In author-illustrator David Biedrzycki’s hilarious new picture book, secret agent Bubble07 is an alien who happens to look like a plush unicorn and has been tasked with a challenging mission: to infiltrate a human Earthling family and determine if the unicorn army should invade Earth.
Bubble07 is beamed down into a video arcade, where a lucky dad snags it in the claw machine. In a series of interplanetary dispatches, the absurdly adorable unicorn agent files reports on daily life with its new family—an existence made somewhat more difficult by the family’s very huge, very hairy dog, whom Bubble07 suspects “might be onto me.” As time passes, Bubble07 relays many Earthling customs and delicacies that could improve life on the home planet, such as celebrating birthdays, telling bedtime stories and, above all, eating peanut butter cookies.
Bubble07’s primary Earth contact is the family’s daughter, who hosts tea parties, brings the unicorn to school for show and tell, takes swimming lessons (Alert to home planet: Unicorns don’t float.) and gives the agent lots of loving snuggles. After 100 days, Bubble07 has gathered enough clandestine intelligence to make a final recommendation to its “fearless leader” as to the suitability of Earth for unicorns.
Thanks to the book’s large-format design, inventive text and a final twist in the endpapers, Invasion of the Unicorns succeeds on every level. Biedrzycki has crafted a read-aloud that will delight children, and its wry humor means that adults won’t mind repeat reads. Bubble07 is an endearing protagonist who surveys our world with curiosity and occasional alarm that Biedrzycki always plays for a lighthearted laugh. His pencil and watercolor illustrations are soft and warm as they portray a loving family and their diverse community.
This agent can only conclude this report by declaring Invasion of the Unicorns a treat for unicorn lovers in every galaxy.
In this hilarious picture book, a cuddly plush unicorn is actually an interplanetary spy, and the result is a treat for unicorn lovers in every galaxy.
In this cumulative picture book, debut author Anne Wynter and Caldecott Honor illustrator Oge Mora knock it out of . . . well, out of the red brick building.
“WaaaAAH!” yells baby Izzie, popping up in her crib and waking her neighbor’s parrot in the apartment building where they both live. The baby’s squalling and the bird’s squawking then wake Benny, Cairo and Miles from their sleeping bags (chips, popcorn and books in this spread suggest a sleepover had been in progress). The “Pitter Patter STOMP” of the trio playing flashlight tag then wakes downstairs neighbor Natalia, who decides it’s a great time to launch her new toy rocket; it soars out of her bedroom window with a “PSSHEEW!”
Wynter’s story is tightly constructed and carefully paced. Each spread builds upon the one before and recounts the growing list of sounds. By the time we reach the book’s midpoint, a car alarm, Natalia’s rocket, the children’s game, the parrot and baby Izzie have succeeded in awakening Everybody in the Red Brick Building.
The adults quickly take charge, soothing screaming Izzie and the parrot, turning off car alarms and flashlights and securing flying rockets. The soft sounds that compose the book’s second half, which include a street sweeper, acorns falling from a tree and wind chimes, also build cumulatively, but this time to send the residents back to sleep. Baby Izzie, who’s been awake the longest, receives the full benefit of all the sounds, with the marvelous addition of the “pah-pum . . . pah-pum . . . pah-pum of her mother’s heart” as they nestle closely together in a cozy magenta armchair.
Mora’s art is the ideal match for Wynter’s engaging text. Her illustrations incorporate the story’s sounds (such as the parrot’s “Rraak! WAKE UP!” and the car alarm’s “WEEYOOOWEEEEYOOOOO!!!!”), collaged in her distinctive style and sweeping across the book’s spreads. The book’s climax, in which all the sleep-disturbing sounds fly forth from the building, is expertly composed. Mora knows exactly how to use elements like simple shapes to keep a busy event from being too visually complex or overwhelming. As always, her textured, highly patterned artwork invites lingering looks and repeat reads.
This gentle sonic adventure is just right for sending children off to sleep.
Debut author Anne Wynter and Caldecott Honor illustrator Oge Mora knock it out of the red brick building in this cumulative picture book.
Pull up a chair and dig into a four-course feast of picture books! These books offer innovative depictions of what it means to express gratitude, to share a meal and to be both welcoming and welcomed.
“Every year when the first snow falls, we make thankful chains to last us through December,” explains the narrator of Thankful. She is stretched out on her bedroom floor, surrounded by a halo of colorful construction paper, hard at work transforming it into a paper chain. As she lists the things for which she is thankful, readers glimpse scenes of her life with her parents, new sibling and pet dog, at her school and with her friends.
Author Elaine Vickers’ text is wonderfully evocative. The girl’s list includes concrete and sensory observations, such as gratitude for “the spot under the covers where someone has just been sleeping” and “a cloth on my forehead when I feel sick.” In a humorous beach scene, the girl reflects that she is thankful “for wind and sand—but not at the same time.”
Readers will be entranced by Samantha Cotterill’s outstanding and unique art. To create her illustrations, Cotterill creates miniature 3D interiors, populates them with cutout characters, then photographs each diorama. She includes charming details, including real lights in various rooms and shining car headlights, along with construction paper chains so realistic in appearance that you’ll feel you could almost touch them. Colorful and original, Thankful will spark young readers to create their own thankful chains—and may inspire them to try their hand at making diorama art, too.
★ Let Me Fix You a Plate
The excitement of family gatherings is at the heart of Let Me Fix You a Plate: A Tale of Two Kitchens, inspired by author-illustrator Elizabeth Lilly’s annual childhood trips to see her grandparents. The book follows a girl, her two sisters and their parents as they pile into a car and drive first to West Virginia to their Mamaw and Papaw, then continue to Florida to visit their Abuela and Abuelo, before they finally return to their own home.
Lilly’s energetic illustrations capture these comings and goings, as well as the abundant details the narrator observes in her grandparents’ homes. At Mamaw and Papaw’s house, she sees a shelf of decorative plates and coffee mugs with tractors on them, eats sausage and toast with blackberry jam and helps make banana pudding. Abuela and Abuelo’s house is filled with aunts, uncles and cousins and the sounds of Spanish and salsa music. The girl picks oranges from a tree in the yard and helps make arepas.
Throughout, Lilly’s precise prose contributes to a strong sense of place. “Morning mountain fog wrinkles and rolls,” observes the girl on her first morning in West Virginia, while in Florida, “the hot sticky air hugs us close.” Lilly’s line drawings initially seem simple, almost sketchlike, but they expertly convey the actions and emotions of every character, whether it’s Mamaw bending down to offer her granddaughter a bite of breakfast or a roomful of aunts and uncles dancing while Abuelo plays guitar. Like a warm hug from a beloved family member, Let Me Fix You a Plate is a cozy squeeze that leaves you grinning and a little bit breathless.
Saturday at the Food Pantry
“Everybody needs help sometimes” is the message at the heart of Saturday at the Food Pantry, which depicts a girl named Molly’s first trip to a food pantry with her mom.
Molly and her mom have been eating chili for two weeks; when Molly’s mom opens the refrigerator, we see that it’s nearly empty. In bed that night, Molly’s stomach growls with hunger. Molly is excited to visit a food pantry for the first time, but she isn’t sure what to expect. As she and her mom wait in line, Molly is happy to see that Caitlin, a classmate, is also waiting with her grandmother. Molly greets her enthusiastically, but Caitlin ignores her. “I don’t want anyone to know Gran and I need help,” Caitlin explains later.
Molly’s cheerfulness saves the day, and the girls’ interactions contribute to a normalizing and destigmatizing representation of their experience. Molly asks her mom questions that reveal how the food pantry differs from a grocery store. Mom must check in before she begins shopping, for instance, and there are limits on how many items customers can have. “Take one bundle” reads a sign in the banana basket.
Author Diane O’Neil captures her characters’ trepidations head-on. Mom smiles “just a little, not like when they played at the park” at the volunteer who signs her in, and Molly is confused and sad when her mom tells her to put a box of cookies back because “the people in charge … want us to take sensible stuff.” Gradually, however, the occasion transforms into a positive experience for all.
Food insecurity can be a sensitive topic, and O’Neil—who went to a food pantry when she was a child—handles the issue in a reassuring, informative way. A helpful end note from the CEO of the Greater Chicago Food Depository explains that millions of people in the United States need help just like Molly and her mom, and provides readers resources to find it.
Illustrator Brizida Magro is a wizard of texture, whether depicting Molly’s wavy hair or the wonderful array of patterns in coats, sweaters and pants. Her ability to capture facial expressions and convey complex emotions is also noteworthy; it adds to the book’s emotional depth and makes the eventual smiles all the more impactful. The pantry shoppers’ diversity of skin tone, age and ability underscores how food insecurity can affect anyone. Saturday at the Food Pantry brims with sincerity and a helpful and hopeful spirit.
A Hundred Thousand Welcomes
“In one place or another, at one time or another, in one way or another, every single one of us will find ourselves in search of acceptance, help, protection, welcome,” writes Mary Lee Donovan in her introduction to A Hundred Thousand Welcomes, illustrated by Lian Cho.
With poetic text that reads like an invocation, the book is a fascinating around-the-world tour that explores the concept of welcome. On each page, a household from a different culture entertains guests. Many pages include the corresponding word for “welcome” in that culture’s language, including words and phrases in Indonesian, Arabic, Mandarin Chinese and Lakota Sioux. Back matter from Cho and Donovan explains the inspiration that sparked their collaboration and offers more information about the many languages spoken throughout the world and a detailed pronunciation guide to all of the words in the book.
Cho’s art is a multicultural feast of families and friends enjoying each other’s company. There’s a German chalet where kids play in the snow, a Bengali family greeting visitors who arrive in a small, colorful vehicle and more. The disparate scenes culminate in two shining spreads. In the first, people of all ages and nationalities share a meal at a table that’s so long, it can only fit on the page thanks to a breathtaking gatefold. In the next, an equally long line of kids sit atop a brick wall, chatting with each other and gazing up at a night sky full of stars as one child turns around and waves at the reader.
Although many picture books celebrate the fellowship of friendship and the love that flows during family gatherings, A Hundred Thousand Welcomes encourages readers to go one step further, to ready their own welcome mats and invite neighbors and strangers alike into their homes and hearts.
Four picture books offer innovative depictions of what it means to express gratitude, to share a meal and to be both welcoming and welcomed.
Tips for Teachers is a monthly column in which experienced teacher and children’s librarian Emmie Stuart shares book recommendations and a corresponding teaching guide for fellow elementary school teachers.
I rely on books with powerful messages and strong curricular content for the foundation of my lessons. But as I looked at my students recently, I realized they needed some levity and laughter. Setting aside standards and pacing guides, I shifted gears and pulled out Peggy Rathman’s Officer Buckle and Gloria, Ryan T. Higgins’ Mother Bruce, Aaron Reynolds and Peter Brown’s Creepy Carrots and my entire James Marshall collection. Using my silliest voices and making sure to pause in just the right places, I read the books aloud. Their masks did not mask my students’ laughter. Their delight was evident in their twinkling eyes and relaxed body language.
Teachers know when their students are feeling anxious, somber or weary. When you sense heaviness in your classroom, gather your students around you and share these three books. They are lighthearted. They are well executed. They are unexpectedly tender. And they are silly. Your students’ spirits will be lifted as they briefly forget their worries and share moments of humor and cheer with their teacher and friends.
Gordon, a purple tapir, lives in a world buzzing with the activities of busy anthropomorphic animals. Have You Seen Gordon? begins like a normal seek-and-find book, as an upbeat narrator asks readers if they can find Gordon—but then this quirky story takes a turn for the unexpected. Initially, Gordon cooperates, behaving like the typical subject of a seek-and-find book, hiding in plain sight among illustrator Ruth Chan’s bustling spreads, but he becomes disillusioned with hiding and places himself in easily spotted locations. When the narrator accuses him of “not hiding at all,” Gordon declares, “I don’t want to hide anymore. I’m proud of who I am. From now on, I want to stand out.”
The narrator selects another animal for readers to find, this time a blue rhinoceros who is a construction worker. But she quickly interrupts the narrator and announces, “I have a name. It’s Jane. And I’m kind of shy. I don’t like a lot of attention.” Teeming with humorous details and energy, this witty and winsome adventure will win students’ affection. Be prepared for repeat readings!
Fostering early literacy skills is an area of instruction that I tend to overlook when I’m planning lessons and talking about books with pre- and emerging readers. The energetic and detailed scenes in Have You Seen Gordon? provide a fun and engaging opportunity for students to work on early phonemic awareness skills. This can be a whole-class activity if you have a way to display the book’s scenes enlarged, such as with an overhead projector or smart board device, or a small-group activity if you have several copies of the physical book. Here are the prompts I used with my students.
Can you find three things that start with the letter G?
I wonder what we can find that starts with the “ch” sound?
I spy something that rhymes with the word rain. What do I spy?
How many bikes are in this illustration?
Have You Seen Gordon? is packed with humorous semantic devices. Begin by offering students a brief definition of wordplay. I used Merriam Webster’s definition, “the playful use of words,” followed by my own explanation: “Wordplay is when letters, words and sounds are creatively used to make us laugh.” Show students examples of various forms of wordplay including puns, idioms and spelling manipulation.
Reread the book and see how many examples of wordplay students can spot. Point out and explain instances of wordplay that are unfamiliar for younger students. Older students can extend this activity by creating and illustrating wordplay of their own.
Gordon and friends are depicted in a range of different environments, from a city street to an art museum, a mall and a campground. Make a comprehensive list of all the settings. Ask students if they can think of other distinct settings they could add to the list. Next, narrow the list down to four settings and let students vote on which scene to create collaboratively.
Roll out a piece of butcher paper and let students work in pairs to illustrate the background of the scene. When they’re not working on the background, students will draw and color their own creatures. Once the background is finished, position the students’ creatures on the butcher paper to create a full scene similar to those in Have You Seen Gordon?
After waking up early one morning, the Dracula family heads to the zoo. Their first stop is the penguin house, filled with all different kinds of penguins. It’s here that the youngest Dracula, whose skin is paper white and who wears a black cape and yellow shoes with a matching yellow pacifier, slides out of the stroller and enters the penguin enclosure. Meanwhile, a small penguin takes the child’s place in the stroller. The rest of the Dracula family, oblivious to the switch, continues their zoo expedition.
Author-illustrator Lucy Ruth Cummins’ straightforward text continues to recount the family’s day without acknowledging the switcheroo, while the illustrations depict the shenanigans of the youngest Dracula and the little penguin. Replete with vampire jokes, the silly antics in Vampenguin elicited audible giggles from my students.
Words and pictures
Explain how in some picture books, the story depends on the pictures and the pictures depend on the words. Some picture books can be understood without their illustrations, but many cannot. I love to demonstrate this interplay by asking students to imagine a picture book we have just read being adapted to an audiobook.
This concept is expertly executed in Vampenguin because Cummins’ text tells one story and her illustrations tell another. Read the book again without showing the illustrations to the class as you do so. Invite students to share what is missed in the absence of the pictures. Does the story make sense? Is it even the same story? Explore other picture books with strong text and illustration interdependency.
Ask students to brainstorm which zoo exhibit they would like to join for a few hours, like the youngest member of the Dracula family does. (Begin by establishing that zoo creatures cannot harm or eat students for the purposes of this exercise). Provide books about animals commonly found at the zoo and give students time to take notes about animal behavior. Students will blend their research and their imagination to write first-person narratives of an afternoon in an animal exhibit. Turn on some zoo cams for inspiration as students work on their stories.
The Little Wooden Robot and the Log Princess By Tom Gauld
In this tale of sibling loyalty and love, cartoonist and New Yorker cover artist Tom Gauld weaves together old and new, funny and tender. The king and queen are happy as they rule their kingdom, but they long for children. An inventor and a witch step in and bequeath them with “a wonderful, intricate little wooden robot” and a princess magically brought to life from a log in the witch’s basket of firewood. Unfortunately, the princess’s enchantment comes with a catch: Every night, she turns back into a log until she is awakened with some magic words. One morning, an overzealous and uninformed maid spies the log in the princess’s bed and tosses it out the window.
Filled with grief, the princess’s wooden-robot brother immediately leaves on a quest to find her. His journey contains “too many adventures to recount here,” but his perseverance—driven by his love for his sister—is rewarded. The princess demonstrates her love, too, when she courageously saves her brother on their way home.
Like most fairy tales, this familiar yet novel picture book will captivate young imaginations, but it achieves something more. Its young heroes suggest to children how their lives are also stories and they can also live with courageous and persevering love.
Tom Gauld’s simple-seeming cartoon illustrations are filled with geometric shapes. Go on a “shape hunt” in the book and find ways that Gauld uses simple shapes to create characters and settings.
Using paper punches and paper to make shapes of varying sizes, colors and patterns. Group the shapes on paper plates and let students choose several shapes to transform into a setting or a character. Give students time and space to trade shapes with one another or to gather additional shapes as they work on their creations.
Theme is one of those elusive concepts that is embedded in most English-language arts educational standards. I often struggle to teach students how to differentiate between a story’s main idea and its theme, but The Little Wooden Robot and Log Princess has a definite theme: the loyal, selfless love between siblings.
After determining the theme, ask students to identify details in the story that support the theme. With older students, discuss how fairy tales treat themes differently than other fictional storytelling forms or even nonfiction. Ask students how The Little Wood Robot and the Log Princess might help them understand how to be a better sibling or friend?
Fairy tale elements
The Little Wooden Robot and the Log Princess contains many familiar fairy tale tropes. Before reading the book aloud to your students, discuss common elements of fairy tales. This is the list I discussed with my third graders:
A beginning and an ending
Good versus evil
Share a few additional fairy tales (I recommend Paul O. Zelinsky’s Rapunzel, Rachel Isadora’s Hansel and Gretel and Ai-Ling Louie and Ed Young’s Yeh-Shen: A Cinderella Story From China) and fill in a graphic organizer. After reading The Little Wooden Robot and Log Princess, compare it to other fairy tales. What is the same? What is different? Fill the graphic organizer and discuss the most prominent similarities and differences.
Teachers know when their students are feeling anxious, somber or weary. When you sense heaviness in your classroom, gather your students around you and share these three books. They are lighthearted. They are well executed. They are unexpectedly tender. And they are silly.
“I wake up with my head down,” says D. He overslept because no one woke him up, and now Dad says they have to hustle. He walks to school feeling “scrunchy” as a cloud hovers above his head. “It can still be a good day,” he says. “Any day can be good if you try.” But D faces one disappointment after another: It’s gym day, and he forgot to wear his gym uniform, so he can’t play kickball. In writing class, he gets the laptop with the sticky space bar. When he calls out the correct answer in math class, the teacher criticizes him for not raising his hand instead of praising him for having the right answer. When he accidentally makes a mess that leads to a meltdown during show and tell, D must go to the principal’s office. Once there, his day takes an unexpected turn.
Keep Your Head Up is the debut picture book by journalist Aliya King Neil, with illustrations by Coretta Scott King Award winner Charly Palmer. Throughout this touching portrait of a child doing his best to manage a difficult day, D’s feelings of frustration and discouragement are palpable and create a sense of rising tension. Palmer’s illustrations feature thick, textured brushstrokes, and his impressionistic style enhances the emotional narrative. Pops of blue and pink complement D’s deep brown skin.
Parallels to Judith Viorst’s classic depiction of another boy and his “no good, very bad day” are obvious, but Neil never plays D’s troubles for laughs. Instead, she explores how the supportive adults in D’s life, including his parents and Miss King, the school principal, empower him to make positive decisions when it’s not easy to do so.
Reading Keep Your Head Up would be an excellent way to begin a conversation about how to process the highs and lows of life. It’s a simple and powerful reminder to not let bad days get us down.
Keep Your Head Up is a simple and powerful reminder not to let bad days get us down.
Author-illustrator Phoebe Wahl’s fourth picture book, Little Witch Hazel: A Year in the Forest, has a charming woodsy setting that readers will find enchanting.
Four vignettes follow Little Witch Hazel, a minuscule witch who wears a pointy red hat and lives in Mosswood Forest. With a determined spirit, Hazel tends to her fellow inhabitants of the forest in any way that she can, be that inspecting the source of a mysterious wailing tree stump, caring for an abandoned bird egg or taking some well-deserved time to unwind with her friends on a hot summer day.
Each story unfolds in a different season and opens with a title page depicting Hazel dressed for the weather and surrounded by the season’s flora—daffodils in spring, acorns in the fall and so on. Hazel’s can-do attitude and willingness to pitch in make her an appealing heroine. Using earthy shades of brown, green, red and blue, Wahl expertly captures Mosswood Forest and populates it with all sorts of quirky creatures whose interactions make a wonderful backdrop for Hazel’s adventures.
These sweet stories are an ode to the calm and peaceful magic of nature. Little Witch Hazel will make you feel as if you have journeyed deep into Mosswood Forest alongside Hazel and her friends. It will also make you long to seek out your own forest, to be immersed in nature and to discover (or rediscover) your own kinship to it, so that you too can enjoy what Hazel finds there: serenity, connection and fulfillment.
Author-illustrator Phoebe Wahl’s fourth picture book, Little Witch Hazel: A Year in the Forest, has a charming woodsy setting that readers will find enchanting.
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A young indigenous girl learns the importance of water from her elders, then unites with her community and its supporters to defend it in Carole Lindstrom and Michaela Goade’s inspiring new picture book, We Are Water Protectors.
Author Maggie Tokuda-Hall (The Mermaid, the Witch, and the Sea) and illustrator Lisa Sterle discuss their first graphic novel collaboration, Squad, a story in which teenage girls are never quite what they seem.