Jill Lorenzini

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Author-illustrator Charnelle Pinkney Barlow’s Little Rosetta and the Talking Guitar: The Musical Story of Sister Rosetta Tharpe, the Woman Who Invented Rock and Roll is a beautifully written and impressively illustrated picture book that’s as jubilant as Tharpe’s music and will surely inspire readers to seek out her joyful recordings.

The book focuses on Tharpe’s childhood, when the woman who would one day be called the Godmother of Rock ’n’ Roll was a girl with a passion and talent for telling stories through music. Tharpe’s first guitar was a gift from her mother, and she found musical inspiration all over her hometown of Cotton Plant, Arkansas. Pinkney Barlow’s literary prowess is on full display as her prose sings out with wonderful rhythm and imagery. As Tharpe becomes a skilled guitar player, “her fingers [hop] around like corn in a kettle,” and when Tharpe plays in church for the first time, her music is “like summer rain washing the dust off a new day.” 

It’s difficult to convey the intricate charm of Pinkney Barlow’s gleeful cut-paper artwork. Textured and patterned papers create movement and depth, while colorful musical notations and bits of sheet music are incorporated throughout. Perhaps most impressive is the sense of place achieved by both text and art: Readers will truly feel as though they’ve visited Cotton Plant and met many of its animated, expressive denizens, from Pastor Murray, “mender of souls and mender of guitars,” whose shirt is made from blue-lined notebook paper, to Miss Mable, who compliments Tharpe’s “fast finger pickin’” as she hangs her laundry out to dry. 

Little Rosetta and the Talking Guitar is a worthy tribute not only to Tharpe’s proud, triumphant sound but also to Pinkney Barlow’s grandfather, the late Caldecott Medal-winning author-illustrator Jerry Pinkney, to whom the book is dedicated. In her author’s note, Pinkney Barlow discusses the barriers Tharpe faced as a female guitarist in a male-dominated industry, as a gospel musician who played in decidedly secular venues and as a Black musician in a segregated country. The note also discusses Tharpe’s legacy and long-overdue induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. 

To turn on a radio today is to hear Tharpe’s influence. Little Rosetta and the Talking Guitar honors a woman whose sound lives on in our musical DNA.

Sister Rosetta Tharpe became known as the Godmother of Rock and Roll, and this picture book about her childhood is as jubilant as her music.
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Jessica Love (Julián Is a Mermaid) gently demonstrates the power of knowledge in A Bed of Stars, a picture book about a child whose father takes them camping in the desert.

Every night before bed, the child imagines “the whole universe stretching on endlessly.” This recurring thought makes the child feel small and insignificant, and it prevents them from falling asleep. Then one morning, Dad announces that they’re going out to the desert beyond their city to “shake hands with the universe.” Together, the two explore the desert and meet some of its inhabitants, including flowers, insects, birds and a friend of Dad’s who runs a junkyard. When night falls, the pair “snuggle up all cozy” in the back of Dad’s pickup truck, Darlin’, and make up names for the stars they see.

Love narrates from the child’s perspective in straightforward, earnest prose. In keeping with its youthful tone, the text is filled with small observations that lend authenticity and occasional humor. For instance, the child notes that the city they drive through “smells like rubber and french fries.” Later, when Dad stops at the junkyard, he says it’s to “shoot the breeze” with his friend, and the narrator explains that “‘shooting the breeze’ is when adults have a boring conversation.” 

Love’s watercolor, gouache and ink illustrations convey both vastness and intimacy. She peppers desertscapes with wonderful details such as coyotes howling on a distant ridge, beetle tracks in the sand and the shadows cast on the ground by birds circling in the sky. Just as Love’s text is sprinkled with narrative asides, her artwork includes field guide-esque sketches of desert flora and fauna. An earthy color palette and a soft, hazy quality to the linework and shading give the book a comforting, well-worn feel, while layered blues and purples create a majestic image of a star-studded night sky. 

The strongest element in A Bed of Stars is the calm, simple way in which the father makes the immense and overwhelming universe less frightening and more enchanting. Nestled in the bed of their pickup truck as they name the stars, the child realizes that they’ve gained a new perspective: “It’s not that I feel bigger or the universe feels smaller; it’s more like we’re all made of the same stuff, in different bodies.” A Bed of Stars is a natural fit for bedtime or any situation that calls for reassurance. Love offers a moving reminder that learning can help us face our fears, move with confidence and find our place in the world.

A desert camping trip reassures a child about their place in an immense universe in this gentle, comforting picture book.
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The subway train runs right past Nari’s lively New York City apartment building, and she imagines riding it to far-flung destinations that offer quiet spaces away from the bustling city and her boisterous family and neighbors. A beach, a forest, outer space—Nari envisions what it would be like to visit all these places and more. But the farther Nari travels, the closer she feels to home and the people there who love her. Author-illustrator Dan-ah Kim’s The Train Home is a creative adventure, a charming homage to New York City and a sweet reminder that home is truly where the heart is.

Kim’s prose is straightforward and unassuming, underpinned with subtle assonance and alliteration that will make it a pleasure to read aloud. It also contains a few moments of splendid and clever descriptive imagery, as when Nari’s apartment building “grumbles with neighbors left and right, above and below.”

Kim employs a variety of styles and media to create her visually distinct illustrations. She incorporates small pieces of cut paper and thread into images composed with pencil, gouache and acrylic. Nari herself is a simple outlined figure clad in loose yellow clothes, and she appears in stark contrast against busy, textured backdrops. Full-bleed, colorful spreads pull us into Nari’s real and imaginary worlds, while minute details offer much to explore and savor. 

Many of the places Nari imagines visiting on the train refer to real places connected by subway in New York City, including the American Museum of Natural History and the Stephen A. Schwarzman Building of the New York Public Library. New Yorkers and NYC fans will love spotting familiar sights such as Patience and Fortitude, the library’s famous lion statues. Subway signs included in many illustrations tie everything together and transform a mundane form of transportation into something filled with wonder.

Many picture books follow journeys “there and back again,” and strong artwork and tranquil storytelling make The Train Home a worthy addition to the tradition.

Nari imagines all the places she could travel on the subway in this sweet “there and back again” picture book.
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Chloe Savage’s debut picture book opens with a map of the Arctic Circle. By the time I had oriented myself to this unusual perspective on the globe (and spent a moment appreciating how close the continents—and their diverse cultures—really are), I was in love.

The Search for the Giant Arctic Jellyfish follows Dr. Morley’s mission to find the elusive titular creature. While searching, she and her crew discover many marvels of the Arctic—except the one they’ve set out to find. Will they leave without completing their mission? This is certainly the story of a quest, but it is also about determination, teamwork, hard work and the beauty of the natural world. And it is really, really cool. 

Savage’s brilliant art is slightly muted, with colors that have a retro feel despite the contemporary setting (we see laptops in some scenes), giving the expedition a legendary aura. Early spreads provide a sense of preparation: The title page has a classic flat-lay image of well-organized Arctic exploring gear, and the fully stocked ship is shown in a fascinating cut-away, revealing charming and humorous details and telling myriad stories of life aboard. Throughout the book, we return to these cut-aways to observe the crew of scientists, divers, sailors and the captain as they read maps, eat cakes and wait in line for the shower. 

The story is told in present tense, with the direct and determined spirit of a captain’s log. Savage captures the depth of Dr. Morley’s passion and courage, her crew’s faith and frustration, and the pride she has in her team. Despite being surrounded by frigid waters and potential dangers, life aboard the ship feels cozy and safe. But the boat has nothing on the mesmerizing world that surrounds it—the flora and fauna, the colossal icebergs and enchanting northern lights. Savage’s underwater images, awash in deep, saturated blues, are worthy of framing and hanging.

With stunning artwork, just the right amount of narration and a hint of irony, The Search for the Giant Arctic Jellyfish is the story of a female captain working to discover and appreciate all that the Arctic Ocean has to offer. Dr. Morley’s quest may continue, but the search for your next favorite picture book ends here.

The Search for the Giant Arctic Jellyfish is the story of a female captain working to discover and appreciate all that the Arctic Ocean has to offer.
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One look at the cover of In the Night Garden, awash in dreamy night-sky blues, is enough to charm you. However, Carin Berger’s sweet, gentle bedtime story is more than just a pretty face; it fully captures the imagination.

Using her own garden as a muse, Berger (Finding Spring) takes the unease out of nighttime, turning it into a dynamic, wondrous place rich with animals, bugs and plants that come alive in the moonlight, dancing against a backdrop of calming blue shades. Berger’s collage art is vivid and detailed, with crisp lines that make the delicate flora and fauna pop. Only the fireflies appear hazy, swathed in the dandelion-fluff glow of their lights. The collages incorporate scraps of paper with handwritten notes, buttons, newsprint and bits of sheet music, blurring the line between reality and dreams. This is the kind of art that you want to look at again and again because it is, quite simply, gorgeous. 

Berger’s second-person narration is straightforward and simple. It’s less of a story and more of a journey as she introduces the critters one might find under the moonlight, leading the reader from stargazing to snoozing. A black cat appears on every page, acting as a guide through this nighttime journey. Her language is simultaneously reassuring and imaginative, conveying a sense of security alongside descriptions of the beauty that can be found after sundown. It’s a well-balanced story that will calm the littlest readers before sending them off to dreamland.

I am always on the hunt for a good “last story” before bedtime. The requirements are as follows: It must be engaging enough to entertain but calm enough to bring young ones down from their daytime energy. Minimal text is good, and reassuring narration is a must, as is beautiful artwork. And lastly, it has to have a sensibility that pulls in the adults who will, no doubt, be reading it aloud a thousand times. In the Night Garden fits all of these requirements and more.

Using her own garden as a muse, Carin Berger takes the unease out of nighttime, turning it into a wondrous place rich with animals, bugs and plants that come alive in the moonlight.
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In the daytime world, Felix struggles to fit in with his classmates at school. But in the nighttime landscape, he runs free as a wolf. Felix tells himself he is perfectly OK with this dichotomy. But maybe, deep down, a part of him wishes for more than just OK. Inviting and creative, Peter Cheong’s first book as author and illustrator is both a tale of nighttime adventures and a heartwarming metaphor for finding one’s place in the world.

Every Night at Midnight bounces between day and night, contrasting Felix’s two worlds and identities. Daytime is open and bright, with delightful school chaos that feels homey and inviting. His classmates are cheerful, their faces kind. Nevertheless, it’s clear that school is not a safe place for Felix; the white space that surrounds these illustrations highlights his loneliness and separation from his classmates. Meanwhile, at night, the catawampus houses, streets and sky collide in a pseudo-gothic mashup in deep blues and grays. Lights shine from windows while Felix, in wolf form, roams the roofs and balconies and empty streets, encapsulating the freedom of escape—just like a dream in which you’re flying. Cheong’s style is consistently appealing, but his nighttime scenes are especially engaging.

Felix’s narration balances a somewhat somber tone with earnestness, conveying his cool bravado as well as his underlying hesitation and longing. Every Night at Midnight has plenty of company on bookshelves alongside other children’s stories about fitting in, but Felix’s wolf-transformation is as unique in detail as it is universal. We all know the feeling of pretending to be confident in solitude while wishing we could join the group. We’ve all had moments of rejoicing in our uniqueness while yearning to share it with someone who understands. 

Felix has a big imagination and splendid ideas, but his wolf life also represents the things that hold us back—things that, while making us exceptional and inimitable, also separate us from others. Whether you read it as an allegory or simply a story about flying dreams, Every Night at Midnight resonates with beauty and heart.

Whether you read it as an allegory or simply a boy’s nighttime adventures as a wolf, Every Night at Midnight resonates with beauty and heart.
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Everybody in town is excited to participate in the library’s Libro Love book festival. There are secondhand books to buy, crafts to make, authors to meet and new skills to master . . . something for everyone!

Written and illustrated by Pura Belpré Award-winner Raul the Third, ¡Vamos! Let’s Go Read! pulls readers into an explosion of true book love starring the spirited Little Lobo and his friends. This latest addition to the World of ¡Vamos! series is an energetic tribute to libraries, their patrons and readers of all stripes.

With colors by Elaine Bray, ¡Vamos! Let’s Go Read! is a visual explosion in the style of a graphic novel, combining narrative text, dialogue bubbles and bold characters against warm-hued, detailed backdrops. It’s hard not to catch the excitement of the cast of animal characters, who are spirited, devoted book-lovers. Loosely based on the author’s hometown of El Paso, ¡Vamos! Let’s Go Read! reflects a celebration of Mexican-American culture in every image. Raul the Third’s narration nimbly flows with Spanish as well as English, creating a sense of place and introducing non-Spanish readers to new words. A glossary at the end, although definitely not needed to follow the story, helps fill in any gaps.

Beyond the sheer joy of books, ¡Vamos! Let’s Go Read! recognizes all the different ways people can enjoy libraries. We see characters use books to learn new skills like cooking and skateboarding. They hunt for their favorite titles, listen to audiobooks, take classes and make artwork. They even create their own books. Libraries are often portrayed as places for shushing and serious reading, but ¡Vamos! Let’s Go Read! showcases them as the bright, welcoming places of learning that they truly are.

Lengthier than most picture books, ¡Vamos! Let’s Go Read! is recommended for ages 4–8, but there is plenty to entertain keen-eyed older readers, including Easter eggs such as a brilliant nod to Stephen King: Gallos of the Corn by “Estéfan Rey.” There is so much to see in this vibrant ode to libraries that readers may be surprised upon a second reading by all the things they missed the first time around. There’s also a hefty dose of self-discovery and empowerment woven into each scene as ¡Vamos! Let’s Go Read! asks: What will you discover at the library?

Libraries are often portrayed as places for shushing and serious reading, but ¡Vamos! Let’s Go Read! portrays them as bright, welcoming places of learning and exploration.
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“Oh, Olive!” is something Olive hears a lot. Born to somber shape-painting artists, Olive stands out due to her colorful creations and exuberant personality. Olive has no qualms about painting on anything—or anyone—and doggedly paints how SHE wants to paint, refusing to create the stolid shapes requested by her parents and teachers. Will the rest of the world ever see the genius she knows she possesses? Perfect for classrooms, art rooms and bedtime, Oh, Olive! (Katherine Tegen, $19.99, 9780063237490) is a charming reminder to paint what is in your heart, because it takes all kinds of artists to make the world a more beautiful place.

Author and illustrator Lian Cho emulates her own protagonist by creating artwork that effortlessly conveys the story on its own. Oh, Olive! begins with an orderly little black-and-white town, rife with bustling details. It is perfectly amiable, perfectly pleasant . . . perfectly dull. Enter Olive and her flamboyant colors. One can sense Cho’s own glee in creating Olive’s work, which cannot be contained to Olive’s canvas. It speckles and spatters and erupts from the monotone backdrop in stunning fashion. Cho’s art throughout is clever and humorous, keeping the reader’s eye bouncing from scene to scene. Cho captures Olive’s resolute personality, from messy toddler finger painting to child artist curating shows for her stuffed animals. Keen-eyed readers will also notice the ever-present triangles, circles and squares reflected in the designs of the town and the characters themselves. The facial expressions of the townsfolk and especially Olive’s parents are hilarious.

Cho wisely keeps the narration straightforward, with a very subtle undercurrent of Olive’s subversion peeking through. There are many things to admire about this creative picture book: What particularly stands out is how Olive never wavers in her determination or enthusiasm. She keeps painting, knowing the world needs artists like her. For children who have ever felt like they don’t quite match up or fit in, Oh, Olive! will encourage them to paint on like Olive, because everyone has something special to give.

Perfect for classrooms, art rooms and bedtime, Oh, Olive! is a charming reminder to paint what is in your heart, because it takes all kinds of artists to make the world a more beautiful place.
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Grandpa is teaching Lulu and her dog, Dumpling, the art of drawing ancient Chinese characters. But when Grandpa dozes off, Lulu draws the character for door—which becomes a real portal to a fantastic adventure. It’s a good thing Lulu paid close attention to Grandpa’s lessons, because she is going to need her new skills to save the day. Written and illustrated by Hui Li, Scroll (Christy Ottaviano, $18.99, 9780316340731) is a beautifully drawn, cleverly told tale of bravery and wit.

Artistically, Scroll is one of the most unique books on shelves today. Li uses a combination of multiple media on watercolor paper to create a soft, washed and welcoming backdrop. Lulu’s bright red overalls stand out against the muted environment of Lulu and Grandpa’s home, which is calm but full of detail. When Lulu and Dumpling go through the door into a magical village, Li’s art shifts from simply charming to mesmerizing. The village and its boats, houses, fish, nets and people are full of life and personality. But what makes the art truly remarkable is that each one is stunningly wrought from ancient Chinese characters. Little red boxes across the top of each page explain each character used, but this key is hardly needed since Li incorporates them in ways that make it easy to understand their meanings. Li’s style culminates in a dangerous battle scene that is one of the most unique and stunning bits of picture book art this reviewer has ever seen.

The narration is carried by simple and forthright dialogue as Lulu talks herself through each challenge, which helps the reader feel like part of the journey. Both the front and back matter give an intriguing peek into the rich history of Chinese language and culture, but ultimately, Li’s story is accessible even without any prior knowledge.

Scroll is deceptively modest, starting with its cover, which depicts a writing lesson that blossoms into one of the most unique stories of the year—one that is as educational as it is entertaining. As Lulu discovers, wonders await those who take a chance and dive in.

A writing lesson in Scroll blossoms into a magical adventure with ancient Chinese characters in one of the most unique stories of the year—one that is as educational as it is entertaining.
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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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