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An Interview with Author Christine Van Zandt

 

 

AN INTERVIEW WITH

MILKWEED FOR MONARCHS

AUTHOR CHRISTINE VAN ZANDT

Illustrated by Alejandra Barajas

(Beaming Books; $18.99, Ages 4-8)

 

 

Milkweed for Monarchs cover monarchs flying in milkweed plants.

 

 

PUBLISHER SUMMARY:

Bold, gold, the chrysalis gleams. And deep down inside . . . the butterfly dreams.

Every year, monarch butterflies migrate to warmer climates for overwintering months. However, changing environments make it continually more difficult to find food and places to lay eggs. In this nonfiction picture book, the monarch’s life cycle is detailed in lyrical verse as stunning art accompanies each stage in the butterfly’s life.

The most recognizable butterfly, monarchs are classified as a vulnerable species by the IUCN, and face drastic challenges when it comes to locating food sources–milkweed. Milkweed for Monarchs is the perfect resource for young readers to learn more about these beautiful insects and how they can foster monarch-friendly environments in their own backyard. Backmatter includes actionable ways for readers to help this vulnerable species.

 

INTERVIEW:

GoodReadsWithRonna: How did you decide to write about butterflies in your new nonfiction picture book, Milkweed for Monarchs?

Christine Van Zandt: During the pandemic, we bought a milkweed plant with the vague idea that we were helping butterflies in some way. Little did we know that our plant was loaded with eggs and soon we had a bunch of very cute caterpillars. Sadly, they were eaten by various predators in our garden, but that set me out on this journey, wondering about monarchs.


GRWR:
What eats monarchs? I thought they were poisonous.

CVZ: When the monarch caterpillars eat milkweed leaves, they do retain some of the plant’s toxins. And they have the bright “stay away” body markings consisting of yellow, white, and black stripes. But they still end up being dinner for other insects, spiders, birds, lizards, and mammals. In our garden, we’ve seen ants carrying little caterpillars away; raccoons and birds pluck them off.

 

Milkweed for Monarchs int1 flitter flutter wings
Interior spread from Milkweed for Monarchs written by Christine Van Zandt and illustrated by Alejandra Barajas, Beaming Books ©2024.

 

GRWR: Did you encounter any obstacles trying to sell this book?

CVZ: It took me a while to figure out how to write it. I tried it in prose and verse, in fiction and nonfiction. The version that ended up working best was a short rhyming poem with facts in sidebars and in the backmatter.

An earlier version of this manuscript won first place at SCBWI-LA’s 2021 Writers Day and also earned me the annual Sue Alexander Grant. Even so, when the manuscript went out on submissions, some publishers passed stating they already had a monarch book on their list and they didn’t want to compete against their own products.


GRWR:
So it sounds like butterfly books are considered evergreens like dinosaur, alphabet, or things-that-go books?

CVZ: Yes they are, so both my area of focus for the story and how I presented the text had to come from a fresh angle. I’m passionate about trying to help the monarchs. The western monarch’s population went from 4.5 million in the 1980s to fewer than 2000 butterflies in 2020. The just-in 2023 count shows the population is still ~95% down.

Monarchs need milkweed because that’s the only plant their caterpillars can eat; that became my focus, how the milkweed plant is essential for this insect’s survival. Milkweed plants are also amazing: they get eaten down to nothing and keep regrowing. I welcome munched-on plants in my yard because that means insects are being sustained through their life cycle which, in turn, benefits the larger food web.


GRWR:
As picture book writers we’re often told not to write in rhyme unless it is extremely well executed. Was that a problem you encountered?

CVZ: I actually didn’t but I also feel my rhyme was solid by the time we sent it out on submissions because I’d applied the various checks such as scansion. However, writing in rhyme makes revisions much harder because each round with the publisher meant not just updating the text but also redoing the rhyme. Sometimes I had to scrap stanzas and write new ones.

And rhyming books have limitations because they are not as likely to be translated into a foreign language since so much more is involved in translating poetry, though it does happen. With my first book, A Brief History of Underpants—which was written in prose—a Korean-language translation came out not long after it was published. I’d love for Milkweed for Monarchs to be translated, especially into Spanish since many monarch butterflies overwinter in Mexico’s mountains and the butterflies have been part of Mexican culture for generations. Also because the gorgeous illustrations are by Alejandra Barajas who is from Mexico.

 

Milkweed for Monarchs int2 beyond human borders
Interior spread from Milkweed for Monarchs written by Christine Van Zandt and illustrated by Alejandra Barajas, Beaming Books ©2024.

 

GRWR: While the main text of the book is a short poem, the facts in the sidebar and backmatter are in prose, right?

CVZ: Yes, and that meant switching my brain back and forth as we worked through the various drafts!

GRWR: How did you do that?

CVZ: I would read through one pass focusing only on the poem, then on another pass, I’d work on the facts.


GRWR:
Beyond being a gardener, are you involved with monarchs in other ways?

CVZ: We’ve had our garden designated a sanctuary which basically means that we promise to garden without pesticides, providing a certain number and variety of different kinds of milkweed plants including native ones, and also providing nectaring plants for the butterflies and other pollinators.

Beyond that, I’ve applied for and been granted free plants for a local LAUSD inner-city school and started their butterfly garden. I’ve also volunteered for Xerces for several years now, helping count the butterflies overwintering along the Southern California coast, and uploading that data to their central database.


GRWR:
Is there anything else you’d like to share with our readers?

CVZ: I hope my book imparts a sense of wonder and a feeling of hopefulness. It doesn’t take much to make a difference whether for the monarchs or for other creatures in our world.


GRWR:
Thank you, Christine, for sharing your amazing experience with us today. I’ve learned so much!

BUY THE BOOK:

Support independent booksellers by purchasing a copy of Milkweed for Monarchs here.

FOLLOW ON SOCIAL MEDIA:

•Christine Van Zandt 

Twitter (X): www.twitter.com/christinevz

Facebook: www.facebook.com/christine.vanzandt.9

Instagram: christinevanzandt9

Bluesky: christinevanzandt.bsky.social

•Alejandra Barajas 

Instagram: ale.barajas.illustration

•Publisher – Beaming Books

Twitter (X): www.twitter.com/BeamingBooksMIN

Facebook: www.facebook.com/BeamingBooksPublishing

Instagram: www.instagram.com/beamingbooksmn

 

 

Christine Van Zandt author photo
Author Christine Van Zandt Photo Credit: Marlena Van Zandt

AUTHOR BIO:

Christine Van Zandt is an editor, writer, and award-winning author. Her nonfiction picture books include A Brief History of Underpants (becker&mayer! kids, 2021) and, Milkweed for Monarchs (Beaming Books, 2024). She lives in Los Angeles, California, with her family. You can find her at www.ChristineVanZandt.com.

 

 

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An Interview with Katrina Tangen, Author of Copy That, Copy Cat!

 

 

NORA NICKUM INTERVIEWS KATRINA TANGEN, 

Author of COPY THAT, COPY CAT!

Illustrated by Giulia Orecchia

(Barefoot Books; $19.99, Ages 4-8)

 

Copy That Copy Cat! cover multiple animals

 

 

PUBLISHER’S SUMMARY:

This rhyming, lift-the-flap picture book of riddles introduces children to biomimicry in a thoroughly fun format. From sonar to snowshoes, discover concrete examples of human inventions that copy things found in nature. The story invites readers to guess the answers to riddles based on rhymes and visual cues that peek through die-cuts. Page turns reveal surprise answers that show how inventions mimic biology, with additional information under flaps. Endnotes include lift-the-flap guessing games to reinforce learning.

INTERVIEW:

Nora Nickum: Katrina, Copy That, Copy Cat! is such a fantastic book. I love how you used rhyming riddles where the answer isn’t what the reader expects. Kids love surprises! Can you tell us what inspired you to write about this topic and use this rhyming riddle approach?

Katrina Tangen: Thank you! Fittingly enough, I was quite a copycat for this book! It was inspired by two main things. The first was Abi Cushman’s Animals Go Vroom!, which uses misdirection to set up hilarious page turn surprises. I loved it, but kept wanting it to rhyme to set the joke up even more. So I tucked that away as an idea of a format I wanted to try sometime. 

The other was my sister Heather, who is a high school science teacher. I was brainstorming nonfiction ideas and asked her for some STEM topics. One of her suggestions was biomimicry—which I’d never heard of! So she explained (although I only sort of understood) and I stuck it in my notes, along with a vague idea of a puzzle component. 

A month or two later, the idea of combining them popped into my head. I started researching that day and finally started to understand what biomimicry actually was!

 

Copy_That_Copy_Cat_int1_Bird
Interior spread from Copy That, Copy Cat! written by Katrina Tangen and illustrated by Giulia Orecchia, Barefoot Books ©2023.

 

NN: How did you decide which inventions to include? 

KT: There are several other great picture books about biomimicry, but they tend to skew older and focus on cutting-edge inventions. I wanted to go younger and focus on everyday inventions. So, it’s about how airplanes work at a basic level, rather than a specific way of improving an airplane, like winglets. That felt more accessible and also let me explain the basic science behind the inventions. As a bonus, I wound up being able to include a lot of the cutting edge inventions on the cover and in the backmatter!

 

NN: Were there any fun inventions you ended up not having room to keep in the book?

KT: It was hard to choose—there are so many cool ones! Octopus/suction cup made it into the manuscript but got cut in editing because of space. (Although the first suction cups were actually gourds.) Finding anything to rhyme with “octopus” took forever!

And Velcro (which was inspired by burrs stuck in a dog’s fur) never made it in at all. I wanted to include it because it’s such a fun, kid-friendly invention. But all of my others were animals, and this was really about the plant. Plus, I didn’t think any kid was going to be able to predict the word “burr”!

 

NN: Did you pitch the book with the interactive die-cuts and lift-the-flaps, or was that element added later? 

KT: No, that all came later. I never thought I’d have die-cuts or flaps—much less both!

One of the first things my editor Autumn wanted to talk about was adding some kind of interactive element. Originally, the idea was specifically “like flaps, but something else.” So I researched lots of board book interactive elements. We looked at different mechanisms for the transition from the animal to the invention. We also considered interactive demos of the science or invention. My favorite idea was a wheel you could turn to fill and empty the submarine tank, which would have been cool!

Eventually, we decided that the page turn already worked well for the reveal, but adding the die-cut would make it even better. So then we researched different ways to use die-cuts (Giulia Orecchia, the illustrator, has some other books that do cool things with them!). In the end, we decided to copy from Animals Go Vroom! again. Abi’s book uses a die-cut to show the animal and then when you turn the page, you see the animal in the context of the whole scene, which reveals the joke. Copy That, Copy Cat has the extra layer of tricking you into seeing an animal in part of the invention. Giulia did such a good job with that!

The big flaps work really well to add space for the science explanations without taking up all the illustration space. And they can even be in a nice big font, which I appreciate! 

 

NN: It’s so cool to hear about how all those design decisions were made. And Giulia’s art is wonderful. The interactive back matter is really intriguing, too. Kids will have so much fun with it! How did you decide what to include in the main rhyming text, and what would fit better here at the end?   

KT: Originally, I just had normal backmatter—further reading and a podcast and music to check out, and a bibliography. The fun backmatter all came after the plan to add interactive elements during editing. We talked about having an interactive element on each spread, so I came up with one for each invention. Then there wasn’t space, so they got moved to the back and a couple were replaced by Fun Facts. 

The airplane/bird one was changed quite late because we couldn’t get a for-sure answer on part of the science in the original version. That was stressful because I had to research the new one very quickly. Figuring out which wing goes up to turn which way was tricky—I still have to act it out to be sure! But I think it turned out well and, as my nephew has discovered, it makes a fun (very) mini flip book!

 

NN: Those last-minute changes can be hard, but it turned out great! Something else I’m curious about: You have a small space for the “How does it work” text under each flap, and you’ve done a great job making things concise and clear within those constraints. Was it difficult to pare those explanations back to the most important elements and write them in kid-friendly ways?  

KT: Yes! First I had to study the topic enough to understand it, then explain it clearly but succinctly, using simple words. (Much easier to do any two of those three at a time!) Some of them were pretty straightforward, like the flippers and snowshoes. But the airplane wing was a little tricky, and the bike reflector was almost the death of me! Explaining how eyes work, how mirrors work, and then how retroreflectors work all in a couple of sentences is not for the faint of heart. I’m glad we were able to have the diagrams take on some of that job—particularly because in figuring those out, I realized that, in streamlining the text, I’d messed up part of the science. Glad we caught that in time!

 

Copy_That_Copy_Cat_int2_Plane
Interior spread from Copy That, Copy Cat! written by Katrina Tangen and illustrated by Giulia Orecchia, Barefoot Books ©2023.

 

NN: Shifting from you as an author to you as a reader: What books did you most enjoy when you were a kid? 

KT: I loved to read, especially mysteries. And writing nonfiction is kind of like solving a mystery. You investigate, collect evidence, make connections, and fit it all into a pattern that (hopefully) snaps together at the end in a satisfying way.

 

NN: I love that comparison between writing nonfiction and solving mysteries! Were there any nonfiction children’s books that drew you in when you were young?

KT: I wasn’t really a nonfiction kid. Growing up in the ’80s and ’90s, there wasn’t the range of kid’s nonfiction we have today. I’m sure there were some great books that I missed, and I bet there were nonfiction books in my picture book reading that I don’t remember. One I do remember (for the unusual title) is How God Gives Us Peanut Butter, which showed how peanut butter is made. And I did love process videos, like when Mr. Rogers would take us to see how a mailroom runs, etc. 

But my impression in elementary school was that nonfiction was all educational textbook-y books or browsable photo-illustrated books designed for reluctant readers. (Plus they always seemed to be about sports, and I was not a sporty kid!) 

 

NN: It really is great that there’s so much more creative nonfiction for kids to find on shelves today–with your book being a fantastic new addition. Now, to wrap up, a super important burning question: Would you rather have flippers like a frog, or sticky feet like a gecko?

KT: Gecko feet would be super fun—or maybe echolocation, so I’d never run into things in the dark!

NN: Even better! Thank you, Katrina, for sharing the behind-the-scenes stories about the making of Copy That, Copy Cat! I know kids and adults alike are going to really get a kick out of it and learn a ton. 

 

BUY THE BOOK:

Bookshop.org: https://bookshop.org/p/books/copy-that-copy-cat-inventions-inspired-by-animals-katrina-tangen/19800210?ean=9781646869992 

Publisher’s Page: https://www.barefootbooks.com/3/copy-that-copy-cat-board-book

 

SOCIAL MEDIA LINKS:

Twitter: @katrinatangen

IG: @katrinatangen

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/katrinatangenauthor

Author website: www.katrinatangen.com 

 

Author Katrina Tangen
Photo of Katrina Tangen courtesy of the author

AUTHOR BIO:

Katrina Tangen lives in Southern California between Disneyland and the beach. At Harvard, she studied Folklore & Mythology, History of Science, Psychology, and Religion, so she knows a little bit about a lot of things. This turned out to be excellent training for writing nonfiction for kids! Katrina is disabled by severe ME/CFS (Myalgic Encephalomyelitis). She writes fiction and nonfiction for kids of all ages; Copy That, Copy Cat! is her debut. Profile pic photo credit: Katrina Tangen

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INTERVIEWER BIO:

Nora Nickum is the author of Superpod: Saving the Endangered Orcas of the Pacific Northwest (Chicago Review Press, 2023) and the forthcoming nonfiction picture book This Book is Full of Holes (Peachtree, 2024). Her stories and articles have appeared in children’s magazines like CricketLadybug, and Muse. Nora also leads ocean conservation policy work for the Seattle Aquarium. She lives on an island in Washington state. Learn more about her at www.noranickum.com

Twitter: @noranickumbooks

IG: @noranickumbooks

 

FIND THE ILLUSTRATOR AT THE LINKS BELOW:

Twitter: @GiuliaOrecchia

Instagram: @giuliaorecchia

Website: https://giuliaorecchia.it

BUSY PBs PROMO GROUP:

Twitter: @busyPBs

Instagram: @busypbs

STEAM TEAM PROMO GROUP:

Twitter: @SteamTeamBooks

Instagram: @steamteambooks

 

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An Interview with Rajani LaRocca, Author of Your One and Only Heart

DARSHANA KHIANI INTERVIEWS RAJANI LAROCCA,

AUTHOR OF

YOUR ONE AND ONLY HEART

ILLUSTRATED BY LAUREN PAIGE CONRAD

(Dial BYR; $18.99, Ages 5-8)

 

Your One and Only Heart Cover

 

 

PUBLISHER SUMMARY:
A lyrical introduction to the many wonders of the human heart, from award-winning author and practicing doctor, Dr. Rajani LaRocca

In this stunning non-fiction picture book, poetry and science come together with playful cut-paper illustrations to create a moving ode to the human heart and all that it does. Complete with illustrative diagrams and copious backmatter, this is a one-of-a-kind non-fiction picture book that gently guides readers through the various systems make up our most vital organ.

 

INTERVIEW:

Darshana Khiani: YOUR ONE AND ONLY HEART is amazing in how it takes a complex organ and breaks it down into chunks. What inspired you to write about the heart?

Rajani LaRocca: Ever since medical school, when I learned about the heart and how it works, I’ve been fascinated by this most vital organ. I wrote a first draft of this book way back in 2013 (!), and it was called “The Hardest Working Muscle.” It was written in prose and was over 800 words long. But it didn’t have a unifying theme or a hook.

I worked on this book on and off (mainly off) for years, but I couldn’t figure out how to write it. Then one day in 2018, I had a breakthrough: I discovered the theme I wanted to carry through the book. I realized I wanted to write about contrasting characteristics of the heart! Then I immediately decided to write about these characteristics in poetry—with several sets of paired poems. This made sense because to me, the beauty of poetry reflects the beauty of the human body.

 

DK: Well, you are one of the hardest-working writers I know. You do an amazing job at getting the main ideas across without getting bogged down in details. How did you master that balance? Also, the nerd in me wants to know why larger organisms have slower heart rates. I was surprised to learn that a mouse’s heart beats 310-840 beats/min while an elephant is only 30!

RL: I tried to focus on keeping the poetry simple enough for young kids to understand, yet interesting enough to capture their attention. There are plenty of facts that I reserved for the back matter so that the poetry could shine.

In terms of the answer to your question, are you ready to nerd out a bit? Smaller animals have higher surface area to volume ratio than larger ones. Because of this, smaller animals (especially warm-blooded animals like mammals and birds) lose heat much more quickly than their larger counterparts. So their hearts (which are smaller, too) need to beat faster to circulate more blood to offset the heat loss and maintain their body temperatures.

 

YOUR ONE AND ONLY HEART Int1 Your heart is Singular
Your One and Only Heart written by Rajani LaRocca and illustrated by Lauren Paige Conrad, Dial BYR ©2023.

 

DK: Wow! Thank you for geeking out with me. Surface area … never would’ve guessed that. The book is divided into 15 poems, 7 pairs of antonym poems (yup, I made that up), and then a final stand-alone one. It is a unique structure, one I can’t say I’ve seen before. At what point in the writing process did you decide to organize the poems in this way?

RL: I designed those first 14 poems as “antonyms” or paired poems from the moment of that epiphany in 2018! When the book got acquired and my editor contacted illustrator Lauren Paige Conrad, Lauren came back with the incredible idea of using shades of different colors for each pair of poems. For example, “Singular” and “Cooperative” are in shades of red; “Simple” and “Complex” are in shades of orange; “Energetic” and “Relaxed” are in shades of yellow, and so on, resulting in a rainbow of colors! The back matter is also “color coded” to link back to the appropriate pages! Lauren works in cut paper collage, and it blows my mind how beautifully and precisely she depicted so many aspects of the heart with her art.

There are two poems at the end, and the very last poem brings everything together by restating the contrasting characteristics of the heart and noting that kids share the same characteristics themselves!

 

DK: I must admit the last poem took me by surprise since it is so matter-of-fact. I could almost hear the EKG flatline as I read the last words. Did you always know you wanted to end the story with this poem?

RL: Years ago, when I was at a writing retreat, I shared this manuscript with renowned nonfiction author Elizabeth Partridge. She loved it and advised me that I absolutely needed to include what happens when the heart stops beating. She said that death is something that children are curious about, and that by including it in a nonfiction book about the heart, I could demystify it and put it in perspective for kids from a scientific point of view. It took me a while to figure out how to write that poem; Lauren Paige Conrad’s illustration on that spread is absolutely perfect.

 

DK: Smart suggestion, and you presented it in such a matter-of-fact way. You’ve authored two novels-in-verse, MIRROR-TO-MIRROR and RED, WHITE, and WHOLE, and a rhyming non-fiction picture book, The SECRET CODE INSIDE YOU. Do you have any tips for writers who want to write lyrically?

RL: My first tip would be to understand what you want to say—for novels in verse, that means knowing at the very least the broad outlines of the plot and emotional arcs. And for nonfiction, that means compiling all the information you want to convey.

Next, I recommend getting in a “poetic mindset” by going out into nature, reading poetry, and/or listening to music.

And then you should just try writing the poems! Don’t worry too much about whether they’re any good.

When it’s time to edit: avoid cliches, use powerful words, condense and eliminate as much as possible, and endeavor to convey your message in a fresh or different way. I always read my poetry aloud in revision, because sometimes our ears are better than our eyes at noting when something isn’t quite right.

 

YOUR ONE AND ONLY HEART Int2 Your Heart is Muscular
Your One and Only Heart written by Rajani LaRocca and illustrated by Lauren Paige Conrad, Dial BYR ©2023.

 

DK: What’s up next for you?

RL: YOUR ONE AND ONLY HEART is my fourth out of six books releasing this year!

Next up is THE SECRET OF THE DRAGON GEMS, an epistolary novel that I co-wrote with my friend Chris Baron. It’s about Tripti and Sam, two kids who meet at summer camp and find some unusual silvery rocks, which they each take home to California and Massachusetts. Then they start communicating via letter, email, texts, and video chats, because strange things keep happening, and they begin to wonder whether the rocks are more than just rocks. THE SECRET OF THE DRAGON GEMS releases on August 29!

My picture book MASALA CHAI, FAST AND SLOW, beautifully illustrated by Neha Rawat, releases on September 5. This is a story about a boy who likes to go fast and his grandfather, who likes to take things slow. Every day, they make masala chai together. One day, the grandfather sprains his ankle and can’t make masala chai, and the grandson decides to make some to cheer up his beloved grandfather . . . and hilarity ensues. This story is about learning to slow down and enjoy moments with those we love.

And next year on March 12 comes the release of my first middle grade fantasy, SONA AND THE GOLDEN BEASTS! Set in an Indian-inspired fantasy world, this story involves music and magic, and animals, but also contends with colonialism and who gets to tell history. I can’t wait to share it with the world!

DK: Yay for more books! We’ll be keeping a look out for them.

 

 

Author Rajani LaRocca headshot
Rajani LaRocca Photo Credit ©Carter Hasegawa

AUTHOR BIO:

Rajani LaRocca was born in India, raised in Kentucky, and now lives in the Boston area, where she practices medicine and writes award-winning books for young readers, including the Newbery Honor-winning middle grade novel in verse, Red, White, and Whole. She’s always been an omnivorous reader, and now she an omnivorous writer of fiction and nonfiction, novels and picture books, prose and poetry. She finds inspiration in her family, her childhood, the natural world, math, science, and just about everywhere she looks. Learn more about Rajani and her books at www.RajaniLaRocca.com. She also co-hosts the STEM Women in KidLit Podcast.

BUY THE BOOK: 

https://www.rajanilarocca.com/picture-books/your-one-and-only-heart/

LINKS TO SOCIAL MEDIA:

INTERVIEWER BIO:

Darshana Khiani is an author, engineer, and advocate for South Asian children’s literature. She is infinitely curious about the world and enjoys sharing her findings with young readers. If she can make a child laugh even better. Her debut picture book, How to Wear a Sari (Versify), was an Amazon Editors’ Pick. She enjoys hiking, solving jigsaw puzzles, and traveling. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with her family and a furry pup. You can visit Darshana here.

 

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An Interview with Wombats are Pretty Weird Author-Illustrator Abi Cushman

 

VICKY FANG INTERVIEWS ABI CUSHMAN

AUTHOR-ILLUSTRATOR OF

WOMBATS ARE PRETTY WEIRD

(GREENWILLOW BOOKS; $19.99, Ages 4-8)

 

 

Wombats are Pretty Weird cover four wombats

 

 

PUBLISHER SUMMARY:

Wombats might be pretty weird, but they’re pretty awesome, too! Wombats Are Pretty Weird is funny, kid-friendly, and informative, and features sidebars, comic panels, extensive backmatter, and a map. Acclaimed author-illustrator Abi Cushman’s nonfiction debut contains everything anyone could ever possibly want to know about wombats!

 

INTERVIEW:

Vicky Fang: Abi, WOMBATS ARE PRETTY WEIRD is such a funny and informative book! I love how you use humorous dialog and illustrations to introduce so much fascinating information about wombats! How did you come up with the idea for this book?

Abi Cushman: Thank you, Vicky! I’ve been obsessed with wombats ever since I studied abroad at the University of Melbourne in Australia in 2001. I learned on a guided hike that wombats are the only animals in the world that have cube-shaped poop. This very odd tidbit of information along with the fact that wombats are adorable quickly made them one of my favorite animals. 

But it didn’t occur to me to write about them in a book until 2018 after I’d written several other fiction picture books. I was thinking about the cube poop fact, and I thought it would be funny to make a little comic where a wombat makes a tower out of its cubes of poop (similar to how a kid would make a tower out of blocks) and then is just really proud of how tall it was. I wasn’t sure at that point if there was enough there for a book, so I did more research, gathered more weird facts about wombats, and gained momentum.

 

VF: I love that scene in the book with the cube poop tower! Hilarious. Could you tell us about your process in writing this book?

AC: I started with a lot of research about wombats. I listened to podcasts, watched videos, and read everything I could about them. Then I compiled the weirdest, most interesting facts. The next step was to see if I could make a joke about each fact. I have pages and pages in my sketchbook of facts plus doodles. I tried to come up with as many jokes as possible, and then and then really hone in on the funniest dialogue, facial expressions, and scenes. 

Once I was satisfied with the jokes, I worked on putting them together in a dummy (a rough mockup of the book) in a way that made sense and that would also build to a final scene with all the wombats together. 

 

Wombats are Pretty Weird Dummy Sample
Wombats are Pretty Weird Dummy Sample

 

 

VF: I love the addition of the snake adding color and commentary throughout the book. What made you decide to include the snake in a book about wombats?

AC: Adding the snake was a way for me to put a stand-in for the audience in the book. He could react and make comments that the reader was thinking when learning about these very weird animals. And this animal character had to be something other than a wombat. After all, the wombats wouldn’t consider themselves weird at all. In their world, it’s strange when poop is round. I chose a snake specifically because I wanted an animal that could technically live in the same area as a wombat, but was vastly different from them. 

 

WAPW burrowing marsupial spread
Interior spread from Wombats are Pretty Weird written and illustrated by Abi Cushman, Greenwillow Books ©2023.

 

VF: Your illustrations do such a wonderful job of balancing humor and information. You’ve written funny books before (SOAKED! and ANIMALS GO VROOM! are so good!), but what was it like writing and illustrating non-fiction for the first time?

AC: Writing and illustrating non-fiction for the first time was a wonderful challenge. For this book, which includes factual information but also talking animals and other silly stuff, it was very important to me that kids didn’t think the facts were made up. One of the things I was very careful about was to ensure the narration was factual and accurate, and then have the wombats and snake react to those facts in the illustrations and speech bubbles. That way there was a clear separation.

For research, I consulted science journals and talked to wombat experts to verify and ensure the way I phrased things was correct. It was pretty wild to me that my work entailed being knee-deep in these dense scientific papers, trying to distill the information and make sense of them, and then using that to make the best poop joke I could.

For the illustrations, I wanted them to be very accessible and fun, but I also wanted them to show a decent resemblance to actual wombats and to clearly convey scientific information where appropriate. So I used a lot of references. I looked at photos of wombats’ feet, watched videos of them moving, and really studied the differences between three species. Then I drew them using hair dryers and wearing party hats.

 

VF: Can you talk about how you approach humor? Do you have any tips for writers who want to write funny books?

AC: The books I find funniest always contain a bit of absurdity. So that’s something I like to play with a lot in my books. For this book with weird animal facts, it was a chance to push the absurdity in the actual facts to a higher level. 

For example, one of the facts in the book is that there are three species of wombats: the southern hairy-nosed wombat, the northern hairy-nosed wombat, and the bare-nosed wombat. And I just thought the names were pretty silly. So I wanted to play with that idea of hairy (or unhairy) noses and push it further into absurdity by having two of them talk about nose hair styling to the annoyance of the bare-nosed wombat. 

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WAPW hairy and bare noses
Interior spread from Wombats are Pretty Weird written and illustrated by Abi Cushman, Greenwillow Books ©2023.

 

 

I think with humor, you have to let yourself be pretty vulnerable. I put everything I think is funny into a story and then show it to people with the full knowledge that a lot of the jokes will absolutely not land. But I have NO IDEA which ones those are. The trick is to put the weirdest, totally out-there jokes into your story and then see how many you can get away with.

 

VF: That’s such great advice, and it has clearly paid off for you. What do you hope young readers take away from this book?

AC: I hope this book will get kids excited about wombats and animals in general. There is so much in the natural world that is bizarre and captivating. Kids have a natural curiosity so I think it’s our job as authors to foster and encourage it. I also hope kids come away with the idea that being weird is a good thing. It’s what makes all of us special and unique. And finally, I just hope kids laugh and find this enjoyable to read. 

 

WAPW multiple joeys
Interior spread from Wombats are Pretty Weird written and illustrated by Abi Cushman, Greenwillow Books ©2023.

 

VF: I love that. I feel like you’ve definitely accomplished those goals with this book and kids are going to love it. So what’s next for you?

AC: I am currently polishing up the next book in the “[Not So] Serious Guide” series. This follow-up to WOMBATS ARE PRETTY WEIRD is all about the very strange, very tough FLAMINGO! And I’m happy to report that Joey the snake is back to experience it all with the reader. This book is scheduled to release in the summer of 2024.

I also recently finished illustrating a wonderfully clever book written by Charlotte Offsay called THE QUIET FOREST. This book will be released in March 2024 from Paula Wiseman Books. It’s about a very mischievous mouse who starts a chain of chaos in a formerly quiet forest, and it involves a lot of very disgruntled forest animals. It’s a ton of fun, and I’m really excited about it. This was the first time I illustrated a book I didn’t write, and it was fun to see how Charlotte’s words and my pictures came together.

 

VF: Those both sound fantastic! I look forward to seeing them next year. Thank you so much for sharing your journey for WOMBATS ARE PRETTY WEIRD with us. I’ve learned so much from chatting with you and from getting a peek at this hilarious book!

AC: Thanks so much for the interview, Vicky! This was fun. And I’m looking forward to chatting with you again later this summer about your upcoming book, THE BOO CREW NEEDS YOU!

VF: Looking forward to it too! Thank you again for sharing your insights with us today, Abi!

 

BUY THE BOOK:

Click below for a local indie to purchase signed copies (type in the comments how you’d like the book inscribed): https://www.banksquarebooks.com/book/9780063234437

Publisher’s Page: https://www.harpercollins.com/products/wombats-are-pretty-weird-abi-cushman

SOCIAL MEDIA LINKS:

Twitter: https://twitter.com/AbiCushman

IG: https://www.instagram.com/abi.cushman/

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/AbiCushmanArt

Author/Illustrator Website: https://abicushman.com

 

Author-Illustrator Abi Cushman Photo credit: P.A. Smith

AUTHOR-ILLUSTRATOR BIO:

Abi Cushman is the author-illustrator of SOAKED! (Viking, 2020), ANIMALS GO VROOM! (Viking, 2021) and WOMBATS ARE PRETTY WEIRD (Greenwillow, 2023).

She has also worked as a web designer for over 15 years. She runs two popular websites of her own: My House Rabbit, a pet rabbit care site, and Animal Fact Guide, which was named a “Great Website for Kids” by the American Library Association. Did you know that wombat poop is cube-shaped? You do now! (And no, you’ll never un-know that.)

Abi lives in a small Connecticut beach town with her family. In her spare time, she enjoys running, playing tennis, and eating nachos. (Yes, at the same time.)

She is represented by BookStop Literary Agency and is a proud member of the Soaring 20s, a group of picture book authors and illustrators who debuted in 2020/21.

 

INTERVIEW BIO:

Vicky Fang is a product designer who spent 5 years designing kids’ technology experiences for both Google and Intel, often to inspire and empower kids in coding and technology. She started writing to support the growing need for early coding education, particularly for girls and kids of color. She is the author, and sometimes illustrator, of nineteen new and upcoming books for kids, including the Layla and the Bots series, Invent-a-Pet, I Can Code board books, Friendbots series, and the forthcoming Ava Lin series, Best Buddies series, AlphaBot, and The Boo Crew Needs You!. You can visit Vicky at vickyfang.com.

 

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Children’s Picture Book Review – My Grandpa, My Tree, and Me

MY GRANDPA, MY TREE, AND ME 

Written by Roxanne Troup

Illustrated by Kendra Binney

(Yeehoo Press; $17.99, Ages 4-8)

 

My Grandpa My Tree and Me cover granddaughter grandfather sit beneath pecan tree

 

There’s a timeless, feel-good quality to Roxanne Troup’s debut fiction picture book My Grandpa, My Tree, and Me, illustrated by Kendra Binney. After finishing it, I wanted to sit back and imagine myself in the bucolic surroundings where the story takes place.

Binney’s appealing artwork transported me to a pecan orchard for the first time where the action unfolds as a little girl spends time with her grandfather and narrates, “My grandpa planted a tree for me on the day I was born.” She also tells us that, despite having an orchard full of pecan trees, Grandpa’s favorite tree is that particular one, thus establishing the strong bond these two characters share.

 

My Grandpa, My Tree, and Me int1 girl and grandpa spreading mulch
Interior spread from My Grandpa, My Tree, and Me written by Roxanne Troup and illustrated by Kendra Binney, Yeehoo Press ©2023.

 

Through changing seasons starting in winter when it’s pruning time, and the annual growth cycle of the orchard, we learn how pecans mature and are harvested. At the same time, the special relationship between the child and her grandpa exudes from the warm, muted illustrations coupled with Trout’s lyrical prose. I especially felt that each time I read the lovely repeating phrase “But not my tree.” In spread after spread the young girl describes how the other pecan trees are treated en masse as part of the commercial harvesting process, while hers receives individualized care from her grandpa. Together the two tend to her tree with love and respect which also serves as a metaphor for their relationship.

 

My Grandpa My Tree and Me int2 prepping pecans for harvester
Interior illustrations from My Grandpa, My Tree, and Me written by Roxanne Troup and illustrated by Kendra Binney, Yeehoo Press ©2023.

 

At last, when the husks open, it’s harvest time. The joy is palpable on the page. Then “Grandpa attaches a padded arm to his tractor. It hugs the trees’ trunks and shakes until leaves and twigs and pecans rain down.” When it’s her turn and with Grandpa there to savor the experience, the girl uses a long pole to make the pecans drop. The orchard’s pecans will be collected by the harvester for sale but the girl’s pecans will be baked into a scrumptious pecan pie. And, not to spoil the beautiful ending, suffice it to say that Troup and Mother Nature’s miraculous cycle of growth delivers a delightful and very satisfying dénouement in this touching layered tale.

 

My Grandpa, My Tree, and Me int3 eating pecan pie time
Interior illustrations from My Grandpa, My Tree, and Me written by Roxanne Troup and illustrated by Kendra Binney, Yeehoo Press ©2023.

 

 

Troup, who is not a newcomer to writing, knows how to tell an engaging and tender story while infusing interesting information into it, clearly owing to her extensive nonfiction background. The pacing of My Grandpa, My Tree, and Me moves forward easily like the seasons in the orchard. There’s a soothing rhythm to the language that makes the book an ideal read any time of the day, including bedtime. Did you know that pecans are considered a native nut to North America? Find an All About Pecans note detailing the history of the commercial pecan industry along with a helpful glossary in the back matter.

Download a free teacher’s guide here.

  • Reviewed by Ronna Mandel

 

NOTE: I’m thrilled that Roxanne is a reviewer at this blog so subscribe today so you don’t miss her thoughtful coverage.

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Nonfiction Picture Book Review – Battle of the Butts

 

 

 

BATTLE OF THE BUTTS:

THE SCIENCE BEHIND ANIMAL BEHINDS

Illustrated by David Creighton-Pester

(Running Press Kids; $17.99, Ages 5-8)

 

 

 

Battle of the Butts cover

 

 

Get ready to laugh as you learn while enjoying this funny, nonfiction picture book, Battle of the Butts by Jocelyn Rish. I thought I knew a lot of animal facts but was amazed by what this author uncovered in her research. The book is set up as a competition between ten creatures, inviting the reader to vote on each animal (rank them from Terrific Tush to Boring Backside), then choose a winner at the end.

 

Battle of the Butts int3 toot
Interior spread from Battle of the Butts: The Science Behind Animal Behinds written by Jocelyn Rish and illustrated by David Creighton-Pester, Running Press Kids ©2021.

 

 

One of my favorite contenders is the bombardier beetle. Its booty blasts a scalding 212°F chemical mixture at predators. This liquid can reach a speed of 22 miles per hour and its 270-degree swiveling butt can emit 20 blasts in a row before running out. What a superpower! However, it’s hard to deny the awesome, multitasking sea cucumber: it breathes, eats, and shoots organs out of its butt—“a Swiss Army knife of abilities.” Some species have anal teeth; yet, even with that kind of protection, long, skinny pearlfish like to live in a sea cucumber’s rear.

 

Battle of the Butts int4 toot
Interior spread from Battle of the Butts: The Science Behind Animal Behinds written by Jocelyn Rish and illustrated by David Creighton-Pester, Running Press Kids ©2021.

 

Bright, engaging, and hilarious illustrations by David Creighton-Pester add even more humor. For example, cutie-patootie wombats use their shield-like backsides for defense, and smiling, gassy schools of herring communicate by farting. These unusual attributes are conveyed in a kid-friendly manner making this book a hit in classrooms, libraries, and at home. Stay tuned for Battle of the Brains (fall, 2022) by this same fanny-tastic team.

 

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Picture Book Review – Night Becomes Day

 

NIGHT BECOMES DAY: CHANGES IN NATURE

Written by Cynthia Argentine

(Millbrook Press; $29.32, Ages 4-9)

 

 

 

 

Cynthia Argentine’s picture book, Night Becomes Day: Changes in Nature is such a great idea for a children’s book. Through lovely, lyrical prose coupled with stunning photography, this nonfiction book takes readers on a kind of before and after look at nature’s wonders which youngsters might take for granted or do not have time to notice during a day at the beach, a walk in the woods, on a wilderness adventure or a national park visit.

Children will learn that “nature is always at work, transforming.” Some of the changes detailed are small, subtle even and others are large. And the results can be so different. A footprint in the sand washes away with the first wave and yet over time, the Colorado River has worn away the stone, carving out a massive space we know as the Grand Canyon.

 

Night Becomes Day int1
Photo credit: Interior spread from Night Becomes Day © 2022 Millbrook Press ™, an imprint of Lerner Publishing Group.

 

Some changes can be witnessed quickly while others cannot. They can occur in just a few minutes like when “A pumpkin tendril wraps around a rope in minutes.” Or slowly over time as an acorn grows into a majestic oak. Argentine notes that change brightens—such as when desert flowers bloom following rain and change dulls—such as when a fallen leaf becomes mulch supporting “new life.”

One of my favorite changes in nature depicted is how diamonds are formed over eons making them ancient as compared to a snowflake or sparkling new ice crystal. “Everywhere on Earth—from shore to mountain, field to forest, surface to sky—nature is at work, TRANSFORMING.”

 

Night Becomes Day int2
Photo credit: Interior spread from Night Becomes Day © 2022 Millbrook Press ™, an imprint of Lerner Publishing Group.

 

 

The power of observation and the beauty of nature are in focus in this wonderful ode to change that should get kids taking more time to notice what’s around them. Argentine has created a clever study in contrasts that is enjoyable to read aloud and to admire since the photos are breathtaking.

The author’s note in the three pages of back matter highlights how some things like a healing wound or out-growing a pair of shoes are examples of change or metamorphosis. And things don’t have to be alive to change—think rocks, waves, caves.  Changes that occur at the intersection of living and nonliving things, Argentine explains, are called ecology. This helps children understand their impact on the world and how important that is.

 

 

Night Becomes Day int3
Photo credit: Interior spread from Night Becomes Day © 2022 Millbrook Press ™, an imprint of Lerner Publishing Group.

 

Kids can read through page 29 for the more poetic portion of the book or carry on through page 32 for additional scientific notes Argentine’s included that refer back to each section: Beaches and Canyons – Geology; Pumpkin Tendrils and Oak Trees – Botany; Deserts and Forests – Biology; Clouds and Caverns – Chemistry and Geology; Volcanoes and Glaciers – Geology; and Diamonds and Snowflakes – Chemistry, Geology, and Physics. Whether reading for pleasure or for a class project, this STEM book is an engaging and accessible introduction to the science of change that will be welcomed by parents and teachers alike.

  •  Reviewed by Ronna Mandel

To support local bookstores, here is the link for Bookshop.org:

https://bookshop.org/books/night-becomes-day-changes-in-nature/9781541581241

Educators may also use Lerner’s website: https://lernerbooks.com/shop/show/21209

Glossary/free eResources can be found here: https://lernerbooks.com/teaching_guides/620

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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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Kids Picture Book Biography – The Polio Pioneer: Dr. Jonas Salk and the Polio Vaccine

 

 

 

THE POLIO PIONEER:
DR. JONAS SALK AND THE POLIO VACCINE

Written by Linda Elovitz Marshall

Illustrated by Lisa Anchin

(Knopf BYR; $17.99; AGES 4-8)

 

 

The Polio Pioneer book cover art of Jonas Salk

 

A topic on everyone’s tongues these days is vaccinations. When she wrote this book, Linda E Marshall likely had no idea how relevant her book would be today and how once again, an innovative vaccine is saving lives around the world. 

 

The book opens with four-year-old Jonas Salk sitting on top of his father’s shoulders during the victory parade celebrating the end of World War I. But Jonas doesn’t understand the cheering when all he sees are injured soldiers. Jonas, readers learn, sees things differently. Find out about the man and the story behind the life-changing vaccine he developed in THE POLIO PIONEER: Dr. Jonas Salk and the Polio Vaccine written by Linda Elovitz Marshall with illustrations by Lisa Anchin.

 

Int art1 from The Polio Pioneer
Interior illustrations from The Polio Pioneer: Dr. Jonas Salk and the Polio Vaccine written by Linda Elovitz Marshall and illustrated by Lisa Anchin, Knopf BYR ©2020.

 

Anchin’s art brings a warmth to the subject of science painting in soft colors of oranges and blues as the reader walks through the life of the main character Jonas. Whether that’s refereeing his friends’ games when not reading because he knows the rules or helping his Yiddish-speaking mother learn English after his Jewish family migrates to New York City. The kindness and love of the Salk family are depicted with each page turn as the family celebrates Shabbat with freshly baked Challah and Jonas’ inner thoughts are shown “when Jonas prayed that he might someday, help make the world a better place.”

 

Int art2 from The Polio Pioneer
Interior illustrations from The Polio Pioneer: Dr. Jonas Salk and the Polio Vaccine written by Linda Elovitz Marshall and illustrated by Lisa Anchin, Knopf BYR ©2020.

 

 

Marshall writes about the financial difficulties the Salk family faced, but Jonas kept moving forward “attending the City College of New York where tuition was free and where, unlike at many other colleges and universities, Jews were welcome.” With a grin on his face and apron tied around his neck, Jonas discovers chemistry while mixing liquids amongst classmates in the college lab. Salk is determined to gain a better understanding of science so that he can make medicines to help people and decides to become a doctor. Illustrated wearing glasses and a white lab coat, Jonas enters medical school where he befriends his teacher Dr. Thomas Francis and the pair team up with an idea as the flu is killing millions. “What if … a person was given some flu virus that was killed by chemicals so it could not cause disease?” Dr. Salk and Dr. Francis thought this could be a way of fighting the flu. And they were right.

 

 

Int art3 from The Polio Pioneer
Interior illustrations from The Polio Pioneer: Dr. Jonas Salk and the Polio Vaccine written by Linda Elovitz Marshall and illustrated by Lisa Anchin, Knopf BYR ©2020.

 

 

  With men, women and children lined up on the streets, dressed in their Sunday bests, a nurse in white stands next to one of Anchin’s realistic illustrations with a chalk-written sign reading FLU VACCINE CLINIC. “Since then, flu shots have saved thousands of lives each year.”

“But another disease was raging … Polio”. Readers see Franklin Delano Roosevelt sitting in a wheelchair in the oval office, as others are lined up in beds, victims of this new disease. People are shown hiding in their homes, just as we all have done these past fifteen months from COVID, and the similarities are not unnoticed. Today’s scientists learned a lot from Dr. Salk. “He and his team of scientists labored day and night, night and day.”

 

 

Int art4 from The Polio Pioneer
Interior illustrations from The Polio Pioneer: Dr. Jonas Salk and the Polio Vaccine written by Linda Elovitz Marshall and illustrated by Lisa Anchin, Knopf BYR ©2020.

 

 

“On April 12, 1955, Dr. Francis joins the team and announced to the world: “The vaccine WORKS!” POLIO could be CONQUERED!” Dr. Salk continued his studies by establishing the Salk Institute for Biological Studies where they have worked on cures for cancer, HIV/AIDS, diabetes, multiple sclerosis, and many other problems.

Marshall writes in a way that makes a tough topic easy to follow with her understandable language and flowing sentences, while Anchin’s drawings transport the reader to 1918 and beyond. The timing of the release of this book last year during the pandemic could not have been more prescient and still resonates today with over 49% of the population vaccinated for Covid-19. As for polio, America has been free of the disease since 1979 due to the amount of participation. Maybe a picture book about our current pandemic will be next to teach future kids about what we have been experiencing. Marshall’s book is fabulous for elementary-age children and higher. In the Author’s Note, Marshall heartwarmingly explains the backstory behind her reasons for writing the book and how Dr. Salk is her hero. She thanks the Salk family for sharing family stories and photos, including writings from Michael Salk, grandson to Jonas. Dr. Salk, as Marshall tells, was a Mensch, the perfect Yiddish word to describe a man whose good work, kindness, and dedication helped make the world a better place. And he did. 

  •  Reviewed by Ronda Einbinder
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Picture Book Review – Isobel Adds It Up

 

ISOBEL ADDS IT UP

Written by Kristy Everington

Illustrated by AG Ford

(Random House Studio; $17.99, Ages 3-7)

 

Isobel Adds It Up Cover

 

REVIEW:

As a former teacher, I was immediately intrigued by the cover of Isobel Adds It Up written by Kristy Everington with illustrations by AG Ford. A girl with a pencil in her hand, and an elephant with a pencil in its trunk solve math problems with smiles on their faces!

Isobel, a math-loving girl, can’t concentrate with noisy neighbors!

Disrupted by loud bangs and shaking walls, she imagines acrobats, marching bands, a basketball team, and definitely big feet! Solving math problems is nearly impossible. Isobel tries battling music with music. That only incited more noise—and dancing! Isobel is at her wit’s end when she can’t make sense of her numbers. So she comes up with a plan to meet the culprits. Was she right about the neighbors having big feet? Yes! But her plan brings a solution much bigger and better than she expected. You might say that the neighbor was a very BIG number-lover too!

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isobel interior spread 1
Interior spread from Isobel Adds It Up by Kristy Everington with illustrations by AG Ford, Random House Studio ©2021.

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Underneath the rumbling ruckus and soaked subtractions, a budding friendship multiplies into a measured success! Each illustration brings flow and movement, with Isobel’s imaginings represented in monochromatic images and lively numbers. Kristy Everington and AG Ford make numbers and math look and sound fun!

 

isobel interior spread 2
Interior spread from Isobel Adds It Up by Kristy Everington with illustrations by AG Ford, Random House Studio ©2021.

 

What I love most about this story is the message that we can ask for what we want in a kind and respectful way. We might be surprised by the kindness we receive back and discover something new about the people that live around us. Kids, teachers, parents, and neighbors everywhere will love this book!

 

GIVEAWAY:

Head to Twitter for a signed book giveaway of Isobel Adds It Up beginning today (just retweet our tweets and tag a friend to enter). Find Kristy there @kmeverington.
Find GoodReadsWithRonna on Twitter: @goodreadsronna. This giveaway ends on 7/13 and a winner will be announced on 7/14.

SOCIAL MEDIA:

Author Links:
Instagram: @kristyeverington

Twitter: @21forthebooks

Instagram: @21forthebooks

Illustrator links:

AG Ford’s website: http://www.agfordillustration.com/ 

Twitter: @AGFordArt

Instagram: @agfordart

WHERE TO BUY ISOBEL ADDS IT UP: 

Support indie bookstores and order your copy here at BooksInc.
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An Interview with Vicky Fang about Layla and The Bots and Friendbots

 

 

 

AN INTERVIEW WITH VICKY FANG

AUTHOR OF 

LAYLA AND THE BOTS: CUPCAKE FIX

AND AUTHOR/ILLUSTRATOR OF

FRIENDBOTS

 

 

SHORT SUMMARIES:

Layla and the Bots Cupcake Fix cvrCUPCAKE FIX 

Blossom Valley is opening a new community center! But they need to generate buzz for the grand opening. Layla and the Bots know how to help: they will build a cupcake machine for the party! But will their invention be a piece of cake… or a recipe for disaster? With full-color artwork on every page, speech bubbles throughout, and a fun DIY activity that readers can try at home, this early chapter book series brings kid-friendly STEAM topics to young readers!

 

 

 

 

Friendbots Blink and Block book1 cover

FRIENDBOTS

Meet the robots Blink and Block in this STEM-inspired, Level Two I Can Read Comic by debut author-illustrator Vicky Fang.

Blink is scanning the playground for treasure, but Block is pretty sure there’s no gold to be found. When Blink finds a penny and decides to make a wish, will these two new pals find treasure after all—or maybe something even better?
Blink and Block Make a Wish is a Level Two I Can Read Comic, geared for kids who are comfortable with comics, can read on their own, but still need a little help.

 

 

 

INTERVIEW:

Colleen Paeff: Hi Vicky! It looks like I caught you right in the middle of two book launches. Layla and the Bots: Cupcake Fix came out on June 1 and Friendbots hits bookstores on June 22. Congratulations! How exciting to have two books coming out in one month! How does it feel?

Vicky Fang: It’s so much fun but also quite exhausting! Social media is such a strange place and two book launches means I’m on it more than I’d like to be. But I had the amazing opportunity to do an in-person launch party for Layla and the Bots: Cupcake Fix with Linden Tree Books and it was amazing! Even though it’s my sixth book (gasp!), it was my first launch party! I had so much fun celebrating the book with friends, new readers, and even some Layla and the Bots fans I met for the first time.

 

CP: Oh, my gosh. That sounds amazing! It must have been so nice to see your fans live and in-person. Friendbots is your debut as an author/illustrator. How was the experience of creating that book different from your previous experiences writing the text alone? Were you surprised by any particular aspect of the author/illustrator process?

VF: Illustrating a book is so much work! I mean, writing a book is too, but there’s definitely a different kind of pressure to illustrate a whole book within a few months, including revisions and cover illustrations, etc. I do think that between Book 1 and Book 2 I got much better at designing panels that would be fun to draw. I also had a much better sense of how long the drawings would take. Creatively, I’m more comfortable incorporating wordless panels as the author-illustrator. Somehow, it feels less like I’m just leaving a hole there, because I know I’m the one who’s going to have to fill it!

 

CP: One thing I love about your Layla and the Bots books is that I can never anticipate what’s going to go wrong (and something always does!). When you set out to write those books do you start with the problem, the solution, or something else entirely?  

VF: Ah, that’s a great question! I usually start with the solution, in some rough form, just in the sense that I think about something that would be fun to design! So an amusement park for dogs (Happy Paws), a suped-up go-kart (Built for Speed), or a cupcake machine (Cupcake Fix). From there, I think about the problem they might try to solve and that leads to the specifics of the solution they come up with. It does feel a bit like a fun puzzle trying to plot those books!

 

Laylaandthe Bots in volleyball
Interior illustration from Layla and The Bots: Cupcake Fix Credit: Scholastic Inc., Vicky Fang, Christine Nishiyama (2021)

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CP: Coding plays a big part in your books–even the board books. What would you recommend to parents who are intimidated at the thought of coding, but who want to foster a love (or at least a level of comfort) with coding in their children? 

VF: A lot of people ask me this question! First off, I incorporate coding into the books because I think computational thinking is so important for all kids, whether or not they want to code or become software engineers. It’s really about being able to break down a problem logically and think through the solution in small, logical pieces. I’m just hoping kids start to think in these logical blocks: if/then, and/or, etc. And they do already naturally! It’s just about seeing those logical blocks and realizing that those blocks are how you give instructions to a computer. Besides books, there are also great tools and toys out there. Scratch/Scratch Jr., Code-a-pillar, and Sphero are just a few that parents might look into!

 

CP: Awesome. Thank you! You’ve written (and sold!) a picture book, chapter books, board books, and an early graphic novel series. What do you like about writing in so many different formats and do you have a favorite?

VF: As a former product designer, I get inspiration from the strengths and restrictions of the different formats! The format is part of the ideation process for me. I don’t have a favorite. I love the conceptual and tactile nature of board books, the poetic precision of picture books, the fun of chapter books, and the theatre-like quality of graphic novels!

 

LaylaandtheBots int Sweettooth
Interior illustration from Layla and The Bots: Cupcake Fix Credit: Scholastic Inc., Vicky Fang, Christine Nishiyama (2021)

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CP: How do you know which format is right for which story idea?

VF: I usually have an idea floating around in my head and it will click with a format, based on some of the qualities I described above. I have an ongoing list of ideas that I keep, usually of vague picture book ideas. But then separately, I’ll decide I want to try a particular format and read a lot of books and realize, oh, this is perfect for that idea about X! And then I start writing it. It becomes a bit of, what format has the right shape to fit the story I need to tell? Which will give me enough room for the characters and the plot? Which will support the visual needs? Which will fit the age group the best?

 

CP: I understand you worked as a technology product designer for Google and Intel. What exactly is a technology product designer and what are some of the coolest projects you worked on during that time?

VF: Yes! I designed the user experience for products, which means I designed how things should work. By the end of my time at Google, I was a design lead, which meant I oversaw the creative team, which included interaction designers, visual designers, writers, and even voice/audio designers. I loved working on projects that used technology to create surprising and delightful experiences! I designed DIY cardboard robots that you could build and code yourself, interactive voice games for kids, and a building that lit up and played music when you held hands in the space. Those are just a few of the projects that I loved!

 

CP: That sounds amazing! Tell me something I might not know about working for Google!

VF: Ah, what wouldn’t you know? Hmm … I think you hear all about the amazing perks and the amazing people. So what wouldn’t you know? One time, we took dozens of our cardboard robots and set up a giant robot dance party in the hallways in the middle of the night and videotaped it. We had a lot of fun—but we did a lot of work too!

 

CP: Hahaha! I love that!! I read that you were a theater major in college (me, too!) and an actress on Charmed and other TV shows. How did you get from theater to tech? 

VF: Oh, cool, I didn’t know that! I moved to LA to act but was working at some startups to pay the bills. One startup actually had very little work to do, so I spent my days teaching myself Photoshop and making little Quicktime animations in the most inefficient way possible. From that, I got jobs making Flash animations, which lead to coding Flash websites, and I eventually ended up going to grad school at Parsons School of Design to get an MFA in Design and Technology!

 

FriendbotsBook1pp4-5
Interior illustration from Friendbots written and illustrated by Vicky Fang, HarperCollins BYR ©2021.

 

CP: What skills from your previous professions have been most useful to you as a children’s book author?

VF: One of the things I love is that I feel like writing pulls from ALL of my experiences! Acting I think is an obvious one, in terms of story and character, and emotion. It also helped with understanding the agent landscape! But I also feel like all of the design work helps me craft stories, and understand how to respond to critique feedback, and be creative on demand, etc. Both acting and design have helped me as an illustrator, in thinking about color and layout, and visual focus. In some ways, I think of myself as somebody who just loves creating in different mediums—whether that be technology or pictures or words!

 

CP: What is your favorite thing about writing for children?

VF: I love that I feel like I can make a positive impact on even just one kid with a book. It never feels like a wasted effort. I love seeing kids embrace the books and become inspired to make fan art or invent something or write a story.

 

CP: What are the three most important tools in your “Writer’s Toolbox?”

VF: First off, my critique partners. I met Christine Evans and Faith Kazmi in 2017 and I wouldn’t still be here if not for their moral and creative support. Secondly, my agent. Elizabeth Bennett is an amazing partner who gives me the most insightful and inspiring directional guidance. The third, I would say, is creative brain space. I find that I have to give myself space to create and forgive myself when I’m not able to (which inevitably happens with life, more than I’d like!).

FriendbotsBook1pp6-7
Interior illustration from Friendbots written and illustrated by Vicky Fang, HarperCollins BYR ©2021.

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CP: What’s next for you?

VF: I’m finishing up Friendbots Book 2, which launches this fall. And I’m excited for Layla and the Bots Book 4, Making Waves, which launches in January 2022. I have an unannounced project coming in 2023, and I’m always working on new ideas!

 

CP: Great! I look forward to reading them all. Thanks, Vicky! 

VF: Thank you, Colleen! It’s been a pleasure chatting books with you!

 

Author Photo Vicky Fang
Vicky Fang Photo ©Lindsay Wiser

BRIEF BIO:

Vicky Fang is a product designer who spent five years designing kids’ technology experiences for both Google and Intel, often to inspire and empower kids in coding and technology. She started writing to support the growing need for early coding education, particularly for girls and kids of color. She is the author of nine new and upcoming STEAM books for kids, including Invent-a-Pet, I Can Code, Layla and the Bots, and her author-illustrator debut, Friendbots. Find Vicky on Twitter at @fangmous or on her website at www.vickyfang.com.
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WHERE TO BUY VICKY’S BOOKS:

https://vickyfang.com/books/layla/#cupcake-fix

https://vickyfang.com/books/friendbots/

 

SOCIAL MEDIA LINKS:

Twitter: @fangmous

IG: @fangmousbooks

FB: @fangmousbooks

Website: www.vickyfang.com

 

FOR MORE ON VICKY FANG:

KidLit411 Author Spotlight

Get to Know Vicky Fang

12 x 12 Featured Author (On writing for different formats)

Storyteller Academy: Student Success Story

Google Product Designer Creates New Graphic Novel Series (BleedingCool.com)

Launch Countdown: Reflections and Results

CritterLit Interview

Cynsations: Journey to Publication

Awesome Activities from Vicky Fang

Code a Musical Instrument: An Introductory Scratch Activity

Build a Balloon Powered Speedboat

 

ABOUT INTERVIEWER COLLEEN PAEFF:

Colleen Paeff is the author of The Great Stink: How Joseph Bazalgette Solved London’s Poop Pollution Problem, illustrated by Nancy Carpenter (available August 31, 2021, from Margaret K. McElderry Books) and Rainbow Truck, co-authored with Hina Abidi and illustrated by Saffa Khan (available in the spring of 2023 from Chronicle Books). Click here for more info.

 

Check out https://www.soaring20spb.com/to read about more debut authors, illustrators, and author/illustrators.

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Picture Book Review – The Boy Who Thought Outside the Box

THE BOY WHO THOUGHT OUTSIDE THE BOX:
The Story of Video Game Inventor Ralph Baer

Written by Marcie Wessels

Illustrated by Beatriz Castro

(Sterling Children’s Books; $16.95, Ages 5 and up)

 

TBWTOTB cover

 

I like the play on words in the title, The Boy Who Thought Outside the Box, written by Marcie Wessels and illustrated by Beatriz Castro, which you’ll understand after you read the review of this interesting and recommended nonfiction picture book.

The book’s main character, Ralph Baer, was born in Cologne Germany and enjoyed doing things other kids his age did, like riding his scooter or playing stick hockey. Wessels doesn’t mention specific dates, but adults and older readers will know the action was unfolding in the 1930s during Hitler’s rise to power, which is mentioned. Around that time, readers are told, Hitler began making life difficult for the country’s Jewish people. And, since Ralph was Jewish, “Even former friends became enemies.” He was bullied, and attacks by the Nazis were not uncommon.

 

Final Art TBWTOTB page 002
Interior spread from The Boy Who Thought Outside the Box written by Marcie Wessels and illustrated by Beatriz Castro, Sterling Children’s Books ©2020.

 

“With no one to play with, Ralph spent more time indoors, tinkering with his construction set.” Not only was Ralph able to complete all the models in the manual, he also came up with many clever ideas of his own.

 

Final Art TBWTOTB page-003
Interior spread from The Boy Who Thought Outside the Box written by Marcie Wessels and illustrated by Beatriz Castro, Sterling Children’s Books ©2020.

 

Restrictions on Jews didn’t stop Ralph from learning even despite being kicked out of school at age 14 for being Jewish. In 1938 Ralph and his family fled Germany. Once in America, his inventiveness proved invaluable. When he saw a way to speed up handiwork that he, his sister and his mother were doing to help make ends meet, Ralph created a prototype machine. Soon they doubled the amount of projects being completed, increasing their earnings. Always industrious, Ralph took a radio repair course which led to “… fixing radios for the entire neighborhood.”

In the army, since necessity is the mother of invention, Ralph constructed a radio for his barracks from whatever bits and pieces he could find. Then, after WWII he learned how to build a TV set (the box in the title I referred to earlier). The advent of television heralded in a new era in family entertainment and Ralph saw immense “possibilities.” I was impressed with how Ralph’s career anticipated or paralleled the rise of home technology.

While Ralph saw the TV as a vehicle for playing games, his ideas were initially disregarded. He eventually held jobs building equipment for the U.S. military and for NASA. In fact “he embedded a radio transmitter in the handle of the video camera that astronaut Neil Armstrong took to the moon.” As time passed Ralph still envisioned the potential of TV and imagined “using an external box to control the TV to play games.” With the blessings and funding from one of his bosses, Ralph secretly created a home gaming system and “… the Brown Box, was born!” After numerous rejections, Magnavox took on Ralph’s invention and in 1972, the first iteration of the Odyssey went on sale. As we all know, the video game industry would grow in leaps and bounds over the decades and Baer can be credited with being one of its pioneers.

Wessels has made the story of Ralph Baer’s innovations an accessible and fascinating one. She’s managed to take a lifetime of Baer’s ingenuity and whittle it down to just 48 pages. While the book may read quickly, it definitely invites revisiting to let the scope of Baer’s achievements sink in. When children read the book or have it read to them, they’ll learn about more of Baer’s inventions and can find further sources for information in the back matter. Castro’s comic-like art wonderfully complements Wessel’s words. There is just enough realism to the illustrations when detailing the technology. She also conveys the right mood with the red palate during the dark days of Hitler. I’d love to see her do a graphic novel and could easily see Wessel’s story succeed in that format, too. The Boy Who Thought Outside the Box is a motivating STEM bio that will definitely resonate with unconventional thinkers and could very well inspire kids to pursue exciting new paths in learning.

  •  Reviewed by Ronna Mandel
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An Interview with Susan Lendroth About Here We Go Digging for Dinosaur Bones

AN INTERVIEW WITH PICTURE BOOK AUTHOR

SUSAN LENDROTH

 

dinosaur bones cover

 

HERE WE GO DIGGING FOR DINOSAUR BONES
Written by Susan Lendroth
Illustrated by Bob Kolar
(Charlesbridge; $16.99, Ages 4-8)

 

spot pull
Interior spot art from Here We Go Digging for Dinosaur Bones written by Susan Lendroth and illustrated by Bob Kolar, Charlesbridge ©2020.

SUMMARY

Young paleontologists and dinosaur enthusiasts are invited on a fossil dig, set to the tune of “Here We Go ‘Round the Mulberry Bush.” Hike the trail, scan the ground, and make a find – then discover how to build a T. Rex from its bones. Includes hand-play motions for sing-alongs and bite-size science sidebars.

INTERVIEW

GoodReadsWithRonna: There are a lot of dinosaur picture books on the market; how did you try to make your new book Here We Go Digging for Dinosaur Bones stand out from the rest?

Susan Lendroth: Obviously, one of the main differences is that you sing it! The primary verse is set to the tune of “Here We Go Round the Mulberry Bush,” but there are also additional bite-sized facts in smaller text on each page, making it a “twice-through” book. Sing it once for the primary verse, and then page through it a second time for the additional text. 

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The focus on paleontology is also less common, describing the science of excavating fossils, studying them and reconstructing what dinosaurs were like for a very young audience.
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here we go digging spread-1
Interior spread from Here We Go Digging for Dinosaur Bones written by Susan Lendroth and illustrated by Bob Kolar, Charlesbridge ©2020.

GRWR: Besides the additional facts on each page, I noticed the book had extensive back matter. Can you tell me a little about that?
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SL: This is my third book for Charlesbridge, and I love that my editor likes to load in more science to the back of the book. I was given room in Here We Go Digging for Dinosaur Bones for such additional tidbits as the theory that many dinosaurs may have had feathers. Plus, the book’s wonderful illustrator, Bob Kolar, included a page identifying all the modern day birds and animals that he scattered through his fossil dig illustrations. You could page through the book a third time just to hunt for and name each of those critters.

GRWR: You included one more thing in back matter, didn’t you?
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SL: Early literacy practices emphasize five elements for reading stories with children: reading, singing, writing (looking at words together), talking and playing. By illustrating interactive arm movements children can make to mime the actions in the book, play was added to the other four practices that the book already encourages.

 

here we go digging spread-2
Interior spread from Here We Go Digging for Dinosaur Bones written by Susan Lendroth and illustrated by Bob Kolar, Charlesbridge ©2020.

 

GRWR: In our current situation where many communities may still be on lockdown with libraries and book stores closed or offering curbside pickup, are you doing anything different to market your book?
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Susan Lendroth Instagram
Plastic Dino and Cat, photo courtesy  ©Susan Lendroth 2020.       

SL: Funny you should ask! My book was released just a couple of weeks before the area where I live was put on lockdown. I was fortunate enough to do readings at two book stores before that happened, but by the time a box of plastic dinosaurs that I had ordered for props arrived, my other readings had been cancelled.

So the dinos and I are having fun on Instagram instead. I am pretty new to posting, having just started my account six months ago. I am learning to market the book without being too heavy-handed by posing dinos around my apartment and patio. Not only am I sharing the title with a broader community, and gaining a few new followers, but I am also relieving the tedium of lockdown. That’s a win win in my books! (Pun intended) Check out dinosaur antics at susanlendroth.

Click here for an activity guide.
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Susan Lendroth with Pippi at Once Upon a Time Bookstore.

BIO

Author of eight picture books, Susan writes about everything from dinosaurs to history to an exuberant little girl in Japan. NASA flew her book Hey Ho, to Mars We’ll Go! to the International Space Station where Astronaut Christina Koch read it for for Story Time from Space (https://storytimefromspace.com/hey-ho-to-mars-2/). Susan works for the Los Angeles Public Library and shares her news on Instagram (@susanlendroth) and Facebook (https://www.facebook.com/SusanLendroth).

Susan, Good Reads With Ronna would like to thank you for channeling your inner paleontologist with us. We truly dug what you had to say!

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Children’s Picture Book Review – Flash and Gleam

FLASH AND GLEAM
Written by Sue Fliess
Illustrated by Khoa Le
(Millbrook Press; $19.99, Ages 5-8)

 

 

Starred Review – Booklist

There’s more to light than meets the eye and Flash and Gleam: Light in Our World by Sue Fliess with illustrations by Khoa Le makes that apparent and oh so interesting with every page turn. This read-aloud, rhyming nonfiction picture book introduces young readers to four diverse children, their light-filled lives and holidays, as well as the science behind light.

Fliess’s spare and poetic text takes us from morning, noon and night as we see wake up time, gardening, thunderstorms, birthdays, sunsets and rainbows, excellent examples of how light is at work in its myriad and miraculous forms.

flash and gleam int2
Interior spread from Flash and Gleam written by Sue Fliess and illustrated by Khoa Le, Millbrook Press ©2020.

 

I love how the words and art work so wonderfully together to convey the story of light in such an accessible way. It would be easy for kids to follow along just by looking at Le’s lovely illustrations with their warm tones and expressive poses. But Fliess’s poetic stanzas, “Flicker/Feel/Help us heal” (a family lighting candles at a sidewalk memorial), or one of my favorites, “Float/Guide/Far and wide” (visiting a lighthouse by boat), gently share the magic of light in a meaningful and repeatable way. Whether watching fireflies or enjoying a campfire, the scenes throughout Flash and Gleam show how light fills our lives with amazement, energy, entertainment and so much more.

flash and gleam int4
Interior art from Flash and Gleam written by Sue Fliess and illustrated by Khoa Le, Millbrook Press ©2020.

 

Helpful back matter delves deeper into “The Science of Light” by breaking down the topic into six sections including What is Light?, Lightning, Rainbows, The Northern Lights, Fireflies, and Moonlight, all things that the four children experienced on the previous pages. Intermittent factoids shed light on fun facts: When you are looking at a rainbow the sun is always directly behind you! There is also a section called Light and Celebration where children can learn about the varying ways light is associated with certain holidays such Thailand’s Yi Peng and its “fire-powered rice paper sky lanterns.”

Flash and Gleam will be a welcome read at home, in classrooms or at the library. Not only is the subject matter fascinating, but how it’s presented will spark children’s curiosity about the light all around them, every day, everywhere.

 

  •  Reviewed by Ronna Mandel

 

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Our Favorite New Mother’s Day Books for Children

MOTHER’S DAY BOOKS FOR KIDS

∼A ROUNDUP∼

 

This may not be your typical Mother’s Day, but you can still make it special. So, wherever you are, please consider adding a good book to any celebration that you may be planning. Support moms while also helping independent bookstores around the country when you make your reading selections. Check out Indiebound.org, Bookshop.org today or call your local independent bookseller for curbside pickup available in many parts of the country.

 

Mommy Daddy and MeMOMMY, DADDY, AND ME!
Written by Eve Tharlet
Illustrated by Anne-Gaëlle Balpe
(Minedition; $11.99, Ages 0-3)

What’s wonderful about this unassuming little die-cut board book is that it’s full of surprises that will entertain parents as well as children. Adorably illustrated throughout, the book has a circle cut-out on the cover focusing in on the sweetest little bear . Each page turn reveals how much he loves spending time with Mommy, Daddy, and the two of them together. All kinds of hands-on treats await youngsters because there are flaps to lift and pages to flip as well as a big gatefold illustration and sturdy, glossy pages. Little Bear’s parents pass him between them, Daddy picks him up like an airplane and is comforted by him when he’s sad. My favorite spread is the one where Little Bear rubs noses with his mommy because that’s something my son and I always used to do. Not only ideal for Mother’s Day, Mommy, Daddy, and Me! would make a great Father’s Day gift or story time interactive read.

hand in hand cvrHAND IN HAND
Written by Alyssa Satin Capucilli
Illustrated by Sheryl Murray
(Little Simon; $7.99, Ages 0-3)

Part of the New Books for Newborns series, this 16-page board book would make a great baby shower or Mother’s Day gift. Hand in Hand’s gentle, soothing verse coupled with its charming illustrations will capture the attention of infants and toddlers. Created with the littlest readers in mind, the story introduces children to a little girl heading out to the park with her mom and a floral decorated ball. “Me/You/We, two/Hand in hand/Through and through.” Mother and child spend time together in all kinds of play and tender moments depicted in scenes that reassure children of their mother’s love. The read aloud quality of the prose invites sweet story times for little ones just becoming acquainted with books.

To The Moon And Back cvrTO THE MOON AND BACK FOR YOU
Written by
Emilia Bechrakis Serhant
Illustrated by EG Keller
(Random House BYR; $17.99, Ages 4-8)

This moving debut picture book with its spare yet lyrically written text explores the extent to which a mother will go in her efforts to conceive a child via IVF. Sherhant honestly shares the emotional and difficult journey she experienced using metaphors that are beautifully illustrated by Keller. The purple and blue palette is just the right combination of warmth and heart. While not an adoption story, I felt the same strong message of commitment and love as I felt when reading I’ve Loved You Since Forever and Born From the Heart. “I loved you before I met you. I felt you in my arms before I could hold you. But the road was long, and the way was hard.” In an author’s note at the end, Serhant explains how she wanted to write this book “for mothers and fathers who have had a similar road to parenthood.” I’m so glad she channeled her quest into a picture book that will mean so much to so many families who’ll be able to read this to their miracle children one day. I have a friend with her first child from IVF due this fall and, having watched her heartbreak then hope this past year and half, I know just how much this book will resonate with her.

JUST LIKE A MAMA
Written by Alice Faye Duncan
Illustrated by Charnelle Pinkney Barlow
(Denene Millner Books; $17.99, Ages 4-8)

I’m so glad children have a picture book that celebrates an alternative family arrangement in such a positive way. The main character, Carol Olivia Clementine, is six-years-old. “I live with Mama Rose right now,” she explains. While the young reader never learns the reason for the separation, or the relationship between Mama Rose and Carol, that never detracts from the story. Duncan’s upbeat prose, and carefully placed gentle repetition, “My mother and father live far away. I wish we lived together. I wish that they were here,” lets us know that Carol is aware of her situation, yet happy and cared for as if she were Mama Rose’s own child. Mama Rose treats Carol just like any mom would whether that’s teaching her how to tell time, making her eat all her veggies, sending her upstairs to clean up her messy bedroom or complimenting her on a job well done.

Duncan tells us in the Author’s Note that her Aunt was raised with her by her mother and says “It is love that defines our relationships.” A family friend can serve as a mother, as can a guardian or another relative as was the case in Duncan’s household. Regardless of what brought Carol into Mama Rose’s home, Barlow’s charming and cheerful watercolor, gouache, colored pencil and gel pen illustrations feel hopeful. They depict a little girl who misses her parents⁠—we see her make drawings of her parents and can spot a picture of them on Mama Rose’s wall⁠—but who also accepts the love of Mama Rose. “Mama Rose is my home.”

Grama's Hug coverGRAMA’S HUG
Written and illustrated by Amy Nielander
(Page Street Kids; $18.99, Ages 4-8)
Starred review – Booklist

“May loved to visit Grama every summer and watch the stars.” So begins this picture book that is definitely not just for Mother’s Day, though it does get its heart from the nurturing relationship of Grama and her granddaughter, May. “Then one cold day, May came to live with her.” From that the older reader can gather that May has lost her parents or perhaps Grama has just become her guardian for other reasons. Either way, she’s always there for May, to offer love, hugs and inspiration. What’s so sweet about this story is how the pair share the love of stars, birds and dreaming. Grama encourages May who, we learn from a succession of first day of school spreads over the years, has a passion for outer space. “May wanted to take off to the stars one day.” Winning at school fairs leads to a month at space camp where May’s dreams are finally realized. She’ll become the world’s youngest astronaut, but before she heads off anywhere, she must have a hug from Grama. What Nielander shows in her 40-page book’s text and illustrations is how important it is to reach for the stars while having someone on Earth who helps keep you grounded and confident. With that and a hug, who knows what else May might achieve in her life.


JUST BETWEEN US: MOTHER & SON
a no-stress, no-rules journal
by Meredith & Jules Jacobs
(Chronicle Books; $16.95, Ages 10+)

Begin a new tradition in 2020 and find clever new ways to connect. Take the mother and son bond to another level with this thought-provoking and creative journal.

 

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