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Best New Christmas Books for 2023

 

BEST NEW CHRISTMAS BOOKS FOR 2023

~ A ROUNDUP ~

 

 

 

 

COUNTDOWN FOR NOCHEBUENA:
A Celebration of Christmas Eve
Written and illustrated by Adriana Hernández Bergstrom
(Little, Brown YR; Available in H/C $15.99 + Board Book $7.99; Ages 0-3)

Countdown for Nochebuena by Adriana Hernández Bergstrom brings young readers a bouncy bilingual picture book (and board book) inspired by the author-illustrator’s Cuban American heritage. There is lots to love about Hernández Bergstrom’s story, from her use of English and Spanish made understandable to non-Spanish speakers with easy-to-follow illustrations that are rich in culture and drenched in color and spirit to the counting structure in Spanish starting at one then working up to 12 before going back down. Perhaps the most meaningful part for me is how the story begins and ends with family.
Children will be captivated by the different aspects of this Christmas Eve celebration where we’re introduced to vocabulary (with a glossary in the backmatter) that describes the action in each scene. We see tables (mesas) invitingly decorated, irresistible and delicious nougat desserts (turrones), and kids (muchachos) making handclapping music. Adults dance and the countdown to presents (regalos) is on everyone’s minds. Then it’s wrapping paper ripped, cleaning up the mess, a cortado for the drive home armed with leftovers and memories of special time spent with family. This truly festive and loving look at Nochebuena is sure to fill many hearts this holiday. • Reviewed by Ronna Mandel.

 

Goodnight Santa cover kids and Santa in sleighGOODNIGHT SANTA
Written by Michelle Robinson
Illustrated by Nick East
(Sourcebooks Wonderland; $8.99, Ages 1-4)
What a sweet bedtime board book, just one in a popular series, to share with toddlers and preschoolers who are eager for Christmas and need a calming read to help them settle in.
The gentle rhythmic rhyme coupled with the charming, muted jewel tones of the artwork makes this an ideal story to share in the lead-up to the holiday. Like the classic Goodnight Moon, the repetition of the word goodnight will lull little ones to sleep. “Goodnight snowman. Goodnight choir. Goodnight stockings by the fire.”
An older sister enjoys her snow globe, a little brother looks out for Santa, reindeer await on rooftops as Santa delivers toys after a magical trip to Santa’s workshop, and just the right amount of text to keep things low-key as children can dream about Christmas Day. First published in picture book format, this new 28-page board book provides a sturdy alternative for younger readers. • Reviewed by Ronna Mandel.

 

We Disagree About This Tree cover Bear Mouse and TreeWE DISAGREE ABOUT THIS TREE
Written and illustrated by Ross Collins
(Candlewick Press; $16.99, Ages 2-5) 

Whether you’re a fan of the two previous Bear and Mouse books or if you’re new to the series, you’ll enjoy the playful (sometimes cranky) antics as these two housemates debate over how the Christmas tree should be decorated. The over-the-top—and even upside-down—trees will give the kids lots of giggles. Collins’s rhyming text is a fun read-aloud and his art captures the range of emotions these friends experience as they navigate toward their just-right holiday tree.

Companion books include There’s a Bear on My Chair and There’s a Mouse in My House. • Reviewed by Christine Van Zandt.

Otto the Ornament cover happy Otto hanging from a Christmas tree.OTTO THE ORNAMENT
Written and illustrated by Troy Cummings
(Random House Children’s Book; $12.99, Ages 3-7)

Starred reviews – Kirkus, School Library Journal

With Otto the Ornament, Troy Cummings has created a rewarding Christmas story your kids will want to read year-round! You’ll first be greeted by cheerful ornament-filled endpapers and Christmas tree-shaped text on the copyright page. Early on I could see that Cummings nailed it when it comes to the book’s festive mood in the illustrations that had me eager to turn the page.

Otto, a snazzy multi-colored Christmas ornament, is rather full of himself. Bouncing out of a box, this new ornament on the block announces, “ME­RRY CHRISTMAS, BULBS AND BAUBLES! I’M OTTO! I’M HERE TO BEDECK THE HECK OUT OF YOUR TREE!” He’s warmly welcomed to the décor family which includes a candy cane, a green glass bell, a wooden Santa, and a mitten kitten. They invite him to take his place in the middle of the tree. But Otto feels the only spot he deserves is at the top. He soon finds fault with the other ornaments who then have no need for him and vice versa.

Otto’s search to hang on a tree suitable for his awesomeness, while humorous to the reader who want him to have his comeuppance following his appalling behavior, soon proves futile. After claiming what he considers his rightful spot atop a massive city tree not unlike the one at Rockefeller Center, a shocking event plummets him down into the storm drain. Cummings art perfectly captures Otto’s transformation. Emotionally shattered, disheveled, dented, cracked and paint-chipped, Otto realizes he’s lost his bragging rights. Meeting an unexpected lost ornament in the storm drain helps Otto get on the right track. In rescuing the mitten and taking him back to his pair, Otto learns where his true home and friends are. He also sees what really matters, making this not only a learning moment for little ones but a moving one as well. Being the best and brightest ornament doesn’t mean much if it means being alone. • Reviewed by Ronna Mandel.

 

 

Elves are the Worst cover elf on stepladder beside goblinELVES ARE THE WORST! 
Written and illustrated by Alex Willan

(Simon Kids; $18.99, Ages 4-8)

Starred Review – School Library Journal

Santa’s elves look like goblins, right? Gilbert the Goblin makes the comparison and decides to sneak into Santa’s workshop in elvish disguise to see if all the tales about these super cute, hardworking (blech) creatures are true. However, Gilbert soon finds that maybe it’s not that they’re so perfect, but, rather, that they know how to work together as a team.

Gilbert is as lovably funny as ever whether in disguise or just as his goblin-y self. Alex Willan’s adorable art appeals to kids as does the almost graphic layout style with panels on many pages.

Other books in this series include Unicorns Are the Worst, Dragons Are the Worst, and Yetis Are the Worst. • Reviewed by Christine Van Zandt.

 

Our Italian Christmas Eve brother and sister smiling in front of cheesecake and dessertsOUR ITALIAN CHRISTMAS EVE
Written by Danielle Sedita and Francesco Sedita

Illustrated by Luciano Lozano
(Viking BYR; $18.99, Ages 3-7)

Along with lively artwork by illustrator Luciano Lozano, sibling author duo Danielle and Francesco Sedita have written a colorful tale inspired by their childhood that is not only joyful and funny but mouthwatering too.

Readers learn right from the start courtesy of the brother and sister narrators that while other families celebrate on Christmas Day, their family celebrates on Christmas Eve. They head to Aunt Babe’s for the Feast of the Seven Fishes, something I loved learning about. It’s also traditionally meatless. I enjoyed the big family energy since it reminded me of holiday get-together sat my aunt’s when I was growing up.

The book is a virtual food frenzy with all the various fish dishes depicted including bread stuffed with oysters and spaghetti with clam sauce. But the best part is how the kids get to pitch in and how much it’s appreciated. It seems Uncle Robert has forgotten to bring the struffoli for dessert so the kids make cheesecake, a recipe they’ve made before with their mom. The children note the family dynamics which play out each year, always ending on a note of love. Now that everything has turned out well and just when you thought the stuffed family would be loosening belts and napping, Aunt Babe says, “Andiamo!” It’s time for midnight Mass.

One of my favorite spreads is an overhead perspective where readers can see the platters of food set out on the dining room table. In addition to being a heartwarming story, Our Italian Christmas Eve is a visual feast for the holiday season.  • Reviewed by Ronna Mandel.

 

How Does Santa Go Down the Chimney cover Santa on snowy roof staring at chimneyHOW DOES SANTA GO DOWN THE CHIMNEY?
Written by Mac Barnett

Illustrated by Jon Klassen
(Candlewick Press; $18.99, Ages 4-8)

Starred Reviews- Booklist, Kirkus, School Library Journal

This hilarious book explores all the possible ways Santa may be able to fit down our chimneys and what he does when there isn’t one. Kids will be onboard from the start because these are the questions and possible solutions that they are tossing about: Does he shrink down? Can he squeeze through the mail slot? Feet first or head? And how does he keep from getting dirty?

Mac Barnett’s spot-on text plus Jon Klassen’s lol art equals a hit with kids everywhere as they weigh in about theories and probably pose some of their own. Timeless questions are seriously considered yet balanced with plenty of humor and mystery. • Reviewed by Christine Van Zandt.

 

Christmas Ahoy! cover festive boats and lighthouse.CHRISTMAS AHOY!
Written by Erin Dealey
Illustrated by Kayla Stark
(Sleeping Bear Press; $18.99, Ages 4-8)

Holiday boat parades are magical and Erin Dealey’s rhyming picture book brings families right in so they can experience the festivities. Counting from one to ten, different kinds of vessels are introduced in fun ways that kids can relate to such as “Five fishers harmonize, ever so merry. / Six dancers twirl on the Sugar Plum Ferry!”

Kayla Stark’s art pops out from the beautiful blue background, highlighting the action—I love a reindeer-filled yacht! The informative backmatter adds another element, providing some background on fourteen of the ships including sailboat, dory, and barge. With its many interesting angles, this book is sure to be a hit with families and in classrooms. • Reviewed by Christine Van Zandt.

 

Dasher Can't Wait for Christmas cover child and Dasher in snowy woods.DASHER CAN’T WAIT FOR CHRISTMAS
Written and illustrated by Matt Tavares
(Candlewick Press; $17.99, Ages 4-8) 

Matt Tavares’s picture book has a classic feel as he captures Dancer’s young exuberance when she (a little bit too eagerly) heads out on her own to test her flying skills. Kids who can’t wait until Christmas will totally understand and feel for Dasher when her adventure doesn’t turn out as she planned.

This beautifully illustrated book brings a beloved reindeer front and center, giving us a behind-the-scenes glimpse of what goes on at the North Pole before the big night. The story is both cautionary and uplifting, one that kids will turn to again and again. • Reviewed by Christine Van Zandt.

 

ADDITIONAL RECOMMENDED READS:

24 CHRISTMAS STORIES:
Faith and Traditions from Around the World
Judith Bouilloc, Various Authors
Sky Pony Press

IT’S NAVIDAD, EL CUCUY!
Written by Donna Barba Higuera
Illustrated by Juliana Perdomo
Harry N. Abrams

A CHRISTMAS EVE WISH FOR SANTA
Written by Deb Adamson
Illustrated by Anne Zimanski
McSea Books

ELMORE THE CHRISTMAS MOOSE (B&N Exclusive Edition)
Written by Dev Petty
Illustrated by Mike Boldt

DON’T LET THE PIGEON DRIVE THE SLEIGH! (B&N Exclusive Edition)
Written and illustrated by Mo Willems

SANTA YETI
Written by Matthew Luhn
Illustrated by Luke Flowers
Kane Miller Books

 

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Best New Hanukkah Books for Kids 2023

 

A ROUNDUP OF

THE BEST NEW HANUKKAH BOOKS

FOR KIDS 2023

REVIEWS:

Latke's First Hanukkah cover Latke lighting menorahLATKE’S FIRST HANUKKAH
Written and illustrated by Alan Silberberg
(Viking BYR; $7.99, Ages 0-3)

Little ones will love meeting Latke, a lovable creation of author-illustrator Alan Silberberg’s whimsical imagination. What’s great about his books is that parents will be entertained reading them as much as their kids. The new 16-page board book, Latke’s First Hanukkah, is no exception. Add various voices for the characters during a read-aloud and you’re set!

Applesauce and Sour Cream get into a tiff over which topping tastes better, the Dreidels along with Latke spin ’til they drop, dizzy but likely delighted, and the sufganiyot (jelly donuts) “are full of joy (and jelly).” As each night gets underway, the counting of the candles continues as do the antics of Latke’s colorfully illustrated guests. Of course, included in the company is gelt, and on night six, the one that made me LOL was when Babka, Challah, Bagel, Kugel, Blintz, and Falafel arrived.  There is much to enjoy here so why not join Latke for some laughs and a memorable first Hanukkah celebration?

 

HANUKKAH UPSIDE DOWNHanukkah Upside Dow cover upside down child handing dreidel to rightside up child
Written by Elissa Brent Weissman

Illustrated by Omer Hoffmann
(Abrams BYR; $18.99, Ages 4-8)

Starred Review – School Library Journal

I’m so happy there’s a new international-themed Hanukkah book to be added to bookshelves everywhere. Its illustrations are charming and kid-friendly with characters I’d love to try drawing myself (I particularly enjoyed the spread with everyone eating sufganiyot or jelly donuts)  with Cousins Noah and Nora may live continents apart (Noah’s in New York and Nora’s in New Zealand), but it’s clear from their chats on the phone or via text that they are close. As Hanukkah approaches, the two set up a competition to see who has the best Hanukkah. Both also disagree on which cousin lived upside down on the planet, something many kids may think about and find funny.

This new slant on celebrating the eight-day Festival of Lights is clever as both the Northern and Southern Hemispheres’ differences are highlighted as the Hanukkah celebrations get underway. In New York, it’s winter and one day behind. In New Zealand it’s summer. In New York, it got dark early while in New Zealand, the sun set late. Despite that, on the first night of Hanukkah, both cousins lit the chanukiah or Hanukkah menorah. While Noah wore boots, Nora went barefoot, yet they both ate yummy latkes. I love this spot-on comparison:  “Noah threw snowballs. Nora did cannonballs.” Whether skating or surfing, or learning the local languages, the Jewish cousins find the challenge they’ve tasked themselves with to be a tough one. They say the same prayers. Do the same good deeds and spend time with loved ones. So whose celebration is the best? And is it really about the differences?

Though the main characters may live thousands of miles apart, the beauty in this story is that ultimately the similarities between the cousins’ Hanukkah festivities, and their relationship are what counts and what will stand out to young readers.

 

Eight Nights of Lights cover child holding menorah and dreidel.EIGHT NIGHTS OF LIGHTS: 
A Celebration of Hanukkah
Written by Leslie Kimmelman
Illustrated by Hilli Kushnir
(HarperCollins BYR; $19.99, Ages 4-8)

I’ve never seen anything quite like this interactive picture book that engages young readers all Eight Nights of Lights! The design invites children to participate safely (no real candles or matches are involved) in the Hanukkah celebration which they can enjoy in one read or return to each night.

On the first night, kids meet the narrator Lena, and her kitty, Pickles as they prep the menorah and learn its family history from her father. The educational elements are introduced so the youngest readers can learn about Hanukkah traditions. “It was the first night of the holiday, so there was just one candle to put in the menorah. Plus the shammash, the helper candle. The shammash was used each night to light all the other candles.”

The story progresses to the next night when readers remove the second candle from the book’s paper menorah to see what happens with Lena and her family. Different aspects of the holiday are shared every night; from dreidel playing to the story of the heroic Maccabee brothers, from giving presents to giving to others (tzedakah), from making latkes to eating jelly donuts, from a Hanukkah hike to acting out the Maccabee story with cousins. The story concludes with a fun Hanukkah party at the synagogue on the eighth night that includes cookie decorating, pin the shammash on the menorah, and singing and dancing to beloved Hanukkah songs. I can easily see children asking for this book every year as part of the celebration. It also makes a wonderful gift.

Watch this video to see exactly how unique this interactive picture book is.

MORE NEW HANUKKAH BOOK RECOMMENDATIONS:

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An Interview by Rajani LaRocca with I’m an American Author Darshana Khiani

 

 

AN INTERVIEW WITH DARSHANA KHIANI

ABOUT HER NEW PICTURE BOOK

I’M AN AMERICAN

ILLUSTRATED BY LAURA FREEMAN

(Viking BYR; $19.99, Ages 4-8)

 

 

I'm An American cover flags diverse children

 

 

PUBLISHER’S SUMMARY:

 

INTERVIEW:

Rajani LaRocca: What was the inspiration for this book?

Darshana Khiani: My initial inspiration came in the Summer of 2017, I watched a YouTube video of a White man conversing with an Asian man about being American. Even though the Asian man answered every question with an answer that was similar if not the same as the White man’s answers, it didn’t matter. The White man would not “see” the 4th generation U.S. born ethnically Chinese man as an American. I was flabbergasted. When is one considered an American? Initially, I wrote a narrative story about a biracial child questioning his identity. Unfortunately, the draft didn’t feel like a picture book and had veered from the heart which was “If America is your home and you believe in the ideals/values of this country then you are American, regardless of color, ethnicity, or even citizenship.”  From a conference critique, I received a suggestion to create a concept book with layered text, set in a diverse classroom. The American values would be prominently featured in the main text with the student’s family backstory in the secondary text.

 

I'm an American int1 classrom
Interior spread from I’m an American written by Darshana Khiani and illustrated by Laura Freeman, Viking BYR ©2023.

 

RL: What kind of research did you do? How did you decide which people/which stories to include?

DK: Since this book covered immigration history at a higher level, I first started with a middle-grade nonfiction text on immigration history and then dug deeper into specific events and facts delving into topic-specific books.I wrote copious notes of whatever details were significant or interesting to me. I created a spreadsheet with all the different values and then marked which groups had stories or experiences that could help showcase that value. This was important since I wanted to capture as much diverse representation as possible from older immigrant stories to newer ones, immigrants from different regions of the world, as well as those groups who are non-immigrants. 

 

I'm an American int2 MexFilipAmer
Interior spread from I’m an American written by Darshana Khiani and illustrated by Laura Freeman, Viking BYR ©2023.

 

RL: Laura Freeman’s art is stunning! Was there a lot of revision once the illustrations came in?

DK: There was plenty of revision of the text for a few of the vignettes for accuracy and sensitivity reasons, and even some shuffling around of page spreads for story flow. All good stuff. There weren’t any changes needed as a result of the art. I agree Laura’s art is breathtaking and I do hope she gets some professional recognition for it. I don’t think this was an easy book to illustrate.

 

RL: What do you hope young readers get from this book?

DK: No matter who you are or how you came to the United States, if you believe you are an American then you are. Also for people who’ve been here for generations, to realize that the reasons people immigrate today such as the need for safety or basic human rights is no different than the reason people immigrated in the 17th through 19th centuries. Despite our differences and challenges as a nation is it our values that we continuously strive and try to uphold that make us American.

 

BUY THE BOOK:

Click here to purchase I’m an American.

LINKS TO SOCIAL MEDIA:

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D Khiani headshot by Lisa Noble
Darshana Khiani  – Author Photo ©Lisa Noble.

AUTHOR 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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INTERVIEWER BIO:

 

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Best Valentine’s Day Books for Children 2023

 

 

BEST NEW VALENTINE’S DAY BOOKS

FOR KIDS 2023

~ A Roundup~

 

Free Valentine's Day clipart

 

 

 

I Love You Cockatoo! cover art pirate bird and MamaI LOVE YOU, COCKATOO!
Written and illustrated by Sarah Aspinall
(Viking BYR; $18.99, Ages 2-5)

Author-illustrator Sarah Aspinall captures the tender moment of a pink feathered Cockatoo sitting on his pink feathered Mama’s lap as she lovingly brushes out her child’s feathers in her recently released picture book I Love You, Cockatoo!

Cockatoo’s big eyes widen when Mama randomly does what mothers often do blurting out the words, I love you, Cockatoo to her precious son. It seems odd to Cockatoo that she could love him all the time so he asks, even when I’m grumpy and tired? Mama kindly responds, even when you’re grumpy and tired. The repetition of the answer mimicking the question continues when Papa expresses his love for Cockatoo, even when I wake you up at night … Even Aunt P loves him when the two are eating breakfast together and Cockatoo makes a mess. So much love to go around!

But, as stories often do, things take a turn when the playful Cockatoo takes advantage of that love when he reenacts a shouting pirate while Mama is trying to have some alone time in the bath. And Papa scolds him when he is awakened from his afternoon nap by Cockatoo’s loud green drum. Our little friend hops onto a nearby branch and thinks that perhaps they don’t love him ALL the time after all.

Aspinall’s adorable vibrant illustrations showcase each character’s personality with Papa’s glasses, Mama’s long eyelashes, and Aunt P’s yellow feathers when they locate a concerned Cockatoo alone in the tree. Readers discover along with Cockatoo after clever adults pose those same questions to Cockatoo that if he still loves them despite occasional grumpiness, it makes sense that they too still love him ALL of the time no matter what! This reassuring read is a fabulous Valentine’s Day addition for home, preschool, and library. • Reviewed by Ronda Einbinder

 

The Catalogueo of Hugs dad holding child like slothTHE CATALOGUE OF HUGS
Written by Joshua David Stein and Augustus Heeren Stein
Illustrated by Elizabeth Lilly
(Rise x Penguin Workshop; $16.99, Ages 2-5)

This uplifting (pun intended) picture book showing 25 types of hugs not only warmed my heart but had me grinning with every page turn. It was such fun to see what new hug name and accompanying artwork would greet me. The cover, of course, is the Sloth. Then there’s the Classic, the Backpack, the Necklace, and even the Tantrum,  confirming that when it comes to showing varying emotions (love, playfulness, sadness), there are all kinds of hugs as there are all kinds of people. A positive for me was the inclusion of a diverse group of parental figures and individuals with differing abilities whether that’s someone in a wheelchair or with a prosthetic leg. The art is loosely drawn yet expressive with not a large color palette and it works wonderfully. This cool father-son collaboration clearly stems from years of hugging experience! There’s also a final spread that includes imaginative hug names without any illustrations which will no doubt invite children to invent their own style of one-on-one and family hugs. Do you know a hugger? I think we all do! • Reviewed by Ronna Mandel

 

The Very Best Hug cover Bear carrying girl and other animalsTHE VERY BEST HUG
Written by Smriti Prasadam-Halls
Illustrated by Alison Brown
(Bloomsbury; $18.99; Ages 0-5)

From the creators of the #1 bestseller I Love You Night and Day comes the perfect for Valentine’s Day picture book The Very Best Hug by award-winning author Smriti Prasadam-Halls and illustrator Alison Brown. The rhyming words bounced off my tongue when I read the book aloud, putting a  fast smile on my face. How can you not grin from cheek to cheek when you read

Have you ever wondered who gives the very BEST hug?
The kind that’s warm and cozy and snug?
Extra squeezy, but never too tight,
the kind that fits you COMPLETELY right?

Prasadam-Halls asks How about a kangaroo kiss? Or a Walrus Wiggle? A Penguin Peck? Or a porcupine Prickle? Cheerful art depicts the child ready to put on her red pajama bottoms after being kissed by the kangaroo. Below that illustration readers see the pajama top still on the floor as the girl is hugged tightly by the walrus. Brown’s adorable illustrations also portray the little girl playing with the animals on her staircase, and rolling with a narwhal on the ground. The girl is brave stepping into that furry-purry lair for a lion squish! or a leopard squash! with a beautiful blue-toned spread.

The animals may enjoy showing their affection for the girl in a big group squeeze, but the look on her face shows she may not be that comfortable face down on her belly. The animals console her with chocolate chip cookies and milk as she realizes the best hug isn’t from any of them.  Their hugs are rough and tumbly, but someone else’s are sweet and comforting! SO … Who gives the best hugs? You’ve got it! You’ve guessed! And I will leave you in suspense about the ending. (Hint: it is a woman with brown hair). The animals happily return to being stuffed and scattered all over her bedroom. I’d recommend this for a cuddly bedtime read! • Reviewed by Ronda Einbinder

 

Little Hearts: Finding Hearts in Nature four animal friends in meadowLITTLE HEARTS: FINDING HEARTS IN NATURE
Written by Charles Ghigna
Illustrated by Jacqueline East
(Red Comet Press; $17.99, Ages 3-5) 

Charles Ghigna, known to the readers from his more than 5,000 poems as Father Goose, has done it again with his latest poetic picture book that explores a world full of hearts on the ground and hearts above. Little Hearts: Finding Hearts In Nature is both a cozy read with its words of love and a peaceful journey into the lives of four softly rendered animals. Jacqueline East’s earth-colored illustrations of the pig, the bear, the rabbit, and the fox play off the beauty that surrounds the animal friends.

The little bear notices two birds seated on a branch with their bodies entwined like a heart, while the pig discovers the spider’s silky gift of love-a little heart of lace. The friends move on to pick a few strawberries from the heart-shaped strawberry field. Then they find an apple tree upon the hill. What a sweet surprise. Two hearts before your eyes!

This tender story read begged me to sit back and ponder East’s heart-shaped drawings of leaves and petals, something that often goes unnoticed. The next time I come across a heart-shaped rock, I  take it home for safekeeping as I think of this book. This February 14, look up in the sky and you may find a cloud that looks like a Valentine. A fluffy heart of white! • Reviewed by Ronda Einbinder

 

Love Escargot cover snail wearing beretLOVE, ESCARGOT
Written by Dashka Slater
Illustrated by Sydney Hanson
(Farrar Straus Giroux; $18.99, Ages 4-6)

Escargot is my favorite snail so I’m thrilled he’s back and as debonair as ever! In this picture book where Escargot speaks directly to us readers, we soon learn the suave snail has been invited to a Snailentine’s Day party where perhaps we too will find our snailentine. I’m in! Are you? So, even if you do not have tentacles, the secret to being a beautiful French snail, Escargot tells us, is joie de vivre.

Heading to the party the snail wants to know what we look for in a snailentine and how they make us feel. If you feel shy, Escargot shares invaluable tips on convenient ways to hide. But more importantly, he will offer tips on how to dance with élan, that’s French for a mix of style and enthusiasm. An unexpected twist in this très formidable tale is that Escargot winds up at a party he hadn’t planned on attending but finds it an enchanting evening nonetheless! Slater’s use of French words makes this an irresistible read-aloud, especially if you add an accent charmant, and maybe even a beret to get in the mood. Kids will have fun looking through Hanson’s gorgeous art, especially the first spread and also the endpapers. Her illustrations’ muted tones are gentle on the eye and pair parfaitement with Slater’s humor and heart. Don’t miss this Valentine’s Day treat! • Reviewed by Ronna Mandel

 

Lovebird Lou cover lovebird on tree branchLOVEBIRD LOU
Written by Tammi Sauer
Illustrated by Stephanie Laberis
(Union Square Kids; $16.99; Ages 3-8)

The adored character in this picture book can do no wrong according to his parents, and I must admit he is rather cute. In Lovebird Lou we learn that Lou comes from a long line of lovebirds who spend their days telling each other how much they are loved. (Not a bad way to spend a day). Lovebirds were all Lou knew until his flock visited the other side of the island.

Tammi Sauer, the author of more than 30 picture books, writes about all the wonderful things other birds are doing. The pelicans twist into a figure eight, the nightingales sing, and the flamingos wade into the water on one leg. And every time Lou tells his parents he wants to be like the other birds, he gets positive reinforcement along with pinches on his cheek. Sauer also uses catchy nicknames for Lou such as sugar cookie and mixes them into the text with creativity and charm. There’s no denying Lou’s family loves him so whatever he desires is fine by them.  In spread, illustrator and character designer Stephanie Laberis draws Lou attempting to fly like a pelican flopping into the green pasture. “You’re the best pelican ever!” said his mother. “We love you, Lou!” said the others.

Lou begins to realize that despite unending family support he is not meant to be a pelican or a flamingo, or a nightingale. “Being a bird is for the birds,” he says. Deciding he would rather not be a bird, Lou leaves the flock and tries sitting still next to a sign that reads #1 Rock. He was an excellent rock. Well, that is until he realizes it was scary being a rock alone out there without the lovebirds. The art turns from light colors to dark with Lou running back home under the moonlight to the open arms of his parents who of course tell him they love him to which he joyfully responds “I love you, too!” Lou knew lovebirds were good at the most important thing of all. Another fabulous book to be read by parents and teachers any time of the year, but especially fitting for Valentine’s Day.
• Reviewed by  Ronda Einbinder

 

Grumpy Monkey Valentine Gross-Out cover of gagging Jim PanzeeGRUMPY MONKEY VALENTINE GROSS-OUT
Written by Suzanne Lang
Illustrated by Max Lang
(Random House Kids; $10.99; Ages  4-8)

New York Times Best Selling author Suzanne Lang has teamed up, once again with her husband, Emmy winner Max Lang, illustrator of over 20 books, in the latest addition to the Grumpy Monkey series Grumpy Monkey Valentine Gross-Out.

I have to admit I was not familiar with the Grumpy Monkey series, but the title alone is grabbing. So, when I opened the first page and read the protagonist’s name Jim Panzee (get it – Chimpanzee), I was hooked and eager to read more. The story opens with Jim, the protagonist, lying next to a stream, arms overhead, amongst the frogs and butterflies when Oxpecker flies overhead with a flower carried in its talons. The bird gleefully tells Jim, “My boyfriend gave it to me because we’re in love!”

Needless to say, Jim finds love to be quite gross and knows his friend Norman will feel the same way. But Jim locates the larger chimpanzee sitting on a low branch making love cards. Even Norman liked Valentine’s Day!

Max Lang’s hilarious illustrations are filled with purple snakes, heart-shaped leaves, and drawings of various smitten creatures gazing into each other’s eyes. It’s hard not to smile at all the animal couples getting on Jim’s nerves. Jim has the hardest time with the kissing ones such as two chimps sharing a smooch. Jim finds Valentine’s Day to be the GROSSEST HOLIDAY!

Wise Norman returns to explain to Jim that there are all kinds of love. You have a love for your parents and they have a love for you. Suzanne Lang’s prose explains to the reader that Valentine’s Day is about showing the people you love that you love them. Now convinced it’s not all gross, Jim decides to make valentines for all his friends and family to show them how much he cares. All goes well until the last page when two birds’ beaks join together with closed eyes (I now know how birds kiss) and Jim shouts GROSS

This book deserves to be a Valentine’s Day staple for young readers. It has made me a fan of Jim Panzee, one of the best character names I’ve ever read.  A page of stickers in the back is a bonus included in this LOL picture book. • Reviewed by  Ronda Einbinder

 

Dino Valentines Day cover dino and childDINO-VALENTINE’S DAY
Written by Lisa Wheeler
Illustrated by Barry Gott
(Carolrhoda Books; $18.99, Ages 5-9)

Let’s talk T. rex and team. Fans of the popular Dino series will enjoy this latest picture book that is packed with love-action as dinos get ready for the big day! As February breezes in,/Dinos giggle, swoon, and grin. Gott’s whimsical illustrations show your favorite dinos at school making cards, going shopping, having crushes, all culminating in a Valentine’s Day dino dance party. 

I counted more than a dozen different types of dinosaurs appearing on the pages doing all the necessary preparations to show they care with gifts of chocolate, handmade prezzies, baked goods, and more. During craft time, this line made me LOL: Apatosaurus just can’t win./Scissors are so hard for him. And Gott’s art is spot on particularly in the scene when Minmi spies Leso coming into the room and, as her heart takes a leap, so does her marker. The heart she was drawing continues off the page onto the table!! Best of all, Wheeler’s story is written in a fast-paced rhyme scheme. Though at times she takes liberties with the end rhymes, I don’t think kids will care. The story concludes with a teaser for the next book out this fall which is for Hanukkah! Can’t wait to see dinos play dreidel!
• Reviewed by  Ronna Mandel

 

Cozy in Love cover two Alaskan musk oxCOZY IN LOVE
Written and illustrated by Jan Brett
(G. P. Putnam’s Sons; $19.99, Ages 4-8)

I adore the heartwarming cover illustration from Jan Brett’s heartwarming tale told both in prose and through her beloved border art. Note: The Alaskan seaweed in the borders are from Seaweeds of the World and the heart-shaped stones are from Fox Island. You’ll also see puffins and beluga whales who live near Teardrop Inlet in this story.

Inspired by a cast of creatures she encountered on her Alaskan adventures, Brett brings back her character Cozy who in this new picture book worries that he’ll never catch the eye of his favorite musk ox, Lofti after losing a battle of strength to a fellow musk ox.

Cozy is soon pulled away from his sulk and called to action when Puffin, Cozy’s pal, alerts him to young Bella’s plight. While Bella, a spirited beluga whale plays in Teardrop Inlet, Puffin knows that “Air is getting cold. Ice will trap her!” Despite being warned by her mother that when the sea freezes, the entrance to the inlet gets closed off, Bella doesn’t leave. Then, when she tries to exit, she cannot make it over a wall of ice. If she doesn’t get out soon, she’ll be trapped “with no way to reach the air.”

Though his musk ox herd is heading to sleep, Cozy is compelled to rescue Bella. At the same time, Lofti decides to see what he is getting up. Cozy gets an idea that if he can displace water in the inlet by filling it with heavy rocks, it will allow the water to rise and carry Bella out to sea. This time his show of strength might save a friend’s life. Exhausted by his successful efforts, Cozy settles down only to be joined by an admirer, Lofti! This happy ending not only sees Bella reunited with her family but a bighearted musk ox named Cozy who just happens to be in love. A feel-good picture book for animal lovers of all ages!
• Reviewed by  Ronna Mandel

 

Love Stinks! cover skunkLOVE STINKS!
Written by Diana Murray
Illustrated by Gal Weizman
(Random House BYR; $5.99; Ages 4-6)

Where is my love? Skunk asks in this first level in the Step Into Reading series Love Stinks! This 32 page comic reader introduces new readers to rhyme, rhythm, and picture clues with bigger type and easy words.

Parents and caregivers will appreciate the Dear Parent intro page explaining speech balloons and captions, and panels along with questions to ask the child such as What is a character feeling? We turn the page to find Dog love and Cat love written in large letters with Weizman’s adorable characters gazing into each other’s eyes. Well, all except stinky Skunk who spurts out an odor that keeps him separated from the others.

Easy-flowing rhyme helps prompt little readers. Frog love./Fly love./Where is my love? The engaging artwork depicts frogs, ants, and flies in love but standing on the busy city street poor Skunk doesn’t see anyone for him. Place pronouns such as Here and There allow a beginning reader to hear and see those words in relation to characters on the page. And, if an adult reads along, they can easily point to what the skunk is doing and where. Simple sentences are brought in when Skunk is eating his ice cream cone alone Where is true love? he asks. Ending with a true heartfelt valentine’s tone, Skunk finds Stinky love! inside a trash can.

This humorous leveled reader with its Valentine theme is playful and fun while introducing kids to new words with accessible short sentences. The reader can choose to move on to the next step in the series or continue practicing Step 1 with Robot, Go Bot; Dragon Egg; or another good Valentine’s read, Mama Loves.
• Reviewed by  Ronda Einbinder

 

How We Say I Love You cover multigenerational family huggingHOW WE SAY I LOVE YOU
Written by Nicole Chen
Illustrated by Lenny Wen
(Alfred A. Knopf; $18.99; Ages 3-7)

Nicole Chen introduces readers to a girl named Hana and the multigenerational family members who love her with actions not just words. How We Say I Love You tells the story of a Taiwanese American family that includes Hana’s parents, her Ah Gong (grandfather), and Ah Ma (grandmother).

We first meet them in their busy living room decorated with a large family portrait on the wall, and a bonsai plant resting on a wooden hutch. Ah Gong, who wears big brown glasses and has grey hair, is sweeping while Hana’s dad is carrying a basket of laundry. In the kitchen, her pregnant mom is dressed in a blue apron stirring her love into a pot of steaming xi fan. Hana smiles sniffing the aroma. Ah Gong dances with each step walking Hana to school, and her father cheers her on the soccer field, “Jia you, Hana! Go, go, go!”

We know the baby will be loved when Hana lays on her mother’s stomach telling the unborn sibling about things like ice cream and swings. Author-Illustrator Lenny Wen created her superb illustrations with Photoshop and a graphic tablet, visually showcasing the love this family has for each other.

The Asian culture is conveyed through illustrations of their cuisine, and gold and purple flowers with bamboo stalks in the background of many of the pages. Wen hides a heart on each page, adding a fun search-and-find activity after finishing the book. And the back glossary teaches us Mandarin Chinese with words like Wan an (good night) and Jia you (a cheer of encouragement). Hana says, “In my family our love lives in all the things we do for one another. That is how we say “I love you.”
• Reviewed by  Ronda Einbinder

 

Additional Recommended Reads 

BAD KITTY DOES NOT LIKE VALENTINE’S DAY
Written and illustrated by Nick Bruel
(Roaring Brook Press; $9.99, Ages 2-5)

LITTLE OWL’S LOVE
Written and illustrated by Divya Srinivasan
(Viking BYR; $18.99, Ages 3-5)

 

 

 

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Middle Grade Book Review – Singing with Elephants

SINGING WITH ELEPHANTS

Written by Margarita Engle

(Viking BYR; $16.99, Ages 8-12)

 

Singing With Elephants cover

 

 

Starred reviews – KirkusPublishers Weekly

 

Struggling to belong, Cuban-born eleven-year-old Oriol discovers her voice in Singing with Elephants, a beautifully moving middle-grade novel in verse written by Newbery honoree and Pura Belpré Award-winning author, Margarita Engle.  

The story takes place in 1947 in Santa Barbara where Oriol lives with her family. She helps take care of injured animals in her parents’ veterinary clinic, located near a “wildlife zoo ranch” that has connections to Hollywood (6). Grieving the recent death of her grandmother and facing hardships at a school that is unwelcoming to immigrants, she struggles with loneliness–until she befriends “la poeta” Gabriela Mistral who has moved near Oriol’s home (12). While the meeting (and subsequent story) is fictional, the poet is a real person, the first Latin American winner of a Nobel Prize in Literature. Oriol is relieved to have found someone who speaks her native tongue, but little does she know the unexpected gift she’ll be receiving from her new friend: learning the language of poetry. 

These lessons are for all of us. “There is no better home for emotions than a poem,” la poeta advises, “which can easily be transformed into a song” (27). The book is rich with simple yet profound expressions of love, loss, heartache, and wholeness. As we learn along with Oriol, poetry is the soul’s way of singing, whether that soul is human or animal. This lesson becomes more apparent as Oriol’s connection to the animals she cares for grows stronger and stronger, in particular her relationship with a pregnant elephant named Chandra whose rhythmic sways and sounds remind her of poetry.

Through her mentor’s gentle encouragement and guidance, Oriol’s writing blossoms–from using it as a source of healing to using it as a force for change. Bit by bit, she “no longer yearn[s]” for Cuba and Abuelita “every moment of every day” (106). And when a famous movie star takes special interest in Chandra, Oriol drafts “poetry-petition[s],” eventually organizing a protest against animal abuse (188). Fighting for her beloved elephants, Oriol finds a sense of belonging. 

Singing with Elephants is the kind of book readers will want to read again and again, catching the pieces of poetry missed from the previous read. An author’s note at the end details Cuban cultural traditions as well as Gabriela Mistral’s life. A list of further readings about and by the poet is also included.

  • Reviewed by Armineh Manookian
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Children’s Picture Book Review – Meet the Hamantaschen: A Purim Mystery

MEET THE HAMANTASCHEN:
A Purim Mystery

Written and illustrated by Alan Silberberg

(Viking BYR; $17.99, Ages 3-5)

 

Meet the Hamantaschen cover

 

 

This year Purim begins on the evening of March 16.

Just in time for the Jewish holiday, author and illustrator Alan Silberberg is back with Meet the Hamantaschen another funny companion picture book to his previous two holiday-themed hits, Meet the Matzah and Meet the Latkes.

It’s great to have a fresh take on Purim, the holiday that celebrates the cleverness and bravery of Queen Esther who, as the bride of powerful King Ahasuerus in a place called Shushan, hid that she was Jewish. When Haman, a trusted advisor of the king, and embodiment of evil, “…convinced the king that all of the Jewish people of Shushan should be eliminated,” Esther, aided by her uncle Mordecai, hatched a plan to save her people.

 

Meet the Hamantaschen int1
Interior art from Meet the Hamantaschen: A Purim Mystery written and illustrated by Alan Silberberg, Viking BYR ©2022.

 

Rather than simply reenact the story on stage, something that many synagogues do when members perform the Purim play or spiel, Silberberg’s introduced a trio of die-hard hamantaschen detectives to bring the story to life on the page. For those unfamiliar with hamantaschen, they are triangular-shaped, filled pastries resembling the three-cornered hat worn by bad guy Haman. The story unfolds in film noir-style with the detectives being summoned by a mysterious stranger. Their mission: find the missing megillah. The megillah, chanted during the Purim play, is known as The Book of Esther and recounts the story that is performed. Without it “… no Purim play!”

Silberberg’s humor shines when the detectives disguise themselves to interrogate the cast of the Purim play, their likely suspects. The cake, the cookbook and the cactus waste no time in getting down to business, with puns, alliteration, and general silliness. And though weeding out the culprit may seem like it’s serious stuff, seeing a bunch of hamantaschen seeking answers can only mean one thing for children. FUN!

 

Meet the Hamantaschen int2
Interior spread from Meet the Hamantaschen: A Purim Mystery written and illustrated by Alan Silberberg, Viking BYR ©2022.

 

As the investigation continues, the trio begins piecing Purim clues together, true and false allowing the play to go off without a hitch. But the missing megillah has still not materialized. Will it ever be found? Well, that’s one clue this mystery fan is not giving away.

 

Meet the Hamantaschen int3
Interior spread from Meet the Hamantaschen: A Purim Mystery written and illustrated by Alan Silberberg, Viking BYR ©2022.

 

Throughout the book, the artwork, drawn and painted digitally, is bold, whimsical, full of visual jokes, zany characters, and extra-large speech bubbles, all adding to the enjoyment of Meet the Hamantaschen. One of my favorite characters is Barry who plays the part of Haman. His mustache is perfect and reminds me of old-time villains. In the back matter there’s a Purim Glossary to help explain some terminology. A real positive about this picture book is that even children who are not Jewish will learn about Purim and get caught up in the excitement of the sleuthing. Best read with a side of hamantaschen and a grogger in hand!

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Five New Children’s Valentine’s Day Books for 2022

Five New Children’s Valentine’s Day Books

A Roundup

 

Check out what’s new and noteworthy this year for Valentine’s Day

 

Love from Madeline coverLOVE FROM MADELINE
Based on the character created by Ludwig Bemelmans
Written by John Bemelmans Marciano 
Illustrated by Steven Salerno
(Viking BYR; $8.99; Ages 0-3 yrs)

It would be difficult to find a person unfamiliar with the Madeline Media Franchise, so when I learned that a new picture book was available based on the daily adventures of Madeline the character created by Ludwig Bemelmans, it was a welcome stroll down memory lane.

This new mini-book (the first of five)  Love From Madeline takes the reader back to the Catholic boarding school where Madeline lives in Paris with her many friends and most notably her teacher, Miss Clavel. Salerno’s illustrations of the sole red-head playing around town, skiing in the snowcapped mountains, and sailing the waters, continue her adventures. But this time she teaches us the meaning of love.

We learn basic lessons that we often forget “Love is in the simple words: good morning and hello,” as Madeline and friends dressed in matching blue outfits with yellow hats wave to the doorman and the woman selling flowers. Each page turn teaches kids how love can be as simple as giving a hug to someone upset or giving someone a lift on their scooter. When the book ends, kids see that “love is always found at home”  when Miss Clavel turns out the lights of the blue-shaded room with six beds lined up on each side and tucks the kids in for the night. This story gently and sweetly introduces kids to the real meaning behind Valentine’s Day—love.  • Reviewed by Ronda Einbinder

 

What is Love coverWHAT IS LOVE?
Written by Mac Barnett
Illustrated by Carson Ellis
(Chronicle Kids; $17.99; Ages 3-5)

Starred Review – Shelf Awareness

I read What is Love? again and again and each time I got something new out of it. The water-colored art and heart-felt prose of this book are perfect to read on Valentine’s Day or any night as a bedtime story. It’s written by NYT bestselling author for children, Mac Barnett, the two-time Caldecott Honor winner. He teams up with illustrator and Caldecott Honor winner Carson Ellis, who is also an author and illustrator of bestselling picture books.

Ellis’s watercolor paintings of greens, pinks, and blues gloriously take the reader on an artistic adventure as the protagonist sets off on a journey into the world, suggested by his grandmother, to find the meaning of love. But he soon learns that love is different for everyone. He first meets a fisherman hugging a very large fish who smiles and says “Love is a fish” when asked what love is. The boy disagrees since he finds fish slimy and bad-tasting. “The fisherman sighed. You do not understand.”

The actor loves applause, the cat loves the night and the soldier loves his horse. The characters gather together in a beautiful spread showing, “A sports car, a donut, a lizard, a ring. The first snow of winter, a maple in summer. A grizzly bear, this pebble right here-these are all things people told me love is.”

Barnett returns the boy home taller and wiser to a grandmother who is older and still wise and asks “Did you answer your question?” Ellis closes the story with a loving embrace of the two smiling with a black background and butterflies flying nearby as the boy answers “Yes.”

This modern-day take on old-time classical picture books about love reminds us that love can be more than one thing and that we are all surrounded by it even on days when we feel like it’s lost.
• Reviewed by Ronda Einbinder

 

The House of Love coverTHE HOUSE OF LOVE
Written by Adriana Trigiani
Illustrated by Amy June Bates
(Viking BYR; $17.99, Ages 3-7)

With a lovely name like Mia Valentina Amore, which means My Valentine, Valentine’s Day is always an extra special one for the main character in The House of Love, a storybook from NYT’s bestselling adult author Adriana Trigiani with art from popular illustrator Amy June Bates.

Together with her Mama, Mia helps prepare the house for the holiday. Located in the Appalachian Mountains, the home is described as slightly run down with some broken window glass, faded wallpaper, creaky stairs but also a place that, when everyone was around, “… had rooms exploding with conversation, laughter, and sometimes even an argument.”

The youngest of seven children, Mia is concerned her siblings won’t be back in time for the Valentine’s Day party. But Mama takes Mia’s mind off things by keeping her busy crafting family Valentines, decorating, and baking. This delightful mother-daughter day is spent bonding and creating special memories that only they two share. At the day’s end, after the whole family has eaten and celebrated, Mia realizes that everyone has gotten a special Valentine except her, making her feel sad and forgotten. Little does she know that something special just for her awaits beneath her pillow. Bates’s beautiful art conveys charm and an old-world feeling, like peeking into the Walton’s home. This slice-of-life story reminds readers that a house and family may be far from perfect but when it’s filled with love, it’s THE BEST place to be.  •Reviewed by Ronna Mandel

 

Love Grows Everywhere coverLOVE GROWS EVERYWHERE
Written by Barry Timms
Illustrated by Tisha Lee
(Frances Lincoln Children’s Books; $17.99, Ages 4-7)

Here’s a rhyming picture book for Valentine’s Day, or any day really, that celebrates how special love is. Using plants as the inspiration, author Timms presents a lovely lyrical look at how the love that makes plants grow is the very same one that can nurture many different kinds of relationships in our lives.

Yes, thought and care are all love needs/to help it grow, like tiny seeds,/that might seem nothing much at first/till up into the light they burst.

This is such a beautiful sentiment and one that children will easily understand especially the spreads devoted to making friends. Love is about helping those in need, it’s about being there for those close to us and making time for new people too.  Lee, in her picture book debut, has created rich art with diverse characters that is a delight to see page after page in various scenes. The illustrations exude the same warmth the plants do making it feel like spring is just around the corner. What an uplifting read to share this Valentine’s Day!  • Reviewed by Ronna Mandel

Slug in Love coverSLUG IN LOVE 
Written by Rachel Bright
Illustrated by Nadia Shireen
(Paula Wiseman Books; $17.99, Ages 4-8)

This new picture book cracked me up. Between its sweet surprise near the end and the inviting rhyme that is just perfect for beginning readers, Slug in Love is a terrific book to read aloud this Valentine’s Day.

Illustrator Shireen has added to Bright’s bouncy rhythm with bold colors and geometric-shaped animals that pop off the page and might be fun for kids to try drawing themselves.

The thing is that Doug, the slug, is a huggy sort of guy, but not everyone he encounters agrees. No one is eager to embrace this little slug.  After looking for love from spiders, caterpillars, and other assorted creatures, Doug thinks he’s found the squelchy, slimy, yucky, sticky love he’s after, only he’s wrong. Is he destined to be alone? What’s a slug supposed to do? Well, as it happens, love comes to Doug in a most unexpected way. And that, it turns out, has made his search and this picture book worthwhile.  • Reviewed by Ronna Mandel

 

NOTE: I was hoping to have a review copy of Love in The Library before this post went live so I could share this true love story set in a Japanese-American internment camp during WWII. But when I went to schedule this, it sadly had not arrived. I hope you will add this picture book to your reading list

 

Additional Recommendations:

Peekaboo Love coverPEEKABOO: LOVE
Written by Camilla Reid

illustrated by Ingela P. Arrhenius
(Candlewick Press; $9.99, Ages 0-2)

The latest interactive board book in the Peekaboo You series, Peekaboo: Love is packed with things to “push, pull, or turn on every spread,” sure to entertain your little strawberries.

MY HEART GROWS
Written by Jeffrey Burton
Illustrated by Joanne Liu
(Little Simon; $8.99, Ages 1-5)

A clever novelty board book, My Heart Grows features a die-cut heart that grows along with the love the parents in this story feel. Seeing a child experience new things fills the hearts of the parents and grandparents depicted in this story. The child-like art is vibrant and adorable making this a great Valentine’s Day gift for someone special in your life.

 

Further Valentine’s Day Reading:

I Love You Because I Love You
Written by Muon Thi Van 
Illustrated by Jessica Love

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An Interview with Animals Go Vroom! Author-Illustrator Abi Cushman

 

 

 

AN INTERVIEW WITH

ABI CUSHMAN

AUTHOR/ILLUSTRATOR OF

ANIMALS GO VROOM!

(Viking Children’s Books; $17.99, Ages 2 to 5)

 

 

Animals Go Vroom cover

 

 

SHORT SUMMARY:

Animals Go Vroom!

Written and illustrated by Abi Cushman

With a nod to Richard Scarry, this inventive picture book surprises readers with every turn of the page!

Hiss! Screech! Roar! It’s a noisy day in Bumperville! But are the sounds what you think they are? That Honk! must surely be a goose. But turn the page and it’s the taxi that a goose is driving! Using cleverly placed die-cuts, this inventive book hints at what is making the sound, but with each turn of the page, it’s an eye-opening surprise and part of an unfolding story that is part guessing game and part giggle-inducing caper. Abi Cushman is the master of surprise and silliness in this absolutely delightful picture book.

 

INTERVIEW:

Colleen Paeff: Happy book birthday and congratulations on the release of your second picture book, Animals Go Vroom! Kids are going to love all the unexpected surprises in this book. The way you use die-cuts is so clever. Were they a key element of the story from the start or did they evolve over time?

Abi Cushman: Thank you, Colleen! I am so thrilled to be here. And congratulations to YOU on your wonderful upcoming debut picture book, The Great Stink: How Joseph Bazalgette Solved London’s Poop Pollution Problem. It is so wonderfully told, and the illustrations by Nancy Carpenter are fantastic.

CP: Thank you! I love Nancy’s illustrations, too!

AC: To answer your question, yes! I always envisioned die-cuts in the book. My initial thought was about how animal sounds and vehicle sounds sometimes overlap. And so I wanted the book to be a guessing game where readers had to guess who or what was making the sound.

 

IMG 8778-scaled

 

 

Die-cut windows are a wonderful device for guessing game type books because they give a little peek at the next spread, and then the page turn offers the reveal. 

 

 

IMG 8781-2-scaled

 

 

CP: I love the way even the background characters in Animals Go Vroom! have their own stories that play out over the course of the book. That must have been so much fun to illustrate! Can you tell me about coming up with those stories?

AC: Some of the background characters are inspired by family members. The sloth using the walker is based off of my grandmother who would cover great distances at the mall using her walker. She had a cap she’d wear whenever she’d go out. The two bunnies in the background of the bus scene are a tribute to my two house rabbits, Cosette and Coco. 

 

IMG 8886

 

 

And then I chose other background characters based on the sounds they make. The artist sea lion shouts out, “Art? Art?” and the baby crow points out the car by calling out, “Cah! Cah!”. The baby crow is actually also based on my son who would do the same thing every time he saw a car when he was younger. 

 

CP: How fun! I can’t believe I didn’t pick up on those sounds! And for more fun, outside of the book, I noticed that you have an Animals Go Vroom! memory game on your website. (It took me 46 seconds and 13 moves to solve it.) How did you come up with that idea and did you create it yourself? If so, how did you develop such impressive skills?!

AC: I have been a web designer/developer for over 15 years, so that coding experience definitely has benefits. Although I don’t specialize in making online games, I was able to find some open source code for a memory game, and then I tweaked it to work on my website and to use the images I created for all the cards. I actually had intended to make a memory game for my first book, Soaked!, but I didn’t have enough time. But Animals Go Vroom! actually worked even better for this sort of game because there is a large cast of characters to choose from.

 

CP: It definitely seems perfect for a game like that. You dedicated this book to your mom “who really loves snakes.” Is that true? Did you have pet snakes in the house when you were growing up?

AC: I showed this illustration:

 

IMG 8885

 

to my brother over a family Zoom so he could see how I made his headphone-wearing daughter into a character in the book, and my mom blurted out, “Oh no! Gross!” And we were all kind of laughing because although we all know she does NOT care for snakes or worms, we thought a cartoony-looking snake drawing might be ok. 

I didn’t set out to make a book that largely featured snakes, but that’s where the story took me since they make that wonderful hissing sound. I thought, “How can I make it so that my mom HAS to read this book with a bunch of snakes?” And so I dedicated it to her, and she did say recently that the illustration of the kid snake on the dedication was okay. 🙂 

 

dedicationsnake

 

And so to answer your second question, NO. There was absolutely no chance of us having pet snakes when I was growing up.

 

CP: Hahaha! I love that your family shows up in so many different ways in this book. Did you base any other characters on people you know? 

AC: Oh yes. I mentioned earlier that the baby crow is my car-loving son, and the kid snake is based on my niece who wore headphones the entire time we were on a family vacation one time. The mama snake is me. Actually the bear in Soaked! is also me. I guess I follow that advice, “Write what you know.” since I apparently just put myself in all my books.

 

CP: For StoryStorm 2020 you advised people to keep an ugly sketchbook and said the practice freed you up to do the drawings that inspired your debut picture book Soaked! (Viking Children’s Books, 2020). Is there any correlation between the vengeful sketchbook chipmunk at the end of that post and the chipmunk car salesman in Animals Go Vroom? And did any other ugly sketchbook characters make it into this second book? 

AC: Hahaha maybe this is the vengeful chipmunk’s origin story. A car salesmunk who becomes disillusioned with life after getting bonked in the head with a flat tire just hours after making his first sale. 

chipmunk-tire

 

But yes, the whole concept of the book came about from this Ugly Sketchbook character: a sea lion flying a jet going RAWRR! 

 

rawrr

 

This specific character didn’t end up in the final book, but another sea lion made it into the story as an artist just trying to share their beautiful art with everyone.

 

IMG 8884-1

 

CP: I loved the sea lion’s paintings! And I loved the otter taxi passenger, too. I happen to know that he is a published author. I read his research project Funny AND Female and noticed that he didn’t ask YOU to talk about being a funny woman in kidlit. (He’s got some nerve!) So, talk to me about being funny. Where do you find inspiration for your humor? Do you have any tried and true tricks to bring humor to a scene? 

AC: I find inspiration everywhere- TV, movies, books, my family. Unexpected random or absurd things are often very funny. So I like playing around with creating a pattern and then disrupting it with something ridiculous. Being specific helps create that absurd moment. For example, in Soaked!, I create a pattern in the first spread. “Not that badger. Not that bunny.” and then I disrupt it with something specific and out-of-place. “Not that hula-hooping moose.” 

 

Moose Soaked TX 1 Page 04

 

When I was thinking about a passenger for the taxi in Animals Go Vroom!, it was tough because really, it could be ANYONE in the backseat. So I made it fun by thinking of someone who would look glorious with a monocle (an otter, of course), and then I thought it would be pretty ridiculous if in every scene he was eating a different meal and was totally oblivious to the traffic jam. I started with tea because that would be a great contrast to the goose who was having a fit about being stuck behind the bus. And then the next spread, the otter is eating a filet of fish on a plate with a fork and knife. How did he get this fancy meal? Where did he get the utensils? In the next scene, he has an ice cream cone. Did he have the ice cream in the taxi the entire time? Why didn’t it melt? Does he have a freezer in there? I like creating scenes where the reader does a double-take and thinks, “Wait a minute- WHAT?? What’s going on there?” It’s a treat for the curious kid who takes a closer look at the pictures and sees that secondary storyline happening in the background. 

 

spreads_promo_goose_web

 

CP: You teach a couple of classes at Storyteller Academy. What do you enjoy most about teaching other picture book creators?

AC: Most people enrolled at Storyteller Academy have committed to making a real go at improving their craft. So it is incredibly satisfying to see them put in the work every week and make huge gains in their stories. I really believe that if you put in the work- which is to read and analyze current picture books, think about a compelling concept or character, and then just keep plugging away, that you can become a published author. But a lot of people give up. So it is wonderful to see the dedication from Storyteller Academy students. And I can’t wait to see the manuscripts I’ve critiqued become published books in a couple of years.  

 

CP: That’s definitely something to look forward to. Speaking of craft, what are three tools of the illustrator’s craft that you wouldn’t want to be without?

AC: 1. My Bic mechanical pencil. I use a mechanical pencil to draw all the characters in my                     books. I like that the pencil always stays sharp.

  1. My Wacom Cintiq tablet. I color all my illustrations digitally using Photoshop and my tablet. I like to apply the color this way because it is easy to correct mistakes, experiment with color, and keep the color palette consistent across spreads. I can also zoom in to apply details.
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  2. Google image search. Even though my books feature anthropomorphic animals, I still use a lot of reference photos. When thinking about a mouse riding a unicycle, I’ll look at photos of mice to imagine what one would look like sitting upright on a seat. How would its leg look while pedaling? Then I’ll look at photos of unicycles. How can I modify this unicycle if the rider had short (mouse) legs? And now what would it look like if that mouse was not only riding a unicycle but also holding a large cupcake? I have to use my imagination, but I still try to base parts of it on real-life so the illustration looks plausible.

 

mouse-stickers

 

CP: That’s fascinating. So, when you’re working on a story, do the pictures usually come first or is it the words? Do you find one is easier than the other?

AC: I usually think of a very general concept first. For Soaked!, I thought about how when you’re stuck in the rain, it actually becomes pleasant after you become thoroughly soaked. The idea of changing your perspective despite the situation staying the same was intriguing to me. Then for a couple months after that, I kept drawing a bedraggled soggy bear looking very disgruntled in the rain. But the whole thing flew together once I thought of the voice of Bear, the main character. The voice drove the story and the words came pouring out.

For Animals Go Vroom!, I again thought of the concept first: sounds that both animals and vehicles make. After brainstorming sounds and animals, I started to see a chain of events forming, so I made a book dummy to see how it would all work with the die-cuts. I started with a small dummy and gradually increased the size with each revision. From there, I was able to draw in a lot more details as it got closer to its final size, and secondary storylines started forming through the illustrations.

When I’m working on a story, I often see images in my head, and I’ll quickly jot them down as very ugly doodles. I’ll also write down little snippets of text. So in terms of what’s easier for me, I think it’s easy for me to picture little moments in a story. But what is hard is actually rendering those imagined scenes and characters properly in the final art. It’s tough to match the idealized images in my head. Plus, doing the final art is so labor-intensive, and there’s also a deadline. But that being said, it is AMAZING when the art director shows you a PDF of the book with the text properly typeset over the full-color art. It makes all those long hours worth it.

 

CP: I bet! What’s next for you?

AC: I have an unannounced picture book in the works that I’m very excited about. It’s an informational picture book that I would have LOVED as a kid. It’s a book where hopefully kids will be laughing and learning at the same time. 

CP: That sounds wonderful, Abi. Thanks for taking the time to chat with me. And congratulations, again, on your terrific new book!

All artwork and photos courtesy of Abi Cushman.

 

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

BRIEF BIO: 

Abi Cushman is the author-illustrator of Soaked! (Viking, 2020) and Animals Go Vroom! (Viking, 2021). She has also worked as a web designer for over 15 years, creating websites for libraries, towns, and local businesses. She runs two popular websites of her own: My House Rabbit, a pet rabbit care resource, and Animal Fact Guide, which was named a Great Website for Kids by the American Library Association. In her spare time, Abi enjoys running, playing tennis, and eating nachos. (Yes, at the same time.) She lives on the Connecticut shoreline with her husband and two kids.

 

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TO PURCHASE ABI’S BOOK CLICK
HERE

LINKS:

Website: abicushman.com

Newsletter: http://eepurl.com/dCUjeH

Twitter: @AbiCushman

Instagram: @abi.cushman

Facebook: @AbiCushmanArt

 

FOR MORE ON ABI CUSHMAN:

Animals Go Vroom Origin Story at SLJ’s Fuse 8

Author/Illustrator Spotlight at KidLit411

Picture Book Look Podcast A Conversation with Abi Cushman, Editor Tracy Gates, and Art Director Jim Hoover

 

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.

 

BLOG TOUR DATES

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New Passover Picture Books for Kids 2021

 

NEW PASSOVER PICTURE BOOKS

FOR KIDS

 

 

What I love about Passover is the tradition, the same old same old I know and love. It’s comforting as well as delicious. And, since Seder, the meal we enjoy, means “order” in Hebrew, we repeat the same rituals Jewish people have done for centuries to feel a connection to the past. Here are a few new Passover picture books plus a link to a fourth (an interview) to share with your children this year and for years to come.

 

Meet the Matzah cvr Passover Picture_BooksMEET THE MATZAH
Written and illustrated by Alan Silberberg
(Viking BYR; $17.99, Ages 3-5)

Fans of Meet the Latkes, get ready for a wild and whimsical ride! This follow-up picture book promises to bring smiles to young readers with its tale of Alfie Koman, a piece of matzah known to hide, who needs to unmuddle the sourdough bully Loaf’s version of the Passover Story. Who enslaved the Hebrews according to Loaf? Pha-roach! With the help of his braided bff, Challa Looyah, Alfie must emerge from undercover to set the record straight. The hilarious artwork is what I’d call the butter on the matzah. It just doesn’t get funnier than this! Don’t miss the adorable book trailer here.

 

MATAZH CRAZE
Written by Jamie Kiffel-Alcheh
Illustrated by Lauren Gallegos
(Kar-Ben Publishing; $17.99 HC, $7.99 PB, Ages 4-9)

Matzah Craze is a great introduction to matzah and its history for anyone who is unfamiliar with it and the tradition of not eating bread during Passover.

This fast-paced rhyming read opens at lunchtime when everyone in the school cafeteria swaps food except for Noa. You’ll want to slow down to enjoy the Gallegos’s lively art and diverse student body. On this day Noa’s got food in her lunch bag no one recognizes and she doesn’t have enough to share. “All week long, I don’t eat bread. Matzah’s what I eat instead,” she tells her friends.

She then explains how the Jews fled Pharaoh’s oppression with no time in the rush to escape for bread to rise. As her friends walk away, Noa wonders. “Is there more that she could do? Let them taste Passover too?” When she brings in enough matzah to share with her friends the following day, with an assortment of toppings, its popularity causes a matzah craze.

Eating matzah is always a fun part of the holiday. I’m a big fan of chocolate-covered matzah as well as matzah spread with haroset. This food made with fruit and nuts symbolizes the mortar used by slaves in Egypt. I hope anyone reading Matzah Craze will experiment with all the delicious ways to enjoy matzah just like Noa’s friends. There’s also a note in the back matter explaining a bit more about the Passover holiday. Families and teachers will find this picture book helpful to discuss sharing, introducing a new food and its cultural and religious importance to those unfamiliar with it, as well as an enjoyable holiday read-aloud.

 

THE GREAT PASSOVER ESCAPE
Written by Pamela Moritz
Illustrated by Florence Weiser
(Kar-Ben Publishing; $17.99 HC, $7.99 PB, Ages 4-9)

Whenever my husband and I went on vacation we always took the kids to a zoo so I was happy to be introduced to the Tisch Family Zoological Gardens in Jerusalem, aka the Jerusalem Biblical Zoo where this story unfolds.

Ellie the beautiful purple elephant would like to find a family to celebrate the first night of Passover with and she can count on her friend, Kang, the Kangaroo, to join her. Chimp, on the other hand, is not keen on this risky adventure and would prefer to sleep.

Every time Ellie or Kang discuss the seder they’d like to attend, they get all the words wrong and Chimp is quick to correct them which is something children will enjoy. Ellie calls the Haggadah a coloring book. Kang calls it a notebook until Chimp sets them straight. The eager pair plan their escape for the following evening. It seems Zookeeper Shmulik, who cleans Ellie’s habitat, has told her all about Passover and one part especially appeals to her, “Let all who are hungry come and eat.”

Naturally to escape the pals will need the help and agility of Chimp who is pretty easy to convince. Once out of the confines of the zoo, Ellie, Kang, and Chimp stroll through the neighborhood in search of a seder. When eventually the animals peek in a well-lit window, they see a beautifully set table and are surprised to discover who the welcoming host is.

I admire Weiser’s atmospheric artwork with people in shadow at nighttime, as well as her lovely color palette perfect for Israel’s warm climate. There’s a fun, retro look to the illustrations that add to the playfulness of Moritz’s story.

I had a smile on my face while reading this entertaining book because it was not only such a sweet animal tale, but it was gently educational without hitting readers over the head. While it does help to have some understanding of the Jewish holiday Passover, readers will still learn about certain Passover words like seder, the traditional meal, some of the foods on the seder plate such as haroset and maror, and what they symbolize as well as the story of how Passover came to be. Back matter goes into more detail about the Passover holiday and also includes photos of the real Jerusalem Biblical Zoo.

 

Don’t miss Ronna’s interview below with debut picture book author Susan Kusel about her soon-to-be classic, The Passover Guest.

 

The Passover Guest – An Interview with Author Susan Kusel (goodreadswithronna.com)

 

 

 

 

 

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New Halloween Books for Kids 2020

NEW HALLOWEEN READS

A ROUNDUP

 

pumpkin freeclipart

 

 

This seven-book roundup covers wickedly wonderful Halloween season reads. From a gentle book about the fall season to spooky ghouls, goblin-witches, ghosts, vampires, a witch’s hut, and a haunted house, we’ve got you covered.

 

The Little Kitten coverTHE LITTLE KITTEN
Written and illustrated by Nicola Killen

(Paula Wiseman Books; $16.99, Ages 3-6)

Starred Review – Kirkus

With whimsical art in blacks, whites, and grays offset with oranges and foil accents, The Little Kitten embodies the spirit of autumn. Leaves blow across the pages, bringing movement that propels Ollie on her adventure. As promised by the title, there is a little kitten, but also Ollie’s cat, Pumpkin. Nicola Killen’s art and storyline

beautifully convey the playful, loving spirit of this book. It’s a pleasure to see a gentle story that’s engaging and fulfilling—it even has a surprise ending, shh!

She Wanted to be Haunted cvrSHE WANTED TO BE HAUNTED
Written by Marcus Ewert
Illustrated by Susie Ghahremani

(Bloomsbury; $17.99, Ages 4-8)

I’m a sucker for a great book title and just had to read Marcus Ewert’s She Wanted to Be Haunted—plus, what a great idea! As promised, Clarissa, an “adorable and pink” cottage finds herself disappointed with her appearance. Her father is a castle and her mother a witch’s hut, but Clarissa got the short end of the broomstick with her undeniable cuteness. “Daisies grew around her, / squirrels scampered on her lawn. / Life was just delightful! / —and it made Clarissa yawn.”

What kid hasn’t felt bored when things were mellow and nice? Susie Ghahremani’s hand-painted artwork brings Clarissa to life in (dreaded!) upbeat colors. Inside, on Clarissa’s fuchsia, wallpapered walls, we sneak a peek at her family’s photos and, yes, she’s surely the oddball of the bunch. My favorite scenes involve the surprise ending. If you want to know if Clarissa’s attempts to gloom-down her appearance work, you’ll have to read the book. Trust me, the ending is awesome! Click here for a coloring page.

Scritch Scratch coverSCRITCH SCRATCH
Written by Lindsay Currie
(Sourcebooks; $16.99, Ages 9-12)

Scritch Scratch—the title of this middle-grade novel by Lindsay Currie will get under your skin as all good spooky books should. Because, of course, this sound is made by the ghost haunting Claire. Prior to this, science-minded Claire absolutely did not believe in ghosts and found her Dad’s ghost-themed bus tour and book embarrassing. So why did this ghost choose her? Claire’s too afraid to sleep and should have plenty of time to solve this mystery. However, since her BFF’s hanging around with the new girl, Claire may need to figure it out alone.

I’ve never been on a haunted bus tour, but, after reading this book I want to if they’re all as interesting as the one in this story. “Forgotten” facts about Chicago are cleverly woven in—what a great way to sneak in a history lesson! Click here for a discussion guide.

Embassy of the Dead cvrEMBASSY OF THE DEAD
Written by Will Mabbitt

Illustrated by Taryn Knight
(Walker Books US; $16.99, Ages 8-12)

This book opens with a warning from the Embassy that “[b]y signing, you hereby accept all responsibility for any death, dismemberment, or condemnation to the Eternal Void that results from reading.” How irresistible! When Jake Green receives a kind of creepy package in error, a fun adventure ensues dodging bonewulfs and their master Mawkins (a grim reaper). Accompanied by ghosts Stiffkey, Cora, and, an adorable fox named Zorro, the unlikely group tries to avoid being sent into the Eternal Void—a fate worse than death.

Will Mabbitt’s well-developed characters are very likable and Taryn Knight’s art plays up the humor. I appreciate the Embassy of the Dead’s new ideas about ghosts and their companions such as Undoers (someone who helps a ghost trapped on the Earthly Plane move on to the Afterworld). Mabbitt nails a perfectly written ending. I’ll gladly follow Jake and his friends onto the next book in the series. Click here to read a sample chapter.

Ghostology coverGHOSTOLOGY: A True Revelation of Spirits, Ghouls, and Hauntings
Written by Dugald A. Steer; Lucinda Curtle
Illustrated by Anne Yvonne Gilbert; Garry Walton; Doug Sirois
(Candlewick Press; $27.99, Ages 10+)

Fans of the beautifully made Ologies series won’t be disappointed in the latest addition, Ghostology. Packed full of stories, this book will keep you haunting its pages because there’s so much information from psychics and mediums, to fakes and frauds. Want to know what’s in a ghostologist’s field kit (sketchbook, accurate timepiece, and, of course, a ghost-detecting device, just to name a few items), or how to hunt ghosts? You’ve come to the right place. Pay attention to the “Types of Ghosts” chapters.

Beyond reading, the book is a sensory experience with its sealed pages, official documents envelope, flaps, and textures. If there’s such a thing as a coffee table kid’s book, this is it. The icy blue color scheme of the cover is offset by a large faceted red “gem.” Raised letters just beg you to run your hand over them and invite you to look inside. The thought and detail in this book are phantom-astic!

beetleandthehollowbone cvrBEETLE & THE HOLLOWBONES
Written and illustrated by Aliza Layne
Coloring by Natalie Riess and Kristen Acampora
(Atheneum BYR; $21.99, Ages 8-12)

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

In Aliza Layne’s middle-grade graphic novel, Beetle & the Hollowbones, Beetle is a twelve-year-old goblin-witch being homeschooled by her gran. Beetle, however, would rather hang out with her current BFF Blob Ghost at the old mall (where they are inexplicably trapped). When Beetle’s previous BFF, Kat Hollowbones, returns home after completing her sorcery apprenticeship at a fast-track school, their friendship isn’t the same. Kat’s aunt Marla is the wonderfully drawn skeletal antagonist.

With well-developed characters and plenty of action, this fast-paced book will bewitch you. The struggles of moving through school and friendships falling apart are accurately depicted. The panels, grouped into chapters, capture your attention with their fantastic illustrations, engaging colors, and lively text. I like how Layne includes some concept art at the end, inspiring other artists with a behind-the-scenes peek.

vampiresnevergetold cvrVAMPIRES NEVER GET OLD: Tales With Fresh Bite
Editrixes: Zoraida Córdova and Natalie C. Parker
Other authors include Tessa Gratton, Rebecca Roanhorse, Julie Murphy, Heidi Heilig, Samira Ahmed, Kayla Whaley, Laura Ruby, Mark Oshiro, Dhonielle Clayton, and Victoria “V.E.” Schwab
(Imprint/Macmillan; $17.99, Ages 12 and up)

Starred Review – Publishers Weekly

Vampires Never Get Old: Tales with Fresh Bite is a YA short story anthology with the goal to “expand on and reinvent traditional tellings.” How awesome is that?? Editrixes Zoraida Córdova and Natalie C. Porter’s story, “Vampires Never Say Die,” is a suspenseful, modern tale about a teen and vampire who meet online. They also provide the introduction and insightful commentary after each piece, delving into the many areas of the vampire myth. There are so many wonderful things in this collection; I’ll give you a few nibbles to whet your appetite.

“Bestiary” by Laura Ruby is set in a near dystopian future; Jude works at the zoo and has a special connection with animals. This story stood out for me because the reader must piece together the truth. It’s quite a different twist on thirst and the theft of blood and humanity.

“Seven Nights for Dying” by Tessa Gratton opens with the line, “Esmael told me that teenage girls make the best vampires” (because they’re “both highly pissed and highly adaptable, and that’s what it takes to survive the centuries”). We follow Esmael’s chosen girl through a week of uncertainty as she considers joining the undead. This cleverly layered story demands to be reread to truly appreciate Gratton’s well-crafted words.

Weaving in old superstitions, “The Boy and the Bell” by Heidi Heilig expands upon the Victorian tradition of burying their loved ones with a bell (allowing them to call for help if mistakenly buried alive). Set at the turn of the century, Will is a graverobber for all the right reasons—he wants to become a doctor, and “acquiring” freshly buried bodies allows him to trade for a spot at the back of the amphitheater where dissections take place. With only a few glimpses at Will’s thoughts, we find out volumes about his struggles.

This anthology breathes life into the short story and lets readers appreciate the many perspectives and styles from a very talented array of writers. My favorites tend to have unexpected endings. There’s something for everyone. Just read it already!

 

  •  ADDITIONAL RECOMMENDED READS FROM RONNA
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    IT’S HALLOWEEN, LITTLE MONSTERIts Halloween Little Monster cvr

    Written by Helen Ketteman
    Illustrated by Bonnie Leick
    (Two Lions; $17.99, Ages 3-7)
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    When I began reading It’s Halloween, Little Monster, one of the Little Monster series of picture books, I thought I was reading about the first time I took my son out trick-or-treating 15 years ago. All he had to do was see one or two kids in scary costumes and he hightailed it home before anyone could say boo! I’m so glad Helen Ketteman wrote this picture book because I’m sure it’s going to help make the first Halloween experience for reluctant little ones a lot easier.

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    In this gentle rhyming story, Little Monster heads out for Halloween accompanied by his dad. The reassuring presence of a parent sets the tone. Dad will be right there to calm Little Monster’s fears no matter who or what they encounter. “Don’t fret Little Monster. / See there in the street? / That’s not really a ghost / it’s a kid in a sheet!”
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    Together the pair see all kinds of spooky creatures while trick-or-treating, but the dad anticipates what might frighten his child and is always one step ahead. I like how the papa monster not only comments on assorted pirates, witches, and vampires but scary sounds, too. Leick’s muted blue and purple toned palette of the detailed illustrations will only add to the enjoyment of this charming Halloween read. It’s an enjoyable pairing of prose and art. By the time the surprise ending happens, Little Monster’s smiling just like the children having this story read to them.
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  •  OTHER RECOMMENDED HALLOWEEN SEASON READS:
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    CHRISTOPHER PUMPKIN by Sue Hendra and Paul Linnet with art by Nick East
    (Board Book for Ages 0-3, Little Brown BYR)
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    THAT MONSTER ON THE BLOCK by Sue Ganz-Schmitt with art by Luke Flowers
    (Picture Book Ages 4-8, Two Lions)
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    THE REVENGE OF THE WEREPENGUIN by Allan Woodrow with art by Scott Brown
    (Middle Grade illustrated novel for Ages 8-12, Viking BYR)
  • Disclosure: Good Reads With Ronna is now a Bookshop.org affiliate and will make a small commission from the books sold via this site at no extra cost to you. If you’d like to help support this blog, its team of kidlit reviewers as well as independent bookshops nationwide, please consider purchasing your books from Bookshop.org using our affiliate links above (or below). Thanks!
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    Recommended Reads for the Week of 10/26/20

 

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Five New Halloween Books for Kids – A Roundup Part 2

BEST NEW KIDS BOOKS FOR HALLOWEEN

∼ A ROUNDUP ∼

PART 2

 

 

 

Beneath the Bed coverMISTER SHIVERS: BENEATH THE BED AND OTHER SCARY STORIES
Written by Max Brallier
Illustrated by Letizia Rubegni
(Acorn/Scholastic; $4.99, Ages 5-7)

Acorn books, designed for early readers, brings five scary stories to children in this Mister Shivers series. Beneath the Bed and Other Scary Stories has 64 pages packed with full-color artwork while some other Acorn books have 48 pages. Either way, there’s something for every new reader seeking “relatable characters and experiences” written and illustrated by some of the best known names in children’s literature.

Beneath the Bed and Other Scary Stories opens with a letter from Mister Shivers about a mysterious box delivered to him in which he found items pertaining to each story and a promise to share the stories in the book. Like all the stories in this book, evocative, muted illustrations help reinforce the easy-to-read text of these fast paced short stories. That’s certainly the case in “Beneath the Bed” about a boy dared by kids at school to visit the local haunted house. Upon entering the house with his sister who he brought along for courage, the pair discover a sinister doll with glowing eyes under a bed in the attic bedroom.

“A Hair Down to My Stomach” as the title implies, is equal parts gross and unsettling, with just the type of visuals accompanying it to make it succeed. “The Statue” will have kids talking back to the book as they turn the pages and tell the mom in the story as her son tries to do, “Don’t buy the statue!” Of course, she does. What follows is the reason why Mr. Shivers’ mysterious box contained a piece of quilty. He never mentioned if it was smelly like the quilt in “The Statue.” All I know is the young boy should have listened to the statue’s owner when she warned the buyers not to remove the quilt. The same goes for Oliver in “A Dark and Stormy Night” who should have done as his parents’ wished and brought his toys inside. Instead, they were left out in the rain to be ruined by the elements. Toys don’t like being forgotten and seek their revenge when that happens. Poor Oliver! And as for the scraping sound in “The Noise at the Window,” I know this well. Only I’ve been fortunate to find a tree outside where I heard the clawing coming from a branch. The little girl in this tale wasn’t so fortunate!

Okay spine, start tingling because these five stories are guaranteed to make you keep the lights on.

The Okay Witch book coverTHE OKAY WITCH
Written and illustrated by Emma Steinkellner
(Aladdin; $12.99, Ages 8-12)

Get ready to be caught under the spell of Emma Steinkellner’s The Okay Witch, a terrific debut middle grade graphic novel.

Tween readers will be charmed by the main character Moth Hush, who at 13 learns she is part witch with special powers, something she had only dreamed of up until that point. Living above her single mom Calendula’s second hand store, Moth has never felt the warm and fuzzies from her classmates in her Massachusetts hometown of Founder’s Bluff nor in the community at large. She soon learns there’s a good reason why and goes exploring back in time via her mother’s diary.

In 1692 a group of women suspected of being witches, her grandmother Sarah being one of them, was run out of town. They were indeed witches but good ones and many townspeople secretly went to them to avail of magic to help them. When ousted, Sarah led the women to a timeless land she created called Hecate, but Calendula refused to live there. She returned to Founder’s Bluff to live a normal non-witch life for herself having fallen in love with a human. Sadly, Sarah cast a spell to make this man have no memory of Calendula. Pregnant, the brokenhearted, Calendula raised Moth alone with no magic.

In school Moth befriends another fish-out-of-water named Charlie who is new to Founder’s Bluff. Little does Moth know that there’s a connection between her family and Charlie’s that could test their friendship. I got a kick out of the magical cat, Mr. Laszlo, the spirit of Keeper’s Secondhand Store who had taken Calendula in and, when he passed away, left the store to her. The talking feline’s speech is peppered with Yiddish and in my head I heard Billy Crystal doing the dialogue.

Steinkellner must have had such fun writing and illustrating this story which reads quickly and nicely ties all the loose threads together at the end. The artwork wonderfully and convincingly conveys the moments when Moth experiences the power of magic. I especially liked the historical scenes and when Moth visits Hecate, but to be honest, all the illustrations brought the story alive. The novel is filled with humor, sarcasm, action, fantasy, pride and most of all, love as evidenced by Moth’s efforts to navigate the magical world of her grandmother and the real world in which Calendula has chosen to raise her. She’s new to the witch world and she’s far from perfect, making her The Okay Witch we care about and want to see happy and at home with her mom.

Graphic novel fans will quickly be swept up into Moth’s witchy world of time travel, timelessness, tween curiosity and relationships as Moth tries to learn more about herself. Will the way in which her family’s life intersects with that of Founder’s Bluff  be a reason to stay or retreat to Hecate? The fun’s in the finding out in this enchanting, recommended read that’s definitely not just for Halloween.

Ghoulia and the Mysterious Vistor cvrGHOULIA AND THE MYSTERIOUS VISITOR (Book #2)
Written and illustrated by Barbara Cantini
Translated from Italian by Anna Golding
(Amulet Books; $9.99, Ages 6-8)

You don’t need to have read Book#1 in order to enjoy Ghoulia and the Mysterious Visitor (Book #2), a chapter book series about a friendly zombie called Ghoulia and the dead and not-so-dead inhabitants of Crumbling Manor. Billed as Clue meets Little Shop of Horrors, this full-color illustrated book is sure to get young readers in a Halloween mood.

The story opens with Ghoulia feeling bored. When cranky cousin Dilbert arrives unexpectedly, Ghoulia looks for her Auntie Departed to explain why this relative she’d never even heard of got invited to Crumbling Manor. But her Chatterbox-Ivy-obsessed aunt is nowhere to be found. Ghoulia thinks it’s odd when more friends turn up, each with an invitation to a surprise dinner the young vampire knows nothing about.

As Ghoulia and her pals search Crumbling Manor for Auntie Departed, a friend Theresa also goes missing. Something weird is happening so the remaining guests split up to find those who’ve disappeared while trying to help Ghoulia figure out who sent the invitations.

This delightful chapter book will hook confident young readers ages 6 to 8 who still love beautifully illustrated stories that aren’t scary yet have an air of mystery about them. I’m not sure kids will recognize famous individuals such as Hitchcock and Poe in framed pictures on Crumbling Manor’s walls, but they’re certainly a treat for adult readers. In fact every illustration is a treat and worthy of a thorough scanning to see what special things Cantini has hung up on the walls or placed in each room. Her prose and pictures provide the perfect foreshadowing for kids quick to pick up clues. At the end there are bonus activities including how to write an invitation and fill out an envelope, how to start a garden and how to make Dilbert’s special pumpkin juice (minus the spiders’ eggs)! Watch out for Ghoulia and the Ghost With No Name (Book #3) coming soon!

THE CURSE OF THE WERE PENGUIN
Written by Allan Woodrow
Illustrated by Scott Brown
(Viking BYR; $17.99, Ages 8-12)

Described by Chris Grabenstein, #1 New York Times bestselling author, as “Young Frankenstein meets The Princess Bride in the most hysterically hilarious book I’ve read in years,” and I could not agree more. I smiled my whole way through The Curse of the Werepenguin, a clever, funny and original story within a story. I read it over two days and could not wait to see how author Allan Woodrow would end it. As I suspected, it’s TO BE CONTINUED so now I have to find out where he takes this wild and feathery tale of an orphan boy named Bolt.

Meet Humboldt Wattle (aka Bolt), a twelve-year-old boy abandoned as a baby at The Oak Wilt Home for Unwanted Boys. There’s little about him that makes him stand out except a large bird-shaped birthmark on his neck. When suddenly his life changes overnight, Bolt’s unusual marking will take on tremendous significance in his life. He’s been summoned to the distant land of Brugaria by a wealthy baron who no one wishes to disobey. Could this mean the family he’s been hoping for is finally ready to reunite with him?

The catch is that Baron Chordata is not only a cruel person feared by most inhabitants of Brugaria, he looks like he’s the same age as Bolt. On top of that, he dresses in tuxedos even at home, and consumes massive quantities of fish, every kind imaginable, including live goldfish. Woodraw’s descriptions of eating seafood have to be some of the funniest and disgusting ones I’ve ever read and I lapped up every slimy, slithery sentence. I also may never look at fish sticks the same way again!

In a trance from his first experience playing video games, Bolt unknowingly agrees to a request by Baron Chordata. This eventually leads to his being bitten on the neck. The result? Bolt turns partially into half boy, half penguin or werepenguin, so maybe a quarter … Anyway, after three days the full effect of the transformation will be complete. When the full moon shines, which is every night in Brugaria, the change in Bolt occurs. His feet turn webbed and orange, he sprouts wild tufts of hair, wings, an enormous nose and has cravings for seafood. Then he, along with all the other werepenguins including the baron, bark, wreak havoc and steal fish whenever possible.

Fortunately or unfortunately for Bolt, a girl named Annika who tried to rob and kidnap him because she’s “the world’s great bandit,” becomes an ally (or not) in trying to help Bolt escape the baron’s wicked clutches and rid himself of the werepenguin curse. The curse is not the only thing Bolt’s dealing with. He’s got this wacky, whale-loving cult leader named Günter determined to destroy him. Günter’s weapon of choice, a loaf of French bread! Plus Bolt’s learned that the werepenguins, led by power and fish hungry werepenguin-in-chief, Baron Chordata, are orchestrating a takeover of Brugaria the same day the curse on Bolt goes into full force. Someone has to do something and Bolt realizes it’s him. What that something is, he’s not totally sure, but still …

You’ll LOL at the Cloris Leachman-like “lowly housekeeper” called Frau Farfenugen, a greenish, warty and miserable woman who is not what she seems, Blazenda, a fortune-telling witch whose cackles drive Bolt crazy, but who may hold the key (or tooth) to Bolt’s freedom, and a cast of colorful characters, some of whom scream and faint whenever the name Baron Chordata is said aloud, that will entertain you and have you sitting on the edge of your seat or wherever it is that you read fantastic books.

Ultimately, Bolt has to decide what real family is. Is it Annika and her bandit dad and his buddies or is it the rook of penguins that, we learn in the novel’s prologue, should never be split up? I’m not going to spoil it by telling you, but I will say that joining Bolt on his journey is something you’ll love doing. So start cooking some fish sticks, grab a baguette and get reading!

Ghost book coverGHOST: THIRTEEN HAUNTING TALES TO TELL
A Collection by Illustrátus
(Chronicle Books; $21.99, Ages 9-12)
Starred Reviews – Kirkus Reviews, School Library Journal

I made sure I read this book when my husband was home because I’m a big chicken. When I did read Ghost, I realized the stories are not only fantastic ghost stories for Halloween, but also ones to commit to memory to share around a campfire. You could also bring the book along but you many not want the hauntingly illustrated, white embossed cover to get dirty. “Contributors to this chilling collection include authors Blaise Hemingway and Jesse Reffsin, and illustrators Chris Sasaki and Jeff Turley,” and Kit Turley, and they’ve done a fantastic job of scaring me although, as I said above, I do scare easily.

As I settled down to read each of the thirteen eerie tales, an owl hooted from my back yard adding to spooky feeling the stories exude. The tales, brief but powerfully creepy, are ideal for tweens who love to feel the hair on their necks stand up. The subjects range from a girl getting a tap tap tap from her mirror and then being imprisoned in it by her evil reflection, to two boys going ice fishing who disregard a shopkeeper’s advice to avoid the north of Point Whitney. The reasonit’s haunted by the ghost of Max Whitney, the former owner of the bait and tackle shop. Do the boys catch a lot of fish? Yep. Do they return safely home to share their experience? I’m not telling. There’s another one that takes place by a pond. Suffice it to say that, unlike the main character in this tale, a boy named Samuel who hears his drowned sister call out to him and follows her cries, I would never go out of my house in the middle of the night with a lantern by myself. The artwork throughout Ghost has a spare quality about it with a very limited palette which is appropriate for the collection. And though created digitally, all the illustrations resemble wood block prints and imbue every tale with as frightening an effect as the words themselves.

The tale that particularly resonated with me was about a girl who finally gets a room of her own away from her younger sister. Now alone in her new bedroom, the girl is terrified of the ghostly night noises but thinks if she just huddles under the covers and keeps her eyes tightly closed, everything will be okay. And it is, but how long can she keep her eyes shut? Did I mention that as a child I had my dad install a lock on my bedroom closet door? I will not easily forget the story of the young boy, Michael Alvey deep sea diving to a WWII sub wreck in search of the bodies of his deceased parents. They died just after their last communication was, “Please! Help! They’re coming.” When I found out who “they” were, I was shocked and readers will be, too. I caution young readers to avoid basements, elevators, hiking or making a trip after midnight to a cemetery right after reading Ghost.

Some stories unhinged me more than others, “The Descent” being one of them. That’s not to say they weren’t all good because they were, but certain stories played off of my deepest fears more than others. That being said, it might be best to read this book with a cat curled up on your lap or with a big dog nearby during the day!

  • Reviewed by Ronna Mandel

Read another Halloween Books roundup here.

 

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Young Adult Historical Fiction – Lovely War by Julie Berry

LOVELY WAR
Written by Julie Berry
(Viking BYR; $18.99, Ages 14 and up)

 

Lovely War Book Cover

 

Julie Berry’s epic older-YA/new-adult book, Lovely War, cleverly employs a trial orchestrated by Hephaestus after he catches his wife, Aphrodite, with her lover—his brother, Ares. From there, the gods Aphrodite, Apollo, Ares, and Hades narrate the tale of four mortals during World Wars I and II. Eighteen-year-old Hazel Windicott and nineteen-year-old James Alderidge meet at a parish dance in 1917 London—with a little push from Aphrodite. Alas, James leaves to report for duty in France and fears the reserved British girl, an accomplished pianist, has stolen his heart. Much to her parents’ mortification Hazel throws caution to the wind; determined to go where there is need (and be closer to James), Hazel submits an application to be an entertainment secretary in a YMCA relief hut in France.

Aphrodite also imbibes Colette Fournier, a Belgian girl whose childhood ended at age sixteen when everything and everyone she knew were destroyed. Colette gets by as a YMCA volunteer in the south of France, until, four years later, she ends up at the same camp as twenty-one-year-old musician extraordinaire, Aubrey Edwards. There she awakens emotionally. The passion and pain of love ensues within their war-stricken world resounding with the harsh reality of prejudice that Aubrey and his troop of black servicemen must endure.

Lovely War is a monumental, layered accomplishment pared down to a comprehensible size. This 480-page tome looks daunting but has short, fast-paced chapters with changing viewpoints. The outer framework of the gods felt as realistic as the stories of the four mortals that they reflect upon. I’d recommend this book to older teens, young adults, and adults who enjoy historical fiction, romance, or mythology. I’ll want to read it again someday because I appreciated the craft Berry employs while still maintaining sincere characters. Her historical end notes further explain how the Great War shifted the roles of women and affected the plight of the black servicemen.

Lovely War has received seven starred reviews and is an indie bestseller.
Learn more about award-winning author Julie Berry here.
Read another YA romance novel review by here.

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Best Back-to-School Books 2019 Part Three – A Roundup

 

BEST BACK-TO-SCHOOL BOOKS 2019

∼ A ROUNDUP ∼

PART THREE

 

Back-to-school free clipart of backpack

 

 

The Pigeon HAS to Go to School! coverTHE PIGEON HAS TO GO TO SCHOOL!
Written and illustrated by Mo Willems
(Hyperion Books for Children; $16.99, Ages 4-7) 

When I was the target age for a book like The Pigeon HAS to Go to School!, if I scraped my knee or bumped my head, my dad would examine the injury and say, “Oh no. We’re going to have to amputate!” It worked every time, turning my tears to belly laughs. Similarly, in this most recent addition to the popular series kicked off by Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus, Mo Willems tackles first day of school fears with Pigeon’s slightly subversive wit and my dad’s effective approach: identify the worst-case scenario and demonstrate how silly and ridiculous it is.

Pigeon hints he’s worried even before the title page, ordering the reader, “WAIT! Don’t read that title!” After all, why should Pigeon have to go to school? He already knows everything. Also, he’s not a morning person. And if he learns too much — his head might pop off! Looking and feeling very small on the page, he finally admits he’s scared. “The unknown stresses me out, dude.” What is he worried about? “Why does the alphabet have so many letters … Will FINGER PAINT stick to my feathers?” Or the one that really gets me: “What if the teacher doesn’t like pigeons?”

Like other books in the series, the illustrations are spare, with large blocks of pastel colors. All the words belong to Pigeon and are delivered in prominent speech bubbles in a large hand-lettered Courier-style font. There are opportunities for interaction; I can already picture my favorite two-year-old responding to Pigeon’s command, “Go on — ask me a question. Any question!” and then giggling proudly when the next page shows Pigeon is stumped. Pigeon eventually reasons out why school will be okay, but in a fun finish, he really feels it when he realizes how he’s going to get to school: a bright yellow … bus!

pigeonpresents.com

 

Take Your Pet to School Day coverTAKE YOUR PET TO SCHOOL DAY
Written by Linda Ashman
Illustrated by Suzanne Kaufman
(Random House BYR; $17.99, Ages 3-7)

“Enough!” says Mr. Paul. “It’s clear —

these animals should not be here.

Now, why would someone change this rule?

Pets do NOT belong in school!”

If the music teacher, the art teacher, the school librarian, and even the principal of Maple View School didn’t change the rule to allow pets in class, who did? Author Linda Ashman answers that question in Take Your Pet to School Day, but only after chronicling the rowdy behavior of the animal visitors. The lively, easy-to-read verse can be a fun way to start a conversation about why we need rules at school.

Suzanne Kaufman depicts both the human and animal populations at Maple View in colors that feel vibrant, soft, and warm at the same time. The illustrations are full of variety and detail. Kids will find children of every skin and hair color and enjoy inspecting their clothes in pastel solids and rainbow stripes, their high tops and cowboy boots and sneakers. The pets include the expected cat, dog, and bunny, as well as the unexpected: a turtle, a hedgehog, and even an entire ant farm. It’s an adventure just to find the hamster, who rolls somewhere new in its wheel on each page. I can’t recommend taking your pet horse to school, but I heartily recommend Take Your Pet to School Day.

 

I'm Trying to Love Math coverI’M TRYING TO LOVE MATH
Written and illustrated by Bethany Barton
(Viking Books for Young Readers; $17.99, Ages 4-8)

As someone who loves math and wants kids to love it, too, I approach I’m Trying to Love Math with caution. Is math going to get a bum rap in this book? The narrator starts off by saying, “If you ask me, math is not very lovable. I know I’m not alone here either. 4 in 10 Americans hate math.” Worried, I study the pie chart right beneath the dreaded “H” word. Sixty percent of the pie is a bright wash of green labeled “YAY MATH!” and adorned with hearts. Forty percent is lemon yellow with “BOO MATH!” above a broken heart. Meanwhile, an adorable purple alien pops up in the corner and asks, “Did you just use math to explain how much you don’t like it?”

What a relief! I can see we’re in good hands here. I’m Trying to Love Math provides a variety of awesome answers to the age-old question: “When will I ever use math in real life?” Baking cookies? Check. Making music? Check. Exploring Earth and other parts of the universe? Check and check. After fun illustrations of ice cream and ships and electric guitars and cash registers⁠—and a whole page of pi⁠—the narrator comes to the conclusion that “math is a part of so many things I already love … I guess I don’t need to try to love it at all. It turns out … I already do.” I recommend this book to all math lovers, especially the ones who think they are haters.

•Reviewed by Mary Malhotra
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Kids Book Review – Carl and the Meaning of Life by Deborah Freedman

CARL AND THE MEANING OF LIFE
Written and Illustrated by Deborah Freedman
(Viking BYR; $17.99, Ages 3-5)

 

Carl and the Meaning of Life book cvr art

 

 

Starred Reviews – Booklist, School Library Connection, School Library Journal

Have you or your children ever questioned why you do what you do? Have you ever wondered about your purpose in life? Sigh, I’m guessing we all have! In this sweet and heartwarming story, the reader walks the path with Carl the earthworm as he searches for answers to these deep questions. Author and illustrator Deborah Freedman introduces us to her seventh picture book, Carl and the Meaning of Life, which tells the tale of the little orange earthworm as he wanders through the water colored painted countryside. The cover introduces the reader to Carl slithering through the letter “C” as he happily roams underground. Meanwhile the fox, mouse, squirrel and rabbit explore the land up above, and the title addresses that big philosophical question.

 

CarI Interior Image 3
Interior illustration from Carl and the Meaning of Life written and illustrated by Deborah Freedman, Viking BYR ©2019.

 

Carl is not the typical main character we find in animal stories. He is an earthworm. And as an earthworm, he is perfectly content tunneling through the soil below our feet. Carl is turning hard dirt into fluffy soil, day after day ….

 

Carl Interior Image 4
Interior illustration from Carl and the Meaning of Life written and illustrated by Deborah Freedman, Viking BYR ©2019.

 

Perching his head up to the service one day, Carl is confronted by a field mouse who asks the question, Why? Why do you do that? And this is where Carl begins his journey. Our innocent main character stops making fluffy soil and does what many of us do when we are in search of an answer; searches out others to seek their knowledge.

 

Carl Interior Image 5
Interior illustrations from Carl and the Meaning of Life written and illustrated by Deborah Freedman, Viking BYR ©2019.

 

When Carl asks the rabbit why she does what she does the rabbit replies, “I do not know. I do what I do for my babies!”  Carl does not have babies so continues to search for an answer throughout the forest.

 

Carl Interior Image 6
Interior illustration from Carl and the Meaning of Life written and illustrated by Deborah Freedman, Viking BYR ©2019.

 

Deborah Freedman’s lush green countryside is inhabited by the fox who likes to hunt; the squirrel who likes to plant trees for sleep; and the bear who searches for berries. But as the reader turns the page, the luscious green grass turns to brown and no one is left for Carl to talk to.  Carl is now confronted with a sad beetle and soil that is not so fluffy. It is that moment for Carl when he realizes he needs to go back underground to do what he does best, so the other animals can do what they do best. How? Well, why not ask Carl?

 

Carl Interior Image 7
Interior illustration from Carl and the Meaning of Life written and illustrated by Deborah Freedman, Viking BYR ©2019.

 

This thought provoking story is a wonderful conversation opener with students in a classroom, or kids at home, by reminding them that everyone has a purpose, no matter how big or small; even the smallest creatures actions can touch us all. So the next time you are sitting outdoors and a squirrel runs by and you wonder, “What is he doing?” Think of Carl and every creature in this book, and remember that we are all connected because all creatures have an important job. I know I will not look at an earthworm the same again!

  • Reviewed by Ronda Einbinder
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Middle Grade Book Review – All the Greys on Greene Street

ALL THE GREYS ON GREENE STREET
Written by Laura Tucker
Illustrated by Kelly Murphy
(Viking BYR; $17.99, Ages 8-12)

 

All the Greys on Greene Street book cover

 

Starred Reviews – Booklist, BookPage, Kirkus Reviews and Publishers Weekly
Junior Library Guild Selection

 

In the new middle grade novel, All the Greys on Greene Street, twelve-year-old Olympia is trying to solve a mystery with her two friends, Alex and Richard. She knows her father, an art restorer, has left the country. She knows why her mother hasn’t gotten out of bed since her father left. And she knows something is amiss with an art piece her father and his business partner and devoted friend, Apollo, have been working on restoring. What she doesn’t know is why her father decided to leave so suddenly and why there are people knocking on the doors of her parents’ Soho loft, demanding answers.

All The Greys On Greene St Int3All the Greys on Greene Street is Laura Tucker’s debut novel, a historical fiction story set in 1981 when Soho’s large industrial lofts housed artists instead of chain stores and the subway cost 75 cents. Narrated in first-person by Olympia, (Ollie to her family and friends) Ollie is a keen observer, and tries to make sense of the complex adults in her life. She is devoted to her parents and to Apollo, whose studio she visits and who cares for her like his own child. When her father leaves, Ollie tries but can’t rally her mom to get out of bed. She hides her mother’s depression, trying to move through her world as if everything is fine. For weeks, she gets herself to school, concentrates on school projects and eats lots of canned soup. She refuses to ask for help or even share what’s happening with her mom. She manages to convince the neighbors that things are okay, but her friends discover her secret. Ollie pleads for secrecy, but Richard and Alex refuse, and betray her trust. Ollie is just beginning to work through her feelings when catastrophe rocks their neighborhood.

All the Greys on Greene St int1Like the title suggests, Ollie has the eye of an artist. Everyone in her life encourages her to look closely at her world and really try to understand what is happening. Kelly Murphy’s pencil illustrations help the reader see what Ollie sees and what she draws. And the writing is beautiful. There are no easy answers and there is no villain, just friends trying to do their best with what they have. Tucker offers some very smart history and art lessons imparted with the lightest touch. Apollo teaches Ollie about color and craft and the lessons will stay with the reader, as much as they impact Ollie.

 

All the Greys on Greene St int2Kids and parents were different in 1981 and these sixth graders are allowed to navigate New York City in a way that tween and teen readers with hovering helicopter parents might be surprised by. But even with absent parents and independence, Ollie and her friends are never alone. Their own friendship, their strong community and their neighbors keep them safe. Readers might be tempted to compare Ollie to Harriet, from Louise Fitzhugh’s Harriet the Spy. They both have keen observation skills, but Ollie is softer and savvier than Harriet. Ollie’s biggest lessons are about how to ask for help, and friends who become family and how some of life’s hardest questions have more than one answer.

Interior artwork by Kelly Murphy from All the Greys on Greene Street by Laura Tucker courtesy of  Viking Books for Young Readers ©2019.

 

  • Reviewed by Guest Reviewer Cynthia Copeland
    Cynthia Copeland is a television and digital producer, who is always writing on the side. She is currently writing a YA contemporary novel. She lives in Pasadena, California with her family. Follow her on Twitter at @listenupbucko and she’ll share the small mystery that author, Laura Tucker revealed to her about the novel, All the Greys on Greene Street
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