Grief and Loss for the Youngest Readers

Lynn and Cindy: Grief and loss is a sad part of the natural cycle of life even for our youngest readers. This past year’s events have made that experience much more widespread. Difficult even for mature individuals, the struggle to understand loss can be particularly challenging for young children. We have reviewed other helpful books in the past and we have recently found more sensitively written picture books that are a wonderful addition to the list. Books cannot cure grief but they can help children understand that what they feel is normal and begin to heal.

My Nana’s Gardenmy nana's garden (Candlewick/Templar, 2020) by Dawn Casey.

This lovely gentle picture book shows the story of the changing seasons in a garden and the relationship that flourishes there between a grandmother and young granddaughter. The delicate illustrations show the passing years as the child grows taller and the grandmother frailer as they share their joy in the natural world. Then, with a page turn, readers find a stark and wintry scene and the grandmother’s empty chair. The young girl stares out of the house at the snow covered garden. But the renewing cycle of life returns and the reassuring story reveals the following seasons of the enduring beautiful garden and the new generations that come to share in Nana’s garden. Quietly encouraging, this beautiful told tale reaffirms the love of a shared experience and the healing cycle of life.

Tears (Owlkids, 2021)tears by Sibylle Delacroix.

“Everyone cries,” begins this wonderful picture book that addresses an experience that is universal. For a young child, tears and crying are a fundamental part of their lives. But they may not have really thought about the complexity of what lies behind the tears or the variety of ways in which we cry. Delacroix uses simple sentences in this story for the youngest readers, with examples that they will easily understand. She reinforces each example with adorable illustrations created in soft aqua and white tones, often using teardrop shapes in the sketches. While this is not specifically a book about grief, it is a book that young children will find both interesting and comforting.

The Boy and the Gorilla (Candlewick, 2020) by Jackie Azúa Kramer.

Boy and the Gorilla by Jackie KramerThis gentle, spare picture book story will help many young children who have lost a parent. In the story, a gorilla follows a young boy home from his mother’s funeral. The boy asks the gorilla questions like “How do you know when someone has died?” Or “Will we all die?” The gorilla answers in short, truthful sentences, “Yes. We all do. But you have many more kites to fly.” The gorilla stays with the boy through the dark days as he and his father struggle to rise from their own grief to connect fully with each other. Eventually, the boy and his father find their way back to each other and that connection is wrapped in a big hug surrounded by a gorilla hug before he wanders off, perhaps to help the next child who needs him. Cindy Derby’s expressive watercolors highlight the moods and emotions with a mostly somber palette that lightens on the brighter days. Even in the darkest times, though, there are tiny sparks of color…a red cardinal, red and blue kites, bright crayons, hinting that while the dark is overwhelming, there is still joy to be found. This is simply a  beautiful book to share in hard times.

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.

See the Cat – Metafiction as a Primer

Lynn: I learned to read from the Dick and Jane primers and I remember Dick, Jane, Sally, and Spot to this day! We have come a long way since then, folks! I know that most of you out there came along after Dick and Jane but I know that David Rochelle’s new book, See the Cat (Candlewick, 2020), a delightful spoof of the classic primers will please all generations, most importantly the current crop of beginning readers.

This three-chapter book opens with our hero, Max the dog, responding to the text, “See the Cat.” “I am not a cat,” responds Max, indignantly. Each page juxtaposes a Dick and Jane type statement and an illustration of  Max, reacting to the statements which get progressively sillier. As in any good beginning reader, there is ample repetition of the words and illustrations to assist in understanding. What sets this excellent book apart is the clever humor that works so well for the audience. Mike Wohnoutka takes the joke and extends it wonderfully. Readers will be giggling through the entire book as each page-turn offers another riff on the on-going joke.

Kids will read this adorable book over and over and start on the path to being happy lifelong readers. “Hurray for David, Mike, and Max,” said Lynn.

Cindy: With Covid quarantining and social distancing, it has become harder for Lynn and me to exchange books to review so we’ve had more solo posts than usual (my committee reading and birding obsession may have contributed to those increased solos as well) but we recently risked infection to share this delightful book. I need funny books right now and this beginner reader made me laugh out loud. I can sympathize with Max in the third story as he is denied a nap, but it is a new grandpuppy that is keeping me from my naps.  At any rate, Mike Wohnoutka’s comic illustrations add to the fun text and will delight the adults who are helping the young readers who are finding their way to the magic of reading. Great job, guys. You deserve treats…but I’ve run out while trying to keep my shoes from being chewed.

 

Graphic Novels for the Beginning Readers

Lynn: Kids love graphic novels and I am always very happy when I find graphic novels written for our youngest readers. We have two fun new GN’s for you today that are perfectly designed for beginning readers.

First up is Donut Feed the Squirrels (Random/RH Graphic, 2020) by Mika Song, a heist story with not one but two tails! Norma and Belly are determined to bring home donuts for everyone. They tried to pay with chestnuts but the human didn’t seem to understand. So now the two squirrels decide to crack open the little red truck and grab a cache for everyone. Easy Peasy, right? They even figure out a getaway driver and a car. No plan could ever be batter! So why is batter everywhere and how DO they get out of the truck?

Mika Song’s adorable drawings and easy to follow panels create a graphic novel that young readers will eat up. Word balloons are large and consist a few words. The simple vocabulary and short sentences easy to decode make this a very appealing choice for primary collections. Jokes abound, both verbal and visual.

Song’s illustrations use simple lines and warm colors. Belly resembles a plump gumdrop and Norma is shaped more sharply with two triangles. The characters are adorable and easy to root for. Five short chapters divide the story into easy sections and the happy resolution will have everyone cheering for a donut party!

Cindy: My graphic mystery takes place on a farm with plenty of suspects. Farm Crimes! Cracking the Case of the Missing Egg (Owlkids, 2020) by Sandra Dumais. Hen raises a ruckus when she finds her egg is missing and begins to accuse the other farm animals of having stolen it. They ring cow’s bell to summon Inspector Billiam Van Hoof World’s #1 Goat Detective. His skills might be legendary, but not for their brilliance. Laughter and puns ensue as the Inspector enlists the help of the animals and the clues pile up to a final happy solution to the “crime.”

The text was translated from the French for this edition and the illustrations range from a few full-page spreads, to single page, to halves and quarters, making it an easy graphic novel for the youngest to follow, even if the text is being read to them. Early chapter book readers will have no problems with the text or following the panels. The brightly colored scenes are full of details for readers to enjoy on multiple reads. I do hope this might be the start of a series and I bet young readers will too!

Frog and Toad Are Friends – Fifty Years of Fun

Lynn: I got a lovely surprise in the mail recently—a wonderful oversize new edition of Frog and Toad Are Friends (Harper, 2020) by Arnold Lobel. Particularly notable to me though is the fact that it is a Fiftieth Anniversary Commemorative Edition! Fifty years! What were you doing fifty years ago? I’m sure many of you weren’t even in this world yet and some of you were very young. I am also sure that no matter your age, you have been touched by Frog and Toad. As an elementary school librarian, I always purchased the Frog and Toad stories and as a mom, I bought them for my boys. And when my grandsons came along, it was a delight to find that they loved them too.

This new edition comes with a special set of bonus pages with archival photographs, sketches, information about Arnold Lobel, his creative process, and more. There is even a reproduction of Lobel’s draft of the first story written by hand on lined notebook paper. Something that made me smile is the tidbit that when the book went on sale in 1970, a hardcover copy with slipcase cost all of $2.50! This is such a sweet treasure of a book!

As Arnold Lobel created his wonderful first story, I was just married and working in my very first full-time library job as a periodicals clerk for the Purdue University Library system. I remember now with amazement that after opening the hundreds of magazines and journals that arrived every day, we recorded each one by hand in our Rolodex system and then in the main catalog. No computers for us yet. How things have changed! Let us know what you were doing fifty years ago or when you first met Frog and Toad.

Cindy: I got the same promotional package, complete with a Frog and Toad bookbag big enough to carry all 70+ titles written and/or illustrated by Arnold. I reread these stories in this new large format and Frog and Toad win my heart every time. In the back matter is a question once posed to Lobel, did he see himself more as Frog than as Toad. His answer? “Both, both. I think everybody is both.” And maybe that’s why these characters are so beloved.

Fifty years ago on the “book birthday” Lobel received a very different congratulation notice from his publisher, Ursula Nordstrom, and editor Barbara Borack than authors do today. A yellow Western Union telegram arrived for him at his hotel in Venice, Italy. Fifty years ago I was just a couple years beyond I Can Read books and was devouring another Harper & Row series by Laura Ingalls Wilder. I discovered those in my elementary school library where I worked almost every day. I got to see all the new books first and I was able to work as a librarian filing catalog cards (above the rod) for Mrs. Jean Ducey, my mentor. She was a published poet and nature essayist and even authored a few children’s historical fiction books, in addition to being a school librarian. She was everything I aspired to be and we kept in touch until her death a few years ago.  As Lynn requests, please share your connection with Frog and Toad and tell us what you were doing 50 years ago.