Perfect Pairing – of Chocolate-filled Picture Books

School ends this week in much of the northeast, where I currently live. To celebrate, I think chocolate is in order. I hope you agree!

Grandpa Cacao: A Tale of Chocolate, From Farm to Family 

Author & Illustrator: Elizabeth Zunon

Publisher/Date: Bloomsbury Childrens Books/May 2019

Ages: 3-6

Themes: grandparents, chocolate, family history

Short Synopsis (from Goodreads):

This beautifully illustrated story connects past and present as a girl bakes a chocolate cake with her father and learns about her grandfather harvesting cacao beans in West Africa.
Chocolate is the perfect treat, everywhere!
As a little girl and her father bake her birthday cake together, Daddy tells the story of her Grandpa Cacao, a farmer from the Ivory Coast in West Africa. In a land where elephants roam and the air is hot and damp, Grandpa Cacao worked in his village to harvest cacao, the most important ingredient in chocolate. “Chocolate is a gift to you from Grandpa Cacao,” Daddy says. “We can only enjoy chocolate treats thanks to farmers like him.” Once the cake is baked, it’s ready to eat, but this isn’t her only birthday present. There’s a special surprise waiting at the front door . . .

Read my review.

 

No Monkeys, No Chocolate

Authors: Melissa Stewart and Allen Young

Illustrator: Nicole Wong

Publisher/Date: Charlesbridge/2013

Ages: 5-8

Themes: chocolate, non-fiction, nature

Short Synopsis (from Goodreads):

Everyone loves chocolate, right? But how many people actually know where chocolate comes from? How it’s made? Or that monkeys do their part to help this delicious sweet exist?
This delectable dessert comes from cocoa beans, which grow on cocoa trees in tropical rain forests. But those trees couldn’t survive without the help of a menagerie of rain forest critters: a pollen-sucking midge, an aphid-munching anole lizard, brain-eating coffin fly maggots—they all pitch in to help the cocoa tree survive. A secondary layer of text delves deeper into statements such as “Cocoa flowers can’t bloom without cocoa leaves . . . and maggots,” explaining the interdependence of the plants and animals in the tropical rain forests. Two wise-cracking bookworms appear on every page, adding humor and further commentary, making this book accessible to readers of different ages and reading levels.
Back matter includes information about cocoa farming and rain forest preservation, as well as an author’s note.

Read a review at The Classroom Bookshelf.

I paired these books because they discuss aspects of chocolate production. In Grandpa Cacao, the emphasis is on the people involved in growing and harvesting cacao beans, in particular the main character’s grandfather in West Africa. In No Monkeys, No Chocolate, the emphasis is on the growth of cocoa trees in the rainforest and the interaction of the many rainforest creatures that enable these trees to continue to grow. Read together, readers learn about the origins of a favorite food.

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!

Perfect Pairing – Heads to the Hen House

I think we all know the story of the little red hen. But have you seen these two recent twists on the traditional tale?

 

Holy Squawkamole! Little Red Hen Makes Guacamole 

Author: Susan Wood

Illustrator: Laura González

Publisher/Date: Sterling Books/2019

Ages: 3 and up

Themes: fractured folktale, hard work, self-reliance, persistence, Spanish words

Short Synopsis (from Goodreads):

This tasty take on the classic Little Red Hen story has a deliciously spicy twist! 
Yum, guacamole! That’s what Little Red Hen craves, and she could use some help gathering and mashing the ingredients. So she asks her friends, including an armadillo, snake, and iguana, to lend a hand. Everyone just says “no.” But after Little Red Hen works hard to make the scrumptious fresh guac, all the animals want a taste. In a fun departure from the original tale, Little Red Hen cooks up a comeuppance for the slackers that they’ll never forget!

Read a review by Susanna Leonard Hill.

The Little Green Hen

Author & Illustrator: Alison Murray

Publisher/Date: Candlewick Press/2019 (originally published by the Watts Publishing Group, Great Britain/2018)

Ages: 2-5

Themes: environment, helping others, fractured folktale

Short Synopsis (from Goodreads):

A fun-filled retelling of The Little Red Hen with important messages about caring for our environment and working together!

Read a review at New York Journal of Books.

I paired these books because they are timely and ingenious takes on a traditional tale. Set in Mexico, Holy Squawkamole! tells the tale of the red hen (gallinita roja) who needs help making guacamole. As in the original tale, her friends won’t help until she teaches them a lesson. In The Little Green Hen, the hen tends her apple tree home and establishes an orchard with the help of a dog, sparrow and squirrel. But other animals refuse to help, until disaster strikes, and they learn the lesson of caring for the environment. I love how both authors updated the original tale by setting it in a new locale, Mexico and an apple tree, and adding timely twists, the addition of Spanish terms and a Mexican food in Holy Squawkamole! and an environmental theme in Little Green Hen.

 

 

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!

Perfect Pairing – of Stone Lions on the Move

When I recently reviewed Renato and the Lion, I started thinking about other picture books featuring lions who came to life. Surprisingly, there are a few of them. Perhaps there’s some truth to these stories after all!

 

Renato and the Lion 

Author & Illustrator: Barbara DiLorenzo

Publisher/Date: Viking, an imprint of Penguin Young Readers Group/2017

Ages: 5-7

Themes: lion sculpture, war, art, national treasures, refugee, imagination, intergenerational story

Short Synopsis (from the publisher’s website):

The touching, magical story of a boy in a war-torn country and the stone lion that rescues him. 
Renato loves his home in Florence, Italy. He loves playing with his friends in the Piazza della Signoria. He loves walking home by the beautiful buildings and fountains with his father in the evenings. And he especially loves the stone lion who seems to smile at him from a pedestal in the piazza. The lion makes him feel safe.
But one day his father tells him that their family must leave. Their country is at war, and they will be safer in America. Renato can only think of his lion. Who will keep him safe?
With luminous watercolor paintings, Barbara DiLorenzo captures the beauty of Florence in this heartwarming and ultimately magical picture book.

Read my review.

The Stone Lion

Author: Margaret Wild

Illustrator: Ritva Voutila

Publisher/Date: Little Hare Books, an imprint of Hardie Grant Egmont/2014

Ages: 3-5

Themes: lion sculpture, homelessness, imagination, empathy

Short Synopsis (from Goodreads):

Sometimes statues are granted a chance to become warm, breathing creatures. The stone lion has only one dream – to run, pounce and leap in the park across from where he sits. But one snowy night, when a baby is abandoned at his paws, he is compelled to think differently.

Read a review at Gathering Books.

I paired these books because both deal with difficult subjects and include a lion sculpture that comes alive. In Renato and the Lion, Renato’s beloved marble lion transports him through occupied Florence, Italy, during World War II, as Renato and his father try to protect treasured art from the Nazis and war. Told from the perspective of the lion, The Stone Lion recounts how a lion sculpture learns to feel and empathize with two homeless children and uses its one opportunity to come alive to save them. In both books, I think, the magic of sculptures coming alive softens the difficult subject matter and makes it more accessible to children.

Looking for similar reads?

See The Night Library by David Zeltser/Raul Colón (Random House/2019) and Lost in the Library: A Story of Patience and Fortitude by Josh Funk/Stevie Lewis (Henry Holt & Co./2018).

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!

Perfect Pairing – of Multicultural Families

I love celebrations of family, especially when, as in these two picture books, the families embrace cultural traditions from across the world.

Gondra’s Treasure

Author: Linda Sue Park

Illustrator: Jennifer Black Reinhardt

Publisher/Date: Clarion Books, an imprint of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt/2019

Ages: 4-8

Themes: dragons, family, being yourself, multicultural

Short Synopsis (from Goodreads):

Gondra, a little dragon with an Eastern dragon dad and a Western dragon mom, celebrates her uniqueness in this sparkling collaboration between Newbery medalist Linda Sue Park and rising star artist Jennifer Black Reinhardt.
Gondra has inherited traits from both her eastern (Asian) dragon dad and western (European) dragon mom and enjoys them all. She’s especially happy that she’s a combination of both. Cheerful banter and hilariously adorable dragon portrayals present a warm, appealing family portrait. The beautiful and fanciful illustrations are rich in whimsical details that invite repeated readings.

Read a review at Kirkus Reviews and an interview by Reinhardt of Park at Picture Book Builders.

 

Maisie’s Scrapbook

Author: Samuel Narh

Illustrator: Jo Loring-Fisher

Publisher/Date: Lantana Publishing/2019

Ages: 4-8

Themes: family, multicultural, being yourself

Short Synopsis (from Goodreads):

As the seasons turn, Maisie rides her bull in and out of Dada’s tall tales. Her Mama wears linen and plays the viola. Her Dada wears kente cloth and plays the marimba. They come from different places, but they hug her in the same way. And most of all, they love her just the same. A joyful celebration of a mixed-race family and the love that binds us all together.

Read a review at Kirkus Reviews.

I paired these books because both feature multicultural families and children celebrating the attributes they inherit from both parents. In Gondra’s Treasure, young Gondra, a dragon, inherits her Western mother’s fire-breathing ability and her Eastern father’s mist-creating ability, to become, what her parents term, a unique treasure. I love how Park uses the differing myths about dragons prevalent in Asia and Europe to illustrate the beauty that results when these traditions come together. In Masie’s Scrapbook, young Maisie’s father regales her with tales from his native Africa, her mother serenades her with the viola, but both love her the same, as is evident in the scrapbook she keeps of a special year in this loving family. While one of these picture books features a family of mythical animals and the other features humans, I think the pair show the love and joy that results when parents share their cultures with their children.