Monthly Archives: September 2016

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.

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!