Two new picture books use animals to teach the alphabet. In A is for Musk Ox by Erin Cabatingan, readers learn why every letter in the alphabet is for “musk ox.” This hysterical take on the classic ABC book begins with Joseph the Musk Ox ruining Zebra’s alphabet book by eating the apple. Claiming it would have been boring to start ANOTHER book with “A is for Apple”, Joseph takes this opportunity to describe the greatness of musk oxen. Not sure what musk oxen are? Read this book and you will discover numerous tidbits like “Eskimos call musk oxen Omingmak” and “the soft underwool of a musk ox is called Qiviut.” Hilarious illustrations by Matthew Myers will have readers giggling non-stop as they watch what happens to the original subject of each letter after Joseph is done.
All the Awake Animals Are Almost Asleep by Crescent Dragonwagon takes a more gentle approach to the topic. The mother in this book uses alliteration to describe sleeping animals while tucking her young child into bed. Inclusion of less common animals, such as an Ibex who “inches his way up the icy incline toward a good day’s nap” adds to the charm of the story. Starting and ending the story in a lyrical rhyme, the soothing text calms the restless child and lulls the animals into a peaceful sleep. The soft watercolor illustrations by David McPhail match the tone of the story perfectly. This is a wonderful bedtime story and will quickly become a favorite.
Who would have thought that Bigfoot would make such an engaging picture book protagonist? Two recent tales put this elusive hairy man-beast at the forefront of literature for young readers. In Ashley Spires’ charming Larf, the title character leads a solitary but fulfilling life in a cabin in the woods, save for his pet bunny Eric. He worries that if people found out he was real, he would attract the wrong kind of prying attention. But one morning’s newspaper article proves life changing when he finds out he may not be the only sasquatch in the world. Larf knows he must travel to town to find out. But what if the other sasquatch doesn’t like him? What if he eats meat instead of vegetables? And worst of all, what if he is a she? Spires’ watercolor and ink illustrations lend a gentle, quirky and humorous tone to a story that ultimately explores what it means to open yourself to the possibilities of friendship.
Kent Redeker’s Don’t Squish the Sasquatch! is a raucous ride on a city bus where the first passenger to be picked up is Señor Sasquatch. Boldly colored digital art with a retro feel by illustrator/graphic designer Bob Staake completes a picture book chock full of absurd creatures and sly humor. Each new rider to enter the bus (including Mr. Octo-Rhino) receives the same direction from the driver, Mr. Blobule. “Don’t Squish the Sasquatch!” Of course, the bow-tied bright green Sasquatch, all gangly spiky arms and long legs, can’t avoid being crowded out, which leads to a horrible crash and a surprise ending. Expect this winning read aloud to become a family and storytime favorite.
What is the color of a happy cat? In Red Cat, Blue Cat, written and illustrated by debut British artist Jenni Desmond, two jealous cats try to figure it out. Red Cat is nimble and lives downstairs; Blue Cat is clever and lives upstairs. Whenever the two meet, much caterwauling ensues. Little do they know that each secretly longs to be like the other. Whimsical and bright, the playful illustrations of colored pencil, collage, water color and ink spill over each page as the cats try wacky ideas to make themselves over. “If I turn myself red, I will become fast and bouncy!” thinks Blue Cat, as he eats an assortment of red things, like cherries, watermelon, even rose petals, to no avail. Red Cat, who really wants to be smart, then tries blueberries, bluebells, blue pudding and certain cupcakes, with no better luck. It’s not until the two work together that they understand that each has special qualities to appreciate and share. Until they spot a yellow cat - Meow!
Finders Keepers, written by William Lipkind and illustrated by Nicolas Mordvinoff, first delighted children and families in 1951 and won the Caldecott Medal for distinguished American picture book. This classic tale of two dogs and one bone, is charmingly illustrated with simple, vintage line drawings and a measured color palette. Reminiscent of Aesop’s or La Fontaine’s fables, the dogs, Winkle and Nap each lay claim to a bone in the barnyard. They then query the farmer, the goat, and others in the quest to determine rightful ownership. Fooled by greed and tricked into tasks along the way, they too work together in the end to reclaim and share their bone.
Jacqueline Woodson successfully teams up once again with illustrator E.B. Lewis in Each Kindness, a picture book that tells a difficult, haunting, but vital story about passive bullying, an all-too-common form of persecution among children. In the style of a person looking back on life, Woodson instantly grabs the reader’s attention: “That winter, snow fell on everything…” When Maya, a young girl, arrives at her new school in tattered clothes and damaged shoes, she shyly greets her new classmates. However, the narrator, one of Maya’s classmates, shuns the new student for her appearance. Despite Maya’s varied attempts to break down the walls put up by her fellow pupils, they refuse her each time. One day, when it is clear that the new student has left and is not coming back, the narrator realizes her mistake and laments her unkindness toward Maya.
Lewis’ slice-of-life pastel watercolors enhance the poignancy of the story. Expressions on the faces of the children are precisely defined, and the beautiful pastoral setting stands in counterpoint to the cruelty exhibited by Maya’s peers. One double-page spread showing Maya’s now-empty desk is gripping, as are Woodson’s word choices as the narrator contemplates her actions at the conclusion: “…the chance of a kindness with Maya / becoming more and more / forever gone.” Readers who savoured E.B. Lewis’ illustrations when he paired with Woodson on The Other Side will recognize his brilliance here as well. Each Kindness is a natural companion to Eleanor Estes’ classic The Hundred Dresses and, for slightly older readers, Wonder by R.J. Palacio, previously reviewed.
Tuberculosis has been called the greatest serial killer of all time, and remains a crisis in many countries. Two new books for children tackle this scourge and shed light on the incredible pain suffered by its victims and the horrors of treatment.
In 1940, thirteen year old Evelyn (“Evvy") Hoffmeister is sent to Loon Lake Sanatorium, a treatment facility for tuberculosis patients in Breathing Room by Marsha Hayles. Evvy is frightened by her new surroundings and must learn to adapt to the harsh rules – no talking, no visitors, strict bed rest. Evvy soon finds her place and makes friends with the other girls in her ward. Hayles provides a fascinating glimpse into the medical technology of the day, such as the pneumothorax which blew air into the chest, or thoracoplasty, the surgical removal of a rib which would supposedly allow a lung to collapse and heal. Period photographs add depth to the story and an author’s note provides additional information. Evvy’s voice captures the resentment, fear, determination, and hope of a young patient fighting an insidious disease with no real cure.
Evvy could very well be one of the young ladies pictured in the dramatic cover photograph of Jim Murphy’s Invincible Microbe: Tuberculosis and the Never Ending Search for a Cure. This is an impeccably researched narrative nonfiction title complete with photographs, prints, and source notes. Murphy starts with the history of this deadly germ and offers evidence of tuberculosis in a 500,000 year old fossilized skull. Murphy also details the many ineffectual treatments in ancient Egypt and Greece before following the course of the dread disease through Europe and America. Finally, readers learn of the social history and impact of tuberculosis. Examples include chapters describing the warped nineteenth-century romantic view of the disease, and the difficulties encountered by African-Americans and immigrants in their search for treatment. The research, photographs, notes and easy narrative flow make this biography of a disease a fascinating read.
Three picture books recently published use the power of simplicity and silence to communicate strong messages of warmth, friendship, and love. Homer, written and illustrated by Elisha Cooper, is a sweet story of an older dog who prefers to spend his days just watching the world go by. When asked to join the others on a frolic on the beach, or a romp through the field, Homer is content to witness the proceedings from the comfort of the porch. Cooper’s illustrations are pitch-perfect, using watercolors in warm sunset tones to capture the satisfaction of a life well-lived.
Bear Has a Story to Tell, by the husband-and-wife Caldecott-winning team of Philip and Erin Stead, is an autumnal tale of a bear and his forest friends. When Bear wants to tell his story, his friends Mouse, Duck, and Frog each politely decline, as all have preparations they must finalize before winter sets in. With Bear’s help, each of them gratefully attain their goals. When Bear wakes from his hibernation, will he remember the story he wanted to tell months earlier? The Steads once again bring elegance and charm to each page. The illustrated expressions of the sleepy inhabitants of the woods are captured beautifully.
The Swiss import Little Bird is a fable of sorts. A man drives deep into a desert landscape to release the birds he carries in the back of his truck. All of them fly away, except for a little black bird. No amount of coaxing by the man seems to get this small bird to fly. With minimal text, a cinematic feel is portrayed. While having a very different tone and feel to most American picture books, this unusual but ultimately gratifying tale sends a message that should resonate with both kids and adults.
SWISH, SWASH, SPLASH, SWOOSH -- get ready to become reacquainted with Lyle, the loveable green crocodile happily installed in the bathtub of the Primms’ new townhouse in New York City. Readers can celebrate the endearing croc’s 50th birthday with the Lyle, Lyle Crocodile Storybook Treasury. This big, beautiful book includes an introduction by author Bernard Waber, four classic Lyle stories, author biography, a new Lyle story adorably illustrated by Waber’s daughter, Paulis, and a bonus downloadable recording of Waber reading The House on East 88th Street.
The pages are filled with engaging, black and white line drawings, dotted with splashy washes of color, timeless stories, and endearing, gentle characters. Children will love Lyle’s sweet ways and silly adventures, and adults will love sharing a special friend from their own childhood with the little ones in their lives.
One of Aesop’s simplest and most well-known fables is The Town Mouse and the Country Mouse. This retelling by award-winning English illustrator Helen Ward begins with the Country Mouse and follows his serene, pastoral life as each season passes. His cousin, the worldly Town Mouse, comes to visit Country Mouse, and the city-dweller encounters life at a slower pace. Town Mouse voices his concerns about various differences from the life he knows, including mud and “dangerous” wild animals (in the form of a sleeping fawn). In a double-paged spread that evokes both pining and doubt, Country Mouse rethinks the pleasures of his home, and decides to visit the big city to see what Town Mouse’s grand life is like. As expected, while there are sumptuous treats to enjoy and amazing sights to behold, Country Mouse longs for the simple life he left behind.
The real treat is Helen Ward’s pen-and-watercolor illustrations. Flowers, fruits, trees, and animals are depicted in a stunning, naturalistic manner. The city portion of the tale takes place in 1930s New York at Christmas, with all the decorations and trimmings. The mice’s quick escape from a pug on a dessert table adds a touch of suspense. Each mouse’s personality is smartly represented in his actions and tiny changes in facial expression. Many pages have supplemental columns of artwork that add to the already splendid visuals. This is a wonder-filled version of the long-told tale.
Do you have a reluctant reader? Learning to read is a challenge for many children, but reading with or to a friend can make it a bit easier. If you missed the New York Times bestseller, How Rocket Learned to Read, Rocket the lovable pup is back and learning new things in Rocket Writes a Story by Tad Hills.
Rocket loves books and new words. Working with his teacher, the little yellow bird, Rocket heads off to sniff out new words and bring them back to the classroom to hang on the word tree. When he gets an idea to write a story, Rocket discovers writing is hard and he needs inspiration. Sitting beneath a tall pine tree, Rocket decides writing about the tree and its nest would be a great story. The next day he finds a new word scratched beneath the tree - owl - a gift from the little owl at the top of the tree. Rocket adds this wonderful word to his growing list and from there a story and a friendship blossom as Rocket reads to his new, shy friend. Parents and kids will be inspired by the gentle story and charming, softly colored illustrations in oil and colored pencil.
They say dogs are man’s best friend. Turns out they’re great listeners too. Shy or reluctant readers can find out by registering to read with one of the specially trained Karma Dogs from the H.E.A.R.T.S. program offered throughout the year at participating library branches. How can Karma Dogs help your child learn to read? These dogs are friendly, nonjudgmental, and skilled listeners. By reading in a safe, comfortable environment, children can increase their confidence and vocabulary and become better readers. H.E.A.R.T.S. sessions work best for school age children 6-12 years old who can read or are learning to read. To find out more about the Karma Dogs or find a participating branch near you, check out Karma Dogs, pick up a DateLines calendar of events, or visit our website.
Araminta (Minty) Fresh lives in the familiar setting of Catonsville in The Secret Tree by Natalie Standiford. Growing up in a close-knit neighborhood with her best friend Paz on the same block, she is happy and comfortable with her friends, family, and roller derby. But the summer before middle school is a season for change, not the least of which is Paz’s apparent desire to befriend some cool girls.
When she spots a flash in the woods and chases it, Minty not only finds a new friend in Raymond, but also stumbles across the Secret Tree. The elm has a hollow trunk in which Raymond and Minty find secrets written on slips of paper. The notes hold confidences which range from crushes, to being held back a grade, to placing a curse on an enemy! Seems like her neighborhood is full of secrets and mysteries and Minty and Raymond decide to start finding some answers.
But this detecting duo has secrets of their own, and as they investigate friends and neighbors they must each deal with their own anxieties. Minty is a delightfully relatable yet quirky heroine with the right touch of tween snark to make her real. In the end, this story of changing friendships and pesky sibling relationships is about growing up and realizing that everyone has insecurities. Filled with the warmth and freedom of summer and a neighborhood full of unique characters, this imaginative coming-of-age story has an old-fashioned charm which will have wide appeal.
Be sure to look for Natalie at the Baltimore Book Festival on Saturday, September 29th at 5:30, where she’ll be appearing as a member of the panel, "Baltimore Bred", with fellow Baltimore natives Adam Gidwitz, Laurel Snyder, C. Alexander London, and Laura Resau to talk about how growing up in Baltimore influenced their work.