What’s the Matter Marlo? by Andrew Arnold

What’s the Matter Marlo? by Andrew Arnold (9781250223234)

This picture book about friendship explores what happens when a best friend is grieving and angry. Told in the first person, the book draws readers directly into the tale. Two children are best friends, and they do everything together from hide-and-seek to joke books. No matter how well Marlo hides, his best friend can find him. But then one day, something was wrong and Marlo didn’t want to play. He told his friend to go away. Sharing a joke made it even worse and Marlo got angrier and angrier, until his anger took up all the space. But his friend remembered that no matter what they could always find Marlo. That’s when they found out what was going on and did just what a best friend should do, they cried together.

Arnold captures the beauty of a young friendship based on shared humor, a great dog and playing games together. He shows the richness of the friendship and how connected these two children are. That gives the platform for Marlo’s deep anger and anguish to appear. While it is confusing, his friend does just the right thing, staying around and offering comfort and empathy. Remarkably, the book is told in short and approachable sentences, allowing the images to tell a lot of the story too.

The illustrations are full of green grass, backyard spaces, and play. When Marlo’s anger appears, it is a black scribble of emotion that steadily grows to turning all of the pages to pitch black. It is in that moment that his friend finds him. That friend who speaks in first person is marvelously androgynous, able to be either girl or boy and it doesn’t matter at all.

A resonant friendship story about empathy and grief. Appropriate for ages 3-5.

Reviewed from e-galley provided by Roaring Brook Press.

The Shadow Elephant by Nadine Robert

Cover image for The Shadow Elephant

The Shadow Elephant by Nadine Robert, illustrated by Valerio Vidali (9781592703128)

The elephant was staying in the shadows, not speaking or engaging with anyone. The other animals decide to try to cheer him up. First, the monkey told the funniest joke he knew, but the elephant didn’t even smile. The ostrich sisters did a dance, but elephant didn’t even move. The crocodile brought him a treat of acacia leaves, but the elephant just sighed. Then a small white mouse came up out of breath and asked to rest near the elephant. The elephant asked if the mouse was there to tell a story, but she just wanted to rest. So the two of them sat quietly together. The mouse eventually shared part of her story, making the elephant cry. The mouse cried too. Finally, when they were done crying, the elephant felt lighter and was able to stand up. The two headed off to find the mouse’s home together.

Translated from the French, this picture book about emotions and sadness shows how separate these blue emotions can make us feel. The elephant remains in the shadows, silent and sad, not even able to weep. Then the smallest of creatures with the simplest of gestures shows empathy. It’s that shared experience, the silence together, the moments taken, not to distract but to be with one another. The power of that, shown in such simple ways, resonates throughout the book.

The illustrations are full of contrasts. The pages with the elephant glow with blues and lurk with dark shadows. The elephant is almost a mountain at night, large and unmoving. The other animals are bright and colorful, the sky a beaming blue and the ground a neon yellow-green. The mouse arrives as the sun is lowering in the sky, creating a synergy between her side of the page and the elephant’s that shows their growing connection as well.

A deep look at sadness and the power of empathy to overcome it. Appropriate for ages 3-5.

Reviewed from copy provided by Enchanted Lion.

Looking for Smile by Ellen Tarlow

Cover image of Looking for Smile

Looking for Smile by Ellen Tarlow, illustrated by Lauren Stringer (9781534466197)

Bear and Smile spent all their time together doing all sorts of things. Smile was always there when Bear woke up in the morning. They both liked the same breakfast and to explore the forest together. They also both would do anything for some honey. But then one morning, Bear woke up and Smile wasn’t there. Bear called for Smile but they never came. Breakfast didn’t taste the same. Rabbit suggests that Bear look for Smile in their favorite places. But even eating honey doesn’t bring Smile back. Bird comes and sits close to Bear not saying a word. Then Bird started to sing and Bear hummed along. Soon Bear started to feel something deep inside. There was Smile!

Tarlow explores emotions in this picture book, allowing all emotional states to be treated with compassion and empathy. Bear is usually very happy but some days can be blue ones, where it’s impossible to smile. Treating Smile as its own character makes the book really work well. Readers will understand immediately and enjoy seeing what will bring Smile back. They will likely expect the honey to work, and when it doesn’t that’s a great moment where only quiet empathy will work to find Smile again.

The illustrations are done in watercolor, gouache and acrylics. They create an entire world for Bear and Smile to explore and live in together. From Bear’s cozy home to the waterfalls and forests of their habitat. The landscapes are filled with bright colors of water, flowers and leaves. When Bear gets sad though, he changes from his deep warm brown to a cool blue and stays that way until Smile returns.

An empathetic look at emotions and sadness. Appropriate for ages 3-5.

Reviewed from e-galley provided by Beach Lane Books.

Review: Dictionary for a Better World by Irene Latham and Charles Waters

Dictionary for a Better World by Irene Latham and Charles Waters

Dictionary for a Better World: Poems, Quotes and Anecdotes from A to Z by Irene Latham and Charles Waters, illustrated by Mehrdokht Amini (9781541578937)

The authors that created Can I Touch Your Hair, a collection of poems about race, return with a dictionary that selects powerful words to think about as we work on making our world better. The dictionary includes words like empathy, acceptance, compassion, humility, respect and tenacity. Nicely, no effort is made to include the entire alphabet, rather words were selected for their ability to make an impact. Along with each word, there is a poem written by one of the authors and then also a piece of prose that speaks to their own interaction with the concept and how it has impacted their life. Other elements include a quotation with each word and also a way for the reader to try it out in their own life. 

The tone here is encouraging and positive without underplaying the incredible amount of work needed to be done to make progress on social issues. The focus is on individual responsibility for each of the concepts and taking personal action to make change happen. In their personal stories, the authors make it alright to make mistakes, take responsibility and continue to move forward. The combination of all of the elements for each concept is very powerful, offering a book that can either be read cover-to-cover or that one can dive into a single concept and explore.

The art by Amini uses a variety of media from photographs to cut paper to pressed leaves to paintings. Each turn of the page takes readers into a new concept visually as well, changing from dark colors to vivid green to cool blues and using different formats. 

A unique dictionary that asks us all to do our part in changing our world. Appropriate for ages 9-12.

Reviewed from e-galley provided by Carolrhoda Books.

3 Wintry Picture Books

Two of these picture book welcome winter while another sends it on its way:

Spring for Sophie by Yael Werber

Spring for Sophie by Yael Werber, illustrated by Jen Hill (9781481451345)

Sophie is waiting for spring to come, but she’s not sure how to tell when it arrives. Her mother explains that she should be able to hear the changes, so Sophie is patient and listens while she is outside. Eventually she starts to hear more and more birds in the trees. Still, it was snowy outside. Her father explains that she can use her feet to feel spring coming. So Sophie paid attention to how soft the snow was and eventually, it was less icy and more soft. Still, the snow was there. Her mother tells her to use her eyes and nose. Sophie watches the snow melt, the green return and one day her nose tells her that spring has finally arrived! This picture book celebrates the change of season in a tangible way that children will love. The focus is on the child experiencing the changes themselves with gentle guidance from loving adults. The illustrations celebrate both winter and spring, the slow but steady transformation between seasons. A perfect book to invite exploring outside. Appropriate for ages 3-6. (Reviewed from library copy.)

William_s Winter Nap by Linda Ashman

William’s Winter Nap by Linda Ashman, illustrated by Chuck Groenink (9781484722824)

This rhyming picture book tells a story of a boy who is ready for bed. But just as he is about to fall asleep, there comes a tap, tap, tap at his window. It’s a chipmunk and William invites him into his bed to sleep. Again and again, William is about to fall asleep but another animal needs shelter from the cold and the snow. When the last animal knocks, the other animals insist that there isn’t any more room, but somehow they find room for the very large bear with a little help from William. The series of drowsy moments interrupted makes this a great bedtime tale but also a lovely one to share with a group. The illustrations are friendly and inviting, just like William himself. There are opportunities for counting, naming animals and thinking about napping yourself in this very appealing read. Appropriate for ages 2-4. (Reviewed from copy provided by Disney Hyperion.)

Winter Dance by Marion Dane Bauer

Winter Dance by Marion Dane Bauer, illustrated by Richard Jones

Fox wakes up to snowflakes falling and wonders what he should be doing to prepare for winter. A caterpillar suggests that he wrap up in a chrysalis and wake in the spring while the bat thinks a cave would be best. Turtle heads to the bottom of the pond to sleep in the mud and squirrel quickly gathers food. The geese fly south and the snowshoe hare turns white like the snow. Bear falls asleep in a log. But none of those solutions is right for Fox! He finally meets another fox in the woods who knows just what to do. Beautifully written by Bauer, this book uses repetitive structures to evoke a timeless feel that will be welcoming for the youngest listeners. The illustrations by Jones have a lovely softness to them while also showing the changing season and the beauty of the natural setting. A great pick for celebrating the coming winter. Appropriate for ages 2-4. (Reviewed from library copy.)

3 Picture Books Filled with Empathy

These three picture books all look at empathy in different ways and all are worth exploring.

Come with Me by Holly M. McGhee

Come with Me by Holly M. McGhee, illustrated by Pascal Lamaitre (9781524739058)

Seeing the news about anger and hate in the world, a little girl wonders what she can do to help. So each of her parents take the little girl out in their diverse and urban community. They are kind to others on the subway. They greet their neighbors and shop at stores owned by people of different races and faiths. Then the little girl asks to walk the dog on her own. Will her parents be brave enough to let her leave fear behind and head into the world on her own?

Told simply and with great kindness, this picture book shows children and families exactly the small steps they can take to bring love and joy back into their lives during these stressful fear-filled times. The illustrations are simple, showing the diversity of the community with clarity. Families looking for ways to get beyond worry and fear will embrace this picture book. It is exactly what our world and our children need. (ARC received from Penguin.)

A Different Pond by Bao Phi

A Different Pond by Bao Phi, illustrated by Thi Bui (9781479597468)

Written and illustrated by two Vietnamese-Americans, this picture book captures the author’s experience as a child accompanying his father to a local fishing pond. The two of them are up early since his father has to head to second job that he just got. They stop at the bait shop and pick up minnows. Then head to the pond, where the boy’s father fishes and the boy builds a fire for them. It’s cool during this Minnesota dawn. The two share sandwiches, a small memory from Vietnam about fishing, and catch fish for dinner. When they return home, the extended family is there and that evening they all feast on the fish together.

Phi’s prose is filled with the skill of a poet. He stitches the past and present together into a richness that is poignant. He welcomes young readers into the life of a refugee family in Minnesota. The illustrations have a modern edge to them, sometimes framed like a graphic novel and other times soaring to the sides of the page. Bui uses her format skillfully and enlivens this quiet tale of fishing and new lives. Told with grace and strength, this picture book is wondrous. (Reviewed from library copy.)

King of the Sky by Nicola Davies

King of the Sky by Nicola Davies, illustrated by Laura Carlin (9781406348613)

A boy is now far from his Italian home and only one thing in this new place reminds him of Italy and where he used to live. It is Mr. Evans’s pigeons and their cooing that reminds the boy of Rome. The boy spends time with Mr. Evans and the pigeons. Mr. Evans gives him one as his own, a gray pigeon with a white head that the boy names “King of the Sky.” But the pigeon is slow to return home as the pigeons train, though Mr. Evans insists the bird will be a champion. Finally, the bird gets the perfect long distance race, flying back from Italy. But will he make it or will he stay in Italy like the boy would long to?

Davies is a masterful writer, inviting the reader into the pain of a boy who has left the country he loves and hasn’t found a place that feels right in his new country. It is a book about loneliness and finding your way forward. It’s a book about connection with your neighbors and community to find that way. The illustrations by Carlin are quirky and beautifully layered. They have a dreamlike quality to them, filled with soft edges and even softer light. This is a picture book that invites readers to understand what home really is. Appropriate for ages 5-8. (Reviewed from library copy.)

Why Am I Here? by Constance Ørbeck-Nilssen

why-am-i-here-by-constance-orbeck-nilssen

Why Am I Here? by Constance Ørbeck-Nilssen, illustrated by Akin Duzakin (InfoSoup)

A child wonders aloud why they are here in this specific place and in this life. They could instead be in a crowded place with lots of other people. They could be in a place torn by war. They could be a refugee, searching for safety. The land could be desert or snow and ice or rivers with trees. Does anyone else wonder about why they are where they are? Will this child ever leave this place and adventure to the spots they have dreamed of? Are they right where they are supposed to be, after all?

This is a very thoughtful and thought-provoking book that demonstrates empathy throughout. It’s a book that explores the “why” of our circumstances, looking at other places and how different a life could be just by being moved somewhere else with a different situation and a different family. The book takes the time to stay in that ambiguity and wonder about it, before releasing readers in the final pages into an understanding that we simply are where we are.

The illustrations by Duzakin have a quiet thoughtfulness about them. The main character who speaks in first person can be interpreted to be either gender adding another layer to the ambiguity of the book. The illustrations capture dreamlike settings of war, desert, ice or greenery that allow readers to wonder along with the story.

A quiet and contemplative picture book that will create opportunities for conversation. Appropriate for ages 4-6.

Reviewed from copy received from Eerdmans Books for Young Readers.