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.

9780385753975_p0_v1_s192x300

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!

PPBF – Blue Rabbit and Friends

As a pre-published picture book author, I seek out the newest releases at my local library and in bookstores. At every conference and in every webinar, we’re told to read, read, read, BUT only books published in the past few years, as the market constantly evolves and, for picture books especially, the optimum word counts change.

Every once in a while, though, an older book captures my interest, and I find that it could as easily have been published today as back in the day. I’m happy to feature one of these “oldies but still goodies” as a Perfect Picture Book.

9780142300794_p0_v1_s118x184Title: Blue Rabbit and Friends

Written & Illustrated By: Christopher Wormell

Publisher/date: Jonathon Cape Ltd/1999 (UK); Phyllis Fogelman Books (Penguin Books for Young Readers)/2000 (US)

Suitable for Ages: 4-8, or younger

Themes/Topics: home, trading, problem-solving

Opening: “Once there was a Blue Rabbit who lived in a cave in the middle of a dark forest.”

Brief Synopsis: Blue Rabbit decides he doesn’t like living in a cave in a dark forest and sets off to find a new home. He finds that Bear, Goose and Dog are also unhappy in their homes, and together, the animals reach a solution that suits everyone – with a twist.

Links to Resources:

  • Draw your perfect home – what makes it perfect for you?
  • Build your perfect home using found materials like empty boxes, old blankets, etc.
  • Try block printing

Why I Like this Book: This is a simple story about finding one’s place in the world, exploring the concept of home – what makes one setting or dwelling perfect for one person (or animal) but not another. It’s also a terrific lesson in the power of group problem solving. With all of the text on the left side and the vibrant linoleum block print illustrations on the right, it’s also a lovely book to read aloud.

A Note about CraftAs noted above, Blue Rabbit and Friends is an older book, but for me, at least, its style and story still resonate. While its word count, around 600, is longer than the norm and while, arguably, some repetitive language could be cut, on the whole, the text does not seem too long.

In addition, Blue Rabbit has a problem, and it’s an age-old problem – he isn’t happy at home, something just isn’t right. Through the course of the book, he realizes he isn’t the only one with that problem; and he solves the problem on his own. The story then ends with a twist that could, and in fact did, lead to a sequel. To this reader, at least, Blue Rabbit and Friends seems just like the sort of well-executed picture book story line popular today.

Christopher Wormell is a prolific English illustrator, artist and children’s author. Check out his other books here.

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 – Sail Away

Earlier this week, I learned of efforts to preserve Langston Hughes’ Harlem brownstone. The group spearheading the efforts, I, Too Arts Collective, @ITooArts, is a “nonprofit organization committed to nurturing voices from underrepresented communities in the creative arts”. According to its statement of purpose on generosity.com, the group’s “first major project is to provide a space for emerging and established artists in Harlem to create, connect, and showcase work”. Its “goal is to lease and renovate the brownstone where Langston Hughes lived in Harlem as a way to not only preserve his legacy but to build on it and impact young poets and artists.” You can find out more and donate at generosity.com.

When I came across the featured collection of poetry by Langston Hughes, newly illustrated by Ashley Bryan, I knew this was the Perfect Picture Book to showcase I, Too Arts Collective’s campaign and celebrate summer on the water.

9781481430852_p0_v1_s192x300Title: Sail Away

Written By: Langston Hughes

Illustrated By: Ashley Bryan

Publisher/date: Atheneum Books for Young Children/2015

Suitable for Ages: 4-8 (and beyond)

Themes/Topics: poetry, sea, sailing, travel, adventure, non-fiction

Opening:

Catch

Big Boy came

Carrying a mermaid

On his shoulders

And the mermaid

Had her tail

Curved

Beneath his arm.

Being a fisher boy,

He’d found a fish

To carry-

Half fish,

Half girl

To marry.

Brief Synopsis: This is a collection of 15 poems about water and the sea penned by Langston Hughes and newly illustrated by Ashley Bryan.

Links to Resources:

  • Use paper collage techniques to draw a picture;
  • Visit the sea, a river, lake or pond and describe what you see. What was it like?

Why I Like this Book:

As other reviewers have noted, Langston Hughes (1902-1967), a leader of the Harlem Renaissance, is most remembered for his writings about racial and national identity. This collection of poetry, while containing one that is specific to the African-American experience (see, The Negro Speaks of Rivers, the last poem in the collection), shows another side of Hughes. It is a celebration of seafaring, mermaids, rivers, fish, bridges – really all things nautical. These poems on the whole are joyful, especially as the very talented artist Ashley Bryan has illustrated them using bright paper collages. At times they are whimsical, almost childlike, as in the poem entitled simply “F”, about a fish “with a greedy eye/Who darted toward/A big green fly.” But the fly was simply “bait on a hook!/So the fisherman took/The fish home to cook.”

A Note about Craft:

The genesis of this book was not Langston Hughes, who died long before publication. Rather, the illustrator, Ashley Bryan, is the protagonist here. As stated on the front flap, Mr. Bryan is “one of Langston Hughes’s greatest admirers.” His illustrations truly bring this poetry to life.

9781481430852_p3_v4_s192x300In an illustrator’s note, Mr. Bryan states that the “scissors shown on the endpapers are the scissors that my mother used in sewing and embroidery and that I, in turn, used in cutting the colored papers for all the collage compositions in this book.” An author in his own right, Mr. Bryan created this artwork at the ripe young age of 91, meaning the scissors most likely date to the late 19th or early 20th century. Truly an inspiration for young and old!

If You Liked this Book:

Check out Jazz Day: The Making of a Famous Photograph, reviewed here.

One of Ashley Bryan’s many other books for children, found here.

PPBF – The Wonder

As any parent, grandparent or caregiver can attest, early childhood is a time of questioning: “Why…”, “Where…” “When…” Sometimes it seems as if the questioning is never-ending. At such times, we will do the child, and ourselves, a favor by stepping back, taking a deep breath, closing our eyes, and wondering – just like the young child in today’s Perfect Picture Book.

9780763679576_p0_v1_s118x184Title: The Wonder

Written & Illustrated By: Faye Hanson

Publisher/date: Candlewick Press/2015 (originally published in the UK, Templar Books/2014)

Suitable for Ages: 3-7

Themes/Topics: Imagination, creativity, art, dreams

Opening: “This is a boy whose head is filled with wonder. On the way to the bus stop, he wonders where the birds are flying to.”

Brief Synopsis: A young boy imagines many different sights on his journey to school and during the school day, only to be rebuffed by most of the adults he encounters.

Links to Resources:

  • Use your imagination to draw or color on a blank sheet of paper
  • Tell a story about a picture in a museum or an old photograph you find at home

Why I Like this Book:

The Wonder captures the questioning of a young child and reminds adult readers that it’s ok to stop and smell the roses, to daydream, to wonder. And it’s a reminder to young listeners that it’s ok to share your dreams and to persevere in dreaming.

While it could be easy to focus on the negative reactions of the classroom and science teachers in the story, I’d prefer to focus on the positive influence of the art teacher who has left a “blank sheet of paper” waiting for the children, who encourages the boy to “use your imagination,” and who praises his work when the boy hesitantly shares it. As is visible on the blackboard of this school art room, “‘Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once we grow up.’ Picasso” In this debut picture book, author/illustrator Faye Hanson, who hails from northern England, shows that she has solved Picasso’s dilemma.

A Note about Craft:

The Wonder is a perfect example of the essence of a picture book: the story exists as much in the illustrations as the text, perhaps even more so. From the sepia tones of the real world to the fanciful, colorful images in the child’s head, including the five double-spread illustrations midway through the book (which reminded this reader of certain album cover artwork from the late ‘60s, early ‘70s psychedelic era), the illustrations show the wonder in the unnamed protagonist’s head as he journeys through his day. 

Interestingly, the book deviates from the usual 32 page norm, and is, instead, 40 pages in length. Ms. Hanson has put these extra pages to good use with double spreads incorporating the nay-saying adults the child meets into the imaginary worlds where he believes they belong. Children and adults will find much to savor in these spreads. And for those who have read Megan Dowd Lambert’s Reading Picture Books with Children, the use of boxes to frame some of the encounters and full-bleed double page spreads for the scenes of wonder are well worth pointing out during a read-aloud session.

Note: Faye Hanson’s new picture book, Midnight at the Zoo, debuted recently. I can’t wait to read it and explore the illustrations!

PPBF – Waiting for High Tide

A few short weeks ago, my husband and I enjoyed a mini-getaway to the Connecticut shore, our first visit to that part of the state. Strolling along the beach, we watched young families with toddlers, beach chairs, shovels and buckets, tiny crabs and shore birds stake out their claims to favourite sandy spots.

Today, with a heat advisory in effect in the New York metropolitan region for the entire weekend, I think back longingly to that getaway. Thankfully, there are books like the Perfect Picture Book I’m highlighting today to remind me of a beach day, even if I’m nowhere near the shore.

9781419716560_p0_v1_s192x300Title: Waiting for High Tide

Written & Illustrated By: Nikki McClure

Publisher/date: Abrams Books for Young Readers/2016

Suitable for Ages: 5-7 & older

Themes/Topics: seashore, beachcombing, raft-building, tides, waiting

Opening: “WAITING FOR HIGH TIDE. I close my eyes and open them. Close and open. Still low tide. I squint and wait.”

Brief Synopsis: A boy describes a family day at the shore, building a raft together, waiting for high tide to launch it, and observing the life of the beach.

Links to Resources:

  • Stroll along the shore and describe what you see;
  • Collect beach treasures (but please don’t disturb living animals and plants!);
  • Build a raft

Why I Like this Book:

Waiting for High Tide is like a journey to another place and era. It captures a moment in time for a multigenerational family that works together on a very hands-on, fairly low-tech project, all while savouring their time together at the shore. With every page turn, I expect Huck Finn or Thor Heyerdahl to appear, or perhaps a pirate, something clearly on the mind of the young narrator who dons glasses with one eye covered by a “patch” of barnacles. Like the seaside creatures that surround them, the family work, eat, play and revel in the return of high tide.

A Note about Craft:

Waiting for High Tide is a book that reminds me very much of those available during my childhood (trust me, a long time ago) with its limited color palette of black cut-paper illustrations with blue for the water and a few pops of pink. Its non-glossy cover could have popped straight from the early 1960s, or, as Kirkus Reviews noted in a starred review, “the artwork evokes the feel of classic 1940s and ‘50s picture books”.

Told in first person by the child narrator, the text is more stream of consciousness than what one normally finds in a picture book, especially the 500-words-or-less picture books that currently are the norm, and it’s much, much longer, too. At one point, the narrator even lists what he finds:

I FIND

One fine long pole

Four clamshells

Miscellaneous crab parts…

That a major house published Waiting for High Tide and that it garnered starred reviews gives hope to those who write longer texts and those wishing to read longer texts with their children. For an interesting discussion about picture book word count, see an article posted earlier this week on Picture Book Den by Natascha Biebow, author, editor and mentor.