To McCloskey’s Ducklings with Love

Lynn: Ducks on paradeThis is a post about a childhood favorite, a city’s tribute, and a book celebrating them all.

Robert McCloskey’s wonderful Make Way for Ducklings was published in 1941. It was a book I adored as a child and my parents read it over and over to me. They may have tired of it but I never did. For a time, my family lived in Boston and all the locations in the book were a treasured part of my childhood. It was years later when the city commissioned a sculpture in 1987 to honor the famous book and by then I was an adult living far away. But on my visits back to Boston, I always checked in on the ducklings. And while I read articles about the wonderful contributions anonymous Bostonians made to the sculptures, it wasn’t until I chanced on a Goodreads listing that I learned about Ducks on Parade (Brandeis University Press, 2021) edited by Nancy Schön, the artist who created the famous sculpture in the Public Garden.

Schon’s introduction provides the history of the sculptures and relates that on their first birthday, in an official celebration the ducks were dressed in birthday hats and confetti. Shortly after that costumes began appearing on the ducks, mysteriously added during the nights. Schön marvels at the charm and skill of the costumes and writes of the special connection between the people of Boston and the duckling sculpture they have so clearly made their own. The book is a collection of photographs of the costumes that have adorned the ducklings over the years and a real celebration of public art.

Over the years the costumes have included seasonal and holiday themes like Easter bonnets, Pilgrim outfits, or Reading Day Dr. Seuss hats. They have also celebrated sports teams, and cultural events, or been symbols uniting the city like Boston Strong. Each photo made me smile and like the sculptor, marvel at how the people of Boston have made this sculpture their own.

For those of you still reading and loving Make Way for Ducklings, this wonderful little book will be a terrific pairing.

Country Kids – City Kids

Cindy and Lynn: Moving is never easy, and it’s even harder when you are a child who loves nature and you learn you have to move to the city. We have two picture books that might help ease that move or make any big change a little easier.

Martin and the River (Groundwood, 2022) by Jon-Erik Lappano.

Martin and the River by Jon-Erik LappanoMartin has a river flowing through the fields behind his house and he spends his days catching frogs and “watching the great blue herons soar like dragons over the water.” When his mother takes a job in the city and Martin learns they will have to move, he is devastated. Promises of museum visits and subway rides do nothing to soothe him. Martin spends time at his river trying to scheme a plan but fails to come up with any good ideas. His parents wisely take him on some visits to the city before the big move. Martin’s imagination comes to his aid and he sees bits of nature and animals in the bustling city, but his heart melts when he sees the park…with a river.

Josée Bisaillon’s mixed media art contains beautiful scenes of the nature that Martin loves and is filled with small details of the plants, flowers, birds, and animals that Martin cherishes. It’s easy to see why he doesn’t want to leave.

Carmen and the House That Gaudi Built (Owl Kids, 2021) by Susan Hughes.

Carmen and the House that Gaudi BuiltLike Martin in the previous book, Carmen is a country child who loves the woods around her home. She spends hours there exploring with her invisible Salamander friend, Dragon. Carmen is devastated when she learns her father has commissioned a house in the city and that soon the family would move there. When the architect, Señor Gaudi, visits, Carmen refuses to come inside to meet him but Señor Gaudi, standing on the lawn somehow sees her AND Dragon. As the new house progresses, Carmen sees the beauty of nature reflected in the designs. After two years, the house is finished and Carmen must leave her friend behind. But the finished house has an amazing wild beauty. Most astonishing of all is the beautiful stone salamander wrapped around the roof. Carmen has found a home in the city.

Susan Hughes has created a fictional story about a very real house. The Casa Batllo was redesigned and renovated for the Batllo family in 1904. Situated on one of Barcelona’s most fashionable streets, the house featured a wavy exterior and curved interior walls. Tall windows, skylights and interior courts provided light. A mosaic made of pieces of glass decorated the front of the house and all was topped with a spiny ridge along the roof line resembling a salamander. The house was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site and its impact is just as stunning today as it was in 1906.

I have been lucky enough to visit the Casa Batllo and it remains one of my favorite buildings in the world. Hughes includes an Author’s Note that provides the historical facts about the Casa, the Batllo family, and her thoughts on the creation of this picture book. A full-color photograph of the Casa is included. My hat is off to the photographer as the image somehow avoids all the tram power lines, streetlights, and signs that marred my own photos! My hat is also off to Susan Hughes, illustrator Marianne Ferrer, and this book for bringing the remarkable Señor Gaudi to a new generation.

Graphic Novels with Girl Power

Cindy and Lynn: We love graphic novels and we especially love graphic novels with girl power! Here are three new ones that differ widely in location and time but all three discover how to find their skills and rock their worlds.

Enola Holmes: the Graphic Novels: Book One ( Andrews McNeal, 2022) by Serena Blasco.

Enola HolmesWe love the original Enola Holmes books by Nancy Springer! If you haven’t found them or the Netflix series, Enola is the much younger sister of the famous Sherlock and Mycroft Holmes. On her 14th birthday, Enola awakens to discover that her mother, a woman of very eccentric beliefs for her time, has disappeared. When her brothers arrive, they decide they must send Enola away to boarding school to become a proper lady. Enola has very different ideas and runs away to London where she sets shop as a private investigator while also searching for her mother.

Blasco’s graphic novel adaptations of the first three cases is absolutely terrific! These are faithful to the books for those of us who care about that and the illustrations are not only inviting but filled with delicious details that reward careful perusing. The language of flowers which plays a big part in the books is included and well explained and the inclusion of them in messages and codes is wonderfully done. Enola is a spunky, smart heroine, and a dab hand at disguise, detecting and outwitting both her brothers and villains.

Blasco captures the tone of the Springer novels perfectly and we absolutely loved reading these versions. This will be terrific both for fans of the originals and for newcomers to the series. Delightful!!!

Swim Team: Small Waves, Big Changes. (Harper Alley, 2022) by Johnnie Christmas.

Swim Team by Johnnie ChristmasWith four starred reviews, you may have already heard about this sports-themed graphic novel, but if not, you’ll need to get on your starting block and race to get a copy. Bree is starting middle school in a new state and is dismayed to learn that swimming is a big deal at her new Florida school. When the only elective that fits her schedule is not Math Games as she’d hoped, but Swim 101, she’s unnerved. Bree never learned to swim.  A neighbor at her apartment, who is an alumnus of Bree’s school and its swim team, jumps in the deep end to help Bree not only learn to swim but to be good enough to be tapped for the struggling swim team. 

Bree’s public school lacks the resources of the local private school that usually wins most of the medals and the meets, but the girls and their coach have other resources under their swim caps and the race is on.

Middle school friendships and fights and rude rivals threaten to sink some of the progress of the team until the girls learn to work together. Additional subplots with the coaches and the history of segregated swimming pools and the lack of swimming instruction and access to pools for blacks are woven into the important story. Readers will cheer for Bree as she overcomes her fears and they will learn from her perseverance and commitment as she excels in her sport. 

Squire (HarperCollins/Quill Tree, 2022) by Sara Alfageeh.

SquireAiza dreams of becoming a Squire and then a Knight in the powerful Bayt-Sajii army that controls a vast area. Aiza is poor and of a despised minority, the Ornu, and the army is her only route to citizenship. Aiza conceals her cultural tattoos with wrappings and, with the help of a motley array of allies and enemies survives the intense training, reaching her goal of becoming a Squire. But along the way, Aiza begins to understand the true nature of the country she serves and begins to question where her loyalty and her heart lie.

Set in an alternative Middle East, the illustrations are bold and gorgeously inked. Each expression is wonderfully detailed, providing a depth of understanding of each character. A sweeping tale of understanding the nature of power and true loyalty.

Planting a Love for Nature: Park and Garden Picture Books

Lynn and Cindy: We have gardens and parks on our minds! Who doesn’t in these sweet early days of summer when the world is green and inviting? A lovely bouquet of picture books has landed on our doorsteps that will delight any budding gardener. Enjoy and share!

Uncle John's city gardenUncle John’s City Garden (Holiday House, 2022) by Bernette G. Ford

Little Sissie and her brothers work with their Uncle John to plant a garden in the middle of the city. Each child chooses seeds and carefully tends the plants with the goal of a glorious succotash at the season’s end. A bounty crop means a neighborhood celebration and lots of sharing. Frank Morrison’s vibrant oil illustrations make every page delicious. Succotash recipe included!

Celia Planted a Garden: the Story of Celia Thaxter and HerCelia planted a garden Island Garden (Candlewick, 2022) by Phyllis Root and Gary D. Schmidt.

Celia Thaxter loved flowers from the time she was a young child. She especially loved the color they brought to her gray, white, and black life on the island where her father tended a lighthouse. Her love for gardening bloomed as gloriously as the flowers she tended and the nature writing she nurtured. Melissa Sweet’s colorful illustrations are perfect for this picture book biography, and you’ll be inspired to plant some seeds of your own.

Park connects usA Park Connects Us (Owl Kids, 2022) by Sarah Nelson.

This lovely picture book celebrates all the ways parks benefit us. Simple sentences and charming illustrations by Ellen Rooney make this a joyous choice for a summer read aloud. Back matter provides information on the history and creation of Central Park in New York City.

Cress Watercress: A Perfect Read-Aloud–Make Note!

Lynn: I Cress watercressam a skeptical audience for animal fantasies. Some I love and some I dislike intensely. I may be the only person on the planet to loathe Watership Down but I adored the Brian Jacques books. I also am a fan of Gregory Maguire’s adult fantasies and was unsure how his sharp clever style would translate into a middle-grade book. After a bit of a slow start in his new book, Cress Watercress (Candlewick, 2022), Maguire settles into a masterful style and pace that brings something new to the genre and is perfectly attuned to the young audience.

Cress Watercress and her hardworking mother and baby brother must leave their home for new quarters after her Papa fails to come home from a honey-gathering trip. The Broken Arms apartment is small and crowded and Cress grieves her father and misses her home and friends. Her contrary feelings are exacerbated by a leap into adolescence and her mood is as if she “ate thorns for breakfast.” Real dangers, a very sick little brother, and a mix of new friends— both good and bad—add to Cress’s struggles and her path forward is skillfully woven into the adventure. Cress yearns to solve the mystery of her father’s disappearance and as she learns to handle her grief, she also begins to discover what home and family are. She also learns a lot about her own strength. Never saccharine, this rabbit’s tale is beautifully told.

The book is illuminated by David Litchfield’s glowing digital illustrations that make the book a visual treat. The book production by this Candlewick team is absolutely outstanding!!

This is a perfect choice for a bedtime or a classroom read-aloud!! Make note!

Cindy: There are at least two people who aren’t fans of Watership Down. You’re not alone, Lynn. What I am a fan of is intelligent stories that are as fun for the adult reading them aloud as for the child listening to them. This one has great characters, like a skunk named Lady Agatha Cabbage dressed for the opera peering through a lorgnette and uttering phrases like “Oh, my pearls and pistols.” Independent readers ready for interesting vocabulary and humor will enjoy reading this story, too. For instance, when Cress and Finny are headed over a waterfall on their raft, Cress hangs on by “strength of will and overbite.” Many unexpected little gems had me chuckling aloud. At other times, as when Cress’s mother uses the waxing and waning of the moon as an analogy for grief that comes and goes but is always there, the storytelling left me brushing away some tears.

Room for Everyone: A Wild Inclusive Ride

Lynn:room for everyone In Zanzibar on a day “hotter than peppers”, Musa and his sister get aboard the daladala for an excursion to the beach. In the delightful Room for Everyone (S&S/Atheneum, 2021) by Naaz Khan, the bus keeps stopping and each stop adds more and more hilarious passengers. Musa is sure they will be squished.  First, there is a boy and his goats, then an old man and his bicycle, and a diving team and all their equipment! With each addition, Musa gets more and more worried but his sister assures him there always room for everyone. And of course, she is right. By the time they arrive at the beach, Musa, too, is joining the bouncy refrain that there is always room for everyone.

Joyful and buoyant repeating verse makes this cumulative tale a delight to read aloud. Merce Lopez’s vibrant illustrations are brightly colored and exuberant with lots of humorous touches that will delight young readers. Giggles abound!

Always Room for One More by Sorche Nic LeodhasCindy: This story is a fun twist on the Scottish folktale, Always Room for One More, perhaps best remembered in the version by Sorche Nic Leodhas, which won the 1966 Caldecott Medal for Nonny Hogrogrian’s wonderful illustrations.

In this East African spin on the motif, each additional set of riders (from one to ten) adds an element of culture, arts, sports, food, or occupation to the bus painting a community as colorful and energetic as the mixed-media illustrations. The theme of including all is especially appreciated. A short glossary of Swahili and Arabic terms is included as well as an author’s note about her own book-inspiring fun ride on a daladala. Don’t miss this literary ride!

Healer & Witch: Nancy Werlin steps into Middle Grade Books

Lynn: Healer & Witch If you think of Nancy Werlin as a YA author, think again. Werlin has just released her first middle grade book, Healer & Witch (Candlewick, 2022) and it is a winner! Her compelling story is a mesmerizing blend of adventure and magic with a medieval France setting and appealing characters. Almost fifteen-year-old Sylvie has grown up in a small French village with her healer grandmother and mother. Sylvie has been especially close to her namesake grandmother and shares her extraordinary gifts. Sylvie’s mother, Jeanne, is a competent caring healer but lacks the others’ powers. When Sylvie’s grandmother dies, the two women struggle with their grief.

Despite her grandmother’s warnings about the use of her power, Sylvie misuses her gift in a misguided attempt to heal. Horrified, Sylvie realizes she desperately needs guidance and sets out to find a teacher who can help. A little boy from her village, Martin, attaches himself to the journey in order to see the world and becomes an ally. In a world where healers and witches are in mortal danger, Sylvie must learn who to trust and how to be herself.

There is lovely writing here with a wonderful storytelling cadence that kept me turning the pages—no small feat in my current lack-of-reading-focus state. The characters are layered and engaging and the adventure kept me captivated. Sylvie’s internal journey is as compelling as her physical one as she grapples with questions about the use and misuse of power and her own place in the world. An outstanding choice for young readers looking for something with a classic feel and modern thoughtful themes.

Cindy: This is hands down my favorite Nancy Werlin book. Sylvie and Martin are both characters that young readers will worry over, laugh with, and root for as they set off on their quest. Sylvie is not seeking her fortune, just the knowledge that she needs to control her out-of-the-ordinary healing powers, and then she just wants to return to her humble home in her very small village. Martin, while young and small, fears little, having endured a lot in his few years. He is ready to seek adventure and new sights. Together, they make a formidable duo. They also both grow and change over the course of the novel. Sylvie’s struggles over the ethics of her magic, her feelings for Monsieur Chouinard, and her definition of her true self will give readers much to ponder and debate. I can’t wait to hear members of our middle school book club discuss this one.

Learning that Werlin wrote the first draft of this book in 1996 was a shock. I’m grateful that she opened that file cabinet and revisited that rejected manuscript. You can read the full story about the genesis of this story at this John Scalzi blog post. I sure hope we see more of Sylvie, Robert, and Martin and their world….and I wouldn’t mind some more relived memories of Grand-mère Sylvie. She has more wisdom to impart, I’m sure.

Food Insecurity – A Reassuring Picture Book

Lynn: Saturday at the Food PantryI am one of the lucky people who doesn’t have to worry about having enough food each week but for more than 50 million Americans that issue is a constant worry. Hunger in America climbed by more than 20 million in 2020 alone. School people across the nation are painfully aware of how many of our students go to bed hungry each night. As a school board member, one of our biggest concerns about closing school for any reason is that many of our children will not eat that day without the meals they get at school.

I’ve been looking for books that address this issue for young children so I am excited to write about a wonderful picture book by Diane O’Neill, Saturday at the Food Pantry (Albert Whitman, 2021) that is just what so many families need to read.

The story is about a single mom and her young daughter who are facing food insecurity for the first time. The refrigerator is pretty bare and the young mother and her daughter head to the local food pantry. As they wait in the line for the pantry to open, Molly sees another girl from her class but Caitlin turns away, embarrassed. Molly reassures her, repeating what her mother told her last night, “Everybody needs help sometimes.” Molly coaxes Catlin into drawing pictures for the people in line and Molly and her mom discover Caitlin and her grandmother are neighbors. Soon Molly and her mom are picking out the healthy food shown on the shelves.

The text is simple, straightforward and reassuring. Not only is the food pantry process shown but the story addresses the feeling of shame many people feel when seeking assistance. For the millions of children needing assistance, this is a welcome story of comfort and shared experiences. The truth is simple—everyone does need help sometimes and there is nothing wrong with accepting it.

Cindy: My first encounter with Albert Whitman books was during my early days of being a children’s librarian in the 80s in a large public library. There were books about first dentist and doctor visits and other activities that young children might be experiencing for the first time. I’m grateful that there are now books to cover an even wider range of first experiences. Saturday at the Food Pantry covers a lot of the emotions of seeking assistance but it does so in a bright and encouraging story full of compassion but not treacly sympathy. Lynn has shared stories with me about a new food pantry in Holland, MI with a similar set-up, where families can browse and select from grocery store-like shelves. Picking out the foods they need most and “shopping” for them rather than receiving a box of pre-selected items must bring more dignity to the process. Magro’s illustrations are a great complement to the uplifting story. I hope it gets wide readership, by those who frequent a food pantry, and those who need to learn about the need for them. A Note for Adults at the end from the CEO of the Greater Chicago Food Depository provides information about seeking help with food assistance. I’ll be making another donation to Feeding America today. I also second Lynn’s idea (mentioned in her Goodreads review) of buying copies of this book and donating it where it can do additional good.

Saris and Bindis

My Bindi by Gita VaradarajanCindy: In My Bindi (Scholastic/Orchard 2022) by Gita Varadarajan, Divya’s parents encourage her to start wearing a bindi, a small colored ornament, on her forehead as part of her Hindu culture, but she isn’t so sure. She’s nervous of what her classmates will say. When her mother presents her with a bindi box to select from, she has the final push she needs to be brave. She knows that the bindi is like a third eye that can see inside her and she will feel its protection. When the young girl gets to her diverse classroom, she is met with questions and positive responses, including from her teacher who lets her explain what she is wearing to the class. This warm, positive story will not only provide a mirror for many young girls, but a window to boys and girls alike who are unfamiliar with the tradition. This #ownvoices book with its vibrant illustrations by Archana Sreenivasan is recommended for all elementary libraries and classrooms.

How to Wear a Sari by Darshana KhianiLynn: Unlike Divya, with her concerns about a bindi, the heroine of How to Wear a Sari (Houghton/Versify, 2021) by Darshana Khiani has no such reservations! She’s tired of being “treated like a little kid,” too small to do things the big kids get to do. Her solution is to wear the beautiful silky saris the adults wear. This seemingly simple idea turns out to be loaded with problems. First, she has to find all the pieces, as well as the pieces that will fit. Then she has to master the folding, tucking, draping, adjusting, and accessorizing! The results, of course, are disastrous, but the little girl’s loving family assures her that she is not the first in the family to make mistakes.

This charming book plays on a universal wish of small children to be considered more grown up and will delight a large audience even if a sari is not a family choice. Along the way, children will gain an understanding of how a sari is worn and just how complex the dressing process is.

Joanne Lew-Vriethoff’s colorful illustrations are warm and humorous and kids everywhere will yearn to try on a sari too—with some grown-up help!

Help Mom Work From Home!

Help Mom Work From Home by Diana MurrayCindy: Almost two years into the pandemic and many families may have set up work and school areas at home and figured out technology needs and apps, but it really hasn’t gotten any easier and the novelty has definitely worn off. Help Mom Work from Home (Little, Brown, 2021) by Diana Murray is just the humorous look at the situation that might ease some stress.

With Dad and baby out of the house, Mom sits down to work with help from her toddler “boss.” After fixing mom’s hair and organizing her office supplies—crayons and glitter can’t be ignored—mom’s helper mimics her work and provides snacks and yoga breaks. It’s a looooong day but the evening together with the whole family, and some takeout pizza to let mom relax, is as good as a paycheck. The jaunty rhymes and fun illustrations by Cori Doerrfeld work well together.

Lynn: Oh the stories!!! From tales from my son and daughter-in-law, to young colleagues at work, I’m convinced that my own frustrations with my spouse pale in comparison! Although why he thinks it’s OK to read his morning newspaper articles with me when I’m deep in trying to write something intelligible at 8am is a mystery to me. But it’s nothing like dealing with a 4-year-old intent on “helping.”

This little one in our story clearly wants to help but as all parents working from home know well, those efforts often create nothing but chaos. Concentrate?? Yeah, right! It’s only when Mom finds tasks the toddler can manage like moving boxes, sticking on labels or assisting in some relaxing yoga stretches that she can get anything done. Nap time anyone???

This is a totally charming story and illustrations and it clearly comes from true experience. The underlying truth is that there are benefits from working from home but productivity may not be one of them. This timely picture will please both grown-ups working remotely and their helpers.