Jill Lorenzini

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As the sun sets and a full moon rises, three children venture outside, ostensibly to find their runaway dog but mostly to frolic in the nocturnal world beyond their gate. Author Dianne White and illustrator Felicita Sala’s Dark on Light is lyrical, charming and wonderful. 

White’s text is more like a poem than a straightforward story. In lieu of lengthy descriptions, she creates a vivid world through concise statements that form rhymed couplets: “Silent the owl. Still the night. / Dark the meadow beneath its flight.” Once every four lines, the couplets resolve by using the book’s title as a refrain. This repetition, along with the text’s soothing, cohesive meter, lends Dark on Light the mood of a calming lullaby. It calls to mind the way we feel compelled to whisper among shadows, to hush our voices as we explore the realm of nighttime. It’s magical and awe-inducing, but never eerie or foreboding. 

Sala’s illustrations do much of the narrative work. We see the children run through flowery fields, traipse through a forest, turn cartwheels in the grass and eventually find their dog and make their way home to bed. Sala’s artwork has a classical look, with soft shapes and muted hues that are familiar, joyful and full of life. And while night is often a source of fear for children, Sala’s dark forest is beautiful and deep, populated with gentle, curious creatures, including a doe and her fawn, a fox and a squirrel nestled in the hollow of a tree. Enchanting details—the Canis Major constellation highlighted in the starry sky, a teddy bear peeking out from under a bed—give readers a further sense of security. This is a safe book for imagination and dreams. 

Everything about Dark on Light makes it perfect for cozy time or bedtime. Actually, everything about Dark on Light makes it just about perfect. 

Night can be a source of fear for children, but soothing text and joyful, lively artwork give this picture book the feel of a calm, reassuring lullaby.
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Little Echo lives her life hidden away in the shadows of a cave. The bright yellow creature longs to join the cave’s other inhabitants as they frolic and play, but her terrible timidity keeps her silent and watchful. When someone loud, bold and adventurous stumbles into her cave on a quest for treasure, Little Echo has a chance to find more than just her voice—she might also find a friend. 

Little Echo, the debut picture book by author-illustrator Al Rodin, is a delightful story about searching for treasure and discovering something worth more than gold or jewels. Skillfully told, the book feels like a bedtime story composed in the moment, with just the right amount of description to seem spontaneous. Its simplicity is satisfying, its plot linear and its characters uncomplicated and kind. We can all remember times when we’ve wanted to join in but have been held back by shyness, and Rodin expertly captures that wonderful moment of feeling seen and embarking on an exciting journey with a new friend. 

Rodin’s text and art are notably interwoven. As voices echo around the cave, words in unique fonts and varying sizes erupt across the page and then fade away, creating a visual onomatopoeia. Vaguely defined but expressive shapes and visible brushstrokes strengthen the tale’s atmosphere of longing, while the cave itself, depicted with broad swaths of dark shades, reflects Echo’s sense of isolation. The world of this story feels deep and somewhat heavy, but the overall tone isn’t one of fear or danger thanks to Little Echo herself, whose large round ears and sweet face are instantly appealing. When the daring adventurer comes along, Little Echo’s whole world visibly brightens as she first follows his light and then begins to find her own.

Straightforward and charming, Little Echo will be especially loved by readers who know well the struggle to speak up. Rodin’s message is quiet and gentle, but clear: It’s so much easier to find your voice when you have someone to listen. 

This charming debut picture book expertly captures that wonderful moment of finally feeling seen and embarking on an exciting journey with a new friend.
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In books, we can find kinship, solidarity and the expression of emotions we may hesitate to share with other people. Author Sara Greenwood draws on personal experience in My Brother Is Away, a compassionate depiction of a girl working through the complex emotions she feels about her brother, who is in prison.  

In straightforward and descriptive first-person narration, the girl remembers the fun times she shared with her brother, which now “feel like a faraway dream,” and deals with questions and jibes from her peers. Greenwood perfectly captures the girl’s open, expressive thoughts, but many concrete details are left vague, especially those involving the brother’s conviction. Instead, the author delves deeper into the girl’s conflicting feelings: “Why did my brother do that awful thing?” the girl wonders. “I want to shout at him, “This is all your fault!”” Greenwood nimbly avoids crafting a syrupy panacea while validating the girl’s recollections of happy, loving memories of her brother.

Artist Luisa Uribe’s illustrations reflect the girl’s fluid emotions with exceptional skill, understanding and sensitivity. Scenes set in the present use subdued, natural hues—especially grays, blues and browns—to depict falling leaves and an autumnal chill that convey how deeply the girl misses her brother as she navigates daily life without him. In contrast, flashbacks are bright and cheery, with an occasionally fantastical feel. 

In one scene, the girl storms through her house in fury and Uribe tilts the room around her. The floor slopes subtly upward across the spread, while doors and art on the wall slant to the right, off-kilter. Toward the end of the book, when the girl nervously waits to see her brother in prison, Uribe places her in the center of an otherwise white, empty page; on the opposite page is the closed door her brother will walk through. Throughout, Uribe incorporates small, everyday details—a laundry hamper with a lid slightly ajar in the brother’s empty bedroom, the girl’s red eyeglasses and matching red sneakers—which give a sense of softness and safety. 

In an author’s note, Greenwood professes her hope that “this book feels like a friend” to children with incarcerated loved ones. “I want you to know you aren’t alone,” she writes. My Brother Is Away is not a practical guidebook for families with an incarcerated family member, nor does it explain the details of unlawful acts, the justice system or imprisonment and release. It simply reminds readers that, for every person who is incarcerated, there is also a family and a community whose lives have also been changed—and it reaches out with comfort and acceptance to the littlest ones who are witnessing and living those stories.

My Brother Is Away reminds readers that, for every person who is incarcerated, there is also a family whose lives have also been changed.
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When darkness falls, nocturnal animals and insects get busy hunting, foraging, building nests, carrying on conversations and . . . visiting their local library. In The Twilight Library, author Carmen Oliver and illustrator Miren Asiain Lora dream the dark away with these critters amid the cozy collection of a truly unique library.

Oliver’s text is a storyteller’s delight. She opens the book with sparse phrases, but as the story unfolds, her narration blossoms into lush descriptions and meticulously polished turns of alliteration, repetition and rhythm. Like the finest silken spiderwebs, Oliver’s prose is delicately woven, each word chosen with care, and her tightknit sentences create a feeling of safety and comfort.

Meanwhile, Asiain Lora tucks readers into a soft berth on the forest floor and provides a bug’s-eye perspective on the vast gloaming sky above. Perhaps the most striking aspect of Asiain Lora’s art is her use of color. Muted background tones give the spreads a dusky feel, ideal for snuggling up close. Bursts of light and vibrant hues pop and glow wondrously against this backdrop. 

Insect-averse readers will find themselves charmed by Asiain Lora’s gentle-faced creatures—especially the bespectacled arachnid Night Librarian—while dedicated bookworms will be envious of the library’s spiderweb bookshelves. As the Night Librarian reads aloud, the library becomes an enchanting realm where everything is warm and welcoming and happy. 

The Twilight Library is a perfect bedtime read. It contains no grand declarations, no sweeping adventures and no high-minded morals. It has only one simple thing to say: Cuddle up, relax, let go, and for a moment, just imagine.

This exquisite picture book, perfect for bedtime, envisions a night spent among nocturnal creatures in a truly unique library.
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Eily and her father live by the sea, not far from the mysterious island of Lisnashee, home to the fairy folk known as the Good People. Eily’s father ventures annually to the island to gather fog, which has magical properties. It’s a dangerous job, but the village folk rely on the fog water for charms, cures and protection, particularly from the Good People. But this year, Papa accidentally makes the trip to Lisnashee without his charm meant to ward off fairy spells, leaving Eily with her own job to do.

Marianne McShane’s text in The Fog Catcher’s Daughter feels like it’s been passed down through generations, a folk legend whispered in hushed tones to little ones leaning forward to listen. Her tale is filled with rich sensory descriptions. When she writes that “a cold wind shivered across the sand,” you’ll tremble right along with Eily. Young readers are sure to wonder, as I did, whether The Fog Catcher’s Daughter is based on a true story. An author’s note gives a glimpse into the Irish folklore that underpins the tale, as well as the real-life Moroccan practice of fog catching that inspired McShane to create it.

Illustrator Alan Marks’ watercolor art is so ethereal and captivating, you’ll want to hang it on the wall. Windswept grasses and tumbling waves create a landscape that seems both fantastical and utterly real. Fog creeps around corners, rises from the ground and blows across the water, becoming a character every bit as significant as Eily herself. At times, Marks depicts the Good People as mere wisps of mist and other times as distinct, ghostly figures, perfectly capturing their ambiguous, tempestuous nature. A soft, warm-toned hearth scene as well as the lush greens of spreads depicting Eily’s family’s fields offer a reassuring and welcoming contrast to the wild blues and grays of Lisnashee. You’ll especially want to linger on a wondrous two-page spread of the village apothecary shop and its shelves packed with plants, shells, stones and bottles. 

Though it contains slightly spooky themes, The Fog Catcher’s Daughter doesn’t haunt so much as enchant.

This original tale feels like it's been passed down through generations, a folk legend whispered in hushed tones to little ones leaning forward to listen.
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Separated by a sturdy wooden fence, two companions—a little girl and a dog belonging to her neighbors—are drawn together by a shared love of stories. They forge a bond that transcends boundaries and changes their lives forever.

Everywhere With You is uniformly flawless. With a master storyteller’s rhythm, author Carlie Sorosiak (Leonard (My Life as a Cat), I, Cosmo) narrates in present tense, close-third person from the lonely pup’s perspective, and his thoughts and unspoken words propel the story forward. Sorosiak’s writing is heartfelt and brimming with emotion. You’ll be so caught up in the narrative that you may not even notice the artistry beneath the words—poetic turns, perfectly tuned descriptions, the power of a concise, earnest statement—but it’s worth a second read to catch and savor it all.

If Sorosiak’s beautifully told story does not completely capture your heart, the artwork will seal the deal. Illustrator Devon Holzwarth’s vibrant, lush images of jewel-tone flowers and trees are mesmerizing, as botanical wonders in deep, rich colors threaten to overflow the edges of the pages.

The kind-faced girl and her canine companion are utterly charming. When the girl reads aloud to her four-legged friend, Holzwarth’s art blossoms even more as the friends’ imagined worlds come to life, with spectacular kingdoms filled with magical creatures and daring adventures—and no wooden fences.

The book’s heightened emotions walk a tightrope between poignance and heartbreak at a pivotal point toward the end. Sorosiak and Holzwarth give real weight to this moment of yearning, tip-toeing the reader up to the edge of despair before pulling back with a final burst of fantasy and delight. It’s a balancing act impeccably managed.

It will be the rare reader who can finish Everywhere With You without a slight catch in their throat. It rings with tender truth: When you are with the ones you love, everywhere you go is home.

Carlie Sorosiak and Devon Holzwarth's flawless picture book rings with a tender truth: When you are with the ones you love, everywhere you go is home.
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Life in space means big changes, and when Molly moves to an underground room on the moon along with her mom and her little brother, Luke, there are many new things to discover. Molly uses her imagination to make the most of her family’s limited resources. She creates a fort, a cape and a tea set out of some packing crates, a solar panel cover and a couple of old tin cans. But when Luke wants to play with Molly’s toys, Molly encounters one lesson that’s just as hard to learn on the moon as it is on Earth. 

Illustrator Diana Mayo’s art is an intriguing study in contrasts. She envisions the moon as a world that seems both strange and familiar, vast but confined, cozy yet intensely isolated. The deep blue color palette of her mixed media images feels appropriately lunar and a little mysterious. A string of lights draped over Molly’s fort casts a warm glow that tempers the sense of loneliness amid the vacuum of space. 

Mayo demonstrates her skill for visual storytelling as she employs a variety of perspectives to create the atmosphere (or lack thereof) of life inside this tiny underground room. As Molly’s mom unpacks early on, two red buttons escape from a sewing box; they can be seen floating in every scene in the book, a clever nod to the moon’s decreased gravitational pull. 

Author Mary Robinette Kowal places readers right alongside Molly as the girl puts her powers of invention to good use. Although older readers may interpret Molly’s family’s lunar journey as a metaphor for a myriad of scenarios such as illness, relocation or homelessness, younger readers may ask more practical questions: Why are Molly and her family on the moon? What will they eat on the moon? How will they get back to Earth? An author’s note answers some of these questions but will likely fuel even more.

Molly on the Moon is a sweet reminder that everything is better with a friend—and that a little ingenuity and compassion can lift any situation, regardless of gravity.

When Molly moves to the moon with her family, she learns a lesson about ingenuity and compassion in this sweet and slightly mysterious picture book.
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Abdul likes straight lines and a good story. But at school, Abdul struggles to keep his “scribbly, scratchy, scrawly letters” within the lines of his paper. And spelling? It’s downright impossible. “Some stories are for books,” Abdul thinks, “but not his.” When a writer named Mr. Muhammad visits Abdul’s class, he encourages Abdul to embrace his “mess,” and Abdul realizes that a good story might come from his messy writing after all.

Abdul’s Story is an honest, encouraging depiction of a boy with a learning disability and the power of finding your story. Author Jamilah Thompkins-Bigelow candidly portrays Abdul’s emotions and challenges. She captures the way his inability to write “neat sentences” leads to both feelings of failure and a sense of determination. Her narration is well balanced and invites the reader inside Abdul’s experience. Her text describes Abdul’s difficulties without specifically labeling them, so readers with a wide range of learning disabilities will be able to identify with him.

The book’s illustrations by Tiffany Rose are lively and optimistic, filled with friendly lines and details that round out the story without overwhelming the eye. Bright background colors and scenes of Abdul’s bustling neighborhood and cheerful classroom contribute to an overall sense of approachability and welcome. At one point, Abdul writes and erases so many times that he tears a hole in his paper. Ashamed, he hides under his desk and imagines “an eraser big enough to erase himself.” Rose poignantly brings this sequence to life. As Abdul crouches under the table, his eyes downcast and arms wrapped around his knees, the eraser of a giant yellow pencil has already smudged out his hands and feet.

In a picture book that centers on a character with a learning disability, different typographical choices—particularly on pages where text appears on a colored background opposite an illustration—would have increased readability for dyslexic readers. One widely cited study by Luz Rello and Ricardo Baeza-Yates, for example, suggests that dyslexic readers may find sans serif typefaces easier to read, while Abdul’s Story’s text is set in Absara, a humanist slab serif font.

In a world that can often be inaccessible, Abdul’s Story is an example of the power of casting a child with a learning disability in a starring role. As we witness Abdul working hard to improve his story, we’re reminded that very few things are ever perfect on the first try, but it’s in the trying that we eventually find success.

Jamilah Thompkins-Bigelow and Tiffany Rose's Abdul’s Story is an honest, encouraging depiction of a boy with a learning disability and the power of finding your story.
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For readers in search of a soft spot to land, look no further than Kate Banks and Galia Bernstein’s Lost and Found.

When a mouse and a rabbit find a rag doll left behind in the forest, more furry creatures soon arrive one by one to investigate. Inquisitive but unafraid, the friends follow their curiosity to find where the doll came from so they can return it home. They journey together through the woods, tracking their only clue: footsteps left in the dirt, leading to a new and unfamiliar place . . .

Lost and Found feels both freshly original and like a cherished, well-worn tale. Many scenes juxtapose the familiar and the unfamiliar, as when the animals come to a “wide stretch of gray.” “The animals knew the forest trails thickly carpeted with leaves,” Banks writes. “But they’d never seen a road.” Readers will hear echoes of Margery Williams’ The Velveteen Rabbit and Don Freeman’s Corduroy in Banks’ text, and the band of talking animals on a mission feels warmly reminiscent of A.A. Milne’s beloved characters. Although sincere forest creatures are a children’s literature standard, it’s this same familiarity that makes Lost and Found an easy book to adore.

Bernstein’s critters’ soft fur and big eyes convey a sweet naivete and gentleness that’s instantly lovable. A forest of serene green grass and trees makes the reader feel welcome and at ease in this warm, thriving world. Bernstein leaves enough white space in her double-page spreads to ensure that her artwork is not overly cluttered. Although every page is beautifully drawn, one particular image, in which the animals are backlit by a sunset, stands out. You’ll know it when you get there, and it’s worth pausing to admire.  

Earnest and peaceful, Lost and Found is as safe and lovely as they come. It’s perfect for the quiet hush of bedtime or any situation in need of a cozy touch and a soft snuggle. Banks and Bernstein have created a wonderful tribute to the power of love and the home we carry within ourselves. Their sweet, not-so-dangerous adventure story ends like all the best adventures do: as we find our way home.

Earnest and peaceful, Kate Banks and Galia Bernstein’s Lost and Found is perfect for the quiet hush of bedtime or any situation in need of a cozy touch and a soft snuggle.
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Mina the mouse is no stranger to her quirky father’s passion for bringing home discarded rubbish, odd artwork and even unusual new pets. A bit of an inventor, he’s well-meaning but inattentive, frequently declaring “Everything will be fine.” But when he ignores Mina’s concerns about his most recent pet project, which involves squirrels that look awfully feline, things quickly go from fine to not so fine. It’s up to book-smart Mina and an unexpected ally to save the day.

Matthew Forsythe’s Mina is a crafty, charming and wryly hilarious tale. Mina projects an attitude of competence and calm, while her father’s bold, geometric-patterned decor adds an eclectic energy to each page, creating a study in contrasts. Illustrations created with colored pencils, soft lines and gentle edges make this world feel lived in and tactile. Forsythe’s lively use of perspective creates a mouse’s-eye view that shrinks the reader down to Mina’s size and draws them into the story’s intimate and cozy setting, while supersized flowers and plants lend a rich vivacity to many scenes. Even the not quite menacing but slightly unsettling eyes of the so-called squirrels are tempered by earth tones and muted pastels. There’s much to see in Mina, and it’s all amusing.

Forsythe’s energetic artwork works perfectly with his unadorned narration, understated storytelling and plainspoken dialogue. As Mina’s droll observations clash with her father’s carefree assertions, Forsythe builds a tone of sophisticated, implicit humor guaranteed to have kids yelling, “THAT’S NOT A SQUIRREL!”

Readers may be tempted to look for a moral in Mina, since picture books featuring anthropomorphic animals often contain them. Indeed, the book makes a compelling case for paying heed to warnings, and readers may wonder if Mina’s father will ever learn to listen to his daughter. But Mina is so much more than a mere cautionary tale: It’s thoroughly entertaining.

Mina’s father may not be the cleverest mouse in the nest, but Mina is one of the shrewdest books on the shelf.

There’s much to see in this picture book about a well-intentioned father and his book-smart daughter, and it’s all charming and wryly hilarious.
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Right from the title, Sometimes Cake is yummy and appealing; who wouldn’t want a story about cake? But cake is just one part of this charming picture book.

Audrey’s friend, Lion, loves festivities. He always seems to be surrounded by balloons, confetti and party hats. But one day, when Audrey’s playmate seems pensive and quiet, Audrey knows it’s her turn to find something to celebrate. Edwina Wyatt and Tamsin Ainslie offer a sweet story about friendship, celebration and what it looks like to show up for the people—or lions—in your life.

The best word for Ainslie’s illustrations is soft. Muted colors and a cream-colored background create a warm, gentle world for these characters. Ainslie’s lines, too, are soft and sketchy, devoid of harsh edges. Little Audrey, with her untidy hair and mismatched socks, and big Lion, with his rosy cheeks and friendly expressions, make a fetching pair. Balloons, baking supplies, toys and streamers are strewn around many scenes, adding delightful disorder and perfectly embodying the book’s playful, imaginative tone. We don’t know much about Audrey and Lion, but Ainslie makes them and their world immediately likable and welcoming. Even the scene where Lion seems lonely and sad is tempered by the presence of tranquil trees and flowers.

Wyatt forgoes fancy literary flourishes for simple, brief and approachable text. She also makes excellent use of repetition, adding predictability that will engage the youngest of readers. Wyatt’s plainspoken writing has a unique sense of humor that will leave adults smiling at Audrey and Lion’s childlike logic, as when Audrey finds Lion, wearing a yellow paper crown adorned with orange pompoms, in the middle of making a yellow and orange pennant banner. “What are you celebrating?” she asks. “Orange mostly,” replies Lion, then adds, “Also yellow.”

Calm, kind and earnest, Sometimes Cake is an easy book to like. It is fun, cheery and not too rambunctious for bedtime or other quiet moments. It’s also a lovely introduction to the concept of empathy, especially for the littlest readers, and may inspire a few “regular day” celebrations. But what makes Sometimes Cake a true gem is its accessible, heartfelt message: Be the friend who shows up with cake. Bring confetti to the party. Pay attention to those around you. Sometimes it’s just Tuesday, but even Tuesdays deserve cake.

This is a sweet story about friendship, celebration and what it looks like to show up for the people—or lions—in your life.

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