Category Archives: Perfect Picture Books

PPBF – Sing, Don’t Cry

I was privileged to view spreads from today’s Perfect Picture Book at the Highlights Foundation earlier this week, as the Foundation is featuring them in a Visual Artist Exhibition this year. When I saw the artwork in the Barn, the main gathering spot, I just had to purchase and review this uplifting book.

Title: Sing, Don’t Cry

Written & Illustrated By: Angela Dominguez

Publisher/Date: Henry Holt and Company/2017

Suitable for Ages: 4-8

Themes/Topics: intergenerational, family, Latinx, music

Opening:

Once a year, my abuelo would come from Mexico to stay with us.

Brief Synopsis:

Based on visits with the author/illustrator’s own Mexican grandfather, this story explores the loving relationship between the narrator, a young child, and her or his musical abuelo.

Links to Resources:

  • Ask family members to share favorite songs, and enjoy a sing-a-long;
  • Learn about and listen to some mariachi music.

Why I Like this Book:

Sing, Don’t Cry is a book filled with music, optimism, and love. It’s clear from the smiling faces on the first spread, that the two children, a young brother and sister, love their grandfather and have looked forward to his visit. Dominguez includes examples of things going wrong that are very kid-relatable: moving, a lost toy, unkind school mates, and an injury that precludes participating in a sport. But their abuelo reminds them that singing can help them overcome sadness, and that things will get better. I love this positive attitude, and I especially appreciate the loving intergenerational relationship portrayed.

The smiling faces throughout the book made me smile as I read it. I also noticed that the colors in the sad scenes were muted, to make a clear distinction between the times when bad or sad things happened, and the happy, hopeful reminder that singing will make things better.

A Note about Craft:

From the jacket flap and in an Author’s Note, readers learn that this story is based on Dominguez’ own abuelo, Apolinar Navarrete Diaz, a Mexican musician who performed on the radio in the 1940s. I think by basing the character on a real person that she knows, Dominguez is better able to bring him to life. Dominguez also shares that the title and story are inspired by the refrain in a popular Mexican song, an aspect of the story that celebrates Mexican culture.

Sing, Don’t Cry features two unnamed siblings. Dominguez uses first person point-of-view, but it’s never clear whether the narrator is the young girl or boy. I think this broadens the market for this picture book, as it will appeal to boys and girls equally.

Visit Dominguez’ website to see more of her books.

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

PPBF – Peaceful Fights for Equal Rights

As I was preparing this post, I couldn’t help but think of the ticker-tape parade occurring just a few miles or so (as the seagulls fly) from my home. The feting of the world champion US women’s soccer team included not just a celebration but a call for equal pay for female soccer players and the recognition by these athletes that they could use their success to advocate for social good. While I have no evidence that these women read today’s Perfect Picture Book, I have every reason to believe that they would support its message.

Title: Peaceful Fights for Equal Rights

Written By: Rob Sanders

Illustrated By: Jared Andrew Schorr

Publisher/Date: Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers/2018

Suitable for Ages: 4-8

Themes/Topics: protest, equal rights, concept book, multicultural

Opening:

Assemble. Take action. Create allies.

Brief Synopsis:

A concept book that explores the various ways to fight peacefully for equal rights.

Links to Resources:

  • Make a banner or sign to show an idea that you support or that you want to protest;
  • Think of three things that you and your family or classroom can do to help the environment, support a favorite cause, or welcome a refugee;
  • Download the Educator’s Guide to discover more ideas.

Why I Like this Book:

From A to Z, Sanders provides concrete examples of ways to advocate peacefully for equal rights. With short but lyrical text, Sanders prompts young readers to ask questions, become informed, and take action for what they believe. I love the many verbs used that encourage action. I also love that so many options are offered, including giving time, having hope (and being hope), praying, and voting, among many, many others. Finally, I love that the vocabulary stretches young listeners, especially as there’s a comprehensive Glossary with pronunciation guide, so that children can learn the language of protest. A note about the history of Peaceful Protests rounds out this wonderful concept book that will have families and classrooms excited to take positive action.

Schorr’s cut-paper illustrations are vibrant and add so much context to the sparse text. I found the two-page spreads with one word or phrase particularly powerful, especially “unite” with its many hands of varying hues raised in peace signs.

A Note about Craft:

A book about taking action should leave its readers and listeners ready to take action, but how does an author do that? I think with his sparse text, in short, choppy sentences, all starting with verbs, Sanders encourages people to get up and do something. The low word count also has the effect of leaving space for the illustrator, which Schorr utilizes to include a wide range of diverse characters and cultural and historical references that adults will appreciate and enjoy sharing with youngsters.

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

PPBF – Out of this World: The Surreal Art of Leonora Carrington

When I read a recent article about the subject of today’s Perfect Picture Book and realized that she, like so many other artists, fled Europe and the Nazis during World War II, I knew that I had to find, and review, this new picture book biography.

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Title: Out of this World: The Surreal Art of Leonora Carrington

Written By: Michelle Markel

Illustrated By: Amanda Hall

Publisher/Date: Balzer + Bray, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers/2019

Suitable for Ages: 4-8

Themes/Topics: biography, female artist, surrealism, refugee

Opening:

Leonora’s parents wanted her to be like every other well-bred English girl.

But she was not.

At the age of four, Leonora started scribbling on the walls, then on paper, and soon the pictures came flooding out….

Brief Synopsis: The biography of Leonora Carrington, an English artist who created colorful, fantasy-filled art featuring strong females.

Links to Resources:

  • Learn about surrealism and try creating your own surrealistic artwork;
  • Carrington’s art features strong females. Think of a woman that you consider strong (either someone you know or someone you’ve learned about, like a politician, actor or artist). Use your imagination to think of some objects that remind you of that woman. Draw a picture combining that female and these objects.

Why I Like this Book:

Out of this World combines beautiful text and gorgeous illustrations to tell the life of an artist who defied societal norms to follow her imagination. Markel shares that Leonora found inspiration in nature, in the legends told by her Irish grandmother, and in fantastic tales. Leonora drew from a young age, even scribbling on walls at age 4, and kept drawing, letting her imagination spill forth, throughout her life.

I wasn’t surprised to learn that she was the youngest and only female in a group of Surrealist artists in Paris early in her career. But after fleeing the Nazis and settling in Mexico, she became friends with a fellow female artist, and went on to create fantastic artwork featuring strong females. As Markel concludes, art “was a way to love the universe and understand it.”  It was also a way to share her perception that “women have special gifts; they can do things beyond anybody’s wildest dreams”, which, as Markel notes, “is marvelous, and it’s powerful, and it’s true.” I think young artists and young feminists will be inspired by this biography to follow their imaginations, wherever they may lead.

Hall’s colorful watercolor inks and gouache illustrations are filled with images that evoke those that Leonora herself created. Many are two-page spreads that act as a window into Leonora’s imagination and art.

A Note about Craft:

Markel uses words such as imagination, dreaminess, magic, fantastic, and mystical throughout the text. These terms could also be used to describe the artwork Leonora created. It makes me think that Markel viewed Leonora’s work, jotted down words that came to mind, and then used them to describe her life. Doing so helps the reader understand Leonora’s life and work better, too, and is a technique writers can use, I think, when writing non-fiction.

For an informative recent interview with Hall about the creation of Out of this World including its genesis and the challenges of depicting the life of someone whose artwork is still protected by copyright, see Kathy Temean’s Writing and Illustrating.

Markel and Hall also collaborated on The Fantastic Jungles of Henri Rousseau (Eerdmans Books for Young Readers/2012).

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

PPBF – Drummer Boy of John John

June is National Caribbean American Heritage Month. To celebrate, I thought we should find a parade and make some music, like they do in many parts of the Caribbean for Carnival, an event held during February on many islands, but in summer in others.

Title: Drummer Boy of John John

Written By: Mark Greenwood

Illustrated By: Frané Lessac

Publisher/Date: Lee & Low Books/2018

Suitable for Ages: 3-8+

Themes/Topics: Caribbean, Carnival, recycling, steel drums, music

Opening:

The sun beat down on the tropical island of Trinidad. In the village of John John, families and friends toiled in teams, sewing beads onto costumes, decorating masks with feathers and shells.

Brief Synopsis: Young Winston dreams of participating in the Carnival Parade and winning free rotis, but he needs instruments in order to form a band and march in the Parade.

Links to Resources:

Why I Like this Book:

Drummer Boy of John John is a fun read-aloud, full of the sights and sounds of the Caribbean island of Trinidad. Based on the true story of Winston “Spree” Simon, who, according to the Author’s Note, was “a pioneer in the development of the steel drum, or pan”, Drummer Boy of John John tells the story of young Winston and his desire to form a band for the Carnival Parade. Winston, though, has no musical instruments. But when he hears the sounds of a mango pit pinging and panging on metal objects in the junkyard, he creates his own instruments out of trash.

I love how readers see that with a bit of imagination and elbow grease to paint the trash, Winston succeeds in creating musical instruments even with no money to purchase anything. I also love how Greenwood weaves the sounds of the drums and the sounds of other bands’ instruments through the text – making this reader feel as if I’ve just enjoyed a Carnival parade. Readers also learn about roti – a popular dish in the Caribbean. Drummer Boy of John John is a great way to travel to, and learn about, the people and culture of this part of the world.

Lessac’s bright and colorful illustrations bring the island and Greenwood’s text to life. The Author’s Note and Glossary and Pronunciation Guide round out this wonderful picture book.

A Note about Craft:

Music is an integral part of this picture book, and Greenwood brings music to his text by using onomatopoeia repeatedly throughout the story. In the main text, he uses phrases such as “tapped out tinkling tones.” But in colorful, bold text woven through the illustrations, we read “jingle jangle tingle tangle clink clank clunk”. I think this is a wonderful way to capture the sounds of the Carnival bands and draw readers right into the action. And what young child can resist repeating these sounds: “boom boody-boom chucka boom bam”!

Read an interview with Greenwood and Lessac, the husband and wife creators of Drummer Boy of John John.

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

PPBF – Through the Window: Views of Marc Chagall’s Life and Art

Yesterday was World Refugee Day. This week, Refugee Week is celebrated in many parts of the world. When we think of refugees, we don’t often remember that famous artists, like Irving Berlin, the subject of my review last week, and the subject of today’s Perfect Picture Book, were refugees, too. Thankfully, both found refuge when they needed it.

Title: Through the Window: Views of Marc Chagall’s Life and Art

Written By: Barb Rosenstock

Illustrated By: Mary GrandPré

Publisher/Date: Alfred A. Knopf/2018

Suitable for Ages: 4-8

Themes/Topics: modern art, refugee, biography, Judaism

Opening:

Through the window, the boy sees…Papa, trudging home from work, wool coat shiny with the salt of fish. Mama, sprinkling today’s gossip like bits of sugar from her shop next door.

Brief Synopsis: The biography of the modern artist, Marc Chagall, a young boy who observed life outside his window in Russia, dreamt of color, fled to Paris and then New York, and created paintings, sculptures and stained glass.

Links to Resources:

Why I Like this Book:

In lyrical language that mimics the rhythms of Chagall’s autobiography, Rosenstock recounts this artist’s life from boyhood to his last artistic undertakings. In text that summons up several of Chagall’s masterpieces, Rosenstock asks readers to notice what Chagall, as boy, student, misfit, painter, revolutionary, and master, saw and created. I love how Rosenstock draws our attention to the illustrations and to Chagall’s dreams that became his artistic creations.

I also appreciate how Rosenstock recounts where and why Chagall moved, without letting that overwhelm the focus on his artistry. We learn that Chagall fled Russia to escape anti-Semitism and the “glittering city” of St. Petersburg, filled with many poor people who were ignored; that he grew disillusioned with the authoritarian Soviet government, and fled once again to Paris; and that he sought refuge in America when “war stomps across France.”  Had America not accorded Chagall refugee status, this Jewish artist may not have survived the Holocaust.

We also learn that Chagall did not begin creating the stained glass windows for which he is so famous until after these experiences, when he was older (in the Author’s Note, we learn that Chagall was 70 when he designed his first original window). I appreciate Rosenstock’s focus on Chagall’s “second career”, as I think it shows readers that talent doesn’t end when someone reaches a certain age, and that it’s never too late to try new pursuits.

GrandPré’s rich acrylic on board illustrations utilize Chagall’s rich palette and further the reader’s immersion into his life and work.

A Note about Craft:

Rosenstock uses a window motif to organize Chagall’s life by age, location and work. She repeats “[t]hrough the window” seven times, each time showing the reader what Chagall sees. I think this is a wonderful way to provide repetition in the text and tie different stages of Chagall’s life together, especially since, as Rosenstock shares in an Author’s Note, Chagall “was fascinated by views glimpsed through windows” from an early age and created art featuring windows. In a twist at the end, though, Rosenstock notes, “Through Marc’s windows, we see…”, and then proceeds to describe components of  Chagall’s stained glass windows. I love how this draws the reader into the story and invites us to discover what we can see.

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

PPBF – Irving Berlin: The Immigrant Boy Who Made America Sing

Happy Flag Day! To celebrate, let’s wave our flags, raise our voices in song, and celebrate the immigrants who contribute so much to our country, like the subject of today’s Perfect Picture Book.

Title: Irving Berlin: The Immigrant Boy Who Made America Sing

Written By: Nancy Churnin

Illustrated By: James Rey Sanchez

Publisher/Date: Creston Books/2018

Suitable for Ages: 7-12

Themes/Topics: biography, composer, immigrant, patriotism, singing

Opening:

Irving stood on tiptoe to see over the rail. Behind him, too far to glimpse, was Russia where angry Cossacks had burned his family’s home to ashes. Ahead was America. What would they find there?

Brief Synopsis: A cradle-to-grave biography of Irving Berlin, a young Jewish immigrant who shared his love of his adopted homeland by composing a beloved anthem.

Links to Resources:

  • Listen to some of the over 1,500 songs that Irving Berlin composed. Do you have a favorite?
  • Listen to Kate Smith’s first performance of God Bless America;
  • Churnin features a Make America Sing page on her website, where she encourages readers to celebrate their heritage and that of classmates and friends;
  • Check out the Curriculum Guide found at Creston Books for more ideas.

Why I Like this Book:

Churnin has written a lyrical biography that introduces young readers to the composer who wrote a song that most, if not all, will recognize. But many, including adult readers,  may not know that Irving Berlin was a Jewish immigrant who as a young child fled Russia with his family to escape persecution, that he left home at 13 to support himself after his father’s death, and that he sold newspapers and was a singing waiter before composing the first of over 1,500 songs, including many popular Broadway shows. And though Berlin became rich and famous for his catchy tunes, Churnin informs readers that “he never took a penny for ‘God Bless America.’” All proceeds from that song he donated to the Girl and Boy Scouts. As Churnin notes, it was his way of sharing the “music in his heart’, his “thank you” to America, the country that opened its doors to him and other refugees in the late 19th century.

I think Churnin’s focus on Berlin’s difficult childhood will help young readers to empathize with Berlin. I think, too, that her focus on his persistence will resonate. Music lovers of all ages will enjoy learning about Berlin. Irving Berlin will make a welcome addition to classroom and home libraries.

Sanchez’ muted-tone illustrations add an early-to-mid 20th century feel to the text. I love the sense of crowding in the early, tenement scenes, and I especially love the pop of red that punctuates the drab backgrounds, generally on a long red scarf that mimics the flow of the Hudson River and the notes on a music staff.

A Note about Craft:

In a StoryStorm post this past January, Churnin advised writers interested in exploring historical topics to “make a date with history” and research important anniversaries when trying to determine who, or what, to write about. She followed her own advice, as Irving Berlin appeared on bookshelves in 2018, the 100th anniversary of God Bless America. Churnin’s latest picture book biography, Martin & Anne: The Kindred Spirits of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Anne Frank, was published in time for the 100th anniversary of the birthdays of these two important people. Who, or what, will you choose as your next non-fiction picture book topic?

In an interview on The Picture Book Buzz recently, Churnin mentioned that an “aha” moment for her occurred when a friend noted that Berlin incorporated a Jewish melody into God Bless America. This became Churnin’s “way into” the story. Identifying that “tidbit” that resonates and becomes a theme in a story is so important for any writer, but especially for someone trying to condense a long life into limited text, all while trying to make it interesting and accessible to young children. It also could be something that sets your book apart from others, just in case, as happened with the anniversary of God Bless America, you aren’t the only one writing and publishing a picture book about it.

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

PPBF – A Gift from Abuela

I received a copy of this today’s featured picture book in a giveaway from Children’s Books Heal. Lucky me! Patricia featured it for Multicultural Children’s Book Day this past January – I hope you agree that this is a Perfect Picture Book to celebrate multiculturalism and the bonds that unite us.

Title: A Gift for Abuela

Written & Illustrated By: Cecilia Ruiz

Publisher/Date: Candlewick Press/2018

Suitable for Ages: 4-8

Themes/Topics: intergenerational, multicultural, Mexico, economic hardship

Opening:

Abuela would never forget the day Niña was born. It was an unusual day in Mexico City. On this day, the sky was clear and the streets were still.

Brief Synopsis: A heartwarming story of the love shared between a young girl, Niña, and her grandmother, Abuela.

Links to Resources:

  • Niña and her Abuela enjoy eating sweet bread, pan dulce, together. Learn the history of this traditional Mexican treat, with roots in Spanish and French baking, and try making it;
  • What do you and your grandmother or grandfather enjoy doing together? Describe or draw a picture of you and a grandparent or other favorite relative or family friend;
  • Abuela and Niña cut beautiful papel picado banners together. Learn how to make these festive, tissue-paper banners.

Why I Like this Book:

A Gift for Abuela is a quiet, lyrical story of the bond between a grandmother and her granddaughter. I love how that connection grows from Niña’s birth as the pair share simple pleasures, “silly songs”, “spinning around” until dizzy, making “papel picado banners”, and sitting together in the park every Sunday, eating pan dulce and people watching. But even as their bond deepened, “life got harder in Mexico” due to economic troubles, Abuela worked more and was “always tired”, and time spent with school friends meant that Niña visited Abuela less often. Sadly, the pesos that Abuela had saved for a special gift for Niña became worthless, too.

Then one day, Niña visited and found the house looking “sad and dusty”. She determined to clean up and in doing so found the worthless bills that could no longer purchase a special present. I won’t spoil the ending, so you’ll have to read to discover the true gift that Abuela shared with her granddaughter.

Ruiz’ detailed pastel, block-printed illustrations are so expressive and clearly show the love between grandparent and grandchild that helps them overcome adversity.

A Note about Craft:

As mentioned above, the pesos Abuela was saving for a special gift for Niña became worthless. So why did Ruiz (or her editor) entitle this picture book A Gift from Abuela? Dealing as it does with reversals in life, I think they did so to encourage children to think about what really is important in life – is it the newest gadget or toy? Or is it, perhaps, the time we spend making happy memories with loved ones? I also think this additional theme of economic uncertainty will help children empathize with classmates or friends who experience poverty or even gain comfort if they experience it, too.

Inside the book jacket, readers learn that Ruiz is sharing “a deeply personal story”. The emotional ties evident in A Gift from Abuela show that she, too, has experienced a special gift from her own Mexican abuela.

Visit Ruiz’ website to see more of her work.

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