bay, but brings with it the complications of whether she should (or could) tell her new friends about all of this, and what to do when she starts falling for her charismatic and attractive coworker, Ben.
The heart of this story revolves around family and how this disease brings people together, pulls them apart, and how to live with everyone’s results. Sister dynamics can already be complex; add in Huntington’s and a layered, emotional story is born. As Abby says about this disease, “It tells you your ending, but leaves out the important parts, like the how and the when.” Still, the characters choose to move forward and, overall, the book feels inspirational.
Jessica Koosed Etting and Alyssa Embree Schwartz know a thing or two about relationships since they’re probably as close as sisters, having been BFFs for more than twenty years and cowriters for most of that period. Their seamless process works; Fade into the Bright is a beautifully written book about such a difficult topic. Huntington’s is near to Jessica because she has watched her family deal with similar situations to those depicted in the book. I’m thankful these writers brought awareness to this disease and the far-reaching impact of a diagnosis.
Back-to school this year is not only the start of a new school year, for many it’s also a return to in-person learning in over a year. For others, it’s really the first time ever to attend daycare, preschool, or elementary school. This selection of ten assorted books highlights all the things that returning to school means for kids.
Cindy Jin’s upbeat 12-page school-shaped board book, Meet Your School!: An All About Me Book, features a variety of animals making their way through a school day. A nice overview is given of what kids can expect, from the main classrooms to the art room, gym, cafeteria, library, and music room. The rhyming couplets reinforce what can be found in each area: “The library is filled with books of all kinds / to teach and inspire bright, young minds.”
The illustrations by Melissa Crowton depict cute, colorful animals interacting happily in various situations. Each page has fun lift-the-flaps for further exploration. Overall, this book has a lot to discover while also providing a positive message as to what school is all about. – Review by Christine Van Zandt
My eyes were instantly attracted to the colorful book cover illustration of an apple being shared on the school playground with a new friend, while classmates throw balls and glide down the slide, introducing readers to acts of kindness in How To Be Kind in Kindergarten: A Book for Your Backpack.
A book for your backpack is a perfect subtitle for this small hardcover book that reads rhythmically, teaching hidden lessons to kids first entering the new world of school. The fun-to-read story includes a diverse mix of abilities, races, and genders. Kids should have no problem finding themselves in one of Hammond’s realistic drawings.
Steinberg opens the story with the question, “Are you in kindergarten? Is that really true? How in the world did you get so big? So smart and funny, too!” The story moves into the classroom with posters of 1, 2, 3, and ABC so a child sees what a kindergarten classroom looks like. Kindness is threaded through each page as Steinberg points out, ‘Cause you’re the kind of kid who always shows you care.
This book shows kids what an impact they can make in their new school, whether cheering up a sad new friend or including a shy friend in a game. This truly is an ideal backpack book and should be read on the first day of school, the middle of the school year, and at the end of the school year because kindness is needed year-round. – Review by Ronda Einbinder
The eye-catching cover of Joan Holub’s, What’s in Dragon’s Backpack? gleams with metallic dragon scales and the backpack-shaped 14-page board book has a cut-out handle just the right size for small hands. Inside, the fun rhyming couplets give us a glimpse of what Dragon’s got in there: “Stickers, charms, a message, and some homework that he fried. Oops!”
Each page has lift-the-flaps for further exploration adorned with Christopher Lee’s adorable art. The faces on his dragons, such as on the mock A Dragon’s Tale book, are top-notch. I also really like the subtle math lessons showing three flames equals one on-fire number three. Other teaching elements include groups of shapes that, once you peek beneath the flap, combine to make a sword.
Educational, interactive, and fun, this engaging book is sure to be a hit with kids who are starting school and donning backpacks. It can also be a conversation starter about what should be inside your child’s backpack to make school days a success. – Review by Christine Van Zandt
It’s the first day of school, an English-speaking school, but Isabel only speaks Spanish. Isabel is a charming and irresistible main character and I cared about how she felt going into unknown territory, alone. Her reluctance is understandable. She doesn’t know English and is scared of what it will be like. Isabel sees things in gorgeous colors and through art and doesn’t realize how quickly she will pick up the new language. “English sounded wrong, like stormy blues and blizzard whites.” Isabel preferred the warm, cheerful colors of Spanish.
Ultimately her language learning is facilitated by one good friend but her limited grasp of English initially gets in the way. Isabel’s thoughtful art saves the day and new friendship blossoms. The interplay between Alessandri’s beautiful prose and Dawson’s flowing art makes every page a delight to behold. This cleverly presented bilingual picture book also includes Spanish to English translations in the back matter but for English speakers, most of the Spanish words can be understood in the context of the story. – Review by Ronna Mandel
School really does stink when one classmate is a skunk and the teacher is unBEARable. So, when little Stuart tells Mom his classmates are wild animals she says all kids are wild animals in debut author Becky Scharnhorst’s hysterical read-aloud with drawings by Julia Patton.
The originality of this story told in diary form starting on the first day of school and ending at Open House, when Mom and Dad realize they have sent their young child, Stuart, to a school full of animals, takes the reader through the first seventeen days of school. Stuart attempts to play along with his classmates when the monkeys hang him upside down. He’s then caught by Patricia the Porcupine pricking him with her many quills. Stuart journals P.S. The deep breaths still aren’t working. P.P.S. Neither are the happy thoughts P.P.P.S. I’m not going back tomorrow!
As Stuart continues to journal he also begins to make friends. Charlie the Crocodile apologizes for biting his fingers and becomes Stuart’s new best bud. This sweet story can be read for school storytime or by a parent before bed. I laughed on entry September 15 when Scharnhorst writes P.S. Mom doesn’t understand how a skunk got in the storage closet. I guess she’ll find out at Open House. I was anxious for Open House to find out how Mom and Dad would react to realizing they sent their child to the wrong school, but Stuart repeats what they told him on the first day of school Mom and Dad told me to take deep breaths and THINK HAPPY THOUGHTS. This was a great lesson for his parents. I just hope they let him stay friends with a crocodile! Patton’s detailed artwork adds to the whimsy with letters written on notebook paper and characters drawn with big teeth and round glasses. The P.S. notes were a fabulous extra touch. – Review by Ronda Einbinder
Oh, how I’d love for this nonfiction picture book to be required reading in all schools! I could not believe as I read it that prior to President Ford signing the Education for All Handicapped Children Act (EAHCA) in 1975 with its Individualized Education Plan (IEP), children with disabilities did not have the right to a free, appropriate, public education. But the book really focuses on the lawsuit in 1971 called Mills v. Board of Education of the District of Columbia, the District Court ruling in 1972 that led to this important act being implemented, and the seven school-aged children and their families who made it happen.
We Want to Go to School is narrated by author-illustrator Cocca-Leffler’s daughter, author Janine Leffler, whose own inclusive experience as a student with Cerebral Palsy (CP) receiving various special assistance in school contrasts to what students prior to her would have experienced. She explains how prior to the ’70s, students with disabilities either didn’t go to school, stayed in hospitals, or were sent to special schools at a huge expense to families. If they were allowed into some schools, these children were segregated in separate classrooms. There was little chance to interact with mainstream students. That is until Peter Mills, Janice King, Jerome James, Michael Williams, George Liddell, Jr., Steven Gaston and Duane Blacksheare decided they’d had enough of being left out. Of course, the schools objected, finding reason after reason why students with disabilities should not be able to attend. Their parents were having déjà vu.
Wasn’t public school supposed to be for everyone? Wasn’t that the lesson learned in Brown v. Board of Education in 1954 when segregation because of the color one’s skin was the issue. So the families fought back. They began to meet others facing the same school challenges and there was power in numbers. The news of the lawsuit spread so that pretty soon “more families joined the lawsuit.” It then became a class action suit. “18,000 students from the Washington, D.C. area were also not receiving a public education because of their disabilities.” Would the judge presiding over the case agree? YES! And the positive outcome of this lawsuit led to big changes for students with disabilities with “federal laws guaranteeing public education for all children.
I loved the energy of Cocca-Leffler’s art, especially the spread where she’s filled the page with faces of 1,000 kids and tells readers to imagine those 18,000 DC students, and the 8 million US students denied an education because they had disabilities. Powerful! Five pages of back matter include information on Disability Education Rights, a timeline, Author Notes, and an enlightening Note from Paul R. Dimond, Plaintiffs’ Attorney in the Mills v. Board of Education of the District of Columbia. I’m grateful for these change-makers. They paved the way for future students with disabilities who continue to benefit from their commitment to equal rights in education for all. – Review by Ronna Mandel
The Night Baafore The First Day of School blends the counting element, the rhyme and hilarity of Sandra Boynton’s Hippos Go Berserk with the irresistible art of Mark Teague’s Pigsty. As the main character Bo—the star of two previous books I haven’t yet read—attempts unsuccessfully to fall asleep due to day-before-school-starts jitters, he calls on sheep to help. The catch is they make it more difficult to sleep with the ruckus they create. Poor Bo, aware of the hours slipping away, is desperate. He offers them a snack if they’ll stop, but when that doesn’t work he calls an emergency meeting. Only then a mysterious shadow of a monster appears further exacerbating the chaos.
There’s as much for readers to enjoy in Young’s wild storyline as there is in Pino’s zany and action-packed illustrations. The counting of sheep from 1 to 10 as they get up to no good adds an engaging layer to the book. Then, reversing that to eventually count back down as it gets later and later, is such fun and a great way to involve young readers. I love how the 10 sheep all wear number necklaces to identify themselves. Kids may want to study each spread more closer upon further reads to see what each individual sheep is doing with the supplies Bo has prepared for his backpack. The massive mess is mighty fun to look at. Tension builds with each page turn as we wonder if Bo will get any shut-eye and manage to catch the bus to school. And the humor surrounding every sheep-filled episode encroaching on Bo’s time to sleep is a delight in this rhyming romp of a read-aloud. – Reviewed by Ronna Mandel
Norman, a very small, almost invisible dinosaur compared to all the other dinos at Mrs. Beak’s play group, is shy. This may resonate with young readers experiencing a similar emotion when just starting school and being away from home. Julian’s rich artwork is charming in how it depicts Norman hiding (except his tail always adorably sticking out) in various situations where the text also states “he was very good at hiding.” In the beginning, before Norman makes friends, parents can ask children to see if they can spot him in the illustrations as he avoids interaction.
My favorite part of the picture book is when Norman confides in Mrs. Beak that he really wants to join the other dinos but feels shy. “It’s okay to be shy,” Mrs. Beak replied. “It’s a special part of who you are.” When she asks the dinos to perform in pairs, Norman teams up with big, loud Jake who despite his size, admits he’s rather nervous too. The two share a laugh and come up with a magical performance that not only satisfies (and perhaps comforts) children but provides the perfect conversation starter for parents and teachers to discuss shyness. I’m not sure it was deliberate, but I appreciated Mrs. Beak’s rainbow door and her rainbow mug, another welcoming feature to this warm and reassuring read. – Review by Ronna Mandel
School Is Cool was written and illustrated by sisters Sabrina Moyle and Eunice Moyle founders of Hello!Lucky, their award-winning letterpress greeting card and design studio.
Targeting the child who has already had some school experience, this story begins on the beach where the rhinoceros, dog, and platypus are chilling out until they realize Tomorrow’s the first day of school! The expressive drawings tell it all when the dog almost drops his ice cream cone and the rhino jumps from his floatation device. The friends are worried kids won’t like your hair. Or how they talk. Or what they wear.
Eunice Moyle’s bold, captivating illustrations depict all sorts of animals arriving for their first day by school bus and bikes. They line up awaiting a handshake from the animal teacher, in popping bright greens and oranges and a happy yellow sun, a perfect complement to the welcome the smiling animals.
This book expresses the true feelings many kids have when it’s time to say goodbye to Mom and home now replaced by an unfamiliar teacher and classroom where they must learn the new rules. What if your teacher calls on you—and the answer is five, but you said … 2. It’s ok to say “I don’t know.” Everyone is here to grow.”
The back flap states that the Moyle sisters use their creativity and humor to inspire kindness, empathy, self-awareness, and service and in doing so dedicate this book to teachers everywhere. You are the coolest! Thank you for all you do! – Review by Ronda Einbinder
It looks like it’s going to be three times the trouble at school for David Suárez. With new neighbors, the Benitez triplets adding to what’s already an annoying presence by his other neighbors, the Romero twins, David must navigate third grade and not lose his cool. His goal after all is to be captain of the Globetrotters, the geography club, and that requires an uncluttered mind. Except the Benitez triplets and Romero twins are messing with him and everyone else.
When David is tasked with monitoring the playground (trouble maker prime turf), he fears it may be made off-limits for everyone if the five tricksters continue getting up to no good. And that is looking more and more likely when both sets of mischief-makers aim to rule recess with their pranks and pushy personalities.
This early chapter book, filled with humorous black-and-white illustrations, works well with its mix of Spanish words and expressions along with comments at the end of most chapters noting a reader’s progress. I like how Back-to-School Blitz includes a diverse group of students and some interesting geography information (David’s favorite subject) that ends up playing an important part in keeping the bullies in check. A couple of things jumped out at me like having the triplets together in one class which I thought wasn’t typically done. Another time, after causing a distraction, the triplets sneak out of class early without the teacher, Mr. Kim, noticing. But I’m an adult and if the kids reading this first book in a new series don’t mind, that’s great because as the book ends, there’s some unusual digging going on in the sandbox, and surely more pranks to come in book #2. – Review by Ronna Mandel
Joe Archer and Caroline Craig’s middle-gradePlant, Cook, Eat!: A Children’s Cookbookcovers food from seed to table with easy-to-understand text and full-color photos or images throughout. The helpful introduction includes information about plants: what parts we eat, how they reproduce, and how we can help them grow with the right amount of warmth, light, nutrients, and water. Learn what healthy soil and compost consist of, then how to choose and prepare an ideal location for your garden. Before long, you’re ready to harvest, eat, and cook.
Whether it’s tomatoes, potatoes, lettuce, or peas, you’ll find an accompanying recipe where that food shines as a star ingredient. Snip some young zucchini then make crunchy Zucchini and Polenta Fries, or dig up those beautiful beets for an indulgent Chocolate Beet Cake.
I like how cookbooks provide recipes to take us beyond our usual fare. This book, however, goes steps beyond by inspiring us to grow vegetables, maybe for the first time. We transformed our abundant crop of Swiss chard into Chard-Noodle Stir-Fry; our towering kale became Kale Pesto Pasta—an appreciated change from the usual basil-dominant pesto.
Kids will enjoy the rewarding experience of eating what they’ve grown whether directly from the plant or in a delicious recipe. One of my favorite facts was that cranberry beans are cultivated for their dried seeds; they’re ready to harvest when you give the pods a shake and the beans rattle inside. We’re planting that next!
Joe Archer works at Kew Gardens as Head Horticulturalist in the kitchen garden and has appeared on BBC in the Kew on a Plate television program with Raymond Blanc. He lives in England.
Caroline Craig, co-author
Caroline Craig is a food writer from London and the author of The Little Book of Lunch adult cookbook (Regan Arts) and The Cornershop Cookbook (Random House UK). She’s also a columnist for Guardian Cook. She lives in England.
Shreeve impressively chronicles life on Earth from its beginning until present. Yet, for such an intricate topic, her kid-friendly text is easy to follow. Readers wanting more data can reference the time periods (noted at the bottom) or learn from the notes accompanying various creatures. The back matter includes sources and further reading.
The illustrations by Frann Preston-Gannon add drama and dimension showing lava-flowing eruptions and the starkness of what scientists call the Great Dying when temperatures soared and life perished. However, most of the art depicts brightly colored celebrations of the wonderful creatures that have inhabited our planet. I like how sketches are used in the sidebar to demonstrate, for example, the size of a prehistoric dragonfly in comparison to a human. (These insects grew huge because of the abundant oxygen levels.)
Information is conveyed in an exciting manner, encouraging page turns to discover the changes of life on Earth while also learning the answer to the opening question. This comprehensive reference book will engage curious young readers.
Let’s talk tushes, well what goes on them to be precise.
Before I do though, and for the record, debut picture book author Christine Van Zandt is a long-time reviewer for this blog. But even if she weren’t, I’d still have to gush about A Brief History of Underpants because I think what she’s uncovered about underwear is fascinating. More important than what I think is what kids will, and I don’t know how they’ll be able to resist getting the low-down on undies or all the punderful facts Christine points out that’ll crack kids up. Plus the cool cover reveal-wheel is simply hard to stop spinning, even for an adult.
This entertaining, informative, and fast-paced 48-page nonfiction picture book is compact and perfect for kids to bring along on a trip or give as a gift. Conveniently broken down into four accessible chapters, and an Extras section (to be read in one go or slowly to be savored like a treat), A Brief History of Underpants makes learning about this topic a jaunty journey through the ages then back to the present day.
Chapter One, “Crusty Old Buns,” is brief but interesting as it addresses the need for underpants (see photo above) that we may take for granted while also shedding light on some discoveries that confirmed how far back in time the garments were worn. Chapter Two, “Underpants Around the World” is my favorite. Travel the globe and back in time for a glimpse of the usually unglimpsable “unmentionables” while finding out how various cultures viewed the value of underpants. Whether one’s interested in what King Tut put on his “royal rear” or what Genghis Khan wore to avoid getting himself killed by a poison-tipped arrow, it’s all there and more.
Christine’s also peppered fun facts throughout the book such as how a person’s age or social status could be reflected in the “fabric, style and decorations on their loincloth” or how making red dye in Ancient Egypt involved using sheep poop! We even learn how pee mixed with ashes was used in the cleaning process of undergarments in Europe. Chapter Three, “Cheeky Inventions” shows just how far undies’ technology has come. For example, buttons were made in Pakistan thousands of years before buttonholes evolved in 13th century Germany! The sewing machine meant home-sewn underpants could be replaced by multiple store-bought ones and the invention of elastic made keeping on one’s undies so simple. Chapter Four introduces readers to “Tushes Today Worldwide” covering the 1980s to now and why this post was scheduled for today. It’s National Underpants Day in the U.S.A. so we can celebrate how far (including the International Space Station) these “unmentionables” have come.
The “Extras” chapter features a craft for making Japanese fundoshi, a long strip of cloth worn by Samurai warriors, some jokes, and further reading. I know I’m ready to read more about King Tut and the 145 pairs of underpants that he was buried with. Christine’s well-researched text, coupled withHarry Briggs’s outlined, doodle-style, hilarious art has just the right kid appeal for this age group. I give this book a resounding bottoms (okay thumbs) up and hope your children find it as enjoyable and educational as I did. Not only will this be a looked-forward-to nonfiction read for kids, but teachers and librarians can welcome the heightened interest this most delightful delve into a fashion staple provides.
Reviewed by Ronna Mandel e
Click here for a cover reveal of this book with some insights about the inspiration from Christine.
In the picture book, Gwendolyn’s Pet Gardenby Anne Renaud, we know the problem from the opening line: “Gwendolyn Newberry-Fretz wanted a pet.” A very relatable problem indeed. Yet, Gwendolyn’s parents are not on board with the pet idea and, instead, get her some dirt which “smells of possibilities” to them. Gwendolyn thinks it smells like a swamp! Yet, once the garden gets underway, she reconsiders how she feels about this compromise.
Rashin Kheiriyeh’sillustrations peppered with bright accents pull you into Gwendolyn’s world, whether she’s suggesting various pets or plotting her planter. I feel the joys of gardening including the excitement of watching plants grow from seed.
I like how the back matter ties it all together, explaining what’s needed for kids to start their own gardens. Seed-lending libraries are explained and encouraged—a concept I hope catches on as well as the book-lending libraries we have in many neighborhoods. The idea of repurposing no-longer-needed library card catalog cabinets to house seeds brilliant!
Tell me there’s a story about cats and books and I’m in! New York Times Book Review editor Pamela Paul’s picture book, Rectangle Time, unfolds from the family’s calico cat’s perspective. Through humor and heartwarming moments, the cat and boy grow from lap reading to independent reading—the calico certainly has its opinions about which type it prefers. “Watch carefully: See how the man and the boy hold the rectangle together? That means they each have one hand free for me.”
As a parent, I appreciate the well-depicted bittersweet moments of a child’s independence as well as the clever commentary from the cat. “Look at the poor little guy. He’s just . . . staring at the rectangle,” the cat thinks when the boy picks up a book on his own. As any cat owner knows, it’s all about the cat; this comes through strongly in the calico’s continued need to be the center of attention.
Becky Cameron’s art will make you laugh as she captures feline moods from furry contentment to perplexed then miffed. The secret second cover (look under the book jacket) echoes the satisfying ending.
A Junior Library Guild Gold Standard Selection ★Starred Reviews – BookPage, The Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books, The Horn Book, Kirkus Reviews, Publishers Weekly, School Library Journal, Shelf Awareness
Andrea Wang and Jason Chin’snew picture book, Watercress, tells a story with that one word alone. This vegetable embodies a family’s experiences from the great famine years until today in the US. Wang’s spare, lyrical text shows us the range of emotions felt by the girl whose parents excitedly stop to pick watercress from the side of the road, much to the girl’s chagrin. Her feelings brew throughout the story until painful memories shared bring about an understanding.
Fans of Jason Chin’s gorgeous watercolor images will not be disappointed. The family’s many dimensions come alive on the page, reflecting today’s struggles and those long ago.
This book is relatable to people from immigrant families as myself, or any kid who’s been embarrassed by some things their family does—and who hasn’t?! Watercress is top-notch for its ability to convey a world of information and a wide range of moods.
The text and illustrations are flawless. There’s even a secret book cover image once the paper cover is removed. The accolades for Watercress are merited. It is definitely one of my top 2021 picks.
Before I even started reading, this four-book fairy-tale series intrigued me because the books will be written by four different authors, the story following one family (and the curse that plagues it) over several generations. Awesome, right? The first book in the Mirror series, Broken Wish by Julie C. Dao, delivers. Let me tell you a bit about sixteen-year-old Elva and her powers.
Set in 1865 Hanau, Germany, Elva has been taught to hide her magical abilities so her family is not cast out. That works—for a while. However, once Elva and her adorable brother, Cay, stumble upon their mother’s secrets, Elva seeks the Witch of the North Woods. She hopes to find answers, yet is scared the witch is the villain she’s proclaimed to be on the warning signs Elva’s village has nailed to trees.
I like how the book opens in a series of notes between Elva’s mother and the witch, introducing the complexities of characters; no one is all good or all bad. Elva’s mom’s prior connection with the Witch of the North Woods puts Elva and her family on a cursed path. Elva believes her community should be given a chance to understand the truth, but differences are feared and removed rather than accepted. This clever, multilayered storyline satisfied, yet left me wanting to follow the family to see what more will unfold from a simple, lonely wish shattered in the name of love.
The next three books will be written by Dhonielle Clayton, Jennifer Cervantes, and L. L. McKinney—all amazing female authors whose stories I’ve enjoyed over the years. I’m in for books two, three, and four
Let’s give a round of applause to moms everywhere on Mother’s Day with this great selection of Mother’s Day books that perhaps express what children cannot. The pandemic has been a challenge and moms, you stepped up to the plate, or should I say multiple plates, and made things work. Sometimes it wasn’t easy. You wondered if your hard work was appreciated or how long you’d be able to keep the smile on your face. Sometimes you didn’t smile and that’s okay. There were a lot of gray days but you never forgot what it means to be a mother, a grandmother, or caregiver. And those you love are taking this day to remember you and let you know how much they care. Thank you and Happy Mother’s Day!
The precious board book, a love letter to mommies, is a companion to Leo Loves Daddy, and a wonderful way to share the joy of reading together with mother and child. With diverse characters and warm tones in 18 delightful pages, Ruth Hearson illustrates the tender relationship Leo and Mommy share. Anna McQuinn’s gentle rhymes take the reader through the daily activities, “At yoga class, Mommy lifts Leo with ease. Riding home through the park, Mommy speeds like the breeze.” McQuinn’s Lola Reads series includes Lola Reads to Leo, Lola Gets a Cat, and Lola Loves Stories, all illustrated by Hearson. This is a great Mother’s Day read highlighting the special bond kids share with their moms. • Reviewed by Ronda Einbinder
Part of the An Every Day Together Book collection, I Love Mommy Every Day is a sweet book celebrating moms. “Mommy feels like home, a comforting presence wherever I am,” says a blonde-haired child with large purple glasses as she snuggles in bed, while Mommy is reading by her side. Alicia Mas brings the reader in with her eye-pleasing art of various mommies with their children. Her blues, oranges, pinks, and reds surround Otter’s descriptions of all the different kinds of mommies. Turning to the last page, the reader comes across a list that reads, “What do you love best about your mommy?” Numbered from one to three, these questions offer the opportunity for parents to talk to their kids, or have them write (or dictate) on a separate paper, about what makes their mommy so special and lovable. They provide a fun activity for teachers to give students to create an unexpected yet personalized Mother’s Day gift. • Reviewed by Ronda Einbinder
This picture book put a smile on my face as I read through each page trying to decide if I was Zen Mom or Organized Mom, while also wondering which one my adult children would choose. Aura Lewis’ colorful illustrations of trendy moms, outdoorsy moms, and working moms depict, page-by-page, all kinds of moms. Which one are you? The book opens with “What is a Mom?” then explains that moms are not just biological, they are stepmoms, adoptive, foster moms, and even moms-to-be. My favorite pages were under the heading Moms around the World, showing the reader that in Finland, Aiti, gives birth and then is given a box of essentials from the government, and babies can even sleep inside the box; and in India the new mom, Maan, often goes back to her own mom to help her adapt to parenthood. This playful book also conveys genuine gratitude, concluding with, “Thank you to your mom, their mom, and all the moms yet to come.” This is a great read throughout the year.• Reviewed by Ronda Einbinder
New York Times’ best-selling author Susanna Leonard Hill’s new picture book, Dear Grandma, recognizes all the ways grandmothers are awesome. Written as a letter that begins, “Dear Grandma, Do you know you’re the best?” Each scene shows funny and loving ways: “You’re a jungle gym climber, jump rope rhymer, / storyteller, secret hideout dweller . . .” Grandmas soothe the bad days and nightmares away. They’re also with you through the seasons, whether living close by or staying in contact across the miles.
John Joseph echoes the text’s positive vibes in his colorful illustrations capturing children of the world interacting with their grams. The two-page wordless spread where a toy dragon comes to life is my favorite piece of art; it’s quite funny.
A perfect gift book to show grandma how much you appreciate everything she does. • Reviewed by Christine Van Zandt
Most of the time my family eats simply, but, sometimes, I want to make something special. Two yeast recipes I need to fine-tune are English muffins and focaccia so I was happy (and surprised) to find Claire Saffitz’s versions in her Dessert Person cookbook. Don’t fear, there are loads of delicious desserts including cakes, pies, tarts, bars, and cookies along with a category called Fancy Desserts featuring croquembouche and so forth. Check the Recipe Matrix, which plots out recipes on a grid by difficulty level and total time—an at-a-glance time-saver. Read the thorough instructions before beginning to ensure you have the ingredients, time, and equipment.
Because kumquats were in season, I made Ricotta Cake with Kumquat Marmalade. The cake was a hit with a flavor reminiscent of German cheesecake. Its kumquat marmalade topping elevated this dish from comfort food to showstopper. I’ll make the cake again, swapping in a different seasonal topping.
Another recipe my family really enjoyed was Clam and Fennel Pizza with Gremolata, which begins with the Soft and Pillowy Flatbread recipe. (Store-bought pizza dough can be swapped out, but freshly made flatbread is a treat.) After the flatbreads are parbaked, top with the previously cooked clam, garlic, fennel, olive oil, and crushed red pepper flakes mixture. Bake again, then finish off with a gremolata of flat-leaf parsley, fennel fronds, garlic, lemon zest, and kosher salt. There won’t be leftovers, guaranteed!
Beyond making these amazing creations, the photos are eye candy for us cookbook geeks. The gorgeous Black Sesame Paris-Brest is an image I’m drawn to. This bicycle wheel-shaped French pastry recipe replaces the traditional pastry cream for one made with black tahini. Other pastry cream options include chocolate or coconut variations.
I’ll keep looking at the beautiful pictures as I work my way through the recipes. From relatively simple Miso Buttermilk Biscuits to the two-months-to-make Fruitcake, there are dozens of delectable choices. This is a cookbook I will seek out—as the subtitle promises—to receive “guidance for baking with confidence.” What a wonderful treat for Mother’s Day. • Reviewed by Christine Van Zandt
This middle-grade novel stands alone—in an amazing house that cares for three seemingly trapped sisters, Winnow, Mayhap, and Pavonine. Years ago, their parents left the girls this note, “Wait for us. Sleep darkly.” Outside, the house is surrounded by silver grass seeking opportunities to slither in—and it talks!
How have the stranded sisters gotten by? We learn in the opening line, “The house dressed Mayhap Ballastian in blue on the day her sister disappeared.” What a great way to start the story! I don’t want to reveal all the crazy-wonderful things, but have to share my favorite: the droomhunds, loyal doglike creatures. Since the sisters are unable to sleep (I can’t tell you why), each hund “could press itself into the tight space of a person’s mind.” Brushing them first helps because “the softer the droomhunds’ fur was, the more restful the girls’ sleep would be.” Cool stuff, right?
When fourteen-year-old Winnow, the eldest sister, leaves the house, problems arise. Upon her return, Mayhap (twelve-year-old middle sister and main character) questions the rift between them. However, Winnow falls into a troubled sleep, her eyes turning silver, her droomhund missing. Plot twists ensue.
Chewins’s writing is too lovely to rush reading through. This imaginative literary fantasy seeped in strangeness is also very much a siblings story. The relationship between the girls feels truthful and honest, even when set in such an unusual world.
★Starred Reviews – Booklist, School Library Journal
Meet Zonia who is Asháninka, the largest Indigenous group that calls the Peruvian Amazon home. While her mom nurses her new baby brother, Zonia frolics among the lush flora and fauna of her beautiful neighborhood, the Amazon Rain Forest, the world’s largest.
This slice of life story introduces young readers to a part of the world whose existence is in danger of extinction as its natural resources are abused. As Zonia plays on her own, she is joined by a butterfly, a sloth, a bird, a jaguar, a dolphin, an anteater, and other local animals whose lives are also in peril if the over-development of the Amazon continues at its current rate. This point is emphasized when at the end of Zonia’s outdoor adventure, she is shocked and angered to see a forest decimated by illegal logging. With their homeland threatened, the human inhabitants will have no choice but to fight back. The red face paint on Zonia’s face, shown “on the last page of the story,” signals strength and determination, symbolic of the struggle ahead.
In promotional material from Candlewick, I learned that Peruvian-born author-illustrator Martinez-Neal created her art on “paper fashioned from banana bark by the hands of the people of the Amazon.” The rich colors have a pastel quality and bleed a bit onto the page, with soft edges and a warmth much like the Amazon itself.
Zonia’s Rain Forest is a call to action to people everywhere. We need to pay attention to what is happening in not only Peru, but the other eight countries the Amazon occupies which includes Brazil, Bolivia, Ecuador, Colombia, Venezuela, Guyana, Suriname, and French Guiana before their ecosystems are beyond repair. The extensive back matter goes into more detail about what is happening in Amazon and why. Children are given selected resources if they want to learn what they can do. There is also a translation of the story to Asháninka, one of the approximate “three hundred and thirty different languages spoken among the four to five hundred different indigenous groups living there.” The story ends with Zonia telling her mama that the forest needs help. “It is speaking to you,” says Zonia’s mama. “Then I will answer,” says Zonia, “as I always do.” And finally, “We all must answer.” – Reviewed by Ronna Mandel
Dawn Babb Prochovnic’s picture book, Lucy’s Blooms, is an upbeat multigenerational tale. Lucy wants to win the town’s annual flower-growing competition and receives advice from Gram, but things don’t go as expected. I appreciated Lucy’s family’s love of nature and belief that’s it’s perfectly fine to do things your own way.
Alice Brereton’s vibrant illustrations enhance Lucy’s vivacious personality with facial expressions ranging from delight to frustration (pretty accurate, as any gardener knows).
This book’s joyful celebration of gardening and life resonates with me, as do its moments of humor. My favorite part is the ending—but you’ll have to read the book yourself, I’m not telling!
In Loll Kirby’s nonfiction picture book, Old Enough to Save the Planet, we meet twelve kids (age 7+) from around the world who are taking action against climate change and becoming environmental advocates.
Because bees are in trouble, nine-year-old Eunita in Kenya created a garden to attract pollinators. She posted signs in town, explaining what she was doing for community education and to encourage involvement.
Twelve-year-old Adeline in Indonesia also works with her community. When humans destroyed the natural habitat, flooding problems ensued. Adeline’s group replants native mangrove trees “to create protected areas in the sea to allow new coral reefs to form.”
Each child’s earth-saving contribution is illustrated in great detail by Adelina Lirius using colors found in nature. I appreciate how this book highlights global climate-change problems, while showing how we can pitch in to make a difference. Actions listed in the back matter include eating less meat, thinking carefully before traveling by airplane, setting up a group of people working toward a similar goal, and speaking out at every opportunity. While listed for ages 8-12, please note that it would still be appropriate for ages 6-9.
The Extraordinary Book That Eats Itself by Susan Hayes and Penny Arlon is a 64-page reusable, recyclable picture book. In each of the thirty activities, kids take action to safeguard the environment and have tearing the book apart!
Learn how to build a worm bin or bug hotel. Conserve electricity in a clever section called “Chase Away Vampires” which includes cut-out reminders: “Don’t forget to unplug!”
“Have an Eco-Picnic” and meet up with friends or family. (During the pandemic, maintain a safe distance.) Pack mindfully; opt for reusable bottles and cutlery. Skip the plastic and see if you can find a spot you within walking or biking distance—how about your backyard?
Each page has lively art by Pintachan. You’ll want to cut out and use the bookmarks because of their cute illustrations. The creative projects in this book will keep kids busy for hours while teaching them earth-friendly ideas.
Peter Wohlleben follows up his successful middle-grade nonfiction book, Can You Hear the Trees Talking?, with Do You Know Where the Animals Live? It’s clear that animals are important to him and he wants to share his love of them. When asked how young children can help make the world a better place for animals, Wohlleben replied, “The best thing is to be curious. The more we know about animals, the more we learn to treat them with respect. Every animal is a great wonder that deserves to be allowed to live their life.”
This book explores much more than just where animals live—that’s only the first section! You’ll also learn what animals eat, all about animal babies, how animals grow up, animal survival techniques, animal language, [note it’s not plural in the book for some reason] and animal emotions. My favorite section is Animal Language because it explores sounds, body language, sense of humor, and showing off. Remarkably, fish grind teeth and fart to communicate. I was also amazed that “scientists have to use special microphones to hear the laughter of rats.”
Something that’s not a laughing matter is the chapter about how harmful human garbage is to animals. Plastics are a huge problem, from the Texas-size floating mass in the Pacific Ocean to the microplastics ingested by many creatures. Pesticide use kills animals throughout the food chain because, when insects die, then birds starve. However, “farmers who grow food without using pesticides leave part of the fruit behind for animals like caterpillars. Because the animals don’t pay money for this fruit, people have to be willing to make up for the difference.”
With color photos on every page, this book is beautiful as well as informational. Who doesn’t like to look at cute animal pictures?! Throughout, short quizzes test your knowledge. Whether reading or admiring images, this book will entertain and engage kids for hours.
Lucy Bell’s middle-grade nonfiction book, You Can Change the World, belongs in every home and classroom. Problems we’ve created in the world are offset with simple steps we can take to make our planet a healthier place for everyone.
The 224 pages are easy to follow, filled with lively, full-color art and cleverly arranged content to keep kids engaged. Topics include plastic, ethical and environmentally friendly clothing, waste, food, gardening and the outdoors, energy, electricity, and water, animal activism, and an act of kindness. The Group Activities section offers suggestions on how to work alongside friends and family. For example, choose from the environmental documentaries listed and host a movie party offering plastic-free snacks, or just start a conversation about how you have made changes.
Young environmentalists from around the world are featured throughout. At age nine Felix Finkbeiner from Germany discovered that Wangari Maathai in Kenya planted thirty million saplings in thirty years to cover some of Africa’s bare land. Inspired, Felix founded Plant-for-the-Planet with the goal of one million trees per country to offset harmful carbon dioxide emissions. “More than seventy thousand of the children who help Felix are ambassadors for climate justice, and they are between nine and twelve years old.”
This is a book my family will turn to again and again because it offers many useful suggestions: sprout cilantro from those coriander seeds in the spice rack, pay attention to where our food comes from, and put a bucket in the shower to save a little water each time. We’ve given up plastic straws, but I’d hoped that paper to-go drink cups were recyclable—they’re not because most cups are plastic-coated paper! This book puts facts at my fingertips so our family knows the truth before ordering that next hot chocolate. “Worldwide, people use over sixteen billion to-go cups every year.” Think about what a difference we could make if we just used our own drink containers. I’ll enjoy my latte more, knowing I’m not part of this billion-cup problem.
Patricia Newman’s middle-grade nonfiction book, Planet Ocean, delves into our relationship to the sea explaining “how to stop thinking of ourselves as existing separate from the ocean and how to start taking better care of this precious resource.” Chapters explore the Coral Triangle, Salish Sea, and the Arctic. People worldwide are highlighted for their beneficial contributions. Eben Hopson started his own film company in high school to show how the melting ice affected his people’s (the Iñupiat) ability to hunt; at eighteen he became an Arctic Youth Ambassador to further explain the problems of climate change.
This 64-page middle-grade book is as informative as it is gorgeous. Photographer Annie Crawley captures the many aspects of the ocean, from its sheer beauty and wonderful creatures to people interacting respectfully with our environment. Crawley states, “We live in an absolutely incredible world which exists because of our ocean. But it is misunderstood, misrepresented, and undervalued by our society.”
The section “Go Blue with Annie” discusses committing to zero waste, taking climate action, thinking before you eat, and being the voice of our ocean. Examples of these items involve reducing or eliminating the plastics we use, choosing vegetarian meals, and joining with others to bring attention to the need to stop polluting the planet.
I’ll remember Crawley’s words, “What we do on land impacts our source of life. Every drop of water we drink and much of the food we eat starts with the sea. Breathe in and you breathe the ocean.” This book will help young readers better understand and appreciate our ocean’s importance, learning how our daily decisions have far-reaching consequences.
★Starred Reviews – Booklist, Kirkus, Publishers Weekly, School Library Journal
Sometimes I just want to read something different. I was in that kind of mood when coming acrossNina LaCour’s YA, Watch Over Me. The striking cover caught my attention: a photo of a girl with downcast eyes and floating hair. When I opened the book, the image had altered slightly, showing her eyes and evoking an unsettling feeling. I couldn’t wait to get reading!
The story begins with Mila leaving her kind (but, having-their-own-baby-now) foster home. She’s found a job on an unconventional farm in Northern California. The couple running it has, over the years, adopted dozens of kids and taken in teens, like Mila, who aged-out of the system, assigning them as teachers for the little ones. Mila’s first student, Lee, is also a troubled outcast. Mila wants to reach him, but struggles to understand her new environment which is both welcoming and excluding.
Along with this self-chosen family comes a land filled with ghosts who dance and play in the distance when Mila returns to her cabin at night. The foggy, rocky coast’s strong atmospheric presence wraps around Mila’s pain. Flashback chapters give glimpses of her life before foster care as the loneliness, trauma, and guilt of Mila’s past escalate into inevitable confrontation.
LaCour’s spare, beautifully written, first-person chapters infuse flashbacks, allowing the reader’s immersion to slowly build in this moving, cerebral story. The dysfunctional mother-daughter relationship, revealed in fragments, is emotionally jarring. Yet, Mila’s resilience provides promise for redemption. Conventional lines of reality bend, perfectly suiting the blurred mindset of the plot.