Robin Smith

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With year-round school schedules and earlier and earlier starting dates, it’s sometimes hard to say when the back-to-school season for American kids begins. Those of us of a certain age know that school should start after Labor Day, but that, like cassette players and phones with cords, is just a quaint old-timey idea in many parts of the country.
No matter the start date in your area, it won’t be long before kindergartners and elementary school kids are looking for books to explain the world of school to them. Whenever your new school year begins, you can be ready with these new offerings and know that they will help pave the way to a successful school year.

It’s not just kids who go to school—buses make the daily trek, too. Poet Marilyn Singer explores in exuberant rhyme the trip to school in I’m Your Bus, illustrated by Evan Polenghi. Every page bustles with brightness and sparkle, and even the traffic lights on the dedication page have big smiling faces, ready for school! Short, easy-to-read rhymes keep this story moving. “Sweepers sweeping, bakers baking. / Dawn is barely even breaking. / Time for buses to be waking!” All the vehicles, from street sweepers and trucks to taxis and limos, are painted with wide, welcoming smiles—just the encouragement youngsters need to face a new school year. This would be a wonderful book to read on one of the first days of kindergarten, even if your kids walk or drive; the rhythm is infectious and the words are easy to memorize, which makes this a perfect choice for children who are excited about learning to read.

French lessons
Once parents have gotten their children over their concerns about school buses, the real issue will have to be faced: school itself. No matter the happy faces that parents put on, some kids do not want to go to school, ever. A newcomer to America, Stephanie Blake, has just the antidote for this reluctance with I Don’t Want to Go to School! Originally published in France, this is the humorous tale of Simon, a mischievous little rabbit who does not want to go to school. Each time one of his parents tells him all the great things that happen at school, he answers with just two words, “No way!” Despite his firm statements, the time for the first day keeps drawing nearer and nearer. Using a mixture of half-page illustrations, saturated primary colored backgrounds and amusing graphic elements, the story will have new readers  delightfully unsure whether Simon will even go to school, let alone like it. American children will enjoy some of the details that mark this book as a little bit Continental—the children have chocolate mousse in the cafeteria, nap under a communal blanket and the blackboards and posters are written in cursive with the numbers one and seven jauntily crossed. Simon’s many facial expressions are a marvel as well. The endpapers alone will make the most worried kindergartner laugh! Simon might be the perfect friend to carry to school on the first day.

New beginnings
A much more serious offering about school adjustment is My Name is Sangoel by Karen Lynn Williams and Khadra Mohammed, illustrated by Catherine Stock. This is the gentle story of one refugee boy from Sudan and his adjustment to life in his new country, the United States. Young readers will quickly empathize with Sangoel as he, his mother and sister enter the bustling airport, filled with English signs and people speaking English. Because his father was killed in Sudan and he carries his Dinka name, Sangoel is the man of the family and the only one who speaks any English. The biggest adjustment for Sangoel is school. Everywhere he turns, people mispronounce his name, and he fears he will lose even that connection to his father. But his ingenuity pays off when he figures out a way to let everyone know just how his name is pronounced. Through soft watercolors and the occasional torn photo or fabric collage, Stock’s illustrations let the reader understand exactly how Sangoel is feeling and what a tremendous challenge it is to move to a new country and continent. Books like this tend to be preachy, but the writers keep the focus here on young Sangoel and his adjustment without veering into the political. Most schools in America have refugee children or children who are adjusting to a new culture and language; this is a book, along with Aliki’s excellent Marianthe’s Story, that should help build compassion in many classrooms.

Robin Smith teaches second grade in Nashville.

With year-round school schedules and earlier and earlier starting dates, it’s sometimes hard to say when the back-to-school season for American kids begins. Those of us of a certain age know that school should start after Labor Day, but that, like cassette players and phones with cords, is just a quaint old-timey idea in many […]
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When is the best time for a youngster to strike out on his or her own? Every family faces this crucial moment, whether it’s a toddler taking her first wobbly steps across the living room, a kindergartner nervously meeting the teacher or an older child biking down the street for the first time. These moments of poignancy follow weeks and years of experimenting with independence. Three new picture books can help young families encourage and celebrate the exploration that make a child truly independent.

Hop to it
David Ezra Stein returns with the delightful Pouch!, which is something of a sequel to his marvelous 2007 book, Leaves. While Leaves celebrated a bear’s first encounter with autumn, Pouch! explores the exhilaration of discovering the world. Baby kangaroo Joey has spent a long time in his mother’s pouch when one day he exclaims, “Mama, I want to hop!” Two hops away from Mama, Joey finds a bee, who surprises the little kangaroo so much that he turns back toward Mama with a wide-eyed cry: “Pouch!” Mama is always there, welcoming Joey back to the pouch. But Joey cannot be kept in, and he hops three times to see a rabbit and four times to meet a bird. Each encounter ends the same way, with Joey safe in the pouch. Still, the call to independence is strong and, after hopping five times, Joey meets another kangaroo . . . and makes his first friend. Stein’s expressive watercolor and crayon illustrations are full of movement and humor, especially the repeated “Pouch!” scenes. Youngsters who are just learning their boundaries will enjoy watching Joey and his new friends explore the inviting world beyond their mothers’ protective care.

Leaving the nest
Australians Margaret Wild and Julie Vivas team up again in Puffling, the gentle tale of a baby Puffin and his attentive, loving parents, Big Stripy Beak and Long Black Feather. These parents bring back food for Puffling because “There are scary gulls out there, watching and waiting.” Puffling wonders when he will be allowed to leave the burrow. His parents tell him exciting tales of the time when he will be “strong enough and tall enough and brave enough” not only to leave the burrow, but to sleep in the sea and find friends. Little by little, Puffling grows up and is ready to go. His parents are ready to let him go, too, comforting him (and themselves, too?) by telling him, “You’ll be our dear Puffling—even when you’re grown up and have a chick of your own.” Illustrated in the rich browns of the burrow and dark blues of the ocean, Puffling beautifully tells the universal story of growth and maturity. Modern parents might learn a thing or two about raising children to be brave and strong so they will be ready for their own scary world. Puffling is a book to read over and over—shelve it next to Stellaluna.

Taking charge
Amy Hest’s latest offering, When You Meet a Bear On Broadway, is a whimsical look at a little girl who—internalizing the strong, reasonable voice of her mother—helps reunite a little lost bear with his mother. Sporting orange-and-red-striped tights, a sensible blue coat and a jaunty beret, the girl is wise beyond her years and ready for anything. Told in the second person, the story reads very much like children often speak. “When you meet a bear on Broadway, this is what to do. Suck in your breath. Stick out your hand.” Our heroine might be young, but her mother and father have taught her well and she knows just what to do—ask what the mother looks like, calm down, take his hand, look around and wait for the mama to find him. Lightly outlined watercolors, sometimes in many colors and occasionally in retro greens and yellows, highlight the girl and bear as they search for the missing mother. Young readers will enjoy the short sentences, the generic city scenes and the comfort of seeing a little person take charge—just like her mama taught her.

Robin Smith encourages her second-grade students in Nashville to take risks.

When is the best time for a youngster to strike out on his or her own? Every family faces this crucial moment, whether it’s a toddler taking her first wobbly steps across the living room, a kindergartner nervously meeting the teacher or an older child biking down the street for the first time. These moments […]
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Every year as Black History Month approaches, dozens of excellent children’s books on the subject arrive in my mailbox. It’s always a joy to discover new selections for my library and classroom. Here are three of my favorites from this year’s offerings.

Shane W. Evans’ Underground is a good choice for the youngest readers. As soon as parents and teachers introduce books about Harriet Tubman, children want to read the story for themselves. Evans has created a book just for this audience. The font is plain, the words are few and the illustrations pack an emotional wallop. The first half of the book contains only this spare text: “The darkness. The escape. We are quiet. The fear. We crawl. We rest. We make new friends.” Each phrase is accompanied by a blue-and-black illustration of the night escape. When the family is welcomed by new friends, the yellow of their lantern becomes a potent symbol of hope. As the runaways move North, the sky lightens, culminating in a brilliant yellow on the book’s last spread. This stunning simplicity respects the young audience and makes us want to join in with the book’s closing words, “Freedom. I am free. He is free. She is free. We are free.”

Slightly older readers will enjoy the poems that tell the story of The Great Migration: Journey to the North. Longtime collaborators Eloise Greenfield and Jan Spivey Gilchrist come together in what I think is their best book yet. One of the universal human stories is the story of migration, but many young people still do not know about the movement of more than a million African Americans in the early 20th century, fleeing the threats of the Ku Klux Klan and the economic conditions of the South, to northern cities. What’s remarkable about this book is how much these poems are reminiscent of the diaries of the Oregon Trail and the stories of European immigrants to America. Here is the pain of leaving the beloved farm, the excitement of new possibilities and the worry that the past will be forgotten. The story is elevated by the stunning collages—ephemera and manipulated photographs set into a lush painted background. Almost every face looks directly out, inviting the reader into the world of the frightened and excited traveler, and out at the new places to explore. The Great Migration is a treasure for parents, teachers and students who want to learn more about this important time.

Arnold Adoff’s poetry continues to challenge and amaze his fans. Roots and Blues: A Celebration, which includes stunning Expressionistic paintings by award-winning illustrator R. Gregory Christie, inspires me each time I return to it. Adoff’s unique poetic style, with unusual spacing and lining, reminds readers of the music he is celebrating. From the days of the Middle Passage, the seeds of the blues were being planted into the musical soul of African Americans. The endpapers of the book, with handwritten names of hundreds of blues musicians from John Lee Hooker to Ethel Waters and everyone in between, remind the reader of the scope of the genre, while the poems themselves reflect the influences on it. When young readers (and adults, too!) take the time to explore Adoff’s riffs, they will never look at poetry the same way again.

Every year as Black History Month approaches, dozens of excellent children’s books on the subject arrive in my mailbox. It’s always a joy to discover new selections for my library and classroom. Here are three of my favorites from this year’s offerings. Shane W. Evans’ Underground is a good choice for the youngest readers. As […]
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Back-to-school means new classrooms, teachers and friends. While the dance of friendship is an easy line dance for many children, it’s a complicated tango for others. Every year, teachers spend a great deal of time thinking of ways to help their new students make the transition to a new classroom, where the subtle social rules can seem overwhelming, at least at first. Parents want to help their children fit in, and include new friends in their circles. Three new books will help all children explore these complicated social situations through the eyes of three very different children, perhaps picking up some skills—and empathy—along the way.

ON THE OUTSIDE, LOOKING IN
Peter H. Reynolds quietly explores the feelings of a little boy who is on the outside of the social group in I’m Here. The explanatory information on the jacket explains that he wrote the book “to help us all reach out, embrace, and appreciate children in the autism spectrum, as well as anyone who is different from ourselves.” Young children will be drawn into the world of the playground, where the little boy hears the chatter as one big noise. “They are there. I am here.” All alone, with just the breeze, a piece of paper and eventually one new friend, the little boy narrates his story with few words and an unspoken, overwhelming desire for friendship. Teachers and parents who want to help their children understand the perspective of a child with autism will find this book both moving and useful. The slow pace and blessed lack of bullies and mocking that often are included in books about social adjustment will help all children—and their parents—think of ways to embrace those children who might be on the outside looking in. They are here and they want to be friends.

A SMALL RABBIT WITH A BIG HEART
Squish Rabbit
is a remarkably teeny rabbit. He is so hard to see that he feels life is passing him by. Graphic illustrations by first-time author-illustrator Katherine Battersby, combined with paper, fabric and photograph collage, allow the reader to understand Squish’s predicaments based on how he is pictured on the page. At times, he is so tiny he is about to be stomped by another critter. When he thinks he is alone, he has a dandy tantrum that spans four comic style squares, bathed in a wash of red-hot anger. But when he is desperate to save a squirrel, his scream of “STOP” covers most of two pages. This is a book where design is the thing. Children will discuss why there is an ocean of white space between Squish and the squirrel when they meet and why they gain size and lose almost all distance when the page turns. And, of course, everyone is happy when Squish realizes that “his friends made him feel much bigger.” Squish Rabbit is perfect for the youngest new friends.

QUIRKY AND CONFIDENT
Perhaps my favorite new book about school and friendship is Marshall Armstrong is New to Our School. David Mackintosh brings us a remarkable little guy. The narrator is suspicious of Marshall; Marshall is different. He reads at recess, eats “space food” for lunch, stays in the shade and does not have a TV. The illustrations really get at the heart of Marshall. We see him wearing a straw hat, yellow-and-green-striped jacket and necktie; riding a giant old-timey bike; using school supplies straight from an antique store. When Marshall invites everyone to his birthday party, the narrator just knows it will be a miserable time. Turns out that Marshall’s party, despite the lack of electronics, is more fun than a trip to an amusement park! Quirky pen-and-ink illustrations provide plenty of details to explore. Adults will be reminded of Quentin Blake and Edward Gorey, which is just the right tone for a fellow like Marshall. It’s great to see a smart, inquisitive kid portrayed confidently as a hero. Marshall is remarkably self-assured, the kind of kid who is happy to have friends and happy to be alone with his own interesting mind. Children need to be reminded that, though it’s great to have friends, it’s also important to enjoy time alone to imagine, explore and invent.

For more back-to-school recommendations, read a roundup of four reviews from the August issue of BookPage: "Back to the classroom in style."

Robin Smith spends her summers thinking about her new group of second graders and hopes she will have at least one Marshall, some Squishies and a few quiet observers in her class each year.

Back-to-school means new classrooms, teachers and friends. While the dance of friendship is an easy line dance for many children, it’s a complicated tango for others. Every year, teachers spend a great deal of time thinking of ways to help their new students make the transition to a new classroom, where the subtle social rules […]
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One of the joys of summer is spending time at the ocean and seeing ocean life through the eyes of children, who are endlessly fascinated by all that lives in the sea. Here are three new picture books to help answer a child’s questions about all things aquatic.

BRINGING UP BABY

Dolphins are amazing to children: mammals that live in the water! Nicola Davies tells the story of these graceful animals in Dolphin Baby!. Illustrated by Brita Granström, this charmer follows the life of a baby dolphin from birth to first breath to the moment of independently catching its own fish. Filled with factual detail, the more complicated in smaller type for parents to explain, Dolphin Baby! will satisfy the curious youngster, whether she has actually seen a dolphin or not. Granström’s breathtaking brushstrokes make it easy to imagine life in the ocean and the comparisons to human development will help young readers connect with their seagoing relatives. This book could be the starting point for a lifelong love of dolphins.

SEA CREATURES

In the Sea brings David Elliott and Holly Meade back together with a companion book to On the Farm and In the Wild. Meade’s stunning woodcuts swim off the page and invite the young reader to enter the magical world of the ocean. Each short rhyming poem briefly introduces the young sea enthusiast to one creature. I can just imagine a young reader poring over this oversized volume, memorizing the poems and noticing the details in the illustrations. The rich rhymes (apparition/magician, tuxedo/torpedo, sandy place/carapace, buffoon/balloon) are inviting and challenging while the drama of the woodcuts brings a gasp at every page turn. Each book in this series respects young scientists without overwhelming them.

CHAIN REACTION

A good teacher makes learning easy and interesting, and after reading Ocean Sunlight: How Tiny Plants Feed the Seas I imagine that Penny Chisholm, professor of ecology at MIT, is an amazing teacher. Her second collaboration with illustrator Molly Bang explains the role that microscopic plants called phytoplankton play in the earth’s ecology. Obscure scientific ideas are a challenge to my brain, but I could not stop reading this amazing book. Narrated by the sun, the book begins and ends with bright yellow, making the sun’s importance clear. The marriage of clear language with Bang’s rich illustrations made me want to slow down and really understand the importance of these little plants to the ocean’s food chain. Some of the pages are mostly black, allowing the reader to see the eerie “marine snow” of decaying animals. Ocean Sunlight is one of those special picture books that will appeal to all ages, from the youngster interested in ocean animals to anyone who appreciates the intricacies of food chains, seen and unseen.

One of the joys of summer is spending time at the ocean and seeing ocean life through the eyes of children, who are endlessly fascinated by all that lives in the sea. Here are three new picture books to help answer a child’s questions about all things aquatic. BRINGING UP BABY Dolphins are amazing to […]
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Each child, whether confident or nervous, stands on the edge of the great unknown when a new school year begins. These dandy books will help the youngest students face this big step toward independence.

In Mom, It’s My First Day of Kindergarten! we find out that two people are anxious about the first day: mom and son. At first, the oversized boy bounces out of bed while the nervous mom (small and washed in anxious blue) drags her feet. Using color, size and varying perspectives to show the emotions of both generations of kindergartners, Hyewon Yum captures the nerves, bravado and excitement of the first day.

In Marco Goes to School, a chuckle-worthy and encouraging sequel to Too Busy Marco, a little red bird has a big dream. Marco wants to go to the moon. After he exhausts the opportunities for entertainment around the house, his mom suggests he attend school. Though teacher Mrs. Peachtree has fun floral pants, she talks a lot, which allows Marco’s mind to wander to the class library, where a toy astronaut is perched alluringly. Marco knows what he wants: to go to the moon. Roz Chast’s love of this distracted student is almost enough to get him there, but he does find a friend willing to push him very high . . . in a swing.

For read-aloud hilarity, Ollie’s School Day: A Yes-and No Book, written by Stephanie Calmenson and illustrated by Abby Carter, is the perfect choice. Written as a series of questions, this read-aloud gem allows even the youngest child to learn about the social and behavioral expectations of school. The reader asks questions about Ollie’s day (What will Ollie eat? Wear? Say? Ride? How will he ask a question? Do at story time?). Three silly follow-up questions allow the reader to call out, “NO!” before the turn of the page allows the satisfying “YES.” Calmenson’s wit and Carter’s light, cartoony watercolors are the perfect vehicles for imparting important social expectations to newbies.

Stan is worried that all the other children know how to write, but his words are coming out in a muddle. In Back to Front and Upside Down! Claire Alexander has created a comforting book for little learners. Instead of asking for help with the principal’s birthday card, Stan struggles by himself. He hides his writing failure from his friends until the pressure is too much. Then he finds out that everyone needs help sometimes, and writing becomes easier once he shares his struggle with the engaging Miss Catnip. Stan’s story can serve as a springboard to discussions about learning and getting help when needed.

Each child, whether confident or nervous, stands on the edge of the great unknown when a new school year begins. These dandy books will help the youngest students face this big step toward independence. In Mom, It’s My First Day of Kindergarten! we find out that two people are anxious about the first day: mom […]
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Kids love monsters. Actually, kids like the idea of monsters, along with that delicious feeling of being a little bit scared. However, at midnight, a child’s fear of monsters doesn’t seem quite so adorable, does it? Here are a few books to send a shiver of fear down a child’s spine without disturbing too much sleep.

A GENTLE GIANT
One of my favorite books of the season is Patrick McDonnell’s The Monsters’ Monster. Grouch, Grump and Gloom ‘n’ Doom are little monsters who mess with each other all the time. Their favorite 10 words are “No” and they argue over who is the worst monster. Each argument ends in a brawl until they work together to build the “biggest, baddest monster EVER!” In a scene out of Frankenstein, their creation is struck by lightning and comes to life. Imagine the little monsters’ surprise when the huge new monster speaks his first words, “Dank you.” This monster, though enormous, is a gentle thing and his clumsy celebration in the land of the living will amuse the youngest readers and help them reassess their fears of monsters. A gem.

THE ABCs OF MONSTERS
For children who love all sorts of monsters, The Monster Alphabet, written by Michael P. Spradlin and illustrated by Jeff Weigel, will be a perfect handbook. From Abominable Snowman to Jabberwocky to Zombies, this little volume will provide the monster aficionado with hours of delight. Our trip through the alphabet is led by a narrator who appears to be the Indiana Jones of monster seekers. Each letter is explained with a simple rhyme, telling just a little about monsters familiar and rare. Who among the uninitiated knows what a Kraken or a Redcap is. Or a quetzalcoatl? Weigel’s bold and colorful illustrations add funny and interesting details without being too terrifying. More a study guide than a story, this is the kind of book that kids love to memorize and then use to impress friends with their esoteric knowledge.

AN UNFORGETTABLE SING-ALONG
The 1960s song “Monster Mash” is one of those ditties that gets into your brain and refuses to let go. The picture book version by David Catrow, Monster Mash, is just as memorable. Catrow’s over-the-top, wild illustrations are a perfect match for the song’s catchy lyrics (“I was working in the lab late one night, when my eyes beheld an eerie sight”). From Pepto-Bismol pink to iridescent greens, Catrow’s many-eyed creatures spring to life beside guitar-wielding zombie musicians and one hilarious dancing dog. Try reading Monster Mash aloud to a group—the children will be entertained, and you’ll be humming the song to yourself for hours.

ONE BY ONE
“Ten creepy monsters met ‘neath a gnarled pine. One blew away, and then there were nine.” The early reader set will enjoy Carey F. Armstrong-Ellis’s Ten Creepy Monsters as it counts down a dwindling roster of unfortunate monsters. With rich language and a delightfully dark nighttime palette, this pleasing rhyme begs to be acted out or performed with puppets. Though the text has the bounce of a preschool finger play, the illustrations are appropriately ghoulish. The zombie holding onto his lost foot might be a bit much for the youngest reader but the rest of the illustrations are the right balance of slightly scary and funny. The final spread in the book contains a surprise that is subtly delivered, allowing any scaredy cat to be reassured.

Kids love monsters. Actually, kids like the idea of monsters, along with that delicious feeling of being a little bit scared. However, at midnight, a child’s fear of monsters doesn’t seem quite so adorable, does it? Here are a few books to send a shiver of fear down a child’s spine without disturbing too much […]
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When our kids were little, one of the traditions of the Christmas season was unpacking the ornaments and books. Yes, books. These books were only for December and were as important to the season as the plastic icicles and handmade tree skirt from Aunt Dee Dee. We added new books every year and, if I still had little children living in my house, I would add several new ones from this year’s crop.

Those looking for books that reflect the biblical Christmas story will not be disappointed. Three veterans are back with their take on the Nativity.

Tomie dePaola’s tender, simple tale will delight young children with a bird’s-eye view of the big day in The Birds of Bethlehem. Talking among themselves, the birds tell of the unusual, strange, spectacular, awesome and miraculous event they see. These adjectives are unveiled as the story develops, building a sense of quiet drama. DePaola’s respectful but accessible illustrations add to the story, making this a book that will be enjoyed over and over again.

When he was bouncing along the roads in Africa, Ashley Bryan thought of Mary and Joseph on the road to Bethlehem and wrote a simple poem that examines the question of Who Built the Stable? Lushly illustrated in gouache and tempera paints, this special volume will encourage readers to imagine some of the lesser players in the story.

Poet Lee Bennett Hopkins and illustrator Stephen Alcorn collaborate for the gentle Mary’s Song. On one hand, this is a love song to new motherhood and, on the other, it’s the familiar story of baby Jesus and his family. Alcorn’s oversized illustrations in cross-hatched mixed media set the perfect tone as the young mother Mary looks for quiet time with her baby boy. Ahh.

A HOLLY, JOLLY CHRISTMAS

Christmas is also about presents and Santa and reindeer—and there are many new books that celebrate this part of the holiday, too!

One of the sweetest is Just Right for Christmas by Birdie Black, illustrated by Rosalind Beardshaw. After finding a sumptuous bolt of red fabric, the king has a lovely cloak sewn for his daughter. The sewing maids leave the scraps outside on the steps where they are found by the kitchen maid, who uses the material to make a jacket for her mother. The scraps are passed on and on until the last little bit is used as a scarf for a mouse. This celebration of generosity and making things by hand feels “just right” for the holidays.

Jane Yolen and Mark Teague have a small cottage industry going with books about dinosaurs. Their two newest are sure to become family favorites: How Do Dinosaurs Say Happy Chanukah? and How Do Dinosaurs Say Merry Christmas? It’s fun to see how Yolen and Teague make connections between these two books (mom is knitting in both, the dinosaurs all kiss their grandparents, etc.) but still give each holiday’s traditions its own spotlight. As always, these dinosaur books are more humor than lesson and are the perfect way for little people to laugh at naughtiness.

Another fabulous dinosaur series is Bob Shea’s Dinosaur vs., which pits a red dinosaur against such adversaries as “bedtime” and “the potty.” This time it’s Dinosaur vs. Santa. The dinosaur is like an energetic preschooler, just learning to control himself. It’s impossible to read this book without laughing. I mean, the dinosaur is wearing all varieties of Christmas sweaters and pajamas! But, of course, that’s not all. Dinosaur growls and roars his way through the joys and jobs of the season: writing to Santa, decorating the tree, being extra good and even going to bed on Christmas Eve. When Dinosaur sneaks downstairs to investigate the sounds of jingle bells, readers will worry right along with him: “Did Santa see you? Will he put you on the Naughty list?” The final reassuring turn of the page answers these important questions.

YOUNG SANTA

Santa from Cincinnati, written by Judi Barrett and illustrated by Kevin Hawkes, has the feel of a classic tale that could become a family favorite. Barrett (of Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs fame) cleverly imagines the childhood of Santa Claus, told as a remembrance from Santa himself. In a scene from the hospital nursery, there is smiling baby Claus, wrapped in a bright red blanket, his nose round and red. Every page holds a treat for children who know the story of the grownup Santa. Here we see baby Santa playing with a reindeer and snowman mobile, and later we see family pictures celebrating his first words (“ho, ho, ho”), first steps (in dad’s big black boots) and favorite snack (cookies). It’s hard to imagine a Christmas-crazy kid not falling hard for this one . . . and imagining the childhoods of other holiday icons.

When our kids were little, one of the traditions of the Christmas season was unpacking the ornaments and books. Yes, books. These books were only for December and were as important to the season as the plastic icicles and handmade tree skirt from Aunt Dee Dee. We added new books every year and, if I […]
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January is the month for snow and cold and ice. Whether you live with snowy weather, or wish you did, pour a mug of cocoa and share these three picture books with your favorite little snowman.

WORKING FOR A LIVING

Husband and wife team Caralyn and Mark Buehner have come up with an intriguing idea in Snowmen at Work, the fourth book in their popular Snowmen series. What if snowmen had actual jobs as dentists, mechanics, grocers and the like? Sparkling oil-and-acrylic paintings pop with energy and allow the Buehners to create warm and humorous scenes on every page. Each spread includes four hidden characters—cat, mouse, T. rex and rabbit—adding to the fun. Readers will have to slow down to find these little critters, but the search will allow them time to appreciate the charms of each detailed illustration.

WORTH THE WAIT

Bunnies on Ice is Johanna Wright’s tribute to ice skaters of all levels. Reminding us that, as in many life events, “you have to wait for the conditions to be just right,” Wright takes us through spring planting, summer swimming and harvest. This trip through the seasons allows the reader and lap-listener to slow down and enjoy the journey. Wright’s gentle acrylic-and-ink illustrations, in her signature naïve style, are filled with details that amuse both the eye and the heart. The members of the bunny family enjoy one another as they celebrate life together—gardening, swimming, raking, cooking, building a scarecrow, making music and, at last, skating. I always want to join the families that Wright constructs, especially if it means I could bundle up and skate on a frozen lake.

BRRRRR

The town of Toby Mills is cold. Very cold. After a few days of sub-freezing weather, the local paper declares what the townspeople already know: It’s a cold snap! Veterans Eileen Spinelli and Marjorie Priceman team up in Cold Snap, a brisk tale of one town as it handles a long period of cold weather. A statue of the town founder is at the center of the story. Actually, his nose is at the center of the story. The icicle that slowly grows from it is an unusual calendar of cold, but a humorous one that serves as a wonderful anchor for the story. Illustrations, in vivid, mostly primary-colored gouache, highlight a week of bone-chilling cold, but also show how warm a community can be. Millie and Chip throw snowballs, kids race down T-Bone Hill on their toboggans and skis, townspeople warm themselves in the diner, knitters create warm hats, and ice skaters race around the pond. As the week unfolds, the townspeople get colder and colder, shivering in their church pews, getting stuck inside frozen train doors, and suffering with broken furnaces. Priceman’s breezy style, all movement and energy, is a perfect fit with Spinelli’s staccato, happening text. Readers will want to stay in Toby Mills longer than the week—maybe long enough to enjoy some sugar-on-snow.

January is the month for snow and cold and ice. Whether you live with snowy weather, or wish you did, pour a mug of cocoa and share these three picture books with your favorite little snowman. WORKING FOR A LIVING Husband and wife team Caralyn and Mark Buehner have come up with an intriguing idea […]
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Just when I think there are no more stories to be written about African Americans in history, I am blown away by new and inspiring books. Each of these beautiful picture books tells a story of perseverance in the face of overwhelming obstacles.

THE LIGHT OF LITERACY

Most folks know that it was against the law for slaves to learn to read, but it’s clear that some were able to learn despite the prohibition. How did they do it? In Light in the Darkness, author Lesa Cline-Ransome and her husband, illustrator James E. Ransome, tell the story of pit schools—large holes dug deep in the ground where slaves would meet and learn from a literate slave, usually at night. The book’s dark blue palette is perfect for showing the fear of the slaves, hidden in the hole while patrollers are about. One especially chilling spread shows a slave being whipped—one lash for every letter she had learned. It’s impossible not to be inspired by the book’s portrayal of enslaved people and their dedication to learning.

A DRAMATIC RESCUE

Another husband-and-wife team, Judith Bloom Fradin and Dennis Brindell Fradin, bring us a tale of stubbornness and bravery in The Price of Freedom: How One Town Stood Up to Slavery. Stirringly told by the authors and beautifully illustrated by Eric Velasquez, this is the story of John Price, an escaped slave sheltered by Quakers in Oberlin, Ohio, in 1858. The Fugitive Slave Act allowed slave catchers from the South to legally capture slaves and return them to their owners. When John was recaptured and imprisoned by slave catchers in a hotel in nearby Wellington while they waited for a train south, news of the capture spread. Hundreds of Oberlinians—students, teachers, shopkeepers and more—raced to rescue Price. And they did! Thirty-seven members of the town were eventually accused of violating the Fugitive Slave Act and jailed for three months. A moving archival photo of the rescuers adds much to the story. More people will now know of the Oberlin-Wellington Rescue, thanks to this dramatic book.

DREAMS FULFILLED

In Fifty Cents and a Dream, Jabari Asim and illustrator Bryan Collier depict the early life of educator and writer Booker T. Washington. Collier’s collage and watercolor illustrations are perfect for detailing the struggles the young man overcame to attend Hampton Institute and eventually to lead the new Tuskegee Institute.  One particularly moving painting shows Washington kneeling in prayer while the trees are filled with images of slaves, symbols of his older neighbors who told him their stories. “Booker listened, and carried their dreams with him.” The backmatter—timeline, author’s and illustrator’s notes and bibliography—add depth to this emotional tale.

SEEING RED

Perhaps my favorite new book of the season is A Splash of Red: The Life and Art of Horace Pippin. Jen Bryant and illustrator Melissa Sweet, who partnered on A River of Words: The Story of William Carlos Williams, team up again with the tender tale of artist Horace Pippin. His story is one of dedication, loss and determination to create art. Using his own words as part of the design, Sweet’s gouache, collage and watercolor paintings tell of the boy who answered the call of his friends and neighbors, “Make a picture for us, Horace!” As Bryant recounts the triumphant day when Pippin won a magazine drawing contest, the reader can feel the excitement he must have felt when the prize of pencils, paints and brushes arrived. Now he could add his trademark splash of red. His life, which was filled with challenges, including a shoulder injury suffered in World War I, was not an easy one. Bryant and Sweet portray Pippin with honesty and heart, introducing this true American artist to a new generation. The back cover shows paints and brushes and includes a final quote from Pippin: “Pictures just come to my mind . . . and I tell my heart to go ahead.” Stunning.

HISTORY REVEALED

Kadir Nelson’s gifts as an artist are on full view in I Have a Dream. Words from the famous 1963 speech by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. are interspersed with Nelson’s soaring paintings of the March on Washington and portraits of Dr. King in front of the Lincoln Memorial. This is no simplistic rehashing of the familiar words. Each page turn brings a new, glorious image celebrating one of the most important speeches of the 20th century.

Just when I think there are no more stories to be written about African Americans in history, I am blown away by new and inspiring books. Each of these beautiful picture books tells a story of perseverance in the face of overwhelming obstacles. THE LIGHT OF LITERACY Most folks know that it was against the […]
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Is it just me, or are there a lot more fancy-schmancy engineered books being created today? By this, I mean pop-up books, books with unusual structures and even books that ask a child to do something that “changes” the book. If you want to see what I’m talking about, look at the book trailer of children reading the best-selling Press Here by French author Hervé Tullet.

That was so 2011! But Tullet and others have some captivating new books that will amaze readers and keep them crawling up on their parents’ laps, asking for more.

WORMING YOUR WAY IN

For the youngest book enthusiast, Tullet’s Let’s Play Games board book series is sure to please. My favorite of the newest bunch is The Finger Circus Game. With a hole drilled through the book, the reader’s own fingers (with eye and nose and mouth drawn on if desired) become the “world famous finger worms,” swinging on trapezes, juggling and even putting their little worm heads in a lion’s mouth. One can imagine older children drawing the worms themselves and making up adventures outside of the circus.

A child’s finger becomes part of the action in Herve Tullet’s The Finger Circus Game.

 

THE WORLD OUTSIDE

For slightly older readers, author-illustrator Lizi Bond creates a child’s world on brown Kraft paper in Inside Outside. The book is a festival of amazing die-cuts that work together to wordlessly tell the story of a boy—inside and outside his home—and show the range of his creativity. The story begins in winter, and the unsuspecting reader might not even notice the cunning die-cuts until she turns the first page. Here we see snow people looking into the boy’s window. With so much to notice—the muted blue and red gouache paintings on the wall, the mittens on the floor, the mice driving the play cars—it’s easy to miss that those are real openings in the page, not just drawings of windows. But, with the page turn, the boy is now outside with the snowmen and the paintings are visible inside that same window.

This homey book is carefully constructed so that each turn of the page brings a real surprise. The pieces fit perfectly and the pacing is gentle. As the seasons change, the boy enjoys the beauty of nature outside—splashing in puddles, planting a garden, raking leaves—and creates art for the walls of his house that reflects what he has experienced. This is a clever book about the child’s need to create and the inspiration that nature can provide. Children will want to turn the pages back and forth again and again—and perhaps grab a piece of their own Kraft paper to see what they can create.

Lizi Bond's Inside Outside uses die-cuts to create windows on the page.

 

GOTTA DANCE

Molly Idle, who spent five years as an animator for DreamWorks Studios before turning to children’s book illustration, brings us another sort of carefully constructed book, using flaps and foldouts to tell the story of Flora, a chubby little girl wearing a pink leotard and a yellow swim hat who wants to be a ballerina. Flora and the Flamingo is a must-have for children who are just learning to dance. Flora’s mentor is one very confident flamingo. At the beginning, we see the flamingo looking straight ahead and Flora imitating him. Bend down the flaps and both dancers look behind them. Flora is wearing swimming flippers, which make her moves appear ungainly, but her spirit is (pardon me) unflappable. The vast amount of white space—the page is just the two dancers with a frame of pink branches—serves as a stage for Flora and her pink friend, for dancing or falling or encouraging. One magnificent gatefold at the end is so joyous that youngsters will want to waltz around the room, just like Flora and the flamingo.

In Molly Idle's Flora and the Flamingo, flaps conceal a second view of the figures.

 

A RAINBOW OF BOOKS

Open the first page of Jesse Klausmeier and Suzy Lee’s amazing new book, Open This Little Book, and you might be tricked. Is this a book with just two pages? No. Inside the page is a little purple book and inside that is a smaller red and black polka dotted book and inside that is a smaller green book . . . all the way down to a teeny little rainbow book! A giant’s hands are too huge to handle this tiny book, so all the critters who have read the rainbow of books (for that is what the edges of the books have formed) help turn the pages and close all the little books, until “Ladybug closes her little green book . . . You close this little red book . . . and . . . open another!” The final illustration shows all the animals from the little books reading, reading, reading. The grey raindrops from the opening endpages have turned rainbow colored as well! This is a magical book that pays tribute to books and reading in a way that is neither preachy nor silly. Open This Little Book has the feel of an instant classic.

One little book lies inside another in Open This Little Book, written by Jesse Klausmeier and illustrated by Suzy Lee.

 

Clever paper engineering adds to the appeal of each of these books, drawing children into the stories, or inviting kids to create their own. These kinds of books are intriguing to read and will stand the test of time. It’s a good thing too—they will be requested by children over and over again!

Robin Smith teaches second grade in Nashville. She reviews children's books for several publications and was a member of the 2011 Caldecott Committee.

 

Watch a demonstration of Flora and The Flamingo.

Watch a trailer for Open This Little Book.

Is it just me, or are there a lot more fancy-schmancy engineered books being created today? By this, I mean pop-up books, books with unusual structures and even books that ask a child to do something that “changes” the book. If you want to see what I’m talking about, look at the book trailer of […]

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