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.

Digging for Words: Knowledge is Power

Digging for Words by Angela Burke KunkelCindy: Mr. Rogers said, “Look for the helpers.” Digging for Words: José Alberto Gutierrez and the Library He Built (Random/Schwartz & Wade, 2021) introduces children to yet another helper, working to make his corner of the world just a little bit better. A whole lot better, really. This is the story of two Josés. One a small boy who gets through the week anticipating the joy of Saturday when he visits the other José (based on the real José Alberto Gutierrez, who opens his house to people in his community to browse his books, his personal library, and borrow what they want to read for the next week.

Mr. Guiterrez’s library is not fancy and the books aren’t pristine leather-bound volumes. José Gutierrez drives a garbage truck route in Bogotá, Colombia. As he collects trash each night, he looks for discarded books and collects them to add to his library. The books he finds on the street were his education as he was too poor to attend school and didn’t finish his high school education until he was in his fifties. His “spark” book was Anna Karenina and he never looked back but did decide to share his treasures with others.

The young José and other community members don’t waste this opportunity and flock to Mr. Gutierrez’s home to exchange their books every week.  The power of books and reading and knowledge shines through the story, published in both English and Spanish editions.

Lynn: Librarians, teachers, and book lovers of all ages will be charmed by this story of an amazing man who takes his love of books and reading to a new level. José Alberto Gutierrez’s efforts to build and share a library are inspiring—especially when readers learn in the back matter that there are only nineteen libraries in the city of Bogata, Columbia, a city of ten million people! The Author’s Note provides more information about Gutierrez including the fact that he now also runs a foundation which provides books and reading material to schools and libraries across Columbia. And, portions of the proceeds from this picture book go to that foundation.

Rescatando Palabras by Angela Burke KunkelPaola Escobar’s digital illustrations are ideal for expanding and enhancing this wonderful story. I especially love the double-page spread of Gutierrez’s garbage truck journey across the city, showing him examining a discarded pile of books with his flashlight and the scenes of his library, books everywhere in towering stacks with happy readers making choices.

The back matter includes information on the featured books in the story and a selected list of online sources along with the Author’s Note in which Gutierrez reflects on on twenty years of creating his library, saying “My dream is to exchange my garage truck for a truck full of books and travel the country. I’m sure I can pull it off.” I think he can too!

Solimar: The Sword of the Monarchs

Solimar by Pam Munoz RyanCindy: When the package with Pam Muñoz Ryan’s new book arrived, it took my breath away. Inside the packing box was a huge monarch butterfly, its wings closed over an advance reader copy of Solimar: The Sword of the Monarchs (Disney/Hyperion, Feb 2022), and a butterfly-shaped pack of seeds to grow wildflowers to help our pollinator friends. And, now that the 2021 publishing year awards are mostly behind us, I’m ready to spread my wings and fly into 2022 books. 

Solimar is a wonderful new Mexican hero to inspire budding environmentalists. When, just before her quinceañera she makes her annual trek to the oyamel forest to welcome the returning monarch butterflies, something magical happens. The sun, a sword-shaped crevice in a rock, and a swirl of butterflies changes her rebozo (a shawl) into a shimmering cloth that she later learns provides her with knowledge of the near future. It also hosts butterflies that need her care and protection.

Chafing at the constraints that keep her from a future she wants with a say in how her kingdom works while providing her brother the opportunity as Prince to one day rule the kingdom, a job he doesn’t want she isn’t excited about her upcoming party.  She definitely isn’t looking forward to trading in her childhood comfortable hiking boots for heeled, impractical dancing shoes. A takeover of the kingdom in her brother and father’s absence, in which her mother, abuela, and others are taken hostage while Solimar manages to escape, is just the beginning of the adventure ahead of her as she finds her courage and risks all to save her kingdom. 

The characters in this story that include a pet quetzel bird and a talking doll, in addition to an inventor river boy from a troubled neighboring village, are engaging. Young readers will hope from more of them and more adventures for Solimar, I know I do. They’ll also be glad to have a fantastical story that weighs in at under 200 pages.

I read “The State of YA in 2022” from WriterMag yesterday and #4 on the ten biggest trends in YA Lit is that “Climate-change novels may be the next big thing.” I hope so. The stakes are larger than those needed to kill a vampire, and we can’t start too young with raising awareness. Habitat preservation and saving the butterflies isn’t the only issue in this novel, but it is a driving force for Solimar. With a foot of snow on our ground in Michigan, I have a few months before I can plant those seeds that came with my book, but I’ll be ready to do so as soon as I can. FYI, the cover art changed dramatically from arc to finished book, and the butterfly box? A four-year-old and her twin two-year-old sisters are learning to be heroes as they flit around with it. They’ll be helping me plant the seeds soon.

Collage Creativity: Two Picture Books

Cindy: From the bright work of painted tissue paper from Eric Carle in the Very Hungry Caterpillar to the complex creations of Melissa Sweet, children (and adults) are mesmerized by books illustrated with collage. We have two picture books to highlight in this post by other award winning illustrators of this delightful medium. 

Dream Street by Tricia Elam WalkerFirst up is Dream Street (Random/Anne Schwartz, 2021) by Tricia Elam Walker and illustrated by Ekua Holmes. This inspiring story is based on memories of cousin creators, Tricia and Ekua, who did their own dreaming on the streets of Roxbury, Massachusetts. 

Each two page spread introduces someone from the Dream Street neighborhood.. There’s retired mail carrier, Mr. Sidney, reading the paper on his front stoop dressed “to the nines” happy to be free from his uniform who encourages everyone to not “…wait to have a great day. Create one!” Belle dreams of being a lepidopterist, a scientist who studies butterflies, as she catches and releases those she observes. Azaria’s dream is go win a jump rope trophy. Ms. Sarah has “stories between the lines of her face that she’ll share when you come close.” She listens to the dreams as she watches the children grow. Two little girls read and draw and dream of creating a book about the people they know on Dream Street.  The collage art is created from comic strips, newspapers, fabrics, stamps, maps, and many more curated bits. Art teachers might use this with students to create their own portrait, neighborhood scene, or personal dream.  Some dreams do come true, and Tricia and Ekua’s is manifested in a hopeful, colorful, moving tribute to the power of believing in yourself, and in having others believe in you and your dreams. 

Lynn: everybody in the red brick buildingOur second wonderful collage book is Everybody in the Red Brick Building (Harper/Balzer+Bray, 2021). It is by Anne Wynter and illustrated by the gifted Oge Mora. This cumulative tale is perfect for a bedtime book, building up energetically at first and then slowing down in pace and tone to a delightfully sleepy ending.

“Everybody in the red brick building was asleep,” the story begins, “UNTIL Baby Izzie sat up in her crib and howled. WAAAAAAH!” The baby wakes up a boy and his parrot, a girl who decides to set off her toy rocket, which terrifies a cat who leaps onto a car, which sets off the alarm WEEEYOOOOWEEWYOOO….. You get the fun sequence of events, each one accompanied by terrific kid-pleasing sound effects. Before long, the whole building is awake. Then in a double page spread filled with sweet vignettes, sleepy parents intervene, the lights go out and the story slows, the sounds are quiet shhhhs, ting tings, and the pah-pum’s of a mother’s heart cradling Baby Izzy. Soon everybody in the building is asleep and little readers will be too.

Oge Mora’s gorgeous collages are wonderfully rich with glowing colors and cleverly chosen textures. This is a glorious book to read aloud while reveling in the masterful illustrations.

Hurricane – Weathering a Storm with a Picture Book

Lynn:Hurricane As he has done in other books, Rocco tells a story of a large event affecting a child and a community. Like Blackout (Disney/Hyperion, 2011) and Blizzard (Disney/Hyperion, 2014) these events are largely unexpected and out of a child’s ability to control them. And, like the previous books, the events result in a community coming together. This latest picture book, Hurricane (Little, Brown, 2021) begins calmly like the weather before a storm. Told in first person, a young boy confides to the reader that his favorite place is the neighborhood dock. “It’s old and splintery, ” he says, and the double-page spread that follows shows a delightful depiction of the many joys the old dock provides.

But when he walks home through the peaceful night, the boy notices that something feels different. Everyone is acting strangely, including his father. A hurricane is coming and the neighborhood is boarding up windows and getting ready. The scary storm roars through in the night and in the morning the little boy grabs his gear and rushes outside to discover that his neighborhood looks like “a giant angry monster stomped through it.” Worst of all in the boy’s view is that his beloved dock has been destroyed. Looking for help to fix it, the boy asks his father and the neighbors but they are all too busy with their own repairs so the little boy pitches in to help them first. As the neighborhood returns to normal, he decides to fix the dock himself  but the results are disastrous. Happily the neighborhood rallies around and in a lovely series of scenes, they not only repair the dock, but improve it, making it a neighborhood gathering place.

I am always charmed by the hopeful encouraging perspective that Rocco brings to his stories of big issues. He sees a bright side to events when those involved unite to make that happen. It is a story arc that never fails to inspire and delight. I love Rocco’s slightly nostalgic illustrations too but I’ll leave those to Cindy. This is another winner from Rocco and guaranteed to enchant his many fans.

Cindy: To learn about the illustrations in this moving book, I’d recommend going straight to the source, John Rocco. Victoria Stapleton interviewed Rocco for the release of Hurricane, and his answers and accompanying slide show is fascinating. Watch the interview here, and learn about Rocco’s use of shapes and color to help tell a story of destruction and rebuilding. A story of hope. Not shown in the video are the fabulous end papers. The opening papers show the science and movement behind how a hurricane forms. The final end papers illustrate the parts of a dock and the installation of pilings. Another treat is John’s 1973 note left for his parents in his six-year-old handwriting. Hope applies to young fishermen as well. Don’t miss this one!

John Rocco fishing note

Let Me Fix You a Plate – a Picture Book of Love, Family and Food

Let Me Fix You a Plate by Elizabeth LillyLynn: The holiday season is beginning and many families are preparing to journey to family celebrations. No matter the culture, families will share food and love—the heart of any gathering. Elizabeth Lilly’s new picture book, Let Me Fix You a Plate: a Tale of Two Kitchens (Holiday, 2021) chronicles the experience of so many of us whose families are a mix of cultures.

A young girl tells the story of her family rising early and driving “hours and hours” to arrive in the mountains of West Virginia. Her Mawmaw opens the door and says, “Let me fix you a plate.” The warm scenes that follow are full of sharing, food, and love. In the bright kitchen, the family enjoys blackberry jam on toast and banana pudding. The child notices that her father and grandfather drink their coffee in just the same way. Then the family piles back in the car, traveling on to Florida where they are greeted by their Abuela inviting them to “come and eat.” Here the delights are tostones, flan, and arepas with queso blanco. The cultures may be different but the sharing of love through food is the same.

At the end of the week the young family journeys home again, arriving late and tired—and hungry! Following their own tradition, the family celebrates home with waffles before drifting off to sleep.

Lilly’s evocative book wonderfully depicts the way so many families share their love—through food. Her charming illustrations are warm and bright and enhance the text beautifully, helping with terms that may be unfamiliar. It is impossible not to smile while reading the book. An added pleasure are the end pages which show the sights and objects found in each of the kitchens that the family visits.

This brought back so many childhood memories for me although my family visits involved kuchen, rindsrouladen and spatzel, then matzoh ball soup, latkes and brisket.  Whatever your culture, food is love and this lovely story tells that so well.