Alphabet Books Never Cease to Amaze Us

Lynn:  If you thought there could be nothing really new in alphabet books, think again! Alphabet books have been some of the very earliest in the history of picture books but authors and illustrators continue to bring their boundless imaginations to this topic. We have two of special note to review today and I’m leading off with an exceptionally original book, The Invisible Alphabet (Penguin/Rise, 2020) by Joshua David Stein.

Here Stein and illustrator Ron Barrett present their fascinating take on an alphabet representing things not seen. A is for Air, C is for Clear, E is for Erased and J is for Just Missed It. This is a conceptual breath of fresh air (B is for Brilliant), a nudge to children’s imaginations, and a unique approach to thinking about the alphabet for kids who have the knowledge solidly acquired.

On solid white backgrounds, Barrett used pen and ink and added bright orange in Photoshop to create fascinating scenes depicting something unseen or actions happening off the page. A drawing of an empty birdcage with an open door and a small orange feather is captioned F is for Freed. An exploding orange balloon illustrates P is for Popped and 2 blank pages represent N is for Nothing.

Each page turn is fascinating, challenging kids to think about this familiar concept in a totally new way. Every scene asks readers to imagine what has already happened. This is absolutely ideal for use as writing prompts or story starters in classrooms of all ages of students.

W is for WOW!

Cindy: ABC Animals (Peter Pauper, Oct. 15, 2020) by Christopher Evans is stunning. Each spread of the books features a letter of the alphabet and an animal whose name starts with that letter. On the left are the large capital letter, the name of the animal, and a silhouette of the animal in what appears to be scaled to size in comparison with each animal in the book. At the top of that page are two sets of upper and lower case letters, one in a serif font and the other in a more modern style. Both sets are positioned on a lined and dashed line space resembling those in a writing practice book. I could see young readers practicing their own letters on the space between the two sets! The Robin and the Quetzel are perched on those lines like wires while the Orangutan swings from them. On the facing page is a digital woodcut of the animal representing the letter. A for Alpaca, B for Badger…H for Hedgehog, etc. until Z for Zebra. What is a digital woodcut, you ask? Good question. Lynn and I aren’t sure we completely understand, but Evans says it is the “modern-day equivalent of wood engravings…images drawn by hand in an illustration software, point by point, and shape by shape.” Whatever they are, we are agreed that they are gorgeous. Each one is presented on a contrasting color background. If I were an early elementary teacher I would buy three copies of this book. One for students to read, and the other two to cut up and post around the perimeter of the classroom or on a bulletin board. Aspiring graphic artists will want a copy of this book as well. Brilliant.

 

Eighty-dollar Champion

Lynn: There is nothing I like better than an uplifting underdog story and this underhorse story was a pleasure to read–especially as it is a TRUE story! In this time of soaring egos, disdain for others, and scorn for real integrity, this is a lovely tale of the quiet, humble, and hard-working immigrant whose act of kindness rewarded him and his family–AND the horse he rescued. The Eighty-Dollar Champion: The True Story of a Horse, a Man, and an Unstoppable Dream (Random/Delacorte, 2020) is a story that will lift readers’ hearts.

Harry De Leyer and his wife Johanna came to the U.S. from Holland following WWII with almost nothing in their pockets. Harry’s hard work and ability brought him to a job as a riding teacher at an exclusive girls school on Long Island. Needing a gentle lesson horse, Harry set out one winter day to attend a horse sale but arrived too late, just as the “kill buyer” was loading the rejects. One of the horses, a big undernourished grey, caught Harry’s eye and on instinct, he paid all he had, $80.00 for the horse. It was 1956 and Harry had no idea the bargain he had just made.

Snowman, under Harry’s care, prospered and became just the lesson horse he needed–gentle, patient, and loving. The girls at the school loved him as did Harry and his whole family. But no one suspected the amazing ability Snowman’s gentle nature hid. That spring, reluctantly, Harry sold Snowman to a neighbor needing a gentle horse for his young son. Snowman had other ideas. Again and again, he jumped increasingly high and challenging fences to return home to Harry. Snowman knew where he belonged and it was with the De Leyers! It was then that Harry began to discover just how skilled a jumper Snowman was and to train and enter him in horse jumping shows around the state.

Snowman had been a plow horse and even in his coddled days with Harry, he never looked like the highly bred, highly strung horses at the top of the equestrian meets. In the beginning, most people laughed at Harry and Snowman as they began competition. Steady and unflappable, Snowman began to win every competition, cheerfully jumping easily over every obstacle before him. Eventually, he went on to win two Triple Crowns in a row–something that had never been done before.

Harry and Snowman became celebrities and throughout it all remained humble and little changed by fame. Snowman continued to be a lesson horse and Harry to resist all offers to buy him.

This is a very successful abridgment of Letts’ adult book and it was a perfect joy to read. You don’t have to be a horseman or to have had experience with the sport of jumping. Letts gives us a wonderful peek at that world, with just enough of the experience and tension of the various competitions to raise suspense and heighten the pace. But she also makes readers feel as if they know Harry and Snowman and they become vivid and heartfelt characters we deeply care for. And in this dark time, it is a welcome reminder that humility and hard work have rewards, that kindness makes a difference, and that the underestimated can achieve it all. I teared up several times, especially with the book’s conclusion.

“Never give up, even when the obstacles seem sky-high. There is something extraordinary in all of us.”

Back matter includes an interview with Harry De Leyer and a conversation with the author as well as extensive source notes. Give this to kids wanting an uplifting story, engaging nonfiction, or a very unusual horse story.

Ticks in Her Nose – the Story of a Wildlife Photographer for Kids

Lynn: Books for really young readers on careers are not easy to do well but a wildlife photographer/author that I especially admire, Suzy Eszterhas, has given us just that in My Wild Life: Adventures of a Wildlife Photographer (Owl Kids, 2020).  This fascinating story comes with a real bonus as the pertinent information includes a bounty of wonderful photographs that clearly expand on the points being made in the text. Eszterhas confides that she wanted to be a wildlife photographer as a child and she spent many hours in her backyard photographing her cats and squirrels, practicing the skills she would need.

Taking readers through many of the fascinating and challenging aspects of her job, Eszterhas provides information about how she preps the shots, finds and allows animals to grow confident around her, some of the techniques she uses to get shots including lying for hours belly down to achieve eye-level pictures and even flying in small airplanes—which makes her throw up in between clicking the shutter. She doesn’t pull any punches about the conditions she often has to live and work in. Kids will love some of the details like having to pee in a bottle while in a camouflaged blind, living in a tent for months without a shower, or waking up with ticks in her nose. She stresses that patience and having to wait for hours is often the key to success. And it is clear that being a woman in this very male-dominated field takes courage and determination.

Each chapter is an accessible and appealing 2 pages, which is ideal for young readers and the clear text is as informative as it is interesting. Several chapters are about the local experts and the scientists she works with and explains about her dedication to giving back to organizations that help wildlife. A concluding chapter is titled “Ask Suzi” and it provides additional information to questions about the profession.

The terrific photographs will draw readers in starting with the cover which is a beguiling shot of a group of meerkats sheltering from the wind up against her back. This book is sure to be a winner with kids who love nature and animals or are budding photographers themselves. All of them will come away with a real grasp of the skills and hard work necessary for this fascinating career and a deeper appreciation for the outstanding work done by photographers like Eszterhas.

Cindy: Eszterhas is an inspiration. Not only is this book as well done as Lynn says, but Suzi is also donating a portion of her royalties to her nonprofit organization Girls Who Click, a group that “empowers teen girls to enter the male-dominated field of nature photography and use their work to further conservation efforts around the world.” The free nature photography workshops are available online due to the current COVID crisis, perfect for distance and virtual learners. I wish I could take one! If, like us, you can’t get enough of Eszterhas’ extraordinary wildlife photography visit her website for more images that will take your breath away.

Cats and Dogs and Picture Books

Lynn and Cindy: You can NEVER have too many picture books featuring cats or dogs or both! Here are three terrific books featuring our furry friends.

My Wild Cat (Eerdmanns, 2019) by Isabelle Simler

I don’t know how I missed this one last year but I am so glad I caught up with it now. This is part scientific fact, part poetic description, part affectionate tribute and all stunning illustration. Simler is an illustrator I admire greatly and she clearly knows and loves cats. The book is in a small format, with each set of pages featuring a descriptive phrase, a related scientific fact as a footnote and wonderful drawings in pastel on a white background. The use of shape and form is simply brilliant and there is a smile lurking on every page. A cat is shown in a sink, the tail echoing the curved faucet, draped over a radiator or stalking a fly on a glass. Readers who cohabitate with felines will recognize every scene. Simple yet sophisticated this little gem would be treasured by readers of all ages.

Joy (Candlewick, 2020) by Yasmeen Ismail

It’s all fun and games until someone gets hurt! Kitten has a ball of red yarn and it’s her favorite toy. An onomatopoetic rhyming play session ensues full of zooms and zams, clops and hops, until a trip, trip, slip, flip results in a bruised kitten, or at least a bruised ego. Her parent comes to the rescue and soothes her until she’s forgotten the hurt and is ready to adventure again. Oh, joy! Jenni Desmond’s mixed media illustrations exude the appropriate joy for Ismail’s rollicking picture book. Anyone who’s watched a kitten (or a young child) at play will appreciate this fun story.

Cat Dog Dog: The Story of a Blended Family (Random House/Schwartz & Wade, 2020) by Nelly Buchet

Blended families come in all shapes. This one features a man and his dog who moves in with a woman and her dog and cat. The story is told almost entirely in the illustrations with the various dog, cat, dog descriptors. There are adjustments to be made in every blended family as the various members learn to adapt to the shifting members and partners, amid lots of humor. Just as things are finally starting to calm down in the blended house a new element, a baby, is added to the mix! The humorous details are in the cartoonish ink illustrations, created by Zuill, who wrote and illustrated one of our favorite books, Sweety (2019). Cat Dog Dog is a current Junior Library Guild Selection, for a very good reason.

Ick! A Book About Toxic Toots and Bubbles of Goo for Kids

Lynn: National Geographic always does a great job of publishing books that kids love but Melissa Stewart’s new book, Ick!: Delightfully Disgusting Animal Dinners. Dwellings and Defenses (National Geographic, 2020) stands out even from that crowd.

The book is divided into the 3 main chapters listed in the title: dinners, dwellings, and defenses—all icky. All of the delightfully disgusting creatures get their own two-page spread. Each of the creatures featured has the same categories of information provided including a Stat Stack of statistical facts, a general description, Extra Ick with additional or related information, and magnificent large color photographs. Stewart’s writing is terrific! The general descriptions are wonderfully done, snappy, full of groan-worthy puns but also clear, informative, and attention-holding. It is far more than just eww-inducing! There is a lot of great information provided here about why the behavior is employed and the advantages gained by the organism.

Let me be clear. There is plenty of disgusting icky facts that kids will gleefully read and share with everyone around them. How about a lacewing larva that uses its own toxic farts to stun its prey? Or the Caecilian babies who literally eat their mother’s skin? Yup. And of course, there are plenty of poop-related facts like Burrowing Owls who line their underground nests with poop—theirs and anyone else’s they can find. Or read about young Komodo Dragons who roll in their own foul-smelling poop to keep from being eaten by OTHER Komodo Dragons!

I set out on this book, thinking I would read a few pages a day and work my way slowly through but I ended up reading half the book in one sitting and finishing it eagerly the next morning. Stewart’s writing and the fabulous photographs hooked me. It certainly is icky but I learned so much! The excellent back matter includes a Glossary and 2 pages of Selected Sources for additional revolting reading. This is bound to be wildly popular with a lot of kids who will loudly share the grosser elements but they are going to learn a whole lot of solid biology along the way!

Bears in the Backyard – Oh My!

Backyard Bears by Amy CherrixLynn: Question: what does a wildlife biologist use to bait a live trap for a bear? Answer: day-old doughnuts! This may sound like a joke but it’s true and it is also only one of many fascinating things I learned in Backyard Bears: Conservation, Habitat Changes, and the Rise of Urban Wildlife (Houghton, 2019) by Amy Cherrix.

As human populations expand into what was once wild territory, more and more animals are now forced to live in close proximity to people. A prime example are the growing numbers of black bears who live in and around the city of Asheville, North Carolina. So far, black bears and the people of Asheville seem to be tolerating each other well but there are many questions about how best to manage this coexistence! 4 wildlife biologists set out to do a 5-year study of Asheville’s urban/suburban bear population. Author Amy Cherrix was invited to come along with the scientists as they carried out their work which included live-trapping bears for assessment and equipping them with radio-transmitters. The opening chapter chronicles the darting of a mother bear and extracting her tiny cub from a den high in a tree!

Packed with fascinating information about bears and human/bear interactions, the focus of the book, as in others in the Scientists in the Field series, is a clear look at the scientists doing this important work and a detailed look at how they carry out their research. Cherrix’s lively text is as captivating as the furry subjects of the research. But make no mistake, as people-tolerant as Asheville’s bears have been, they can weigh up to 700 pounds and be both destructive and dangerous. As Cherrix reports, this study hopes to answer many questions to help with the future of both bears and people.

Cindy: According to the chapter “A World Going Wild,” black bears are not the only creatures making their homes in urban areas. Whether it is leopards in Mumbai, India, wild boars in Berlin, Germany, or less threatening chickens, roosters, and turkeys in many areas, it’s clear that our human environments are encroaching on wildlife and learning to co-exist is paramount. A section in this chapter highlights the problems being caused by the murmurations of European starlings that are an invasive species here in the United States. A flock arrived in my backyard last fall making me think I was in Hitchcock’s The Birds movie

Backmatter includes tips for how to behave in a bear encounter, ways to be bearwise, web resources, glossary, and notes and index. Another fine entry in this stellar series.

Hop to It – Cynthia Lord’s New Rabbit Books

Lynn: Things are really hopping at Newbery Honor author Cynthia Lord’s house. As proof, we offer her two new enchanting books that both feature rabbits. They also happen to have the most enticing and adorable covers EVER! In fact, we think all you’ll have to do to promote these is to set them face out on the shelf and stand back. And, since you may never get much chance to read them once the kids see them, here’s what is happening inside those covers.

Lord and her family foster rabbits rescued by Maine’s Cottontail Cottage Rabbit Rescue. They help rescued domestic rabbits learn to trust humans and live in a house so they can be adopted. In her new nonfiction picture book, Borrowing Bunnies: A Surprising True Tale of Fostering Rabbits (Farrar, 2019), Lord tells the story of when two Netherland dwarf rabbits joined the family. Lord’s husband, professional photographer John Bald, decided to photograph their steps toward adoption. It was quite a surprise when one of the rabbits gave birth to four tiny babies. Sadly two of the babies died but the remaining two, Fezzi and Dodger, prospered.

The book introduces the original two rabbits, explains what fostering is and how rabbits are helped to feel safe and comfortable. The story then documents the surprising arrival of the babies and follows their growth and development. Lord uses clear simple text suited to young readers, focusing on rabbit behavior.

The wide format and white background provide the perfect format for John Bald’s enchanting photographs of these irresistible creatures. And if all this cuteness wasn’t enough, charming sketches from illustrator Hazel Mitchell skip through the pages. What reader will not instantly yearn to add a rabbit to their family immediately? Happily, Cynthia Lord was well aware of this and has provided an important final page titled, ” Do You Want Your Own Rabbit for Keeps?” Here she emphasizes the need to do additional rabbit research and offers 5 important questions to answer before becoming a bunny owner.

Cindy: The cover art drew both Lynn and me to Lord’s fiction title, Because of the Rabbit (Scholastic, 2019) and it’s sure to attract young readers. Each chapter opens with a torn scrap of lined paper with a rabbit fact, which also coordinates with the focus of the story in that chapter. Emma’s homeschooling is coming to an end as the book opens. It’s the night before she is off to start 5th grade at a public school and she is nervous about finding a friend and setting a good first impression. Her school supplies are ready, but is she? That night she accompanies her game warden father to rescue a bunny caught in a fence. When they do, they discover it’s not a wild rabbit that can be released, but a pet breed that may have an owner looking for it. Emma convinces her dad that they should take it home to foster until they can find the owner. In addition to bunny wrangling, Emma gets paired with a boy named Jack for a big project. He is on the autism spectrum and friendship doesn’t come easily. As a storyteller, I really enjoyed the integration of trickster bunny Monsieur Lapin’s tales that Emma recounts from her grandfather’s storytelling. Lord writes books that children connect with, and this one will find a ready audience.

Publisher’s Weekly published a Q&A with Cynthia Lord earlier this month that will interest readers who want to know more about Lord’s fascination with bunnies and other animals and her personal experiences that informed her storytelling.