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Picture Day at Ghoulington Academy is fast approaching, and Itty Bitty Betty Blob is feeling frustrated at her inability to strike the perfect photo-ready pose.

The problem? In a world where cantankerousness is celebrated and scariness reigns supreme, Betty is an outlier: a smiley, bright pink monster who’s more sweet than scary. To her classmates’ irritation and teachers’ consternation, “While typical monsters stomped in storms, Betty rejoiced at rainbows,” and, even worse, “During Chorus, her GRRRs turned into GRRRA-LA-LAAAs!” 

In an effort to ease Betty’s nervous anticipation, her supportive mom gives her a fashionable yet frightful gown to wear, but Betty can’t help fretting as she follows the winding forest path to school on the big day. After all, she knows that her mom was just being nice when she lovingly said Betty looked “Positively putrid!”

Everything changes when a tiny adorable pink puff appears, beckoning Betty deeper into the woods to a “place as bright on the outside as she felt on the inside.” The multicolored oasis is populated by puffs of many hues, all of them eager to make Betty’s dress reflect who she really is via an exuberant makeover montage rivaling those in big-screen rom-coms. But what will happen when Betty arrives at school wearing a veritable bouquet of beautiful, brightly colored flowers (not to mention a gaggle of puffs that hitched a ride)? 

Constance Lombardo’s straightforward, sweetly witty prose will have readers rooting for Betty as well as nervously holding their breath on her behalf when she finally dares to embrace being different. And Micah Player’s boldly drawn, emotion-infused illustrations expertly embody everything from Ghoulington Academy’s imposing gothic architecture to the puffs’ extreme cuteness and slightly manic energy. There are lots of fun little details for itty bitty bibliophiles to discover upon rereads, too.

Itty Bitty Betty Blob’s nicely balanced combination of humor, emotion and inspiration (plus plenty of monster appreciation) makes it an absolute treat of a read—a warm and wonderful reminder to celebrate our differences and dare to share our joy with others.

Itty Bitty Betty Blob’s nicely balanced combination of humor, emotion and inspiration (plus plenty of monster appreciation) makes it an absolute treat of a read.

A little bird is in a funk. But that’s OK, a grown-up bird reminds them. It’s OK to feel a little bit off sometimes: “No need to try to fix everything, but let’s move a few things around.” You never know what might make a tiny difference. In A Tiny Difference (Katherine Tegen, $19.99, 9780063114159), with the help of their grown-up and lots of friends, our little bird learns new techniques to connect with their body. To breathe, to stretch, to wiggle, to dance! At the same time, our friend also begins to reconnect with their mind, imagining everything from hot air balloons to aliens to a hug from a friend.

Writer and illustrator June Tate presents a tender poem from the perspective of a kind and loving adult, encouraging readers with simple, relatable language. Rather than telling us to breathe, Tate writes “fill up your rib cage” and “open up like a window.” Rather than reminding us to stretch, she tells us to “reach to the sides of the room” in order to “get out those crunchy bits.” The picture book concludes with the narrator listing all the traits that make the little bird special, reminding us as readers that we too are loved by those in our lives. 

Made with colored pencils, markers and watercolors, Tate’s illustrations are reminiscent of a child’s drawings. These deceptively simple images introduce friends to help out: A frog teaches us to breathe. A squirrel teaches us to stretch. A butterfly teaches us to squeeze and relax! Each creature’s expressions and actions are clear and relatable. 

Whether your young reader is anxious, worried or simply has had a hard day, this sweet, mindful book is sure to help all readers center themselves. Fans of Susan Verde and Peter H. Reynolds’ I Am books and Cori Doerrfeld’s The Rabbit Listened will be glad to add A Tiny Difference to their book shelves.

In A Tiny Difference, writer and illustrator June Tate presents a tender poem from the perspective of a kind and loving adult, encouraging young readers with simple, relatable language.

We all have our routines. And while the otherworldly fellow in The Spaceman may have a very different mode of transportation from the rest of us— a super cool silver spaceship—he too has a routine: “I collect soil samples. I label the soil samples. And I file the soil samples. Then I move on to the next planet. And the next.”

The Spaceman is a cute little guy with a smooth pate, googly eyes and an even-tempered demeanor. But when he lands on a planet with huge beautiful flowers and an enormous black bird, his eyes light up and his mouth falls open in surprise because “once in a very rare while, one encounters something special . . . that causes one to forget all about soil samples.” Understandably, he becomes even more expressive when said bird flies off with his spaceship!

As the puckish protagonist gives chase through this strange new landscape, he is aided by a butterfly that takes him on a breathtaking airborne tour. Readers will delight in marveling with the Spaceman at each new discovery, from an inquisitive new dog-friend to the pleasure of play. As the Spaceman realizes this colorful planet is anything but ordinary, his smile grows ever wider.

Randy Cecil has written and illustrated several picture books, including the award-winning Lucy, and provided artwork for over 20 books such as the bestselling And Here’s to You! by David Elliott. In this foray into outer space, Cecil prompts readers to consider the value of making time for the serendipitous and the surprising—as well as the joy of finding a place where you feel truly at home. The Spaceman is a fun book to read aloud, with beautiful oil-on-paper illustrations for readers to contemplate as they make their own discoveries right along with our diminutive hero. It makes a wryly humorous, quietly moving case for prioritizing whimsy, relaxation and friendship.

The latest from author-illustrator Randy Cecil is a fun book to read aloud, with beautiful oil-on-paper illustrations for readers to contemplate as they make their own discoveries right along with our diminutive hero.

Sophia Henry Winslow and her neighbor Sophie Gershowitz are best friends with a lot in common. They both go by “Sophie,” love the color mauve, aren’t big fans of quesadillas and loathe gossip.

And both Sophies, as readers learn in Lois Lowry’s lovely and moving Tree. Table. Book., embody the saying that “age is just a number.” Although Sophie W. is 11 years old, and Sophie G. is 88 years old, they are undoubtedly kindred spirits who “have a true and lasting friendship, a friendship of the heart.”

When young Sophie’s parents explain to her that the elder Sophie has been having problems with her short-term memory—so much so that her son Aaron is considering moving her from their New Hampshire town to an assisted-living facility near him in Ohio—she is devastated. 

But also determined: She’s going to help Sophie G. prepare for cognitive testing so they won’t be separated. After all, “Sophie Gershowitz has taught me many things . . . I am still learning from her. And I think that learning from each other is one of the most important parts of friendship.” 

In order to prepare her friend for acing the most important exam ever, Sophie W. knows just the thing to use as a guide: the Merck Manual medical reference, provided by her friend and classmate Ralphie, whose dad is a doctor. Their precocious 7-year-old neighbor Oliver also joins the endeavor, cheering on the Sophies as they work through a series of exercises.

Lowry, winner of two Newbery Medals for The Giver and Number the Stars, does an excellent job building tension as Aaron’s impending visit—and the prospect of the Sophies’ lives changing forever—looms ever larger. When the test prep unlocks memories of Sophie G.’s childhood in Poland during World War II, Lowry conveys with sensitivity and realism Sophie W.’s sorrow upon realizing that things she’s only learned about in school have had a painful, lifelong impact on her beloved friend. 

Tree. Table. Book. is yet another story from a cherished author that will captivate readers as they reflect on the vagaries of history and the beauty of friendship, which are so poignantly conveyed in this timeless tale.

Lois Lowry’s Tree. Table. Book. will captivate readers as they reflect on the vagaries of history and the beauty of friendship, which are so poignantly conveyed in this timeless tale.
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Brendan Wenzel’s award-winning picture books (Every Dreaming Creature, A Stone Sat Still) invite readers to look carefully at every image. Two Together continues his exploration of perspective, this time through the eyes of a dog and a cat traveling home together. Two Together easily stands alone, but also fits as a companion to Wenzel’s They All Saw a Cat and Inside Cat. With simple rhymes and a rolling cadence, the text follows the animal friends as they walk through the woods, cross a stream and encounter other obstacles before arriving at their cozy home. Dog and cat enjoy different aspects of their journey—one two-page spread shows them caught in a rain shower (which dog appreciates while cat decidedly does not) before they are dried by a breeze and the warm sun (which cat loves and dog barely tolerates). The differences in their experiences are subtle, but readers will love discovering these moments of personality.

Wenzel further encourages close scrutiny through varying the art styles and media used. When readers first meet them, the dog and cat look very similar, both drawn in loose lines and muted shades as they walk toward a pond. But from the moment they see their reflections in the water, the picture book takes off, and for most of the book, the dog appears in a highly saturated, finger-paint style whereas the cat is drawn in scratchy lines of colored pencil. Sometimes a spread is fully divided, with the dog’s smeary boldness occupying the left and the cat’s sharp edges on the right. When they look at a bird, or a frog, or a bear, the creature is drawn as a composite of these contrasting styles. 

But when the dog and the cat look at each other, “two together face-to-face,” their appearances reverse. Suddenly, it is clear: The art is not representing what they look like, but how they see the world! 

While the rhymes aren’t always perfect, the simple sentences and descriptive words paired with vivid images will make Two Together excellent for developing readers.

Readers will love discovering a dog and cat’s moments of personality as they enjoy different aspects of their journey home in Two Together.
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Celebrated Deaf poet Raymond Antrobus originally resisted the idea of writing children’s books because of what he called “snobbery” in a 2021 interview with The Guardian. Thankfully, Antrobus came to see the immense importance of these stories, and released a tremendous debut picture book, Can Bears Ski? Readers will delight at his latest offering, Terrible Horses, which features a protagonist with hearing aids who fights with his older, much cooler sister. 

The picture book form is a wonderful vehicle for Antrobus’ poetry, which shines through each lovely line in the use of poetic devices such as alliteration and repetition. Despite these higher-level literary elements, the narrative is instantly relatable, conveying the tensions of sibling rivalry and all the associated emotions. Declarative sentences combine to form poetic yet authentically childlike stanzas that sing. Though Terrible Horses is not overtly about the Deaf experience, Antrobus provides thoughtful and gentle representation by expressing the little brother’s unique type of isolation. 

Ken Wilson-Max’s whimsical mixed media illustrations unite with Antrobus’ careful word choice to show the explosiveness of the siblings’ fights and the healing power of words as the protagonist retreats to write “stories about terrible horses” in which he is a lonely little pony “that can’t compete / that can’t speak / that can’t sleep.” These stories comfort the young narrator, but they also serve to heal the sibling relationship once his sister reads them and starts to better understand her little brother. The energy of Wilson-Max’s colorful line drawing enhances this rich story, creating the perfect combination for children and their caregivers and storytellers.

Ken Wilson-Max’s whimsical mixed media illustrations unite with Raymond Antrobus’ careful word choice to show the explosiveness of fights between siblings and the healing power of words.

Signs of Hope, the Revolutionary Art of Sister Corita Kent presents readers with the life and art of nun, teacher and artist Sister Corita Kent. Written from the perspective of one of her many students, this vibrant picture book biography depicts the lessons Sister Corita taught about art and the world around us, encouraging her students to see “what everyone else sees, but doesn’t see.” Sister Corita taught the art of the ordinary, found in street signs, billboards and signs at the grocery store. To her, these things are art! 

From her messy and exciting classroom, Sister Corita encourages her students to think outside the box when drawing. With Sister Corita, there is no right or wrong way: There is just art. Always calm and busy, she gathers words clipped from magazines, excited to see what these words might be arranged to say. With her bold works, Sister Corita both celebrates and marches for peace and justice during the anti-Vietnam war movement, and the world begins to notice this “revolutionary nun.”

Mara Rockliff’s text is clever and thoughtful. Caldecott Honor recipient Melissa Sweet uses watercolor, collage and mixed media in colorful artwork that is bold and richly layered, taking inspiration from Sister Corita’s own pop art. Quotes from Sister Corita and quotes she herself found inspiring are interspersed among the illustrations. As this book culminates, the student narrator charges us all to share what we have learned with others. With this final appeal, the handwritten quotes transition to words from Sister Corita’s former students: “She didn’t teach us how to draw or paint so much as she taught us to care.”

Together, writer and artist have created a beautiful book reminding us all “to make art all our lives and to make our lives ART,” just as Sister Corita taught. Signs of Hope is a dynamic and inspiring book for art lovers everywhere.

With thoughtful text from Mara Rockliff and bold artwork from Melissa Sweet, Signs of Hope is a dynamic and inspiring book for art lovers everywhere.
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Being afraid of the dark is “a family thing” for the young moth protagonist of Shine. When the sun goes down, he doesn’t want to leave his cozy home, but the twinkling stars give him the strength to fly away from his family and discover how many creatures there are to befriend—in particular, a host of fireflies.  

However, fireflies aren’t the only animals in the dark. Despite his fright, can the moth discover the bravery he needs to keep his new friends safe? 

Debut author-illustrator Bruno Valasse pulls from his own childhood fear of the dark in this inspirational picture book, which encourages children with the knowledge that “together, we can always be a light in the darkness.” 

Where Shine glows brightest is in Valasse’s illustrations. An earthy, muted palette allows Valasse’s fantastic creatures to take center stage as our moth friend hides among mushrooms, camouflages against an owl and hides other bugs within his wings. This beautiful artwork may inspire parents to theme a room around its imagery, and make little kids want to design big, beautiful wings of their own.

The sparse text of Shine is perfect for its message, but the short book may not be enough for eager young readers who fall in love with Valasse’s whimsical illustrations. Those kids will find that Shine pairs well with books like Phoebe Wahl’s Little Witch Hazel and Yeorim Yoon’s It’s Ok, Slow Lizard. But for parents who love to read nature-driven, emotional tales to their children before bed, Shine will provide a beautifully illustrated, bite-sized storytime.

For parents who love to read nature-driven, emotional tales to their children before bed, Shine will provide a beautifully illustrated, bite-sized storytime.
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In 1940, Safiyyah lives in the Grand Mosque of Paris with her parents, grandmother Setti, toddler sister and several other families. Smart, curious and spunky, she loves exploring the city—especially the map room of the nearby library, as she dreams of becoming a world explorer. Her carefree ways quickly change, however, as Nazi soldiers approach and invade, plunging her orderly world into the chaos of World War II. Setti warns Safiyyah, “There will come a day when you have the choice to use what you’ve been given in one way or another. . . . There is no use in a million maps unless they lead you to light.”

Hiba Noor Khan’s debut novel, Safiyyah’s War, is a beautifully written, well-plotted work of historical fiction based on the heroic efforts of Mosque activists who forged identity documents for Jews, hid them in the mosque and led an estimated 500 to 1700 through the catacombs to safety. Khan does a particularly good job at making Safiyyah not only an eyewitness but also a bold heroine who dives into action, risking her life for others. 

As Paris becomes increasingly dangerous, Khan introduces a diverse, multigenerational cast that enriches the soul of this novel. There’s Setti, who longs for her native Algeria, which she was forced to leave as a teenager; Safiyyah’s father, who tends to Mosque business and taught Safiyyah to always help others; Monsieur Cassin, an elderly, well-known botanist who shows Safiyyah the wonders of an adventurous life; Timothée, a refugee shepherd boy from northern France; and Hana, a Jewish classmate whose parents have been captured by the Nazis and who comes to live with Safiyyah’s family. 

Khan builds an intricate drama around these characters, ramping up the tension with each chapter as Safiyyah carefully observes what is going on outside in the city as well as within the confines of the Mosque. Adept at investigating, Safiyyah soon finds herself helping the resistance out in unimaginable ways, especially during the novel’s thrilling climax. 

Safiyyah’s War brings WWII Paris clearly into focus as it shows how people of all ages—from different cultures and religions—can band together in the face of evil. Khan is a writer to watch, and Safiyyah is a heroine worth remembering.

Hiba Noor Khan’s debut novel, Safiyyah’s War, is a beautifully written, well-plotted work of historical fiction based on the heroic efforts of activists at the Grand Mosque of Paris who led Jews to safety.
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In some ways, Grant Snider’s Poetry Comics is exactly what you’d expect—a series of short narratives that combine lyrical words with cartoons. But in almost every other way, this collection manages to surprise readers at each turn of the page.

Poetry Comics is loosely structured around seasons of the year, beginning in spring with tadpoles and leafing trees, and wrapping up in winter with snowfall and the boredom of being stuck indoors. But not all the topics of Snider’s poems—which are mostly in free verse but include some rhyming verses—are seasonal in nature. Many are introspective, touching on personal growth and the creative process in ways that will resonate with readers of various ages: “Maybe a moment is a taste— / a pickle’s sour crunch. / If only there were a way / to put it on paper / I could capture a moment / in all its wild power.” A recurring exploration of “How to Write a Poem” addresses frustration and revision before reaching a joyful conclusion.

Most of the poems include one or two figures leaping acrobatically through panels, often interacting with birds, insects, plants, trees and other elements of the natural world. The pen-and-ink illustrations, colored and edited digitally, span a gorgeous range of pastel and more saturated hues (on display to particularly great effect in “Poem for Painting My Room”). At times, the artwork is more conceptual, as in “Best Friends,” which visualizes a friendship via shapes in two different colors, or “Shape Story,” whose creative panel structure might prompt readers to think not only about what makes a poem but about how comics are constructed.

That may be the greatest value of Snider’s creativity-infused collection: Young readers and aspiring creatives who might be daunted by the prospect of writing a traditional poem or drawing a full graphic novel will find in these pages dozens of new models for, as Snider puts it, helping “say things / I never knew were in me.”

Grant Snider’s Poetry Comics are often introspective, touching on personal growth and the creative process in ways that will resonate with readers of various ages.
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We all have days where everything feels dull and monotone. Calmly encouraging, Gray examines those emotions and gives its young narrator—and us—space to feel all the colors. 

Author Laura Dockrill writes in a manner that matches how one might feel on gray days: not exactly sad, but flat like “tea when it’s gone cold,” with simple words, short statements and a serious tone. A second look will have readers appreciating Dockrill’s skill at subtly peppering in alliteration, assonance and repetition. Hidden within this deceivingly overcast narration are the keen observations and striking descriptions of a watchful, thoughtful child. Later, another, chattier narrator—perhaps the child’s parent—joins in, turning the monologue into a conversation. But this second voice isn’t here to cheer us up. Rather, they remind us that even gray has its purpose, just as sidewalk puddles give the sun a chance to reflect. It’s a gentle, loving and well-handled approach that stands out against more typical attitudes of forced positivity.

Lauren Child, of Charlie and Lola fame, enlivens a somber day with her spot-on artwork that ventures outside the lines. Just like a little kid’s emotions, the artwork is charmingly messy and crayon-sketchy, bold and straightforward. Child brings us in extremely close, focusing our perspective on the child’s immediate surroundings and foregoing minute details. But her cleverly pared-down art captures a spectrum of emotions. We instantly become part of the child’s struggle, with little to distract us—much like how the child is unable to think about much besides their gray feelings. Child’s characters are always lovable and empathetic. Maybe it’s the side-eye expression she has mastered drawing. We can’t help but care. 

Readers will appreciate Gray for a genuine and realistic voice that will speak to young people (and not-so-young people) without feeling cloying or annoyingly cheerful. Gray doesn’t end in an unrealistic explosion of ecstasy, but in the exact way it should: full of color, not necessarily happy, but safe and calm and wrapped in love.

Readers will appreciate Gray for a genuine and realistic voice that will speak to young people (and not-so-young people) without feeling cloying in its gentle, loving approach.
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Anzu is used to classmates making fun of her name, food and culture. In a new town, she’s prepared for the teasing to continue. When she asks for spirits to help her disappear during the Obon festival, Anzu doesn’t expect the spirit guardian of Yomi, the Shinto underworld, to steal a necklace gifted to Anzu by her grandmother. When the canine guardian disappears back to Yomi, Anzu chases after him and accidentally falls into the spirit realm.

Most of the souls in Yomi mean Anzu no harm, but Queen Izanami wants to add Anzu to her collection of spectral children. For Anzu to return home, she must escape Izanami’s magic and flee through the damaged Marsh Gate back to her own world. But Anzu realizes it isn’t enough to save herself. If she’s careful and brave, Anzu can save every child Izanami has stolen and help repair the gate before Obon is over and she is lost forever.

Pilu of the Woods author Mai K. Nguyen explores the strength that culture and ancestry provide in Anzu and the Realm of Darkness. Muted purples and blacks with occasional pops of brighter pigments from colorist Diana Tsai Santos help set the mood of the whimsical yet spooky spirit realm.

There are many characters to love, from the too-cute Nurikabe spirit that helps Anzu escape, to Anzu’s magically gifted grandmother, but Anzu still shines brightest. Despite her best attempts to hide herself—introducing herself as “Anne,” a nickname given by cruel classmates who thought her given name too strange—Anzu’s strength comes from embracing who she is. Anzu and the Realm of Darkness reminds readers that girls like Anzu need not shrink themselves: They deserve to use their voice, love what they love, and take up space.

Nguyen blends Japanese folklore with Shinto and Buddhist stories to create the spirits Anzu meets in her interdimensional adventure. For children who want to learn more, a mythological guide to the kami and yokai that make appearances in the story can be found in the backmatter. 

Fans of Hayao Miyakazi’s beloved film Spirited Away or supernatural graphic novels like Remy Lai’s Ghost Book will find Anzu and the Realm of Darkness a worthy addition to their shelves.

Anzu and the Realm of Darkness reminds readers that girls like Anzu need not shrink themselves: They deserve to use their voice, love what they love, and take up space.

The title of Laura Bontje’s playful picture book is a palindrome sentence that can be read forward or backward. Palindromes are something that Hannah, protagonist of the delightful Was It a Cat I Saw?, loves: As Bontje tells us, “Anything Hannah could do forwards, she could do backwards too.” Hannah likes palindromes so much that she not only sees them everywhere—she also speaks in them.

Hannah is mostly alone in her palindrome-filled world until she meets a boy who has lost his cat. The feline’s name is Otto, of course! As they search their neighborhood for the missing feline, Hannah finds that her new friend appreciates wordplay just as much as she does. After meeting a variety of people and pets along the way, the two do find Otto, but it then turns out they’ve strayed so far from home that they’ve become lost. Never fear, though: Hannah has a trick up her sleeve to get them home safe and sound. (Astute readers may be able to pick up on the clues that reveal Otto’s journey—and the children’s way home.) Once back home, Hannah finds out her new friend’s name, in a final surprise for readers.

Each palindrome word or phrase is bolded, enabling young readers to easily identify them. Illustrator Emma Lidia Squillari’s muted palette includes gentle pinks, greens and yellows, giving the illustrations a traditional, retro feel. While the two main characters are white, there is some diversity presented in the children and families they encounter on their adventure.

Picture books encouraging wordplay make for fun read-alouds for the preschool crowd, and Was It a Cat I Saw? is an excellent choice for either the home or classroom. Even older readers who consider themselves beyond picture books may still be inspired to follow Hannah and start looking for palindromes everywhere they go.

Picture books encouraging wordplay make for fun read-alouds, and Was It a Cat I Saw? is an excellent, inspiring choice for either the home or classroom.

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