PPBF – The Riddlemaster

I first saw and read today’s Perfect Picture Book at my local library over a month ago. I confess to finding it puzzling at first (pardon the pun!), but found myself returning to it again and again. I decided to feature it today, Inauguration Day in the US, as changes in administration are often puzzling. Without further ado (or political commentary), I present today’s Perfect Picture Book:

new-cover_-riddlemaster-508x600Title: The Riddlemaster

Written By: Kevin Crossley-Holland

Illustrated By: Stéphane Jorisch

Publisher/date: Tradewind Books/2016

Suitable for Ages: 4-9

Themes/Topics: reading, riddles, journey, island


Anouk and Ben and Cara stood on the scribbly tideline and watched waves breaking into blues.

“Blue of blue,” said Anouk.

“Every blue there is,” Ben said.

“Even the ones without names,” added Anouk.

Side by side they stood and stared across the bouncy sea at the little island.

Brief Synopsis: Three children spy a golden island across the sea. An older man offers them passage on a boat filled with animals, but only if they correctly answer seven riddles.

Links to Resources:

  • Solve riddles
  • Plan a journey on a boat filled with your favorite storybook animals. Who would you invite? Why?

Why I Like this Book:

Reading The Riddlemaster is like reading a long-lost fairytale, complete with a mysterious man who offers to help three young heroes embark on a journey of discovery. As in the classic fairytales, nothing is free: the children must complete a task, in this case correctly answering seven riddles, to obtain the treasure at their destination. That the treasure involves books and reading is a particularly satisfying outcome. The author, Kevin Crossley-Holland, is a well-known author and chronicler of myths and legends, mostly written for middle grade readers and up. Jorisch’s illustrations amplify the sense of being in a far-off land, and he includes multiethnic/multi-racial children. Kids will particularly enjoy trying to identify the animal “characters” who journey on the boat.

A Note about Craft:

The first things that struck me about The Riddlemaster were its title and the cover – with the Master himself in the fore and the three children clearly looking at him. This seemingly breaks a picture book rule, that the children should be the main characters. But, despite the emphasis initially being on the Master, I think the children move the story forward: by desiring to visit the island, by agreeing to the offer, and, most importantly, by answering the riddles. Despite the title, The Riddlemaster is, indeed, a heroes’ journey.

After several readings, I’d also argue that The Riddlemaster is a wonderful example of adding in enough creepiness (I’m not sure I’d join the Master in his boat!) but not too much (the animals lick lips and bare teeth, but they never harm the children nor is it ever stated explicitly that they would do so). That Jorisch illustrates in a Tim Burtonesque style adds to the creepy/not-too-scary feel of this unique picture book.

The Riddlemaster received starred reviews in School Library Journal and Kirkus Reviews.

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 – Little Penguins

As snow has fallen across most of the northeastern US these past few weeks, I recall fondly the wonder and excitement of my children as the first flakes blanketed the grass, bare tree branches, sidewalks and streets. They begged to go play, and we spent many hours romping, sledding and sometimes even shoveling. Today’s Perfect Picture Book evokes this time of happy play for me. Enjoy the snow!

9780553507713_p0_v1_s192x300Title: Little Penguins

Written By: Cynthia Rylant

Illustrated By: Christian Robinson

Publisher/date: Schwartz & Wade Books (Random House Children’s Books)/2016

Suitable for Ages: 3-7

Themes/Topics: penguins, winter, snow, colors, matching

Opening: “Snowflakes? Many snowflakes. Winter is coming!”

Brief Synopsis: A family of penguins bundles up to enjoy playing in freshly-fallen snow.

Links to Resources:

  • Coordinate the colors of your outfit
  • Make post-snow play treats including homemade hot cocoa and warm cookies.

Why I Like this Book: This is a simple story of snowy day fun in the vein of Jack Ezra Keat’s The Snowy Day (Viking, 1963). Kids will enjoy following along as five young penguins dress in color-coordinated socks, boots, mittens and scarves and head outside to experience the deep, deeper, very deep snow. Robinson’s mix of collage and block printing puts the emphasis just where it should be – on the adorable penguins. I especially loved an all-white scene with four of the penguins and their footprints accompanied with the important question, “Where’s Mama?”.

A Note about Craft:

Little Penguins is a wonderful mentor text to explore how to leave space for the illustrator. In under 70 words, and with no attributed dialogue, Rylant invites readers to enjoy the first snowfall of winter. While her words tell a story, it is far from complete without the many layers which Robinson adds. Rylant mentions only one color, red, and mentions merely that the mittens and scarves match. Robinson adds the rest of the color story, and he even may have chosen the number of penguins to feature. He also adds a side-story about one penguin staying with Mama while the others are outside playing. Such a small detail opens a wealth of discussion possibilities: why did one penguin not follow his or her siblings? Have you ever stayed behind while others played?

To read more stories about Penguins, see Grumpy Pants (Claire Messer, Albert Whitman & Company, 2016), reviewed here last November and more recently by Picture Book Builders, which also highlighted Penguin Problems (Jory John/Lane Smith, Random House, 2016).  Nerdy Book Club also reviewed Penguin Problems.

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 – Gary

Happy New Year! And welcome to another year of Perfect Picture Book Friday – my second year as a participating blogger.

Thanks to an anti-resolution revolution post from Julie Hedlund, I spent the waning hours of 2016 focused not just on goals for 2017, but on all that I accomplished in 2016. I realized that I not only read over 400 picture books last year, but reviewed over 50 of them.

As regular readers know, I have a penchant for reviewing books by English author/illustrators, those featuring difficult topics and/or highlighting diverse characters, and books that generally are considered quiet. Today’s Perfect Picture Book hits all three categories (although the author/illustrator now resides in Australia). Enjoy! And cheers to a new year of reading, writing and reviewing picture books! Thanks for following along!

9780763689544_p0_v1_s192x300Title: Gary

Written & Illustrated By: Leila Rudge

Publisher/date: Candlewick Press/2016

Suitable for Ages: 3-7

Themes/Topics: adventure, travel, dreams, overcoming fear, overcoming physical limitations, perseverance, being different


Most of the time, Gary was just like the other racing pigeons.

He ate the same seeds. Slept in the same loft. And dreamed of adventure.

Brief Synopsis: When a racing pigeon who can’t fly suddenly finds himself lost in the city, he relies on other skills to find a way back home.

Links to Resources:

  • Create a map of your room, house, or route to/from school, friend’s or relative’s house, or even a picture book;
  • Many forms of transportation are shown in Gary. Find and list these ways to travel. How many have you used?
  • Create a scrapbook of mementos from a favorite journey, memorializing a favorite event, or about a hobby or sport you love.
  • Find out more about racing pigeons (who knew there’s a Royal Pigeon Racing Association in the UK?).

Why I Like this Book:

Simple title, simple story, simple message: it’s ok to be different. Keep dreaming, as you will find a way to realize your dreams. What better message than that as we start the new year?

The text is straightforward and the illustrations, a mixture of colored pencil, paint and collage, capture Gary’s love of scrapbooking journeys and showcase many aspects of the journey he ultimately enjoys.

A Note about Craft:

When I think about what makes a first line great, I think Ms. Rudge has hit the mark with the first line of Gary. “Most of the time” – so sometimes something is different; “Gary was just like the other racing pigeons.” How is he just like them? How is he different? And what, exactly, are racing pigeons? I want to know more!

Interestingly, the text doesn’t start until page two (with some awesome illustrations on the endpapers, too). We learn then that Gary is sometimes different from the other racing pigeons and that he, and they, dream of “adventure”. It isn’t until page three that we learn that Gary stays at home on race days, and we wait another page to learn why. Combined with illustrations showing Gary busily compiling a travel scrapbook, Rudge’s text spurred me to read on. What a great lesson in perfect openings!

As noted above, Gary is a story of being different and overcoming limitations to realize dreams.  Rather than choosing a human child as main character, perhaps sidelined on a playing field, foot in cast or sitting in a wheelchair, Rudge chooses a species with a sport about which most of us know nothing. I can envision this giving rise to some interesting conversations about differences, dreams, and overcoming limitations. Brilliant!

Finally, Rudge ends Gary by circling back to repeat the first lines, with a twist. Classic picture book ending!

Find out more about Leila Rudge. Read the starred Kirkus Review 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 – The Friend Ship

The sun and the moon aligned recently, and I enjoyed the distinct pleasure of being in lower Manhattan and able to attend the book launch of today’s Perfect Picture Book. And as we’re still in the holiday season, and there are at least two holiday connections, I just had to share it with you today:

9781484707265_p0_v3_s192x300Title: The Friend Ship

Written By: Kat Yeh

Illustrated By: Chuck Groenink

Publisher/date: Disney Hyperion (Disney Book Group)/December 2016

Suitable for Ages: 3-5

Themes/Topics: friendship; journey; hedgehogs; loneliness


Hedgehog was curled up in a prickly little ball in the lonely little nook of a lonely little tree when she heard someone say her name.

“Poor Hedgehog seems so lonely!”

“I know, but it will get better. Friendship is out there – all she has to do is look.”

Brief Synopsis: A lonely hedgehog sets sail to find the friend ship. She meets animals on her journey who join in her search, until they all discover what friendship really is.

Links to Resources:

  • Plan a journey: What would you bring along? Who would you invite to share your journey?
  • Friendship or Friend Ship? Homemade or Home Made? Sometimes when two words are put together they acquire a meaning distinct from the two words used separately. Can you think of others?

Why I Like this Book: This is a simple tale of misunderstanding. Hedgehog thinks that friendship is a thing – a ship full of friends. So like anyone seeking something, she sets out to find it. She sets sail and along the way meets others who also seek friends. In classic style, Hedgehog finds what she’s seeking – friends, even though she never realizes she’s mistaken about the meaning of friendship.

Warm, sunny illustrations complement this sweet story – and Groenink even added a few surprises to add to the fun.

A Note about Craft:

Friendship is an evergreen topic (holiday connection #1), but how do you make it fresh? In Kat’s case, she cleverly looked at the word, broke it apart, added a misunderstanding, and voila! The MC is off on a quest to find the Friend Ship. Brilliant!

I also think her choice of MC is ingenious. Hedgehogs are prickly, but not as prickly as porcupines. They can curl up into a ball, like a shy or lonely child. What a perfect choice to lead a journey to find friends. And what’s the holiday connection, you ask? When our son was young and we were living in England, he desperately wanted a hedgehog. While we never agreed to his request, we did get him a hedgehog ornament to hang on the Christmas tree. To this day, I cannot see a hedgehog without thinking of the holidays!

If you enjoyed The Friend Ship, you may also enjoy Salina Yoon’s Be a Friend (Bloomsbury Children’s Books, 2016).

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 – Amazing Peace: A Christmas Poem

Happy holidays – whichever one(s) you celebrate! I can think of no better words and sentiment to usher in Christmas than today’s Perfect Picture Book:

9780375943270_p0_v1_s662x600Title: Amazing Peace: A Christmas Poem

Written By: Maya Angelou

Illustrated By: Steve Johnson and Lou Fancher

Publisher/date: Schwartz & Wade Books (Random House Children’s Books)/2008 (poem originally written in 2005)

Suitable for Ages: 6-10

Themes/Topics: Poetry, Christmas, Peace


Thunder rumbles in the mountain passes

And lightning rattles the eaves of our houses.

Floodwaters await in our avenues.


Snow falls upon snow, falls upon snow to avalanche

Over unprotected villages.

The sky slips low and gray and threatening.

Brief Synopsis: Read by Ms. Angelou at the lighting of the national Christmas tree in 2005, this poem is a celebration of the “Glad Season” and a prayer for peace for peoples of all faiths.

Links to Resources:

  • Candles figure prominently in the celebration of Christmas, as they do in the illustrations of this poem. Light candles and share your hopes and dreams for the holiday season and the world.
  • Learn about other holidays celebrated around the world during December.

Why I Like this Book:

It’s a poem by Maya Angelou – need I write more? And while it’s a Christmas poem, the real theme is Peace – something desired by “Believers and Nonbelievers”, peoples of all faiths, as Ms. Angelou states. And what is this “Peace” of which she writes?

Louder than the explosion of bombs…

            Not just the absence of war. But true Peace.

            A harmony of spirit, a comfort of courtesies

            Security for our beloveds and their beloveds.

Illustrated in a folksy style that includes both animals and people in snowy landscapes moving to congregate for a community gathering, Amazing Peace: A Christmas Poem is a wonderful poem to read aloud as a family and reflect on how we can promote peace in our family, our community, our world and with nature. Or better yet, listen to the accompanying CD of Maya Angelou reading the poem while savoring Johnson & Fancher’s illustrations.

A Note about Craft:

This picture book was a stand-alone poem before being illustrated. As the creator of a stand-alone poem, Ms. Angelou was tasked with creating visual images for her listeners. And yet the poem begins with a sound, “Thunder rumbles.” This is a wonderful reminder to consider all of our readers’ & listeners’ senses, and not just sight. Perhaps, too, Ms. Angela is specifically calling us to listen carefully to what follows. By including sounds and senses other than sight in our first lines, perhaps we, too, can prime our readers to consider the entire experience evoked by our words and images.

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 – Gingerbread Christmas

If you asked anyone in my household the name of an author/illustrator who publishes Christmas stories, I’ve no doubt that any of them would immediately answer, “Jan Brett.” We had a small copy of her illustrated Twelve Days of Christmas (G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1986) when my children were young. It was a holiday tradition to read the book each year, and I vividly recall the kids pointing out favorite details in the elaborate sidebars. Since then, we’ve read, and savored, so many of her other holiday classics. When I discovered her latest holiday story at the library, I knew I had to feature it as a Perfect Picture Book:

9780399170713_p0_v1_s192x300Title: Gingerbread Christmas

Written & Illustrated By: Jan Brett

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

Suitable for Ages: 3-5

Themes/Topics: Christmas, gingerbread, music, festivals

Opening: “Everyone in the village is talking about the Christmas Festival,” Matti told the Gingerbread Baby. “I can sing in my Gingerbread Band!” the Gingerbread Baby sang out.”

Brief Synopsis: Matti creates a Gingerbread Band to accompany the Gingerbread Baby. But when a hungry child decides that the music is not just sweet but would be tasty, too, both Matti and the Baby must use their wits to save the Band and the Baby.

Links to Resources:

  • Bake and decorate gingerbread. Find Jan Brett’s recipe here.
  • Make a gingerbread house. Jan Brett has an interactive Gingerbaby House design that can be decorated and printed on her website.
  • You also can color a Gingerbaby page.
  • Sing favorite holiday songs.

Why I Like this Book: This is a feel-good story for the holidays. I love Matti’s resourcefulness, and I especially love the sense of community as villagers and wild animals dance to the Band’s tunes. When one greedy youngster decides to eat the band, readers will learn how quickly greediness can spoil a treat that was being enjoyed by all.

I love, too, Jan’s folksy illustrations, especially the side frames, that are as integral to this new Christmas tale as they are to Jan Brett’s many other books.

A Note about Craft:

What better combination than sweet gingerbread and sweet music! The band plays a march as, you guessed it, they march to the bandstand. They next play a “snappy” tune – as snappy as the gingerbread my mother baked. Their playing is described as “sweet” – a perfect adverb to describe music fit for the holidays. I love how these descriptors could as easily be descriptions of cookies on a platter as music played on a stage.

The turning point arrives when one greedy, or perhaps just observant and hungry, young girl calls a cookie a cookie and declares that she wants one. Immediately, “everyone” wants a “piece of gingerbread for myself.” Adults will recognize how one person’s vocalization is enough to put an idea into the heads of “everyone.” This could lead to some interesting discussions about thinking for oneself; being a leader rather than a follower; and even, perhaps, sticking up for the poor gingerbread instruments that had been trying so hard to entertain the crowd.

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!

The Twelve Days of Happy Holidays

Drumroll please:

Come they told me
Pa rum pum pum pum

New holiday stories to read
Pa rum pum pum pum

Our finest stories we write
Pa rum pum pum pum
To lay before the judges

Pa rum pum pum pum,
rum pum pum pum,
rum pum pum pum…

The 6th Annual Holiday Contest!!!!!

Thanks to Susanna Hill, we have the chance to enter a contest AND read all of the other entries posted at the link. Now that’s what I call a holiday treat! 

The Contest:  Write a children’s holiday story (children here defined as approximately age 12 and under) using the basic format/concept of The Twelve Days Of Christmas!  Your story may be poetry or prose, silly or serious or sweet, religious or not, based on Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa or whatever you celebrate, but is not to exceed 300 words.

So many possibilities! So many winter holidays! How could I choose just one? So I didn’t! Thankfully, a daughter has studied world religions and worked at the Pluralism Project, whose mission is “to help Americans engage with the realities of religious diversity through research, outreach, and the active dissemination of resources.”

I then did some further research, including the pages of the United Religions Initiative for Kids. Please note that in a few cases, I’ve highlighted holidays that are celebrated at other times of the year, either to include a particular religion or to highlight a religion’s primary or better-known holiday. Without further ado, I present:

Twelve Days of Happy Holidays

On the first day of Christmas,

My Father shared with me:

A Savior’s bless’d nativity.


On the second day of Pancha Ganapati,

Lord Ganesha gave to me:

Two spicy Vadai,

And a Savior’s bless’d nativity.


On the third day of Eid,

An Imam shared with me:

Three juicy dates,

Two spicy Vadai,

And a Savior’s bless’d nativity.


On the fourth day of Vesak,

A Buddhist monk revealed to me:

Four noble truths,


And a Savior’s bless’d nativity.


On the fifth day of Soyaluna,

The People of the Pueblo showed to me:

Five Turquoise Rings;


And a Savior’s bless’d nativity.


On the sixth day of Diwali,

The Swami showed to me:

Six candles flickering,

Five Turquoise Rings;


And a Savior’s bless’d nativity.


On the seventh day of Kwanzaa,

My parents gave to me:

Seven heartfelt Zawadi,


And a Savior’s bless’d nativity.


On the eighth day of Hanukkah,

The Rabbi shared with me:

Eight oil lamps glowing,


And a Savior’s bless’d nativity.


On the ninth day of the lunar new year,

My Teacher read to me:

Nine Confucian texts,


And a Savior’s bless’d nativity.


On the tenth day of Maghi,

My Guru sang to me:

Ten sacred Kirtans,


And a Savior’s bless’d nativity.


On the eleventh day of the Winter Solstice,

A Wiccan presented to me:

Eleven Yule logs blazing,

Ten sacred Kirtans,

Nine Confucian texts,

Eight oil lamps glowing,

Seven heartfelt Zawadi,

Six candles flickering,

Five Turquoise Rings;

Four noble truths,

Three juicy dates,

Two spicy Vadai,

And a Savior’s bless’d nativity.


On the twelfth day of the bleak midwinter,

Our Creators asked of me:

Pray for peace and religious harmony.



Learn more about the faiths represented and the holidays featured: