PPBF – Little Red Cuttlefish

Those of you who know me know that I love fairy tales. Something about the survival of a story through multiple generations of kids, and parents, fascinates me. When a new story appears that retells an old story with one or more fresh twists, I have to share it, as it is, in my view, a Perfect Picture Book:

9781455621460_p0_v1_s192x300Title: Little Red Cuttlefish

Written By: Henry, Josh & Harrison Herz

Illustrated By: Kate Gotfredson

Publisher/date: Pelican Publishing/September 2016

Suitable for Ages: 5-8

Themes/Topics: fractured fairy tale, cuttlefish, sea creatures

Brief Synopsis: On her way to Grandma’s house, Little Red must outwit a tiger shark or risk losing the crab cakes she’s trying to deliver –  or perhaps even her life.

Links to Resources:

Why I Like this Book:

Like craving comfort foods, kids crave familiar storylines, which helps explain why age-old fairy tales endure. But as evidenced by the popularity of fractured fairy tales, kids, and adult readers, also appreciate new twists to these familiar tales.

Little Red Cuttlefish combines the best of the original story with the twist of a new setting, under the sea, and a new Little Red – a cuttlefish, who uses her natural talents to evade the wolf-like shark.

If, like me, you don’t know what a cuttlefish is, no worries. There’s an afterword that identifies this curious sea creature – a boon for teachers looking to teach a science unit about squid, octopi and cuttlefish (they’re all related – who knew!). The illustrations are a wonderful introduction to the undersea world, too, making this a great picture book addition to the home or classroom with a non-fiction component, too.

A Note about Craft:

For an author wishing to add a twist to a popular fairy tale, the question arises: what to keep and what to change. Is it something as drastic as a plot change – perhaps the main conflict or outcome/resolution? Or do you change the main character or other characters – perhaps the villain? Or perhaps you tinker with the setting – time, place or both? Some of these changes may necessitate others, so a combination of changes result.

Regardless of the number and types of changes made, one thing is clear: enough of the original story must remain to keep the story familiar, and sufficiently believable changes must be made to render it fresh and appealing. I think Henry Hertz and his sons have managed this combination well, making Little Red Cuttlefish a helpful mentor text for those authors wishing to adapt, or fracture, fairy tales. For a helpful Q&A with Henry about fracturing fairy tales, including a list of other mentor texts, see a recent blog post.

As authors think, too, about marketability, the inclusion of a main character from a little-known species is a smart addition, as is the inclusion of back matter that enables the reader to dive further into the subject. See a blog post by Henry Herz that discusses the use of fiction to spur interest in a non-fiction subject. 

This Perfect Picture Book entry is being added to Susanna Hill’s Perfect Picture Books list. Check out the other great picture books featured there!

PPBF – The Water Princess

This past Tuesday was International Day of the Girl.   To help celebrate, two Perfect Picture Book Friday bloggers, Patricia Tilton at Children’s Books Heal and Vivian Kirkfield at Picture Books Help Kids Soar, highlighted two wonderful books about Mighty Girls. These reviews, and my recent purchase of an autographed copy of today’s book, spurred me to feature it as a Perfect Picture Book.

9780399172588_p0_v1_s118x184Title: The Water Princess: Based on the Childhood Experience of Georgie Badiel

Written By: Susan Verde

Illustrated By: Peter H. Reynolds

Publisher/date: G.P. Putnam’s Sons (Penguin Young Readers Group)/ 2016

Suitable for Ages: 5-8

Themes/Topics: Africa, drinking water, women’s work

Opening: “I am Princess Gie Gie. My kingdom…the African sky, so wide and so close.”

Brief Synopsis: Inspired by the childhood of model Georgie Badiel in Burkina Faso, The Water Princess follows Princess Gie Gie as she trudges on a long journey to obtain clean drinking water.

Links to Resources:

  • Learn about access to water and water-related issues, including how a school, classroom or family can help provide clean water for communities that lack it. 
  • Describe your typical day; describe Gie Gie’s day. Compare and contrast your day with Gie Gie’s day: what does she do that you don’t? what is the same?
  • Discuss why you think Gie Gie is a princess.

Why I Like this Book:

The Water Princess is a gentle rendering of a very difficult subject: the lack of clean, drinking water in too many parts of the world, and the disproportionate burden this places on girls and women. And while adults and even many children know the reality of water scarcity in other parts of the world, as we awaken with Gie Gie and walk step by step to the well, we learn much more than the mere facts of the problem; we learn the personal costs as well.

Peter Reynolds’ earth-toned illustrations help draw us into Gie Gie’s arid world. He depicts her with corn-rowed hair, bracelets and earrings. She appears every bit like the princesses we think of when we hear that term. And like these princesses, we learn she has a kingdom and rules animals and nature in her realm. But, she cannot “make the water come closer”, or the “water run clearer.” As she rises before day break to start the journey to the distant well she is, alas, “too sleepy to put on my crown.” Instead, a pot rests on her braids. As it rests on the braids of too many girls and women today. Thankfully, the story ends with Princess Gie Gie’s dream: that someday clean drinking water will be near.

A Note about Craft:

By telling the story in first person, Ms. Verde draws the reader immediately into the story. We experience Gie Gie’s world as she walks through it, step by step.  We learn of her likes and dislikes, her powers, and that which she yearns to control. This first-person perspective brings immediacy as well as helps build empathy for the girl-child who would rather don crown than pot, would rather dance and play with friends than draw water, who dreams of “flowing, cool, crystal-clear water” nearby. “Someday…”

The collaborative team uses an Afterward to great effect as they ask readers to “imagine” life without water, share the true story of Georgie Badiel and the summers spent in her grandmother’s village hauling water, the scope of the problem, and links to the Ryan Wells Foundation  and the Georgie Badiel Foundation, both of which build and help maintain wells.

This Perfect Picture Book entry is being added to Susanna Hill’s Perfect Picture Books list. Check out the other great picture books featured there!

PPBF – Shy

I first caught a glimpse of today’s Perfect Picture Book during the New England SCBWI conference this past Spring. One look at the title and the gorgeous cover and I was hooked – I was a shy child hiding in books (and some would argue I still am) who raised three book-loving introverts. How could I not love this book? With its stunning artwork and heart-warming story, though, I think everyone will love this Perfect Picture Book – whether you’re shy…or not!

9780451474964_p0_v1_s118x184Title: Shy

Written & Illustrated By: Deborah Freedman

Publisher/date: Viking (Penguin Young Readers Group), September 2016

Suitable for Ages: 3-5

Themes/Topics: shyness, friendship, birds, overcoming fear, books

Opening: “Shy was happiest between the pages of a book.”

Brief Synopsis: Shy, a timid creature, hides in books until he hears a songbird sing. He sets out to meet her, and in so doing, faces his fears.

Links to Resources:

  • Have you ever felt shy? Draw or describe a time you felt shy or afraid to do something;
  • Download Shy postcards and a Shy writing page here;
  • Do you have a shy friend or sibling? Describe a time when you encouraged her or him to join an activity or go on an adventure;
  • Learn more about birds and bird songs;
  • Share a favorite book with a friend.

Why I Like this Book:

Shy is a quiet book that presents a character who has read about birds and thinks he will love them, but who has “never actually heard a bird,” and when he does, worries that he may not “know how to talk” to one and “what if” he stuttered, blushed, or…

The gentle story of overcoming one’s fear to find a friend will resonate, I think, with shy children (and adults!) as well as friends and family of shy children. 

With its pastel palette and low word count, Shy is a perfect bedtime story or read-aloud to a class simmering down after lunch or recess.  And I love how the story invites friends to share favorite books together.

To quote a starred Kirkus review, “Freedman’s fine pencil lines, graceful animals, superb compositions, and spare text are virtuosic, but the backgrounds are the soul of Shy’s tale: breathtaking watercolor washes blend hues softly from one section of the natural color spectrum to another, opaquely connoting desert, mountains, skies, dawn, and night.”

A Note about Craft:

“Show don’t tell” – a directive that picture book authors hear again and again. If you’re writing about a shy character who hides in books, how do you show this? A pile of books perhaps? A head poking out of the top of an open book perhaps? Or, perhaps, if you’re the talented Deborah Freedman, you hide the character within the book itself. And what better place to hide a character than smack in the middle of that book – the gutter.  As many shy people disappear in the middle of a classroom, party or other gathering, so Shy hides right in the middle of his own book. Brilliant!

Hiding the main character presents a problem and an opportunity. The problem, of course, is that with your main character less present in the beginning pages, the narrator and illustrations must work harder to help the readers picture and empathize with him or her. At the same time, this is an opportunity, building tension, as your readers and listeners wonder who, or what, the main character is. It’s also an opportunity to drop visual clues, so that when the first reading ends, the reader and listener will want to go back to the beginning and see who is the first to find Shy hiding in plain sight.

This Perfect Picture Book entry is being added to Susanna Hill’s Perfect Picture Books list. Check out the other great picture books featured there!

PPBF – Friend or Foe?

The best children’s books appeal to, and resonate with, not only the children listening to the story but also to, and with, the adults reading them. Since I’ve acquired today’s Perfect Picture Book, I can’t help thinking that themes of the book – wondering about people who are different than us; using clues to discover their natures; finding the courage to cross barriers that divide us – ring true on the playground, in the classroom, in the workplace, and even in the larger world, whether we are 5, 25, 55 or older. I think you’ll agree.

51ailoxr49l-_sx485_bo1204203200_Title: Friend or Foe?

Written By: John Sobel

Illustrated By: Dasha Tolstikova

Publisher/date: Groundwood Books, House of Anansi Press/11 October 2016

Suitable for Ages: 4-7 & older

Themes/Topics: Wonder, friendship, courage, mice, cats, social situations

Opening: “This is how it was…A lonely mouse lived in a small house beside a great palace. In the great palace lived a cat.”

Brief Synopsis: Night after night, a lonely mouse on the roof of a small house and a cat in a castle tower stare at each other. The mouse wonders whether the cat is a friend or foe, and, conquering his fear, sets off to discover the answer.

Links to Resources:

  • Discuss or draw pictures of animal species that generally are friends. Why do they get along? Do the same for species that generally are foes. Why do they fight or avoid each other?
  • Discuss visual and verbal clues that help you decide whether someone or something is a friend or foe (and why sometimes the clues can be misleading);
  • Describe a time you overcame fear to discover or find something.

Why I Like this Book:

This is a simple story, told with straightforward prose, but with a fairy tale aspect – “This is how it was…” It’s also an ambiguous tale, as judgments about the nature of others often are. 

The muted palate of grays and creams with a few pops of reds and yellows furthers the air of mystery in this quiet book. Readers/listeners aren’t quite sure where the palace and small house are or when the story takes place. We don’t know whether the cat is lonely, too. And we know little about their lives apart from the nightly encounter: is the cat a Rapunzel character or a princess happy in the tower; does the smallness of the house represent poverty or just difference from the imposing palace. Neither author nor illustrator answer these questions, but I think that’s ok. Friend or Foe? presents characters that wonder and enables readers and listeners to ponder these questions, too. Many interesting family and classroom discussions inevitably will take place after reading this tale of would-be friends, or foes.

A Note about Craft:

As mentioned above, Friend or Foe? is a tale filled with ambiguity. At its heart, it is an examination of friendship: how do we discover and assess whether someone is a friend or foe. But rather than placing the two potential friends together, as is the case with most picture books examining friendship, Sobel separates the two, leaving the pair, and the readers/listeners, with only visual clues to answer the question.

Setting is a key character in the story. The pair are separated not by a busy road or body of water that is difficult to cross. Rather, the “palace had only one entrance, and it was carefully guarded.” “Not even the cat” could enter or leave, but the mouse noticed a tiny hole. After squeezing through this hole, the mouse still had to climb to the top of a tower, because not just a wall but also vertical distance separate the pair. Could this vertical distance be a metaphor for class difference? I don’t know, but this detail lends an interesting layer to this tale.

I received an advance copy of Friend or Foe? from the publisher; the opinions and observations expressed in this review are my own and were not influenced by anyone.

This Perfect Picture Book entry is being added to Susanna Hill’s Perfect Picture Books list. Check out the other great picture books featured there!

PPBF – Circle

As darkness descends a bit earlier each evening, temperatures and leaves begin their slow but steady descent, and apples and pumpkins take pride of place in farm stands, I listen for the tell-tale honk honk honk and scan the sky for the familiar V of Canada Geese heading south. I know that many other birds and animals migrate, too. In today’s Perfect Picture Book, I enjoyed learning about one bird species that migrates across the Pacific, making the “longest unbroken journey of any animal in the world” – the bar-tailed godwits.

9780763679668_p0_v1_s192x300Title: Circle

Written & Illustrated By: Jeannie Baker

Publisher/date: Candlewick Press, 2016 (US), also published by Walker Books UK, 2016

Suitable for Ages: 5-8 or older

Themes/Topics: Migration, Nature, Godwits, Non-Fiction

Opening: “In a place where mud and sand become sea…a godwit with white wing patches flies up with his flock. The moment is right for the long journey north.”

Brief Synopsis: This non-fiction picture book follows one godwit, a bird that migrates on a circular path across the Pacific between a southern home in Australia and New Zealand and a northern home in Alaska.

Links to Resources:

  • Check out the Author’s Note and map showing the godwits’ migration route;
  • There is a comprehensive teachers guide available through Walker Books that includes an interview with author/illustrator Jeannie Baker;
  • For a coloring page, additional resources, references and quiz, see Walker Books’ classroom guide;
  • Learn more about migration and why animals migrate.

Why I Like this Book:

The cover beckoned: azure sea merging to sky with green island below the line of shore birds and a one word title: Circle. My attention captured, I flipped through the pages of breathtaking artwork, including collage and watercolors, any one of the spreads worthy of a gallery or museum wall. I  wondered about the title – circle of life? circular journey? Maybe both. Only after I savored the scene did I start reading.

While the subject ordinarily may not have captured my attention, an unknown (to me) shorebird that migrates from Australia/New Zealand up to Asia and then heads to Alaska to nest and repopulate, Ms. Baker’s story did. I now know and care much more about godwits and find myself thinking about other migrating animals and the obstacles they overcome in their travels. I think this is a story that will captivate children, too, and hopefully encourage them to learn more, and do more to support, migrating birds and animals across the world.

A Note about Craft:

I mentioned what lured me to pick up Circle in the first place, and what intrigued me enough to start reading. But there’s more. Ms. Baker drew me in by focusing on one godwit, the “godwit with white wing patches,” that she follows on the migration. He appears on the cover and the last spread and many, many places in between. I found myself searching for him in the pictures and caring about his fate. This personalization is a tool non-fiction writers can use to their advantage to build empathy for the cause or species featured. And by writing in clear but lyrical language, this book is a perfect read aloud and mentor text for those writing non-fiction picture books.

Ms. Baker adds a further element.  Before the title page we meet a boy, stretched out on a bed, wheelchair by his side, surrounded by a globe, e-reader with text showing the meaning of godwit, a notebook, and a thought bubble, “Ahhhh- I wish I could fly!” Readers and listeners can search for this child who appears throughout the book, including the last wordless spread.

This Perfect Picture Book entry is being added to Susanna Hill’s Perfect Picture Books list. Check out the other great picture books featured there!

PPBF – Diana’s White House Garden

When my daughters were young, back in the early 1990s, I searched for picture books with strong female protagonists and especially those featuring women in history – a topic I was then studying in graduate school. While a few picture books existed about the “big women” and “big topics,” like Susan B Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton and their fight for women’s suffrage, books like today’s perfect picture book did not yet exist. Thankfully, that is no longer true.

9780670016495_p0_v1_s192x300Title: Diana’s White House Garden

Written By: Elisa Carbone

Illustrated By: Jen Hill

Publisher/date: Viking, Penguin Books for Young Readers/2016

Suitable for Ages: 5-8

Themes/Topics: American history, Victory Gardens, World War II, making an impact, White House

Opening: “Diana Hopkins lived in a white house. The White House.”

Brief Synopsis: Based on a true tale, Diana’s White House Garden tells the story of Diana Hopkins, who lived at the White House during the Roosevelt administration, and her role in the promotion of Victory Gardens in the US during World War II.

Links to Resources:

  • Plant a vegetable garden;
  • teachers’ guide  includes a list of other books about gardening, resources to learn about Victory Gardens, and resources to discuss the depiction of African Americans in historical picture books;
  • Think about a big problem. How can you, your family or your class make a difference?

Why I Like this Book:

Diana’s White House Garden presents a little-known historical fact that involves a child near in age to listeners and tells the story in a way that leads readers and listeners to think about present-day major problems, like war, hunger or poverty, and how their actions can make a difference. As noted in a New York Times book review, the book “humanizes history, reminding us that children are a part of it, too”. I’d add that it is a great jumping off point to discuss World War II, the home front, and even, perhaps, the memories of elderly relatives and friends about the war and that era.

In an afterward, illustrator Jen Hill indicates that a “lot of research” went into depicting this story and the 1940s White House. For instance, she includes in one spread John Pye, the African-American butler famed for his purchase of the first War Bond in 1942. Ms. Hill also discovered that the Wonder Woman comic strip debuted before the events depicted in this story.  She notes that she found it “a fun prop as well as an apt metaphor for Diana’s determination to be a hero to her country.” I’d agree.

A Note about Craft:

Diana’s White House Garden is based on a true story. By not adhering to every factual detail of this story, Ms. Carbone is able to use the typical picture book narrative arc: main character has a problem (Diana wants to help the war effort, to be a hero); she tries a few ways to solve it (being a spy, hanging important signs, and sticking pins on the furniture to keep enemies away); but she fails at all of them. She then volunteers to tend the Victory Garden and be its poster child, thus achieving her goal and changing/learning in the process. In an afterward, we learn that the failed incidents did occur, but my guess is that Roosevelt, or some savvy advisor, conceived of a child as “head gardener” to create the narrative that “even a child” can grow a Victory Garden and help the war effort, and that the incidents portrayed didn’t occur in just the order and in just the way written.

Where to draw the line between factual adherence and writing a compelling account is a line that all non-fiction writers face. I’m happy that Ms. Carbone and the editors at Viking chose to portray this story in the way that they have.

Diana’s White House Garden is a Junior Library Guild selection.

This Perfect Picture Book entry is being added to Susanna Hill’s Perfect Picture Books list. Check out the other great picture books featured there!

PPBF – The Tree in the Courtyard: Looking Through Anne Frank’s Window

September is a month of beginnings, school and fall come to mind; endings, summer with its carefree, shoe-free, sunshiny days; and remembering, those who labor and those we’ve lost, either personally or in the unfathomable horror that is seared into our hearts and divides time into pre-9/11, post-9/11 worlds.  For today’s Perfect Picture Book, I’ve chosen a book that helps us remember another unfathomable horror and reminds us of the hope that can endure tragedy.


Title: The Tree in the Window: Looking through Anne Frank’s Window

Written By: Jeff Gottesfeld

Illustrated By: Peter McCarty

Publisher/date: Alfred A. Knopf (Random House)/2016

Suitable for Ages: 5-8

Themes/Topics: History, World War II, Anne Frank, Holocaust, chestnut tree, bearing witness

Opening: “The tree in the courtyard lived for 172 years. She was a horse chestnut. Her leaves were green stars; her flowers foaming cones of white and pink.”

Brief Synopsis: The Tree in the Window is the biography of a tree that grew in the courtyard outside the attic where Anne Frank and her family hid from the Nazis.

Links to Resources:

Why I Like this Book:

As Anne Frank is the “Every Child” serving as a face and bringing a narrative to the horror of the Holocaust, the tree that endured outside her window serves as the “fly on the wall,” bearing witness to Anne’s life and ultimate demise. While Anne and her family were hiding in the attic, the tree also was a source of nature, beauty and comfort for Anne. Which raises an important question to discuss with young listeners: how can we both witness suffering and bring comfort to those who suffer?

This is a gentle introduction to the Holocaust, as gentle as anything can be, that ends with a note of hope: despite her death in 2010 at age 172, saplings from the tree live on around the world, notably at the National September 11 Memorial and Museum, in New York City.

A Note about Craft:

On his website, Jeff Gottesfeld writes that he first learned about the tree in a New York Times article and was drawn to its “life-affirming story.” He admits, though, that he “wasn’t sure how to tell” that story. He started a few times, struggled for a few weeks, then set it aside for two years. He returned to the story in August 2012, submitted the manuscript to his agent in November 2012, and Knopf/Random House acquired it a few weeks after that. As he shows, sometimes story ideas need to sit, to jell, before we as writers are able to write them.

Both the text and Peter McCarty’s sepia-toned illustrations imbue the story with the gravitas it deserves. Interestingly, while Anne’s story is told in its entirety, neither the author nor illustrator name the place or time period, nor do they identify the country of origin of the soldiers.

Finally, as a writer who often tackles so-called “difficult subjects,” I think The Tree in the Courtyard serves as a valuable mentor text on point-of-view. By drawing the reader and listeners outside the attic, I believe it affords some distance from a horror that is incomprehensible. As we mark the 15th anniversary of 9/11, and as books about it for even young children are being written, I can’t help wondering what point-of-view will help tell that story while providing hope in the face of overwhelming tragedy.

This Perfect Picture Book entry is being added to Susanna Hill’s Perfect Picture Books list. Check out the other great picture books featured there!