Julie Danielson

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You only think you know the story of the three billy goats who wanted to cross the bridge and the troll who tried to stop them. In The Three Billy Goats Gruff, acclaimed author Mac Barnett and Caldecott Medalist Jon Klassen create a wickedly funny retelling that breathes new life into the classic story. The author and illustrator chatted with BookPage about transforming oral tales into picture books, their many years of collaboration and the interior decorating habits of trolls. 

This is your seventh picture book together. Typically, picture book authors and illustrators don’t work directly with each other. What are your collaborations like? Has the process changed?
Author Mac Barnett: Jon and I have been friends for 13 years now, and we still talk about picture books more than anything else. Like, it’s not even close. When we’re making a book together, it feels like an opportunity to continue that conversation, and in that way our books are documents of friendship and expressions of our mutual love for this art form. 

Illustrator Jon Klassen: I don’t know if it’s changed much in terms of how we talk. We’ve always had this kind of creepy shorthand where we start sentences and the rest is understood. 

Our collaboration does change a fair bit from book to book because we mix up how they come about pretty often. Sometimes we beat out a story together, then Mac writes it and then I draw it, and I go back to him for changes in the text to solve problems we hadn’t thought of initially. For this one, he’d written the text without me specifically in mind, so it was much more about treating the text as almost unchangeable. I think maybe there were one or two tweaks, but it wasn’t as much of a hands-on collaboration. But that’s very enjoyable too. I like constraints, and that’s a big one.

This is the first volume in what will be at least a trilogy of picture books that retell fairy tales. Why did you begin with “The Three Billy Goats Gruff”? 
Barnett: Foremost on my mind was ensuring that the stories work as picture books. I wanted to create entertaining read-alouds that make good use of page turns and set up dynamic relationships between text and image. 

It was a delicate but significant act of adaptation: Fairy tales began as an oral tradition and then were set down as straight prose (sometimes with decorative illustrations, which function way differently from the images in a picture book). Fairy tales are such crowd pleasers. Over countless retellings, these stories evolved to maximize reactions from groups of children sitting and listening. 

“I hope the adults who read this book to kids feel plugged into a centurieslong tradition of getting big laughs, huge groans and all sorts of yelps, squeals and ewws.”

Picture books work differently than any other form of storytelling. And “The Three Billy Goats Gruff” just made so much sense as a picture book—it’s such a visual story, and all about scale. I hope the adults who read this book to kids feel plugged into a centurieslong tradition of getting big laughs, huge groans and all sorts of yelps, squeals and ewws. 

Klassen: This story is a tricky one to tell because a lot of times it’s included in some kind of anthology and it only gets one page and one illustration or something. But Mac understood that the pleasure in the story is in the page-turn reveals, and in drawing it all out and then doubling down over and over again when it gets to the part where the troll gets punished. The pacing of it is perfectly suited to a picture book, and Mac divided it up that way and got maximum impact out of the beats. It was a real pleasure to work over.

Mac, what well-known elements of the story did you want to preserve? Which ones did you want to play around with?
Barnett: In this story, I leave the original plot pretty much intact. I love revisionist storytelling and fractured fairy tales (The Stinky Cheese Man made me want to write picture books), but that’s not really what we’re up to here. This book feels more like how Jon and I would tell this story about a troll and some goats that we remember hearing as kids. That said, every telling of a fairy tale is a retelling, and I think this version feels very much our own. 

In “The Three Billy Goats Gruff,” the good guys don’t get much stage time. The goats file by, one by one, but we spend most of our time with the villain. So I wanted to give a little more sense of who this troll was and what he wanted, and I probably inevitably ended up sympathizing with him a bit. 

I changed the ending too. Here’s the original text, as set down in the middle of the 19th century (translated from the Norwegian by D.L. Ashliman): “And then he flew at the troll, and poked his eyes out with his horns, and crushed him to bits, body and bones, and tossed him out into the cascade.”

For me, that doesn’t work in a picture book. It’s too violent. Mind you, I’d have no problem telling the story that way—out loud, without pictures—to a group of young kids. It works great without pictures! You can feel the storyteller stoking the crowd, getting squeals and screams, upping the ante. But as soon as you add pictures, it gets too gross. It breaks the spell. A famous Jon Klassen eyeball flying from its socket, a little optic nerve wiggling behind it? No thank you. We wanted to preserve the spirit of the ending—gratuitous, escalating, funny—and I like where we landed very much. 

“Jon and I like to see what’s on the other side of a running gag. What do you find when you exhaust the joke, but still keep telling the story?”

Jon, as you set out to illustrate this book, what scene were you most excited to bring to life?
Klassen: I really liked the beginning spread, where we first meet the troll. The illustration only takes up like a fifth of the page space and you barely see him. Book illustrations, for me, aren’t about single spreads and how great they can be; they are about consecutive storytelling and setting something up and hopefully paying it off. Even though, on its own, that first spread doesn’t show very much, it’s got a lot of tension and promise, and I like that a lot. 

What was challenging about illustrating the goats and the troll? What was enjoyable?
Klassen: The goats were very fun because they are the straight men in this story. Their job is to play it cool and look at the troll like he’s ridiculous. From the start they’ve got a solid, coordinated plan to deal with him, and they’re never scared, so they get to be almost like statues of goats that move on- and offstage when the story tells them to, and that’s about it.

The troll took a minute to figure out. My first few stabs were a little too human. The main thing I wanted to keep about him was my impression, from illustrations of trolls when I was growing up, that they almost look like they’re part of the ground they inhabit. It’s not as much about the details or a specific anatomy as it is about them almost being hidden, and then you see their eyes in there somewhere.

Mac, the troll speaks mostly in rhyme, a technique you haven’t often employed. How did you arrive at this? 
Barnett: I love poetry and poetic forms. I studied poetry and for a long time, well into college, I thought I might become a poet. Fairy tales often move from poetry to prose, so I thought it’d be fun to do that here. Jon’s staging of this story is very theatrical, and I think the troll’s poetry feels similarly performative: He’s chewing the scenery and really inhabiting his trollness . . . until it all breaks down.

We spend most of the book in one location: the bridge beneath which the troll lives. Jon, how did you decide what this would look like?
Klassen: When I first took on the book, I bought an old book on bridge design. I was all excited about doing it in this historical way, but then the more I sat with the story, the more it seemed like the right answer was actually a very, very simple bridge that was probably made by hand and maybe wasn’t even used by people anymore. The troll had claimed it long ago, and he’s not much on upkeep. Like the troll, the planks of the bridge almost merge with the ground, and they’ve got grass and vines growing on them. I wanted the wood to feel soft. 

“Book illustrations, for me, aren’t about single spreads and how great they can be; they are about consecutive storytelling and setting something up and hopefully paying it off.”

The troll’s decor started with the skull hanging from the bridge, and then I added some bones around him. The team at Scholastic liked this direction and kept embellishing on what else he’d have down there, so now we have some playing cards and a boot and an old can—just stuff that might’ve floated downriver at some point. I think there’s a lot of downtime under there between potential meals crossing the bridge.

What are your favorite illustrations in the book? 
Klassen: My favorite is the page where all three goats are eating in the meadow near the end. They look safe and satisfied, and it’s just a really strong moment. The story is mainly about justice against this antagonistic force, which is simple enough, but the result ended up hitting me harder than I expected it to. I think it’s one of the better spreads Mac and I have done together in any of our books. 

Barnett: He texted [that spread] to me as soon as he’d finished it, which he only does when he’s really excited about something, and it totally knocked me over. 

One thing we do in this book is make the third goat ridiculously large. Most of the time, the progression of goats in this story goes small, medium, large. Sometimes you get an extra-large goat at the end. But we go small, medium, enormous—absolutely gargantuan, bigger than any goat in the history of picture books. We thought it would be funny. 

Our version, like the original tale, ends with all the goats together, eating on the grassy ridge. And this picture is of three goats, one of whom is just ridiculously huge, enjoying a nice meal at sunset, completely at peace. And while the visual joke is still present, the image is so sweet and peaceful and moving. I cried when I saw it. 

In a lot of our books together, Jon and I like to see what’s on the other side of a running gag. What do you find when you exhaust the joke, but still keep telling the story? The answer, often, is the sublime. 

This book contains a litany of ways in which the troll dreams of preparing and eating goat. If you were a troll, what would be your favorite way to eat goat?
Klassen: I don’t think it’s a secret that neither Mac or I give too much thought to the overt lessons our books might teach, but if there is a lesson in here anywhere, it’s that we should probably lay off the goat-eating. 

If you encountered a troll beneath a bridge you needed to cross, what would you do? 
Klassen: I’d probably deliberate on the edge for a little while, then suddenly make a run for it across the bridge, be caught three steps in and eaten immediately.

Barnett: I’d try to sneak across while the troll is eating Jon.

Read our review of ‘The Three Billy Goats Gruff.’

Photo of Mac Barnett and Jon Klassen courtesy of Carson Ellis.

Two award-winning children’s book creators reveal how they told their story about some goats and a troll under a bridge.
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Mac Barnett and Caldecott Medalist Jon Klassen take on the classic Norwegian fairy tale of comeuppance in The Three Billy Goats Gruff. Their rendition spends a notable amount of time with the tale’s villain, a remarkably creepy troll with spindly legs and pointy, fanglike teeth that protrude from his lower jaw. A skull dangles from the bridge that serves as his shelter, and he holds a fork and spoon, ready to dine. 

Barnett renders much of the troll’s dialogue in rhyme, particularly when the creature describes his appetite: “I am a troll. I live to eat. / I love the sound of hooves and feet / and paws and claws on cobblestones. / For that’s the sound of meat and bones!” Young readers will delight in the antagonist’s grossness, like when he uses a dirty fingernail to scrape a ball of hairy wax from his ears, because all he’s had to eat recently is “a leather boot and some goop he’d found in his belly button.”

Mac Barnett and Jon Klassen reveal how they’d try to outwit a troll.

This troll might be creepy, but he’s also devilishly funny. He compliments himself on outwitting the smallest goat, who has promised that his brothers are coming: “I’m so smart! And fun and handsome.” When he meets the largest of the three brothers, who is so tall that at first readers see only his furry shins, the troll is awestruck. In the wordless spread that follows, Klassen plays effectively with scale, depicting this final goat head-butting the troll, who flies off the verso, his fork trailing through the air behind him. 

The troll’s punishment involves a hilarious waterfall descent, but to say more would spoil the surprise. Until that point, the entire story unfolds at the bridge. A less-skilled illustrator might have hurt the story’s pace, but Klassen consistently adds visual interest through design choices, framing and details in the setting, such as the items scattered around the troll’s abode. 

This wickedly funny take will leave children clamoring for more. Fortunately, it’s the first in a planned series in which Barnett will retell classic fairy tales. If the volumes that follow are this stellar, readers are in good hands.  

Read our Q&A with ‘The Three Billy Goats Gruff’ author Mac Barnett and illustrator Jon Klassen.

In this retelling of the classic Norwegian fairy tale, the antagonist plays a creepy and devilishly funny role.
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Guided by Dadaism, an art movement that sought to reject logic, author Jon Scieszka and illustrator Julia Rothman turn traditional nursery rhymes on their heads in the playful, subversive The Real Dada Mother Goose

Nonsense and absurdity take center stage as Scieszka and Rothman spin and twist six evergreen verses inside out and upside down. Each verse is transformed into multiple new versions; some change structure and even switch mediums entirely. Among the renditions of “Humpty Dumpty” are a “boring” version, in which the famous royal horses and horsemen don’t “really have / do to anything,” a censored version with key words concealed by blue rectangles and a version translated into a series of foreign languages. “Jack Be Nimble” is presented in both secret codes and Esperanto, a well-known constructed language, while “Hickory Dickory Dock” is written partially in Egyptian hieroglyphs. “Hey Diddle Diddle” becomes a haiku, and “Twinkle Twinkle” is transformed into a rebus picture puzzle.

The ideal readers for this 80-page picture book will be elementary school children who are past nursery rhymes and consider themselves world-weary enough to want to poke fun at their toddler years. If those children also like solving puzzles, even better: The book’s abundant, inviting backmatter provides definitions for and explanations of how to work with the many devices employed in the book, such as anagrams, Spoonerisms (“Nack be jimble. / Quack be jick.”), the NATO phonetic alphabet and more. 

The book is dedicated to Blanche Fisher Wright, who illustrated the popular The Real Mother Goose in 1916 and whose art is reproduced throughout these pages. A biographical note about her as well as a bibliography of her titles is included in the backmatter. Rothman inserts her own impish, comical drawings around reproductions of Wright’s work, such as in the “Jabberwocky” version of “Old Mother Hubbard,” where the title character appears with three heads. Rothman also populates the pages with “Dada Geese,” who serve as guides through this madcap adventure. 

The Real Dada Mother Goose is a thoroughly entertaining book enhanced by detailed and plentiful backmatter. This handbook for creative mischief is sure to inspire many hours of Dadaist delight. 

Nonsense and absurdity take center stage as Jon Scieszka and Julia Rothman turn six evergreen Mother Goose verses upside down and inside out.
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“Over a hill, at the end of a road, by a glittering stream that twists and turns, stands a house,” begins two-time Caldecott Medalist Sophie Blackall’s deft, sophisticated Farmhouse.

A couple raises 12 children in the house, and Blackall captures the details of their everyday lives. We see marks on the wall to note the growing children’s heights; the “serious room” where the family gathers for important discussions; the attic bedroom where the children sleep and dream under its sloping ceiling; the farmhouse where they milk the cows “no matter the weather”; and much more.

Despite all this bustling activity, full of the stuff of life itself, Blackall’s text is written in the past tense; she’s commemorating a home that once was, but is no more. She devotes one brief spread to the children’s adult lives, describing what they did after leaving the farmhouse. Once the last grown child leaves, the house falls into utter disarray. A bear even makes its home in the basement!

Soon, Blackall herself enters the book and relates how she found the house and filled her arms with as much as she could carry away. Wallpaper, clothing, books and newspapers, handkerchiefs and more—all from the house itself—were incorporated into the artwork for “this book that you hold” so that the house and everyone in it will “live on . . . like your stories will, so long as they’re told.”

In a lengthy author’s note, accompanied by photographs, Blackall explains that she purchased a farm in upstate New York that included the house that inspired the book. Farmhouse is an openhearted ode to that house, with 48 spectacular pages that absolutely beg to be read aloud. Blackall’s spreads are remarkably textured and detailed. They brim with life and hum with magic, yet skillfully avoid being too crowded or hard to follow.

Vividly realized, Farmhouse is filled with a tenderness and a longing that aches as you confront its bittersweet memories. Yet it leaves you with gratitude that an artist like Blackall, with the observational prowess of a poet, stumbled upon it and brought it to life again.

Two-time Caldecott Medalist Sophie Blackall offers a sophisticated, openhearted ode to what truly makes a house a home in this tender picture book.
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The best picture books tap honestly and unpatronizingly into children’s emotions. These two books remind children that being human means appreciating the complex emotions we all experience. 

Sometimes I Grumblesquinch

“I’m a really nice kid,” declares protagonist Katie Honors on the first page of author Rachel Vail and illustrator Hyewon Yum’s Sometimes I Grumblesquinch, a tale about the pitfalls of trying to tame emotions. Katie tries to be on her best behavior at all times. She’s “a good sport” when she loses a soccer match: “‘Good game,’ I say. . . . I hardly frown.” Katie’s mom declares that her daughter is “such a pleasure,” and Katie takes pride in knowing that her parents are proud of her. But readers, privy to Katie’s inner thoughts, know that she contains multitudes.

Katie’s little brother, Chuck, annoys her, and she routinely bottles up how he makes her feel. “Sometimes I grumblesquinch,” Katie confesses. When this happens, her “insides tighten” and she has “mean thoughts,” such as wishing that she had “a trampoline or a tree house or a giraffe instead of a brother.” Vail captures Katie’s feelings with an unequivocal, refreshing candor that’s deeply respectful toward Katie’s complicated interior life: “I wish I could pop [Chuck] like a balloon. . . . I wish he would disappear.” When Katie finally snaps, Yum’s soft color palette and smooth linework are transformed: Intense colors and ragged, angular lines embody Katie’s acute fear that her parents “won’t think I am such a pleasure anymore.” 

But Katie’s mother gently validates Katie’s feelings, telling her daughter that she understands how a person can hold both frustration and love for someone. A shocked Katie nods and tells readers, “This nod is true.” These four words convey so much about how children—especially girls—are encouraged to suppress their feelings and minimize their emotions. When Katie acknowledges that her nod is “true,” she’s also suggesting that some of her smiles have been insincere, even forced. 

It’s moving to watch Katie begin to understand that attempting to ignore healthy but negative emotions, all in the name of being likable, still causes harm. Even after failing to grumblesquinch all her feelings, Katie still receives a loving hug from her mom, who has space for “the whole me” in her arms.

What Feelings Do When No One’s Looking    

Polish author Tina Oziewicz offers readers a whole host of emotions in What Feelings Do When No One’s Looking, translated from the Polish by Jennifer Croft. (Kudos to Oziewicz’s American publisher, Elsewhere Editions, for placing the translator’s name prominently on the cover.) 

Because the book’s title tells readers precisely what to expect, the first spread dives right in, introducing Curiosity, a creature with large ears who sits atop a tall chimney, eager to see what’s beyond the horizon. Curiosity is followed by Joy, Gratitude, Calm, Envy, Insecurities, Shame, Courage, Bliss and more, each depicted on its own spread. 

Illustrator Aleksandra Zając (making her picture book debut) introduces an endearing cast of characters, conveying these emotions as furry, amicable creatures who move about on clean, uncluttered backgrounds. Her crisp, fine lines and gray-tone palette (with subtle touches of coral, sky blue and sage) ensure that even the more volatile emotions, such as Anger, won’t frighten the youngest readers.

This is a picture book filled with surprises. There are unexpected personifications (“Jitters sit in a rusty can in a dark corner under a wardrobe.” “Nostalgia sniffs a scarf.”), but Oziewicz also has a startlingly succinct and evocative way of capturing these feelings. “Anxiety juggles,” for one. These two words float amid ample white space next to an unhappy-looking creature atop a unicycle trying to keep five balls in the air, its mouth a thin, wavy line. A full-bleed illustration shows a wide-eyed creature attempting to blend in with patterned floral wallpaper: “Fear pretends it isn’t there.” And what else would Hope do but pack “a sandwich for the road”? 

Oziewicz and Zając link two spreads in an especially meaningful way: Readers learn that Hate “chews through links and cables. Can’t connect! Can’t connect!” But in the book’s final spread, Love, who is an electrician, holds an oversize lightbulb aglow with amber hues. The bulb seems to run from the same rose-colored cable Hate tried so vehemently to destroy. 

What Feelings Do When No One’s Looking will prompt thoughtful conversations about the wide range of feelings a person can experience. It’s exactly the sort of book that Katie Honors—and all children—need. 

These children’s books put some of our most complex emotions into words (and pictures!).
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Hakim, a donkey, heads out to visit his friend Daisy, who lives on the top of a mountain, so that he can give her the sweater he knitted. The mountain is covered in a thick fog and said to be riddled with monsters. “You’re doomed!” yells a goat as Hakim begins his journey, establishing a comically eerie tone to the whole affair.

When Hakim sees a strange figure in the fog, he wonders if the old goat was right. From a distance, the outline of the figure is enveloped in mist, and it appears to be a robot-esque monstrosity. But when Hakim and the figure draw closer, the “monster” turns out to be a dog carrying a pallet of bricks on her head. The friendly dog joins Hakim on his journey up the mountain.

Twice more, the fog tricks the travelers into thinking that they see monsters on the path ahead, but each time, they’re proven wrong and a new companion joins the party. Ultimately, the group realizes that “everything looks like a monster in the fog. . . . But the closer you get, the less scary it becomes.”

Understated humor has never been so laugh-out-loud funny as in Ali Bahrampour’s Monsters in the Fog. The moderate absurdity of a dog carrying a pile of bricks on her head is one thing, but the final “monster” tops them all. In the fog, it appears as a massive skull until the page turn reveals the gloriously ridiculous truth: It’s a bear on a tricycle, careening down the mountain on her way to a repair shop to get the brakes fixed. Even better is the way she manages to stop long enough to meet the group: “A rock helped her out,” we read as the tricycle is wedged into a large stone, sending the bear flying through the air.

Bahrampour presents this perfectly paced, playful tale in muted watercolors and a lively cartoon style that’s reminiscent of the work of Jon Agee and William Steig. The reveals steal the show, but readers will also love Hakim’s sweet devotion to Daisy, who is responsible for her own surprising reveal at the book’s close. It may be difficult for a donkey to knit a sweater, but Hakim knows that his struggles with knitting needles and monsters alike are worth it for a friend.

Understated humor has never been so laugh-out-loud funny as in Ali Bahrampour’s perfectly paced, playful picture book.
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Yoshi and the Ocean: A Sea Turtle’s Incredible Journey Home, Lindsay Moore’s account of the incredible intercontinental journey of a loggerhead sea turtle, opens with two spreads that precede its title page. Readers meet Yoshi inside an egg, “before she had a name.” Folded within a shell, the little turtle waits until “the voice of the waves” calls her to hatch and enter the world.

As Moore’s story begins, Yoshi is “small and broken,” wounded in the water and rescued by fishermen who name her Yoshitaro. She finds a new home and heals at an aquarium in Cape Town, South Africa, much to the delight of the aquarium’s visitors. But after some time, Yoshi knows that she needs to return to the ocean: “She is from away from here, and that is where she needs to go.”

The scientists who brought Yoshi back to health attach a tracking device to her shell and release her into the ocean. The rest of Moore’s book tracks Yoshi’s extraordinary three-year journey up the eastern coast of Africa, as far north as Angola, then back around the southern tip of the continent and all the way across the Indian Ocean to waters off the northwestern coast of Australia—a distance of 25,000 miles!

Moore gives this remarkable true story an appealing structure. The refrain “This is Yoshi . . .” grounds readers in each new location along the turtle’s journey. As Yoshi sets out on her trip, the story’s brisk pace keeps readers turning pages. Each time Yoshi surfaces above the waves, allowing her tracker to send a signal to a satellite, we read in a looping cursive font: “Hello from Yoshi. I am here.” The narrative pacing slows as the turtle nears Australia, where she transmits one final, emotionally satisfying message, displayed in large letters that span the entire spread: “Hello from Yoshi. I am home.”

Moore illustrates this tale in sweeping full-bleed views of the worlds above and below the waves. Readers discover these worlds along with Yoshi as she takes in all the wonders of ocean life. Moore’s language is precise but also lyrical as she notes the “shape of a wave, the shift of the wind, the push of a current.” The book’s detailed back matter, which includes a photograph of Yoshi, will inspire readers to revisit the turtle’s story, equipped with the context to fully appreciate her astonishing voyage.

With vivid emotion, Lindsay Moore tells the astonishing story of a loggerhead turtle who traveled more than 25,000 miles from South Africa to Australia.
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When a new boy moves to the neighborhood, Dot introduces herself and asks if he wants to play. The boy, slump-shouldered and sad, declines. Dot wonders whether he’s sad because he didn’t want to move. 

That night, the boy writes down a wish on a star—to “fly far far away and maybe never have to come back”—and ties the note to the string of a golden balloon, which lands outside Dot’s bedroom window. Dot reads the note, which also reveals that the boy’s name is Albert. Endeavoring to make Albert happy, Dot builds him a kite and, after finding another balloon note in which Albert wishes for a dog, gives him her favorite plush puppy. Albert brightens, but only momentarily.

Albert’s next note wishes that his dad “was here again” and “could come back.” Dot imagines what it would be like if her own father weren’t around. Her empathy makes her realize that her job isn’t to make Albert happy: “Sometimes, it’s okay to be sad. Sometimes, it’s the only thing we can do.” She decides to sit with Albert on a porch swing in his backyard, even amid long silences, until he’s ready to open up. 

Author-illustrator Jonathan D. Voss employs a painterly style in The Wishing Balloons, an emotionally charged tale. His remarkably thick and textured brushstrokes, fuzzy forms and highly saturated colors give his artwork the appearance of memories or dreams: Specifics are blurry and emotions dominate. In the absence of sharp lines and distinct facial expressions, the characters’ body language conveys their feelings—particularly Albert’s overwhelming sadness.

Some lines of text as well as some illustrations are depicted as if on separate sheets of paper affixed to the page with torn pieces of tape. This technique, along with a textured, handwriting-style font, lends The Wishing Balloons the feel of a scrapbook of memories. 

A story of loss and healing, The Wishing Balloons pulses with tenderness. It’s sure to prompt readers to consider extending their hand to anyone in need and to reflect on what true friendship really looks like. 

In Jonathan D. Voss’ The Wishing Balloons, Dot wonders why the new boy doesn’t want to play—until she finds a note tied to a balloon outside her bedroom window.
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“Not everyone loves a train,” begins Kate Hoefler and Jessixa Bagley’s Courage Hats. Mae, carrying a small yellow suitcase, and Bear, with an old-fashioned knapsack across his shoulder, are both feeling anxious as they board a high-speed train. They don’t know each other yet, but they will.

Because she will be traveling “deep into bear places,” Mae has made a paper-bag headpiece to help her look more like a bear, with round ears and a brown nose. And because Bear will be venturing “deep into people places,” he has crafted a similar human-esque paper-bag hat. Each headpiece has a large hole that reveals Mae’s and Bear’s true faces, but to themselves and each other, they are utterly transformed.

Wearing their hats, Mae and Bear find seats next to each other on the train. Mae’s suitcase turns out to contain a tea set, while Bear’s polka-dotted knapsack holds sandwiches, crackers and cookies. Together, they enjoy a cozy spread as the train carries them on to a destination revealed on the book’s final page.

Bagley (Before I Leave) creatively extends Hoefler’s narrative, using eye-catching perspectives and presenting a world in which anthropomorphized woodland creatures and humans share spaces. The journey, not the destination, is the point of this rewarding story about finding courage via the gifts of friendship and abundant imagination.

Readers will especially appreciate Hoefler’s poetic and nuanced observations once Mae and Bear’s journey gets underway. There’s “a lot to notice” out the window of a train, Hoefler writes, such as “how a train carries the sky on its back.” Bagley illustrates this by depicting the new friends from behind as they take in the marvelous view of a golden meadow flanked by distant mountains. 

There’s gentle humor in Courage Hats as well, rooted in the contradictions between Hoefler’s text and Bagley’s images. When Mae first meets Bear, Hoefler (Real Cowboys) tells us that Mae has “found a big grown-up to sit with,” while Bagley depicts Bear (in his person hat) sitting next to the window of the train’s bench seat, arms crossed in his lap. Similarly, Bear is relieved to have “found a small cub to sit with.” Later, as Mae and Bear find comfort in each other’s presence, they both reflect that, if not for their newfound friendship, they “might have missed what was right next” to them.

Courage Hats is a satisfying story about facing your fears. After all, if you can’t find your courage, “you can wear it on your head at first.”

In Kate Hoefler and Jessixa Bagley’s imaginative Courage Hats, Mae and Bear discover unexpected bravery and friendship on a long train journey.
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Expect the giggles to begin from the opening endpapers of Chester van Chime Who Forgot How to Rhyme. They feature small drawings, and each illustration is accompanied by a pair of rhyming words. For example, a depiction of a green slug smiling on a fluffy green rug says “Slug Rug.”

The book itself is about poor Chester van Chime, who awakens one morning to discover that he has lost the ability to rhyme. Scattered across his bedroom are objects that evoke rhymes: The same slug from the endpapers smiles happily from a green rug next to Chester’s bed, and we see two toy ducks inside a blue toy truck. Despite all these visual clues, Chester simply can’t “match up two sounds.”

Author Avery Monsen presents a text filled with rhyming couplets that fall flat on their poetic faces. “He tried not to panic. He played it real cool / and picked up his backpack and walked to his . . . / . . . learning place with teachers and stuff.” Adults, welcome to your next Best Storytime Book.

Abby Hanlon, illustrator of the side-splittingly funny Dory Fantasmagory chapter book series, brings her playful sensibilities to these vivid tableaux. Her spreads teem with rhyming pairs. Owls decorate Chester’s bathroom towel; a pup smiles from the cup on his sink; a fox steals a sock while Chester’s getting dressed; and can you guess what winged mammal appears on his doormat? As Chester’s frustrations over his failures escalate, so do the visuals. Chester’s classroom devolves into chaos as his classmates try to resuscitate his rhyming acumen.

Chester walks home from school in despair, but he soon realizes that everyone has off days and no one can be perfect all the time. Besides, by day’s end, Chester can rhyme again—for the most part. And remember those winning opening endpapers? The book’s closing endpapers feature an entirely new but equally delightful set of drawings.

It’s a must-read, a hit, a guaranteed good time. If only more books were like Chester van . . . what was his name again?

Poor Chester van Chime may have lost the ability to rhyme, but young readers will lose themselves to giggles at this book’s delightfully unsuccessful couplets.
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The opening of Mac Barnett and Kate Berube’s John’s Turn ushers readers into an elementary school. Every Friday at this particular school, students gather in the cafeteria for what’s called assembly. Best of all, if everyone behaves, one student “gets to do something for the whole school.” The school dubs this tradition “Sharing Gifts.” (In one of many instances in the book that proves Barnett is no stranger to how children think, we read: “A lot of us think that’s a kind of dumb name, but we also think Sharing Gifts is the best.”)

John is reticent and uneasy on the day of his turn for Sharing Gifts. While Mr. Ross makes announcements, John prepares behind the curtain. In a series of vignettes, we see him change into a leotard, pants and slippers. John has decided to perform ballet.

Berube’s warmly colored illustrations capture how John’s apprehension turns to confidence and even elation as he dances; his facial expressions and body language are spot-on. Much of this perfectly paced book is devoted to John’s performance, including five elegantly and economically composed, almost wordless spreads. In one, John gracefully lifts himself in an arc across the page. In the next, he moves across and down the spread in a series of steps, Berube’s sure lines showcasing his strength and skill. Near the end, a blur of movement ends in John’s beaming face as he is suspended mid-air in a leap.

Barnett wisely avoids heavy-handed commentary about ballet and gender stereotypes. There is no need for it. In John’s accomplished, nuanced and athletic performance, readers can see for themselves that boys, too, do ballet.

And anyway, at its heart, John’s Turn is about much more: It’s about the abundant and everyday courage of children, and it is also about “sharing gifts.” John faces down his fear to share his gift with determination, beauty and a style that is all his own. A true gift, indeed.

It’s John’s turn to perform at assembly, and he’s feeling nervous. Will he find the courage to share his gifts with his classmates?

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