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.

A Saucy Read: Tomatoes for Neela

Tomatoes for Neela by Padma LakshmiCindy: My husband rarely gets credit for his support of Bookends Blog or his suggestions for my to-read list. He saw an interview with the host of Top Chef and Taste the Nation, Padma Lakshmi, on this Today Show segment about her new picture book, Tomatoes for Neela (Viking, 2021) and told me he wanted to read it and that I should consider it for the blog. Now, I’m not a fan of “celebrity author” childrens books, but this one, illustrated by Caldecott Honor Winner Juana Martinez-Neal is an exception. I am a fan of any food books that encourage healthy eating and that promote families spending time cooking together. Lynn found the book at the public library and read it and then handed it off to me the day I had spent the morning canning tomatoes and tomato sauce! Perfect timing.

IMG-2622Young Neela loves to cook with her amma (mother) and copies their recipes in her own notebook just like her amma and her paati (grandmother) have always done. To Neela, these books seem magical, like a wizard’s spell book. A trip to the green market that day is highlighted by a stunning display of tomatoes in all sizes, shapes, and colors. I could hang that spread on my tomato red  kitchen wall and never tire of looking at it. The acrylic and colored pencil illustrations beautifully showcase the the fruit and the love between Neela and her amma and their joy in purchasing such treasures in season.

In addition to the lessons on making the sauce and dishes using the sauce (recipes included), the story is infused with family tradition, Indian culture, and information about tomatoes and the farmworkers who bring those fruits to market. The backmatter includes more information including a list of books for children about Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta.

I wish I’d read this gorgeous book before canning this year, as I didn’t fry my garlic before adding it to the sauce, nor did I know to cut x’s in the bottom of my tomatoes before boiling them to loosen the skins, but I will try both next year. I learned to can tomatoes from my mother but it became a tradition my father and I did together every August while my mother was selling antiques on the weekends. 

It is one I continue with my husband as I spend the day thinking of my father and enjoying the satisfaction of putting away a bit of summer to enjoy in the cold days of winter. 

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Ten Beautiful Things – A Picture Book Journey to Home

Ten beautiful thingsLynn: Something has happened in young Lily’s life. Molly Beth Griffin’s Ten Beautiful Things (Charlesbridge, 2021) opens with a scene showing a young girl in a car seat. She has an Iowa map open on her lap and a backpack and stuffed animal ride beside her. The scene on the next page widens to show a small car rolling through the dark night, an older woman at the wheel. “Let’s try to find ten beautiful things along the way,” says Gram. Griffin never reveals what has happened but Lily’s chest is “hollow” and her eyes and posture are sad. “There’s nothing beautiful here,” she says. “Lily felt the complaints starting in her belly again, coming up her throat and nearly out her mouth.” But one by one, slowly the world provides a different answer for Lily.

A golden sunrise across the fields, a red-winged blackbird, a swan shaped cloud and even the earthy rich smell of mud at a rest stop, unfold before Lily’s eyes as they travel. And at journey’s end, there is number 10—Gram’s reassuring hug as they stand before Lily’s new home. “We’re ten,” Gram said.

I dare you to read THAT line and the rest of the final text without a tear in your eye and a crack in your voice! This reassuring and moving story is a gift for every child feeling uprooted, sad, and facing a new life. I especially value that Griffin leaves Lily’s particular issues unknown, allowing each child to put themselves and their own situation into the story. The book, while acknowledging the difficult and the sad things that kids experience, is sweetly reassuring. The simple suggestion of looking for those ten beautiful things is concrete and doable even for young children and something that can help with those “hollow spots” within us at least for a while.

Maribel Lechug’s digital illustrations are warm and expressive and she takes full advantage of the extra wide format. The two-page spread of the dark clouds of a thunderstorm sweeping over the Iowa farmland is particularly effective. While the small vignettes scattered across a white page, showing Lily in her car seat, sadly curled into herself, tell readers volumes without a word needed.

This journey with Gram and Lily is not to be missed.

Someone Builds the Dream: A Tribute to the Trades

Cindy: Someone Builds the Dream by Lisa WheelerHardworking people in the trades are center stage in Someone Builds the Dream (Dial, 2021) by Lisa Wheeler and Loren Long. Architects, engineers, artists, scientists, amusement park designers, and even authors use their imagination, knowledge, and skills to dream up important and sometimes fun places, structures, or books, but the work doesn’t end there. It takes many hands to build the dream. For instance, and engineer designs a bridge but:

Someone works to mine the ore,
smelt the iron, pour the beam.
Someone needs to weld the steel.
Someone has to build the dream.

Written in jaunty rhyme, this book celebrates the many skilled laborers who often aren’t included in the ribbon-cutting ceremonies and photo opportunities for new structures and places. I expecially appreciated the inclusion of book-making as children have no idea about how a book comes to be as it isn’t something that happens out in the open like the building of homes that they might see. I’ll leave the illustrations for Lynn to rave about, but Loren Long, ahem, nailed it with these paintings. 

Lynn: I’ve long been a fan of Loren Long’s work, especially his Otis the Tractor books, but for me, this is his best work yet. There is a wonderful feeling of homage to the WPA murals of the 1930s that also celebrated the workers across the country. But there is a lot more here than just a tip of the hard hat to WPA art. Long’s extensive craftsmanship is beautifully at work in the skillful design and pacing. Each series begins with a “dreamer” at work, often alone in a quiet space and the text shown against a white background. The next spreads in contrast are busy, muscular, vividly-hued and pulsing with activity as the workers use their skills to bring each dream to life. Each scene is packed with details and demands readers to pause and explore. There is so much to look at! I love that the workers are of a wide diversity of races, are both men and women, and depicted as skillfully engaged in the work.  This is a partnership of text and illustration at its best!

Think You Know the Ending? Try These Picture Books

Lynn and Cindy: We have written before about our conviction that young readers love picture books in which they figure out what piece of wool is being pulled over a character’s eyes before he/she does. We love those too and we especially love it when we THINK that is happening but the story goes on to take a twist we never anticipated. We have two new picture books that do just that and we’re still smiling thinking about them!

Lynn: How to Catch a Clover Thief (Little, Brown, 2021) How to Catch a Clover Thief by Elise Parsleyby Elise Parsley had me laughing from page one. Wait – I think it had me laughing the moment I saw the cover! Roy the Boar has discovered a just-about-ready patch of his favorite meal – clover! All he has to do is lie there patiently and wait for it to be deliciously ready. Enter Jarvis, a suspiciously friendly gopher. He assures Roy he knows this is Roy’s patch and won’t trespass BUT he’s sure Roy will like the cookbook he is bringing, How to Cook with Clover. Roy is wary but he is quickly absorbed by tempting recipes and before readers can shout a warning, Roy is off gathering mushrooms! And of course, when Roy returns to his clover patch, it is noticeably smaller. Enter Jarvis with a new book, this time on camping! It is hilarious and kids will be sure they know that poor Roy is being tricked. But this story goes on to upend readers with a  terrifically unexpected twist. Readers will laugh and cheer! Parsley’s wonderfully goofy illustrations are the perfect addition to this to this clever bait-and-switch. Fabulous fun  and I love that books are key to the ongoing wackiness.

Sheepish by Helen YoonCindy: I have another “wolf in sheep’s clothing” in Helen Yoon’s delightful Sheepish: (Wolf Under Cover) (Candlewick, 2021). The trope of a wolf disguising himself as a sheep to get a good dinner, gets a twist in this picture book that will have children howling at the antics. Wolf is sure that his disguise is so good that the sheep in this rural boarding-school environment will never notice a thing. He’s delusional, of course, as kids will see the nervous and fearful expressions and responses from the sheep when he grabs his breakfast tray and goes through the cafeteria line with them, thoughts of roasted sheep dancing in his head as he picks up okra. In addition to his disguise, he needs to be helpful, friendly, and a team player to lower their suspicions and defenses. All is going according to plan…until it’s not. A few twists send the story in a new direction, to the relief of sheep-lovers….and wolf-lovers. Yoon’s illustrations are full of fun details to explore and are infused in humor…and some love. Don’t miss this gem.

Eyes that Kiss in the Corners: an AAPI Own Voices Picture Book

Cindy: If you are as dismayed as we are by the numerous racial attacks on members of the Asian American and Pacific Islander communities, this new book will give you some comfort. Last week’s publisher delivery of Eyes that Kiss in the Corners (Harper, 2021) by Joanna Ho couldn’t have arrived at a better time.

When a young girl realizes that her eyes are very different from her round-eyed friends, she describes them as “eyes that kiss in the corners and glow like warm tea.” They are just like her mama’s. Her description grows with each family member as she describes her mother’s, Amah’s, and baby sister’s eyes.

My eyes crinkle into crescent moons
and sparkle like the stars.
Gold flecks dance and twirl
while stories whirl
in their oolong pools,
carrying tales of the past
and hope for the future….

The girl’s understanding of her beauty, her strength, her family, and her story grows throughout the book into a revolution and an appreciation of who she is and the worth she has. Dung Ho’s digital illustrations showcase nature and legend in addition to the females’ eyes and will delight readers young and old. This book belongs in every library collection for young people and should be read aloud to groups of children of all ethnicities. Count this as a solid addition to Own Voices literature.

Pandemic Comfort in a Picture Book: Outside, Inside

Cindy: Adults have been struggling for the past year during our Covid-19 Pandemic, but we all wonder how the children doing who may not understand the changes around them, or who are having trouble coping with them? Awarding winning author-illustrator LeUyen Pham’s latest picture book Outside, Inside (Roaring Brook, 2021) is just the literary vaccination and we all need.

“Something strange happened on an unremarkable day just before the season changed. Everybody who was OUTSIDE…went INSIDE.”

So begins this story about empty streets, learning from home, drive-by birthday parties, and people who did what they needed to do because, well, it was the right thing to do. Pham shows people all over the world responding to the virus and pandemic, neither ever named, and highlights how we have changed and grown and reached out to those in need. The book is quiet, just as the outside world quieted a bit from fewer vehicles. As tired as the phrase might be, “We are all in this together,” and this story gives us hope that we’ll come out the other side of this pandemic improved in some ways, despite our significant losses.

Lynn: How do you explain the past year to a small child? How do we adults help them to understand, to cope with the changes, the sacrifices and the fear? I don’t know the answer to that question and I suspect it is going to be several years before all of us completely heal from the many ways this virus has afflicted us. A wonderful starting point though is this incredibly skillful and moving book.

LeUyen Pham speaks directly to small children here. She writes in simple sentences, with simple vocabulary and pairs her text with images that children everywhere will recognize. Pham’s illustrations are warmly comforting, showing everyday people and families, the world inside and the world outside. Vignettes include scenes of health care and front line workers in their important jobs and also scenes of families trying to live as normally as possible. The virus is never actually mentioned, instead Pham reflects the abrupt change in lives of people everywhere and the hope we all have of being outside once again.

How do you explain COVID shutdown to children? I don’t know that there is any other answer than the one found here.

“So why did we all go inside? Well…

there were lots of reasons. But mostly because everyone knew

it was the right thing to do.”

There is a wonderful Author’s Note that mustn’t be missed! In it Pham reflects on the past year. She says that her “career has been devoted to drawing the world as I would like to see it….This is the first time I have cataloged the world as it is.” I love the simplicity of this book and the way that it offers children a reflection of their often baffling experiences as well as the important message that we are in this together. I was so moved by this book! It is a quiet gem and one that our children need to experience. I think the biggest challenge when it comes to sharing this will be for adult readers to make it through without weeping! But that too is part of what we all need to acknowledge as we move forward together.

And Baby Makes Three – With Free Shipping! Picture Book Stories of New Families

Lynn and Cindy: Babies sometimes join families in unusual ways. We love these two recent picture books with stories about two very different babies bringing joy to their new families. One is a sweet story sure to melt reader’s hearts and one is a hilarious look at a truly out-of-this-world family. Both are stories that young readers are sure to love and both present a reassuring of love and acceptance, no matter the method of arrival. Enjoy!

Cindy: First up is a nonfiction adoption story told by father to son.   On the way home from work as he is leaving the NY subway, Danny spots a bundle in the corner and discovers a baby just a few hours old wrapped in a sweatshirt. The police were called, the newspapers covered the story, but Danny wasn’t allowed to visit the baby to check on him because he wasn’t family. Our Subway Baby (Dial, 2020) by Peter Mercurio tells the story of his partner Danny’s first encounter with the baby, a special judge, and the path to their adoption of Kevin so he could have a loving home. These two young fathers experience all the emotions of first-time parents, nervousness, excitement, and love for their new son. The author’s note has family photos including one of college-age Kevin who is studying mathematics and computer science. It also tells of another special event they had with Judge Cooper in addition to their adoption process. It’s a heartwarming story that will make you smile and a nice addition to the dearth of adoption stories for young children considering the adoption numbers in our country.

Lynn: Our second story is about a baby who gets delivered—right to the front porch! The robot family introduces little Cathode (Cathy) to her new baby brother. All he needs is a little assembly since he arrived in a box. Robobaby (Clarion, 2020) by David Wiesner is a 278 lb. bouncing baby robot, but Houston, we have a problem! Apparently, robots don’t read directions any better than we humans, so increasingly disastrous attempts to assemble the new member of the family are hilarious failures. Little Cathy knows just what to do but the grown-ups just won’t listen! This family truly needs a Dr. Spock! Happily, Cathy knows just what to do and little Flange is finally “Brmmming” happily in his crib. But wait! What’s that package on the porch?

Wiesner is the master of space, panels, and subtle visual jokes and each colorful page is a joy to explore carefully. Speech bubbles and lots of sound effects make the book a fun read-aloud but this is best suited as a lap book where the many clever details can be discovered. Kids will love this and their caregivers will too.

Every Good Thing about I Am Every Good Thing

Lynn: The current schism in this country often has me attempting to build a nest of blankets and bury myself in them. The only way to keep moving forward is to search for the good things and focus on them. One of the really bright spots in our dysfunctional culture the last few years has been the movement for diverse and “our own voices” in youth literature. The stories are powerful, heartfelt and important. They are also excellent examples of writing and illustrating. I love seeing these outstanding books that offer kids the chance to see themselves in books and for all of us to see and hear those stories.

This year, in particular, we have a treasure trove of such books and my absolute favorite so far is I Am Every Good Thing (Penguin/Nancy Paulsen, 2020) by Derrick Barnes and Gordon C. James. We loved Crown: An Ode to the Fresh Cut (Bolden, 2017) by this same duo and I think I love this one even more. There is such joy in this exuberant picture book that celebrates all the good things about young boys of color. Barnes’ lyrical text soars. It is radiantly proud, dynamic and oh so tender. It is reassurance and it is a confident statement that goes straight to the hearts of readers.

Gordon James illustrations are a vibrant emphasis to the text. A rich energetic palette underscores the strength and the humanity of each scene. I would love to frame each and every illustration. I simply cannot say enough about this outstanding and deeply moving picture book. It demands to be read aloud and shared again and again.

Cindy: When I opened this book and saw the first spread of a young, black boy soaring through the air, superhero style, I thought, this should be a poster in every classroom and in every young boy’s bedroom. The words by Derrick Barnes are as powerful as the image painted by Gordon C. James:

I am
a nonstop ball of energy.
Powerful and full of light.
I am a go-getter. A difference maker.
A leader.

Imagine who these young black boys would grow up to be with those words in their heads instead of slurs and demeaning dismissals of their worth? Political yard signs were popping up this fall in West Michigan where we live with the slogan: “Joe and a Hoe, Vote NO.” Is this who we are as a nation? Do we want our young people growing up thinking this is okay? Do we want young people to internalize this message about the first woman Vice President?

What I want is the message on the final page of this book. The rival for a poster for every classroom and kid’s bedroom: A  young black boy smiling, eyes sparkling, hugging himself, with these words:

And without a shadow
of a doubt,
I am worthy
to be loved.

I am worthy
to be loved.

Pair this book with Hey, Black Child (Little, Brown, 2017) by Useni Eugene Perkins for another empowering book that features both boys and girls.

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.