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.

This Very Tree – a story of hope and resilience following 9/11

Lynn: This Very TreeLike so many adults, the memory of that day in September 2001 is harshly strong. And like many of us, I find it difficult to talk about the enormity of the experience to children. I’ve approached the growing number of picture books on the subject with mixed feelings. Sean Rubin’s new picture book. This Very Tree: A Story of 9/11, Resilience and Regrowth (Henry Holt, 2021) doesn’t try to explain the event. Instead he takes the event as a given and focuses instead on the strength, determination and resilience of the people of New York City and America to restore their city.

He does so by using the voice and perspective of the very real Callery Pear tree that stood by itself in the World Trade Center Plaza. Planted in the 1970’s the tree heralded spring each year with early blossoms and provided welcoming shade. Rubin addresses the issue of the attack with these simple sentences, “It was an ordinary morning. Until it wasn’t.” The peaceful green scene is replaced by a series of dark and angular panels that gradually lighten with a view up to light and firefighter faces looking down. No explanations are used here but the sense of something dark and catastrophic is clear.

The tree itself was seriously injured, with broken limbs, roots snapped, and branches burned. The tree relates how it was transplanted and gradually began to regrow. The New York Dept. of Parks tended the tree carefully for 9 years before it was finally returned to the Memorial Plaza where it now thrives among over 300 other trees. Called the Survivor Tree, the pages chronicling the healing and regrowth of the tree itself and the city are full of green life and a hopeful spirit. And I dare you to read them without tearing up! Yes, this is a story of 9/11 but it is also a story of resilience and hope and coming together and perhaps this is what we all need right now.

Cindy: Trauma and recovery are serious subjects for picture books, but so many children have experienced big and little traumas that even if they are too young to understand the world-changing event that was the terrorist attacks of 9/11, there is a healing story here that may help them. There is plenty for adults here, too, including the opening poem by E.B. White from Here is New York, that ends with the titular line, “This very tree.” Rubin’s art illustrates not only the storyline but the emotional path from trauma to recovery and hope. Along the way are lots of details of city life, construction equipment, and pockets of nature for young readers to explore. 

An author’s note explains how Rubin came to tackle this difficult story with its survivor tree, and a double page spread gives a brief history of  the World Trade Center, 9/11, and the Survivor Tree for older readers. Many tiny details (such as using the same typefaces as those used on the cornerstone of the One World Trade Center) make this a lovely tribute to New York City, its people, and to hope.

Not Your Ordinary Summer Vacation!

Sunrise SummerLynn: A bright cheerful cover of a new book on display at the public library recently caught my attention. Even with summer fading fast, the cover of Sunrise Summer (Imprint, 2021) by Matthew Swanson made me smile and I grabbed it thinking I was in for one last trip to the beach via picture book. Well, I was but this is not like any summer beach vacation picture book I have ever read! What surprise this book was to me and it is one I’m eager for kids and adults to be amazed by too.

The opening pages reinforced my first estimation of the content. A young girl tells us that summer, her favorite time of year, is here and her family is packing for their vacation. Here is where I began to wonder as this family was packing onions, potatoes, batteries, and spark plugs! This young family is headed to Alaska, specifically a place called Coffee Point in Egegik far far to the north. They own a property there where they go to commercially fish sockeye salmon each summer and this year our young narrator gets to join the fishing crew. She describes the process and that first summer of hard work and excitement, setting the nets and pulling in the salmon. Told with a joyful buoyancy, the story is immensely interesting and full of sensory descriptions that will fascinate kids. The sense of the hard work comes through clearly but so does the excitement, and sheer joy of this very unusual summer experience.

Cindy: I’m going to appreciate my salmon dinners much more after having read this story that clearly shows all the hard work that goes into catching those fish. The mixed media art is colorful and vibrant, but dark when the fishing happens in the wee hours of the morning or during storms. This is not a summer vacation for anyone but the hardy! The artist, Robbi Behr, has been summering in Alaska since she was 2 years old when her family decided to buy property at Coffee Point and have summer “adventures.” She now carries on the tradition with her husband, who wrote the text, and their four children. The final two spreads of the book include family photos, and illustrations, diagrams, and text to further explain the Alaskan salmon fishing industry and the indiginous history and current traditions. What a great catch, Lynn.