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.

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.

Sometimes We Just Need to Laugh – Funny Picture Books

Lynn and Cindy: We don’t really have to say anything about just how tense and depressing things are right now! We have often sought relief and diversion in funny books and we think kids will welcome that escape too. Here are three new picture books that are just what the book doctor ordered! Share and enjoy!

Glory on Ice: A Vampire Hockey Story, by Maureen Fergus (Knopf, 2020)

You read that right. This hockey story features a vampire on blades! A bored, lonely Vlad heads to the local Community Center to find a new hobby. After rejecting dancing, scrapbooking, and water aerobics, he almost gives up but then overhears some young hockey players talking about pounding, crushing, and destroying the other teams Vlad knows he’s found his calling! After buying the “best hockey equipment that treasure plundered from ancient gravesites could buy,” and careful preparation and study of the sport, this vampire learns that ice skating isn’t easy! Mark Fearing’s hilarious illustrations of Vlad’s progress to master the ice and become a gracious loser as part of a team will have young sports fans chuckling along. (We raved here about The Great Thanksgiving Escape written and illustrated by Fearing a few years ago. It’s another fabulous funny book!)

The Staring Contest, by Nicolas Solis (Peter Pauper, 2020)

This hilarious book made us slap our foreheads and ask, “Why didn’t WE think of this?” Talk about the PERFECT funny kid book! The challenger, drawn only with big eyes and impressive eyebrows challenges readers to a staring contest. Each page turn is a new trick to get the reader to blink. The eyes roll up and down, side to side, and even cross. It asks “What is that behind you?” and suggests you might have to go to the bathroom. Kids will be giggling helplessly by this point as the tricks backfire. Everyone is a winner in this delightful picture book. Be prepared for multiple readings! Ready, set, GO!

The Attack of the Underwear Dragon by Scott Rothman. (Random, 2020)

Of course, just the idea of underwear is funny to kids and dragons in underwear is guaranteed to be sidesplitting. This story is far more than just oddly-clad lizards, as funny as that is. Rothman takes on a knightly tale that begins when young Cole writes a letter to his favorite knight, Sir Percival asking to become his assistant. Illustrator Pete Oswald’s comic vignettes of Cole’s training are packed with visual jokes that will keep the giggles going. When the Underwear Dragon attacks, defeating ALL the knights, only Cole is left to protect the kingdom. But never fear—all that training pays off and the dragon is “barely” defeated.  Don’t miss the wonderful before and after 2-page spreads!

 

Cast Your Vote for Picture Books about Elections

Lynn and Cindy: Unless your pandemic shutdown has included no access to electronic media, you will have noticed that the U.S is fast approaching an important election. Adults everywhere are talking about politics, candidates, and elections and for children, it can all seem mystifying. Happily, authors and publishers have stepped up and there are a lot of picture books currently being published on the subject. Here’s a round-up of a few that we think will help kids make sense of this important topic.

I Voted: Making a Choice Makes a Difference (Holiday House/Neal Porter, 2020) by Mark Shulman.

This book focuses on the idea of making a choice. It starts with the most basic of choices by asking what the reader likes best: ice cream or onions and apples or oranges? The concept slowly broadens by asking the reader to imagine a choice being made by more people such as choosing a class pet. In the simplest of terms that kids can easily understand, the book discusses facts about voting such as sometimes not getting what you want, ways to help people vote for what you want, and how a vote can be held. Broadening more, the topic shifts to grown-ups voting for leaders of their cities, towns, or states, why that is important and how to decide who to vote for. Kid-friendly and very accessible, this is a terrific vehicle for introducing the concept. Back matter includes Five Easy Steps for Voting and information on How Our Government Works. Serge Bloch’s cartoon illustrations make the book very appealing.

Natasha Wing’s The Night Before Election Day (Grosset & Dunlap, 2020) by Natasha Wing

This cheerful book is part of an extensive series told in the tradition of Clement Moore’s Night Before Christmas poem. Each book in the series tells the story of the night before a special event or festival. Here the event is Election Day and the children in the family are reminding their parents that school will be closed the next day so people can vote. Their classes have been decorating, everyone has been getting ready for months, and now the election is here. The basics of what is an election and the voting day process are covered here. Clearly stated yet retaining a child’s perspective, one of the chief joys of the book is the well-conveyed sense of excitement and importance of an election. This will be great to use in the classroom or at home in the fall as election time draws near. Extra nice to have a family of color at the center of the story. We love the idea of helping kids to understand how important AND exciting elections should be.

Vote for Our Future! (Schwartz & Wade, 2020) by Margaret McNamara

A diverse cast of children (and teaching staff) have the day off school in order for their elementary school to transform into a polling station. The children aren’t old enough to vote, but they figure out ways to perform other civic duties in this Get Out the Vote story. Their actions leading up to election day explain voting practices like registration, making a plan for election day, voting early or by mail, and the importance of voting. A gatefold shows a large crowd of people heading to the school to cast their votes in an effort to affect change. In addition to Micah Player’s colorful and lively illustrations throughout, the endpapers include images of political buttons encouraging voting. The end matter includes a list of Acts of Congress that improved life in the United States starting with the 1792 Postal Service Act signed into law by George Washington, and acts to protect national parks, Indian citizens, control air pollution, and protect civil rights, provide protection for Americans with disabilities, and access to affordable health care.

Grace Goes to Washington (Disney/Hyperion, 2019) by Kelly DiPucchio

The first book in this series, Grace for President (Little, Brown, 2008), explained the Electoral College as Grace tried to become the first female US president in her class’ mock election. This second book takes on the three branches of government as Grace’s student council struggles with deciding how to spend their fundraiser profits to best benefit their school. Everyone has a special interest (sports equipment, library books, or musical instruments). We all know how many adults in charge deal with these issues, but perhaps the kids can teach us something? Illustrated by the talented LeUyen Pham and including a field trip to Washington, D.C., an author’s note explaining the branches further, and a list of ideas for becoming an involved citizen, this book has a lot to offer an elementary classroom.

The Next President (Chronicle, 2020) by Kate Messner

And, while we wait to learn who our next president will be, take a stroll through presidential history with Kate Messner and Adam Rex. At any one time, we have approximately ten people alive who will become one of our next presidents, some who are still children and have no idea it will be them one day. Starting with George Washington, there were nine future presidents in the wing. In 1961 there were ten also, four of them just children (Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, newly born Barack Obama, and teenager Donald Trump). The following page has stirred some controversy, but careful readers will understand that Kennedy and Obama, and on another wall in the illustration, Hillary Clinton, are representing this text:

“The truth is America’s earliest presidents weren’t all that different from one another. Most were wealthy, white, Protestant men who might have been surprised if they’d been around to see a Catholic or an African American man elected president…or a woman nominated by a major party for the highest office in the land.”

An empty frame labeled “46” awaits the “next” president either this November or another four years from now. Adam Rex’s illustrations are magnificent and complement the interesting details and timelines that Messner researched and threaded together about what each president was doing earlier in their life before becoming America’s Commander in Chief. It’s an inspiring collection for children who wonder what their futures might hold.

Picture Books Go Camping

Lynn: I know summer is drawing to a close but there is still time to get outside and camp and hike with kids! In fact, the crisp air and colorful beauty of fall may be even better for enjoying nature. Of course, books should ALWAYS be a part of whatever we do. I have two delightful picture books that will be a perfect way to lead up to an outdoor adventure. Read these and smile, and then pack up your tent and lace up your hiking boots!

In The Camping Trip (Candlewick, 2020) by Jennifer Mann, Ernestine, a young city girl, excitedly tells readers that she is going on her first camping trip with her Aunt Jackie and cousin Samantha. She and her Dad are packing up everything she needs and the trip begins. Ernestine is sure she will love camping but there are some surprises. The tent is not one bit easy to set up, swimming in the lake is not at all like swimming at the Y—there are fish in there—and maybe her backpack is a bit too full for hiking without getting really tired! But a campfire supper is really fun and s’mores are delicious. At first sleeping in a tent is a little scary. It is REALLY dark and Ernestine misses her dad. But smart Aunt Jackie takes the girls outside to see the stars and make a wish on a shooting star. The next day, Ernestine bravely tries more new things and when it is time to go she can’t wait to camp again.

Mann’s illustrations are adorable, cartoon-type stick figures with big heads and packed with wonderful small details. The book is a charming mix of graphic novel with panels and speech bubbles and picture book with large spreads. The text is delightful and there is such an authentic feel both to the dialog and to Ernestine’s thoughts and reactions. I especially love the packing scene and the hike. Anyone who has walked ANY distance with young children will laugh at the progression from energetic to exhausted. Use this book to introduce camping to kids or as a wonderful reminder of the fun to be had. Oh, and don’t miss the endpapers!

 

My second book is Hike (Candlewick, 2020) by Pete Oswald and while it shares some characteristics with The Camping Trip, it is a nearly wordless book, telling its story completely with illustrations and a few sound effects. Here a dad gently wakes his sleeping child in a bedroom showing evidence of preparations for a hike. As the story unfolds in expressive small vignettes balanced with full-page illustrations, the reader watches the pair experience a day hiking through woods, walking across a fallen log by a waterfall, climbing a rocky cliff, and planting a tree. Charming details make each scene a small story all its own as they observe animals, take pictures, and share a very special day.

Oswald uses a peaceful palette of greens and browns in this quiet but rewarding account not only of the joys of spending time in nature but also of a parent and child spending time together. Back home together at the end of the day, the pair snuggle together on the sofa looking at the drawings and photographs of their special day. This quiet book rewards paying attention to the many details and will be one to read and share over and over.

 

Flying the Nest in Picture Books

Lynn and Cindy: Where we live in West Michigan, summer is a busy time for birds. Birdhouses and nests are hopping places with busy parents zooming back and forth to hungry chicks, some on their second or third broods. Watching birds nest and raise their chicks can be a wondrous thing for a child and the subject has been explored in many picture books over the years. But there is always room for more! This season has brought us two we have especially enjoyed. They are very different in tone and style but both books are a joy to share with young readers.

Lynn: I’m leading off with Henry Cole’s beautiful and eye-catching new book, Nesting (Harper/Katherine Tegen, 2020). Cole uses thin black lines and crosshatching to create wondrous detail.  In the opening pages a tree and a male Robin fill the page. It is spring. Into the picture comes a female robin and a light blue tint eases onto the page. The busy robins build a nest and in a breathtaking illustration, a beautiful blue egg lies in the center of the nest. Cole is a master of perspective and design as well as draftsmanship. Subsequent pages show groupings of wonderfully detailed small illustrations that alternate with 2 page spreads showing the tree and countryside or nest in a storm or under attack from a snake. Each page begs for long and careful viewing. It is hard to chose a favorite but the 2 page spread with the small sketches of the azure eggs and the nesting female may be my choice.

The accompanying text use simple sentences for a very young audience. While this tells a story, the science is clearly presented and wonderfully accessible. An Author’s Note provides additional facts about robins. Masterful and enchanting.

Cindy: As nesting ends here and migration season is getting underway, many parents may be dealing with nervous children just beginning their school career or those going back face-to-face in our pandemic. Mark Teague’s Fly! (S&S/Beach Lane, 2019) is a humorous look at taking a risk to leave the nest. Mama Robin is ready for her baby to fly, but he is content to stay in the nest and have the worms delivered to him. When his begging stops working and he falls out of the tree his imagination starts working overtime as to how he might get back up into the nest. Teague’s acrylic illustrations will make everyone giggle as the baby works through his emotions and options. Parasailing, anyone? 🙂 Pogo stick migration? 🙂

Sometimes we all need some encouragement to get out of our comfort zone. Fly! offers it in a non-threatening way—unless you count the owl!

 

 

 

My Brother the Duck – Scientific Method at Work in a Picture Book

Lynn: Take one “fledgling scientist,” aka young Stella Wells, who is clearly not pleased about the impending addition to the family, and add a father’s joke. “You’re waddling,” he tells Stella’s mom, “We must be having a duck.” Stella is not amused because if a “baby was bad enough, a duck was unacceptable.” Stella decides much more research is required and sets out to gather facts to prove her hypothesis. Pat Zietlow Miller takes on the scientific method in her very funny new picture book, My Brother the Duck (Chronicle, 2020).

When the new sibling arrives and her parents name him Drake, Stella sets to work. Enlisting her best friend and fellow researcher, they tote up the accumulated proof. Drake not only sounds like a duck, he looks like a duck! Deciding the facts were not yet conclusive, the team consults an expert, their teacher who tells them:

“If it looks like a duck

and sounds like a duck,

it’s probably a duck.”

Just as Stella decides that maybe having a duck in the family wouldn’t be so bad, her ongoing observations yield a startling new discovery.

I took to this picture book like a duck takes to water! Miller’s sly text wonderfully assisted by Daniel Wiseman’s cheery digital illustrations made me laugh out loud. Young readers will have no trouble getting the jokes so delightfully presented on each page and along the way, they’ll acquire a little more understanding of the scientific method. This picture book fits the bill for both classrooms and lap-time reading.

Cindy: Fits the “bill?” Lynn does love her puns, but the book does just that. A new sibling can be a strange thing to understand for a young child but as this new baby brother “fledges,” his older sister grows comfortable with him. Wiseman has as much fun with his ducky illustrations and hidden “eggs” in the brightly colored art as Lynn does with her puns. Make note, the twist ending will have everyone laughing.

Pair this with the classic Are You My Mother? (Random House, 1960) by P.D. Eastman for added fun.

 

Mama Needs a Minute: A Board Book for Overwhelmed Moms

Cindy: My daughter-from-another-mother, a young mother named Alicia, is doing a beautiful job parenting two infant twins and a 2-year-old. Three busy little girls who keep her going night and day. Following her schedule online and in-person is exhausting just to observe! Did I mention she also works part-time outside the home, too, in adult probation and parole? When Nicole Sloan’s new board book, Mama Needs a Minute (Andrews McMeel, 2020), arrived in my review books, I knew who my test reader needed to be. I gifted the book to Alicia with some pampering lotions and waited to hear. She loved this story so much she ordered a copy immediately for her friend, Laura, another mom of twins and two other children. They are both reading it daily to remind themselves that it’s okay to take a minute for themselves.

The mamas in this book might have purple hair or green skin, but they all have one thing in common: they are there to help their child learn, eat, play, etc. but sometimes “Mama needs a minute” to shower, dress, have coffee, or rest. After multiple page turns of mama’s declaration that she needs a minute, the book comfortingly closes with a twist. With the baby quietly nestled in her arms, she proclaims, “This mama just needs a minute…with you.”

Here’s to Alicia and Laura and all mamas who need a minute!

Alicia and her girls.

Laura and her children.