In The Elephant in the Room, when middle-schooler, Sila Tekin’s mother is stuck in Turkey trying to get her immigration paperwork in order, the loneliness is almost unbearable for her and her father, Alp. Sila’s newly withdrawn demeanor prompts her school to pair her with autistic classmate Mateo Lopez in a special program that has the kids spending time together at the end of each school day. The point is to help both kids socialize more and, after a slow, silent start, they eventually begin getting to know each other.
Life changes dramatically for Sila and Mateo when Alp is hired to fix an old truck owned by widower, Gio, who lives on a non-working farm on the outskirts of town. Sila and Gio seem to form an immediate bond, even before they discover that Gio’s late wife was Sila’s beloved second-grade teacher. When an odd string of coincidences leads to Gio rescuing a young elephant named Veda from a failing circus, Sila and Mateo wind up with the most awesome summer job ever—caring for Veda. Sila connects to the young pachyderm on a deep level, realizing that, like her, Veda must really miss her mother. A reunion of either mother-daughter pair feels out of reach, but with a team of caring friends—maybe it’s not.
Author Holly Goldberg Sloan has another deeply heartfelt hit on her hands. Again employing the multi-POV device she uses so brilliantly, she lets readers see and feel the unfolding of these extraordinary events through various characters’ eyes. Veda’s POV is used sparingly but impactfully, and even the supporting animal characters—a flock of undisciplined flamingos, a ravenous bear, and a loyal dog—whose POVs we’re not privy to, are well-drawn, quirky, and fun.
Both kids are battling quiet storms within, which makes them interesting and empathetic. Gio is wonderfully complex. His desire to rediscover meaning in life, coupled with voluminous lottery winnings, propel him to take on caring for Veda, somehow feeling it’s something he has to do. His connection with Sila seems similarly fated, and their special bond serves as the glue for all of the characters. A story of hope, longing, love, and action, The Elephant in the Room will show middle-grade readers that things—people, animals, situations—are not always what they seem and that they’re not always as powerless over circumstances as they sometimes feel.
It’s that time of year again when we review the best back-to-school books. For 2019 there are many so we’re going to present them over several days.
FLIGHT SCHOOL Written and illustrated by Lita Judge (Little Simon; $7.99, Ages 1-5)
Award-winning author illustrator Lita Judge’s sweet story is now available in board book format and is as charming as ever, and Penguin is just as precious.
There are all kinds of schools but one thing they have in common is that people, or in this case, birds, attend so they can learn things. Enter Penguin. He’s come to Flight School to learn to fly. The teacher tries to point out that Penguin, who claims to have “the soul of an eagle” is a penguin and therefore cannot take to the skies like his classmates. Penguin remains unconvinced.
Attempt after funny attempt, the persevering Penguin fails at flying while his classmates “took to the wind.” He is heartbroken and considers giving up. Fortunately for him, Flamingo figures out a way to get the bird soaring … even if it’s not a permanent solution and that suits Penguin just fine. With its adorable, expression-filled art and upbeat message, Flight School is a reminder of how rewarding it can be to follow your dreams and how friends can help.
Bunny and his forest friends are back for more good times in Bunny’s Book Club Goes to School. In this 40-page picture book, Bunny’s library buddy, Josie, confides in her animal pal that school starts the following week and she’s worried she won’t make any friends.
Bunny hatches a plan to go to Josie’s school to be a friend for her and along the way he runs into Porcupine. Porcupine wants to come with Bunny so the two carry on toward Josie’s school. As the pair journey on, the group gets larger as more and more forest friends want to join in.
Soon there’s Bunny, Porcupine, Bear, Bird, Mouse, Raccoon, Frog, Squirrel and Mole. Nine buddies for Josie. As they hunt for Josie, first Squirrel, then Bird, Mouse and Bear become distracted in various classrooms. I can’t blame them. The basketball game, the music room, and cafeteria were indeed tempting places to be, but Bunny is determined to find his friend.
With everyone gone, (yes, Porcupine “dipped into the art room, and now he was stuck”), Bunny carries on by himself. Alone in the school library, Bunny is impressed. He is eventually joined by the gang. They see Josie through the library windows enjoying her classmates at the playground. When the critters head outside, the fun multiplies. They, too, easily make friends and are happy for Josie, and for themselves.
Silvestro’s hopeful and humorous story is a great one to share at back-to-school time. Mai-Wyss’s lovely water-color illustrations depict a diverse group of children where all look welcome. I noticed a wheelchair ramp in front of the school and a young boy in a wheelchair playing ball with a friend. Bunny and his furry friends provide a gentle reminder for any child starting school that quite often they’re not the only ones interested in making new friends.
It is so easy and entertaining to read Chris Van Dusen’sIf I Built a School, which follows the first in the series, If I Built a House. Between the nod the artwork makes to the “Jetson’s” TV show and the rollicking rhyme that accompanies every spread, I could easily see children re-reading this picture book again and again every back-to-school season.
Jack, the picture book’s narrator, has a fantastic imagination and tells the playground aide, Miss Jane, just what type of school he’d build instead of the plain school where we first meet him.
This school is beyond your wildest dreams and I’m not sure I’d get any work done there because I’d be too busy zooming through clear transportation tubes from towering pod building to towering pod building. Then there are the floating “hover desks” that resemble bumper cars, one of my favorite amusement park rides. Holograms of historical figures teach lessons and in gym the basketball court is a trampoline! At lunchtime, well you’ll just have to see for yourself, but it’s like a robotic automat that serves up any type food, “simple or weird—from PB & jelly to squid lightly seared.”
I pored over every single spread so as not to miss a single thing Van Dusen designed. That includes a sweet blue-nosed, black and white pup who features in almost every illustration along with several disabled characters, one a child in a wheelchair and the other a dog with wheels supporting his back end. The gym and recess illustrations are terrific and, together with younger readers, parents can read the story aloud then help point out all the different activities kids can get up to. If you’ve got a child with an active imagination or one who’s looking for STEAM inspiration, you’ve come to the right book!
See Chris at the Decatur Book Festival in Decatur, GA on Saturday, August 31st. And check out his blog to find out about September visits that may be close to where you live.
Reviewed by Ronna Mandel
Here’s a link to last year’s roundup of the best back-to-school books 2018.
With its catchy opening line of Ground Control to Major Baby, a play on popular David Bowie lyrics, Future Astronaut is off and running! You want cute? This is cute! Twenty-four pages playfully pit Alexander’s prose plus Black’s whimsical side by side illustrations of what it takes to be an astronaut against whether or not baby has what it takes to join NASA. Note its logo emblazoned on several uniforms worn by the adults. Healthy hearts, good eyes, and strong teeth are needed. Check! Baby’s passed that test. Astronauts swim and so does baby. Looks like baby’s on track so far! What about two astronauts working together as they float in orbit? Astronauts live and work in small spaces. On the opposite page are two friends playing inside cardboard boxes. Small spaces are Baby’s favorite places! My favorite illustrations show first an astronaut eating from her plastic dehydrated food packs while baby clearly enjoys playing with plastic too, though not as neatly! But cleverly, once space travel involves leaving home to visit “far-off places,” baby’s not quite ready to take the next step and Alexander wraps things up beautifully with a blissful baby ready to travel as far as dreamland.
Another fun interactive book in Aarts’s “Look, There’s a … ” series of board books, this one’s ideal for little hands of Moon and Mars minded toddlers. Ten sturdy die cut pages let youngsters peek through the holes to see what’s next while answering easy questions in the rhyming text. Look, there’s a star and some planets outside. / Can you see three comets? / What a bumpy ride! Here’s a chance to introduce space travel in a colorful way that rocketeers will find hard to put down.
The Moon has always held such a fascination for mankind. What is it like up there? Is the Moon affecting our mood in addition to our tides? How long will it take to get there? But Hill’s picture book, Moon’s First Friends, turns that curiosity on its head by presenting a story told from the Moon’s point of view.
This Moon, friendly and a bit lonely, is watching Earth and its inhabitants evolve. From dinosaurs to caveman, from bicycle riders to hot air balloonists, from early rocket engineers to the Apollo 11 crew, the Moon sees everything, hoping, waiting … until one day in July it happens. Earth men blast off into space towards the Moon. Hill’s lyrical language here capture’s not only Moon’s joy, but everyone on Earth’s too. “At thirty stories high and weighing six million pounds, the rocket rose into the air amid an explosion of flames.” Several days later the mission makes it to the Moon. Then the most amazing thing occurs in Moon’s lifetime (and it’s my favorite part of the story), men emerge from the module and walk on Moon’s surface. Nothing would ever be the same after that visit. Young readers will share the delight felt by the Moon as expressed through welcome gifts of rocks and moon dust offered to the visitors. The astronauts bestow a token of their friendship as well by leaving a plaque that reads: HERE MEN FROM THE PLANET EARTH FIRST SET FOOT UPON THE MOON / JULY 1969, A.D. / WE CAME IN PEACE FOR ALL MANKIND. They then plant an American flag and zoom back to Earth. The Moon is now confident others will follow suit.
Paganelli’s artwork is charming and cheerful, breathing life into the Moon and all the events leading up to July. Readers can find a selected bibliography in the front of the book as well as back matter about the Apollo 11 voyage plus a couple of photos. Another cool thing that’s been included is a scannable QR code so kids can listen to a recording of Neil Armstrong’s historic first words on the Moon!
Add Aliana Reaches for the Moon to your assortment of Moon books because, while this one’s not about that historic time in July 1969, it is about the Moon’s influence on one clever young girl.
Aliana is creative and observant, great qualities for an aspiring scientist. She tells Gustavo, her little brother, that she’s planning something secret to present him on his upcoming birthday. A calendar in the illustration that accompanies her dialogue shows that there will be a full moon on May 26, Gustavo’s big day. What is Aliana up to that involves making such a mess at home? Thankfully, her parents don’t complain because they know that whatever she’s creating will be worth it. Inspired by great women of science before her, Aliana wants to invent something unique for Gustavo but that requires a lot of reading and preparation so she takes out a ton of library books to begin researching.
When the full moon arrives at last, Aliana shares the glowing result of her experiment. Behold an amazing “magical birthday cake!” And all it took was the ingenuity of gathering up five (Gustavo’s turning five years old) vases and glasses, filling them with marbles, coins, pieces of quartz and topping them “with a crystal from her collection … ” and waiting for the full moon to shine. Roettiger’s story shows readers what’s involved in inventing with the goal of motivating children to experiment themselves. By using the moon as her source, Aliana has harnessed the lunar light to bring her invention to life. Boroff’s jewel toned illustrations complement Roettiger’s prose as they convey the joy and satisfaction transforming a dream into reality can bring. An author’s note at the end explains the moon cycles for budding inventors.
The fifteenth book in Meltzer’s best-selling “Ordinary People Change the World” series is like Armstrong himself, it doesn’t fail to deliver. Kids as well as adults will learn so much from the 40 pages of Armstrong’s biography. I didn’t know that even as a young child, the future first man on the Moon exhibited astronaut-worthy traits such as patience, bravery, and intelligence (he loved to read). He was obsessed with airplanes too. He worked hard from an early age to earn money for flying lessons, earning his pilot’s license even before his driver’s license!
After joining the navy and “flying in seventy-eight missions during the Korean War,” Armstrong went on to become a test pilot after college. He eventually heeded President Kennedy’s challenge of “… landing a man on the Moon” and applied to NASA and was accepted into their astronaut program. The rest as they say is history, but that doesn’t mean it’s not fascinating. A double gate-fold in the center of the book shows the Apollo 11 astronauts’ glorious view of the Moon and Eliopoulos’s other cartoon-style artwork playfully depicts the space journey with the Eagle ultimately landing on the Moon’s surface. Parents can remind children to keep an eye out for a picture of Meltzer hidden somewhere in this and all his other books in the series. I love how both astronaut John Glenn and mathematician Katherine Johnson are also featured in one of the illustrations because their contributions to our successful space exploration deserve recognition. As a humble individual, Armstrong always credited the entire team that helped put a man on the Moon.
When Armstrong took his first steps, “One-fifth of the world’s population was watching on TV.” Children love to learn facts like that which are not easily forgotten. I am Neil Armstrong provides age appropriate and always interesting information conveyed in a kid-friendly fashion that demonstrates how one man’s determination and humility changed the world forever. Meltzer mentions what Armstrong’s family said after he passed away: “Next time you walk outside on a clear night and see the Moon smiling down at you, think of Neil Armstrong and give him a wink.” Back matter includes a time line of the space race and several color photos including ones of the Apollo 11 crew.
Moonstruck!’s over 50 fab poems not only help children reflect on the momentous occasion from 50 years ago, but also touch upon so many different aspects of the moon orbit, landing as well as the mystery and majesty of the Moon itself. “The Lonely Side of The Moon” by Laura Mucha is about Michael Collins’ radio silence when he was separated from Armstrong and Aldrin for 48 minutes while Doda Smith’s “Dear Mr. Astronaut” features a child requesting some moon dust to add to his amazing collection of things. James Carter’s concrete poem, “The Moon Speaks!” is told from the moon’s perspective and B.J. Lee’s rhyming “Moon Marks” considers how long a dozen spacemen’s footprints will remain, frozen in time.
Classic poems from Emily Brontë and Robert Louis Stevenson join new ones from Catherine Benson and Celia Warren and many more. Not only is this an awe-inspiring anthology of moon-themed poetry from internationally known poets, it’s got interesting facts when they can add to the appreciation of a particular poem’s topic. Boxall’s beautiful black and white linocuts add another delightful dimension to what’s already an out of this world anthology. Keep this one on hand for National Poetry month!
★Starred Reviews – Kirkus Reviews, School Library Journal
If you love graphic novels, don’t miss picking up a copy of Brown’s Rocket to the Moon! because it’s an excellent way to experience the trajectory of space exploration in cartoon format. It’s also the first in what promises to be a super new series, “Big Ideas That Changed the World.” This fast yet engaging read taught me more than a thing or two about the history of rockets with its attention to detail both through the text and the illustrations. Celebrating “the hard-won succession of ideas that ultimately remade the world” the novel uses a narrator drawn from real life named Rodman Law to share the ups and downs of rocketry. We’re pulled into the story by this American daredevil’s attempt to launch a homemade rocket in the early 20th century.
Contrasting the entertaining introduction to the subject matter, Law takes us back in time to first century China where gunpowder was invented then fast forwards many centuries to explain how the British used rockets to bombard Fort McHenry in the War of 1812, hence Francis Scott Key’s lyrics in our national anthem, “… And the rockets’ red glare … ” We also find out how Jules Verne’s prescient science fiction novel, From the Earth to the Moon, influenced rocket scientists from Russia, Germany and the U.S. and how his vision translated into actual technology used during WWII. When the war ended, several German scientists surrendered to American authorities. Not long after, the space race began when the Soviets launched the first satellite and America, not be outshone by the Soviets, created NASA and the quest for U.S. travel beyond Earth began.
Brown goes above and beyond in recounting and depicting in his illustrations exactly how the competition played out which is what I’m sure tweens will enjoy. From sending dogs, mice, monkeys and chimpanzees into space (with some humorous and sad asides) to the ins and outs of peeing and pooping in a spacesuit, Brown doesn’t hesitate to illuminate us. But he manages to perfectly balance the funny facts with the serious ones including failed launches and devastating disasters resulting in death. About a month before President Kennedy announced the plan to land a man on the Moon, the Soviets sent Yuri Gagarin into space on the first manned trip. So, with the clock ticking, NASA’s planning began. We see and read about how many missions prior to Apollo 11 led the way for America’s historic achievement but it wasn’t easy and it didn’t happen overnight. It took dedication, smarts, teamwork, billions of dollars and eight years to get a man to the Moon. Yet Brown poignantly shows us how also, after all that had been accomplished, the last astronaut to walk on the moon was Apollo 17’s Gene Cernan in 1972, which is when Brown’s novel ends. Throughout the book, Brown’s artwork seamlessly succeeds at pushing the narrative forward and only adds to the emotional connection readers will feel with the subject matter. Ten pages at the end offer a helpful timeline, info about Rodman Law, Notes, a Bibliography and an Author’s Note. Needless to say, I devoured all 136 pages of Rocket to the Moon! It was carefully researched and presented in such an exciting format making it an invaluable and must-read graphic novel for middle grade kids.
The title of this middle grade nonfiction book, Countdown: 2979 Days to the Moon, refers to the amount of time it would take to land a man on the moon starting from May 25, 1961, the day President Kennedy first made his historic challenge. This clever date-driven concept, presented in winning free verse by Slade, combines with Gonzalez’s dramatic illustrations to give a well-rounded account of that critical time in our nation’s history. Black and white as well as color photos add to the energy that emanates from Countdown.
Readers will find they soar through the book as Slade deftly describes the missions from Apollo 1 through Apollo 11 including the tragic Apollo 1 fire that killed astronauts, Grissom, Chaffee and White. The sacrifice made by those three courageous men on January 27, 1967 was not in vain and resulted in life-saving improvements in subsequent missions. Following the fire Apollo 2 is grounded and “NASA decides there will never be a mission called Apollo 3.” Apollo 4 and 5 are unmanned and successful. “The dream is still alive.” Following that triumph, Apollo 6 fails and fears about the future loom large. Soon Apollo 7 is manned for space travel and will circle Earth. The crew even make TV appearances then return home jubilant. “It’s time for Apollo to head to the Moon!” Tweens may recognize the names of the Apollo 8 crew, Frank Borman, Jim Lovell, and Bill Anders. They become the first humans to fly above Earth orbit and to reach lunar orbit. I cannot imagine how it felt when they could see the Moon!
Slade intersperses actual astronaut dialogue which heightens the impact of these mind-blowing moments. She gets into more technical detail than I will here, but suffice it to say kids will learn the lingo and understand who and what’s involved in getting a mission off the ground. Apollo 9 and 10 are also monumental achievements, with their advanced space technology put into action with a space walk, a lunar and command module separation and re-connection, and flying the lunar module just miles from the Moon surface. Look out Moon, here we come! Of course Apollo 11 is given no short shrift but I’m out of space (no pun intended) so get this book and experience the excitement this 50th anniversary is celebrating. When the book ends, 18 astronauts will have braved the risks of space travel and fulfilled President’s Kennedy’s dream. On July 20, 1969, President Richard M. Nixon said of the Moon landing, “For one priceless moment in the whole history of man, all the people on this Earth are truly one; one in their pride in what you have done, and one in our prayers that you will return safely to Earth.”
This inside look at the Apollo missions confirms the contributions of a vast team of individuals (400,000) whose dedication to the shared vision “never wavered.” Slade and Gonzalez have clearly worked hard to brought that vision to every page of this beautiful book. Enjoy additional info in the Author’s and Illustrator’s Notes plus more photos in the back matter.
Prepare for liftoff, lift up (pop-up and pull really) then prepare to be wowed by the impressive and brilliantly executed paper engineering along with a fascinating first hand account by astronaut Buzz Aldrin, the second man to walk on the moon in To The Moon and Back.
Kids even younger than eight will enjoy the design element of this book but the text truly is geared for an older reader who will appreciate the candid and detailed commentary Aldrin has contributed to the book. In just 16 pages, readers are filled in on all that was involved in beating the USSR to a Moon landing and having the first men walk on its surface. I like how we’re pulled in immediately by the first spread showing photos of a newspaper headline, President Kennedy and the Apollo 11 crew positioned on top of a powerful image of the lunar module floating in space near the Moon. “Historians have called this story humanity’s greatest adventure” and I agree, especially considering how much was at stake.
The second spread and first pop-up depicts Aldrin’s space walk on the last Gemini flight, 12, juxtaposed against an enormous shot of Earth. It’s definitely the first “Wow!” moment but not the last! Here we learn Aldrin was nicknamed Dr. Rendezvous because of his excellent abilities at docking, a crucial element of the Moon mission. This page also features a recollection by Jan Aldrin, Buzz’s daughter about the day that Gemini 12 took off for space. Additional exclusive reflections can also be found on other pages. Filled with an insider’s anecdotes, this book is not only a great way to learn about Moon exploration, it’s also a fast, entertaining read.
What works in an interactive book like To the Moon and Back is how the story of Apollo 11 comes alive. By learning from Aldrin himself how he first came to join NASA in 1963 all the way through to his ultimate achievement of reaching the moon is inspiring. At the same time looking closely at the the pop-ups and other interesting images along with Jan Aldrin’s recollections, make this a powerful educational tool for kids. The engaging nature of the book means space enthusiasts can easily follow along on the successive missions, while reading about which astronauts were involved and what new goals were accomplished or sadly, sometimes not. Before that decade had ended, America had achieved what had once seemed impossible, confirming the “endless endurance of the human spirit.”
A bonus paper model to build is included. Tweens can assemble the Apollo11 Lunar Module and go tonatgeokids.com/to-the-moonfor additional step-by-step and video instructions.
There’s more to this book than simply a comprehensive history of “humanity’s journey into space.” It’s actually a book that’s been enhanced with augmented reality (AR). All readers need to do is download the Space Race AR app to be able to see detailed 3D spacecraft and vehicle models appear right on the pages of the book! Kids can also “watch videos come to life on the page, including real-life footage from NASA. How cool is that?
From Sergei Korolev, the Soviet Union’s chief rocket designer whose identity was kept top secret “for fear the Americans would assassinate him,” to the search for alien life (aka SETI, the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence), it’s all here to soak up in 96 fantastic pages.
The book is broken up into six accessible chapters averaging between 13-16 pages: “The Race for Rockets”, “Humans in Space,” “The Moon in View”, “Space Stations and Shuttles,” “Probing the Planets,” and “Into the Future.” Tweens can choose to read the book in order or pick their favorite topic and indulge themselves. What’s wonderful is that even without using the AR app, I found the illustrations absolutely gorgeous. There are also a tremendous amount of photographs that capture important moments in time, and quotes such as one from Gus Grissom before his tragic death on Apollo 1 when killed by fire, If we die, do not mourn for us. This is a risky business we’re in and we accept those risks.” One of my favorite spreads in Space Race is the one where we get a peak inside the Apollo spacesuits. Its designers really thought of everything and I’m sure Armstrong, Aldrin and Collins were grateful! For readers eager to learn more about living in space, the space station section offers detailed info on life aboard MIR.
This book will be a hit in classrooms, libraries and at home. Pick up a copy to be up-to-date on what’s happening in outer space and beyond the solar system.
Read a fascinating article about Katherine Johnson called “The Path to The Moon” written by Joseph Taylor in Cricket. Johnson, who worked at NASA “helped figure out the mathematics behind space travel—specifically the path astronauts would take to make it to the moon and back.”
MY HEART Written and illustrated by Corinna Luyken (Dial Books for Young Readers; $17.99, Ages 4-8)
Author-illustrator Corinna Luyken’srhyming picture book, My Heart, about perseverance through difficult emotional times, will resonate with readers. The spare lyrical text explains what can happen to a heart: “some days it is cloudy and heavy with rain” or “it’s a whisper that can barely be heard.”
Details make this book special. On the cover, a golden heart-shaped flower glows hopefully as a girl tends it. The story’s carefully chosen evocative words and yellow-accented black-and-white images set the differing moods. Kids of varying ages and backgrounds depict our universal feelings.
If you look closely, each page has hidden heart-shaped images. From a playground slide and a puddle, to constellations and leaves. Love Luyken’s stunning artwork? Check under the cover for a bonus illustration.
This book can cheer someone up or just let them know you love them. A heart can experience myriad things, and “a heart that is closed can still open again.”
★Starred Review – Kirkus Reviews, School Library Journal
WHERE THE WOODS END Written by Charlotte Salter (Dial BYR; $17. 99, Ages 10-14)
★Starred Reviews – Kirkus Reviews, School Library Connection
Twelve-year-old Kestrel’s dark and mysterious world is literally defined by Where the Woods End. And she wants out. Since her mother’s the village witch and her father a lonesome wolf hunter, Kes doesn’t fit in with the other kids. Brushing off their taunting, Kes, instead, utilizes Granmos’s harsh training to destroy grabbers—these beings build bodies resembling their victim’s greatest fear; once they’re complete, your time is up.
With her weasel-like sidekick named Pippit and her tree-living friend, Finn, Kes studies Granmos’s notes, trying to discover a way to the world beyond before her grabber attacks. All the while, other fantastic ghouls (like treecreepers and face painters) loom dangerously.
Salter’s middle-grade horror fantasy novel’s imaginative world with twists and peril will keep you turning the pages. We feel Kes’s plight for redemption and freedom. She’s an outcast in her town and her home, yet bravely tries to make sense of the mysteries. In doing so, her friendships quiver and threaten to break as she becomes more entrenched in her quest. Where the Woods End will appeal to middle-grade readers seeking adventures in creepy worlds.
GETTING AWAY WITH MURDER: The True Story of The Emmett Till Case Written by Chris Crowe (Speak/Dial BYR; $10.99, Ages 12 and up)
Author Chris Crowe first wrote Getting Away With Murder: The True Story of The Emmett Till Case, a riveting and award-winning nonfiction book, back in 2003. Today I’m reviewing a revised edition that “has been updated to reflect the newest information about Emmett’s life and untimely death …” which should be read by every teen to understand the Jim Crow era South and “the hate crime that helped spark the civil rights movement.”
In the L.A. Times on Friday, July 13, I read that the Emmett Till case has once again been reopened based upon new information that has come to the attention of authorities. I needed to know more. Over the years I only learned snippets about the case because, like a majority of students to this day, I was never taught the Till case in school. Now that I’ve read Crowe’s engaging, well-crafted and meticulously researched book, I know about the grave miscarriage of justice that occurred in Mississippi in 1955. In an intro, eight chapters, a detailed time line plus back matter, Crowe examines events leading up to the brazen and brutal murder of 14-year-old African American, Emmett Till, the subsequent trial and later developments that culminated in the exhumation of Till’s body. Crowe’s also tied in the Black Lives Matter movement that grew out of the senseless Trayvon Martin killing. For those yet to read Getting Away With Murder, Crowe puts all the events that take place into historical context by educating us about current events of the time period. For example, the heinous, racist crime against Till took place three months prior to Rosa Parks’ historic bus activism and was an important catalyst in the civil rights movement. Covering the case should be part of every school’s curriculum especially given that innocent black lives continue to be taken 63 years on.
Emmett Till and his mother lived in Chicago, but when his Uncle Mose Wright, a sharecropper from the Mississippi Delta region, invited him for a visit, he jumped at the opportunity to spend time with his family. It was the summer following eighth grade and fun-loving Emmett was feeling good. His mother, on the other hand, felt nervous. Mrs. Mamie Till Bradley knew that, while she and her son lived in a segregated Chicago neighborhood, theirs was a relatively racial violence free existence. Emmett didn’t have to deal with the harsh realities and repercussions of the Deep South Jim Crow era laws. But Mamie was from Mississippi. She worried Emmett wouldn’t take the law or her advice seriously and sadly she mother was right. He found her cautions silly.
Once with his southern family, Emmett was boastful about his life in Chicago, about how he interacted with and claimed to date white women. Not long after his arrival, in the nearby town of Money, Till was egged on by his cousins. He went into Bryant’s Grocery & Meat Market, a small white-owned store belonging to Roy and Carolyn, to chat up the woman. Bryant was out of town on a delivery and his wife was alone in the store. Things turned bad quickly when Emmett, who didn’t “appreciate the seriousness of this Southern taboo …” entered Bryan’t market, asked for some candy and then made a pass at Carolyn. According to her statement, “… when she held out her hand for his money, … he grabbed it, pulled her toward him, and said, ‘How about a date, baby?'” Some other interaction occurred as well. This was followed by a wolf whistle after Emmett had been pulled from the store by his friends.
When nothing happened for several nights everyone thought Emmett was in the clear. As we know, such was not the case. When Bryant returned from his trip, he and his half-brother, J. W. “Big” Milam, kidnappped Emmett in the middle of the night. The men felt retaliation was required to defend Bryant’s wife’s honor and teach the boy a lesson so they tortured him. When he was defiant, they killed him. One of five lawyers, J. J. Breland, who eventually took on the defendant’s case said they all felt intense pressure to “let the North know that we are not going to put up with Northern negroes ‘stepping over the line.'” As the title implies, the men were acquitted. While in their minds justice prevailed, it clearly had not. The case won national coverage due to multiple reasons, but one of the most crucial ones was Mamie Till Bradley’s decision to have an open casket at Emmett’s funeral so the world could see just what had been done to her son.
Getting Away With Murder explains how much of what happened that summer was driven by racism, fear and anger. Bryant and his fellow Southerners were unhappy about the recent Brown v. Board of Education decision mandating desegregation in schools. The majority of the population in the segregated South did not want their way of life to change, especially if dictated by Northerners. But it was truly the beginning of the end for them.
There were many surprises in the book for me but I don’t want to share them all here. While their significance is of the utmost importance, I think they have to be read first hand to appreciate the implications and feel the outrage. What’s sad about this pivotal event in our country’s history is that while a lot has changed, a lot has unfortunately remained the same in regards to racism. Last night I described the Emmett Till case to my husband who had never heard of it. My 17-year-old son had. My son said he found out more details from me than what he had originally learned. My husband thanked me. We must keep sharing the story. I recommend picking up a copy of Chris Crowe’s book for your teens. They will thank you .
Over a dozen different kinds of animal dads demonstrate why they’re so beloved in this rhyming 32-page picture book. Offspring ask “Who makes you feel big even though you small?” or “Who sits in the front row when you’re in a play and takes lots of pictures on your special day?” Do we know the answers? Yes! Devoted dads do all sorts of things to make their youngsters feel special and Evans has selected some important ones including encouragement, validation, playfulness, listening and best of all, love! “Who gives you a bear hug and tucks you in tight? Who whispers ‘I love you,’ then turns out the light?” From anteaters to walruses, Ferro’s charming illustrations of animal dads and kids use soothing jeweled tones and fill every two page spread completely. This technique allows readers to occasionally get a glimpse of several daddy child relationships before a page turn and also means more animals such as elephants, hedgehogs, lions, monkeys, mice, octopi, owls, pandas, peacocks, penguins and polar bears can be included in the story. “She creates her artwork primarily in gouache, colored pencil, and ink before tweaking digitally.” Daddies Do is a wonderful addition to Father’s Day themed books although this one clearly can be revisited over and over again any time of year.
School dances are hard enough to begin with, but when your confidence is low and your dad, who also happens to be your date, steps out for a while at the spring dance and you’re left sitting there on your own, can you feel any worse? Such is the case with Olive. She’s the narrator of The Gorilla Picked Me!, a refreshing and rhyming look at how this self-described “plain, simple and ordinary” main character has experienced her school life up to this point. Her clothes are second-hand, she’s chosen last for teams and the only Valentine she receives is a discarded one. But when the special guest at the school dance, makes his appearance, things start looking up for Olive. This silly, dancing blue gorilla playing a kazoo is the life of the party and, out of anyone there, he picks Olive to join him on the dance floor. They swirl and they twirl and this magic moment lifts up Olive like nothing else has. After Gorilla departs and Olive’s father returns, her one regret is that he missed her star performance. But did he? Look for clues planted as to the gorilla’s identity and have a conversation about the remarkableness of being ordinary. Warmth and love emanate from Carboni’s illustrations that complement McAvoy’s heartwarming story of a dad’s clever way of elevating his child’s self-esteem. A pleasing pick for Father’s Day.
My first suggestions for Elanna Allen’s adorable picture book, Pet Dad, is to not miss the end papers in the front because they’re hysterical and so many people skip this part of a book. It’s also how you know you’re in for a treat, not a doggy treat, a reader’s treat! “Plum wants a pet. Plum’s dad does not want a pet” is how the story begins as she drags then begs him in front of the pet shop. But since her father’s rather adamant against and she’s rather resolute for, she’s not leaving without a dog. Dad is just going to have to fit the bill! She even names him Schnitzel. He may seem to enjoy her attention at first, but Dad or Schnitzel is not responding well to Plum’s attempts to treat him like any other pet. He doesn’t want to eat the food she’s prepared, get paper-trained or sleep at her feet. Can you blame him? At the park the next day, Schnitzel is still not behaving like Plum would like and she acts out in frustration. In fact, rather than Pet Dad getting punished, it’s Plum who must contemplate her unruly actions. During a time out, Plum realizes that offering a hard-to-refuse reward to her dad so that he’ll cooperate is the way forward. After such a positive response and with the help of lots of hugs, Plum and her dad are on track to having a most mutually loving and enjoyable relationship.Told tongue-in-cheek with hilarious, pet-centered illustrations, Pet Dad is an ode to the wonderful daddy daughter dynamic worth celebrating on Father’s Day.
Sun Written and illustrated by Sam Usher (Templar Books; $16.99, Ages 3-7)
Sun by Sam Usher follows Rain and Snow, two previous picture books by this talented author/illustrator. The first thing that struck me about this beautiful picture book is the front cover. A little lad sits on the stoop of his home or someone else’s. He’s sipping something from a cup, the inviting red front door is partially open and sparkling sand dusts the steps and leads to the sidewalk depicted as a beach, replete with shiny sandcastle and a green parrot, also sipping away at something! If that doesn’t spark one’s imagination, I don’t know what will! It’s soon learned the boy is staying at his Granddad’s and clues to the adventure that awaits him are sitting right there on his bed in the first illustration, a pirate and a bow-tied monkey toy. Despite being the hottest day ever, Granddad suggests a picnic and, after loading up with all the “necessary provisions,” the pair set off in search of the perfect spot. As Granddad navigates with a map (is that a pirate flag on the sandcastle?), the unnamed narrator remains on lookout. Does he notice that some trees in the distance seem to resemble a sailing ship? Shady spots seem most appealing on a scorcher and eventually the two end up by a cave. Lo and behold, someone has gotten there before them! A perfectly pirate-y dinghy is down below (the main ship is off in the distance) and a little boy is at the bow just in front of a peg-legged pirate and other non-intimidating crew. Treasure is unburied, intermingling has begun between Granddad, Grandson and pirates, and a picnic can be had at last! The second to last illustration, a spread of the picnic party onboard the massive pirate ship is delightful and warrants intense inspection since so many fun things can be found on the Galleon’s many levels. Can you spot the parrot from the first page? I suspect the main character might be named Arlo since Usher’s dedicated the book to him and magnets with his initials can be found on the fridge in the last illustration. Whether the pirate adventure is real or imagined, there’s a good time to be had by all who embark on this jolly grandfather and grandson journey.
Simple in concept, but rich in design elements, this 14-page board book is perfect for little ones who adore the pull-apart Matryoshka dolls. Every other page takes a child back several generations of a father’s father’s father’s father’s father’s dad who in turn saw the birth of a child eventually bringing the reader to the present. “And not long ago, I saw the birth of you … my very own child. A father’s love goes on and on and on.” What a beautiful sentiment to share with a young child while cuddling them close and showing them all the different colored pages, each with unique and nature-inspired artwork. There’s also a version for moms
EL CHUPACABRAS Written by Adam Rubin Illustrated by Crash McCreery (Dial BYR; $16.99, Ages 4-8)
Adam Rubin (Dragons Love Tacos, Robo-Sauce,and Those Darn Squirrels) delights audiences once again with his 48-page picture book El Chupacabras. In this fractured folktale, we learn that the legendary and fearsome creature known as El Chupacabras (the goatsucker) is actually a tiny, well-dressed gentleman who drinks chocolate with the butterflies. He does, however, occasionally like to suck a goat.
English and Spanish words are interwoven with sentences beginning in one language and ending in another or switching back and forth midsentence. This inventive style organically teaches the fluidity of languages. Some lines remain in Spanish without translation, but, taken in context and with what’s been unwittingly learned, the words are simply understood.
The text is cinematically illustrated by acclaimed Hollywood creature creator, Crash McCreery, best known for his iconic character designs in the Jurassic Park and Pirates of the Caribbean films. Mischievous goat antics are a delightful through line and goat pancakes are sure to delight. This fulfilling story and its modern art engage the reader on every page.
Rubin has generously pledged to donate his proceeds from El Chupacabras to the Hispanic Federation in support of the Educational Programs and Puerto Rican hurricane relief. “I decided to tell this story in an unusual way to explore the beauty of harmony,” says Rubin. “It’s easy to dismiss the unfamiliar, but compassion takes a little more effort. With so many people trumpeting the ignorances of separation right now, it’s more important than ever to teach kids that there is more than one way to understand the world.” Hats off to these timely sentiments.
THE CARE AND FEEDING OF A PET BLACK HOLE Written and illustrated by Michelle Cuevas (Dial BYR; $16.99, Ages 8-12)
“The story began on an afternoon the color of comets, with a girl dressed all in black. A sad girl. A girl with a hole in her heart, and darkness on the horizon.” The year is 1977 and eleven-year-old Stella Rodriguez, the protagonist in The Care and Feeding of a Pet Black Holeby Michelle Cuevas,loves science. She’s fascinated by the upcoming Voyager launch and visits NASA to give Carl Sagan a recording to take to space—one of Stella and her (deceased) father, laughing and telling jokes. The Voyager will carry all the “wonderful sounds of Earth” but Stella’s younger brother, Cosmo, asks “Are there sad sounds too?”
Stella’s turned away at NASA, but a black hole who seems to want to be her pet follows her home. She names him Larry, short for Singularity, a place of infinite gravity at the heart of a black hole. Using puppy training books, Stella learns to care for and train her black hole. When, like all unruly pets, Larry consumes inappropriate things, Stella realizes he could serve as a repository for items she wants out of her life along with their corresponding memories. Maybe nothingness is better than the pain of remembering.
Cuevas’s illustrations intersperse her text, adding visual interest. When Stella enters the black hole, the pages turn black. The interstellar adventure inside Larry is riotous fun involving the kids, their puppy, the smelly classroom hamster, an assortment of discarded things, and the family’s bathtub. The Care and Feeding of a Pet Black Hole is an entertaining and lighthearted story surrounding the gravity of Stella’s aching grief.
Eventually, Stella realizes even if she has a hole in her center “that’s okay, because it’s full of such beautiful, beautiful things.” In the clever appendix, “A Beginners Guide to the Care and Feeding of Black Holes,” Stella Rodriguez graciously summarizes all she has learned.
In this story we meet a delightfully frustrated and itchy Elephant desperate for a good back scratch. We all know how good that feels! Elephant groans every time a new friend tries to help. But the bumps, tickles, fangs and other animals’ offerings are far from what our poor pachyderm protagonist needs. When he’s reached his limit and sits down to sob over his situation, a friendly hedgehog comes by.
Hedgehog would love to help, and his body is the perfect level of pokey-ness for the task at hand. Elephant lifts Hedgehog by the trunk and uses him as a back scratcher, gaining immediate relief. So much relief, in fact, that he sighs in utter euphoria and absentmindedly flings Hedgehog away by the trunk.
And now poor Hedgehog is stuck—belly up—in the ground by the very pokey part of his body that previously helped the Elephant. Not only is he stuck, but his belly starts to itch. Won’t anyone help him out? In the bright of day, Sloth notices Hedgehog’s dilemma and offers to help.
Climo’s cartoon illustrations and bubbled read-aloud thoughts of each animal attempting to help the itchy Elephant are silly, fun and perfect for the intended audience. What a great LOL combination!
Read Can Somebody Please Scratch My Back? to find out if Sloth can make it in time to deliver Hedgehog from his agony.
THE RABBIT LISTENED by Cori Doerrfeld is a book that, as a preschool teacher, I want to thrust into parents’ hands to read over and over again with their preschool/TK/Kinder children. Quick to the point, with language that works around a universal issue that children (and adults) must handle, while not talking down to the intended audience.
Emotional intelligence, empathy, the very things we need so much in this world, resonate loudly and clearly in this gorgeous story. Doerrfeld’s illustrations are touching and relatable throughout each character’s struggle to cope with the problem at hand.
The young protagonist, Taylor, has built something from his imagination that took no little skill to master with his hands. He’s worked so hard on his block creation, only to have it knocked down in a rubble of despair and lost hope. His animal friends want to help. They want to fix, throw away, remind him of better creations yet to come. Taylor, however, doesn’t need this. The animals all walk away, frustrated by their inability to help him, missing an opportunity to connect with his pain.
Then rabbit hops over. Rabbit is quiet. Rabbit listens. Rabbit doesn’t tell Taylor how or when or why he should get over his loss. Rabbit is there, and stays with the boy throughout his processing of an event gone wrong. And when the young protagonist is ready to rebuild again, rabbit is there to support him.
How often do we seek comfort from someone and get the opposite from a well meaning heart? Sometimes we simply need to be allowed our feelings, our disappointment and ill thoughts. Then, and only then, when we are ready, can we consider beginning again.
I recommend this book highly for anyone who struggles to help a child cope when they are just not READY for all the suggestions on how to move forward.
Give them the time and space.
Give them permission to vent.
Support them when they are ready to build again. And always listen.
HOW TO GROW A DINOSAUR Written by Jill Esbaum and illustrated by Mike Boldt (Dial Books for Young Readers; $17.99; Ages 2-5)
If you’re looking for a gift for a child who is about to become an older sibling, look no further than Jill Esbaum’s hilarious and practical guide to big siblinghood, HOW TO GROW A DINOSAUR with artwork by Mike Boldt. Here’s a description from Penguin Random House:
Good news: Your mom’s hatching a baby! Bad news: Babies take their sweet time. And when the baby finally hatches? He’s too little to play! He mostly screeches, eats, burps, sleeps, and poops. He doesn’t even know he’s a dinosaur! That’s where you come in. You can teach the baby just about everything–from peek-a-boo to roaring to table manners to bedtime. Growing a dinosaur is a big job, but you’re perfect for it. Why? Because one thing your baby brother wants more than anything . . . is to be just like you.
INTERVIEW: I was lucky enough to sit down for a chat (via Facebook Messenger) with Jill to talk about the book, finding time to write, and the perks of being a kidlit author.
Colleen Paeff:I love the way HOW TO GROW A DINOSAUR is playful and funny, but it’s also a legitimate how-to guide for older siblings. Did the manuscript start out that way or did it evolve over time?
Jill Esbaum: Thanks, Colleen! That evolved over time. I wrote it to be a simple, entertaining book, but it sort of took on a life of its own. My editor grabbed onto the possibilities right away.
CP:Did you send it to your agent first or did it go straight to your editor?
JE: I sent it to my agent, Tricia Lawrence. I had my Dial editor, Jessica Dandino Garrison, in mind, though, and asked Tricia to send it to her first. It seemed like the kind of goofy humor she might like.
CP:So, you had worked with this editor before?
JE: Yes. We had worked together on both I HATCHED and I AM COW, HEAR ME MOO!
CP:Is it easier to work on something with an editor you’ve worked with before?
JE: Definitely, because you (sorta) know what might work for her/him and what probably won’t.
CP:How long was the process from first draft to publication for HOW TO GROW A DINOSAUR?
JE: I sent it to Tricia in May of 2015, and by October we had an offer. The process didn’t really start until March, when the contract was finally buttoned up. So March, 2016, to January, 2018. Not bad.
CP:Is that faster than usual? Or is that normal for you?
JE: That was about the same as my other recent books. I once waited nearly 5 years, though, so 2 years felt like lightning speed. My last 5 (or so) books have all been about 2 to 2 and a half years from sale to publication.
CP:Wow. That seems fast!
JE: Still seems fast to me, too. My earlier books were mostly 3-year books.
CP:I’m curious about the ratio of stories you write to stories you sell. Do you have many manuscripts in the proverbial “drawer” or do you sell most of what you write?
JE: That’s hard to say right now. My agent has 6-7 picture book manuscripts that started to make the rounds last year. Considering my entire career, though, I suppose I sell…50% of what I write? That’s probably just because I refuse to give up on some that deserve the drawer. I can’t help tinkering with rejected stories in hopes of making them irresistible the next time out. That persistence has often paid off for me. An offer came in last month for a picture book that had been rejected 7-8 times since I wrote it in 2014.
CP:Do you usually work on one project at a time or several?
JE: Several. Right now, I have a chapter book, 3 picture book manuscripts, and a nonfiction project all front and center on my computer desktop.
CP:Are you someone who writes every day or do you have a more flexible schedule? And how do you squeeze it in around farm work, grandchildren, school visits, and teaching a summer writing workshop?!
JE: I don’t feel like I’ve been doing a very good job of it lately, honestly. Working on that. But I can’t always make writing my priority. Family comes first, always. One thing that has also been squeezing out writing time lately is handling the business side of being published. I don’t love it, and it’s a huge time suck. Long, leisurely days of “Hmm, what should I work on first?” are VERY few and far between, these days.
CP:But it seems like you’re so prolific!
JE: I don’t feel that way. I always feel like I should be writing more. For instance, I wrote a quick draft of a new picture book and sent it to my online critique group about 10 days ago. They’ve all weighed in, and I’m chomping at the bit to start tweaking. But I haven’t yet been able to make the time. Part of that is because I have a new book out and am doing my best to promote it, including my first-ever launch party this next weekend. Partly it’s because the flu sidelined a grandson’s babysitter, so I stepped in there. Grammy duty is one of the best parts of my life!
CP:Is hanging out with your grandkids a big source of inspiration for you?
JE: It is! And I hadn’t really expected that. My fingers are tightly crossed for a project going to its final yes/no meeting next month that springs entirely from a moment I experienced while babysitting my granddaughter. Crazy.
CP:I know you write both fiction and nonfiction. Do you have a soft spot for one over the other?
JE: I suppose I have a soft spot for fiction, but only because that comes entirely from my own imagination, and it’s a blast to see that come to life. I love writing nonfiction, too, because all the information I need is easily available to me, and all I have to do is figure out a way to make it engaging for kiddos.
CP:Let’s get back to HOW TO GROW A DINOSAUR. I love the parts in the story where the text is vague, but the illustrations show something alarming, or moving, or downright hilarious. Did your manuscript go to the illustrator with art notes or was that all him?
JE: I did include brief art notes here and there. But much of it was left for the illustrator’s imagination. I don’t think I had an art note for the page in which the baby dino is teething on the cat. And that turned out to be one of my favorite illustrations.
CP:Yes! I love that one. And I love the one where the big brother roars and scares the baby. They both look so sad.
JE: I feel very fortunate that both Jessica and the illustrator, Mike Boldt, understood what I was trying to do.
CP:Do you have a favorite unexpected detail?
JE: My favorited unexpected detail is that Mike inserted picture books here and there with titles that are plays on books of his or mine. There’s I Don’t Want To Be a Stegosaurus (from his book with Dev Petty, I Don’t Want To Be a Frog); I Hatched; and I Am T. Rex, Hear Me Roar! (from my I Am Cow, Hear Me Moo!) Too funny. Illustrators are brilliant.
CP:Yes! I love those, too. And I love how all the illustrations in the books are dinosaurs. It’s so clever.Did you see any artwork while it was in process or did you have to wait until it was complete?
JE: I did get to see the black and white sketches. It was obvious even then that this one would be special.
CP: Do you sometimes feel a sense of trepidation when you give up your manuscript to an illustrator?
JE: No, I never feel that way. I’m always excited to see what they bring to the story. Seeing their sketches feels like unwrapping a gift.
CP:What’s next for you?
JE: I have a couple of nonfiction books coming out in March. Picture book-wise, two projects are in the pipeline that I can’t yet talk about. And my fingers are tightly crossed for a third. Meanwhile, I’ll be writing whenever I can squeeze it in. Enough of that, and projects eventually get finished.
CP:What do you wish you’d known when you first started writing for children?
JE: I don’t think there’s anything I can say I wish I’d known. Getting to this point in my career has been one long, slow learning process, of course. But I can’t wish I’d had shortcuts, because everything that’s happened has made me a stronger writer.
CP:That’s good to know!
JE: The BEST thing that’s happened in the past 20 years: If anybody had told me, early on, that in 20 years I’d have this many amazing and talented author/illustrator friends all over the globe I would have thought that person was nuts. I mean, I live in Iowa; how would I meet them? Ha. Enter the internet. And SCBWI conferences and literature festivals. Meeting so many terrific book people has been one of the highlights of my life.
CP:It’s definitely one of the perks of this business. Thanks so much for doing this, Jill!
ALL’S FAIRE IN MIDDLE SCHOOL Written and illustrated by Victoria Jamieson (Dial BYR; $20.99, Ages 8-12)
★Starred Reviews – Kirkus, Publishers Weekly A New York Times Editor’s Choice An Autumn Kids’ Indie Next List top pick
Victoria Jamieson’s graphic novel, All’s Faire in Middle School, provides a much-needed glimpse into alternative lifestyles. Twelve-year-old Imogene has been homeschooled by parents who work at Florida’s Renaissance Faire. When Imogene starts public school for the first time, she faces a very different world than at the faire where she is a knight-in-training.
Each chapter begins with brief synopsis of the brave heroine’s plight, conveyed in somewhat Old English. With much of the book set at the faire, readers gain insight into this medieval reenactment where people choose which role to play. Imogene never wanted to be the princess, but she questions whether she is destined to be a knight—maybe she’s more like Cussie, the hermit. Sometimes, Imogene behaves like the dragon.
The story explores Imogene’s turbulent journey to self-discovery. This is a tale of acceptance, forgiveness, friends, and blossoming sexuality. Imogene is every preteen, learning what it takes to fit in at school. She is teased for wearing thrift-store clothes with the wrong shoes. Imogene’s family becomes an embarrassment to her when they show up still dressed in Elizabethan costume and think nothing of it. Before entering sixth-grade, Imogene hadn’t noticed her family was different and how this is viewed suspiciously.
As with Jamieson’s successful Newbery Honor Book Roller Girl, in All’s Faire, the protagonist is a tough girl struggling with prepubescent emotions. The love of Imogene’s family—including her “faire-mily”—is a constant. Even when at odds with her parents and brother, in the end, Imogene realizes that the bullies and popular kids at school are something to suffer in passing. Her philosophy of what’s important shifts—and that makes all the difference.
Imogene makes unkind choices, acting out against others because of her own frustration. Her journey to finding the right path is a realistically portrayed ongoing battle. In life, there are no easy answers. Family can embarrass us by just being themselves. We all make mistakes, yet, each day, we can choose which character we wish to play. The book concludes with an understanding that, if you believe there are happy endings in sixth-grade, then you haven’t attended middle school—a declaration which will resonate with readers everywhere.
A ROUNDUP OF OUR FAVORITE NEW BACK-TO-SCHOOL BOOKS
With Labor Day kicking off the traditional start of a new school year, what better way to ease little ones into the classroom than with a great selection of back-to-school books to read as they settle into a new routine?
Underwood sure knows how to make parents and children laugh out loud. Here Comes Teacher Cat is full of sight gags that never fail to surprise and delight. So as not to spoil it for you, I’ll just say that once again Cat has outdone himself in cattitude. Whether you love the narrator having a one-sided dialogue with a cat who uses signs to communicate, or the laziness of this feline forever yearning to nap, Underwood’s got it all here when Cat is called in to substitute for Ms. Melba at Kitty School. The only problem is that Cat hasn’t a clue what to do first. When he approaches teaching with his own Cat brand of humor and zeal, there’s no holding him or the kitties back causing quite a bit of chaos in the classroom. What will Ms. Melba find upon her return from the doctor? Why, a very clean classroom, a confident Cat and happy kitties of course. Just don’t open the closet Ms. Melba! Fans of Underwood’s humor and Rueda’s low-key spot on artwork will not be disappointed in this Publishers Weekly starred picture book. Oh and don’t miss the opening illustrations before the title page.
Starting Kindergarten can be scary for most kids, but what happens if you’re a twin? In Twindergarten, author Ehrlich, a mom of twins, tackles the topic gently and thoughtfully, touching on the many issues twins might experience being separated at school for the first time. Though Zoe and Dax are as close as peanut butter and jelly at home, they wonder how they’ll cope being in different classes during the day. They soon learn that Kindergarten is not only fun, it’s a place where they can make new friends, try new things and still see each other during recess. In other words, it’s the best of both worlds. Debut illustrator Abbott puts the emphasis on the main characters clothed in darker outfits in her illustrations making it easy to zoom in how Zoe and Dax are interacting with their environment. Not only for twins, Twindergarten shows the rewards of attending school and how children can be separated from siblings or friends and still thrive.
How enjoyable it was to read this clever spin on a back-to-school book. In Don’t Go to School, it’s young Benno who’s excited to leave while his mom wants him to remain at home. “Don’t go to school!” she wailed. And I laughed! The humor was not lost on me since I could relate to the mother in this lovingly illustrated picture book. I think there are lots of parents, like me, who have experienced separation anxiety when sending their child off on the new adventure and life stage that is attending school. Mommy is encouraged by Benno using language much like a parent would to reassure their new student. “Don’t worry, Mommy,” said Benno. “You’ll get to know the other parents in no time. They seem really nice!” Zepf is clearly familiar with first day jitters and her tantrum scene may ring a bell with others, only this time it’s Mommy who’s lost it. My favorite part of the story is when Benno takes some of his own kisses and tucks them in his mother’s pocket so she can feel his love even when they’re apart. This comforting story will empower youngsters while also providing tips on adjusting to the big change in their lives.
With starred reviews from both Publishers Weekly and Booklist, Mama’s Kisses is sure to be an in-demand picture book for many Mother’s Days to come. McMullan has written a sweet ode to the unwavering devotion and patience of moms, in this case, rainforest moms. The moon is on the rise and four mommy animals are on the lookout for their young ones, a baby panda, elephant, orangutan and leopard. As bedtime beckons, the babies engage in a playful game of hide-and-seek that seems so successful until all at once, when the moms are ready, their hiding place is uncovered. But being found means getting kisses, smooches, and hugs galore until tired eyes can no longer remain open. Dreamland is drawing nigh so the baby animals go to sleep soon followed by their tired moms, always close at hand. Conveyed in uncomplicated rhyme and calming rhythm, Mama’s Kisses is a gentle bedtime tale perfect for pre-schoolers. Nyeu’s artwork fills all corners of most every page and, though using only oranges, yellows and blues, she manages to create a subtle softness, warmth and calming mood with just these few well chosen hues.
Whether it’s for Mother’s Day, Valentine’s Day, Graduation or simply just because, Love is by Diane Adams will make a great gift. Love isa girl and her duckling. Looking after the fuzzy little creature is not unlike a mother caring for her child which is why Love is works on many levels. It’s a story about loving and nurturing something that is dear to you, as well as being about the responsibility involved in such a privilege. “Love is holding something fragile, tiny wings and downy head. Love is noisy midnight feedings, shoebox right beside the bed.” The little girl must also accept that her duckling is growing. She will soon need to allow her pet to move on, fend for itself, find a new home and start a family all its own, all the while knowing that the love she has shared will not be forgotten. This 32 page picture book is a delightful read aloud story with well-paced rhyme and evocative illustrations that, coupled with the meaningful verse, will tug at your heartstrings.
Another winner from the creators of the How To picture book series, How to Raise a Mom will totally charm moms, dads and kids alike. “Raising a happy, healthy mom is fun … and important! Are you ready for some tips?” The sibling narrators take readers through their mother’s typical day as part of their instruction guide, and clearly based on the wonderful rearing and love they’re getting from her. After kisses to awaken her, and giving her choices for the day’s outfit, the kids take her to the supermarket and the playground to name a few places while also leaving quiet time for her to get some work done. It’s fantastic to be treated again to Wildish’s whimsical illustrations like those found in the other How To books, full of humorous not-to-miss touches and amusing expressions in every spread. Kids will especially get a kick out of the dog and cat Wildish includes in many scenes. The children also cover playtime, mealtime and finish up the full day with stories and snuggles. I loved how they occasionally mimic just what Mom always says to them such as “Thank you so much, Sweat Pea, for being so patient,” or “Remember to be a good sharer!” There is so much to enjoy in this picture book tribute celebrating moms everywhere.
Reviewed by Ronna Mandel
More recommended children’s books for Mother’s Day:
Love Written and illustrated by Emma Dodd (Nosy Crow; $12.99, Ages 2-5)