HOME IN THE WOODS Written and illustrated by Eliza Wheeler (Nancy Paulsen Books; $17.99, Ages 5-8)
★Starred Reviews – Booklist, Horn Book, Kirkus
“This book is inspired not only by the stories from [my grandmother],” says Wheeler, “but by the entire generation that experienced the Great Depression. They will soon be gone, and if we haven’t yet collected their stories, the time is now.”
Home in the Woods, the latest picture book by Eliza Wheeler is a treat for the eyes and soul. The embossed title on the book jacket is gorgeous as is the winter scape underneath. The water color and ink artwork is simply stunning.
Travel back in time as this compelling story, based on Wheeler’s grandmother’s life in the Wisconsin woods during the Great Depression, pulls readers right into each meticulously and movingly illustrated page.
Told from the perspective of Wheeler’s grandmother, Marvel, Home in the Woods introduces readers to the six-year-old and her seven siblings along with Mum, a newly widowed and stoic 34-year-old. This 40-page book unfolds over four seasons beginning in Summer when the time is ideal to move into an abandoned tar-paper shack they find in the woods. “You never know what treasures we’ll find,” says Mum. While Marvel doesn’t believe the rundown hut can ever be a treasure let alone a home, she carries on nonetheless relying on the closeness of her family and her mother’s optimism. That energy is conveyed in scenes like the one where seven of the siblings (the youngest, at 3- months-old, is at home with Mum) happily collect berries. Wheeler subtly shows how nature plays an important role in both the family’s struggle and survival.
The blue tones of Summer shift when Autumn arrives and “rust and ruby leaves” provide a beautiful backdrop for this season’s art. Everyone in the family pitches in whether it’s splitting wood to heat the shack or pulling weeds and picking “veggies.” As baby Eva munches a carrot, Mum cooks preserves and the children prepare for winter by stocking up the cellar with whatever they were able to harvest.
On a visit to Bennett’s General Store, the siblings look longingly at the inviting shop window, but they have learned how to do without. They can only afford to “buy some basics.” Cleverly, the kids have invented a game they’ve dubbed General Store that keeps them entertained for hours. Beside the hut, Marvel displays “mud sweets,” little Lowell is the jeweler, older sister Bea sells fine hats (note the creativity of the hats Mum is admiring), and the others all find fulfilling counters to man.
When Winter’s bitter winds blow, the family huddles by the pot-belly stove as the two oldest boys “trek out to hunt for food.” Blue tones return, but the flames of the fire, the glowing lantern, the gold in the children’s crowns, and in the patchwork pieces as Mum teaches Bea to quilt all depict a warmth that is the fabric of this loving family. Marvel shares how her brother Rich teaches her to read in another touching illustration that is rich with contentment.
The illustration above clues readers into Mum’s silent fears for her family while the words, “But Mum stays awake into the night …” tell us what we’ve guessed all along. Living in the woods, barely eking out a living, and supporting her family of nine has taken its toll on this strong woman. Mum prays for her children to get safely through winter and the Depression.
The cycle of seasons culminates in Spring. “The cottonwoods are all in bloom” and a spirit of rebirth and renewal fills everyone’s hearts just as the family’s pail is filled with fresh milk at Erickson’s Farm. The children rejoice in the thrilling sound of birdsong and the blossoming of flowers. Enveloped by hope, the family has gotten through the harsh Wisconsin winter and emerged to find that the power of togetherness, teamwork and love has brought to them the promise of better days ahead and the true meaning of home.
JOHN RONALD’S DRAGONS: THE STORY OF J.R.R. TOLKIEN Written by Caroline McAlister Illustrated by Eliza Wheeler (Roaring Brook Press; $18.99, Ages 7-10)
is reviewed today by Cathy Ballou Mealey.
Even a passing glance at the brilliant cover of John Ronald’s Dragons: The Story of J.R.R. Tolkienwill reveal tantalizing clues about the carefully woven, beautifully illustrated tale inside. A boy, heavy book open in his lap, sits beneath a tree that is morphing, Daphne-esque, into a curious dragon. Utterly fantastic from its root-like tail swirling up the trunk to its leafy green scales, we share the boy’s delight and surprise in the dragon’s appearance as a peaceful, shire- styled village awaits in the distance.
Using dragons as a child-friendly entry point, McAlister frames this picture book biography of J.R.R. Tolkien around his rich imagination and love of language. The book paints an idyllic early childhood that nurtured John Ronald’s passions, allowing them to flourish among stories, family, friends, and invented vocabularies. Those passions then simmer quietly beneath the surface, sustaining him in later years through unhappy times and adult responsibilities.
The magic of this book lies in how well Wheeler’sillustrations build upon McAlister’s text, never failing to seize an opportunity to portray a smoky wisp from cup, chimney or pipe that will connect us to a dragon’s steamy breath. Likewise, architectural details ground the reader in the time period while also stretching to hint at fantasy features in the imagined worlds Tolkien eventually creates. The subtle green-gray-yellow palette keeps the focus squarely on the main character, until finally bursting into glorious red-gold when the dragon Smaug is revealed. Gorgeous endpapers pay delightful homage to William Morris design.
Young readers who may not have yet heard of Tolkien nor seen The Lord of the Rings movies will be gently introduced to Middle Earth world through this charming book. Surely many will identify with the desire to daydream about powerful dragons, misty mountain journeys, or Hobbits and elves. The text includes informative notes from the author and illustrator, Tolkien quotes on dragons, a Tolkien dragon catalog, and bibliography.
John Ronald’s Dragons: The Story of J.R.R. Tolkien is a wonderful initial investment in world-building and imagination for young readers. Once engaged by the dragons and dreams of John Ronald, one cannot help but assume the book will spur future interest in reading more of Tolkien .
Reviewed by Cathy Ballou Mealey
Where Obtained: I reviewed a preview copy of John Ronald’s Dragons: The Story of J.R.R. Tolkien from the publisher and received no other compensation. The opinions expressed here are my own.
This year there are more fab Father’s Day books than I’ve ever seen before so I found it rather difficult to narrow down my favorites to just a few. Here are some of this year’s Father’s Day books I recommend.
Hammer and Nails Written by Josh Bledsoe Illustrated by Jessica Warrick (Flashlight Press; $17.95, Ages 4-8) Josh Bledsoe wrote this story about my husband, or at least he could have because the father in Hammer and Nails (love the wordplay in this title) has a heart of gold with a touch of pink. When his daughter’s playdate plans fall through, it’s dad to the rescue, declaring a daddy daughter day. The pair agree to trade off on completing their lists of activities they’d intended to do before things changed.
If you’ve ever known a father to play dress up with his daughter and even agree to have his hair and nails done, you’ll find that guy here, bonding beautifully with his child. At the same time, the dad asks his daughter to step outside her comfort zone to pound some nails into loose boards on their fence amongst other chores. “Princess, sometimes things you’ve never done end up being fun. Try it.” Everything about Hammer and Nails is fun and upbeat from Warrick’s silly scene of a laundry fight to daddy and daughter getting down with some celebratory moves. With each new page turn, this book will fill young readers with the joy of experiencing quality and creative time spent with a caring dad.
Beard in a Box Written and illustrated by Bill Cotter (Knopf BYR: $17.99, Ages 4-8) Just when you think you’ve seen every kind of Father’s Day book, Beard in a Box arrives! A boy who is convinced the source of his dad’s coolness and power is his beard, decides it’s time to grow one of his own. Only he can’t, despite multiple imaginative efforts. Lo and behold, what should happen to be on TV while this lad is despairing his lack of facial hair – a commercial touting the amazing kid-tested, dad-approved Beard in a Box from SCAM-O. This simple five-step program appeared to work and there were all kinds of bristles available -from the Beatnik to the Biker, the Lincoln to the Santa. What the commercial failed to say was that after following all the required steps, the user had to wait 10-15 years to see results.
When little dude tells his dad how he was ripped off, he notices his father’s beard is gone. Can that mean his dad has lost his coolness? Maybe not with Cotter’s clever examples proving you can’t judge a dad by his beard! The hilarity of Beard in a Box begins with the cover and continues all the way through to the endorsements from satisfied Beard in a Box customers on the back cover: “Don’t take more than the recommended dose. Trust me on this.” – Bigfoot A not-to-miss new read for Father’s Day or any day you need a good laugh or your child yearns for a five o’clock shadow.
Dad School Written by Rebecca Van Slyke Illustrated by Priscilla Burris (Doubleday BYR; $16.99, Ages 3-7) Kids go to school to learn their ABCs so when a little boy’s dad says he also went to school, the youngster figures it had to be Dad school. Van Slyke and Burris have teamed up again after last year’s hit, Mom School, to bring readers a glimpse of all the skills a father must acquire to parent successfully.
“At Dad school, I think they learn how to fix boo-boos, how to mend leaky faucets, and how to make huge snacks …” There is a lot of wonderful humor in both the text and artwork that will not be lost on parents reading the story aloud, especially the parts about dads learning how to multi-talk or their failure to learn how to match clothes, brush hair, and clean the bathroom. Dad School is totally entertaining from start to finish, only I wish it hadn’t ended so soon. I loved the little boy’s imagination and am certain your kids will, too.
Monster & Son Written by David LaRochelle Illustrated by Joey Chou (Chronicle Books; $16.99, Ages 2-4) Here’s a fresh take on Father’s Day, a look at the father/son dynamic from all kinds of monsters’ point of view. Filling the pages of this wild ride are yetis, werewolves, dragons, serpents and skeletons sharing their own special, often “rough and rowdy” type of love.
Chou’s visuals are modern. They feel bold and imaginative with colors perfectly suited for a monstrous read. LaRochelle has written Monster & Sonusing well-paced rhyme that adds to the various father/son activities featured on every page. Whether stirring up waves for a game of catch or frightening off a knight coming to the aid of a damsel in distress, these monster dads all have one thing in common, and though it may be giant-sized, it undeniably love.
The Most Important Thing: Stories About Sons, Fathers, and Grandfathers Written by Avi (Candlewick Press; $16.99, Ages 10 and up) This collection of seven short stories is sure to move middle grade readers and make them think about their own relationships with their fathers and grandfathers. According to the jacket flap, what the stories have in common is that they each explore the question: “What is the most important thing a father can do for his son?” Each story features a new character facing a different situation.
Stories flows easily one to the next meaning they can be read in one sitting or just one at a time. I’ve chosen three to highlight here. In the book’s opening story, Dream Catcher, Paul is an 8th grader who feels disconnected from his father. When circumstances require him to spend a week of school break with his estranged grandfather in Denver, Paul begins to understand the demons that have plagued his grandfather and caused the estrangement. Both Paul and his grandfather work together to forge a new relationship leaving the reader with hope that Paul’s father and grandfather may too at last be reconciled.
Beat Up introduces Charlie who has plans to attend a church dance despite a friend’s warning that gangs may be present. Though the dance goes off well, Charlie gets surrounded by a gang then beat up on his way home, only to be chastised by his unforgiving father for having pretended to be hurt and knocked out rather than fighting back and putting himself at greater risk. “Biderbiks don’t cry” is what Charlie’s dad believes, but Charlie is clearly not a coward for having sought a safe solution to his assault. Beat Up is a powerful tale of a son’s courage to speak up in the face of his father’s unjust fury.
Departed deals with the accidental death of Luke’s father before their camping trip that shakes up a family. When what appears to be the father’s ghost remains around the apartment, Luke realizes what he must do with his father’s ashes to set his soul free, and thus come to terms with his father’s passing. While there are not always happy endings, there are certainly realistic, satisfying, and sometimes heart wrenching conclusions offering much to learn from the various young men’s approach to life and the father/son dynamic.
Papa Seahorse’s Search by Anita Bijsterbosch (Clavis; $14.95, Ages 1-4) A sturdy lift-the-flap counting book about a Papa Seahorse looking everywhere for his missing little seahorse. Numbers introduced range from 1-10 and the cast of characters making appearances behind and in front of the assorted flaps include a colorful puffer fish, sea turtles, angelfish, sea snake, crabs, a sea anemone, jellyfish, octopuses and shrimp. This book will provide interactive fun for pre-schoolers and toddlers alike.
Superhero Dad Written by Timothy Knapman Illustrated by Joe Berger (Nosy Crow; $15.99, Ages 3-7) Kids will relate to the main character’s über admiration for his father in this rhyming read-aloud, Superhero Dad. Though not a new concept, the idea of a dad who can make a super breakfast though he’s only half awake, or make monsters disappear, is one that is always appealing to children. Coupled with comic book styled artwork, and a definitely cool die-cut cover, this humorous take on what qualities qualify for superhero-dom is a fast paced, fun read that is sure to please for Father’s Day.
Gator Dad Written and illustrated by Brian Lies (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt; $17.99, Ages 4-7) If you’re looking for something original, this is it. The father in Brian Lies’ Gator Dad knows how to show his kids a good time and that’s evident on every wild and wacky gator-filled page. Intent on squeezing in the most fun a day can offer with his three gator kids, Gator Dad can make roaming aimlessly in the park an adventure, make bath time the best time, and make bed time stories come alive. It’s obvious this dad gains the greatest joy giving his gator-all in everything he does with and for his children.
Spirit’s Key written by Edith Cohn, (Farrar Straus Giroux Books for Young Readers, $16.99, Ages 8-12) is a middle grade novel packed with emotion, humor, and mystery.
All Spirit Holden’s dad has to do is hold someone’s key, and he can see their future. Spirit comes from a long line of psychics, but for some reason, even though she’s twelve-years-old, the age when her ancestors received their gifts, she hasn’t gotten her powers. When Spirit holds someone’s key, she feels nothing. She is worried her elders didn’t pass along their gifts to her.
Her dad is unusually tired, and hasn’t been able to do readings for the islanders in a while. Spirit doesn’t know how they’re going to survive without the income from his readings. She’s also preoccupied with the mysterious recent deaths of the Baldies, the wild island dogs that the natives believe to be evil spirits. Spirit doesn’t believe the superstitious islanders. She even had a pet Baldy, her beloved Sky, whom she lost to the mysterious illness that was threatening to wipe out all of them. Now, the illness is spreading to the islanders, and her father is quarantined! Spirit thinks she sees Sky everywhere. She can feel him, smell him, and even hear him barking! Could Sky be trying to help Spirit solve the mystery of the dogs’ deaths?
First time author Cohn has created a page-turner of an adventure with colorful characters and vivid settings. She’s incorporated all the makings of a great novel; a flawed, but likable, main character, high stakes for her to succeed on her quest, and the ability to suspend the reader’s sense of reality.
I’d be remiss to not mention the lovely cover design by Eliza Wheeler in which she so perfectly captures the feel and mood of the book. You can judge this book by its cover, and not be disappointed.
Following is a very brief excerpt from Spirit’s Key:
“It’s easy to be brave, child, when you don’t know any better.You don’t understand about the baldies.” Mrs. Borse shudders like the thought of them, even in all her fur, gives her a chill. “You didn’t grow up hearing their history like I did, because you aren’t from around here. But maybe it’s time someone told you a thing or two about those devil creatures.” She pushes me back onto the couch and gets herself comfortable like we’ll be there awhile.
Reading a debut picture book is always exciting especially when it’s by a fellow SCBWI (Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators) member. Author/illustrator Eliza Wheeler hails from northern Wisconsin, but now calls southern California -L.A. to be precise – her home. With Miss Maple’s Seeds she has created a magical story that is pure, positive and totally appealing.
What child won’t be excited about wee Miss Maple, a Thumbelina-sized, willowweed hatted character who makes a hollow in a tall maple tree her home? Best of all, the benevolent Miss Maple has made it her mission to collect orphaned seeds “that got lost during the spring planting,” with the hopes of nurturing them until they are ready to go off and take root on their own. Wheeler’s color palette is warm like the sun needed for the seeds to flourish, and it conveys a tenderness that will resonate with parents as they share the story with their little ones. Perfect for a bedtime story, Miss Maple’s Seeds has no real demonstrated conflict, only the inference that Miss Maple must watch over her “guests” and keep them safe because, as she repeats throughout the text, “Take care, my little ones, for the world is big and you are small.” Young imaginations will be sparked by the idea of this tiny woman working alongside nature much like they would Cicely Mary Barker’s Flower Fairies.
Miss Maple is a comforting, reassuring presence on a cold, rainy night; a friend of the fragile; a strong yet gentle woman who has the seeds’ best interests at heart and knows when it’s time for them to be released to the elements because “… even the grandest of trees once had to grow up from the smallest of seeds.”
Click here for a link to some Miss Maple’s Seeds activity sheets for kids.