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Middle Grade Graphic Novel Memoir – Sylvie

 

 

SYLVIE

Written and illustrated by Sylvie Kantorovitz

(Walker Books US; $24.99, Ages 9-12)

 

 

As we approach the one-year anniversary of Sylvie’s publication, I had to share an overdue review of Sylvie Kantorovitz’s memoir that I only recently read. I’ve been playing catch-up following an extremely busy year during which I couldn’t help but notice how many excellent graphic novels were released.

Sylvie Kantorovitz’s compelling middle-grade graphic novel memoir about growing up in the late 1960s and 1970s France was just the book I needed to read last week. It didn’t hurt that I’m a Francophile, but even readers who don’t know the first thing about life in France will finish Sylvie feeling much more familiar with it.

Sylvie int1
Interior art from Sylvie written and illustrated by Sylvie Kantorovitz, Walker Books US ©2021.

 

While Kantorovitz didn’t set out to write and illustrate a memoir (per her Author’s Note), memories of her childhood rose to the surface during her initial approach to drafting the novel and soon her own story took on a new life. Her candor, ambiguity at times, and relatability are what make Sylvie so rich, like the perfect crème brûlée or éclair au chocolat. Add to that her irresistible artwork (including maps which I adore, translated words to help non-French speakers, and other charming details such as chestnuts at the end of every chapter/section) and you have a novel as fresh and real as any contemporary one.

As a young girl whose family came to France from Morocco, Sylvie had to deal with anti-immigrant attitudes as well as anti-Semitism being the only Jewish family where she lived. And where did she live? Well, that’s another aspect of the novel that makes it stand it apart. Sylvie’s father was a principal at a men’s teaching college so the family was given housing on campus. The vast grounds of the school suited kids like Sylvie and her younger brother whose imaginations meant there was never a dull moment.

 

Sylvie int2
Interior art from Sylvie written and illustrated by Sylvie Kantorovitz, Walker Books US ©2021.

 

Growing up, Sylvie faced the same dilemmas kids face today whether that’s friends moving away, friends you have doubts about or friends you crush on, frustration at sharing a bedroom, fitting in, finding your passion, and figuring out what you want to do the rest of your life. On top of that, when Sylvie’s father changed jobs, Sylvie’s family moved away from the teaching college to a city closer to Paris. While that meant leaving behind lovely memories it also meant new opportunities.

What I loved most about Sylvie was how introspective she was. She knew how much she loved looking after her brothers and sister―we see her family grow from one sibling to three―and other young kids. Maybe I’d be a good teacher she wondered. She thrived on alone time in her room doing art and taking outside art classes. Maybe I could be an artist but could I support myself that way? And she continually wondered what she would do in the future when her peers seemed to know exactly what their path in life was. She did not like the pressure she felt from her mother to either find a rich man to marry or pursue a career in a field that didn’t interest her. She was nurtured by a caring, inspiring father and confused by a moody, often angry mother while she navigated the important coming-of-age period of her childhood. The scenes when her parents argued and the question of the big “D” or divorce arose is something many readers will understand. When she once asked her father why he didn’t leave her mother he said he loved her, something Sylvie found difficult to fathom.

Sylvie int3
Interior art from Sylvie written and illustrated by Sylvie Kantorovitz, Walker Books US ©2021.

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I expect many readers will enjoy reading about Sylvie’s quest for independence. Like when she finally gets a room of her own by moving upstairs to an unused storage room in the college building where her family lived. Whenever Sylvie had opportunities to study and practice art, the joy jumped off the pages right into my heart. Moments like those, captured so lovingly in the cartoon-style artwork and text, brought Sylvie’s experiences to life. I hope readers will find relevance and comfort in Sylvie’s honest and heartfelt story. The book is available in hardcover, paperback, and Ebook and is the reassuring read we could all use right now.

  • Reviewed by Ronna Mandel

 

Please click here to read a sample chapter. 

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Nonfiction Picture Book Review – Tu Youyou’s Discovery

TU YOUYOU’S DISCOVERY:
Finding a Cure for Malaria

Written by Songju Ma Daemicke

Illustrated by Lin

(Albert Whitman & Co.; $16.99, Ages 4-8)

 

Tu Youyous Discovery cover

 

In 2021 malaria is a preventable and treatable disease but it wasn’t always the case. Hundreds of thousands used to die from it annually but the mortality rate has declined since the medicine to cure it was approved. That’s why I was curious to read about Tu Youyou, the woman whose determination led to finding a cure for malaria and becoming the first Chinese woman to win a Nobel Prize. 

In Tu Youyou’s Discovery written by Songju Ma Daemicke with art by Lin, readers are brought back in time to Beijing, China in the 1930s. Youyou attended school when most girls her age stayed home but contracted tuberculosis as a teenager and had to drop out.

 

Tu Youyou's Discovery int1
Interior art from Tu Youyou’s Discovery: Finding a Cure for Malaria written by Songju Ma Daemicke and illustrated by Lin, Albert Whitman ©2021.

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Fortunately, she survived due to antibiotics prescribed by her physician but was greatly weakened. A steady diet of “her mother’s herb soups slowly nursed her back to full strength.” This sparked her interest in how both “modern and traditional” medicines had helped her get well. Always a compassionate person, Youyou chose to pursue a career in science in order to help save lives. Little did she know then what a major contribution she would ultimately make when in 1969 malaria, like Covid-19 now, swept across the world bringing death in its path. After graduating from Peking University, “in 1955” she “became a researcher at the China Academy of Traditional Chinese Medicine in Beijing.” As part of a research group, Youyou was determined to find a cure for malaria and was in the right place at just the right time.

 

Tu Youyou's Discovery int2
Interior art from Tu Youyou’s Discovery: Finding a Cure for Malaria written by Songju Ma Daemicke and illustrated by Lin, Albert Whitman ©2021.

 

Youyou traveled around the country to document cases in hopes of gaining new insight into the disease. She found it when she met a farmer who had cured his own high fever by eating a local plant called qinghao, known in English as sweet wormwood. In her lab, she and her team tried various methods to create a cure using the qinghao, but nothing worked. However, Youyou did not give up. Despite little to no funding for the latest equipment, Youyou’s team performed experiment after experiment with no luck.

Then what appeared to be a breakthrough came from an unexpected place. Studying her family’s indispensable “A Handbook of Prescriptions for Emergencies, an ancient Chinese remedy book,” Youyou revisited the qinhao remedy only to realize that the book recommended just soaking the herb in water when all along her team had been boiling it. Perhaps the healing part of the plant had been destroyed during the experiments. Much to her dismay, this too yielded no results. Again, Youyou persevered. Many male colleagues had questioned her commitment to traditional medicine but “After 190 unsuccessful experiments, the test result of sample 191 stunned the team.” Sample 191 completely killed the parasites and so in 1971 a successful cure had been found. And while Youyou initially credited her entire team in research papers, over time “other scientists finally realized how involved she had been in the discovery.” In October of 2015, Tu Youyou was awarded the Nobel Prize in Medicine at a ceremony in Stockholm, Sweden. Her commitment to finding a cure for malaria has saved millions of lives and continues to do so to this day.

 

Tu Youyou's Discovery int4
Interior art from Tu Youyou’s Discovery: Finding a Cure for Malaria written by Songju Ma Daemicke and illustrated by Lin, Albert Whitman ©2021.

 

I’m so glad Songju has introduced Tu Youyou to me and to children in such an accessible way. I felt as if, despite knowing the outcome, that I was right alongside a detective solving a mystery. This nonfiction picture book bio provides engaging STEM reading for budding scientists, doctors, and inventors and puts Youyou’s name up there alongside other women in STEM history makers such as Marie Curie, Marie Maynard Daly, and Ada Byron Lovelace. Lin’s nice use of contrasting flat color palettes creates bright illustrations that have a print-making quality to them. Songju shares how labor-intensive the six steps of the scientific method are (see back matter for this info) but also how crucial. While not all experiments yield life-changing results, Youyou’s story is a great example of how teamwork and not giving up can make a difference. I was surprised to learn in the Author’s Note that although the first clinical trials for the malaria medicine known as artemisinin took place in 1972, it wasn’t until 1986 that the drug gained approval from the Chinese government and started being used around the globe.

  •  Reviewed by Ronna Mandel
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Best New Children’s Christmas Books for 2021

 

A ROUNDUP OF
THE BEST NEW CHRISTMAS BOOKS FOR 2021

 

 

All of us at GoodReadsWithRonna.com wish you a warm and wonderful Christmas!

 

REVIEWS:

Jingle Bells Navidad coverJINGLE BELLS / NAVIDAD:
Bilingual Nursery Rhymes
(English & Spanish)
Written and illustrated by Susie Jaramillo
(Canticos; $10.99, Ages 0-6)

This 16 page bilingual, lift-the-flaps board book is not only beautiful to look at (its cover features foil accents), it stars the sweet little chickies from the Emmy-nominated series. What a delightful way to celebrate the holidays than by sharing the “Jingle Bells” song with children in both English and Spanish. There are cute characters in vibrant colors to enjoy including Mama Hen, a purple spider, an adorable elephant, a frog, and a bunny. Kids can have fun lifting the assorted flaps to find additional words such as warmth/calor, joy/alegria and others all while improving their bilingual language skills. A larger formatted board book ($14.99) with an accordion design offers the opportunity to read “Jingle Bells” on one side entirely in English and the other in Spanish. Visit canticosworld.com for free resources, activities, and more. For a limited time, the Encantos app is available for free.

  •  Reviewed by Ronna Mandel

 

Merry Christmas Gus coverMERRY CHRISTMAS, GUS
Written and illustrated by Chris Chatterton
(Penguin Workshop; $17.99, Ages 3-5)

Merry Christmas, Gus, is Chris Chatterton’s second book featuring the adorable grumpy hound dog, Gus. It seems there’s not much of anything that Gus likes about the holiday season until a puppy enters the picture, then, . . . maybe.

As in the first book, the art is LOL funny because of Gus’s gloomy expressions. My favorite part is the ending—sorry, you’ll have to read it yourself! The perfect gift for the not-really-into-it person on your holiday shopping list.

  • Reviewed by Christine Van Zandt

 

The Toys' ChristmasTHE TOYS’ CHRISTMAS
Written by Claire Clément
Illustrated by Geneviève Godbout
(Frances Lincoln Children’s Books; $17.99, Ages 3-7)

Let the cozy feeling of this sweet bedtime Christmas tale envelope your little ones as they drift contentedly off to sleep. I was enchanted by the premise of The Toys’ Christmas in which little Noah cannot fall asleep because his favorite stuffed animal FanFan is nowhere to be found. Enchanted by his going missing you might ask? No. I was enchanted by his devotion to Noah. FanFan, it seems, is on a secret mission along with all the other soft toys he meets up with on his long and special journey. Once a year the beloved toys travel to the North Pole. There they can “tell Santa what their child wants for Christmas. After all, they know their child best of all.” Well,  this just warmed my heart and I hope it does the same for your child. Rest assured FanFan returns to delight Noah who also is thrilled to have his Christmas wish come true. Coupled with Godbout’s gorgeous pastel and colored pencil illustrations in faded tones not unlike many of the much-loved toys after years of cuddling and washes, Clément’s gentle prose are sure to charm.

  • Reviewed by Ronna Mandel

 

Christmas Here I Come coverCHRISTMAS, HERE I COME!
Written by D. J. Steinberg
Illustrated by Laurie Stansfield
(Grosset & Dunlap; $5.99, Ages 4-6)

If you’re looking for a gift to bring to family, friends or neighbors before Christmas or on the day itself, look no further than Christmas, Here I Come!, one of the multiple books in the best-selling series. This paperback is packed with humorous and sentimental poems revolving around the holiday from choosing trees to jokes about fruitcake, from the joyful mess of wrapping paper to Santas around the world. There are even stickers at the end for further entertainment. One of my favorites is called “Peace on Earth” about two neighbors competing for the most lights on their homes until circuits blew. Another is “My Christmas Sweater” about the hilarity and comfiness of the traditional ugly sweater. There’s also a recurring Dear Santa Claus letter from a character called Bobby which many youngsters will find relatable. Stansfield’s art evokes the holiday spirit, capturing the abundant experiences detailed in Steinberg’s poetry.

  • Reviewed by Ronna Mandel

 

Joy to the World coverJOY TO THE WORLD!:
Christmas Around the Globe
Written by Kate DePalma
Illustrated by Sophie Fatus
(Barefoot Books; $17.99, Ages 4-10)

Joy to the World!, with its gold embossed lettering and accents on the cover, makes a great Christmas gift for families, friends, and anyone curious about the holiday traditions in 13 countries spanning from Argentina to Serbia. Peopled with diverse children and their families celebrating in special ways, this colorful picture book not only entertains but educates too.

Kids will see how in the Philippines Simbang Gabi lasts for nine days including daily worship. “We come every day, and they say if you do/Whatever you wish on day nine will come true.” Stars shimmer across this particular two-page spread, and beautifully bordered art (throughout the book and unique to that country) in a cheerful jewel-toned palette emanates joy and community. In Ethiopia, where people celebrate Genna on January 7, families gather around the mesob (a basket-like table) and feed one another “a large bit of food by hand.” I love that so many celebrations revolve around food in addition to family and faith rituals. Older readers will find even more helpful information in the back matter which expands on the brief rhyming info for each country that was depicted in earlier pages. This welcoming, upbeat picture book full of happy families brings world celebrations to your fingertips in a most delightful way.

  • Reviewed by Ronna Mandel

 

The Star Tree coverTHE STAR TREE
Written and  illustrated by Gisela Cölle

Translated by Rosemary Lanning (first published in Switzerland)
(NorthSouth Books; $17.99, Ages 4-8)

For a quiet story this busy holiday season, consider Gisela Cölle’s, The Star Tree. A mustachioed old man missed days of yore, far from sprawling urban life. No one even glances at the sky above anymore as they hurry through their busy days.

Cölle’s illustrations echo the rustic simplicity of the text. This timeless classic demonstrates that sometimes less can be more, and by taking that first step, a community can be brought together. You’ll feel inspired to cut out some stars too!

  • Reviewed by Christine Van Zandt

 

Carla and the Christmas Cornbread coverCARLA AND THE CHRISTMAS CORNBREAD
Written by Carla Hall with Kristen Hartke
Illustrated by Cherise Harris
(Denene Millner Books/Simon & Schuster BYR; $17.99, Ages 4-8)

I find food-themed picture books hard to resist. Do you? Carla and the Christmas Cornbread happily took me back to the ’70s for a story based on author, chef, and TV food personality Carla Hall’s early childhood memories.

Heading to her grandparents, with Mom driving, her older sister Kim sitting in the passenger seat, and Carla in the back seat beside a slew of gifts, she enjoyed the ride “watching the lights twinkle on the houses as we whiz by.” Carla was excited to see her grandparents and eat the scrumptious cornbread her grandma made. Spending time over Christmas at their home was clearly a highlight for her. From cooking cornbread together with Granny, hearing her grandpa “Doc” share stories about his time in France when he once ate snails, to searching the Christmas tree for the Black Santa ornament that looks just like her, these tender moments convey the warmth of family that meant so much to this young girl. Harris’s joyful art, full of attention to detail and a feeling for the era, complements this lovely story.

But when just before bedtime she bit into the cookie that was meant for Santa, Carla worried that she’d get in trouble. Certain that Santa would put her on his naughty list, Carla was relieved when Grandma, who heard Carla confess, suggested they make Santa “a special Christmas cornbread.” Despite caring reassurance from Doc that Santa probably got tired of all the cookies, Carla still felt sad. But all ends well when Christmas morning brings more than cheer for her and readers invested in seeing a happy outcome for Carla. Make sure to read to the very last page where a surprise illustration shows Santa nibbling on a tasty treat! Bonus: A cornbread recipe is included.

  • Reviewed by Ronna Mandel

 

Just Be Claus coverJUST BE CLAUS: A Christmas Story
Written by Barbara Joosse
Illustrated by Kim Barnes
(Sleeping Bear Press; $16.99; Ages 4-8)

This adorably illustrated picture book answers the question, what was Santa Claus like as a little boy? With a “round little belly that shakes when he laughs like a bowl full of jelly,” Clausie is different and “unusual” from the very start. His hearty “ho ho ho” laugh, creative flair for making “thingamajigs” with Grannie in his super secret workshop, and tendency to help the rival hockey team score make him stand out and “feel out of place.” He expresses his desire to be like the other kids, but Grannie assures him:  “You’re creative, thoughtful, and generous … Don’t try to be like anyone else. Just be YOU.” A snowstorm shuts the whole town down, blocking the train from delivering its large load of gifts. Clausie’s clever act of kindness not only saves Christmas Day but also helps him embrace his own unique, tender-heartedness. Wrapping this sweet holiday book are themes of empathy, love, and self-acceptance that can be explored any time of the year. 

  •  Reviewed by Armineh Manookian

 

The Christmas Owl coverTHE CHRISTMAS OWL: Based on the True Story
of a Little Owl Named Rockefeller 

Written by Ellen Kalish and Gideon Sterer
Illustrated by Ramona Kaulitzki
(Little, Brown BYR; $17.99, Ages 4-8)

Animal lovers will enjoy this heartwarming picture book, The Christmas Owl, by Ellen Kalish and Gideon Sterer. Based on a true story of a tiny owl trapped in a tree cut down and brought to the city, the story is seen through the eyes of Little Owl who wonders what happened and where she’s been taken. Throughout, she asks herself, Is this Christmas? By the end, she’s able to explain to her forest friends what the holiday’s all about.

While the illustrations by Ramona Kaulitzki bring the story to life, be sure to look in the back matter too. Actual photos of the owl are beyond cute and its release is so joyful. Peek under the dust jacket for a different cover image!

  • Reviewed by Christine Van Zandt

 

Merry Witchmas CoverMERRY WITCHMAS
Written by Petrell Marie Özbay and Tess La Bella
Illustrated by Sonya Abby
(Boyds Mill Press; $17.99, Ages 3-7)

Don’t let the word witch in the title fool you. Merry Witchmas isn’t about Halloween although you could start sharing it in October. It’s actually about a sweet witch named Ginger who adores all things Christmas. Whether that’s “a flying sleigh, a red-nosed reindeer” or the toys. But most importantly Ginger wishes for a visit from Santa. You see she lives in the “Invisible Forest” that wasn’t on Santa’s radar. Regardless, she always behaved thoughtfully to make it onto Santa’s “Nice List.” This year she’s decided to take things one step further and write to Santa so perhaps he’d believe she existed. She’d even include a map!

Ginger’s magic delivers the letter directly to Santa who checked his lists, then double-checked them. No witch named Ginger appeared. Since he didn’t believe in witches, he’d actually never sought them out. Yet if children could believe in Santa, why couldn’t witches exist too he wonders. That’s when the magic happens. Using Ginger’s map, Santa heads to the young witch’s magical land and at last, the two finally meet bringing Christmas joy to both. Kids will want to look at the fun details Abby’s included in her pleasing artwork that exudes warmth and humor. My favorite touch is Jingles the kitty cat reaching for Christmas cookies along with the holiday decorations in her home. With all the Christmas feels, this picture book is a fresh new take on the holiday and not giving up on your dreams.

  • Reviewed by Ronna Mandel

 

Santa in the City coverSANTA IN THE CITY
Written by Tiffany D. Jackson
Illustrated by Reggie Brown
(Dial BYR; $17.99, Ages 4-8)

Starred Reviews –Booklist, School Library Journal

Deja is super excited for Christmas but her classmates’ distrust about Santa ever visiting them in the city sends her on a downward spiral of doubt. “‘How does Santa get inside our house if we don’t have a chimney? …where [will Santa] park his sleigh?’” Deja asks question after question to her mom who, along with extended family and neighborhood friends, patiently answers each one. Answers provide a little relief, as evidenced through her refrain “‘Oh’ … Makes sense,” but Deja needs more proof. Cheerful illustrations of a diverse, vibrant urban setting full of the Christmas spirit emphasize the point: the very thing Deja is looking for is already around her beautiful neighborhood. A surprise on Christmas morning secures her heart that “magic really does find a way,” just like Mom has said all along. 

  • Reviewed by Armineh Manookian

 

Grumpy Monkey OhNo Christmas coverGRUMPY MONKEY OH, NO! CHRISTMAS
Written by Suzanne Lang
Illustrated by Max Lang
(Random House Studio; $18.99, Ages 3-7)

Beloved character Jim Panzee is back again, this time for the holidays, grumpier than ever. The weather has been “grizzly, drizzly” all week, his morning banana green, plus he accidentally stumbles into a puddle of mud. On top of everything else, his jungle friends insist he absolutely must be excited about the upcoming Christmas season. One by one, they take turns telling him how he “should” do one thing or another in order to properly celebrate:  write a card for Mom, wrap presents, “reflect quietly.” But to grumpy, miserable Jim “EVERYTHING STINKS!”–that is, until his gentle gorilla friend, Norman, helps Jim see things in a different perspective. Conversations about kindness and gratitude ease his burden and give strong reason to celebrate. Readers young and old will fall in love once more with Jim Panzee’s crankiness, expressed so perfectly by Lang’s fun and hilarious illustrations. 

  •  Reviewed by Armineh Manookian

 

A Simple Christmas on the Farm coverA SIMPLE CHRISTMAS ON THE FARM 
Written by Phyllis Alsdurf
Illustrated by Lisa Hunt
(Beaming Books; $17.99, Ages 3-8)

For those looking for a traditional, Christian-themed Christmas story, A Simple Christmas on the Farm is a great choice. Eager to start the festivities, a little girl living on the farm is reminded by her parents that they’re going to celebrate by “keeping things simple this year” with a focus on modest decorations, homemade gifts, and giving more than receiving. This spirit of simplicity is heightened all the more when the girl is inspired to host Christmas in their little red barn. Traveling into town with a tray of homemade cookies, she and her mother spread the word about their party, inviting everyone in the community. In the meantime, they prepare gifts and crafts for their guests. Step-by-step directions for these crafts are included in the backmatter. When everyone joins in on the special day, laughter, cheer, and a wonderful feast surround their large table, making this simple but big-hearted Christmas the best one ever.

  • Reviewed by Armineh Manookian

 

The Christmas Mitzvah coverTHE CHRISTMAS MITZVAH
Written by Jeff Gottesfeld
Illustrated by Michelle Laurentia Agatha
(Creston Books; $18.99, Ages 4-9)

If you’re looking for a feel-good story that hits all the right notes, The Christmas Mitzvah is it. Inspired by a true story, this touching picture book opens with “Al Rosen was a Jewish man who loved Christmas. It wasn’t his holiday. He had Hanukkah, the Festival of Lights. But what could be bad about peace on earth and goodwill to humanity?” I immediately cared about this man with the great attitude and big personality. Then I read on to learn that Al Rosen decided to use the Christmas holiday as a chance to deliver mitzvahs (good deeds) for people in his community. From that evening in 1969 Rosen offered to help out so workers could leave their jobs to be home with their families. No matter what the task, he took it on, doing so for over three decades. What a big heart he had! At first, it was Rosen, sometimes with his son, Jonathan. Then when Jonathan finished medical school, married, and had children of his own, everyone pitched in when possible, performing mitzvahs every Christmas.

What’s most impressive is the variety of work Al Rosen did, though he didn’t necessarily excel at it. He started by stepping in at Shorty’s local newsstand. After that word spread of Rosen’s good deeds. Requests came in and soon he was pumping gas and parking cars, tending bar, and taking tolls. Al Rosen’s mitzvahs saw no bounds. He and Jonathan even inspired Christian and Muslim friends who “did their jobs on the Jewish High Holidays.” In fact Rosen’s kind spirit led to people of various faiths helping others out on their holidays, paying it forward in the best possible way. When Al grew too old and finally had to call it quits, his mitzvahs left lasting memories and goodwill in his city. Agatha’s bold artwork adds vibrancy and humorous touches to the story. Rosen’s diverse community is celebrated in scene after scene conveying the camaraderie created by his mitzvahs. Gottesfeld’s included back matter so readers can learn more about the man behind the good deeds as well as the Hanukkah holiday. I hope young readers’ biggest takeaway from The Christmas Mitzvah is that you don’t have to be Jewish to do good deeds and spread kindness.

  •  Reviewed by Ronna Mandel

 

Christmas is Coming Cover CHRISTMAS IS COMING: Traditions from Around the World
Written by Monika Utnik-Strugala 
Illustrated by Ewa Poklewska-Koziello
Translated from Polish by Antonia Lloyd-Jones
(NorthSouth Books; $25, Ages 4 and up)

An international collection of legends and traditions can be found in Monika Utnik-Strugala’s nonfiction book, Christmas Is Coming!: Traditions from Around the World. This book satisfies many of your holiday questions. Of course, you’ll find info about Santa, but there’s much more. Such as how Swedish towns have candlelit processions on December 13, or how the Japanese have adopted Christmas but celebrate it with reindeer and pandas! In Mexico, Spain, and Columbia, the Day of the Holy Innocents (on December 28) is like our April Fool’s Day. Favorite sections of mine include food, decorations, plants, and finding good luck for the new year.

Full-color art by the talented Ewa Poklewska-Koziello adorns each page, enlivening people and their celebrations. While suitable for elementary-age kids who want to learn about more than just the US December 25 Santa Claus, older kids will have plenty to read. Overall, this lovely book promotes inclusivity and is one you’ll refer to repeatedly as a remembrance or to learn something new.

  • Reviewed by Christine Van Zandt

Good Dogs in Bad Sweaters coverGOOD DOGS IN BAD SWEATERS
Written by Rachel Wenitsky and David Sidorov
Illustrated by Tor Freeman
(G.P. Putnam’s Sons BYR; $13.99, Ages 7-10)

I am so glad I stuck with this energy-filled illustrated middle-grade book despite the introduction of multiple dog names making it hard at first to keep track. However, after the initial few pages, there was no denying the humor and personality of all the doggy characters, and I was pulled right in. The primary ones in this, the third book in the series revolving around Good Dogs daycare, are Hugo and his younger sister Waffles, King and his older sister Cleo, Lulu, and her new teacup pig pal, Buttercup. Another dog, Napoleon, seems to have matured in this book according to comments from the other dogs, but while appearing in various chapters and bringing a funny therapist’s perspective to various situations, he doesn’t have a chapter devoted to his p.o.v. Secondary characters who may have had heftier roles in the previous two books are Nuts the squirrel and Pickle the cat. Kids may note that each dog has a different font which is a nice touch. Not having read the previous books, I never once felt like that mattered since the storyline was pretty straightforward and engaging.

In addition to the dog pals knowing each other, we also get to know their human owners which adds more opportunity for amusing dialogue and antics. There are tons of butt sniffing, ball throwing, and peeing jokes that feel appropriate for this age group. The main plot point is that sweet puppy Waffles, about to celebrate her first Christmas, is hoping that Santadoodle will bring her something special except Hugo knows that won’t happen. What’s a loving big bro supposed to do? Make baby sister’s wish come true, of course! And if that means getting all the Good Dogs involved in his quest, so be it.

The shenanigans the crew get up to as they try to get their paws on Waffles’ gift had me smiling throughout. That’s on top of the bits about the ugly (but comfy) Christmas sweaters, Lulu being an Instagram influencer, and how the dogs deal with their families—the dynamics of which should resonate with readers. Several sub-plots concerning agility competitions to career choices are at once comical and heartwarming, reflecting the zany sensibilities of the book’s authors Wenitsky and Sidorov. A bonus for me is that the book includes many references to Hanukkah since several of the dogs come from Jewish or mixed-faith families. Mix that up with Tor Freeman’s fabulous, whimsical, and extremely satisfying illustrations and you’ll see why this marriage of talents works so well. Add this middle-grade book (some may call it an older chapter book) to your TBR lists for some charming canine comedy this holiday season.

  • Reviewed by Ronna Mandel

 

See last year’s roundup here.

Additional recommended Christmas reads this year include:

The Little Owl & The Big Tree: A Christmas Story by Jonah Winter & Jeanette Winter
Jan Brett’s The Nutcracker 
Santa Jaws by Bridget Heos
What the Dinosaurs Did the Night Before Christmas by Refe & Susan Tuma

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Picture Book Review – Planting Friendship: Peace, Salaam, Shalom

 

PLANTING FRIENDSHIP:
Peace, Salaam, Shalom

Written by Callie Metler, Shirin Rahman,
and Melissa Stoller

Illustrated by Kate Talbot

(Spork; $17.99, Ages 5-8)

 

 

Planting Friendship cover

 

Review

Planting Friendship: Peace, Salaam, Shalom has landed on bookshelves at just the right time when the world needs more stories about coming together despite our differences. This uplifting joint effort by Callie Metler, Shirin Rahman, and Melissa Stoller introduces young readers to characters whose faith matches those of the authors: Christian, Muslim, and Jewish respectively. Adding to the appeal is the detailed art by Kate Talbot whose depictions of the three girls, Molly, Savera, and Hannah add recognizable elements of their religions that parents, teachers, and librarians can point out in various spreads.

 

Planting Friendship int1
Interior art from Planting Friendship: Peace, Salaam, Shalom written by Callie Metler, Shirin Rahman, and Melissa Stoller and illustrated by Kate Talbot, Spork ©2021.

 

Molly, Savera, and Hannah meet at school. All three have experienced first-day jitters, a great opening example of how we are more similar than we think. They also notice that each wears a necklace, yet another connection.  While the girls may come from different faith traditions, a hands-on class project of growing seeds into saplings brings them together. When nothing happens with their seeds, the girls consider what will work. Inspired by quotes from their families such as “Nana always says, ‘Things grow with care, kindness, and love,’” a new attempt is made to help the seeds thrive.

 

Planting Friendship int2
Interior art from Planting Friendship: Peace, Salaam, Shalom written by Callie Metler, Shirin Rahman, and Melissa Stoller and illustrated by Kate Talbot, Spork ©2021.
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While waiting for their seeds to sprout, Molly, Savera, and Hannah spend time getting to know each other. Here both the prose and art convey how each girl’s room reflects their religious and cultural background. As the friendship blossoms, so does respect and understanding. When spring arrives, the saplings that had been tended to by the girls with such care are ready to be planted in Peace Park. Even their trip to the park involves pitching in to help each other out whether sharing a shovel or steadying a friend on her feet. With trees of friendship now firmly rooted, Molly, Savera, and Hannah can look forward and focus on new ways of bringing people together. “In Peace Park and beyond.” Talbot’s illustrations bring warmth and fluidity throughout this picture book with the spread below being one of my favorites. Look closely to see the mosque on the left, the church near the bridge, and the synagogue in the foreground. In the back matter, there’s even an opportunity provided for readers to SPOT THE SEVEN OBJECTS IN THE GIRLS’ HOMES. With Hanukkah underway as this review posts, the scenes in Hannah’s bedroom where the girls play dreidel will resonate with many readers.
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Interior art from Planting Friendship: Peace, Salaam, Shalom written by Callie Metler, Shirin Rahman, and Melissa Stoller and illustrated by Kate Talbot, Spork ©2021.
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Sports, art, cooking, and theater are just some of the other ways people of diverse backgrounds, religions, and races can find connections. I like that in this story it’s about nature and the world around us. While writing this review I kept hearing the band War’s 1975 hit, “Why Can’t We Be Friends?” in my head, and perhaps it’s due to these lyrics. “The color of your skin don’t matter to me, as long as we can live in harmony.” For me, this applies to religions as well. And the harmony we see in the flourishing friendship between Molly, Savera, and Hannah demonstrates they feel the same way. Children will see that what makes us different is also something that can unite us when we’re open to finding common ground. 
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The next book coming out in 2022 is Building Bridges: Peace, Salaam, Shalom. And in 2023 you can look forward to reading the third book which finishes the series.

Buy the Book

https://www.indiebound.org/book/9781950169603

https://bookshop.org/books/planting-friendship-peace-salaam-shalom/9781950169603

 

Read about the Authors + Illustrator Here

Callie Metler

Shirin Rahman

Melissa Stoller

Kate Talbot

 

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Picture Book Review – Terrific Table Manners

 

TERRIFIC TABLE MANNERS

Written by Michelle Markel

Illustrated by Merrilee Liddiard

(Cameron Kids; $17.99, Ages 5-7)

 

 

 

 

As the busy holiday season approaches, I can’t think of a more timely book to share with your children than Terrific Table Manners, a humorous 64-page illustrated manual written by Michelle Markel with art by Merrilee Liddiard. The publisher’s blurb says, “Inspired by the classic Tiffany’s primer on manners for teens and featuring a familiar cast of characters, Terrific Table Manners is a modern take on table etiquette that follows the course of a proper dinner-party meal.”

To expand on that introduction, I’ll add how enjoyable I found this thoroughly modern approach to 21st-century manners geared for a younger reader. The primer is presented in rhyme (with a smattering of snark) and complemented by retro art with ample white space, lovely linework, and warm tones in a watercolor style. Aptly beginning with the invitation and RSVP chapters, Terrific Table Manners proceeds to the meal itself including the main course, vegetables, and dessert through to the dare-I-say dreaded and oft avoided thank you note.

 

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Interior spread from Terrific Table Manners written by Michelle Markel and illustrated by Merrilee Liddiard, Cameron Kids ©2021.

 

Kids will learn about what to do and what not to do at a dinner party as they’re guided through by Mr. Faris (who went to manners school in Paris) and his co-host/teacher Prudence at the School of Manners and Etiquette. Together these instructors also cover essentials such as making conversation to which silverware to use for which course. That’s not all that matters during a meal. I was delighted to see cell phones mentioned and by mentioned I mean recommended to be shut off! “Cut the chicken off the bone. Bella, please turn off your phone.” While I did wonder how many 5-7 year-olds (the target audience) have telephones, I figured this might be a book an older tween sibling would enjoy since good manners apply to all ages.

 

 

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Interior art from Terrific Table Manners written by Michelle Markel and illustrated by Merrilee Liddiard, Cameron Kids ©2021.

 

One of my favorite lines in the book happens during the main course. “Don’t hold utensils with your fists! Only cavemen eat like this!” Sound familiar? As the dinner-party class progresses, the children get more out-of-hand and the teacher/hosts become more frustrated and exhausted. Young readers and their parents may find this aspect the most relatable. Having kids sit still at a meal has often been a sore point in many families, and holiday time is no exception. Keeping chaos at bay is crucial to the etiquette pros but ultimately they don’t succeed as witnessed in the last two closing spreads.

 

 

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Interior spread from Terrific Table Manners written by Michelle Markel and illustrated by Merrilee Liddiard, Cameron Kids ©2021

 

 

Perhaps all has not been for naught when readers see the lovely thank you notes at the end. Will children finish the book and admit they’ve gleaned a tip or two? We can only hope so! The two pages of back matter detail specific aspects of a dinner party, gently encouraging kids to use proper etiquette and see what a difference it makes even at home and in restaurants. 

  • Reviewed by Ronna Mandel
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Picture Book Review – Gitty and Kvetch

GITTY AND KVETCH

Written by Caroline Kusin Pritchard

Illustrated by Ariel Landy

(Atheneum BYR; $17.99, Ages 4-8)

 

 

Gitty and Kvetch cover

 

 

Take one glass-half-full girl named Gitty and add one glass-half-empty bird named Kvetch and you’ve got the makings of one unusual and entertaining pair of pals in the new picture book, Gitty and Kvetch. Although he kvetches (complains) a lot, Kvetch is more realist than pessimist which is a quality I love and appreciate.

The story opens with Gitty painting a picture and seeking out her “unflappable friend” so he can accompany her on the “perfect day to hang the perfect painting in our perfect, purple tree house.”

 

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Interior art from Gitty and Kvetch written by Caroline Kusin Pritchard and illustrated by Ariel Landry, Atheneum BYR ©2021.

 

A great touch is how Gitty’s dialogue is colored purple throughout the book while Kevtch’s is appropriate in blue. Yiddish words are successfully infused into the story as the friends shlep off together. No matter what Gitty sees, including cow poop, her upbeat mood cannot be brought down by Kvetch’s seemingly gloom and doom.

 

 

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Interior spread from Gitty and Kvetch written by Caroline Kusin Pritchard and illustrated by Ariel Landry, Atheneum BYR ©2021.

 

 

Even when a storm approaches, Gitty sees “the perfect cloud covering the perfect sun on the perfect day to hang the perfect painting.” Her enthusiasm for all she encounters is infectious and a stark contrast to her friend Kvetch. That is until the delightful drizzle becomes a heavy rain. When Gitty sees her perfect painting has been ruined by the rain, she is distraught. Here the roles of the BFFs suddenly shift and it’s time for Kvetch to rise to the occasion to cheer up Gitty. That’s when an idea he has convinces his friend, in the most perfect colorful way, what perfect is really all about.

Kvetch’s Glossary of Yiddish words on the endpapers is a wonderful way for him to explain all the words used in the story. I found more and more to enjoy in this story with every read. Landy’s cheerful and energetic illustrations kept my interest, inviting me back for more. Pritchard’s prose, especially the repetition, flowed easily over the fast-reading 48 pages with lovely alliteration. The story should resonate with young readers who have likely found themselves in a similar predicament at one time or another. The dynamic of Gitty and Kvetch provides the opportunity for kids to see the power of friendship and empathy at play.

  •  Reviewed by Ronna Mandel
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Nonfiction Picture Book Review – Without Separation

 

WITHOUT SEPARATION:

Prejudice, Segregation, and the Case of Roberto Alvarez

Written by Larry Dane Brimner

Illustrated by Maya Gonzalez

(Calkins Creek; $18.99, Ages 7-10)

 

 

 

Starred Review – Kirkus

 

I could not put down the nonfiction picture book Without Separation because, like the compelling but little-known case presented in the recently reviewed We Want to Go to School, this eye-opening account is about a civil rights case I had never heard about yet think everyone should.

Readers meet Roberto Alvarez on his way to school on January 5, 1931, just after the Christmas break. When the 12-year-old arrived at Lemon Grove Grammar School, “the principal told Roberto and other Mexican and Mexican American children that they did not belong there.” It soon became clear that the children were going to be segregated under the guise that the Mexican children didn’t understand English and were holding back white students.  

 

 

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Interior spread from Without Separation written by Larry Dane Brimner and illustrated by Maya Gonzalez, Calkins Creek ©2021.

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I was stunned upon reading that the board of trustees of the school district had gone ahead and had another school built to separate these children. On top of that, they did it without telling the Mexican parents. They thought they were avoiding trouble this way but what they were doing was wrong or they would have been more transparent.

They may have thought that by going behind parents’ backs they could get away with their ploy but the inhabitants of the Mexican barrio knew better. Roberto’s parents had told him to come home if he were sent to the new Olive Street School, aka the barnyard.

That fateful morning, Roberto and a large group of other students refused to attend. While the school district tried to spin Olive Street School as a way to help the children learn English and American customs, Roberto, his parents, and other families knew the truth. This was a blatant and seemingly illegal attempt to segregate the students based on race.

 

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Interior spread from Without Separation written by Larry Dane Brimner and illustrated by Maya Gonzalez, Calkins Creek ©2021.

 

Fortunately, the families quickly organized themselves. When they met with the Mexican consul, he connected them with a couple of lawyers to help them. “Roberto brought the situation in Lemon Grove to the attention of the California Superior Court in San Diego on February 13, 1931.” A lawsuit against the board of trustees of the Lemon Grove School District was filed stating how Roberto wanted to go to the same school as the white students, where he’d gone before the new year.

The school board felt overly confident about winning the case because San Diego’s district attorney was on their side, but mistakes were made. The D.A. tried to get the case dismissed but luck was not on his side.

 

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Interior spread from Without Separation written by Larry Dane Brimner and illustrated by Maya Gonzalez, Calkins Creek ©2021.

 

The judge ultimately ruled in favor of Roberto Alvarez who the school district tried to prevent from returning to the local school he’d previously attended. The law said the lead plaintiff (and therefore all the others affected) had every right to attend the Lemon Grove Grammar School “without separation or segregation.” This important case along with several others was cited “before the US Supreme Court when it made its landmark Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka (Kansas) decision of 1954 that outlawed school segregation.” And though the struggle recounted in Without Separation took place almost 91 years ago, the facts surrounding this case feel as relevant today when prejudice against the immigrant communities here in the U.S. continues and racial-based inequalities linger.

Author Brimner has written a timely and terrific book for today’s generation of children to gain greater insight into the power of community, commitment, and the change that even “one small voice” can make. Gonzalez’s gorgeous artwork, reminiscent of Mexican muralists with its bold lines and rich colors, helps bring this story to life.

Eight pages of interesting back matter go into more detail about the case including what happened to the principal Jerome J. Green. There are photos along with information about other similar lawsuits. I was happy to read how Roberto Alvarez became a successful businessman, civic leader, and philanthropist in San Diego before he passed away in 2003. It’s great that this book is available for families, schools, and libraries so readers can have a greater appreciation of the significant impact of Roberto Alvarez v. the Board of Trustees of the Lemon Grove School District.

  • Reviewed by Ronna Mandel
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Best New Books for Back-to-School 2021

10 BACK-TO-SCHOOL BOOKS

∼A ROUNDUP FOR 2021∼

 

 

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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.

 

 

MEET YOUR SCHOOL!: An All About Me Book
Written by Cindy Jin

Illustrated by Melissa Crowton
(Little Simon; $7.99, Ages 1-5)

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

 

HowtobeKindinKindergarten cvrHOW TO BE KIND IN KINDERGARTEN:
A Book For Your Backpack
Written by D.J. Steinberg
Illustrated by Ruth Hammond
(Grosset & Dunlap; $8.99; Ages 3-5)

 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

 

whats in dragons backpack coverWHAT’S IN DRAGON’S BACKPACK?
Written by Joan Holub

Illustrated by Christopher Lee
(Little Simon; $8.99, Ages 3-5)

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

 

ISABEL AND HER COLORES GO TO SCHOOL
Written by Alexandra Alessandri
Illustrated by Courtney Dawson
(Sleeping Bear Press; $16.99, Ages 4-8)

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

 

My School Stinks! coverMY SCHOOL STINKS!
Written by Becky Scharnhorst
Illustrated by Julia Patton
(Philomel; $17.99; Ages 4-8)

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

 

WE WANT TO GO TO SCHOOL:
The Fight for Disability Rights
Written by Maryann Cocca-Leffler + Janine Leffler
Illustrated by Maryann Cocca-Leffler

(Albert Whitman; $16.99, Ages 4-8)

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

 

TheNightBaaforetheFirstDayofSchool coverTHE NIGHT BAAFORE THE FIRST DAY OF SCHOOL
Written by Dawn Young
Illustrated by Pablo Pino
(WorthyKids; $17.99, Ages 4-8)

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’S FIRST DAY AT DINO DAY CARE
Written and illustrated by Sean Julian
(NorthSouth Books; $17.95, Ages 4-8)

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! (A Hello!Lucky Book)
Written by Sabrina Moyle
Illustrated by Eunice Moyle
(Abrams Appleseed; $16.99; Ages 5-9)

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

 

TWINS VS. TRIPLETS #1:
Back-to-School Blitz

Written by Jennifer Torres
Illustrated by Vanessa Flores
(Harper Chapters; HC $15.99, Paperback $5.99, Ages 6-10)

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

 

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Nonfiction Picture Book – A Brief History of Underpants for National Underwear Day

 

A BRIEF HISTORY OF UNDERPANTS

Written by Christine Van Zandt

Illustrated by Harry Briggs

(becker&meyer!kids; Paperback $9.99, Ages 4-8)

 

 

A Brief History of Underpants cover

 

 

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.

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Interior spread from A Brief History of Underpants written by Christine Van Zandt and illustrated by Harry Briggs, becker&meyer!kids ©2021.

 

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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.

 

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Interior spread from A Brief History of Underpants written by Christine Van Zandt and illustrated by Harry Briggs, becker&meyer!kids ©2021.

 

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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.

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Interior spread from A Brief History of Underpants written by Christine Van Zandt and illustrated by Harry Briggs, becker&meyer!kids ©2021.

 

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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 with Harry 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
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Click here for a cover reveal of this book with some insights about the inspiration from Christine.

 

 

 

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Kids Picture Book – Walking for Water

WALKING FOR WATER:
How One Boy Stood Up for Gender Equality

Written by Susan Hughes

Illustrated by Nicole Miles

(Kids Can Press; $17.99, Ages 6-8)

 

walking for water book cover

 

 

There are over a dozen terrific books in the Citizen Kid series and the latest, Walking for Water by award-winning author Susan Hughes, is no exception. This story, inspired by “the recent experience of a thoughtful and fair-minded 13-year-old Malawian boy” takes readers to the landlocked country in southeastern Africa to meet eight-year-old twins Victor and his sister, Linesi.

Readers know right from the start that the pair are close. On this day, however, the two who usually do so many things together, including attending school, will now be apart. In Victor and Linesi’s community when girls turn eight they are expected to leave school and help with chores. That includes fetching water five times a day, water used for “drinking, cooking and washing.” Victor enjoys school so he feels bad that his sister has to miss out on the learning just because she’s a girl.

 

int1 walking for water women by the river
Interior spread from Walking for Water written by Susan Hughes and illustrated by Nicole Miles, Kids Can Press ©2021.

 

When a new teacher asks the students to think about gender equality in their own lives, Victor doesn’t have to look far to find an example. And when he tries to share what he learned in school with his sister, Victor sees she is too exhausted from her day’s work to concentrate on math. This realization prompts Victor to propose a plan to his mama and sister, one that involves taking turns doing the chores enabling Linesi to alternate days at school with him. Yes!! I cheered when I discovered the selfless gesture of Victor.

 

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Interior spread from Walking for Water written by Susan Hughes and illustrated by Nicole Miles, Kids Can Press ©2021.

 

This caring approach to gender equality is not only welcomed by Victor’s teacher but it’s emulated by Victor’s best friend, Chikondi who takes over for his sister, Enifa, on alternate days. The friends can now share what they learn with their sisters who are less tired and in turn, the sisters can do the same.

Illustrator Nicole Miles brings warmth, heart, and simplicity to her illustrations. The book, described by the publisher as a graphic novel/picture book hybrid format, allows Miles to not only have fun with her art but to add more activity to the spreads. A particular favorite, with its rich earthy tones, is of Victor joining the girls and women on their way to collect water.

 

int3 Walking for Water by the kachere tree
Interior spread from Walking for Water written by Susan Hughes and illustrated by Nicole Miles, Kids Can Press ©2021.

 

This hopeful, engaging, and educational story will be an eye-opener for children on many levels. It not only demonstrates the power of one innovative individual to effect change, in this case for gender equality, but it also presents traditions and lifestyles different from ours. Additionally, it shows how important the need still is for access to clean water in the 21st century. Hughes’s Author’s Note and resources as well as a glossary of Chichewa words in the back matter (which are peppered throughout the story) provide additional avenues to further explore topics raised in Walking for Water. I’m glad that Hughes chose to use the twins as her focus for this story because of the sharp contrasts between the siblings that readers will understand immediately. Hughes mentions in the back matter that change is coming to Malawi and hopefully more opportunities for girls to pursue their aspirations will follow.

  •  Reviewed by Ronna Mandel

 

 

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An Interview with Jamie Michalak Author of Dakota Crumb: Tiny Treasure Hunter

 

AN INTERVIEW WITH JAMIE MICHALAK 

AUTHOR OF

DAKOTA CRUMB: TINY TREASURE HUNTER

∼ BLOG TOUR ∼

(Candlewick Press; $17.99, Ages 3-7)

 

 

DakotaCrumb Tiny Treasure Hunter cover

 

 

PICTURE BOOK SUMMARY:

Dakota Crumb: Tiny Treasure Hunter by Jamie Michalak with art by Kelly Murphy is both a rollicking story with a dash of danger and, in its final eye-popping spreads, a seek-and-find challenge. As the clock in the great museum tick-tocks past midnight, a little mouse with a sack and a treasure map scurries past the guards. Plucky Dakota Crumb scours the museum for artifacts, including the rare purple jewel of Cairo (a gumdrop stashed in an exhibit). By day, the little mouse shares her carefully curated finds with fellow tiny creatures that flock to Miss Crumb’s tiny Mousehole Museum. A feast for sharp-eyed readers—who’ll delight in circling back after the story to pore over the illustrations in search of treasure—this gently suspenseful tale, splashed with soft, dusky hues, evokes a world of wonders after dark.

 

INTERVIEW:

GOODREADSWITHRONNA:  Welcome, Jamie! I’m so happy to be on this blog tour and have you as a guest today!

JAMIE MICHALAK: Thank you for having me on your blog, Ronna! 🙂 I love your questions.

 

GRWR: I love the idea of a treasure-hunting mouse. And in a museum, to boot, where visitors young and old leave lots of things behind! Did you always know you wanted to write Dakota’s story this way or did it evolve as you imagined what things a daring mouse could get up to?

JM: This story absolutely evolved, and I wrote many, MANY iterations of it. I originally imagined an artsy concept book full of tiny objects. Then I built a story around them starring an acorn, who gave readers a tour of his tiny collections and shared stories about his adventures finding them. Finally, I realized it would be more fun to take readers on those adventures. But it wasn’t until I was in line at the Met museum and imagined a mousehole museum underneath it that the story finally clicked into place.

 

Dakota Crumb museum int.1
DAKOTA CRUMB: TINY TREASURE HUNTER. Text copyright © 2021 by Jamie Michalak. Illustrations copyright © 2021 by Kelly Murphy. Reproduced by permission of the publisher, Candlewick Press, Somerville, MA.

 

 

GRWR: Okay, so I’m scared of mice but yet it’s such fun reading about their antics. Are you a fan of mice stories and if so, which ones in particular?

JM: Yeah, I don’t want to run into a real one. Eep! But there’s something about a miniature world that sparks my imagination. I want to visit a mouse house. One with furniture, of course.

My favorite mouse books are Mouse Soup and Mouse Tales by Arnold Lobel, Noisy Nora by Rosemary Wells, Lily’s Plastic Purple Purse by Kevin Henkes, and so many more.

 

GRWR: The pairing of prose and art in your book works seamlessly. One of my favorite scenes is the guest book one since you had me wondering how little Dakota would make off with a museum masterpiece. What did you think when you first saw Kelly Murphy’s evocative illustrations? Do you have a favorite spread?

JM: Oh, thank you! Kelly’s art is incredible. She’s captured all of the excitement of a night-in-the-museum heist. I also loved that she worked in some nods to Indiana Jones, since there’s a little of Indiana in Dakota. But if I had to choose one spread it would be the one of the Mousehole Museum with all of its exhibits, small animal visitors, and even a cafe of tiny treats! It took my breath away the first time I saw it. It’s the page kids love to linger on and pick out their favorite tiny treasures.

 

Dakota Crumb museum_int.2
DAKOTA CRUMB: TINY TREASURE HUNTER. Text copyright © 2021 by Jamie Michalak. Illustrations copyright © 2021 by Kelly Murphy. Reproduced by permission of the publisher, Candlewick Press, Somerville, MA.

 

GRWR: The harmless museum heist is just part of the story’s intrigue. Readers have more fun in store! In the last few pages, they find out about the miniature museum run by Dakota Crumb underneath the larger one and are then invited on a seek-and-find mission of their own. I couldn’t resist tracking down the items shown at the end and am sure children will feel the same. Was this cool combination story your intention all along?

JM: I layered on the interactive seek-and-find details after I’d written the heist story. Because Dakota finds only a handful of treasures in the story, I needed to do something with all of the many other teeny objects from my original exhaustive list of them. So I created a treasure hunt list for the reader, and Kelly hid the tiny objects in the art for kids to find.

 

GRWR: What do you hope children will take away from this reading adventure?

JM: Well, I always hope that they’ll have fun. But I also hope that the familiarity of Dakota’s coveted finds will inspire kids to see that tiny treasures are around us all the time. We just need to slow down and pay attention to them.

 

GRWR: Thanks so much for this wonderful interview, Jamie! I hope you’ll come back again to share more insights about your books.

Dakota Crumb Author Jamie MichalakBIO:

Jamie Michalak is the author of many children’s books, including Dakota Crumb: Tiny Treasure Hunter, illustrated by Kelly Murphy; Frank and Bean, illustrated by Bob Kolar; the highly praised Joe and Sparky early readers series, illustrated by Frank Remkiewicz; as well as the forthcoming picture book Niki Nakayama: A Chef’s Tale in 13 Bites, co-written with Debbi Michiko Florence and illustrated by Yuko Jones, and many more.

            When not writing, she can often be found singing off-key, drinking too much coffee, or hanging out with her two sons. Jamie lives with her family in Barrington, Rhode Island. For more info, visit her at www.jamiemichalak.com

 

SOCIAL MEDIA:

Website: JamieMichalak.com

Instagram: @jamiemichalakbooks

Twitter: @jamie_michalak

 

BLOG TOUR DATES AND HOSTS:

6/18 – Watch. Connect. Read (link)

7/6 – Imagination Soup (link)

7/7 – Storymamas

7/8 – Good Reads with Ronna

7/9 – Nerdy Book Blog

7/14 – Randomly Reading

8/3 – Celebrate Picture Books

 

Like mice? Read a review of another mouse book here.

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Kids Picture Book Review – Don’t Call Me Fuzzybutt!

DON’T CALL ME FUZZYBUTT!

Written by Robin Newman

Illustrated by Susan Batori

(Sleeping Bear Press; $16.99, Ages 4-8)

 

DontCallMeFuzzybutt cover

 

 

If I enjoy saying this book’s title, kids will definitely delight in repeating Don’t Call Me Fuzzybutt! They’ll be eager to read the entire book because, sticks and stones aside, what child hasn’t had a run-in with name-calling? And when you’ve got the talented team of Robin Newman and Susan Batori taking on the topic, it promises to be entertaining while making an important point.

Neither Bear nor Woodpecker means to hurl names at one another or hurt each other’s feelings, but sometimes it happens from pent-up frustration. This time it happens when Bear is settling down to hibernate for winter. Because he’s a very light sleeper, Bear makes preparations to assure he is not disturbed. Unfortunately, the tree he has cut down to make a solid door for his den was the location of Woodpecker’s homes.

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Interior spread from Don’t Call Me Fuzzybutt! written by Robin Newman and illustrated by Susan Batori, Sleeping Bear Press ©2021.

 

Woodpecker asks Rabbit, Mouse, and Squirrel if they’ve witnessed the chopping incident. No luck. Fortunately, his own detective skills lead him to discover that Bear is the culprit so he begins to peck, peck away at Bear’s door. Angered by the commotion, Bear asks the three other animals “Who’s the pesky FEATHERBUTT making that noise?” When Woodpecker gets wind of the name-calling, he confronts Bear. While he doesn’t deny it, Bear is more concerned about getting his shut-eye and leaves for his den, further exacerbating the situation.

Soon after, Woodpecker wakes up Bear to tell him how upset he feels at being called a name in front of everyone. Tension builds beautifully both in Newman’s prose and Batori’s art. Bear is annoyed at having his sleep interrupted and Woodpecker is mad at his houses being destroyed. Now it’s Bear’s turn to get called a name and you can just guess what that is, right? FUZZYBUTT! Once again the meddlesome forest friends have inserted themselves into the drama by blabbing about the big scene they witnessed. Bear, bothered big time, stomps off to bed seething before tears start falling.

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Interior spread from Don’t Call Me Fuzzybutt! written by Robin Newman and illustrated by Susan Batori, Sleeping Bear Press ©2021.

 

Now it’s Woodpecker’s turn to make amends and he does so by apologizing to Bear. With newfound respect for one another, the pair concoct a housing plan that is sure to make them both happy, but from a distance! Plus Bear can hibernate knowing that in 243 1/2 days he’ll have a new friend to hang out with.

Batori’s digital artwork, mimicking “colored pencils and watercolor,” makes an already appealing story irresistible. Her characters are charming, her color palette is rich and woodsy and her composition pulls us in immediately. The art, together with Newman’s humorous and skilled writing, offers a totally relatable read-aloud for parents, caregivers, teachers, and librarians that will spark meaningful conversation about conflict resolution, gossip, and the hurt caused by name-calling. I’m happy Bear and Woodpecker worked things out and kids will be, too! Just be prepared to hear FUZZYBUTT a lot more frequently in your home after reading this fabulously funny picture book.

  •  Reviewed by Ronna Mandel

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Read a review of another book by Robin here.

 

 

 

 

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Five Picture Books for Snowy Days – A Roundup

FIVE PICTURE BOOKS

FOR SNOWY DAYS

 

 

We may be fast approaching spring but many parts of the country are still getting snow so we thought we’d share five picture books to read on a snowy day.

 

 

AlltheLittleSnowflakes coverALL THE LITTLE SNOWFLAKES
Written by Cindy Jin
Illustrated by Dawn M. Cardona
(Little Simon; $7.99, Ages 1-5)

This 18-page, die-cut board book for little ones invites readers to explore all the lovely cut-outs of snowflakes while learning about their magic effect on all who see them. Children will see all the different places snowflakes fall in a rhyming text that highlights the word snowflakes to help with word recognition. The exuberant illustrations are achieved by hand-cutting, something parents can try with kids. Every joyful scene as snow falls all around is colorful and will motivate kids to go outside to play. – Reviewed by Ronna Mandel

 

 

Can Bears Ski coverCAN BEARS SKI?
Written b
y Raymond Antrobus
Illustrated by Polly Dunbar
(Candlewick Press; $16.99; Ages 3-7)

Award-winning deaf poet Raymond Antrobus, and partially deaf author-illustrator Polly Dunbar, tell a story with feeling and emotions that only those who have lived a non-hearing life could tell in Can Bears Ski? Antrobus’s picture book debut takes the reader into the life of Bear who awakens in the morning by shakes on the banister, and stairs flinching, but not quite sure what Dad Bear is saying. The young bear is confused with everyone’s question of “Can Bears Ski?” Is that what all the bears are asking? The sweet drawings of Bear’s confused face as Dad Bear speaks are heartwarmingly touching. Turning the page, Bear is surrounded by all the young bears in school who are laughing but our main character doesn’t know why. What a wonderful read for children going through their own difficulties with deafness. The excitement is palpable when Bear receives hearing aids, and we see the happiness on his little brown face. Antrobus wrote a book that he said he could have used as a child. I love the strong connection of this father/son duo and the happiness the bear feels when he realizes that Bears CAN Ski! – Reviewed by Ronda Einbinder

 

APolarBearintheSnow cvrA POLAR BEAR IN THE SNOW
Written b
y Mac Barnett
Illustrated by Shawn Harris
(Candlewick Press; $17.99; Ages 3-7)

Starred Reviews – Booklist, Kirkus, Publishers Weekly, and School Library Journal

Acclaimed author Mac Barnett, winner of the Caldecott Honor and Boston Globe-Horn Book Award for Extra Yarn sends a polar bear on a majestic adventure through snow, visiting seals and hunkering in caves, while each page turn asks where is he going? A Polar Bear in The Snow features illustrator Shawn Harris’s white torn-paper illustrations layering white-on-white hues and bursts of blue. I read the book a few times, including once to a first grader that I tutor, and with each read, I discovered new aspects of the art I hadn’t noticed before. There is excitement as the story progresses while readers ponder will the polar bear be alright as he wanders through the snow. The turquoise art that suddenly appears is truly beautiful to view when the polar bear sees his reflection in the water. That blue continues through the remainder of the story until returning to the white pages of snow. Barnett leaves a lot of room for a child’s imagination with each delightful read. – Reviewed by Ronda Einbinder

 

IfWinterComes coverIF WINTER COMES, TELL IT I’M NOT HERE
Written and illustrated by Simona Ciraolo
(Candlewick Press; $16.99; Ages 3-7)

Living in Southern California, I don’t have a lot of experience with the changing of the seasons. But reading London-based author-illustrator Simona Ciraolo’s 32-page picture book If Winter Comes, Tell It I’m Not Here, showed me the relationship of a big sister and her little brother as she warns him to beware because summer won’t last forever. The expressive soft colors depicting the young main character floating in the still turquoise water invite the reader into the moment as he relishes his love for swimming. His sister warns him that summer is going to end soon, as we turn the page to the red and orange colors of the changing seasons. This is a fabulous book for both parents and teachers to share with kids who live in a place where they see the leaves fall and the cold rain turn to snow. It’s also for those of us who could eat ice cream all year and bask in the sun but sure would love to throw a snowball once in a while and cuddle with the family on the couch. The boy comes to realize that living in the moment can be an adventure no matter what time of year. – Reviewed by Ronda Einbinder

 

RaccoonsPerfectSnowman cover

RACCOON’S PERFECT SNOWMAN
Written and illustrated by Katia Wish
(Sleeping Bear Press; $16.99, Ages 4-8)

Raccoon’s qualities will resonate with many young readers and that made me really appreciate the premise of this adorable picture book. Since Raccoon has invested a lot of time perfecting his snowman-making skills he’s now offered to help his friends work on finessing theirs. The catch is that he’s so busy focusing on creating yet another perfect snowman that he neglects helping out his friends. In fact, he hogs all the good stuff needed to make one he considers just right.

Rabbit can only find dirty snow. Fox cannot master the snowball shaping and poor Mouse cannot find a single worthwhile item to use for decoration. When it’s time to check in with everyone’s progress, Raccoon is less than complimentary. He criticizes their humble efforts and offends everyone leaving him feeling “perfectly awful.” And rightly so!

When Raccoon realizes how selfish and hurtful he’s been to his pals, Raccoon convinces them to give it one more go. Unlike the first attempt, this time Raccoon’s encouragement makes all the difference. With his friends all pitching in, they create a charming snowman far from perfect by Raccoon’s original standards but perfectly wonderful just the same. This snowman has been built on forgiveness and friendship, so who really cares how it looks? What matters is that when working together, everyone’s contribution counts. Wish’s art is lovely, full of white space that works well for the wintery environment. And the forest animals’ expressive faces add to the reading enjoyment.
– Reviewed by Ronna Mandel

 

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Kids Picture Book Review – Birds of a Feather

BIRDS OF A FEATHER

Written by Sita Singh

Illustrated by Stephanie Fizer Coleman

(Philomel Books; $17.99, Ages 4-8)

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BirdsofaFeather cover

 

Join me as we journey to the Himalayan jungle where we’ll meet Mo, a stunning snowy white peacock, in Sita Singh’s picture book debut, Birds of a Feather, with illustrations by Stephanie Fizer Coleman.

 

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Interior spread from Birds of a Feather written by Sita Singh and illustrated by Stephanie Fizer Coleman, Philomel Books ©2021.

 

Much loved and accepted by his more colorful friends, Mo is the one who, in time, begins to feel different. He finds no pleasure playing hide-and-seek and he doesn’t have dazzling plumes like his pals.

 

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Interior art from Birds of a Feather written by Sita Singh and illustrated by Stephanie Fizer Coleman, Philomel Books ©2021.

 

With their encouragement, he often shrugs off his self-doubt. That is until a sign announcing The Annual Dance in The Rain event, the biggest day in the jungle, reinforces Mo’s feeling of being different. He can’t have his blues brightened at the Color Salon, or find a reason to shop at the Bird Boutique like all the others. To him his bird feathers are boring.

When he feels down, Mo’s friends continue to build him up with caring words like “Colors don’t make the bird!”, “You’re still a peacock!” and “Go, Mo, Go!” Does it help? Temporarily. Mo knows he lacks those bright, bold, beautiful feathers of his peacock peers. But when a dark storm on the night of dance makes it impossible for anyone to see, and the peacocks are tripping over each other’s trains and in a general fowl mood, Mo, watching the action from a distance, realizes he actually does possess something special. His bright and brilliant glowing white feathers light up the darkness and the dance. The night’s festivities are illuminated, and fantastic, even for Mo!

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Interior spread from Birds of a Feather written by Sita Singh and illustrated by Stephanie Fizer Coleman, Philomel Books ©2021.

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Now that everyone can see, Mo, at last, sees something toothat what he had all along that made him different is what makes him unique and wonderful. Singh’s story about the power of friends and a supportive community is delightful and will lift readers’ spirits as they watch Mo’s spirits rise and shine. I love how Singh introduces us to a character so beloved by his friends who at first is unable to see his own self-worth while everyone else can.

Adding to the inspiring quality of Singh’s tale are Fizer Coleman’s lush illustrations in jewel tones created digitally with traditionally painted gouache and watercolor textures. Together they offer readers not only a charming and visually appealing read, but a helpful one in regards to social and emotional development as well. It’s great for parents, teachers, and librarians to have such a positive picture book celebrating diversity and differences for this age group. The book concludes with interesting back matter about peacocks—the national bird of India and features “a fact sheet on these beautiful creatures, their environment, their behaviors, and more!” Did you know that a group of peacocks is called a party? Well, party on now with Mo and company in Birds of a Feather.

Reviewed by Ronna Mandel

 

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Five Recommended Reads for Kids – Black History Month 2021

 

FIVE CHILDREN’S BOOKS FOR BLACK HISTORY MONTH

∼A ROUNDUP∼

 

BlackHistoryMonthgraphic clipart

This year choosing books to include in our Recommended Reads for Kids – Black History Month Roundup has been more difficult than ever because there are dozens of excellent ones being published and more on the way. Here is just a small sample of great reads, from picture book to graphic novel to young adult fantasy that are available for kids and teens to enjoy.

 

 

TheABCsofBlackHistory cvrTHE ABCs OF BLACK HISTORY
Written by Rio Cortez
Illustrated by Lauren Semmer
(Workman Publishing; $14.95, Ages 5 and up)

A NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER
Starred Review – Kirkus

The ABCs of Black History is the kind of inspiring book children and adults will want to return to again and again because there is so much to absorb. In other words, it’s not your mother’s ABC book. Written in uplifting rhyme by Pushcart Prize-nominated poet Rio Cortez, this gorgeous 60-page picture book is at once a look back in time and a look to the future for young Black children. However it is recommended reading for children of all races and their families.

Cortez has shined a lyrical light on places, events and figures familiar and less familiar from Black history with comprehensive back matter going more in depth. Take H for example: “H is for Harlemthose big city streets! / We walked and we danced to our own jazzy beat. / When Louis and Bessie and Duke owned the stage, / and Langston and Zora Neale Hurston, the page.” J is for Juneteenth and S, which gets double coverage, is for scientists and for soul. Adding  to the hopeful tone of Cortez’s rhyme are Semmer’s bold and vibrant graphics which jump off the page. The dazzling colors pull you in and the variety of composition keep you hooked.

The ABCs of Black History is a book you’ll want to read together with your young ones and let your older children discover and savor on their own. It’s not only a visual and aural treat, it’s a sweeping celebration and exploration of Black culture and history that is beautiful, compelling, thought provoking and thoroughly unputdownable!
• Reviewed by Ronna Mandel

 

WE WAIT FOR THE SUN
Written by Dovey Johnson Roundtree and Katie McCabe

Illustrated by Raissa Figueroa  
(Roaring Brook Press; $18.99, Ages 4-8)

Starred Reviews – Booklist, Kirkus, and Publishers Weekly

Adapted from the final chapter of Dovey Johnson Roundtree’s autobiography Mighty Justice, We Wait for the Sun is an intimate look at a tender moment in Dovey’s childhood. The book opens with a preface about the main character, Dovey, who grew up to be a legendary figure in the fight for racial equality-all through the influence of her beloved grandmother, Rachel Bryant Graham. Dovey loved to share stories of Grandmother Rachel; this book is the story she loved best. 

In “the midsummer night” when it’s “dark and cool,” Dovey and her grandmother walk “through the darkness toward the woods” to pick blackberries. Lyrical language and textural illustrations awaken the senses and draw us into their adventure.

Other women join in and the trip goes deeper still into the forest. Staring at Grandma’s shoes, Dovey is literally following her grandmother’s steps into the darkness. But Grandma Rachel provides comfort and reassurance. “If you wait just a little, your eyes will learn to see, and you can find your way.” 

Through such examples of wisdom and encouragement, it’s clear to see why Grandma Rachel was such an inspiration to Dovey and her later work as a civil rights lawyer. As they sit in the forest and listen to its  “thousand sounds,” a double page spread shows an aerial view of their meditative moment, immersed in the magic of their surroundings. 

And when they reach the berries, they’re every bit worth the wait-plump, juicy, and sweet-like the lush layers of purple, blue, and pink illustrations that display a beautiful berry-colored world as dawn, bit by bit, turns to day. Wrapped in each other’s arms, Grandma and Dovey watch the sun rise in its golden splendor. Grandma’s steadfast waiting for the light, despite the present darkness, is a moving message of hope, resilience, and bravery.

Back matter includes an in-depth note from co-author Katie McCabe chronicling Dovey’s fight against barriers in the law, military, and ministry. For anyone interested in the powerful ways family and history intersect, We Wait for the Sun is a must-have in every library.  • Reviewed by Armineh Manookian

 

Opening the Road coverOPENING THE ROAD:
Victor Hugo Green and His Green Book
Written by Keila V. Dawson
Illustrated by Alleanna Harris
(Beaming Books; $19.99, Ages 4-8)

While white Americans eagerly embarked on carefree car travel around the country, in 1930s Jim Crow America the road was not a safe or welcoming place for Black people. In Opening the Road: Victor Hugo Green and His Green Book, Keila V. Dawson explores the entrepreneur Victor Green and his successful The Negro Motorist Green Book which was borne out of dire need.

Young readers will learn about the limitations that were in place restricting the freedoms of Black Americans to have access to the same conveniences whites did due to segregation laws. For instance, a road trip for a Black family meant bringing food, pillows, and even a portable toilet since most establishments along a route were for whites only. The same applied to hotels, service stations, auto-mechanics and even hospitals. And in “Sundown” towns, where Blacks could work but not live, those individuals had to be gone by sunset or risk jail or worse.

In this fascinating 40-page nonfiction picture book, Dawson explains in easy-to-understand prose exactly what obstacles faced Black travelers and why Green, a mail carrier, together with his wife Alma, decided to publish a directory. Inspired by a Kosher guide for Jews who also faced discrimination, Green began collecting information from people on his postal route about where safe places were in New York.

Eventually, with word-of-mouth expanding interest in Green’s book, he began corresponding with mail carriers nationwide to gather more recommendations for The Negro Motorist Green Book on more cities. Soon everyone from day-trippers to celebrities were using the Green Book. Green even made a deal with Standard Oil for the book to be sold in Esso gas stations where it “flew off the shelves.” Harris’s illustrations take readers back in time with colorful, realistic looking scenes of big old cars, uniformed service station attendants and locations in Black communities that opened their doors to Black travelers. Apart from a break during WWII, the book was sold until the need for it finally ended with the last edition in 1966-67.

Equality both on and off the road was the ultimate goal for Black Americans. That may have improved somewhat from when the first Green Book was published in 1936, but Victor did not live to see the Civil Rights Act of 1964 enacted, having passed away in 1960. However there is still a long road ahead because, unlike Victor’s Green Book, racism has not disappeared and being Black while driving can still be dangerous, even deadly.

Dawson dives into this in her five pages of back matter that include a clever roadway timeline graphic from the beginning of Green’s life in 1892 until the Green Book ceased publication. This is a helpful, thoughtfully written book to share with children to discuss racism, and a good way to begin a discussion about self-advocacy, ingenuity, and how to treat one another with respect. It’s also a welcome example of how Green channeled his frustration and dissatisfaction into a guide that ultimately changed people’s lives for the better. Click here for an essential Educator’s Guide. • Reviewed by Ronna Mandel

 

black cowboys cover origBLACK HEROES OF THE WILD WEST
Written and illustrated by James Otis Smith
with an introduction by Kadir Nelson
(Toon Books; HC $16.95, PB $9.99, Ages 8+)

Junior Library Guild Selection
Starred Review – Booklist

Kadir Nelson, in his interesting introduction to James Otis Smith’s graphic novel Black Heroes of the Wild West points out that cowboys, ranchers, homesteaders and other people from the Old West (west of the Mississippi River “during and after the American Civil War”) were historically portrayed in books, movies and TV through a white lens. In reality up to “a third of the settler population was African American.” I couldn’t wait to find out more about Mary Fields, known as “Stagecoach Mary” in her day, Bass Reeves, the first black Deputy U.S. Marshal west of the Mississippi, and “mustanger” Bob Lemmons, perhaps the original Texas horse whisperer.

All three individuals were forces to be reckoned with. First there’s Mary Fields, born into slavery in Tennessee. In her lifetime, she maintained fierce loyalty to friends, loved children, was generous to a fault, and had strength and energy second to none. She’s most noted, however, for her reputation as a banjo strumming, card playing, first African American female stagecoach driver who never missed a delivery and was not easily thwarted by wolves or bad weather.

I was blown away learning about Bass Reeves’s bravery in outwitting some murderous outlaws on the Most Wanted List. In the account Smith shares, Reeves single-handedly put himself into a dangerous situation by turning up as an impoverished loner looking for any kind of work to earn his keep. By cleverly offering up his services to the mother of the villains, earning her trust, and ultimately that of the bad guys too, he was able to capture them completely off guard. This plus thousands of other arrests cemented his place in history. The best part was how Smith’s illustrations conveyed Reeves in the particular scenario of capturing the outlaws by surprise which in turn surprised and satisfied me immensely.

Last but definitely not least is Bob Lemmons who was hired to corral wild mustangs and whose humane technique was not deadly to any of the horses, something other mustangers had not been able to manage. Smith takes readers on a journey of the senses along with Lemmons as he follows a group of mustangs he intends to wrangle, and details in both art and text how eventually Lemmons becomes one with the stallion leading the “manada” (mares and colts). “Bob knew their habits, their body language, their sounds. Like them, he flared his nostrils sniffing for danger.” You don’t have to be a horse lover to be impressed how Bob’s slow and steady approach made the mustangs think he was one of them.

Eight comprehensive pages of fascinating back matter round off this excellent middle grade read that will no doubt have tweens eager to find out more about these and other Black heroes. • Reviewed by Ronna Mandel

 

The Gilded Ones coverTHE GILDED ONES
by Namina Forna
(Delacorte Press; $18.99, Ages 12 and up)

Starred Review – Booklist
A NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER

The Gilded Ones is book one of a West African-inspired epic fantasy series that will grab you from its first page. When girls turn sixteen, they must undergo The Ritual of Purity where they are bled to see if they can become a member of their village. However, if a girl’s blood runs gold, then she’s found impure and faces a fate worse than death. If Deka’s father had the money, he would have sent her to the House of Purity the year before the ritual, keeping her protected from sharp objects. Instead, Deka must be careful while she worries and prepares.

When Deka fails, she’s tortured until a mysterious woman she names White Hands offers an option out. The empire’s being attacked by seemingly invincible Deathshriek creatures. Deka becomes an alkali soldier fighting alongside other girls like her with powers that make them nearly immortal.

Namina Forna says, “The Gilded Ones is a book about my anger at being a woman. Sierra Leone was is very patriarchal. There were things I was expected to do as a girl because I was a girl.” This emotion is harnessed into the story, revealing societal inequities in an intricately woven plot that will surprise and enflame you.

Deka has the best “sidekick” ever—a shapeshifter called Ixa. Though there are elements of romance, it’s strong females who rule the plot. This book provides a fresh look at the “gods and goddesses” trope. The Gilded Ones is fierce, brutal, and relevant. Read it. • Reviewed by Christine Van Zandt (www.ChristineVanZandt.com), Write for Success (www.Write-for-Success.com), @ChristineVZ and @WFSediting, Christine@Write-for-Success.com

 

Click here to read another Black History Month review.
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Additional Recommendations:

Ruby Bridges This Is Your Time by Ruby Bridges (Delacorte Press)
The Teachers March! by Sandra Neil Wallace and Rich Wallace w/art by Charly Palmer (Calkins Creek)
Stompin’ at the Savoy by Moira Rose Donohue w/art by Laura Freeman (Sleeping Bear Press)
Overground Railroad by Lesa Cline-Ransome w/art by James Ransome (Holiday House)
R-E-S-P-E-C-T: Aretha Franklin, the Queen of Soul by Carole Boston Weatherford w/art by Frank Morrison (Atheneum BYR)
Finding a Way Home by Larry Dane Brimner (Calkins Creek)
Changing the Equation: 50+ Black Women in STEM by Tonya Bolden (Abrams BYR)

 

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