Category: Picture Books


sam and dave dig a hole

Sam & Dave Dig a Hole by Mac Barnett, Illustrated by Jon Klassen

Barnett and Klassen are an amazing picture book duo who have created with this book an instant classic.  Sam and Dave are two friends who set out to dig a hole on Monday.  They decide that they won’t stop digging until they find “something spectacular.”  They keep digging, deeper and deeper, missing jewels by just a few inches.  They stop and have chocolate milk and animal cookies and then continue to dig.  Maybe another direction will help them find treasure?  But readers will see as they take the turn that they miss the biggest gem yet.  The dog that is along with them though seems to realize that there are things right under the surface, but Sam and Dave don’t pay any attention to him.  They dig and dig, missing everything along the way until they are right above a dog bone.  The two boys take a nap and their dog continues to dig down until suddenly they are falling down from the hole into a world very like their own.  Readers who are paying close attention though will realize that it is a subtly different place.

Children love to dig in the dirt and I think every child has dreamed of digging a truly great hole and finding something amazing.  Barnett keeps his text very straight-forward and simple, allowing the humor to be in the near misses of the illustrations and the perceptiveness of the little dog.  It is this frank delivery that makes the humor of the illustrations really work, giving them a platform to build off of.  The ending is wonderfully open-ended, and some readers will miss the subtle differences and assume they are back home again.  Others though will see the changes and realize that no matter what Sam and Dave have discovered their “spectacular” something.

Klassen’s illustrations are wonderful.  I adore the way that he lets his characters look out from the page to the reader.  He did the same thing in both of his great “Hat” picture books and there is a strong connection from the page to the people enjoying the book.  His illustrations have a textured feel to them, an organic nature that reads particularly well in this dirt-filled world. 

An instant classic and one that will get readers talking about the open ending.  Appropriate for ages 3-5.

Reviewed from library copy.

book with no pictures

The Book with No Pictures by B. J. Novak

No pictures?  In a picture book?  Is it still a picture book?  Is it still for preschoolers?  The answer is a resounding yes!  And even better, this is a book filled with words and no images that preschoolers will delight in.  First, the audience is told that the rule with reading a book aloud is that the reader has to say everything that is on the page, whether they like it or not.  Even if the words are nonsense, even if they have to be sung, even if they insult themselves.  Completely silly, this picture book is filled with funny things the reader has to say aloud and then clever asides about what the reader is thinking to themselves.

Novak understands child humor wonderfully.  Reading this book to a group of preschoolers will be a delight, particularly when they realize that the author has you under their control.  Play up your dismay at having to be silly and you will have the children rolling with laughter.  Novak walks the line perfectly here, never taking the joke too far into being mean, but keeping it just naughty enough to intrigue youngsters to listen closely. 

This is one of those picture books that you save to end a story time, since it is guaranteed to keep the attention of the entire group of children.  It’s a winner!  Appropriate for ages 4-6.

Reviewed from copy received from Dial.

call me tree

Call Me Tree: lámame árbol by Maya Christina Gonzalez

Released November 1, 2014.

This poetic picture book combines a celebration of trees with one of human diversity.  A boy starts to grow under the earth, reaching his arm up to break the surface of the ground.  His arm and fingers becomes a trunk and branches and soon he too is up in the air next to his tree.  Just as trees have freedom, so does he.  Just as each tree is different from another, he is different from the other people too.  Yet they all have roots and they all belong on the earth and in the world.

This very simple book is written like a free verse poem in both English and Spanish, closely tying biodiversity to human diversity in a clever way.  The connection of humans and trees is beautifully shown as well, in a way that ties each person to a tree like them.  It’s a book that is radiant in its delight in our connection to nature and the way that nature’s diversity reflects on our own.

Gonzalez both wrote and illustrated this picture book.  Her illustrations are colorful with deep colors that leap on the page.  The characters on the page are bold and different, each with their own feel of exuberance or quiet contemplation or strength.  Along with each different child, there is a tree connected to them that equally reflects their personality.  It’s a very clever way to clearly tie humans to nature.

This book could serve as inspiration for children to draw their own personal trees that express themselves or it can be a lullaby to dreams of blue skies and green leaves.  Appropriate for ages 3-5.

Reviewed from digital galley received from Edelweiss and Children’s Book Press.

any questions

Any Questions? by Marie-Louise Gay

Where do stories come from?  How are books made?  These questions that authors often get from children are the subject of this picture book from an author who has written and illustrated many picture books.  Together the author and a group of children asking delighted questions create a story right in front of the reader.  They take inspiration from the kind of paper the story is written on, the colors of the page.  They talk about how ideas happen, and how sometimes they are great ideas but don’t become a book or that not all ideas fit into a single story.  Ideas sometimes don’t appear and you have to wait for them, doodling and dreaming of other things until they arrive.  And then something happens, and it starts to become a story!  The children in the book get involved and the story takes a surprising turn.  Luckily story telling is flexible and able to deal with wild purple monsters who come out of the woods.  This is a great look at the creative process and how books are made, written at a level that preschool children will enjoy and understand.

Gay is so open and inviting in this picture book.  She is refreshingly candid about the creative process and all of the bumps and twists along the way.  The invitation to the reader along with the child characters in the book to be part of creating a story is warm and friendly.  All ideas are welcome, some work and other don’t, and that is all embraced as part of creativity. 

Gay’s illustrations continue the cheerfulness of the text.  They combine writing in cursive with story panels and speech bubbles with characters in the book.  It’s all a wonderful mix of styles that gets your creativity flowing.

Expect children to want to write their own stories complete with illustrations after reading this!  Appropriate for ages 5-7.

Reviewed from library copy.

little melba and her big trombone

Little Melba and Her Big Trombone by Katheryn Russell-Brown, illustrated by Frank Morrison

Melba had always loved the sounds of music: blues, jazz and gospel.  Even when she slept notes and rhythms were in her dreams.  When she signed up for music class at school, Melba picked out a long horn that was almost as big as she was.  Melba practiced and practiced, teaching herself to play.  Soon she was on the radio at age 8, playing a solo.  When Melba was in sixth grade, she moved from Kansas City to Los Angeles where she became a star player in the high school band.  When she was 17, she was invited to go on tour with a jazz band.  She played with some of the greats, but she was one of the only women on tour and racism in the South was harrowing.  Melba decided to quit, but her fans would not let her.  All of the top jazz acts in the 1950s wanted her to play with them.  So Melba came back, went on more tours, and her music conquered the world.

This picture book biography of Melba Doretta Liston shows how music virtuosos are born.  Her connection with music from such a young age, her determination to learn to play her selected instrument, and her immense talent make for a story that is even better than fiction.  Melba faced many obstacles on the way to her career but overcame them all.  She survived the Great Depression, found her musical voice early and then professionally.  She also had the challenges of sexism and racism to overcome on her way to greatness.  This is all clearly shown on the page and really tells the story of a woman made of music and steel (or brass).

Morrison’s art beautifully captures the life of Liston on the page.  His paintings are done in rich colors, filled with angles of elbows, horns and music, they leap on the page.  They evoke the time period and the sense of music and jazz. 

Put on some Dizzy Gillespie with Melba Liston playing in the band and share this triumphant picture book with music and band classes.  Appropriate for ages 6-9.

Reviewed from digital galley received from Lee & Low Books and Edelweiss.

hug machine

Hug Machine by Scott Campbell

A little boy considers himself a hug machine in this fanciful cheerful picture book.  All day long the hug machine goes around giving hugs, because he is simply the best at hugging.  He cannot be resisted.  His hugs do many things, they can calm you down, cheer you up.  He hugs objects, animals, and crying babies.  He even hugs things that never get hugged, like porcupines (but not without the proper protection).  Huge whales are not too big for him to hug either.  What is the secret to his amazing hugging?  Plenty of pizza for power and knowing when he is too tired to hug anymore and just needs to be hugged by someone else.

Campbell uses simple text in this picture book, focusing mostly on the action of hugging a lot on each page.  He uses repeating structures but always throws in a nice little twist or change up that keeps the book fun to read.  The entire book exudes the warmth of a hug and the wry little touches of humor add to that feeling.  I must also say that having a book with a male character who loves being hugged and giving hugs is refreshing.  It’s also a pink book about a boy, hallelujah!

The art in the book is wonderfully warm and cozy.  It captures not only the loving hugs of the boy but the various reactions by the things being hugged.  Readers will find that the text often does not match what is happening on the page, making for more comic moments in the book.  After all this is the hug machine telling the tale, so he thinks people are a lot more excited to be hugged than they may actually be.

A loving and hug-filled book that avoids being too sweet and instead is a bright cheerful picture book perfect for sharing.  Appropriate for ages 3-5.

Reviewed from copy received from Atheneum Books for Young Readers.

two parrots

Two Parrots by Rashin Kheiriyeh

Inspired by a tale by Rumi, this picture book takes an allegorical look at imprisonment and freedom.  A Persian merchant receives a parrot as a present and places him in a golden cage.   When the merchant heads out on a trip to India, he asks the parrot what gift he can bring back.  The parrot asks him to find his parrot friend and explain that the parrot would love to see him but is unable to due to his cage.  The merchant does as is asked and when he tells the parrot of his friend in the cage, the parrot falls down dead.  The merchant returns home to his parrot and has to tell him about the death of his friend.  At which point the parrot in the cage falls down dead too.  The merchant lifts the dead bird out of the cage and the bird promptly comes back to life and flies out the window to freedom.  The merchant is forced to admit the importance of freedom to living things.  Now he enjoys the beauty of the parrots free in his garden, uncaged.

This is not a straight-forward picture book, rather it is a moral and ethical tale that unwinds in a more traditional way for the reader.  It is a book that is best discussed with others who may see different aspects and different views in the story.  Many children may not have experienced this sort of story before, one that is not difficult in terms of vocabulary but instead presents a more challenging subject in an allegorical way.  Welcome to Rumi!

The art in the picture book is done by a young artist from Iran who has illustrated over 45 books for children.  His work is bright colored and full of texture.  The various papers used in his art have different textures and the colors are so strong and vibrant.  They have a great mix of quirky modern and traditional style. 

A delightful mix of traditional and modern storytelling, this picture book will get readers discussing and thinking about freedom and civil rights.  Appropriate for ages 6-9.

Reviewed from library copy.

mitten string

The Mitten String by Jennifer Rosner, illustrated by Kristina Swarner

Released October 28, 2014.

Ruthie’s family was known for their wool and the mittens they created from it.  They sheared their own sheep, prepared their own wool, spun their own yarn.  At night, Ruthie and her mother knitted together, with Ruthie in particular making mittens.  On market days, they traveled to town to sell their fabric and knitting.  One day, they found a woman on the road with her baby where their wagon had broken down.  The woman wrote on a slate to communicate, because she was deaf.  She used sign language with her little son.  Ruthie’s family offered her a place to stay for the night and Ruthie noticed a deep blue piece of yarn around the woman’s wrist.  That night, she saw how the women used the yarn to tie herself gently to her baby so that she would know if he needed anything in the night.  Ruthie had a great idea and quickly went to work creating a mitten on a string with one sized for an adult and the other for a baby.  In return for her kindness, the woman gave Ruthie her string of yarn of the deepest blue and then also showed Ruthie what plant to use to create the blue dye. 

As Rosner says in her author’s note, this book is inspired by her great-great-aunt Bayla who was deaf and used the trick of tying a string to her baby’s wrist from her own.  She also offers a knitting glossary at the end along with some knitting-related sign language signs.  I appreciate that while this book is about a woman who is deaf, she is also a very capable person.  The family may offer her help, but it is more about her circumstances than about her deafness.  It is a pleasure to have a book about a disability address it in such a positive way.

Swarner’s art has the softness of yarn.  Done in the same rich, deep colors that Ruthie knits her mittens out of, the entire world is soft and warm.  There are small touches throughout that add details of homeliness and kindness.  From the different sizes of mittens around the home to the flowers all over the grass. 

This is a picture book about kindness and caring for one another with a brilliant blue thread of love woven throughout.  Appropriate for ages 4-6.

Reviewed from e-galley received from Random House Books for Young Readers and Edelweiss.

star stuff

Star Stuff: Carl Sagan and the Mysteries of the Cosmos by Stephanie Roth Sisson

This is a picture book biography about Carl Sagan and how he got interested in the stars.  It all started when he went to the 1939 World’s Fair and was inspired.  He started researching stars and space and wondering about the universe around us.  He got his doctorate and worked with other scientists to create machines that would investigate planets and take pictures of them.  Then he went on television with his show Cosmos and told everyone about the universe and how we are all made from the same stuff as the stars.  This is an inspirational story of how a child who loved the stars turning into a man who taught a generation about them.

Sisson keeps this book at the exactly right level for young readers.  She does not dwell on Sagan’s time in college, but instead spends much more time on his childhood dreams and interests.  She focuses too on his work as a scientist and then speaks very broadly about his time on television.  I greatly appreciate that his work was not narrowed to just Cosmos, but instead it is celebrated as a part of what he accomplished in his life.  The book ends with an Author’s Note and a bibliography and source notes that readers looking for more detailed information will find useful.

In her illustrations, Sisson wisely incorporates elements of comic books with panels and speech bubbles.  These give the book a great modern feel and help propel the story forward.  Done in a friendly cartoon style, the illustrations make astronomy approachable and friendly for the reader.

Children will be inspired to see a young person’s dream become their vocation in life.  This picture book is a new way for Sagan to inspire people to learn about the stars.  Appropriate for ages 5-8.

Reviewed from copy received from Roaring Brook Press.

loula and the sister recipe

Loula and the Sister Recipe by Anne Villeneuve

The inventive Loula returns for her second outing in this picture book.  Here she is sick and tired of her three brothers who refuse to play with her.  So Loula decides that what she needs is a little sister, one who is just like her.  So she goes to her parents and requests that they get her one.  Her father explains that making a sister is a lot like baking a cake and needs special ingredients like a papa and a mama, butterflies in the stomach, a full moon, a candlelight supper, kisses and hugs, and chocolate.  So Loula sets off to shop for those things with her ever-helpful chauffeur Gilbert.  In the end, it all comes together in one amazing evening filled with candlelight, moonlight, and a sister surprise.

This second picture book about Loula again shows her determination and ability to look at a problem positively as something to solve.  Infused with humor, young readers will know that her plan is probably not going to work out the way she thinks, yet few will expect the twist at the end when it comes.  Having adored Gilbert the chauffeur in the first book, I was very pleased that this second book has much the same structure with Gilbert helping Loula gather everything she needs, including live butterflies.

The illustrations in this book have a loose flowing quality that has lots of motion and energy.  Done in ink and watercolor, they vary from small illustrations with white backgrounds to two-page spreads filled with color.  My favorite is the leaping Gilbert attempting to catch a butterfly in a net.

A strong young heroine with plenty of chutzpah combines with plenty of humor in this picture book series.  Make sure to read both of the books because it’s even more time to spend with the amazing Loula!  Appropriate for ages 4-6.

Reviewed from copy received from Kids Can Press.

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