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All Chapter Book Coverage

Anna Hibiscus

Atinuke (Too Small Tola, Catch That Chicken!), the acclaimed Nigerian-born author of Anna Hibiscus, is an accomplished traditional oral storyteller. In this illustrated chapter book, it’s easy to see why: Using straightforward yet elegant prose, she creates a sweetly moving and eminently memorable young protagonist.

Anna is a bright, active girl who lives with her grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, siblings and parents in a sprawling compound in a big, bustling city in Nigeria. The compound is a wondrous place with unusual architecture, lush gardens, fragrant mango trees and goats and chickens. There is always someone to play with, talk to or even—when the cheerful noise and spirited bickering of such a busy home becomes overwhelming—hide from for a little while. 

Each of Anna Hibiscus’ four self-contained chapters begin the same way: “Anna Hibiscus lives in Africa. Amazing Africa. In a country called Nigeria.” This refrain highlights Anna’s pride in her identity and her homeland. In Atinuke’s quartet of tales, readers are drawn into Anna’s “amazing” world, where they join her on a trip to the beach, meet her supercool auntie who lives across the Atlantic Ocean and learn what it’s like to sell oranges on the street. Anna is smart and engaged in her family’s life, and each story showcases different ways to express love and understand new perspectives. 

Although Lauren Tobia’s illustrations are done in pen and ink with a gray wash, the people and events she depicts always have a feeling of cheerful vibrancy. Mischievous children tumble across the pages, and framed snapshots (complete with little pieces of scrapbook tape) capture scenes of Mother’s life growing up in Canada, where she met and married Father as he visited one summer.

Whether they share Atinuke’s stories aloud with a grown-up or pore over them quietly by themselves, emerging readers will find much to enjoy and discover as Anna and her family impart wisdom and wit, blend the contemporary with the traditional and revel in having fun together.

The Puffin Keeper

Sometimes we’re lucky to have a special person enter our lives and become an emotional touchstone, a beacon of light during dark times. In The Puffin Keeper , lighthouse keeper and artist Benjamin Postlethwaite becomes such a figure for young Allen Williams.

At first, it’s because Ben rescues 5-year-old Allen, his recently widowed mother and 28 other passengers from a shipwreck near Ben’s lighthouse on the Scilly Isles, then gives Allen a painting to keep. Later, it’s because memories of Ben’s heroism and kindness resonate through Allen’s life, especially when the boy longs to escape his difficult circumstances. At his strict grandfather’s house, Allen lives in terror of being rapped on the hands with his cruel governess’ ruler, and at boarding school, he is forced to run cross-country as punishment for repeated attempts to run away. 

Allen discovers that he loves running and, inspired by Ben’s painting, also develops his own artistic talents. He even paints the envelope of a letter he sends to Ben, but Ben doesn’t reply. Finally, teenage Allen decides to make a “journey of exploration” to the lighthouse. He reunites with Ben, who never forgot him, and the arrival of an injured puffin at the lighthouse augurs new beginnings for humans and birds alike. When Allen must eventually make a far more perilous journey, thoughts of Ben and the puffin help him once more. 

The Puffin Keeper is an emotional tale of people and creatures who forge joyful bonds, endure storms and carry on. As Michael Morpurgo’s  affecting story makes clear, Allen is a touchstone for Ben as well, in a sweet reminder that we may affect others more than we ever realize. 

The emotional impact and classical feel of illustrator Benji Davies’ artwork are just right for this book. Many illustrations’ sepia tones hint at days gone by, while roiling seas rise up in ominous hues of gray and blue. Davies’ depictions of human characters are nicely expressive, and the puffins are both accurate and adorable. 

Morpurgo is no stranger to crafting appealing and meaningful tales. The award-winning British author has written more than 100 children’s books, with War Horse being perhaps the best known among them. In an afterword, Morpurgo reveals a personal connection to the real-life figure who served as inspiration for the character of Allen, a historical tidbit that sheds warm light on an already luminous story.

Families come in all shapes and sizes. These lovely books for emerging readers explore how our families enrich and bring joy to our lives.

Author and illustrator Matthew Cordell has earned critical acclaim for his picture books, even winning the Caldecott Medal in 2017 for Wolf in the Snow. In Cornbread & Poppy, Cordell ventures into a new form: the early reader.

In three short chapters, the book introduces two sweet friends, a pair of anthropomorphized mice with very different personalities. Cornbread is a planner. When we meet him, he is stocking his pantry with food he has foraged. It’s almost winter, and Cornbread knows it’s important to be prepared. Cornbread’s best friend, Poppy, is “not one to worry.” She has spent her time having adventures, and when she shows up at Cornbread’s house to invite him to join her on a foraging expedition, Cornbread tells her it’s too late and there won’t be any food left for her.

Although they ask all around town, no one has any spare food for Poppy. In desperation, Poppy tells Cornbread that she thinks there may be food on Holler Mountain. The mice shiver, because “no one goes up Holler Mountain!” There’s even a legend about someone named Ms. Ruthie, who once dared to try—but never returned. When Poppy decides Holler Mountain is the only way for her, Cornbread commits to the journey, like any best friend would do. What they find when they reach the summit is a satisfying surprise.

Read our Q&A with Matthew Cordell.

Cornbread and Poppy are endearing characters, poised to join the ranks of other memorable early reader sets of best friends old and new, including James Marshall’s George and Martha, Laurel Snyder’s Charlie and Mouse, and Sergio Ruzzier’s Fox and Chick. Cornbread and Poppy are broadly but carefully delineated, and their personalities drive the story at a brisk pace.

In a palette of cool, wintry colors juxtaposed against pops of warm pink, Cordell brings a lively community to the page, including Old Larry, “the town grump” whose doormat reads “NOPE”; the mysterious Ms. Ruthie; and a vegetarian owl they meet on their journey. The characters are rife with narrative possibilities for future books that promise more humor and heart (and, we hope, Old Larry’s grumpy backstory).

Nestling snugly between picture books and chapter books, early readers are designed for children who are just beginning to read independently. Cornbread & Poppy will leave those readers hungry for more.

Caldecott Medalist Matthew Cordell’s first early reader, the tale of two mice who embark on an expedition up Holler Mountain, will leave young readers hungry for more.

Matthew Cordell is best known for his Caldecott Medal-winning Wolf in the Snow, a book that contains almost no words. His new book, Cornbread & Poppy, contains a lot of words—80 pages of them, in fact! It’s Cordell’s first foray into early readers, those books nestled snugly between picture books and chapter books and designed for children who are just beginning to read independently.

Featuring oodles of Cordell’s signature sketchlike illustrations, Cornbread & Poppy is an endearing tale of two mice who embark on an expedition up Holler Mountain in search of enough food to see them through the winter.

Why did you want to create an early reader?

I love the picture book format for its challenge and need to distill and consolidate lots of thoughts and ideas into a short amount of text and space. But I’ve often wondered what it would be like to open things up and put more words on the page for readers to chew on. Not quite ready to jump into a full-length novel, I thought an early reader would give me a chance to play with a longer text and still hold on to lots of illustrations.

What are some early readers you admire, and what did you want to accomplish in your own?

There’s quite a range of offerings, past and present, in early readers! I wanted to write a longer text, broken up into chapters. I really wanted the character development, world building and rich plot that one can create with a fuller text.

‘After years and years of keeping only essential words and working with the picture book mindset of ‘showing not telling,' it was liberating to just write and write and write.'

Arnold Lobel’s Frog and Toad is the gold standard for its charm, humor and exquisite, pitch-perfect writing. In terms of contemporaries, I love Cece Bell’s Rabbit and Robot books for all of the same reasons.

What were the pleasures and challenges of telling and illustrating a story in more than 32 pages?

After years and years of keeping only essential words and working with the picture book mindset of “showing not telling,” it was liberating to just write and write and write and not worry too much about how much pruning would need to be done in the end.

But it was challenging too, not to go in and start slicing and dicing. I’m so used to working that way that I had to remind myself that I wanted to keep the storytelling language nice and beefy for those new little reading eyes that would be reading it.

Early readers are designed for children who are still gaining literary fluency. How conscious of these developmental needs were you as you wrote the text, and how did you balance them with the creative demands of the story?

I’m a dad of two kids who are on either side of the world of early readers. My daughter is 13 and devours books, but it wasn’t all that long ago that she was just learning to read. My son, who’s 8, is just now picking up early readers. So, having seen it firsthand, I was very conscious of wanting to not write over the heads of these littlest readers. I did, however, want to make the book a little challenging. Something longer and a little complicated, so that they might take a little more time with it—maybe even not finish it in one sitting.

“Going on adventures in life is a great way to find new things to write about and draw.”

How did Cornbread’s and Poppy’s names come to you?

They are such great names! I can say that with actual modesty, because I didn’t come up with them. My cleverer-than-me wife, author Julie Halpern, gifted me these character names one day, and I used them as a springboard for everything that followed. To me, Cornbread and Poppy conjured a world of fun and adventure with animals in a rural setting. And Poppy is a great name, but Cornbread . . . I was in love with that character name from the get-go!

Were Cornbread and Poppy always mice?

More or less, yes, they were always mice. In the very beginning, before I even had any stories, I jotted down a list of animal possibilities. Those notes are forever lost, but I remember thinking, maybe pigs or dogs could work. But my very first sketch was of these two mice, and I looked no further!

Cornbread and Poppy sketch © Matthew Cordell

What was their character development like? Did you land on their personalities right away or did they evolve as you wrote?

I think it was a gradual development, overall. I knew I wanted one to be uptight and the other to be a free spirit, but it wasn’t until I started writing more from that basic premise that I felt like each personality should have positives and negatives. When you put the two characters together, they fill each other out nicely. One’s positive traits fill in for the other’s flaws and vice versa. They don’t always see eye to eye, but they really like each other, they’re willing to listen and learn from each other, and in the end, they make a great team.

What’s your favorite illustration in the book? Do you have a favorite line?

My favorite spread is where Cornbread and Poppy first encounter an owl on Holler Mountain. It’s their worst fear to be descended upon by a mouse-eating owl, and when they find themselves under the giant shadow of a flying owl, the look on their gaping faces is horrific and priceless. There’s lots of drama in that picture, and I just like how it looks.

Illustration from Cornbread & Poppy © 2022 Matthew Cordell. Reproduced by permission of Little, Brown Books for Young Readers.

My favorite line (or lines) in the book are probably the very first two. “It was winter. The first snowflake had fallen.” Very simple idea, but I love the idea and visual of the first single snowflake falling signifying the beginning of winter itself.

The book’s dedication hints that you may be more of a Cornbread than a Poppy. What Cornbread-ish qualities are handy for a writer and illustrator to have?

Cornbread is very on top of things and has things planned out perfectly. He’s ready for anything! This mindset would be very helpful to someone writing or illustrating a book. Or to any person doing any job, really. Be prepared! I should follow my own advice.

Are there Poppy-ish qualities that are also helpful for a creative person?

Poppy loves to try new things, explore and seek thrills. Going on adventures in life is a great way to find new things to write about and draw. We’re never too old to learn and experience new things. As long as we keep looking, we’ll always have something to be inspired by and something new to create.

Read our starred review of ‘Cornbread & Poppy.'

In his first early reader, Matthew Cordell offers a mouse’s tale that’s perfect for the youngest of readers.

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