Category Archives: Perfect Picture Books

PPBF – Ayobami and the Names of the Animals

I saw this picture book last fall on a “best illustrated” list, and the title and cover intrigued me. Thankfully, my local library has a copy, and I’m able to share it with you.

Title: Ayobami and the Names of the Animals

Written By: Pilar López Ávila

Illustrated By: Mar Azabal

Translated By: Jon Brokenbrow

Publisher/Date: Cento de Luz SL/2017

Suitable for Ages: 4-8

Themes/Topics: education; literacy; overcoming danger; persistence; war; jungle animals

Opening:

When the war finally came to an end, the teacher went from house to house, telling everyone that the children could go back to school the next day.

Brief Synopsis: When a young African girl, Ayobami, becomes lost on her way to school, she promises the animals she meets in the jungle that she will write their names for them, if they let her pass.

Links to Resources:

  • Ayobami meets several jungle animals on her walk to school. Learn about African jungle animals;
  • What jungle animal do you resemble most? Take this fun quiz to find out;
  • Ayobami was happy to return to school to learn to read and write. What makes you happy at school? What subject do you most want to learn?
  • Compare your journey to school with Ayobami’s journey. How are they the same? How are they different?

Why I Like this Book:

In fable-like prose, complete with talking animals who long to learn their names, Ayobami and the Names of the Animals features a determined young girl who convinces the dangerous jungle animals she encounters that she will write down their names for them if they allow her to pass. Not only will young children learn the names of several African jungle animals, such as crocodile, snake, and mosquito, but I think they will appreciate Ayobami’s tenacity as she negotiates with each animal in turn to reach her goal of learning to read and write. Even young children will be able to follow along as they identify different animals and search the illustrations for the many hidden letters.

I love that Ayobami kept her promises and shared the literacy she gained with the animals by naming them – a sign of dignity or perhaps order that indicates the power of education to bring peace and stability to the world. I especially love López Ávila’s description of how Ayobami learned to read and write by learning “the letters of the alphabet”, learning “how to put them together to make sounds”, joining “the sounds to make words”, and mixing “the words together to make sentences.” The result? “And she heard the music that comes from making words.”

Azabal’s colorful illustrations include letters sprinkled throughout most of the illustrations. And don’t miss the lined yellow endpapers that include the cursive alphabets that many of us might remember from our school days.

A Note about Craft:

You’ll note from the Opening above that the main character does not appear in the first lines. In fact, she doesn’t appear until page three. I think López Ávila does this to give context to Ayobami’s story, to show how the education of one girl can restore order after the cessation of war.

Per the publisher’s website, López Ávila is a Spanish author and doctor of veterinary medicine.

Visit Azabal’s website to see more of her work. Ayobami and the Names of the Animals was a New York Times Best Illustrated Children’s Book of 2018.

Cuento de Luz  is an independent publisher based in Spain that “publishes stories that take the imagination on a journey, help care for our planet, respect differences and promote peace.” It’s a certified B corporation, which means that it uses its business as a source for good, including by printing its books using special “stone paper”.

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!

PPBF – Dangerous Jane

For International Women’s Day, I’m happy to share a fairly recent picture book biography of one of my all-time heroes.

Title: Dangerous Jane

Written By: Suzanne Slade

Illustrated By: Alice Ratterree

Publisher/Date: Peachtree Publishers/2017

Suitable for Ages: 6-10

Themes/Topics: biography; Nobel Peace Prize; Hull House; immigrants; settlement house

Opening:

Jane was born beside a sparkling creek on an Illinois prairie in a friendly town called Cedarville.

Brief Synopsis: The biography of Jane Addams who founded Hull House, the first settlement house in the United States, led the Women’s Peace Party and the International Congress of Women to restore peace during World War I, helped displaced persons and refugees after the war, and was the first American woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize in 1931.

Links to Resources:

  • Check out the Teacher’s Guide to find discussion questions, a timeline, vocabulary crossword puzzle, simile writing exercise, and more;
  • Pair Dangerous Jane with primary sources from the era to discover more about Jane Addams;
  • Check out the back matter, including a timeline, more about “Dangerous Jane”, and a select bibliography;
  • Celebrate International Women’s Day in your classroom, library or home, with these resources.

Why I Like this Book:

In this cradle to almost-grave picture book biography, Slade constructs a compelling narrative to show how the losses Jane Addams suffered as a child and the poverty she saw then informed her life’s work. As Slade notes, “Jane promised herself- when she grew up, she would buy a big house to share with people in need.” Later, we learn that Addams founded Hull House in Chicago to help immigrants adapt to life in America. She then used the skills she’d honed helping “people from different countries live in peace at Hull House” to promote peace during World War I. Although her efforts were not immediately successful and although Addams was criticized for the work she undertook, ultimately “dangerous” Jane was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, the first American woman to be so honored.

I think children, teachers, and parents will appreciate how Slade ties the seemingly disparate aspects of Addams’ work into a cohesive narrative and how she relates it back to Addams’ childhood. By doing so, I think she helps children realize that they, too, can make a difference. I also liked that Slade focuses not just on Addams’ well-known settlement house work, but that she extends the story to include Addams’ peace-building efforts.

Based on a William Morris color scheme and incorporating the faces evident in contemporary photographs, Ratterree’s detailed illustrations help evoke Addams’ world.  Even young children will be able to follow along finding Addams, clad in green throughout the story, in each spread.

A Note about Craft:

The title of today’s perfect picture book intrigued me and caused me to pick it up. Reading the jacket flap, I learned immediately that Dangerous Jane is the biography of Jane Addams, whose work at Hull House I’d studied, and whose memoir about the same I’d read. I could think of many adjectives to describe Addams, but “dangerous” wasn’t among them. I was hooked! You’ll have to read the book to determine why this is such a perfect title – you may be as surprised as I was.

Dangerous Jane is a cradle to almost-grave biography. Writing Addams’ story in this way enables Slade, I think, to put the main events into perspective and encourages children to think that if the sickly, motherless Addams could found a movement and promote world peace, they can bring about positive change, too.

With such a long timeline, it could be difficult to follow the story. Slade provides repetition and repeats motifs which, I think, help tie the story together. Addams’ “aching heart” is one of those; asking questions, “What could she do?”, is another. Depicting Addams in a signature-green outfit, wearing her mother’s broach is a third, and I’m sure there are several I’m not highlighting here. What repetition or threads can you use to bring order to and help readers follow a decades-long story?

Visit Slade’s website to see more of the many non-fiction picture books she has written. Read a post by Slade at Picture Book Builders in which she shares why she wrote Dangerous Jane and interviews Ratterree.

Visit Ratterree’s website to see more of her illustrations and read a post in which she discusses her research for Dangerous Jane and interviews Slade.

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!

Perfect Picture Book Friday – The Patchwork Bike

I thought I’d celebrate the first day of March optimistically, as it’s the month when spring arrives in the northern hemisphere, and cyclists tune up their bikes in anticipation of the return (hopefully) of warmer weather. I hope you’re all able to hit the roads on your favorite two or three wheelers soon!

Title: The Patchwork Bike

Written By: Maxine Beneba Clarke

Illustrated By: Van Than Rudd

Publisher/Date: Candlewick Press/2018 (first published in Australia by Hachette Australia/2016)

Suitable for Ages: 6-9

Themes/Topics: bicycle; resourcefulness; play; poverty; imagination; North Africa; multicultural

Opening:

This is the village where we live inside our mud-for-walls home.

These are my crazy brothers, and this is our fed-up mum.

Brief Synopsis: The young narrator and her brothers in an unnamed village near a desert create a bike out of used items and take readers on a joy-filled journey.

Links to Resources:

Why I Like this Book:

With its sparse text and roll-off-your-tongue language, The Patchwork Bike is a joy-filled read-aloud that will have kids wanting to build their own patchwork bike. The bike’s handlebar branches “shicketty shake” and “wood-cut wheels” “winketty wonk” when the children ride it. Who wouldn’t want to “bumpety bump” through the village under the “stretching-out sky”?

But along with this joy and exuberance, astute children and adults will notice that these children live in a “mud-for-walls home” and have a “fed-up mum”, perhaps because the kids use “Mum’s milk pot” (her only milk pot?) for a bell. And they make their bike not out of a purchased kit but from what most of us would term trash. I think the inclusion of these signs of poverty adds a rich layer to this story that makes this a perfect book for classroom or home discussion.

Van Than Rudd’s expressive acrylic illustrations on recycled cardboard add so many details to the text including picturing dark-skinned Mum with a head covering and robe, indicative of clothing from North Africa, including the initials BLM on the bike’s license plate in reference to the Black Lives Matter movement, and an image of the boys standing on an abandoned police car. Pointing out these details to children provides, in my opinion, a wonderful discussion opportunity. As Rudd relates in “A Note About the Illustrations”, “[t]o me, the kids painting ‘BLM’ on a bark license plate was their way of showing pride in what they had created out of limited resources and also linking themselves to a long history of rebellion.”

A Note about Craft:

In sparse, poetic text, author Beneba Clarke transports readers to an unnamed, probably North African village and describes the building of a bicycle out of used materials. Interestingly, she doesn’t mention anything that indicates a geographical region, except the existence of a “no-go desert”, nor that identifies the family as being from a particular race or religion. Instead, these details are left to the illustrator, Rudd, who brings this story to life.

In an “Author’s Note”, Beneba Clarke relates that she included a child with a bike made from scrap pieces in a short story for adults. The image of that child and the experience of bike riding stayed with her and formed the basis of The Patchwork Bike. What characters or situations can you pull from existing manuscripts and repurpose into a new story?

Per Candlewick’s website, Beneba Clarke is “an Australian writer and slam poet champion of Afro-Caribbean descent”. For more information about Beneba Clarke, see a recent Picture Book Author feature in The Brown Bookshelf. This is her first picture book.

Also from Candlewick’s website, Rudd “is an Australian street artist and activist”. This is his first picture book. Read an interview with Rudd at Let’s Talk Picture Books.

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!

PPBF – La Frontera: El viaje con papá~My Journey with Papa

I’ve had this picture book on my radar for a while and was thrilled to find it in the bilingual section of my local library. And now I get to share it with you!

Title: La Frontera: El viaje con papá~My Journey with Papa

Written By: Deborah Mills & Alfredo Alva

Illustrated By: Claudia Navarro

Publisher/Date: Barefoot Books/2018

Suitable for Ages: 3-11

Themes/Topics: immigration; family; coyote; autobiography; bilingual

Opening:

When I was young, my family lived in the small village of La Ceja in central Mexico in the state of Guanajuato. For over 100 years, my family had lived there.

Brief Synopsis: A young boy, Alfredo, recounts the journey he and his father take from their home in Mexico to seek a better life in Texas.

Links to Resources:

  • Alfredo and his father travel by bus, inner tube, walking, and truck. Draw a picture showing one or more of these ways to travel. Can you think of other ways to travel?
  • Alfredo tells the true story of moving from Mexico to Texas and starting a new school there. Have you ever moved? Describe your journey and how you felt about it;
  • Check out the back matter where you can learn more about “borders and culture”, “immigration”, and “Alfredo’s story”;
  • Watch the book trailer -in Spanish with English text.

Why I Like this Book:

La Frontera tells the true story of a young Mexican boy, Alfredo, and his father as they journey from their home in south-central Mexico to a new life in Texas. As the story opens, Alfredo is happy at his home surrounded by a loving family, friends, and even a special donkey, Fernando. But Alfredo’s father worked in the pinyon pine trees with Alfredo’s uncle and grandfather. As the grandfather grew older, he was no longer able to work, the family’s earnings declined, and Alfredo and his brothers were “always hungry”. Because there was no other work in the region, Alfredo’s father sought a better life in the United States, bringing his eldest son, Alfredo, with him.

I think that by setting the idyllic rural scene and showing how the family’s fortunes changed, the authors help readers understand why someone would leave their family and home to undertake an arduous, at times dangerous, journey. I think it also helps readers empathize with Alfredo, and gives a name, and face, to immigrants. Although this true story occurred almost 40 years ago, I think it is relevant today as “illegal immigration” across the southern US border tops headline news.

While the details of the actual journey were eye-opening, including being swindled by the “coyote” smuggler, I found Alfredo’s descriptions of his first days at school most interesting. The reality of not understanding English, of feeling apart and alone, of missing Mama and siblings, are important, I think, for children to understand as they welcome non-English speakers to their classrooms. For new immigrants reading this story, I think it may be helpful for them to see how Alfredo slowly learned English and became “a Texan”, as it may encourage them as they strive to integrate.

Thanks, in part, to Reagan’s immigration amnesty, Alfredo’s story has a happy ending, as readers learn at the end of the story and in the back matter.

Navarro’s brightly-colored graphite, acrylic and collage illustrations bring a Mexican folk art feel to the story, reminding readers of Alfredo’s cultural heritage.

A Note about Craft:

In the back matter, readers learn that La Frontera is a true story about Alfredo and his father, and that Alfredo and a neighbor, Deborah Mills, wrote the story together. As a non-#OwnVoices author, I was intrigued and pleased to learn how a non-#OwnVoices author could help write this timely and important story.

I appreciate that Alva and Mills used first-person point-of-view to bring immediacy to the story. I also appreciate that the editors chose to use English and Spanish side-by-side to render La Frontera more accessible in schools and classrooms with both Spanish and English speakers. And I particularly appreciate the choice of a Mexican illustrator to show, in a way, that Alfredo stayed true to his cultural roots.

Barefoot Books is an independent publisher “founded by two young mothers in England in 1992 and based in Cambridge, MA” that publishes “books for children that encourage discovery, compassion, creativity and global awareness.” Its mission is to “share stories, connect families, inspire children”.

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!

PPBF – Aliana Reaches for the Moon

I don’t often have the pleasure of introducing an about-to-be-published book to readers, but sometimes the moon and stars align (pun intended), and today is one of those days.

Title: Aliana Reaches for the Moon

Written By: Laura Roettiger

Illustrated By: Ariel Boroff

Publisher/Date: Eifrig Publishing/February 2019

Suitable for Ages: 4-8

Themes/Topics: STEAM; family; moon; creativity

Opening:

Aliana lives in the Rocky Mountains, where the night sky holds more stars than you can dream of and the moon shimmers like gold.

Brief Synopsis:

Aliana uses scientific knowledge and everyday objects to create the perfect birthday present for her younger brother.

Links to Resources:

Why I Like this Book:

Aliana Reaches for the Moon features a spunky young scientist who experiments to find just the right birthday present for her beloved younger brother. I love how Aliana researched the moon, prisms and light, and then put that research into practice by repurposing everyday objects, including bottles from the recycling bin, into an experience her brother would never forget. I think kids will enjoy following along with Aliana as she experiments. I particularly appreciate that Aliana “thought outside the box” and, in fact, used no kits to create her gift. I also love that her creation was a shared experience, rather than a material object. Finally, I love that Aliana’s family is Latinx, as evidenced in the illustrations and the terms she uses for her parents, Papá and Mamá, but that the story doesn’t raise difficult issues like discrimination or immigration, but rather celebrates creativity, acting as a mirror for young Latinx children that they, too, can reach for the moon.

Although the story’s climax and several other scenes occur at night, Boroff injects light to brighten these night scenes by adding light to the characters’ faces and by depicting them wearing light-colored clothing. Look for the orange family cat that adds a bit of whimsy to most spreads.

A Note about Craft:

At its heart, Aliana Reaches for the Moon is a book about a creative and science-loving young girl AND a loving family. In almost every scene, readers see Aliana researching and creating. They also see her as part of a loving family in which the parents put up with her messiness, younger brother Gus tags along to the library and to the treehouse, and Aliana uses her newly-gained knowledge and skills to create the perfect birthday present for Gus. I think by combining these layers, Roettinger creates a picture book that is more than the sum of its parts.

Visit Roettiger’s website to learn more about this debut picture book author, and read an interview with Roettiger on Susanna Hill’s Tuesday Debut to learn about the creation of Aliana Reaches for the Moon.

Visit Boroff’s website to see more of this debut illustrator’s work.

Eifrig Publishing is an independent publisher whose mission “is creating books that are good for our kids, good for our environment, and our good for our communities.”

I received an electronic copy of this book in exchange for an unbiased review.

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!

PPBF – Alma and How She Got Her Name

What’s in a name? A lot, if you ask most kids, and even some adults. I’m one of those adults who still wonders about my Irish first name since neither I, nor the parents who adopted me as an infant, are Irish (although I do have a March birthday and like spring green). I also chose names for my own children that aren’t immediately shortened into nicknames nor readily identifiable as a particular nationality. But they all have a middle name from a grandparent, in a nod to family history. Because isn’t family what it’s all about?

Title: Alma and How She Got Her Name

Written & Illustrated By: Juana Martinez-Neal

Publisher/Date: Candlewick Press/2018

Suitable for Ages: 4-8

Themes/Topics: name; identity; family history; Latinx; multicultural; Caldecott honor

Opening:

Alma Sofia Esperanza José Pura Candela had a long name—too long, if you asked her.

Brief Synopsis: A young girl unhappy with her long name learns the story of each of the relatives whose names she bears and learns to embrace her history and her future.

Links to Resources:

Why I Like this Book:

Alma and How She Got Her Name is such a sweet, kid-relatable story with such heart. I immediately fell in love with Alma and her story-telling father. Through the introduction of Alma’s ancestors, readers meet the strong family that came before her, and learn about Alma’s heritage. We also see how each of their many attributes come together to form a new, unique person, Alma, who is ready to tell her own story.

I love the message of celebrating each person’s unique talents while cherishing what we have in common with family members. I also love how the story ends on a forward-looking note as Alma prepares to write her story. In an Author’s Note, Martinez-Neal asks readers about the story of their names and asks what story they’d like to tell.

Alma and How She Got Her Name is a 2019 Caldecott Honor Book – not surprisingly. An illustrator-author, Martinez-Neal shows so much of the story in the graphite, colored pencil and print transfer illustrations. For instance, nowhere in the text does it mention Peru as the country from which Alma’s ancestors hail, but the bookshelves contain many references to Peru, including a piggy bank with PERU on its flank, perhaps to collect coins to save for a trip to visit family. The books gracing many of the pages bear titles in
Spanish, and other items, like dolls and toys, are South American folk art pieces. For curious young listeners, a small bird appears somewhere in almost every spread – I loved watching it accompany Alma and her father on her journey of discovery.

A Note about Craft:

In the Author’s Note, Martinez-Neal shares that she, too, has a too-long name that she felt was “the most old-fashioned, harsh, ugly, and way-too-Spanish name in all of Lima, Peru”. Alma, then, is somewhat autobiographical. I think it’s a wonderful lesson to authors to mine their own past to write stories that show universal themes.

At its most basic, Alma’s story is one conversation that occurs in one room. But by showing Alma interacting with her ancestors and at times mimicking their actions, the illustrations caused at least this reader to feel as if I’d undertaken a journey – both in time and distance.

Learn more about Martinez-Neal and her other work, including La Princesa and the Pea, the winner of the 2018 Pura Belpré Medal for Illustration, by visiting her website.

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!

PPBF – Thank You, Omu!

Regular readers won’t be surprised that I maintain a to-be-read list of picture books. I also maintain a stack of to-be-reviewed picture books, and I try to maintain a schedule of reviews that reflect some sort of logic. Today’s selection was on that stack, and I couldn’t resist bumping it up on the review schedule after learning the wonderful news that its creator, Oge Mora, received the Coretta Scott King/John Steptoe New Talent Illustrator Award this past Monday, and today’s Perfect Picture Book is a 2019 Caldecott Honor Book. I wasn’t surprised by this news, and I don’t think you’ll be either, as Mora’s debut picture book truly is a Perfect Picture Book.

Title: Thank You, Omu!

Written & Illustrated By: Oge Mora

Publisher/Date: Little Brown Young Readers, a division of Hachette Book Group, Inc./2018

Suitable for Ages: 4-8

Themes/Topics: kindness; sharing; community; stew; multigenerational; multicultural

Opening:

On the corner of First Street and Long Street, on the very top floor, Omu was cooking a thick red stew in a big fat pot for a nice evening meal. She seasoned and stirred it and took a small taste.

Brief Synopsis:

Smelling Omu’s delicious red stew, neighbors arrive at Omu’s apartment, and she shares with all of them until there’s nothing left.

Links to Resources:

  • With the help of an adult, cook a “thick red stew”;
  • Ask an older relative or friend about special foods they enjoyed preparing or eating as a child. Make, and share, that special food;
  • Does your family have a special name for a grandparent or older relative? Discover the language and meaning of that term, and why your family uses it;
  • View a Book Chat video with Mora.

Why I Like this Book:

Thank You, Omu! is a joyous book of community and caring. Debut author-illustrator Mora shows readers the meaning of that old adage, that “it’s in giving that we receive”, as Omu shares bowl after bowl of her thick red stew.

Readers learn at the outset that Omu (pronounced AH-moo) means “queen” in the Igbo language spoken in parts of Nigeria. To Mora, per an Author’s Note, that term also signifies “grandma.” As is clear in the text and illustrations, Omu is a caring woman, who shares willingly with neighbors and community members until “it was finally time for dinner” but the pot “was empty.” I think kids will relate to Omu’s generous spirit and especially to her feelings of disappointment when she discovers that she has nothing to eat for dinner. I think they’ll especially appreciate the book’s ending (which I won’t reveal here!).

Mora invites readers to experience Thank You, Omu! with all of our senses. “[S]crumptious scent[s]” and a “most delicious smell” of “thick red stew” simmering waft their way to hungry neighbors. I could almost smell and feel the stew on my tongue as I read. Likewise, the visitors showed their hunger by licking lips and watering mouths. Mora illustrates her text with colorful cut-out collage artwork incorporating floral patterns, acrylic paint, pastels, patterned paper, and clippings from old books. I think this conveys an upbeat, joyful feeling. The image of Omu, clad in sunny yellow, radiates, like her sharing disposition, throughout the story.

A Note about Craft:

In an Author’s Note, Mora recounts the memory of her grandmother cooking “what was often a large pot of stew” as she danced and swayed to the radio. She further relates that “[e]veryone in the community had a seat at my grandmother’s table.” It’s clear that not only has this memory had a significant impact on Mora’s life but that she’s recreated that sense of sharing and community in Thank You, Omu! I think because these scenes are etched in Mora’s heart, they resonate with readers. What caring characters fill your memories that can help bring heart to your stories? And what terms, such as Omu, can you use in your writing to add layers, such as multiculturalism, to the story?

The Main Character of Thank You, Omu! is Omu, an elderly woman. So how is this story kid-centric? First, I think children (and adults) like to read about caring elders. I also believe that Omu’s willingness to share is child-like, as she never questions whether her visitors are hungry or whether they don’t have other sources of food. Finally, the first visitor is a young child with whom, I think, kids will identify. Interestingly, he also has the last word of the story (but I won’t spoil it & tell you what that is).

Visit Mora’s website to see more of her artwork and find out about upcoming picture books.

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!