Paperboy, by Dav Pilkey

Paperboy, by Dav Pilkey

Can an illustrator write a good story? The Paperboy knows that’s the wrong question to ask. Instead, the book shows some gorgeous illustrations, while its text just fills in the details. It’s a wonderful example of two art forms combining. Dav Pilkey illustrates his interpretation of a dark neighborhood seen by a newsboy – while Dav Pilkey the author contributes a story which weaves it all together

But it’s the illustrations that are really the star of this book. The title page shows a grey truck leaving the printing building on a dark night. There’s a beautiful two-page drawing of the empty field that truck will pass. Shades of green suggest gentle moonlight, and so do the softened edges on the houses. The sky has turned dark blue, but on the next two pages it’s becoming purple. And the truck parks by some rows of colorful houses which represent the sleeping city.

The paperboy sleeps with his dog – which gives the story a crucial warmth. The boy doesn’t want to get up, but the next page shows his room filled with his lamp’s yellow light. The sleepy boy shuffles alone past the rooms where his family is still sleeping. But at least his pet keeps him company, and the boy and his dog head to the kitchen “where they eat from their bowls.” There’s even a whole page about the dog view of the paper route. (“He knows which trees are for sniffing,” and “which birdbaths are for drinking,” and of course…which squirrels to chase!)

I think it’s a good story, because it captures the best lessons of the paperboy life: that even a child can shoulder a responsibility, and play a role in the neighborhood’s life. The boy puts rubber bands around the papers. And though it’s difficult to ride his bike, he manages. But there’s also a quiet celebration of the joys of being alone. Sometimes the paperboy thinks about big things, and sometimes he thinks about little things. And sometimes, “he is thinking about nothing at all.”

“All the world is asleep except for the paperboy and his dog. And this is the time when they are the happiest.” It’s the same lonely message that Robert Frost shares in his darkest poems. Unfortunately, “little by little, the world around them wakes up.” The sky turns a brilliant orange, and back home, he hears the sounds of his family waking up. But he crawls into his bed, and now carries the pride deep inside of him. He dreams that he’s flying back into the nighttime sky.

And his dog flies with him too.

Coming On Home Soon by Jacqueline Woodson

Coming on Home Soon by Jacqueline Woodson

The illustrator dedicated this book “To the men and women at war, far from and home.” For Coming On Home Soon, E. B. Lewis drew photo-realistic illustrations capturing a sad story from the distant past. The narrator “tried hard not to cry” as her mother puts a Sunday dress into a satchel. “Ada Ruth,” she says, “They’re hiring colored women in Chicago since all the men are off fighting in the war.”

It’s a dramatic story that’s handled expertly by both Lewis and author Jacqueline Woodson. Even on the title page Lewis sets the tone, drawing the girl and her grandmother looking sadly through the panes of a snow-colored window. But Woodson’s text has a subtle and powerful poetry. “Hush now. Your mama’s gonna be coming on home soon,” the little girl’s grandmother says.

In the story, that picture has an even sadder context. The girl and her grandmother stare through the window because they’re hoping for a letter from the girl’s mother. “When the postman goes on by without stopping, Grandma says ‘Hush now. Don’t start that crying.’ But her eyes are sad. Like she’s wanting to cry too.”

I love children’s books where the simple statements suggest the small excitements of a new day. (“There is snow this morning. And a small black kitten scratching against our door.”) The grandmother lugs in firewood for the stove, and grumbles that the kitten is ugly. But the little girls curls up by the fireplace and plays with the kitten anyways.

The author writes poetry that’s heartfelt and honest, so she won’t sugarcoat the reality of a radio broadcast about “the battles being fought and all the man who’ve died.” And outside, “the snow keeps falling.” The little girl reminds herself of her mother, and pets her kitten’s warm fur for comfort. There’s a beautiful illustration of the two of them huddled near a tiny yellow light.

To survive, the grandmother hunts possum and rabbit. “Me and Grandma keep walking and the kitten behind us, shivering until Grandma stoops and lifts it into her coat.” But the text is written as though it’s happening in real time. As they walk, “The land goes on and on. Flat sometimes and then climbing up into a hill.”

The snow-covered fields inspire more beautiful illustrations, and the little girl talks about setting off to see the big world someday. And then the mailman arrives with a letter. “Thank you, Lord,” the grandmother whispers, and mother’s handwriting is a pretty cursive. Money falls from the envelope, and the little girl says that the letter’s first line is like a song that you want to keep singing over and over.

“Tell Ada Ruth I’ll be coming on home soon.”

The Biggest Bear, by Lynd Ward

The Biggest Bear, by Lynd Ward

He illustrated 200 children’s books, and was the illustrator for “Johnny Tremain.” The book’s jacket even describes him as “one of America’s greatest artists.” But in 1952, Lynd Ward started his greatest project. He both wrote and illustrated the story of “The Biggest Bear” – and it won him the Caldecott Medal.

“Johnny Orchard lived on the farm farthest up the valley,” Ward writes, “and closest to the woods.” He draws the boy’s smiling face, and then an illustration of his grandfather’s farm. But the third drawing shows the source of the boy’s humiliation: all the other farmer display a bear skin nailed to the side of their barns. In fact, Mr. Pennell had impressed the boy by shooting three bears once when they’d passed by his field.

If this book is problematic today, it’s only because it shows drawings of the hunters pointing their guns. But Johnny’s grandfather seems less militant, and tells the story of encountering a bear – and then running. “Better a bear in the orchard than an Orchard in the bear,” he jokes. However, Johnny finds this humiliating, and vows he’ll shoot a bear himself if he ever comes across one.

Ward obviously liked the idea of drawing the small boy in the wild woods. But he’s also dreamed up a clever surprise for his story when the boy ventures in with his gun. Johnny discovers a tiny bear cub instead, and gives it a piece of maple sugar. He cradles the bear in his arms, and takes it back to his family. And soon they’re feeding the bear cub on the milk from their cows.

The calves look on angrily, since that milk was meant for them. And the cub also likes the corn mash that was “meant for the chickens.” Each sentence gets a wonderful illustration, as Ward lets the story unfold. The cub “liked the apples in the orchard,” he writes – then shows the upside-down bear climbing a branch for the fruit!

The cub likes pancakes on Sundays, and Johnny’s maple sugar. And “Johnny’s mother got pretty upset when he started looking for things on the kitchen shelves.” One night the bear camps in a neighboring farmer’s corn field. And Mr. Pennell’s smokehouse was soon plundered for its hanging hams. Picture after picture details the havoc that was wreaked by the visiting bear.

He guzzles syrup in a shed, and even the sap tapped from the maple trees. “He was a trial and a tribulation to the whole valley,” the neighbors explain to Johnny’s father. They lead the bear back into the woods – but the bear simply returns to the farm. Ultimately Johnny decides that he has to shoot the bear after all…even though now he doesn’t want to. But fortunately, the book finds a happy ending instead, and the bear is taken off to the zoo.

And whenever Johnny goes to visit him, he always brings maple sugar.

Lester’s Dog, by Karen Hesse

Lester's Dog, by Karen Hesse

It’s kind of a depressing neighborhood. The narrator walks past the home of Mr. Frank, and remembers that “Mama says he’s a broken man since Mrs. Frank died…” But the narrator’s deaf friend, Corey, urges him to ignore Lester’s dog and follow him up the hill. “It doesn’t matter what you say to Corey, ’cause he can’t hear you, and even if he could, he’s too stubborn to listen.”

The book is called Lester’s Dog, who is actually a neighborhood legend. (The dog bit the narrator when he was six, leaving a scar on the boy’s nose…) The book opens as he’s watching the dog barking down the street after a passing car. Lester’s house has a patched, dusty lawn, “and the grass gone from Lester’s dog digging it up.” But nothing stops Corey – not even Lester’s dog – and soon the two friends are dodging traffic to cross Pimlico Road.

All the details about the neighborhood make the story seem real. Author Karen Hesse apparently based it on memories of some real friends, dedicating the book to “the whole West Garrison Avenue gang but especially for Joey.” There’s even realistic, chalk-like drawings that make the children seem like real people. It adds tension to the story about the neighborhood’s lurking drama: the threat from that dog of Lester’s.

Corey’s found an abandoned kitten, and the kitten seems to be smiling along with the boys. The boys carry it home – dodging the traffic again to cross Pimlico road, and “Before I know it, we’re at the top of Garrison Avenue. And there, two lawns down, is Lester’s dog…” The dog growls, “low and nasty” and the boy with the kitten feels scared. The kitten meows and shivers, and then the dog lunges, snapping and snarling.

He leaps! He barks! He snaps for the kitten. After running desperately, the furious narrator suddenly yells back, “from a place inside of me I didn’t know was there.” And the dog slinks away, whining and “crawling on his belly to hide under Lester’s porch.”  (One reviewer on Amazon complained that “This is the worst message possible for a child who may be unfamiliar with dogs…running away from a dog is the SUREST way to get bitten, and staring into a dog’s face is perceived by the dog as menacing-inviting an attack.”) But as the book ends, the cars are now driving down the street without being chased by the barking dog after all. And best of all, the yelling attracts Mr. Frank, who’s finally left his arm chair and is waving to the boys.

“[A]nd I know just what to do with that kitten after all.”

One Dark and Dreadful Night, by Randy Cecil

One Dark and Dreadful Night, by Randy Cecil

“Good evening…”

Standing in front of a red curtain, Maestro Von Haughty promises the reader “three tales of terror of misfortune” in “One Dark and Dreadful Night,” which will all be acted out on page-sized stage. He’s wearing a black top hat and an old-fashioned handlebar moustache, as he narrates the first story – “A Wolf in the Woods of Woe”. Standing at the side of the stage, he introduces a poor little peasant girl whose name is Lilly Riley-Hood. She’s sent to deliver a cake to her ailing grandmother on “one dark and dreadful night,” as the woods grow darker and darker…

The narrator tries, awkwardly, to create a sense of drama. As Lilly travels on her journey, even the trees grow more and more twisted, “and all the sharp pointy things grew sharper and pointier.” But in small letters in the illustrations, the young actress starts complaining about her part. And when the enormous wolf shows up, she announces “I don’t like the way this story is going,” then declares that she’d rather be a fairy princess.

At that point, the stage production falls apart, as she re-appears in a purple princess gown and starts redecorating the set. (“Kittens! Everything is better with kittens! And butterflies, and…”) The narrator re-asserts himself, insisting pompously that he’s going to stage a new story, and this time with no interruptions. (“No butterflies, no kittens, and especially no fairy princess!”) It looks like the story he’s telling is “Jack and the Beanstalk,” though it’s introduced with his new title: “The Beans of Doom.”

It’s a fun and funny book, and young readers should enjoy it, as three familiar fairy tales turn into clunky stage productions which quickly fall apart. From the top of the beanstalk come the ominous words – “Fee, Fie, Foe, Fum.”  But the narrator is startled to see that they’re coming from a giant yellow bunny. The enormous rabbit gets lowered to the stage by the young, wayward actress – still dressed in her purple fairy-princess gown.

The book’s title is “One Dark and Dreadful Night,” and it was written and illustrated by Randy Cecil. For this book, he uses quirky illustrations that look like they’re drawn with colored chalk. This complements the narrator’s dismal story-telling, but it leaves enough room for the book’s bright surprises. By the end of the story, the narrator’s stormed off in a huff, as the fairy princess cajoles all the other actors into joining her new production.

“A western with a giant bunny and kittens and butterflies!”

Harold and the Purple Crayon by Crockett Johnson

Harold and the Purple Crayon has surprises and secrets. It was written more than 50 years ago by Crockett Johnson, who also penned the delightfully simple pictures that illustrate the story. But Johnson was a professional cartoonist, which may explain why the pictures seem to steal the show, creating a story that keeps on going and going. There’s over 60 pages (and 60 drawings) in “Harold and the Purple Crayon,” and they’ll give any children the joy of a good old-fashioned comic strip: they’re simple and they’re funny.

I love the enormous purple zig-zags that Harold draws on the book’s title page, and how they segue into the beginning of the actual story. Harold looks at the blank page and realizes he needs a moon for his walk in the moonlight – then draws one onto the page itself. A very simple drawing shows his half-completed moon over the half-finished purple horizon. But in the next drawing, the moon is finished, and Harold is now drawing the edge of a sidewalk…

Harold has the wide eyes of a baby – and a baby’s confidence. Soon he’s drawing three lines to form a road vanishing into the horizon, but then takes “a shortcut” off to the left. It’s a blank page, of course, but it led “right to where Harold thought a forest ought to be.” Harold’s magical crayon may make children want to start drawing themselves. By the next picture, Harold’s already drawn most of the line for a tree trunk – and six purple stubs that suggest grass. “It turned out to be an apple tree,” writes Johnson – because Harold has drawn nine circles in its leaves suggesting apples. Then he draws a dragon under the tree (to protect the apples until they’re ripe).

The book is a celebration of fantasy – by a professional artist who understands the power of imagination. And he plays a fascinating trick on Harold. The boy’s shaking hand makes the purple line jiggle – and Harold accidentally draws the waves of an ocean, which swallow him up. What to do? Harold draws a line over the ocean, and uses it to hoist himself up while he finishes drawing the rest of a boat. He draws a sail, and then when he reaches land: an anchor. (And then – nine pies, for a picnic on the beach!)

“He hated to see so much delicious pie go to waste,” Johnson adds, so Harold draws a skinny moose to eat it all up – plus “a deserving porcupine” with a smile on its face.

But he’s not finished playing pranks on his crayon-wielding doppelganger. There’s another weird trick when Harold draws himself a mountain. But he falls off the top before he’s finished drawing the other side – so he’s falling into thin air. Falling – and upside down – Harold draws a wide circle which becomes a balloon. Soon he’s added a basket and he’s floating below the moon. But he still can’t see his house.

Harold eventually draws a house – with windows – then draws more windows. Soon he’s drawn a whole skyscraper, filled with windows. And in a laughably complex picture, Harold has drawn an entire city with 11 skyscrapers, each filled with windows. “He made a whole city full of windows,” writes Johnson. “But none of the windows was his window.”

I know that feeling.

Harold draws a funny policeman with a round nose, but the policeman isn’t much help. But despite all the craziness, the book still finds its way to a cozy ending. And it’s Harold himself who has to solve his predicament. Where is his window? Why, it’s always around the moon, of course. Harold draws a frame across the window, and then draws his bed beneath it, and crawls under the covers.

“The purple crayon dropped on the floor. And Harold dropped off to sleep.”

Barkus, Sly, and the Golden Egg, by Angela McAllister

Barkus, Sly, and the Golden Egg, by Angela McAllister

Barkus and Sly are two foxes who rob houses in the night. They’re “bad news,” according to the book’s first page, as they trundle their cart into town looking for unlocked windows. Now they’re after some plump roast chicken, sneaking “silent as shadows” into a henhouse. But they lock three stolen chickens in their shed overnight – leaving the chickens a chance to scheme.

I really enjoyed the deliciously dark tone of the introduction for Barkus, Sly, and the Golden Egg. (“No one is going to serve us with cream sauce,” sputters a hen named Tweed…) The chickens search for a way to escape, but all they find are cobwebby walls. “There’s no way out,” cries a hen named Biddy. “We might as well start plucking our own feathers!”

With despair solidly established, author Angela McAllister moves on to the solution. Among the foxes’ stolen loot, the hens discover a box of gold forks. “TREASURE!” gasps a hen named Bluff – though it will becomes a prop in their ruse. But McAllister also accomplishes something else with the treasure – showing how much fun it must be to be a thieving fox.

Every story needs an intriguing villain, and the foxes are actually this book’s central character. Sly is convinced that the chickens can lay a gold egg, and decides to secretly feed shoe leather to Barkus instead of one of the cooked chickens. When he returns to the barn, he becomes greedy when he sees Biddy sitting on a nest with a golden egg. It’s really just the tip of a golden ladle – but Biddy insists she can hatch this golden egg into a hen which lays more golden eggs.

So Sly feeds shoe leather to Barkus again the next night – again trying to pass it off as the meat of a second chicken. But eventually the other fox has heard the “golden eggs” story for himself from the chickens in the barn. Soon they’re running off on ridiculous errands – like fetching a birdbath or procuring a plum cake. Eventually they convince each fox that his partner has absconded with the hen that lays the golden eggs. And as the foxes head over the hill for a final confrontation, the forgotten hens head off into the night – along with the stolen golden forks! But they’re only using them to leave an incriminating trail for the farmer that leads back to the den of stolen loot.

Maybe I’m just a fox at heart, but I was hoping they were going to keep the gold for themselves!

Happy Feet, The Savoy Ballroom Lindy Hoppers and Me, by Richard Michelson

Happy Feet, The Savoy Ballroom Lindy Hoppers and Me, by Richard Michelson and E B Lewis

It was an “extra special” day, says the boys father. “Mama says any day I was born would be special, but Daddy says the twelfth of March 1926 was extra special. It was the day the doors swung open on the earth’s hottest, coolest, most magnificent superdeluxe dancing palace, the Savoy.” It’s a story that celebrates dancing, set in a glorious moment in New York’s past. And though it has a subtitle – “The Savoy Ballroom Lindy Hoppers and Me” – its title describes the mood perfectly: Happy Feet.

A little boy watches his father in a shoeshine shop up the street. “My toes are tappin’ and my knees are swingin’,” the story begins, and because he was born on the day the Savoy opened, “My daddy calls me Happy Feet.” The boy waves to Stretch and Shorty as they head to the club, and the book has a real sense of place. “All the hep cats come to Pop’s.”

It’s the human touches that keep the story warm. The boy is proud of his father, who “banged nails” and “mopped floors” to build the shop near the club. The father wears a cautious face when he sets a sign on the sidewalk promising the finest shoeshine in Harlem. “Ask your daddy about the night he outdanced Twistmouth George,” teases a customer named Long-Legged George. And it’s the shoe-shining father who will fondly re-tell the legend.

It’s a fun memory that’s been lovingly preserved. “‘There were ballrooms before,’ my daddy says, ‘but none like the Savoy.'” At the club, Big Bea sparks a dance “so new it didn’t even have a name yet.” The story also holds a moving message, but it’s tucked subtly into the background. “When folks are swinging, and nobody better than nobody,” sings one of the club’s singers. “Salt and pepper – equal! Cats and chicks – equals! Everybody just coming to dance.”

E. B. Lewis is my favorite children’s illustrator, and his watercolors bring the story to life. “I like the strong human interest stories,” he writes on his web site. “The kind that evoke emotion… Stories that touch the heart.” The book’s jacket adds that the story’s author, Richard Michelson, “once won a disco dance derby in college…with a little help from his white polyester suit.” But it’s Lewis who seems to have a secret affection for the story’s characters, dedicating his illustrations “to Mr. Fuller at Fuller Shoeshine,” and adding simply: “Thanks for everything.”

After the father dances at the club, he somehow he senses his wife crying, giving birth to their son. And it’s on the last page of the book that Michelson makes a gentle connection between the joy of dancing and life itself.

“When you were born,” the father says, “I held you – so new you didn’t even have a name yet – high towards the heavens so you could shine.”

Jukebox Man, by Jacqueline K. Ogburn

Jukebox Man, by Jacqueline K. Ogburn

There’s a secret story behind Jukebox Man that’s hidden on it’s jacket. “Jacqueline K. Ogburn’s grandfather really was a jukebox man, and so was her father. She never had to buy records as a child because her grandfather had stacks of 45s…” The book is dedicated to her grandfathers – and the illustrator even dedicates the book to the author, “for all your help in bringing this book to light.” It’s a childhood memory that’s been lovingly preserved – but more than that, it’s a slice of Americana.

The story describes the magic that brought music to everyone. “He had jukeboxes in dozens of diners and restaurants, fish camps and truck stops all over the state.” One restaurant “smelled like hot grease and fish and biscuits,” and another like “coffee, vinegar, and damp hamburger buns. But soon the author is describing an actual jukebox itself, “a grand Wurlitzer, the kind with a curved top and bubbles in the tubes of lights.” Her grandfather stocks it with records, and then pours out the collected change. “I had never seen so many quarters, nickels, and dimes at once.”

A record falls into place and the lights come up when the music begins, but instead the illustrator draws the smiling grandfather as the excited girl makes her selection. Illustrator James Ransome knows that the real story is in the warmth that lies behind Jacqueline’s fond memories. Even the change from grandfather’s machines seem magical – there’s a drawing of the coins on the table, which the girl’s grandfather collects into long paper rolls.

Throughout the book, the girl simply follows her grandfather on his visits to the restaurants. It’s not much of a story, but it’s fun to catch glimpses of a 1950s America. There’s a diner with a neon sign. The truck stop waitress brings a Dr. Pepper. Eventually the little gets her own 45 record to keep – “Blue Suede Shoes” by Elvis Presley. Vinyl record were precious to a little girl in the 1950s, so it’s a real loss when she drops her record, breaking it to pieces on the floor of her grandfather’s workshop before she’s even gotten a chance to play it.

But her grandfather can make everything right, just by telling her to punch C-5 on the big Wurlitzer jukebox in the corner. There’s whirrs and clicks, and then three jukeboxes start playing all at once – and they’re all blasting Elvis’s “Blue Suede Shoes.”

“I laughed and Poppaw smiled, and we danced in the patches of light as the jukeboxes flashed red, yellow, and green.”

Lucky Chuck by Beverly Cleary

Lucky Chuck by Beverly Cleary

Chuck has a motorcycle, and this forgotten classic by Beverly Cleary describes it in loving detail. “This is Chuck checking his gas tank after he mounts his motorcycle… This is the off-on switch Chuck flips to the run position, after he opens the gas valve and turns the key…” Young kids who like motorcycles should absolutely love Lucky Chuck. And J. Winslow Higginbottom contributed some realistic and detailed black and white sketches, which help to deliver all the motorized excitement.

“This is Chuck’s right hand turning the throttle that gives his engine the gas…”

Chuck smiles as he lets out the clutch, and with his freckled face, he looks a little bit like Archie. But of course, there’s another character in the story that waits for him back at home. “This is Chuck’s mother worrying about Chuck and his motorcycle.” She calls out to Chuck to be careful “as he shifts to second gear and rides away.”

There’s a funny frown on Chuck’s face as a mean dog chases after his motorcycle. (“Chuck remembers the Motor Vehicle Code says he should never kick a dog because he might lose control of his motorcycle…”) I have to admire Beverly Cleary for the way she shares all the true-to-life details that you’d experience in a real motorcycle ride. (“Spit! Spat! These are bugs splattering Chuck’s face shield.”)

The book’s inside covers even include a diagram identifying all the parts of a motorcycle, and the emphasis is on safety. (“This is Chuck’s motorcycle-driver’s license. He earned it by studying the Motor Vehicle Code and passing a driver’s test.”) Beverly Cleary was nearly 70 years old when she wrote this book, so I’m surprised how informed she is about motorcycle riding. But towards the end, a story emerges, which also seems true to the motorcycling experience.

Chuck “is having such a good time he forgets the Motor Vehicle Code. What does it know about fun?” Overwhelmed by a sense of freedom, Chuck rides down the white line in the middle of the highway, before shifting into fourth gear and blowing past a truck. And this is the point where everything falls apart for Chuck. “This is a rear view mirror that reflects the Highway Patrol chasing Chuck with blinking lights…”

I thought Beverly Cleary found a great way to write a story for young readers that’s still very exciting. Though she uses a simple sentence structure, that ultimately creates some of the humor in the book — and in a very original way. As Chuck pulls over for the patrol car, he fishtails and then skids in the gravel. And then?

“This is the officer writing Chuck a ticket for speeding and reckless driving…”

Beardream, by Will Hobbs

Beardream, by Will Hobbs

As a child growing up in Alaska, the author “came under the spell of mountains, rivers, and bears,” according to the jacket of his seventh book. It also promises a story in which a bear’s great secret will be shared with a young Indian boy. Gorgeous watercolors with soft edges add a dream-like feeling to the illustrations in Beardream. There’s a sunny forest, a bear in a stream, and a steep and mountainous valley, and both the pictures and text seem to celebrate the great outdoors.

“It was springtime in the mountains but the Great Bear was still sleeping,” writes Will Hobbs – even though the picture shows the bear capturing a large fish. “Long after all the other bears had left their dens, he was still dreaming.” There’s a grassy field that’s dotted with wildflowers, and the author seems to be honoring the bear’s point of view. And because this is the bear’s dream, even the rocky face of the mountain looks like the face of a bear!

The story offers a simple description of the adventure of an Indian boy named Short Tail. “Where is old Honey Paws?” he asks his tribe, concerned about the Great Bear and his prolonged hibernation. The book is dedicated to “the Ute children of today and tomorrow.” It’s a great story for children, because the boy strikes out on his own, climbing a steep mountainside in search of the missing bear.

“[S]oon he was climbing the mountain on all fours, like a bear,” Hobbs writes. The boundaries are getting blurry in this story, and they’re about to get blurrier. When the boy rests on the hillside, the giant mountain now becomes the face of a boy. And in the boy’s dream – or is it the bear’s dream? – the boy and the bear will finally meet.

“Wake up, Great” the boy shouts into the dark cave from a colorful hill. The growling bear snarls and knocks the boy down. But in the dream, the boy tells the bear that everyone had been worried about him. “The Great Bear sad down on his haunches and thought about how respectful the boy was.”

It’s a realistic story, which makes its fanciful touches even more special. On a moonlit hillside, the boy travels through silver mists riding on the bear’s back. There’s a wooded clearing where the bears secretly gather to celebrate the end of winter. They dance to the rhythm of thunder, in a brown, fuzzy illustration. The bear dance is a real tradition of the Ute Indian tribe, and the author is re-telling the legend of its creation.

“‘Go back and tell the People,’ the Great bear told Short Tail. ‘Show them how to do the bear’s dance.'”

River, by Judith Heide Gilliland and Joyce Powzyk

River, by Judith Heide Gilliland and Joyce Powzyk

She co-authored “The Day of Ahmed’s Secret,” but it’s her first solo book. Judith Heide Gilliland had co-authored a book about Egypt with her mother Florence (and she dedicates this book to “Mom, of course.”) But Judith turns to a different continent for “River.” The book’s first page is a map of the Amazon river, showing how it runs eastward across the top of South America.

It’s the story of the river, tracing it’s route from its origins in the tall snow-covered mountains. And there’s beautiful illustrations by Joyce Powzyk, showing the animals that live around it. A monkey clings, upside-down, to a skinny tree trunk while he lowers his head for a drink. And as Heide describes the Amazon as “the mightiest river in the world,” Powzyk draws an enormous snow-covered mountain.

There’s something exciting about the realistic drawings – especially when they’re showing exotic scenes like a tropical jungle. There’s an enormous waterfall, splashing water through the green-yellow trees, as two blue macaws fly across the bright sky. Powzyk draws a beautiful tigers, along with anteaters, toucans, and a giant anaconda. My favorite drawing shows a tribe of parrots, and a sleepy sloth trying to ignore them!

Gilliland knows that a story needs a personality, and she adds an importance to the river by establishing that it’s famous! (People have names for it along its route, calling it “The Great Speaker” or – when it’s quiet – “the River Sea.”) And she also describes the river’s neighbors, all the wonderful species that live on the river…or in it! Gilliland lists out all the fish – piranhas, eels, sharks, and needlefish – but then adds that there’s also “secret and mysterious” creatures, which “only the river knows about.

Gilliland shows a real love for her topic, and there’s a poetry to her text. (“As it rushes to the sea it rushes to the skies, becoming clouds, raining each afternoon…”) The forests stretch “for a thousand miles,” and the trees are so wet that they sometimes rain themselves. Gilliland is explaining the origin of the word “rain forest” – but she’s doing it in the perfect context.

There’s great flocks of white herons, shown filling the trees and flying grandly across a silvery lake. Are they secret birds? No – the toucans see them, and the tapirs, and “a hundred eyes that watch and wait in the forest.” Gilliland has found a way to suggest all the life in the rain forests. “It is the Amazon – river, forests, clouds, and rain. And more.

“And more.”

Michael Rosen’s Sad Book



Is the celebrity hiding a secret depression? Michael Rosen shares children’s books on a radio show in England, and he’s written more than 140 books himself, according to Wikipedia. But the first page of Michael Rosen’s Sad Book seems to be sending a message – that everyone gets unhappy…even celebrities! “This is me being sad,” Rosen writes, next to a cartoonish picture of a man smiling. “Maybe you think I’m happy in this picture. Really I’m sad but pretending I’m happy.

“I’m doing that because I think people won’t like me if I look sad.”

I have to applaud the honesty of Rosen’s book, and his message about sadness has an undeniable credibility. “What makes me most sad is when I think about my son Eddie. He died,” Rosen writes. “I loved him very, very much but he died anyway.” Rosen’s son died of meningitis in 2004 at the age of 19. “Sometimes this makes me really angry.”

There’s simple illustrations of the little boy in a bathtub or playing soccer. And the cartoonish pictures by Quentin Blake seem important, since they soften the edges of Rosen’s sorrowful text. “Eddie doesn’t say anything because he’s not here anymore,” Rosen writes. “Sometimes I want to talk about all this to someone. Like my mum. But she’s not here anymore, either.” And sometimes, he doesn’t want to talk about it at all.

Sometimes he shouts in the shower, or bangs a spoon on the table, or makes his cheeks go “whooph, booph, whooph.” And sometimes he does bad things, when he won’t reveal because “it’s not fair to the cat.” Sometimes there’s a grey cloud hanging over him, which he describes as a sadness that things aren’t the same. And Blake captures this perfectly, as four drawings show the man passing a tree, as the background turns grayer and grayer, until suddenly it’s raining.

Rosen reminds himself that everyone feels sad. He reminds himself that sad is different than bad. He tries to do things he can feel proud of. He tries to have a good time at least once a day. “And sometimes I write about sad.” It can be anywhere, any time, anyone…”

This book was selected as an exceptional book by the English Association in 2004, and to Rosen’s credit, he includes those moments when he re-awakens to the world. There’s faces at a window, the people on a train, memories of his mother, memories of Eddie, “And birthday… I love birthdays. Not just mine – other people’s as well.”

“And candles. There must be candles.”

Cowboy Bunnies by Christine Loomis

     Cowboy bunnies
     Wake up early
     Ride their ponies
     Hurly Burly.

It’s a rhyming children’s book about the life of a cowboy (bunny). They “Start at sunup, work all day roping cows, tossing hay.” And each action gets a colorful woodprint drawing – of cows, horses, and the bandana-wearing bunnies. The drawings are eye-catching, filled with bold primary colors, and the simplified shapes just make them that much more intriguing for a child, especially a very young one. You can imagine them thinking, What’s the brown? It’s a bunny! What’s the yellow? Hay!

     Mending fences
     on the ridges
     Jumping gullies
     Fixing bridges

The words are fun and enthusiastic – and of course, they rhyme. But within two pages, the bunnies are eating lunch – steaks and jellies head for their bellies.

It’s not just the illustrations that are simple and abstract. The book scatters them across the pages – rows of tall drawings, on a white background with smears of brown. The text skips around to different parts of the pages.

The bunnies don’t have names – but they have a lot of fun. At the watering hole, they “Chase each other, sit and doze, roll their pants up, dip their toes.” My favorite drawing shows the bunnies riding up a hill. There’s orange clouds in the sky, and a brown trail through a yellow field. But if you look closely, the enormous bunnies are actually riding hobby horses up the hill. Wait a minute – are they real cowboys? Or are these bunnies just playing around? Everything seems real enough, so I don’t think the author is sending

a hidden message about the power of imagination. If anything, it’s a testament to her own imagination. The bunnies are cowboys – they just are – and they’ve also turned hobby horses magically into real horses.

     Cowboy bunnies
     big and little
     pick a banjo
     play a fiddle.

One of the bunnies sings, with his eyes closed proudly and a wide-open mouth. There’s a cross-hatch pattern on his red shirt, and he’s holding a banjo, squatting in a cowboy stance. But there’s seven different pictures on the two-page spread, showing the other bunnies playing the fife, the clarinet, and even a saxophone. Go, bunnies, go!

     Sing a lonesome
     Cowboy tune
     Underneath a
     Silver moon.

The nighttime photos are the most impressive. The sleepy-eyed bunnies are seeing the world in strange colors. The bunnies are lavendar and blue, and their horses are purple, white, and even splotched with red.

     Stay up late
     Rub their eyes
     Home they go
     With sleepy sighs.

Cecil’s Story by George Ella Lyon


Cecil's Story by George Ella Lyon

“Think of it,” reads the book’s inside flap. “Your father is a soldier in the Civil War.” And the book doesn’t run from its premise. “If your papa went off to war…” begins the first sentence of Cecil’s Story. There’s a drawing of a shadowy room as a child eats breakfast in the sunshine.

The sentence rambles across two more pages – a beautiful drawing of a yellow sky and an orange sunrise, blue clouds spreading over a green field and a purple horizon. “…he might get hurt,” says page two.

“…and your mama might go to fetch him,” says page three.

The book was written in 1991 – the same year the U.S.entered the Gulf War in Iraq- and its story was said to be particularly timely. The journey to fetch your father might be long, warns page four. (Three children are left at a neighbor’s, one child unable to sleep.) “You’d help look after their cows,” reads the first cheerful caption, showing the boy with a beagle and five black and white cows in a field. 12 faded circles represent the sun as it moves over the fuzzy tree silhouettes in the background, leading up to the sad conclusion of the sentence.

“…and not cry till nighttime…”

The dog puts his head on the lap of the boy – seen from behind – as he waits for weeks for a word from his mother which doesn’t come. In the foreground, a chick hatches from an egg – 12 drawings showing the egg’s interior as it moves from yolk to life.

It’s the Civil War which has stopped the messages from getting through. The neighbors advise the boy to be brave, but he worries. There’s a drawing of a grey field – soldiers marching on the horizon. But even the soldiers in the foreground are faint and faded. He imagines his family without his father – the boy watching over his mother, raising the farm animals by himself. Would the plow be too tall? An orange and grey image fades into his patchwork bedspread – with the boy seen in the background, kneeling and praying.

“If your papa went away to war,” Lyon repeats again, this time adding to the hypothetical that he came back missing a limb or with a bad scar – “you wouldn’t be afraid, because you’d know he was still your papa…” They show the boy holding a stick with the fish that his papa had taught him how to catch, and a speeding rabbit that the boy would snare in a trap his papa helped him build.

And the last sentence reminds the reader gently that he’s still your father who shows the same tenderness, calling him “the man strong enough to lift you now with just one arm.”

Good Morning, River! by Lisa Westberg Peters

Good Morning, River! by Lisa Westberg Peters

Inspired by her childhood memories of a river in Maine, Lisa Westberg Peters wrote Good Morning, River. It was the beautiful St. Croix River, and the book’s flap says that because of her fondness, she’d “wanted to write a story that would make rivers seem less scary to children.” Her book traces the river’s appearance through milestones in the life of a little girl. It’s a simple story with beautiful illustrations that were drawn – of course – with watercolors.

The drawings capture the seasons around the river, whether it’s autumn leaves in the misty forest, or green springtime leaves when the ice thaws. Deborah Kogan Ray teaches the art of children’s book illustration, and she’s created an impressive suite of pictures. The book’s cover shows a peaceful snow along the river’s edge, but there’s a hazy yellow-green when it’s mid-summer and “the river sparkled in hot white sunlight…” And when the book takes a somber turn, the river even turns a dismal grey, matching the sky and dark leaves of the forest against the silhouette of a dreary brown mountain.

The book opens with a strange mystery: will the river ever talk to the little girl? An old man named Carl says the river will tell him when it’s safe to walk on its ice.

In the springtime, Carl and Katherine take a canoe ride, and pretend they’re boating through a steamy jungle stream filled with alligators and snakes. “Shimmery heat” rises from the riverbank’s sand in summer – and the little girl takes her first swim in the river’s water. But it’s when she’s relaxing against a log, singing songs to herself, that the river “answered with its own music – a steady slap…slap…slap of the evening ripples.”

One morning Carl isn’t there, on a grey autumn day when the wind whips the river into waves. The book hints that he has a health problem, and the little girl watches as “the car disappeared in the dust of the gravel road,” in a beautiful orange illustration. It’s the real message of the book: how the river seems to magically reflect the girl’s moods. “All that fall, the cold drizzle chilled the chickadees into silence…” The text savors each season’s changes with its own kind of poetry. (“The river was swollen with snow melt and rain. Floodwater rose to the limbs of the trees, and everywhere was the sweet smell of rotting leaves.”)

And at the end of the book, the little girl hears the river’s voice after all.

Sally Arnold by Cheryl Ryan

Sally Arnold by Cheryl Ryan

There’s a secret character in Sally Arnold: the Appalachian Mountains. “The setting of the Appalachian Mountains in West Virginia…were ideal subject matter for my paintings,” says illustrator Bill Farnsworth – “combined with the very real people of this part of America.” Author Cheryl Ryan lived on one of the mountain’s crooked ridges, where she’d heard the folk stories about Sally Arnold. Ryan lives in a tiny West Virginia town on a crooked ridge they call Sally’s Backbone – and decided to write her own story about Sally.

She dedicates it to “all who have ever gone down Sally’s Backbone to Fox’s store.”

A little girl named Jenny works in her grandfather’s store, but she knows most people shop on Saturday night, when they come for a weekend visit to the country town. When she’s bored, she plays her fiddle and pretends it’s Saturday night. There’s a checkerboard on a barrel and canned goods on the shelves. And the customers tell stories of a woman named Sally Arnold.

There’s a real sense of the town and its people, so Sally assumes the size of a legend. Sally has white hair and she looks like a witch. She lived by herself, in a shack which was “ready to slide into the creek.” She was always collecting things, sometimes searching the ditches for berries, mushrooms, and wild asparagus. “Maybe she’s just lonely,” thinks the little girl – who is already lonely herself. And on Saturday night, Sally plays the harmonica while Jenny plays the fiddle and her grandfather strums on a banjo.

There’s a mystery around Sally, and Jenny wants to explore it. One day after church, she follows Sally to her shack up the ridge. But instead she falls into the creek, her wet hair covering her eyes. The next thing she sees are “blue eyes framed in wrinkles,” as Sally Arnold has the last laugh. “Well, look what the creek brought me today! Company!”

And it turns out that Sally’s shack has a charm all its own. There’s hummingbirds in the flowers by the porch. A lazy cat stretches and yawns. Sally weaves “gathering baskets” out of the cattails she’s collected at the mud flats. Ands he understands the life of a bluebird carrying straw. “She gathers what she needs from what she finds and makes something new.” And soon it’s Sally and the little girl who are searching the ditches and road banks for berries, mushrooms, and wild asparagus. “They talk. They sing. And they never, ever walk down the road empty-handed.”

A Job for Wittilda, by Caralyn Buehner and Mark Buehner

A Job for Wittilda, by Caralyn Buehner and Mark Buehner

“There were cats on the table, cats on the chairs, cats on the sofa, the bookshelves, the stairs!” But unfortunately, poor Wittilda is out of food to feed her enormous collection of 47 cats. You’d think a witch would just magically whip up 47 bowls of cat food – but she tries a different approach. Wittilda heads out into the modern economy, and just tries to land herself a day job!

It’s funny that she has 47 cats, and it’s also funny to watch her adventures in the workforce. But “A Job for Wittilda” also gets some of its humor from the slick illustrations by artist Mark Buehner. There’s big-eyed cats, and they prowl through the witch’s cabinet, or perch in a long line across the back of her chair. And Wittilda herself wears jeweled horn-rimmed glasses – over a cutely-drawn bulbous nose.

But for a witch, she leads a surprisingly ordinary life. Wittilda gets a job at her aunt’s hairdresser’s shop. (Though she’s fired after weaving the woman’s hair into an enormous spider web pattern – and adding a real spider for extra effect.) She gets another chance to earn money for her pets, but this one is even more ordinary. Wittilda tries out for a job as a pizza delivery person.

There’s some rhymes on the first page, which set a lively tone. (Though I still think the cats were the most exciting thing about the book.) But the plot’s tension rises with a pizza delivering-showdown. If Wittilda can beat every one of the other delivery-boy candidates, she’ll finally be able to earn the cats’ dinner money. And fortunately, she’s got a secret weapon. She can deliver them on a broom that flies…

It’s one of the first children’s picture books by Mark Buehner’s wife Caralyn, and it was finished shortly after “Escape of Marvin the Ape.” And it seems like Mark is trying extra hard to make the book entertaining, while also appealing to fans of the earlier book. “Eagle-eyed young readers will also find a bonus of laughter in the antics of the alert little mouse and the cheerful spider in each picture,” notes the book’s jacket, “as well as other animals (including Marvin, who makes a cameo appearance) hidden in the cloud and elsewhere.” This book is called “A Job for Wittilda,” but it all comes down to her big pizza-delivery adventure.

Unfortunately, just as she’s about to win the contest, she spots a stray cat that’s trapped in a tree…

Step Into the Night, by Joanne Ryder

Step Into the Night, by Joanne Ryder

The book’s jacket describes the text as “haunting,” and it captures some real-world wonders. Step Into the Night pulls the reader up close to small animals lurking in a forest, but it’s more intimate than a simple description. The author actually invites the reader to become each animal, using a writing trick that visits their life in the darkness. The book’s manuscript was even reviewed by the American Museum of Natural History!

The sun “hides behind dark rooftops,” and grayness creeps, darkening everything – the fences, the bushes, the trees. But the night is alive, writes author Joanne Ryder, and “All around you, others are hiding.” A little girl stands against a tree, waiting for night and pretending to be part of the tree. But soon the “you” is addressed to the animals she sees.

“Under the vines you creep, your nose twitching, leading you to something wonderful…” A mouse spies berries, described as “soft” and “eat-me red.” And honoring the mouse’s perspective, Ryder writes that “The first berries seem always the sweetest, the best.”

There’s a moon over the forest, but another light flickers in the trees – and now the perspective is that of a firefly.

“Will she see your tiny light? Will she answer?” Soon a pattern develops – before each animal’s page, there’s another page describing hints of its presence in the night. The scent of flowers suggest opening buds, but then another scent suggests a skunk! “Let the striped one have the right of way. Let it walk where it wishes. Let it be alone.” The moon escapes a cloud, revealing a spider’s web. “Spider time is slow waiting for meals to fly to you…”

The little girl and a passing dog both hear a high-pitched sound up high – a bat. (“As you fly, you call and listen to the echoes of your cries…”) Was there something moving in the ground? The narrator knows it’s a mole, “swimming through the soil, diving deeper into the safe earth.” There’s frogs, “a singer floating in the darkness.” But soon there’s one final voice – the little girl’s mother, calling her home.

The book sides with the night creatures, and the return home is a disappointment. The magic of the night must be left behind, and “Now the moon follows you up the path to your door, and you leave the nigh behind…” The little girl blinks at the shock of the house’s bright lights, and she won’t enter without first acknowledging all the other creatures. (“Good night! Good night, everyone!”)

She really has stepped into the night, and though she ultimately returns home – it’s with the memories of every one of the other animals that she’s seen and been.

Hide and Seek Fog, by Alvin Tresselt and Roger Duvoisin

Hide and Seek Fog, by Alvin Tresselt and Roger Duvoisin

Alvin Tresselt wrote beautifully about natural subjects – like snow and heat – and the way they influence the world around them. (“A Gift of the Tree” described the entire life cycle of a dying oak tree, and the way it nourishes the ground around it.) “White Snow, Bright Snow” won a Caldecott Medal for its illustrations in 1948. Sixteen years later, Tresselt tried a similar formula. But this time, his book was about fog.

“The lobsterman first saw the fog as it rolled in from the sea,” the book opens “He watched it turn off the sun-sparkle and the waves, and he saw the water turn gray.” Tresselt writes poetically about the gradually creeping cloud, describing how it turned the water gray and made the boats bob like corks. But he also writes about the people it affects, and the book lists out every reaction.

“The dampness touched the crisp white sails of the racing sailboats, and suddenly the wind left them in the middle of the race.” Seagulls, too, respond to the fog, return to nests on the craggy rocks. Vanishing into a fog bank, even the sun becomes “a pale daytime moon.” And families on the beach hurry to gather up their picnic baskets.

The illustrations are beautiful, with a bright gray that makes everything seem soft and abstract. It’s the same illustrator Tresselt used 16 years earlier on “White Snow, Bright Snow,” and those illustrations won a Caldecott medal. Roger Duvoisin uses an entirely different style for this book, and most scenes are shown through a gentle blanket of fog. But in other drawings, the colors of the city are visible, like when the lobsterman hurries his catch off the fishing wharf. And there’s a cheerful red floor when the children make scrapbooks by a warm driftwood fire.

The lobsterman hears “the mournful lost voices of the foghorns,” but he’s stuck at shore working on his lobster traps. The fathers complain that their vacations will be spent in a foggy cloud. On the streets, people with bundles accidentally bump into each other. And the children play hide-and-seek among the foggy rocks.

It’s surprising how this simple story can become so intriguing. It’s the worst fog in 20 years, and it lasts three days. But then there’s a sudden warmth in the fog, and the sun finally pierces the veil. The water sparkles again, and the islands in the bay are lit by gold. Then everything returns to normal – the lobsterman fishes, and the children play on the beach.

Red Flower Goes West, by Ann Turner and Dennis Nolan

Red Flower Goes West, by Ann Turner and Dennis Nolan

It’s a reckless journey, and the children must ease their minds with a red flower. It’s 1849, and the father has sold off the family’s farm so they can pursue gold and free land in California. Red Flower Goes West chronicles their long journey and all its hardships, plus the joys of a child’s perspective. The book’s jacket promises “a poignant portrayal…of this defining period in American history.”

The children are unenthusiastic about the journey – and so is their mother. (And on top of everything else, the oxen are ugly.) “Ma tightened her lips, dug a red flower from her garden, and set it in a wooden box,” announces the second page. The children’s mother insists that she won’t travel without the flower, which had come from her own mother’s garden. And when the family crosses the Missouri river on a ferry boat, daughter Jenny says the flower is “a traveler, like us.”

The drawings are simple and grey, though that may be to suggest the passage of time, or the difficulty of their trip. The child looks doubtfully at his mother as she hands him a box with the flower. Their ferry boat looks tiny on the enormous Missouri river. And the father nearly drowns when they can’t afford another ferry on an even swifter river.

When the father starts to drown in the river, his son clutched the Red Flower and “told her to watch over Pa.” (Just then an Indian dives into the water and rescues him.) “If that flower dies, we’ll never get to California,” the son says later, when they’re trapped in the barren drylands. But days later the flower grows a new leaf, and Jenny cheers that they’ll be saved. And at that moment, they spot green trees – and a river running between them.

There’s some American history behind the book – and the people who created it. Dennis Nolan, the illustrator, dedicates the book to a grandfather “who was born on the prairie on the way to California.” And the author dedicates the book to her father, “who has gone on his last great journey.” As the story ends, the nights are beginning to cool, and the family has reached the Sierra mountains. To help the oxen complete the crossing, the family themselves will walk along with the packs.

“California, here we are!” Pa cheers, and they settle in a peaceful green meadow. They plant the flower in the ground, and bring it water from a nearby stream. “We were like that red flower,” the boy decides, “dug up from our home soil, ferried over rivers, jolted over plains, drylands, and killer mountains.” For all its harsh history, the book finds a sweet metaphor.

“Red flower will grow new leaves and buds. And so will we, so will we.”

When Dad’s at Sea, by Mindy L. Pelton

When Dad's at Sea, by Mindy L. Pelton

When Dad’s at Sea has an obvious message: a little girl will miss her father during his time away in the Navy. The realistic illustrations (by Robert Gantt Steele) try to dispel the mystery, showing exactly where the Navy pilot goes. But it’s really the story of the pilot’s daughter, and it describes all her feelings throughout the long absences of her father during his service. And in telling her story, Mindy L. Pelton sends a message to other children of military personnel: that they are not alone.

The book is dedicated “to Katherine and Meredith, and to the children and families of our United States Armed Forces,” but it still finds a fanciful tone. To help his daughter keep track of his days at sea, the father builds a long paper chain which they hang on the living room wall. “Take off one circle every night,” he tells his daughter Emily. “I’ll come back when the chain is gone.” The book finds a way to make the girl’s feelings tangible. The little girl hides the chain under her bed, and hopes that will make her father stay home.

It’s a dramatic story, but all the drama comes from the little girl’s sadness over her father’s departure. He says he doesn’t want to leave “the two most special people in the world,” but even when he was still at home, the girl remembered that “I missed Dad before he even left.” Some days he lives with the family in “a blue house with an American flag on the porch.” But other days he lives “with pilots, like himself, and sailors on a U.S. Navy ship carrying rows of airplanes.”

And despite the sad subject matter, there’s also some sweet moments. The little girl discovers her dad was on TV – since her mother had videotaped the father reading a bedtime story before he left. In the first circle on the paper chain, the father had written “I love you.” He sends the family an email every day from the ship. And the girl even discovers a new friend in town who’s father is also away on a long Navy cruise. “Suddenly, I didn’t feel so alone…”

The girls trace their father’s journey on a map of the world. And perhaps fittingly, the end of the journey seems to arrive surprisingly fast. The girls paint “Welcome Home” signs to hang for his return. And of course, there’s a happy ending. “There he is , Emily!” yells the little girls mother. The father removes his helmet and strolls out of his airplane, and he’s carrying a bouquet of flowers. The end is predictable, but it’s still very satisfying.

He says to his daughter that “The chain is gone, and your dad is home.”

Giving Thanks, by Jonathan London

Giving Thanks, by Jonathan London

“Of course my young friends call me a tree hugger,” says author Jonathan London. “But they’re right. I am.” And he celebrates nature in his 2003 book, Giving Thanks. London teamed up with Gregory Manchess, a self-taught illustrator who also lives on the west coast, who calls their book “a timeless expression of love for nature and of understanding our place in the realm of life.” And according to the book’s jacket, author London admits that just like the characters in his story, “I give thanks to the things of nature every day.”

In the story, the father says a thank-you for the day every day, to Mother Earth and to Father Sky. “Like his Indian friends – singers and storytellers – Dad believes that the things of nature a gift,” London writes. While he explains his philosophy, they stroll through some amazing scenery. A raccoon scurries as they walk under purple clouds. And as the sky turns blue, a tiny frog hides in the tall grass.

It’s the illustrations that really give the story its visual impact. (On the book’s jacket Manchess is identified as a “self-taught illustrator,” and I found myself wondering if that gave his pictures an extra wildness.) Gregory Manchess is like an impressionist Edward Hopper, capturing the light and shadows on the house and the trees around it, while using soft edges to suggest the shapes. He contributes a gorgeous watercolor for the title page – with swatches of yellow-white representing the clouds at sunset, covering a purple sky. The color scheme continues on the next page, where those colors are now covered by the dark-green silhouettes of a pine tree’s leaf, and the amber horizon of a hill is visible in the background, and at its base is a row of distant trees.

The father says a thank you to “the wild mushrooms that smell like pumpkins.” He thanks the trees, with their spectacular red and yellow autumn foliage. There’s an exciting drawing of a fox leaping off over a yellow field. There’s tracks of a deer, and a flock of scattering quails – and the father thanks them all.

Though it’s a simple story, it keeps getting more and more interesting, thanks to Machess’s imaginative illustrations. When London mentions a hawk, “high in the sky,” Manchess switches to a panoramic aerial view, with the hawk’s wings in the foreground and a yellow forest beneath. In the next illustration, it’s just the yellow of the sunset, and the hawk is disappearing among the last clouds. But then there’s a spectacular moonrise over an ancient and twisted tree.

And then the father gives thanks to the moon.

Albert’s Play, by Leslie Tryon

Albert's Play, by Leslie Tryon

Author Leslie Tryon was a dancer on a cruise ship once, according to the jacket for “Albert’s Play” — and she’s also worked as a choreographer. But was she tapping that experience for her book about a stage-managing duck? In 1991 Tryon created the character of Albert the Duck, who helps the local school by building an alphabet on their playground. But the next year, when her publisher asked for a sequel, Tryon decided it should be about Albert putting on a play.

“It’s time for that yearly tradition, the production of Albert’s play. Will children who wish to audition be on stage after school today!”

It’s a wonderful book, since Tryon manages to rhyme every line of its descriptive text. But she’s also drawn illustrations – and there’s lots of them. (In some cases, there’ll be several pages with no words at all!) There’s pigs and porcupines, owls and kangaroos – all trying out for a part in Albert’s play. And both the pictures and the poem give the whole book a fanciful atmosphere.

“As soon as Albert had picked out the cast, He set the crew into motion. They began with a tub and a flagpole mast, and they painted the blue of the ocean…”

There’s a bucket of yellow stars which Albert hangs from a mobile. An owl helps him mount a yellow moon, while a pig holds the rope. An industrious little skunk looks up “auditorium” in a dictionary so he can write it on the play’s poster. And while animals scurry around the stage, a bunny and pig practice dancing.

“They dangled the stars and the dancing moon while working faster and faster. No one had yet found a runcible spoon – this could be a disaster.”

Albert’s casting calls for an owl and a pussycat, and soon it’s clear what play Albert’s producing. Even Tryon’s rhythm seems reminiscent of “The Owl and the Pussycat,” and the “runcible spoon” line is a give-away clue. (There’s no such thing as “runcible spoon.” It’s a nonsense phrase coined by Edward Lear when he wrote the poem in 1871.) And at the end of the book, Tryon re-publishes the poem in its entirety.

My favorite drawing shows the audience – all the older pigs, owls, and porcupines who’ve come to watch their children performing in the school play. But the animals have finished assembling their masks with scissors and glue, and showtime has finally arrived.

And it’s especially funny that the animals are acting out a play about animals – and that their animal costumes look even cuter than the animals themselves.

The Ghost of Sifty Sifty Sam, by Angela Shelf Medearis

The Ghost of Sifty Sifty Sam, by Angela Shelf Medearis

Storytelling World Magazine named her one of the three best storytellers in the world. At least, that’s what the book jacket says (adding that she’s written “several” books). But storytelling is mostly an oral tradition. Could Angela Shelf Medearis create the same magic in a written book?

“The Ghost of Sifty Sifty Sam” offers a glimpse of the storyteller in action. She starts with a familiar premise – a realtor offers $5,000 to anyone who can spend the night in a haunted house. She introduces the ghost as a famous local legend, while leaving the details to the readers imagination. (“Old Sam roams around that house every night, scaring anyone who comes into sight.”) And then she creates a sympathetic hero – a local chef who sells batter-dipped fish from a fancy bike-pedaled cart. His name is Dan, it’s a sunny day, and he lugs his groceries into the house.

And inevitably, the ghost shows up.

But it’s here that the book benefits from its funny illustrations. They create just enough suspense while still making the ghost story comical. Medearis specifically requested the artwork of Jacqueline Rogers, who drew the wild pandemonium in “Five Live Bongos” for George Ella Lyon.. For this book, she keeps things colorful, and shifts to strange angles for her ghost-meets-man story. First she draws a glowing ghost head hovering far in the distance. (“I’m the ghost of Sifty Sifty Sam…” it whispers.) But when it finally materializes, she draws the ghost with wild long hair (along with pale ghost arms, since he’s only wearing a tank top)!

It guzzles the pork fatback that the chef had fried in a pan, then moans “I’m the ghost of Sifty Sifty Sam, and I want some more.” The chef cooks a delicious hash out of meat, potatoes, and tomatoes, but the ghost cries for more, so Dan cooks him toast and eggs.

“More!” cries the ghost…

One of Rogers’ illustrations is filled with a snaking trail of the cooked foods. There’s a pair of whole chickens (dancing), and a row of French fries.But the foods themselves seem haunted, since each one has a ghostly face. There’s peppers, pies, and potatoes – all smiling fiendishly on their way into Sifty’s mouth! And it’s followed by the book’s most amazing drawing. It shows Sifty’s swollen belly – but it’s transparent, since he’s a ghost, so all the food is still visible inside it!

I like how this book flirts with a scary story without ever getting too scary. No, Dan doesn’t get eaten himself. In fact, he’s such a good cook, that he’s earned the ghost’s favor. They live happily ever after, since Dan opens a restaurant and hires Sifty as his dishwasher.

“After old Sam has washed every last dish, Dan rewards him with crispy delicious, batter-dipped fish.”

Switch Cat, by Garry Disher

Switch Cat, by Garry Disher

“Switch Cat” has a surprisingly poetic text. It describes a little girl with “handwriting like a puddled street,” and instead of messy hair, author Garry Disher writes that she has “frenzied” hair. I was baffled by the text at first, since it seemed like a freeform poem that just doesn’t rhyme. Its short sentences present two girls who live next-door to each other, and two cats which are correspondingly neat and messy.

The messy girl loves a cat named Ms. Whiz. (“Scruffy, torn, fishbreathy, mean, a mad-eyed spark on the trunks of trees. Grubby, worn, sunloving, lean, trample-purring around my knees.”) That’s probably the book’s best rhyme, though the rhythm keeps changing throughout the book, and some of the other rhymes it presents are also much looser.

“Our parents say, ‘You must be firm!’
I hear it so often, it’s boring,
yet it’s no use saying ‘Scoot!’ at night
if I’m smack-door’d awake in the morning.”

The problem is that the messy cat lives with the tidy girl – Evangelina – while the sleek and tidy cat (Ev) lives with Cecilia. “No wonder I offend,” says the messy girl, as she describes how her fussy cat slips next door to Evangelina’s tidy room. Author Garry Disher is an Australian writer who’s written 13 crime novels with titles like “Chain of Evidence,” “Crosskill” and “Deathdeal.” But in this book, the big switcheroo happens spontaneously – the cats just like it this way – and the real crime is that eventually Evagelina moves away, taking her messy cat with her!

It’s easy to get confused, especially since the short poetic descriptions are a little low on details. There’s illustrations by Andrew McLean, but they’re simple color pencil sketches. McLean also uses water colors and gouache, according to the book’s copyright page, but most of the drawings still look like plain old color pencil sketches. I do like that they fill up most of the page, so there’s always a nice big color illustration. (I think they call this the “oversized” book size.) And they do provide lots of glimpses at the cats and their playful activities.

The book eventually finds its way to a happy ending – though I’m not exactly sure what happens. But somehow the cat escapes from its new home, and travels back to the book’s narrator.

“But I want you all to notice,
I want you all to see:
Ev now lives with Cecilia,
and Whiz lives here with me.”

Just Another Morning, by Linda Ashman

Just Another Morning, by Linda Ashman

“The day begins as many do:
I find myself inside a zoo.”

There’s really two stories in “Just Another Morning,” but they’re both a lot of fun. A little boy wakes up in his bed – surrounded by his favorite stuffed animals – but he imagines that he’s waking up inside a zoo. And then he has to tiptoe past the sleeping giants (his parents), down “a mountain long and steep” (his staircase). His imaginary story is very exciting, filled with lots of dangerous adventures, but the illustrations make sure that everything stays cute. Illustrator Claudio Muñoz uses soft colors and big, round shapes, so the imaginary story looks more like a cartoon drawn with a crayon!

“Behind a door, I find a feast
and share it with a hairy beast.”

The “beast” is the family dog, and the feast comes from the tasty snacks in the refrigerator. There’s a green monster in the closet – the family vacuum cleaner – and then the boy builds a castle out of chairs. Unfortunately, soon the “giants” are awake, appearing angry as they burst through the door into the kitchen. The boy rushes into the garden, where he plays with “a spitting snake”:  the garden hose.

It’s fun to imagine how this book got written. Linda Ashman composed the poem, but presumably she also knew what the illustrator would be drawing. This might be a good book for younger readers, because the pictures and the illustrations always have a real connection. Of course, it might confuse the youngest readers, if they take the text too literally!

“I join a traveling circus troupe,
teach a clown to hula-hoop,
train a monkey, tame a cat,
tumble like an acrobat.”

This is one of the trickiest drawings in the book because now the little boy is lost in his imagination. But the monkey looks like the stuffed monkey he’d imagined at the zoo, and the “clown” is just the family dog again, wearing a party hat. There appears to be a real cat in the drawing, but it’s just staring dubiously at a dangling hoop. And then suddenly the “giant” reappears and scoops up the boy. “I can’t break free,” he says; though, in the illustration, it’s the boy’s father who’s smiling gently. The boy ends up taking a nap in his room, and in a funny twist, the book ends exactly where it begins.

“The hours pass. When I come to,
I find myself inside a zoo…”

Catching The Moon, by Myla Goldberg

Catching the Moon by Myla Goldberg - illustrated by Chris Sheban

She’s the author of “Bee Season,” but she also wrote a children’s book. Myla Goldberg had described a little girl who robs houses in her first novel in 2000, which had become a best-seller. The little girl came from a dysfunctional family – but are there the same hints of madness in Catching the Moon? Or is it a story about magic?

It starts with an old fisherwoman who stays up all night on the pier. She’s tired each morning, and the other fishermen assume it’s her age. Even the Man in the Moon is worried, as he looks down on her efforts. The woman grumbles when she catches a lobster, saying she’s fishing for something else. But the illustrator foreshadows one of the book’s strange surprises. The bait that she’s using is a live mouse!

The illustrations are absolutely gorgeous, with the round moon filling the sky. It’s shrouded by clouds, and on its dark side is a realistic face. Chris Sheban draws the moon’s face with many expressions, like the face of a person. In one drawing, the moon arrives in a boat – smiling confidently as it rows – and it’s glow makes a silver pattern on the deep blue water by the pier.

The moon wears green sunglasses, and arrives at the woman’s door. “Sea cucumber sandwich?” he says, offering her the plate. The woman is cranky, and “was not one for entertaining guests.” But she shares tea with the moon, as the tide rolls in and soaks her floor. The moon asks about the holes in her house. The woman retorts, defensively, “Who on earth wears nighttime sunglasses?”

What would you say if the moon came for a visit? It’s a wonderful premise, and Myla Goldberg lets it roll magically along. A wave crashes through the door, knocking over the tea cups. It’s caused by the moon, since its gravity draws the tides of the ocean. And when the moon resignedly returns to his row boat – he leaves behind a trail of glowing footprints.

The next month the woman’s fishing line catches a new kettle and two teacups. (The illustrator shows the poor mouse struggling mightily to haul it in.) And the next month, there’s another knock on the door. “What is it?” asks the old woman.

“Moon pie?” came the reply.

They share tea again – and the sticky marshmallow dessert – and the moon asks how her fishing is going. It’s then that he asks why she’s fishing with a mouse, and the old woman shrieked and guffawed. She’d been fishing for the moon, and assumed it was made out of cheese. And then the story comes together. She’s planning to catch the moon, so she can make it stop sending the high tides that destroy her driftwood shack!

But now that they’re friends, there’s another way to solve her problem…

Gator, by Randy Cecil

Gator, by Randy Cecil

Gator is a brightly-painted wooden alligator, posed with a smile on the children’s carousel. “He loved the flashing lights,” writes Randy Cecil in Gator, along with “the sound of the calliope, and the feeling of wind on his face.” Unfortunately, the crowds grow smaller at the amusement park, and eventually the rides stop running, and the lights go dark. “The laughter was gone,” writes Cecil, and the book takes a dramatic turn. One day the wooden alligator “touched the hole in his heart where the pole had been, and looked over the empty park…where he had spent his entire life.

“It was time to leave.”

Randy Cecil also drew the book’s soft oil illustrations, and they give the book a strange grandeur. There’s a few quirky drawing of skinny children with big heads, but the rest of the book is about the carousel alligator, and how he ends up meeting some real animals at a zoo.  They seem just as unreal, thanks to Cecil’s eccentric sketches. The text takes some dramatic turns, but Cecil keeps it light with some funny drawings.

Before he can get to the zoo, the alligator has to wander through a hazy brown forest, and “A cold wind blew through the hole in Gator’s heart.” His best friend on the carousel was a giant wooden duck, so he’s surprised when he crosses an arching stone bridge, and sees real ducks swimming in the stream. He’s attracted to the zoo by the sound of the children laughing, and thinks it must be some kind of amusement park. “But where were the flashing lights?” Gator wonders.

Then he wanders into a pen that’s filled with real alligators, which Cecil describes as “big” and “scary.” He tiptoes away, then sits alone on a park bench, and covers his eyes as he cries. Soon he’s recognized by a child’s father, who remembered riding the carousel as a kid. Soon his son wants to ride the carousel, too, and so do more and more of the children at the zoo.

I thought this was a very original story with some clever touches. Keeping with the book’s merry-go-round theme, the story’s text always appears in ovals that are trimmed with fancy curlicues and golden paint. Together the children and the alligator cross the bridge and travel through the forest. “The calliope began to play, and the lights came back on.”

And “The hole in Gator’s heart was gone.”

Otter Play, by Nancy Luenn

Otter play book cover by Nancy Luenn
The author grew up in Oregon – and the illustrator grew up in Prague. But in 1998, they teamed up for Otter Play, capturing “the joyful magic of the river otters’ day” (according to the dust jacket), “and of the child who watches them.

The illustrations are simple – but effective. Yellow sunshine reflects off a river and tints the colors of the mountain, while the picture magically shows the inside of an otter burrow, where an otter family sleeps cozy in the straw. “They nip each others whiskers,” writes Luenn. A little boy stretches his arms to the sunlight – as inside the burrow, a waking otter stretches its paws.

The river is lit with morning colors – white rings around the otters who surface in the water. The otters slide through a cool, damp tunnel into the river – just as the boy’s family slides their boat into the river from the other bank. The book alternates between the otter’s viewpoint, and the family’s. The otters see the people, and the little boy watches “the otters watching me.” There’s even a drawing of the otters swimming under the water – and on the next page, each otter mouth holds a fish.

And while the otters eat their lunch, the little boy eats an apple…

Nancy Luenn is a talented children’s book writer, who picks colorful words that suggest the river wildlife (like “swish,” “chittering,” “loll,” and even “flapping trout”.) But in the book’s layout, the illustrator hides a special message. Each drawing is inset on the page, surrounded by a frame of the surrounding wilderness. When the sun rises, it’s colorful leaves in the dawn, and when the otters fish, there’s a fish-filled river surrounding the inset picture. It’s a pattern that continues throughout the book, building up to a remarkable image on the final page.

A stick in the apple has become a mast, and a leaf turns it into a sail – “a toy for playful otters.” Both the otter and the little boy are shown playing in the river and wrestling in the sand. And as the otters scramble back into their burrow, the boy’s mother calls him into their camp site’s tent. A star-lit sky frames the picture on two facing pages – the otters sleeping in their warm burrow, and the boy snuggling in a sleeping bag. But on the last page, the otters dream contently “of frogs and fish.” And it’s only through the hole of their burrow that the boy’s tent is seen. Almost as an after-thought, the author tells us what he’s dreaming about.

“Otter play.”

With Love, Little Red Hen, by Alma Flor Ada

With Love, Little Red Hen, by Alma Flor Ada children's book cover

She’s teamed up with the illustrator of from the “Albert” series of books – but Alma Flor Ada has a secret. As a child, Ada “had many imaginary conversations with storybook characters,” according to her book’s jacket. “Many years later, upon finding her grandfather’s letters to her grandmother, she discovered that correspondence can tell a story.” Ada eventually wrote two children’s books as a series of letters – “Dear Peter Rabbit” and “Yours Truly, Goldilocks.” But in 2001 she turned her attention to another fairy tale character for a third book – called With Love, Little Red Hen.

“I must confess…that I’m a little bit disappointed by our neighbors, Mr. Dog, Mr. Goose, and Mr. Cat,” the hen announces on the first page. She’s writing a letter to her cousin Hetty, complaining that each neighbor refused to help her plow her back yard to grow corn. (“Not I!”  they all answered…) And a second letter documents the hen’s hard labor – a description written by Little Red Riding Hood to her dear friend, Goldilocks!

Honestly, all the letters make the story hard to follow. The next page is a letter back from the cousin of the little red hen. But then it’s  Little Red Riding Hood, writing back to her friend Goldilocks. (“How do you always manage to see such unusual things?”) And the letters are surprisingly long for the text of a children’s book.  Each letter rambles on for several paragraphs – supplying yet another perspective.

Turn the page, and it’s a ferocious cat – named Fer O’Cious – bragging to his friend (a wolf) about plans to eat the hen.  But this tips off the wolf, who goes after the hen himself. And then the hen – in a letter – describes the way she slipped out of the wolf’s burlap bag. On the plus side, there’s lots of animals in this book.  But I’ve heard that children get upset when their fairy tales are rewritten. I can imagine them squirming in bed, and squealing “That’s not what happened!”

The illustrations are by Leslie Tryon, and my favorite is the inside front cover. She’s drawn 40 yellow chicks – representing the children being taken care of by the little red hen. Unfortunately, the drawings in the book aren’t as simple. All the liney-details make the drawings feel complicated – while they’re still surprisingly flat. I think simpler pictures could’ve injected more humor into the story. And it needs humor, because instead the letter format leaves the book bogged down with a deadpan delivery.

A Tree is Nice by Janice May Udry

A Tree is Nice, by Janice May Udry

It won the Caldecott Medal in 1956 – but the pictures are timeless. Marc Simont illustrated two of James Thurber’s books, according to the book’s jacket, and had also written and illustrated several books of his own. For A Tree is Nice, he teamed up with Janice May Udry, who grew up in “a city famous for its elm trees.” After leaving Jacksonville, Illinois, she’d moved to the south, where she searched for a beautiful tree that could grow quickly – and for Simont’s next project, she wrote about trees.

“Trees are very nice,” the book begins. “They fill up the sky.” But it’s not a story as much as an open-ended meditation. Simont draws a boy fishing in a stream, as Udry writes that trees are found by rivers, and also on hills. “Trees make the woods,” she writes simply, and feels compelled add a personal response. “They make everything beautiful.”

There’s a sketch of a child in the crook of a tree’s branch, and a title page illustration that looks like a cartoon. Throughout the book, Simont switches between color and black-and-white white illustrations, which makes each drawing a little more surprising. There’s a horse in the shadow of a tree, with the white page representing a bright field. And the next page shows brilliant autumn colors, with reds and yellows in the leaves of the trees.

Udry lists out the things you can do with a tree. You can play in a pile of leaves, or rake them into a bonfire. You can climb it, or pretend it’s a ship, and if it’s an apple tree, pick it’s fruit! “Cats get away from dogs by going up the tree,” Udry adds “Birds build nests in trees and live there.” They’re all facts that we’ve heard before, but it’s strangely ompelling to see them collected together.

“Sticks come off the trees too. We draw in the sand with the sticks.” The book has a simplicity that’s almost zen-like, as Udry simply continues listing out the uses for a tree. “A tree is nice to hang a swing in… It is a good place to lean your hoe while you rest.” It’s a fond book, and enthusiastic – and Udry resists the pressure to dream up a story. It takes a certain amount of integrity to simply share all the details, and let the trees speak for themselves.

There’s three pages about shade – with trees sheltering cows, houses, and even people on a picnic. “The tree holds of the wind and keeps the wind from blowing the roof off the house…” But the secret agenda of the book lies in its final pages, saying that a tree is nice…to plant.

Udry ultimately says that planting a tree makes other people want to plant one themselves.

Snow Music, by Lynne Rae Perkins

Snow Music by Lynne Rae Perkins

Snow Music is wildly drawn, with a strange, beautiful layout. Artist Lynne Rae Perkins captures a child’s excitement about new snow – but her book is also unusually creative. Both her pictures and her text offer lots of fun surprises. It’s as though Perkins is enjoying her freeform structure, like a child playing in the yard, while she offers moments of playfulness that float like a snowflake

There’s a warm pattern on the title page of Snow Music, representing the comforting wallpaper of a little boy’s bedroom. But then Perkins jumps immediately to cool colors with a remarkable pattern on the next page of blue, aqua, and purple. “Everyone whisper,” writes Perkins, before the story has even started. And then she offers a gorgeous illustration of globs of snow falling in the light of a distant streetlamp.

“Soft as our nests when day has gone, snow came singing a silent song.” As the rhyme snakes across a two-page spread, Perkins peeks into the warm dens of rabbits, birds, and mice. But the rhyme suddenly ends when there’s bright white snow blanketing the neighborhood in the next amazing illustration.

“Shhhhhhhhh,” Perkins writes.

“Oops,” she adds on the next page – as a little boy’s dog rushes out his front door.

She’s playing with the structure of her story, but she’s also playing with words. Random sentences appear, in an almost accidental rhythm. (“What is the sound of one bird hopping? Does the deer feel the cold of the snow in her hoofs?”) The right page shows a squirrel’s footprints curving in a trail, while the facing page precedes it with his thoughts. “I think – I think… I think I left it here.” And the plot has already started, though its characters remain vague and abstract.

“You say something like, Hi. I say something like, Hi. Have you seen my dog?” The sentences curl around a page, matching the pattern of the characters’ own footprints. And on the next page there’s a staff of musical notes – except the notes are replaced by four jingling dog tags. A car drives by, and its sound appear on the staff – parallel to the trail of its tires. The next page offers “Truck Song,” but then there’s a bunny in the yard and a bird on the fence. The plot only continues through the window in the background.

“Did you find him?”


The speakers are never identified, but then the narrator’s poem returns, to wrap up the book. “All of us looking for something to eat. The sun came looking for something to heat. It found the snow, and the deer’s cold feet.”

“There he is! I see him!”

Homeplace, by Anne Shelby and Wendy Anderson Halperin

Homeplace, by Anne Shelby and Wendy Anderson Halperin

Homeplace is a fascinating book that brings to life an important subject: history. It’s back cover promises that it tells the story of one family from 1810 to the present – and the house that they all lived in. There’s a patchwork of memories on the front and back cover – a woman quilting, a horse-drawn carriage, a model T, a Howdy Doody puppet. But they’re drawn in an old-fashioned style by Wendy Anderson Halperin – which makes the book feel like a thing of history, too.

The title page shows seven pictures of a girl planting flowers – but they’re arranged like panes of glass in a stained-glass window. Even the title itself is set in a fancy seraph font. “Your great-great-great-great-grandpa built this house,” the girl’s grandmother explains in their nursery. But this picture – and every drawing in the book – is fringed with a colorful filigree, like the ornaments on the frame of a painting.

Anne Selby’s simple text is just a starting point for illustrator Halperin. (Halperin shows a second picture on the same page of a bearded man in the forest – and a third one which shows him chopping a tree that he’d use to build the house.) While Selby writes that the man cleared the land, built a chimney and planted corn, it’s up to Halperin to bring it to life. She contributes 15 separate drawings to the page of the man hard at work – moving rocks, chiseling boards, stacking logs, and reaping his harvest. They suggest an entire life that’s been preserved in fragmented memories.

“Your great-great-great-great-grandma baked corn bread on the fireplace stones,” Selby continues. And soon the illustrations are showing glimpses of the homesteading wife and the rest of the family. There’s stew-cooking with an enormous pot, and feeding the children with ears of corn. One of the children grows up to be “your great-great-great-grandfather,” explains the narrating grandmother. “He grew like corn in the field…”

“Then he cleared more land.”

I’ve always been fascinated by history, and the idea that we could somehow, for a moment, make contact with lives from the past. So this book is almost magical, granting that wish of seeing our history. There’s rows and rows in a long-ago field, filled with thin stalks of wheat and grains. And there’s more pictures showing the plants, plus the family’s cows, and their sheep. On the fence rail around the field, there’s even a grey and white cat!

The sheeps’ wool is spun into warm shirts and britches by that man’s wife. She strings dry beans and apples to dry for dinner in winter. She stitches quilts into baby blankets, which will warm “your great-great-grandpa.” And he grows just as tall, in a house which is now larger. As the next generation begins…

William’s House, by Ginger Howard

William's House, by Ginger Howard

Ginger Howard studied architectural photography, and she’s even restored two historic homes. (She dedicated the book to “Jim and Jimmy Remond, always ready with hammer and nails.”) So for her first children’s book, she told the story behind a house built in 1637. “William knew just the kind of house he wanted,” her story opens. And soon she’s revealed that William is settling in America, though he was born in England.

“William cleared an area 20 feet square,” Howard writes, dedicating a whole page to the saplings and trees used for posts and fences. Since they don’t have any glass, William uses a translucent animal horn to create a window for his wife. Then he builds a fireplace in the corner, and stuffs corn husks into a bag to make a bed.

In fact, if this book has a fault, it’s that there’s too many details. Howard lists out the tasty dishes eaten by William and Elizabeth, and the problems with their stored food that tells them it’s time to build a cool cellar. In August the winds blow, and William realizes that “It is windier here than at home in England.” So to save the home from being crushed by a falling tree, William next cuts down all his trees.

The illustrations are colrful, drawn by an advertising storyboard artist named Larry Day. Day has two children, and used them as models for the children in “William’s House.” I like how he used an old-fashioned font on the title page, with a parchment scroll over a rustic landscape with birds in the sky. But like Howard, this is Day’s first book, and I wondered if that gave him an extra enthusiasm – or a novice’s uncertainty?

In the story, William puts shingles on his roof in autumn. Then in winter he replaces it with an even steeper roof to keep the snow from piling up. In January he builds a bigger fireplace. And when he realizes that it’s nothing like his home in England, he also realizes something else. “This is our new home. Welcome!”

Unfortunately, that’s the end of the book. Its whole story is about a construction project! But luckily, there’s a secret second story that’s scattered throughout the book. As Day’s watercolors illustrate the father’s worries about his house, Day tucks black and white sketches of William’s boys playing in the nearby woods. It’s a crucial component to the story, because it gives it an extra playfulness, and even some childish warmth.

Howard’s text may offer a peek into 1637 – but thanks to Day’s cheerful drawings, readers also get two more!

The Good-Night Kiss, by Jim Aylesworth

The Good-Night Kiss, by Jim Aylesworth

“On the night of the good-night kiss, a small green frog peeks out from under a lily pad.” The illustrations by Walter Lyon Krudop are beautiful – and they walk the reader through a series of animals watching the setting sun. The green frog sees an old raccoon, “sniffing along the pond bank, looking for something to eat.” And the ripples on the pond are a shimmering orange – while a dark red flower leans in the foreground.

The story travels to a new creature on nearly every page, and the book offers a breath-taking glimpse into the world of nature. “I have always had a dream of living the country,” the illustrator reveals on the book’s jacket, “and I think that’s where the inspiration for these paintings comes from.” In the light of the rising moon, there’s the silvery outline of a deer drinking from the pond. And Krudop’s next illustration shows that same deer – as seen from an owl flying across a field overhead.

The owls wings are spread in a spectacular array of feathers – matching the lines of the furrows in the field below. And in the next drawing, the owl’s landed in a dark window at the very top of a tall, red barn. Looking down into the shadows, it can just make out the dim colors on the shirt of a farmer. And the farmer’s climbing down from the seat of his tractor – where he glimpses a man in pickup truck driving down a dusty road…

It’s a beautiful book, and I love the illustrations, but there’s also something zen-like about the story by Jim Aylesworth. The man’s pickup truck pulls into a gas station – where it sees an enormous 18-wheeler that’s lit up in the moonlight. The 18-wheeler travels under a railroad bridge, and the truck’s driver spots the man in the lighted window of a freight train’s caboose. There’s moody night-time drawings for every scene, but Aylesworth keeps adding more and more new people to his mysterious chain of omniscience….

Aylesworth dedicates the book to “those who tuck them in, with love!” and it’s a hint about how he’ll ultimately end the story. I was expecting the series to end with one creature finally catching a glimpse of the small green frog that’s peeking out from under a lily pad. But instead Aylesworth ends his story with a tiny white moth, catching a gentle glimpse of a parent who’s giving their child a good-night kiss. And the book ends with two sweet, simple words.

“Good night!”

My Friend, the Starfinder, by George Ella Lyon

My Friend, the Starfinder, by George Ella Lyon

George Ella Lyon is one of my favorite writers, but there’s some surprising illustrations in “My Friend, the Starfinder.” Stephen Gammell contributes amazing watercolors showing the wonders of the night sky, adding a glorious background for even the simplest sentences. It’s a fascinating combination of two artists – a writer and illustrator – and there’s an exciting interplay between the two as the story moves along.

Lyon describes an old man in a ragged suit – but the illustrator fills his jacket with wild colors. The colors almost steal the show, as the side of his house is filled with greens, pinks, and purple. “He wore old soft clothes and sat in and old chair on an old green porch and told stories,” Lyon tells us. On the next page, a meteor shines through a green universe… But then the watercolors switch to rich grays and whites when the old man begins telling his story to a little girl.

Even with blacks and grays, he somehow creates a magnificent sky filled with planets and stars, its dark clouds swallowing trees on a hill. The shades create levels and depth behind twinkling stars, even on the title page where the author and illustrate dedicate the book to their loved ones. I’ve never seen black and white watercolors before, but they’re surprisingly effective. The illustrations show the old man’s memory of following a star across a field when he was a young boy.

When Lyon writes that the boy kept walking, Gammell draws a breath-taking cumulus cloud, stretching across the sky with black edges in a bright white sky, dwarfing the tiny fence in the field below. When the boy reaches the top of an inky hill, there’s a splotch of yellow and spectacular stars in the sky. Lyon writes simply that the boy “picked the star up,” and Gammell imagines a big star-shaped rock, its grays flecked with gold and turquoise. And when he hands the star to the little girl, the two friends are filled with colors, and a ray of sunshine peeps through the gray clouds.

In another story, the old man’s hand turns purple – and Gammell draws mysterious tangles of branches and tree trunks. I like Ella’s simple words – she describes one color as simply “orangey orange as fire” – and it turns out the man had wandered to the end of the rainbow, discovering “cool warm striped air.” But the illustrations give the story a vast perspective – showing the mountains in the valley as a pastiche of colors with white wisps and a yellow streak of sun.

And Lyon writes that she could feel all the colors.

Badger’s Parting Gifts, by Susan Varley

Badger's Parting Gifts, by Susan Varley

It’s a sweet story about death. “Badger was so old that he knew he must die soon,” writes Susan Varley on the first page of Badger’s Parting Gifts. It was the first book that Varley both wrote and illustrated. And showing a first-timer’s ambition, she tackles the most important subject of all.

She writes Badger as a kind character — “dependable, reliable, and always ready to help when help was needed.” He’s enjoys watching the younger animals run races with their healthy young bodies, and he worries about their feelings after he’s gone. He’s told them that someday he’ll be taking a journey, and instead of death says he’ll be traveling through a tunnel. And he leaves behind a simple note for his friends: “Gone down the Long Tunnel. Bye Bye, Badger.”

He dreams of a tunnel on the night he dies — it makes his legs strong and youthful, and by the end he’s floated out of his body altogether. It’s fascinating to watch Susan Varley dismiss the mysteries of the afterlife with the conventions of a fairy tale. It’s a “strange and wonderful dream,” one that badger has never experienced before. And magically, “He no longer needed his walking stick, so he left it lying on the floor of the tunnel.”

The animals feel lost and alone, and the Mole cries the most, drenching his blanket with tears. But as the winter turns to spring, the animals began sharing their memories of Badger. Mole remembers how Badger had taught him how to make a chain of paper dolls shaped like moles. And in the illustration, the badger is back, kindly demonstrating the technique with spectacles on his nose.

Varley is a British artist, and her drawings remind me of “The Wind in the Willows.” There’s a smiling frog who remembers when Badger taught him how to glide on the frozen lake. And like “The Wind in the Willows,” the animals wear fine jackets. In fact, the Fox remembers how it was Badger who’d shown him how to knot his tie!

There’s charming details throughout the story, which make it feel more engaging. Mrs. Rabbit remembers the “wonderful fragrance of gingerbread fresh from the oven” after Badger had given her a cooking lesson. And one illustration shows the animals passing on the skills they’ve learned to other younger animals. The animals’ sadness melts along with the snow, but Mole stands on the hillside where he’d seen Badger for the last time. He says “Thank you, Badger,” believing that somehow his friend would hear him.

And thanks to the magic of children’s book, Susan Varley writes that “somehow…Badger did.”

Hurry!, by Jessie Haas

Hurry!, by Jessie Haas

“Hurry!” tells the story of a farmer’s life in one remarkable afternoon — when a summer’s harvest of hay is threatened by rain clouds. “We can’t make the sun dry faster,” says a little girl’s grandfather, who waits on the sun — and worries. He re-checks it nervously, watching the graying sky. “The sun feels weak, but the wind feels strong,” hints the author — and the grandfather has sent Nora to check whether their hay is dry yet.

Jessie Haas is a talented writer who’s written several books about the farmer grandparents of a little girl named Nora. (“Sugaring” tells the story of turning sap into syrup, and in “No Foal Yet,” they nurture a mare that’s birthing of a colt — and she’s written a whole series of books called “Beware the Mare.”) But in this book, it’s the hay that looks magical in the little girls hands — crazy strands of green and brown, as Haas describes the hay appealing to the senses. “It smells as sweet as flowers… It makes a rustling, papery, hurry-up sound.” But Haas also captures the real tension that surrounds the once-a-year harvesting of a crucial crop. The grandfather rakes the hay into rows — but the sky is growing dark. Grandpa’s wife fetches the pitchforks as grandpa hitches up the hay wagon…

There’s grand illustrations for the story supplied by Jos A. Smith. Using water colors and pencils, he creates a simple beauty for the family that tends the land. On the first page he’s drawn white clouds on a blue sky over a hay field with changing shades of green — and in the center the little girl with the plow horses. Later there’s a hayloader scooping up hay, and Haas describes all the details of packing the hay into the wagon. (Grandpa and his wife move the hay to the corners of the wagon, and trample it flat so there’s more room for the rest.) But the next picture completes the story, showing the hay wagon filled with hay — Nora riding high above the ground — as a shades of grey fill the background sky. The hay wagon is a shadowy grey itself, with small shadowy people riding its load and two shadowy horses pulling.

Its load of hay “is as big as the moon” — so big that “The big moon tips.” But it doesn’t slide off. “Good job,” says her grandfather, as they hurry the wagon to the barn, which holds in the sweet hay smells. “All of summer is inside here. The rain patters, then it splashes…”

And the family sits on their enormous haystack, and watches the rain outside.

Bewildered for Three Days, As to Why Daniel Boone Never Wore His Coonskin Cap, by Andrew Glass

Bewildered for Three Days, As to Why Daniel Boone Never Wore His Coonskin Cap, by Andrew Glass

What do Buffalo Bill, Kit Carson, and Johnny Appleseed have in common? They’ve all appeared in children’s books by Andrew Glass. But in 2000, Glass turned his attention to Daniel Boone, the famous Kentucky frontiersman. Glass starts with a true piece of history – that Daniel Boone never actually wore a coonskin cap – then invents a tall tale that explains why!

Writing about Indians is a delicate subject, but Glass finds a way to have it both ways. A young Daniel Boone farms a “hardscrabble” field with his brothers, they’re suddenly surprised by a tribe of Cherokees. Glass writes their “warriors burst through the trees, shrieking and waving hatchets.” But it turns out they’re friendly Indians, who have come to protect them from a more hostile tribe. “It was only a terrifying misunderstanding,” explains Daniel Boone’s mother.

Glass’s illustrations are almost impressionistic, with bright colors, almost like an American Gauguin. It seems oddly appropriate for a story set in the mid-1700s. Glass mixes some real history into his tale, and soon the Indian’s son is telling Daniel Boon about a fertile farming land that waits beyond the dark mountains. And Glass drew a funny illustration of Boone waking in the woods, only to discover a hairy bear standing over him.

It’s difficult to be both the illustrator and the author, and Glass sometimes offers too many details. He devotes a whole page to Boone’s thought process, explaining why he decided to chase the bear who had stolen his coonskin cap. But Glass seems determined to present a sympathetic explanation for the Indians’ hostility. (“The Delaware [Indians] live in the forest and love the savage wilderness as their mother. When we ask them to honor our fences, it is an unreasonable thing we ask.”)

There’s some exciting scenes, like when young Daniel Boone jumps off a 60-foot cliff to escape an attacking tribe of Indians. (The Indians gawk as Boone lands in a tall tree, while the text explains the rest of Boone’s escape.) Boone ends up hiding in a hollow log – all night – while the tribe of braves camps for the night, never realizing how close he is. Boone intrudes on a family of raccoons, and to thank them for his hide-out, he promises, “sure and solemn: I will never again wear any of your kin on my head.”

In an author’s note at the end of the book, Andrew Glass admits that Boone probably just preferred wearing a wide-brimmed hat. But he thought a promise to raccoons would be more dramatic!

Shenandoah Noah, by Jim Aylesworth

Shenandoah Noah, by Jim Aylesworth

Shenandoah Noah doesn’t like farming, like the rest of his kinfolk in the valley. Because farming means driving a plow in the hot sun behind a mule. “[A]nd work is something that Shenandoah Noah doesn’t care for.” He just wants to sit in the shade with his hounds up in the mountains.

His troubles start when he catches a case of the fleas…

Glen Rounds delivers some wonderful two-color sketches – clear black lines with an old-time yellow tint. So Shenandoah Noah appears as a shaded yellow mass with pointy edges for his boots and fingers. He’s got an irritated look on his face as he scratches – and he’s also surrounded by two scratching hound dogs. Shenandoah Noah doesn’t like washing himself – because that means chopping wood to boil water.  And chopping wood is work – “and working is something Noah doesn’t care for.”

The illustrations are cute, and they work nicely with the story. Soon Shenandoah Noah has chopped a large pile of firewood logs – and Noah’s axe is poised over head, like he’s splitting one more. Then he’s hauling buckets of water to a pot on his fire – and the illustration shows spikey flames and long twirling swirls of smoke. Standing behind the pot, Noah dunks all his clothes with a stick. He’s wearing nothing but a scowl – and it does look like a lot of work. The next page finally shows his long flannel underwear dripping on a tree.

The character of Noah comes to life, both because of the text about his dislike of work – and the sketches which actually show it. Soon this man who hates work is doing work – and even his kinfolk in the valley can see the smoke from his fire. This seems suspicious, since chopping firewood is work, and “[E]verybody knew that work is something Noah doesn’t care for.” So Noah’s nephew heads up to investigate – with a shotgun.  

And unfortunately, chilly Noah is warming himself under a bearskin rug.  And he’s too embarrassed to let his kinfolk see him without any clothes on. The startled nephew mistakes the rug for a real bear, and Noah shouts out “Don’t shoot! It’s me!” But the frightened nephew runs away, and tells everyone in the valley that Noah has turned into a talking bear.

Which is fine with Noah – since he likes being left alone. Under his tree, the overworked mountain man draws a conclusion from all of this trouble.

“It just proved he shouldn’t do much else but sit in the shade…”

Charlie and Tess, by Martin Hall and Catherine Walters

Charlie and Tess

Both the author and illustrator live in England, but the story comes straight from the animal kingdom. A farmer finds a lost lamb in a snowstorm, and his children adopt it as a pet… Soon it’s the farmer’s dog Tess who’s watching over the baby sheep, and the two animals become great friends. They share a doghouse and keep each other warm – and Charlie and Tess tells the charming stories about their life together.

The two animals look very cozy, curled up together on a red flannel blanket. The illustrations by Catherine Walters are bright and colorful, and they offer everything you’d want in a children’s book – a happy dog, sunny days, and the excitement of new friends. There’s some fun drawings of pair in a flowery field (with mice poking their noses through stalks in the foreground). And when the farmer tosses a beach ball, both Tess and the lamb Charlie take turns chasing after it!

It was Martin Hall’s first book, but there’s no need for a complicated plot. The lamb-as-a-pet angle is already enough, with the added warmth of his friendship with the farmer’s loyal dog. While Hall savors these details, he slips in an extra plot point. Charlie carries a newspaper proudly in his mouth, and the lamb even gets his own leash. “Sometimes I wonder if Charlie is turning into a dog, the children’s mother admits. And when Charlie joins the farmer’s flock of sheep, Charlie thinks it’s his job to herd them!

The daughter laughs while the farmer worries, but the flowery fields keep the story colorful. “Tess was lonely without her friend, and whined every night be her doghouse,” and soon there’s an even stranger twist ultimately leads the book to a surprisingly satisfying climax. Soon there’s a big snowstorm which threatens the farmer’s entire flock of sheep. “If they didn’t move into the valley quickly it would be too late,” Charlie realizes. “He ran ahead of the flock, baaing loudly. He turned back and butted the other sheep, pulling at their wooly coats with his teeth.

“He raced backward and forward, until finally the flock began to move….”

There’s a happy ending, since the farmer’s sheep are saved after all – and it’s Tess the dog who gets to deliver the good news. (She tugs on the farmer’s trousers and barks, then leads him to a sheltered hollow.) The farmer’s entire flock had weathered the night safely. And in the final drawing, the dog proudly licks the sheep’s fur.

Jackie and the Shadow Snatcher, by Larry Di Fiori

Jackie and the Shadow Snatcher, by Larry Di Fiori

It’s a children’s picture book that actually looks like a comic book. There’s a grid of beautifully sketched black-and-white panels on each page of Jackie and the Shadow Snatcher, and the story is told entirely through dialogue balloons. Larry Di Fiori has worked as an illustrator on some picture books using the Muppets. But in this book, he seems to reach back all the way to the 1920s, telling a long fantasy-adventure story that could’ve been serialized during the golden age of the Sunday newspaper’s comics section.

The book is titled “Jackie and the Shadow Snatcher,” and there’s even a bubble on the book’s cover that describes it as “A thrilling adventure and mystery.” There’s criminals wearing the traditional black and white stripes and an eye mask – and an old-fashioned bowler hat. The book opens innocently, with a boy named Jackie in a cap walking past the smokestacks on the edge of town. But if you study the picture carefully, you’ll see something strange happen to his shadow. First it’s in front of Jackie, and then it’s to the side of him – and then it’s just a pair of shadowy legs kicking as they’re dragged into a tree!

The magic of the story makes it instantly intriguing, and the simple characters are still funny to watch. It’s as though it’s taken the best elements of a comic book, and then transported them into a children’s picture book. For example, because the book’s illustrations are black and white sketches, the book is ultimately filled with lots more pictures than usual. And with all the accompanying extra dialogue, this book could keep young readers occupied for a longer period of time!

But what I liked most about this book was the way it takes its time with the story, as though it really was written during a more leisurely era. There’s a whole page devoted just to the eight panels where Jackie’s pet Bulldog arrives, and then sniffs the ground at his feet with concern. And then there’s another page for just the complete text of Jackie’s reaction. (“What are you trying to tell me? Golly! No shadow! Well… I’ll be doggoned. I don’t cast a shadow! I bet I lost it on the way home from school…”)

Ultimately the story finds his way to the spooky mansion of the shadow snatcher – the hide-out for a criminal mastermind and his gang of thieves. The illustrations suddenly get more grand and fanciful, and the final showdown is very satisfying.

And my favorite illustrations shows the glorious liberation…of all the stolen shadows.

A Regular Rolling Noah by George Ella Lyon

A Regular Rolling Noah by George Ella Lyon

“Now I’d never seen a train before today, but I’ve heard its whistle down at the mouth of the hollow…”

A farmhand walks with the animals, wearing patched jeans and a cowboy hat. He’s wearing red suspenders and a blue shirt, and he’s carrying a bed roll, since he’s helping neighbors move their farm to Canada . They ask him to walk along behind their wagon, and eventually they reach the train. “Bedding and seeds and plows, pot vessels and young’ uns – we load them into the train and it shrieking and steaming.”

“A Regular Rolling Noah” was one of the first books written by George Ella Lyon, at the age of 37. But she’d just published her first collection of poetry, and she applies the same skills to her narration.

There’s simple sentences, like “Hay and feed in the boxcar…” but they reveal so much about the character. Each item suggests the farm and its animals, and they’re listed as though they were afterthoughts, remembering a long day of loading up a train…

Illustrator Stephen Gammell keeps the story intriguing with some simple but realistic watercolors. The train’s engine has a red smokestack and its front is a big yellow circle. The skies are pastel blue, with white clouds, and the train’s tracks are surrounded by the soft green of a grassy field. There’s darker greens for the mountains when the train travels on its journey – and of course, there’s also red and yellow boxcars.

 The farmhand rides along with the animals, and it’s a journey into the unknown. Black smoke puffs fro the engine, as the train travels farther and farther. The boxcar door is open a crack, and hay spills out while the farmhand milks a cow. The next morning, when they reach a new railyard, the farmhand trades eggs for coffee with the hoboes.

“A regular rolling Noah,” one of them suggests, and the boy with the cowboy hat smiles. He has to rush after the train as it leaves the station, and then sweep out the boxcar to put down fresh hay. My favorite picture shows the boxcar from the inside, crowded with cows, a horse, and chickens. There’s a pitchfork in the hay, and the boy feeds the mare a green apple. And in the next picture, they’re all peacefully lying on their side to sleep – the horse, the cow, the calf, and the farmhand.

A Traveling Cat, by George Ella Lyon

A Traveling Cat by George Ella Lyon

George Ella Lyon was approaching 50 when she set down her childhood memories of a cat she’d found in a small mining town in Kentucky. The cat’s name is Boulevard. You see her silhouette on a trestle bridge over a grassy, tree-lined river – with blue mountains in the background. “I found her at the drive-in movie,” writes George Ella Lyon, “on the playground in front of the screen.” The cat on the playground sits attentively, bravely studying a little girl with its ears perked up – but in the background are classic cars from the 1950s. It’s not only a cat’s perspective – it’s a cat’s perspective from the distant past.

Each page in A Traveling Cat shows beautiful, moody illustrations that show the world in colored chalk – the shades of color in the sky, the bright green of a field – and they make the familiar seem special and magic. When autumn comes, the trees turn orange and yellow. And ironically, one of the most beautiful drawings is on the page with the copyright notice. It’s a two-page spread showing dawn’s light over dark and purple hills. The traveling cat’s road is streaks of yellow, orange, purple, and blue. It’s as though the whole world was being seen through the eyes of a cat.

A little girl named Ruth discovers the cat at a drive-in. Relaxing on the wide upholstery of the car is the girl’s father, who seems friendly – and the whole family seems to enjoy the cat. The drawings capture everyone’s personality. The father lifts the cat proudly, Ruth cradles the cat affectionately, and the text also seems to add to the personalities as well. (“‘Ruth’s found a hitcher!’ he said, picking Bouvie up. ‘Now whose little cat could you be?'”) She watches squirrels, dances in the snow, and catches a ride on the family’s beagle, Roscoe. “Bouvie DID swing from the curtains,” Johnson remembers, “but even Mom said she was graceful.”)

But the text reads like poetry. (“Bouvie had a night-colored coat splattered with gold, like stars.”) And it captures the mystery of life with a cat. The cat disappears for a week, then surprises the family with kittens. On a stormy night she walks through the door, and drops the tiny kitten at their feet. Then does it four my times, depositing five kittens.

Two pages later they’re all given away. And when a flood swamps the town, all the neighborhood’s pets disappear. The animals fled to high ground in the hills – but they never came back. There’s an empty drive-in theatre, with two sad people in the foreground.”All summer I’ve looked for my cat, especially at the drive-in.”

The cat’s gone for good. The book imagines her wandering up a shadowy road with the sunlight through the leaves. But the book finds a positive philosophical note to end on. “Dad says Boulevard stayed a long time for such a traveling cat.

“Maybe, but not long enough.”

Night Ride, by Bernie and Mati Karlin

Night Ride, by Bernie and Mati Karlin

“Night Ride” is a children’s book that you experience instead of just reading. Every drawing is a dark scene from the night of mother’s car trip with her son. And every sentence is a part of their conversation. The book opens as they wave good-bye to the boy’s sister and father – seen in silhouette on the steps of their house. “Good-bye, Dad. Good-bye, Susie.” And the adventure has begun…

“Is your seat belt fastened?” the mother asks with a smile. But she’ll never be shown again, since the book switches to views of what’s outside their car.  “Careful, Billy. Don’t drop the money,” his mother says as their call pulls into a toll booth. The toll-taker is shown smiling back – and his booth is decorated with dimly-lit signs. Turn the page, and there’s a spectacular view of the city lights at night.  

“Wow!” says Billy.
“Pretty, isn’t it?” says his mother…

And it is pretty – a two-page spread showing the black outlines of buildings, sprinkled with lights, under the moon and the stars, behind the shadowy towers of a bridge. The pictures provide all of the details about what they see – including an airplane coming in for a landing, an overturned delivery truck, and the lights of a distant amusement park. They’re simple but realistic pictures documenting the random speckles of light in those quick glimpses of the world at nighttime – and there’s a gentle magnificence to it all. The final page shows a sunrise over a village, but the rest of the book captures the magic and mystery of night.

The entire plot of the book is delivered wordlessly – only implied in those spaces around the conversation. Because of its simplicity, Simon and Schuster labeled it as one of their books “for young readers,” but it’s still a nice example of the everyday love in a family. It was written by the husband-and-wife team of Bernie and Mati Karlin (and illustrated by Bernie Karlin). And on the first page, the couple dedicated the book to their parents, their children, and their grandchildren.

It’s an original book, and its plot would probably be described as “naturalistic”. But once readers discover the book’s pattern, it’s a lot of fun – and it still leaves lots of room for imagination. And despite all the mystery, the book still ends on a positive note.

“Are you asleep, Billy?

“It’s going to be a beautiful day.”

Dear Santa, Love, Rachel Rosenstein

Dear Santa, Love, Rachel Rosenstein
“All she wants for Hanukkah is…Christmas,” reads the tagline on the cover of Dear Santa, Love, Rachel Rosenstein. It seems that Rachel loves all the colorful decorations — she’s seen looking fondly back at them as her mother drags her by the hand. And of course, everyone on her block celebrates Christmas — except Rachel’s family. So one night Rachel writes a secret letter to Santa, promising cookies if he comes down her chimney (and pointing out she’s been good all year).

It’s a playful way to address a very real dilemma that Jewish parents with young children have to face every December, according to the book’s co-author, Amanda Peet. “A lot of Jewish parents seem very relieved and excited,” she told The Jewish Standard, “and then I think that a lot of people from our parents’ generation are also kind of tickled by it, because they remember feeling that way on their blocks growing up… I know my mother-in-law felt really touched by it, because that’s how she felt in her town where she grew up.”

I especially liked the colors in the book — lots of bright pastels, often emphasized by white backgrounds which can suggest a snowy street. (Illustrator Christine Davenier worked with Julie Andrews on her “Very Fairy Princess” series.) And it’s inspiring that despite its lighthearted story, some of book’s profits are being donated to a very serious non-profit, “Seeds of Peace” (founded in 1993 as a peace-building program for teenagers in Palestine, Israel, and Egypt, and other areas of conflict around the world). But best of all, like any good children’s picture book “Dear Santa, Love, Rachel Rosenstein” has a thoughtful message that’s honoring a child’s feelings, and making sure they know that they’re not alone

The book includes a sincere description of celebrating Shabbat, and acknowledges that “Being Jewish was fun most of the time. It meant you got to hunt for the afikomen on Passover, blow the shofar on Rosh Hashanah, and get a present a day for all eight days of Hanukkah — not to mention as many latkes as you could eat.” The book’s dramatic climax comes, of course, on December 24th. Rachel has created Christmas stockings for her family’s fireplace, strings of popcorn, and a big sign that says “I love you, Santa!” (And she even presses chocolate chips into latkes, then leaves them out with a glass of milk…)

“The Rosensteins were ready for Christmas,” the narrator writes, and Rachel anxiously stays up late, “listening for the clip-clop of Santa’s reindeer on the roof.” But will Santa make an appearance? I hope this isn’t a spoiler, but the answer is…. no. The next morning her father takes Rachel, who’s very disappointed, to an empty park drawn with bare, twiggy trees and covered with snow.

But then the family eats at a Chinese restaurant, and it’s there that Rachel sees some friends from her class at school. There’s an Indian girl and a Chinese boy — who celebrate Diwali and Chinese New Year, respectively. (And who also don’t celebrate Christmas.) Here’s where the book delivers its message of reassurance. “Rachel realized: when there were so many great holidays in the world, why feel so bad about one little old day like Christmas?”

Although as a final joke, the narrator concedes Rachel might feel “a tiny bit bad” — as she sees four Christian kids walking down the street with enormous presents wrapped with red bows…

The Turkey Mystery Rhyme by Moe Zilla

A funny turkey ebook

Yes, it’s that once-a-year tradition, sharing this funny free ebook about turkeys — mine! It’s a fun short mystery that’s written entirely in rhyme, with 12 cartoon-y illustrations that tell the story of four turkeys on Thanksgiving Day waiting for the farmer’s axe. (“But one of the turkeys has a plan to escape!” read’s the book’s description at Amazon. “Can the farmer figure out which one? And can you?”)

For a shortcut to this free Thanksgiving ebook, just point your browser to

It’s called “The Turkey Mystery Rhyme,” and it was a real labor of love. (For five days every November, I make it available for free in Amazon’s Kindle Store.) Over the years the ebook has even had some strange adventures of its own. The day after I published it, I’d discovered that my turkeys had snuck onto Amazon’s list of the best-selling children’s ebooks about animals – and stolen the #73 spot from a book about Curious George!

And my friends surprised me one year by insisting that we all read the whole ebook out loud on Thanksgiving Day. They’d connected their widescreen TV to their computer, so it was mirroring whatever appeared on its desktop, and then they’d pulled up Amazon’s Kindle app on that computer, and led it to The Turkey Mystery Rhyme. It was a great way to get some real reactions to the story, especially since most authors never get to actually be in the room while their ebook is being read! And then we all took turns reading the rhyming story out loud.

“For Thanksgiving, try this game. Find the guilty turkey’s name…”

I remember we had a teenager in the room, and his mother asked if he knew which turkey had launched the daring plan for escape. But that mother was a sharp cookie, and she challenged one of the book’s important fictional premises.

Fearing folks on every street
hungering for turkey meat,
In the farmer’s yard’s a spread
where Thanksgiving turkeys bred.

When the daylight brightly broke
all the farmer’s birds awoke.
And, since it’s a holiday,
all turkeys can talk today…

“What?!!” she said, to laughter from the room. “Since when can turkeys talk on Thanksgiving Day?”

Everyone knows that,” I joked. “You’ve just never been on a farm…” And then we laughed some more, and continued reading…

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!

Read the free rhyming Thanksgiving turkey mystery at

The Great Pig Escape by Eileen Christelow

The Great Pig Escape by Christelow

It’s based on a true story – just like Steve McQueen’s “Great Escape” – but with pigs! According to the book’s jacket, the author of The Great Pig Escape read a story in the Cedar Rapids Gazette about a farmer who was taking his pigs to a livestock auction, and discovered they’d all escaped from the back of his truck. (“After the farmer discovered his loss, he retraced his trip and found all of his pigs in various parts of town, miraculously unhurt.”) Author Eileen Christlelow saw potential for a good children’s book, but she also decided to make a few changes in the story.

Bert and Ethel live together on a farm, and one day Bert suggests that they raise pigs.  “Sounds like trouble to me,” says Ethel, but Bert buys six piglets anyways, and even Ethel admits that they’re cute. After a while, she’s the one who’s warning Bert not to hurt their feelings. She even shushes Bert when he says “Eight months from now they’ll be pork chops, so don’t go falling in love with them…”

And when Bert announces to Ethel that he’ll sell the pigs at the market the next day, she warns, “Sh-h-h! They’ll hear you!” Sure enough, all the pigs immediately stop slurping, and that night there’s some extra oinking in the pigpen. (“Sounds like they’re planning something,” warns Ethel…) Because Christlelow wrote and illustrated the book, she can hide extra jokes in the pictures. The next day Bert complains that he can’t find the bolt to lock his truck’s tailgate – but in the bottom corner of a picture, there’s a smiling pig prancing off with the bolt in his mouth!

It’s genuinely exciting when their big break-out comes. The pigs chew through the rope that Bert uses to tie the tailgate, and “As they bumped and rattled down the road toward town, the rope snapped… But Bert and Ethel didn’t notice.” When the couple stops for gas, two pigs scoot out and under a nearby fence. At each stop, more pigs scoot off into the scenery – and it seems like every pig has a smile on its face.

Christlelow’s simple, cartoon-like illustrations keep the story light, with just enough realism to make you root for the escaping pigs. Using watercolors and pen-and-ink drawings, she shows the farmer’s red truck, stopping for the blur of a speeding locomotive rushing past. At the edge of the drawing, two little pigs hop eagerly onto the road, and head off onto another farm. But by the end of the book, they’ve done something even more clever.

They’ve stolen clothes and disguised themselves – and then caught a bus for Florida!

Peepers, by Eve Bunting

Peepers, by Eve Bunting

“Sparkle it up, boys… The Leaf Peepers are coming.” A little boy’s father drives a green bus for tourists to see the autumn colors around New England. His sons have to help wash the bus and conduct the tours. They’re reluctant passengers — but gradually discover that the bright-colored trees still look spectacular.

Eve Bunting wrote the text for The Leaf Peepers, and even the names of the trees sound attractive. There’s bright red sugar maples and shagbark hickory trees. Aspens shower gold in the water of a pond. It’s surrounded by speckled alder and red-feathered sumac. A beaver pops up, making a circle of ripples, which even impresses the boys, “because beavers don’t pop up that often…”

The tour visits an old cemetery, with headstones from 1772. (“Beeches and quaking aspens bend above the gravestones…”) The boys play leapfrog over the headstone markers. Their father scolds them, and says show some respect. And the tour rambles along, along with the boys’ own adventure…

James Ransome drew some great illustrations of the fall colors. There’s bright orange pumpkins on the title page – matching the orange of the autumn leaves. On the next page there’s more colorful trees around an orange covered bridge. He always seems to find the perfect pallet for his illustrations, using rich maize yellows and a bright orange-red.

Bunting dedicates the book to her son Sloan, “who loves nature,” and she does a good job of making the little boys seem believable. They see a pile of leaves on the water which they playfully call “Leaf Island ,” but they know that you can’t stand on it. “We’ve tried.” Yet the leaves still look pretty in the corner of Ransome’s illustration – which show the two looking down into the water. At one point, one of the boys even pretends to be a moose.

My favorite illustration shows an overhead view of a field where pumpkins grow. “They’re the color of leaves,” says one of the tourists. “Or else the leaves are the color of the pumpkins.” But the words appear in the sky over a tree-covered mountain. At its base are the houses of town, surrounded by trees, and an old-fashioned steeple.

And there’s another breath-taking illustration of the family’s house in the white autumn sky. It looks like an Edward Hopper painting, with rich angles and a stark light with shadows. Most of the leaves have fallen from its trees. On the doorstep, there’s a tiny pumpkin, and their mother has put up some dried corn stalks.

And by the end of the book the boys have realized that the night sky…is very beautiful.

Go to Sleep, Groundhog, by Judy Cox

Go to Sleep, Groundhog by Judy Cox

“Groundhog went to bed on Columbus Day, just like he always did…”

Unfortunately, he’s not headed for a good night’s sleep. In Go to Sleep, Groundhog, the pointy-nosed groundhog puts on his jammies and sets his alarm clock, but after curling into his cozy bed, he just tosses and turns all night. He checks his clock – which says “half-past October” –  then goes for a stroll under the full moon outside his burrow. And to his surprise, all the houses are decorated with pumpkins!

“He saw things he’d never seen before! Raggedy scarecrows and grinning jack-o’-lanterns. Children dressed up like pirates, cowboys, and princesses…”

It’s a funny story that lets children enjoy a new perspective on other holidays throughout the year. Eventually the groundhog returns to bed, but he tries another stroll at half-past November, and discovers – again – “things he’d never seen before!  Tall yellow corn shocks and round orange pumpkins. Turkeys gobbling in the barnyard…” He returns to bed to try to sleeping again, but just ends up seeing even stranger sights in December.

Author Judy Cox adds an especially warm touch to the story, since the wayward groundhog is always coaxed back to his bed by someone appropriate for the holiday. In October, it’s a smiling Halloween Witch, who flies him home on her broomstick, gives him a glass of cider, tucks him in and even reads him a story. For Thanksgiving it’s a grand flying turkey, who also tucks in the groundhog, reads him a story (about pilgrims), and gives him a slice of pumpkin pie. And you’ll never guess who his escort is at Christmas time. It’s Santa Claus himself, who flies down in his sleigh, and asks – like everybody else – “What are YOU doing up?”

Paul Meisel really seemed to enjoy illustrating this book, filling the pages with simple colorful acrylic pictures for each of the festive holidays. And there’s a secret second story lurking this book’s illustrations, since the groundhog’s tree burrow is shared by a friendly mouse! He watches silently each time the groundhog wakes up early, and curls up next to him on the pillow when the groundhog returns to bed. When it’s finally February 2nd – Groundhog Day – the little mouse follows him up the burrow’s sunny stairs, where he shares in the book’s funniest moment. “What am I doing up?” the groundhog asks. “There are six more weeks of winter coming!

“I should be in bed!”

Curious George’s First Day of School, by Margaret and H. A. Rey

Curious George's First Day of School

It was 64 years after the first “Curious George” book — and 28 years after their author had died — that the monkey had his first day at school. Houghton Mifflin wrote new adventures, saying they were illustrated “in the style of H.A. Rey.” The drawings seem a little generic, but the formula is the same. It’s the everyday life of a monkey in the city — and you know he’s going to get into mischief…

“You have a big day ahead of you,” says the man with the yellow hat before he drops George off at school. (You’d think after all these years, he would’ve learned not to leave the monkey alone!) George is a “special helper” for the children, holding books up at story time and letting the children practice counting on his toes. “And at recess George made sure everyone had a ball,” the text explains — as an illustration shows George tossing 10 different balls to the children.

But soon George has made a mess with the paints, and he ventures off on his own to find a bucket and mop. A janitor chases him, and George spills water onto the classroom floor — right in front of the school’s principal. “[P]oor George. He felt terrible. Maybe he was not such a good helper after all.” But the children all liked George, and pitched in to help clean up the mess.

Unfortunately, that’s the end of the book. It’s half as long as the original stories written by H. A. Rey, and that eliminates the wild escalation that George’s adventures always used to have. For example, in “Curious George gets a Job,” the monkey steals spaghetti, then gets hired as a window washer, then gets chased down the fire escape by some painters and winds up in the hospital — before appearing in a movie. And in the original “Curious George,” he’s captured from the jungle, falls off a boat, phones a false alarm to the fire department and ends up in jail — before floating away in a bundle of stolen balloons. But in this story, there’s just one adventure. George goes to school and spills paint (and spills water cleaning it up). I wonder if the series would’ve been this popular if the original stories had been this short!

Instead, the original adventures sold 30 million copies. But some critics have argued the stories need to be revised as the world starts to change. In the original 1941 story, “Rather than an eco-tourist, the Man in the Yellow Hat is a gun-toting poacher,” wrote the Wall Street Journal. Maybe we should be glad that in 2005 — the monkey is simply helping out at an elementary school!

Peppe the Lamplighter, by Elisa Bartone

Peppe the Lamplighter, by Elisa Bartone

It’s loosely based on a story about the author’s Italian grandfather. (Elisa Bartone’s grandfather immigrated to the United States from a town near Naples, according to the book’s jacket.) She dedicates Peppe the Lamplighter to the memory of her grandparents and her father. And illustrator Ted Lewin just dedicates it “to the American Dream.”

It’s a sad story about Peppe, who lives in a tenement. His mother is dead and his father is sick, and “he had to work to help support his sisters: Giulia, Adelina, Nicolina, Angelina, Assunta, Mariuccia, Filomena, and Albina.” The last sister still lives in Naples with her uncle, a priest who runs the orphanage. Peppe visits the shops in Little Italy, hoping to find a job.

Illustrator Ted Lewin “has loved Little Italy since he first moved to New York,” according to the book’s jacket, and he draws beautiful pictures of the people in Peppe’s neighborhood. There’s a white-haired butcher (with a bristly moustache and a top hat), and “Fat Mary” who makes the cigars. A bar full of businessmen even watch as Peppe asks Don Salvatore, the bartender, for a job washing glasses. And word finally spreads to Domenico, the skinny lamplighter, who says he’s “going back to Italy to get my wife.”

Lewin’s illustrations bring the story to life, including touching pictures of the boy’s family waiting for him at home. But Bartone’s text gives each character a real personality. “Did I come to America for my son to light the streetlamps?” the proud father rails. And after he slams the door behind him, all the sisters contribute different words of support. “It’s a GOOD job, Peppe,” says his sister Assunta.

Peppe walks down the street at twilight, and opens the glass of each streetlamp to light it, and the description makes it seem exhilarating. Bartone describes it as a “joyful” feeling, and the boy imagined each small flame to represent promise for the future. “It was almost like lighting candles in the church for special favors from the saints,” Bartone writes, and the boy makes wishes for each of his sisters.

“This one for Giulia, may she have the chance to marry well… This for my mother, may she look on us with pleasure…”

The angry father heckles him from the window, while even Fat Mary tries to coax him to smile. But one night Peppe doesn’t go to work – and his little sister gets lost in the dark. The father agonizes over his missing bambina, and finally has a change of heart. “‘The streets are dark, Peppe… Tonight the job of lamplighter is an important job. Please, Peppe, light the lamps.

“You will make me proud.”

The Sun’s Asleep Behind the Hill, by Mirra Ginsburg

The Sun's Asleep Behind the Hill, by Mirra Ginsburg

In 1982 Mirra Ginsburg adapted an Armenian song into a beautiful bedtime picture book. “The Sun’s Asleep Behind the Hill” reads like a lullaby, describing the arrival of a peaceful evening as it’s greeted by the creatures around the world. Simple words are written in bold letters – it could easily be a child’s very first book. But best of all, all the sentences rhyme!

“The sun shone in the sky all day,
the sun grew tired and went away…”

The breeze notes that the sun sleeps behind a hill, signaling “It’s time that I was still.” The leaves notice the sleeping breeze, and decide they’ll also take a rest. Soon the birds notice the resting leaves and also relax, and a nut-gathering squirrel notices the relaxing birds, and curls up in its hollow branch. Then a mother with her child notes the sleeping squirrel, and then carries home her own sleeping child.

“It’s time for you to rest.”

But the story holds one last surprise – one creature that discovers that all the world’s asleep. An orange moon creeps into the sky, and declares “I am alone!” The sun is asleep, the breeze is still, the bird is quiet, and the leaves sleep over the lake. Even the child is at rest, and the moon survey’s the empty landscape in a grand, silvery drawing.

“I am alone. And I will shine with a silver light
in the wide, silent sky all night.”

Paul O. Zelinsky contributed illustrations that are colorful and detailed. As the sun sets, there’s a cat on a fence, picnickers leaving the grass, and a man rowing a boat across a shadowy lake. Zelinsky uses pastel colors, and his colorful impressionism gives the book a friendly tone – even as the colors turn darker to show sleepers on a quiet night. Drawings of nature suggest a calm dusk, as a pink sunset reflects in the grey-blue of a lake. And sometimes Zelinsky’s careful illustrations seem to capture the magic of life, like the drawing where leaves of several trees are lit by the sun as their branches bend in the wind…

“The leaves grew tired, they do not shake,
they are asleep over the lake.”

The real purpose of a bedtime story is to lull a child to sleep. And this book seems like it could accomplish that with both relaxing pictures and a simple story that repeats the same words – all about how it’s time to rest. The book’s cover calls it a “just-right bedtime book.” And I’d have to agree.

The True Story of the 3 Little Pigs by Jon Scieszka

The True Story of the 3 Little Pigs by Jon ScieszkaIt was the first collaboration Jon Scieszka did with Lane Smith, and it was a huge success. (The writer-illustrator team would later team up on six more books according to Wikipedia). Smith’s imaginative drawings are the perfect complement to Scieszka’s stories, which include parodies and twists on familiar fairy tales. And it was in 1989 that Sciezska delivered “The True Story of the Three Little Pigs.”

“I don’t know how this whole Big Bad Wolf thing got started,” the narrator explains, “but it’s all wrong.” It turns out it’s the wolf himself, who seems surprisingly genuinely unthreatening. (He wears harmless spectacles, and his name is Alexander.) “[N]obody has ever heard MY side of the story,” the wolf complains. And then he describes the time he’d innocently visited his next-door neighbor to borrow a cup of sugar.

Now unfortunately his neighbor – a pig – has a lot of silly ideas. (“Can you believe it? I mean who in his right mind would build a house of straw…”) And even more unfortunately, the wolf has a cold, which makes him huff and snuff…and sneeze. “And you know what? That whole darn straw house fell down.” See? It was all an innocent misunderstanding!

Yes, he ate the little pig – but it was already dead. (“Think of it as a big cheeseburger just lying there,” the wolf explains.) And he still needed a cup of sugar, which required a visit to the neighbor one house down. “He was a little smarter, but not much. He had built his house of sticks…”

Smith’s art adds a lot to the book, because the tale is already so familiar. His odd color schemes and flat perspective give the story an appropriate oddness. And some drawings have an abstract feeling, resembling stark and surprising collages. On the first page of the book, the E in “Everybody” is made out of bricks – with straw on the bottom and twigs on top.

Everybody thinks they know the pigs’ story, but in Scieszka’s version, the wolf is the hero. “Now you know food will spoil if you just leave it out in the open,” the wolf explains innocently. And he’d discovered the second pig dead – after an unfortunate sneeze by his house of sticks. There was only one thing to do…but the wolf still needs that cup of sugar. And the third pig rudely refuses to give it to him, provoking a round of sneezing…right when “the cops drove up.” And it’s in the final drawing that Smith reveals why the wolf’s shirt sleeves was covered with stripes.

He’s telling his story…in prison.

Katy and the Big Snow by Virginia Lee Burton

“Katy and the Big Snow” is a classic children’s story from 1943. It had been five years since Virginia Lee Burton wrote “Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel.” Now she turned her attention to another piece of talking machinery — this time, a big red snow plow.

Katy is “a beautiful red crawler tractor” that belongs to the city of Geoppolis — and this book shows her in several detailed drawings. When the city is snowed in, there’s a two-page spread that’s almost completely white — representing snow — with Katy appearing in the upper-left corner beginning to clear out a path. Gradually more parts of the city start to appear on the pages, as though Katy has released them from enormous white snow drifts. That’s the book’s big surprise — watching the parts of the city appear from the big blanket of snow.

Burton draws the buildings small, so she’ll have room for the entire city, and the simple illustrations are busy and intricate. One page has 26 different vehicles drawn in the margins around the center picture’s frame — and the next page has 32 different drawings of the red snowplow in action! There’s one two-page spread that has no text at all, just a map of the city of Geoppolis. (It labels 30 different buildings, including the schools, farms, city services, and local businesses.) Because Burton drew the buildings small, she has room for the entire city, and she users only a limited number of colors in the pictures. Unfortunately, I think this robs the book of some of its magic…

I remember being frustrated by this book when I read it as a child. It seemed like there were too many pictures — and the text didn’t really tell a story. It just offered random facts about the city’s highway municipal department. (“When winter came they put snow plows on the big trucks and changed Katy’s bulldozer for her snow plow….”) Some of the dialogue actually comes from the Superintendent of the Water Department. Katy plows out the city — then goes home. The end.

Here’s an interesting thought about this book — it was written in the middle of World War II. America was rationing foods, fuels, rubber, and even shoes. Franklin Roosevelt had expanded the size of the government, and now men were leaving their families to serve in a larger national effort. Great efforts were made to assure Americans that we were all in this thing together.

And when the city was covered by an enormous blanket of snow — Katy the big red snow plow came and plowed everybody out.

New Dr. Seuss Book Released!

Dr Seuss cover - What Pet Should I GetThis is exciting! Amazon just announced on Twitter that a never-before-seen picture book by Dr. Seuss has just been released! “Told in Dr. Seuss’s signature rhyming style, this is a must-have for Seuss fans and book collectors,” according to the book’s description at Amazon, “and a perfect choice for the holidays, birthdays, and happy occasions of all kinds.”

It’s called What Pet Should I Get?, and it’s just as fun and imaginative as all the other familiar Dr. Seuss classics, according to reviewers on Amazon. “The book seems a bit more fulfilling then a few other Dr. Seuss stories,” wrote one reader, “as it takes the reader through a full scale trip through the pet shop.” They pointed out that it’s illustrated in the same instantly-recognizable style as other Dr. Seuss books — and that it even uses the same two children from One Fish, Two Fish. (Although I thought it was amusing that instead of buying the Kindle edition, the reviewer rushed to their local Walmart so they’d have a hardcover edition!)

What’s interesting is the book has a warm message for children — this one about how hard it is to make a decision. “The tale captures a classic childhood moment — choosing a pet — and uses it to illuminate a life lesson,” according to the book’s description at Amazon. “[T]hat it is hard to make up your mind, but sometimes you just have to do it! ” And you can tell the publisher is excited about the release of a new Dr. Seuss book. They’re calling What Pet Should I Get? “the literary equivalent of buried treasure!”

There’s a true tale at the end of the book — about how this lost Dr. Seuss manuscript was finally recovered (including the illustrations). And it also discusses which pets were adopted by Dr. Seuss himself! There’s even a description of his creative process — which should be inspiring to future children’s book authors. But most of all, the book just looks like it’s a lot of fun.

“Wonderful rhymes and delightful creatures,” promises another reviewer on Amazon, “that are sure to entertain the little ones in your family.”

The Princess and the Pony by Kate Beaton

The Princess and the Pony by Kate Beaton

She’s the web cartoonist who draws “Hark, a Vagrant”, but last week she released her first picture book for children! The Princess and the Pony is both written and illustrated by Kate Beaton. (“We are all very excited!” the author wrote on her web site.) And the book’s wide, colorful pages give her a great new outlet for her simple yet imaginative drawing style.

The title page introduces us to Princess Pinecone, a smiling girl lying under a pea-green sky where the clouds form into white horses. The petals of her dandelion blow in the wind, and on the far side of a two-page spread are the fluttering flags of her castle. She comes from a kingdom of warriors, according to the book’s first page, although she is the smallest warrior. On the first page the princess is wearing a viking-style helmet with horns…though it’s too big for her head!

But she’s excited about her upcoming birthday, hoping this one turns out better than the others. Instead of warrior-style presents — like shields, amulets, and “things that make them feel like champions” — all this princess ever gets are lots of cozy sweaters. “Warriors do not need cozy sweaters,” Beaton writes. And we have our opening dilemma…

But this year Princess Pinecone had announced early that she wanted a horse. And there’s a delightful drawing of her parents in the castle — her father holding the girl in his arms, while her mother holds a hand over the princess’s eyes as they deliver their surprise… But the horse is small and round, with eyes pointing in different directions. Yet now the princess was stuck with her birthday present, which “ate things it shouldn’t have, and farted too much.”

This book’s drawing some rave reviews. (The School Library Journal called it “A highly recommended, charmingly illustrated tale of teamwork and tenderness.”) The book ends as the princess leads her pony into a comical and very unthreatening battle. There’s a warm message in the final pages about the unexpected, working together, and how life can surprise us with how valuable we really are.

But the real fun of this book is watching the story-telling veer around in its own wacky world.

Weaving the Rainbow, by George Ella Lyon

Weaving the Rainbow, by George Ella Lyon

George Ella Lyon is my favorite children’s author, and in “Weaving the Rainbow” she almost hides a riddle. She describes sheep in a pasture, and follows them through the seasons. They lead ordinary sheep lives, “But they were getting closer to the rainbow,” Lyon writes. The next page describes fall, and it features colorful leaves. But it’s only on the final page that the real rainbow is revealed.

It’s another children’s book with lavish watercolor illustrations. Even on the book’s inside cover, there’s four shades of green in a spectacular field, plus a white picket fence and blue skies in the distance. “The weaver” looks proudly on the sheep in her pasture. And fall brings red leaves – and shaggy fur for the sheep.

But it’s easy to see how the illustrator was inspired by Lyons’ text. “It is spring now. It is shearing time,” she writes simply – but those words suggest rich illustrations. And when the sheep were born, their coats were white, Lyon writes. They’re turned out into “April fields”, and they even win ribbons at the state fair. The sheep’s lives pass by quickly, because the book is not about the sheep – it’s about their wool!

Lyon describes the sheared wool coming off in one piece, “white and springy,” and it’s brushed and then twisted into yarn. The weaver dyes the yarn, and hangs loose coils of color on the branches of a blossoming tree. When describing her dyes, Lyon uses colorful words that are also the names of plants – like indigo and goldenrod – simply listing them on the page, like lines of a poem. And then she adds a poetic line of her own. “She is cooking up a rainbow.”

Ultimately, there’s beautiful illustrations of the colored yarn, stretched for the weaving shuttles, “back and forth, back and forth.” And in the text, the words about nature seem to also be words about colors. “From the wool of her white sheep she weaves Kentucky pastures, grass green, evergreen, willow yellow, redbud, purple shadow, shy sky blue.”

She’s “doing with wool what a painter does with paint,” Lyon adds wisely. In a wonderful irony, the artist weaves little lambs into her tapestry – using the white wool that she’d sheared from real lambs.

Only then can the reader understand the strange drawing on the book’s copyright page. It’s another view of the field from the book’s inside cover – now including sheep. But as the drawing moves to the page’s right side, the drawing suddenly starts to fade into a faint grid. At the end of the, its meaning is clear: it represents the crisscrossed crocheting in the weaver’s final tapestry.

All Those Secrets of the World by Jane Yolen

All Those Secrets of the World by Jane Yolen book cover
“My cousin Michael was five and I was four when my father went off to war.” It’s the first line of a poignant children’s book capturing the childhood memories of Jane Yolen. Yolen wrote the award-winning children’s book “Owl Moon,” about a child’s late-night stroll through the snow. But she tackles a much more ambitious memory in “All Those Secrets of the World.”

Yolen remembers the family’s trip to the docks to watch her father’s ship sail away. Her father kisses her and hugs the family, and “hundreds of grown-ups crowded around, waving handkerchiefs and crying.” The little girl waves a flag, and hears the tuba in a band playing the song “Over There.” And then her father’s ship is gone, as dirty waves slap the pylons. “[E]veryone had a good time, except Mama, who cried all the way home…”

It’s a very moving story about a family affected by war, told from a child’s simpler viewpoint. And it’s the illustrations that make it seem even more real, with bright watercolors suggesting a sunny childhood day, while the child report’s on the day’s events matter of factly. She goes to the beach with her brother, where they see black specks on the horizon. “Are those birds?” asks the girl. But they’re not. They’re ships, “taking soldiers across the sea to war,” her brother tells her. And the illustration shows their innocence in the moment, with the two children wading at the edge of a vast ocean under white clouds, with the ships just visible on the horizon.

They couldn’t be ships, the girl insists. “Those specks are no bigger than my thumb.” And the brother demonstrates that things look smaller when they’re futher away. “‘Come back, come back,’ I cried, suddenly afraid he’d disappear forever like the ships gone from the horizon, dropped over the edge of the world…” And both children get in trouble, because they weren’t supposed to wade in the ocean.

At the end of the book, the father comes back from the war. “There were no big ships or waving flags, just a stranger in brown with his arm in a sling, unfolding himself from a cab.” The youngest son doesn’t remember the father, and yells, “Go away, you bad man. Don’t you touch my mama.” So the father lifts the little girl, who tells him that “When you are far away, everything is smaller. But now you are here…I am big.”

“‘Of course,’ he said. ‘I knew that.'”

And he kisses and hugs her again, until it all seems familiar again, and war seems like a distant secret that belongs to the outside world.

Twenty-One Elephants and Still Standing, by April Jones Prince

 Twenty-One Elephants and Still Standing, by April Jones Prince

In 1883 the Brooklyn Bridge was completed, and the magic moment is captured in a story by April Jones Prince. “For 14 years they’d watched it rise,” she writes, “the cities’ schoolteachers, bankers, cabinetmakers, pointing and gawking, ooohing and aaahing…” The woven steel cables are “graceful and strong, like stairways straight to the stars.” Prince describes the achievement with a kind of poetry in 21 Elephants and Still Standing, and she spins a good story out of the people’s reactions!

“New York and Brooklyn, dwarfed by its arches, knew the future had entered their sights.” Fireworks are launched for hours, and “flags waved, bands played, kids hoorayed before bigwigs in top hats galore.” But Prince knows that the real excitement comes from the people moved by the event. She imagines them thinking about the things they’ll do, and marveling at its architecture in the streets below.

“But so long and so lofty, its cable so new – some had to ask, Is it safe?”

It’s Prince’s first book for Houghton Mifflin, but she’s helped along with some suitably grand illustrations that were contributed by Francois Roca. He draws platforms crossing over paddle-wheel steamships, and a boy sailing under the bridge as fireworks explode in the sky. But when questions are raised about safety, the bridge is shown in the shadow of a cloud. Sunlight shines on the river and it lights up the clouds – but the Brooklyn Bridge is a dark silhouette. “Who wants to bargain THIS bridge won’t dance in the wind?”

“Both the bridge and [P.T.] Barnum embodied the audacious, can-do spirit of the latter 1800s,” Prince writes on the book’s jacket, “and their coming together seemed a perfect, outrageous window on the times.” Her book describes the famous circus owner as “larger than life,” a “world-famous showman” whose ideas “weren’t contained by a tent.” And Prince shares the wonderful story of a May evening in 1884, when Jumbo the elephant marched down Broadway, past City Hall, “past mothers, fathers, and children.”

It’s a true story, and it’s one worth remembering. (To verify the story, author Prince “traveled to museums and libraries, scrolled through old newspapers, viewed documentaries, scoured books old and new, and called upon experts.”) All of P.T. Barnum’s elephants filed onto the Brooklyn Bridge – twenty-one elephants in all. And when they came out the other side, it’s P.T. Barnum that assure the crowd that the bridge must be sound.

As white fireworks lit up the sky.

Charlie Anderson, by Barbara Abercrombie

Charlie Anderson, by Barbara Abercrombie

The illustrations are absolutely gorgeous. Moon glow lights the back of a cat, and turns the backyard a soft green. Though it’s a grey foggy night with a dark blue sky, there’s a warm yellow light coming from the open back door. It’s the house where “Elizabeth and Sarah lived,” and on a cold night, a stray cat walks out of the woods and up their steps.

Charlie Anderson is one of those children’s stories with enough warmth to touch readers of all ages. The cat “curled up next to their fireplace to get warm,” then tasted their dinner and tested their beds. With a perfect watercolor illustration for each action, the book makes the cat seems real. Every morning he disappears into the woods – but at night while he sleeps on her bed, Elizabeth can hear the cat purring in the dark.

Author Barbara Abercrombie found the perfect details to suggest the cat’s life with the two little girls. (“When it snowed, Elizabeth and Sarah’s mother heated Charlie’s milk before he left for the woods.”) And on the next page, Abercrombie shares the most crucial detail of all. “He grew fatter and fatter, and every day he purred louder and louder.”

One drawing shows the girls making a soft bed for the cat in their suitcase. They don’t want to leave him behind when they visit “their father and stepmother.” Abercrombie manages to suggest so much with these single-page moments. One stormy night, Charlie didn’t come to visit, and the girls sat on their steps in raincoats calling the cat’s name.

It’s a classic picture-with-stories, since the children’s faces say just as much as the story’s text. Elizabeth looks sad and distracted, while the rest of drawing shows her bedroom window filled with the dark night outside. “All night long Elizabeth listened to the rain beating on the roof and the wind rattling the windows.” And the next day, when their neighbor offers them cookies to cheer her up, the little girls turn them down.

The book has a twist at the end – and it’s a very funny surprise. The children ask a neighbor if he’s seen their gray cat, while the man says he has a gray cat of his own. Charlie comes strolling down the stairs, and purrs at his owner – and at the two girls. The man assumed that his cat was hunting at night, when he was really just sleeping in the girls’ warm house. On the last page, the author tucks her message – that the cat has “two families who love him,” just like the girls do with their now-divorced parents.

And meanwhile, the cat “sat at their feet, very happy and very fat.”

Ava’s Adventure by Laura Pedersen

Ava's Adventure

I really loved how every page of Ava’s Adventure feels like a comic strip. The whole story takes place in in its dialogue, which is written into “speech bubbles” that are drawn right into the book’s realistic drawings. This makes the story feel more natural, almost like it’s occurring spontaneously in real time. Any narration just slips in, in a little box at the page’s top-left corner, like the details for a panel in a comic book. “Friday afternoon… Lucas calls Ava,” begins one page — and our story begins…

“Please Mom, please Dad, please can I go snowboarding with Lucas?”

Penny Weber draws Ava hopping up and down — with her pig tails flapping behind her — so you can really feel the story without a lot of extra words. Ava argues with her parents, and there’s a wonderful two-page spread that shows all her emotions with just drawings and sound effects. Ava’s running upstairs to her room — “Stomp! Stomp! Stomp!” — and kicking her toy car. (“Crash!”) Then the car falls to pieces, and Ava hangs her head into her hands….

There’s colorful backgrounds for some of the drawings, while others appear over a nice abstract expanse of white. This book has a clean simplicity that may be especially appealing to children and beginning readers. There’s three drawings that show Ava lying in funny positions in her room — and then, smiling, she seems to have gotten an idea. There’s four more wordless pages that follow Ava through her weekend, all the way through Sunday.

But finally, from the bottom of the staircase, Ava’s mother announces “You have a visitor.” Ava’s friend Lucas has come home early from his snowboarding weekend. And he discovers that Ava’s built an elaborate model of a ski resort out of things from around her house. The book ends with this proud testimonial to the joys of imagination.

And its quiet, realistic drawings just make the story that much more effective.

Mr. Munchlee’s Magic Tophat by Corrie R. Rice

Mr Munchlees Magical Top Hat

“Mr. Munchlee comes to a town that has forgotten how to smile,” explains the back cover of Mr. Munchlee’s Magic Top Hat. “With a little help from his friends, a world of imagination begins to save the day!” But the experience of the book is something far more elaborate, since its text is written entirely in rhyme — and within a few pages the book is virtually exploding with colorful and imaginative illustrations!

Even when the book first shows Mr. Munchlee — a tall man with a mysterious moustache and a top hat — there’s a wall of bright yellow in the background. He strolls into town whistling, with fireflies under his hat, each one twinkling at the thought of sharing their good will. Soon he’s given a magic map to a girl named Luzianne, and then abruptly vanishes from the book. But the map shows her a way to dream — to laugh and be happy whenever she wants — and it awakens her own happy spirit.

“Imagining one thought made a jungle come alive…” the book explains, as the color suddenly begin splashing across the pages. There were animals doing “troopa-loopa” tricks who invited Luzianne to eat bubbles and share bananas splits. The book’s cover illustration captures this moment with an iconic picture of the girl dancing on the rim of Mr. Munchlee’s hat. All around her are butterflies, musical notes, and even a bird with a flower in its mouth.

Some of the more fanciful drawings reminded me of Dr. Seuss. The little girl swings impossibly high on a yellow streamer that’s held by a smiling jack-in-the-box. As a background there’s the silhouette of pink and purple hills. And on top of those hills are more jack-in-the-boxes, and birds with impossibly large tails…

The smiling girl marches behind blue monkeys banging cymbals in a parade through a yellow field. But she learns a valuable lesson — “I can be whatever I choose!” And that sharing a smile makes smiles spread even further, and can make happiness grow. Luzianne’s love was “like a butterfly garden,” and there’s actually a lot of lessons. Maybe one too many? The book seemed to have a little extra text…

But maybe I just couldn’t find the right rhythm for reading the rhymes…especially since I was feeling impatient about getting to those pretty pictures! Tulia Lulu drew the book’s illustrations — and it’s obvious that a lot of care went into this project. My copy even came with a black-and-white coloring book, presumably created for an appearance at the Miami Beach Regional Library. It asks a very thoughtful question — “What makes other people smile?” — and then also asks its young readers, what makes you happy?

And then it invited those young readers to fill Mr. Munchlee’s hats with their own happy thoughts…

Pig Pig Gets a Job by David McPhail

I was fascinated by this book – Pig Pig Gets a Job. I mean, it’s always tough to find a good job – especially in this economy – but in this case, the job-seeker is a small, talking pig!  He wears red overalls, and he’s very enthusiastic, but he also seems young and inexperienced. I’m getting paid to write this review – but who’s ever going to pay poor little Pig Pig?

The animals in David McPhail’s books always remind me of Beatrix Potter’s characters. They lead simple human lives, in cozy houses, facing problems with a mix of confidence and confusion. So I genuinely enjoyed the idea of a children’s book studying a problem we live with every day – the stress of earning a living. Maybe “Pig Pig Gets a Job” would be a good gift for father’s day, I thought…

“I want some money. I want to buy something,” Pig Pig tells his mother.  When she asks him what, he replies. “I don’t know yet. But something.” Behind the ambitious pig character is a grown-up author who’s probably smiling slyly at our whole society. And when his mother suggests that he can earn money by getting a job, the pig puts his paw to his chin and starts to consider it…

The pig never gets a job – he is too young and inexperienced – but each page shows the pig imagining himself in new possible careers. The pig sees himself as a chef – since he’s so good at making mud pies – and as a builder (using the hammer he’s just received for his birthday). One illustration shows the pig working as an auto repairman – by wielding a sledgehammer –  and another shows him driving a bulldozer at the dump. In one picture the pig’s dressed as the ringleader at the circus. But turn the page and he’s back in his living room talking excitedly to his mother. “I have a great idea! You could give me a job!”

This book reminds me of the episode of “Seinfeld” where George tries to find his way to a new job by being hopelessly unrealistic, saying “I like sports… I could be a sports announcer….” But as I understand it, there’s a whole series of books about this daydreaming pig. David McPhail also wrote Edward and the Pirates, which my friend Richard swears is one of his favorite children’s books. But Pig Pig adds a charming simplicity to McPhail’s stories – which is at least a starting point for funny adventures.

The Cave of Santa Clops by Gig Wailgum

The Cave of Santa Clops

“The Cave of Santa Clops” arrives with a shiny cover with a rich, dark red background and pastel green letters. Its title looks almost like a poster from a 1950s horror movie — or maybe a parody of one from Mad magazine. It all helps to set a playful tone for Gig Wailgum’s newest send-up of Santa Claus. And it turns out there’s many more surprises inside…

I like how the book’s text mimicked the familiar rhythms of the Clement C. Moore poem — but always with a twist.

The stockings were hung. The trees were cloaked.
The gifts were wrapped, and the kids were stoked!

The author dedicates his book to Clement C. Moore (and to Dr. Seuss, and to South Pole explorer Ernest Henry Shackleton, as well as his own children and parents…) And it turns out that much of the book’s action does take place near the South Pole, as an explorer named Mr. Bones reminisces about his encounter with the one-eyed Santa creature.

As a young boy, during a South Pole expedition, Odysseus Bones had wandered away from his parents’ exploration party. There’s a lot of dialogue setting up the premise, which ends up with Odysseus trapped in a creepy cave. There’s some giant talking penguins, and bats shaped like holly leaves. It’s meant to be a little creepy, like the “scary Christmas” surprises in the author’s first book, “A Vist from Santa Clops.”

But that book was set at the cozy home of the narrator, whereas this one leads us to Santa Clops in his very own lair! It turns out that Santa Clops flies in a sleigh pulled by penguins — who can fly because Santa (Clops) feeds them each a magical fish. Odysseus Bones stows away on the sleigh, but soon he’s tumbling through the sky in a shower of coal dust. Santa (Clops) wheels his sleigh in (for an attack?) But in the end, he just wishes his pesky stowaway…a scary Christmas!

My friend Elliott — an H.P. Lovecraft fan — says the book was fantastic! And it’s always nice when a book’s author is also its illustrator. There’s some special care in the layout, with multiple drawings often inset inside of a single page. And even when the children ask questions, the text is drawn inside dialogue balloons over their head.

It may not be the perfect book for every single child — but there’s definitely some naughty little boys and girls who will think this book is terrific!

The Gobblings by Matthue Roth

The Gobblings by Matthue Roth

The Gobblings is a fascinating new children’s book written by Matthue Roth, and its story is filled with surprises. “Herbie didn’t like his new house very much at all,” the book begins, but its second page reveals that their house “was far off in space…” So yes, the nights really are very long and very cold, and all Herbie can see out his window is a gorgeous expanse of stars. Roth’s book is overflowing with exciting surprises, and it’s fun to see them all illustrated by Rohan Daniel Eason.

Their last collaboration was a children’s book adapting three stories by Franz Kafka, so it’s intriguing to see what they’ve come up with next. Illustrator Rohan draws Herbie playing with a toy rocket ship (even though he’s actually living on one)! There’s a cleverness to both the story and the illustrations, which are wild, imaginative, and even a little bit surreal. For example, in the fourth drawing there’s tentacles (which are only gradually explained)…

Herbie sees shadows in the tunnels of the walls of the space station — inside of which were creatures “who also went unnoticed by the adults…” The story reminded me of Where the Wild Things Are, with a lonely boy making a matter-of-fact discovery of monsters. Rohan has been compared to Maurice Sendak, and I think it’s a fair comparison. His drawings are realistic while being stylized, and they manage to be both expessive and moody.

In one drawing, Herbie pulls a red wagon with gears past the legs of the distant grown-ups, while under the floor crawl the purple tentacle creatures, huddled in a soft yellow glow. They’ve got pretty red stripes on their beaks — are they friends or foes? — and while Herbie builds himself some friends using robot parts, “the Gobblings” keep watching him!

There’s a wondrous two-page drawing where the spaceship flies through a blue starry sky — and yellow giant gobblings float outside in space, their tentacles seeming to fluctuate. “[T]heir favorite things to eat…was a space station,” writes Roth (saying it was “as tasty and joyous as a birthday dinner.”) It’s a surprisingly harrowing story for a children’s picture book, though it’s full of intense intrigue. Soon the ship has gone entirely dark — and Herbie is cut off from his parents…

But fortunately the gobblings like to eat robots — like the little robots Herbie has been building…

Not Until Christmas, Walter by Eileen Christelow

Not Until Christmas, Walter by Eileen Christelow

Eileen Christelow created the popular “Five Little Monkeys” series of books. But at a Christmas party in 1997, she got an idea for a new story called Not Until Christmas, Walter!. “Someone told me how her eight-year-old daughter wrapped presents for all the family, including the dog, and put them under the tree,” Christelow remembers on the book’s jacket. “The next morning, they found chewed wrapping paper and dog biscuit crumbs. Their dog couldn’t wait for Christmas!”

“And I couldn’t wait to get home to see if I could turn her story into a picture book…”

The author used her own dog Ophielia as a model, and dedicated the book to the dog “with fond memories of walks through the woods.” And she uses bright watercolors with lots of white space to capture the festive snow-covered buildings around the city at Christmas time, filling in simple pen and ink sketches of a little girl and her family. Walter the dog wags his tail while he watches Louise making a painting for her father using yellow glitter stars. “Don’t worry, Walter,” the little girl tells her dog. “I’m going to give you a present too!”

All of Chistelow’s illustrations give the dog a real personality. As the girl shops for an extra-large dog biscuit, Walter presses himself hopefully against the glass door. As she lays the presents out on the family’s coffee table, the dog lowers his nose to sniff them all, and wags his tail enthusiastically. He’s still wagging his tail when the girl goes to sleep on December 23rd. And he’s still wagging his tail the next morning – when the girl discovers all of the wrapping paper has been mysteriously torn to shreds.

And her dog’s nose is gleaming with lots of yellow glitter…

At 40 pages, it’s a little bit longer than the typical children’s story, but the story keeps its happy energy going. The dog ends up in the doghouse, but then the little girl gets lost while looking for a Christmas tree, and it’s ultimately the family’s dog that tracks her down. And I thought Christelow came up with a surprising and funny twist for the ending of the story. The dog is about to steal the new dog biscuit that Louise has wrapped up for him. But just then, Santa Claus comes down the chimney, and startles the snarling dog. Santa also gives Walter a dog biscuit, which makes him look guilty when the little girl discovers him.

Then she realizes that her present is still wrapped, and she has to wonder if there really is a Santa Claus after all…

The Great PJ Elf Chase by Karen LoBello and Judy Voigt

The Great PJ Elf Chase

“There’s a Christmas Eve tradition in the Taylor household. While the boys take baths, Santa’s elves drop new pajamas outside their bathroom door!” That explains the book’s title — The Great PJ Elf Chase. And once you catch on to the premise, it’s suddenly a lot more intriguing.

There’s something fun about a children’s picture book that rhymes, and the book’s cover fills in the backstory. “The PJ elves are sly and quick, but this year they’re in for a surprise — Ben and Jack are on a mission to catch one of them! ” Away we go — the book starts with the two brothers making plans on the morning of December 24th — and their conversation is written entirely in rhyme.

“Wake up, Jack.
Tonight’s Christmas Eve!
I wonder which PJs
the elves will leave?”

The crisp rhythm keeps things interesting — and the book instantly delivers more intrigue by switching from the two mischievous brothers to the elves who are watching them! With a crystal ball they track which kids have finished their baths, then when the delivery’s a go, send a specific team of elves to the children’s address at the appropriate time. I like how the book shows both sides of the story — and at one point, you even see the elves snickering under the boys’ bed!

Will the little boys outsmart the elves? They’ve hidden cheese in a box labeled “Trap #1”, and enlisted their dog McGee to keep watch over their door. But there’s a rambunctious energy on both sides, since these elves also like to mess up each family’s house. It was a family tradition for the book’s authors, two sisters who remember that growing up they always had a lot of fun each Christmas — regardless of how many presents were under their tree. And they’ve worked their memories into a story that’s surprisingly exciting — with a funny twist at the end.

Young Ben won’t give up, and he hunts after those elves — running outside in his towel! It’s a snowy day, but soon Ben discovers that he’s got an even bigger problem. ” ‘Oh my gosh! This can’t be!’ Ben must hide near a tree. His bath towel is gone — did the neighbor girls see?” Children will probably enjoy laughing at the end of this book — and the little boy who was just a little too anxious to catch the PJ Elves.

I like how this book also includes a game, challenging readers to count how many elves are hidden throughout the book’s illustrations. (“Be careful — elves like to hide!”) The illustrations by Lorena Soriano are all appropriately colorful, with magical golds and greens for the elves, and nice pastel blue backgrounds sporting lots of Christmas decorations. And it’s also nice that Ben’s younger brother ran after him with a towel, saying playfully that “You ALMOST caught them.”

And then the boys begin planning together how they’ll catch those elves next year…

The Bear Who Wanted to Fly by Carol Shaver

The Bear Who Wanted to Fly by Carol Shaver

There’s something magical about a picture book that’s 14 inches tall. (There’s that friendly bear peeping back at you from the inside front cover.) And there’s also an appropriate quote from Jacqueline Kennedy. “There are many little ways to enlarge your child’s world. Love of books is the best of all…”

And as the magic begins, you can tell that author Carol Shaver spent time telling stories to children. The Bear Who Wanted to Fly is always packed with warm enthusiasm — along with lots of extra adjectives. Right from the first page, I also liked the bright illustrations by Rachel Smith. Their clean, simple style suggests a sunny day with some friendly animals.

“The bear was sitting high up in the pine tree,” the book begins — with a lovely picture of the bear gazing out at a blue mountain sky. He’s perched on branch overlooking a dark blue river, and the simple drawing of his tree even includes a bird’s nest! For weeks, Cubby the bear had watched as the birds “swoop and dive and frolic in the air.” And then suddenly the bear reaches a conclusion. It must be the feathers….

I hoped that kids wouldn’t get the wrong idea, because that’s never going to work. But the book makes that clear, and I really loved all this book’s colorful details, and the way it still found its way to a warm and happy ending. It’s fun that the bear is watched by “the inquisitive squirrel twins,” Chatter and Crunch. They see him scurrying around to collect feathers — beautiful feathers — and storing them in a “saving place” in the forest’s Grand Pine Tree.

And then that bear starts collecting pine cones — sticky pinecones. (The author hints that it’s “nature’s glue”…) Then suddenly the bear disappears. The squirrels and all the animals in the woods start to talk about him, and search, and worry. There’s a wonderful drawing of the bear, covered with colorful feathers, smiling a silly bear smile as he walks toward the end of his branch…

There’s real children’s-story drama — and amazingly, a very happy ending, as all his forest friends rush a pile of autumn leaves under the branch where the bear will inevitably fall. “Friends help friends…” the squirrels say at the end of the book.

And they even arrange a special ride for him on the back of some eagles, so he gets to fly after all.

Dropped-Off Dog by Catherine Lagorio

Dropped-Off Dog (A Mostly True Tail)

The book’s cover even looks like a dog, with a background illustration showing fur in sunlight. This sets a doggy theme for the book’s realistic watercolor sketches, and it’s based on a real dog who came to live in a rural town in California. Author Catherine Lagorio was inspired to write Dropped-Off Dog by the real problem of animals who are abandoned out in the countryside. You have been warned: there some parts of this book which are actually very sad…

A little tiger-striped dog lives in a cozy house with Abuelita — an old woman drawn walking with a cane. Then one day Abuelita is whisked away in a wheelchair, after a day when “many strangers came and went” — and the dog hides under the bed. “No one noticed him. No one remembered he was there. That night, after everyone left, the little tiger-striped dog was all-alone…”

Brace yourself, because here comes the sad part. “Though he had his bed to sleep in, he had nothing to eat, nothing to drink, and no one to take care of him.” The dog eats crumbs he finds around the house, until he’s driven into the countryside and abandoned. “He ran after the car for a few minutes as fast as his little legs could carry him…but it was no use.” The dog remains abandoned for several days, and eventually “quit hoping someone would come back to get him.

“He was now very hungry and the little puddles of water he had been drinking from at the side of the road had dried up…”

The last page of the book shares a note from the author — that this happens all too frequently. She acknowledges that some people mistakenly think that an animal can survive in the woods — it can’t — and she wrote this book to raise awareness. Lagorio once worked as an elementary school teacher, and she even has a Master’s in Language Development. I wish her nothing but success in her ongoing campaign to keep dogs from being left behind alone in the woods…

I was actually really excited when this story’s dog finally discovered a bowl of dog food at a home near the woods. There was a bigger dog growling nearby — it was his food, after all. But that dog’s kindly owner later discovered the little tiger-striped dog hiding in the woods. Instinctively the little dog runs away, but the farmer lures it back with a handful of tasty hot dogs. “You are a cute little guy,” the farmer says, and though the dialogue is a bit wooden, the farmer explains to his wife that “he needs us.” The book ends with a picture of the two dogs happily curled up together on pillows — and I misted up at the book’s final sentence.

“…the Little Tiger-Striped Dog became Steve, and he really, truly lived happily ever after.”

The North Pole Penguin by Christopher Payne

The North Pole Penguin by Christopher Payne

I love Christmas! And so does the author of this new book, The North Pole Penguin. “I began thinking about writing a story when my niece was born because I thought it would be a great gift for her,” Christopher Payne told me in a letter. And now it’s become a shiny new book that’s ready just in time for Christmas….

The bright, festive cover introduces you to smiley Parker the penguin, and for an extra Christmas-y feeling, its title is in red and green letters. (That penguin is even wearing green mittens, and making red X’s on a calendar!) The illustrations (by Lorena Soriano) have a colorful, cartoon-y feel which set a holiday tone for the book from its very first page. “December in the South Pole world was filled with Christmas cheer. And Parker Preston led the way in winter every year…”

Yes, this story even rhymes. (It’s like the book wants to be read out loud…) And every picture lets you follow its smiley penguin as he travels the world with a snowman. The snowman’s a gift for Santa Claus — so Preston probably should’ve avoided South America altogether. Ah, but he couldn’t, the author points out — because penguins live in the south pole!

“I grew tired of seeing penguins in Christmas decorations and movies,” Payne told me. “As many of us learned in school (and apparently forgot), penguins are native to the South Pole area, not the North Pole…!” But there was another more important idea that was inspiring him. “We always hear the phrase, ‘It’s better to give than to receive’ around the holidays, and then forget the meaning behind the words… I wanted to create a character who could actually step back and think for a second and realize that if it truly is better to give than to receive, and if Santa Claus is the ultimate giver, who gives gifts to him?”

I really liked the message of the book. (I still get a warm feeling when I remember that Christmas is about the giving…) Even a prologue on the book’s first page reminds us that “Santa Claus is real, and if you believe in him and are brave enough to look for him, you might just get to meet him!” And I believe that’s actually true, if you read between the lines. Everyone knows that Santa is the spirit of giving itself — and in this story, it’s a little penguin who understands that best of all.

The book traces the penguin’s long journey to deliver his gift to Santa, across the world — and even through New York City. I liked how the penguin shared a pizza with river rats “under urban stars”, and that all the animals he meets on his trip seem friendly and helpful. Maybe it’s a reminder that Christmas is celebrated internationally, or that generous people are everywhere. There’s even a campfire in Canada, and all the animals he meets contribute more gifts for Santa.

The story might be a bit long for younger children, since Santa doesn’t appear until page 24. (And it might’ve been fun to have some dialogue between the penguin and his friends — if only so kids could hear their parents trying to imitate a penguin!) But there’s a nice Christmas feeling to the whole project, with Christmas lights surrounding the text on many of the pages. Even pages with just text have a different-colored background, like a Christmas-y green, a wintry blue, or a fireplace yellow… And most importantly, Payne wrote a story that “captures everything right about the true spirit of the holiday.”

“I just hope others feel the same way!”

Timmy’s New Friend by Andreas Dierssen

Timmy's New Friend by Andreas Dierssen

Timmy’s New Friend was first published in Switzerland, with the name “Toddels tollster Freund.” Even the English version at my public library was printed in Belgium, according to the title page, though it doesn’t say who translated the text. So “Toddels” became “Timmy”, though he’s still a little rabbit wearing a sweater and playing happily with a red ball. He’s playing with another rabbit friend — “Rocket” in this version — when they hear twigs cracking in the forest behind them.

It’s a cute little bear cub named Bruno standing in the sunlight and wearing a football jersey. He wants to play with the two rabbits, and he can throw their red ball even higher. Unfortunately, it gets stuck in a tree, and the three animals have trouble getting it out. They try standing on each other’s shoulders, with Timmy reaching up with a long stick, but Timmy slips and falls to the ground.

The funny illustrations by Felix Scheinbergerare what make this book so entertaining. For example, Timmy’s got a frazzled expression as he hits the ground, with his ears laying flat, sticking out in both directions. But he’s got a hopeful, friendly smile when he first meets the bear cub. Besides the funny caricatures, the illustrator also uses lots of interesting perspectives to create a sense of depth for the peaceful forest where the animals are playing.

The bear has another idea for dislodging the ball from the tree — catapulting the two animals into the sky by jumping on one end of a seesaw. The bear smiles confidently, and closes his eyes with pride as he leaps. But it only results in a very funny drawing of the animals hurtling through the dark blue sky, with one rabbit grimacing in fear and the other tilting their head back and screaming. In the ensuing chaos, the bear even squashes the rabbit’s red ball accidentally. The bear meant well with everything he’d done, but each time it ended in catastrophe.

The story was written by Andreas Dierssen, and he’s ultimately teaching a lesson about forgiveness. But it arrives subtly, and he seems to spend a lot more time showing just how angry the young rabbit is — and why. It’s only in the book’s last pages that the burly bear redeems himself by rescuing the rabbit from a bullying fox.

And it turns out on the last page that he’d brought a brand-new ball to make up for the mishap, and the book ends with the three animals friends playing happily together again.

The Ride: The Legend of Betsy Dowdy

The Ride: The Legend of Betsy Dowdy

Here’s a good book about American History for girls. “Can one girl save the Revolution?” asks the cover of The Ride. The book tells the inspiring true story of a young girl named Betsy Dowdy who performed her own version of Paul Revere’s famous ride. “In Elizabeth City, North Carolina, the Daughters of the American Revolution named their chapter after Betsy Dowdy,” explains an author’s note at the end of the book. It’s a colorful children’s picture book, but it was based on her legendary real exploits more than 200 years ago.

“Sometimes legends start in the quietest of places,” the book begins. This one started in North Carolina, where the King’s soldiers are shown pointing their rifles threateningly at a colonist who wants freedom. “When 16-year-old Betsy Dowdy heard Papa talk about war approaching, she felt as helpless as a ghost crab skittering along the sand,” writes author Kitty Griffin. But the nearest rebel militia is 50 miles away, and Betsy suddenly overhears a message that a man in a boat delivers to her father. “Lord Dunore and the redcoats are marching to Great Bridge. They’re after your ponies and our supplies!”

Betsy packs her supplies – a wool cloak, a knife – and scratches a note for her father with white chalk on a piece of slate. She whistles for her horse, telling her “We’re riding for freedom,” and then fords across the cold water of the river. The night air is cold as she rides through the forest, and after many miles she explains her mission to a ferry boat owner, and begs for a ride across the river.

“You’re a pepper pot, Betsy Dowdy,” he says, and it is a very exciting story. The book’s illustrations are very colorful, sometimes filled with bright and engaging yellows and sometimes with dark, moody purples and blues. Illustrator Marjorie Priceman had already won two Caldecott Honor awards, and her simple style is fun and effective. As Betsy leaves the ferryman, she’s shown galloping again through the purple night-forest of North Carolina.

“Liberty is our dream,” says the ferryman, and Betsy repeats the word to comfort herself. She sees a snarling fox, and she’s even knocked off her horse by a tree branch. But her horse neighs for attention, and she takes it as a sign to continue. And eventually an orange light rises as she reaches the militia rebels’ camp.

This would be a great book for children, because it makes the American revolution accessible to even the youngest readers. (At the general’s camp, there’s even the flag with a snake labeled Don’t Tread On Me.) It’s got everything you could want in a children’s picture book – it’s fun, it’s exciting, and it’s brightly-illustrated.

It teaches a lesson about perseverance, and about history – but it’s also just a really great read.

The Gift of the Tree by Alvin R. Tresselt

Gift of the Tree - A Dead Tree by Alvin R. Tresselt

Breathtaking watercolors by Henri Sorensen help to tell the haunting story of a dead tree. “It stood tall in the forest,” writes Alvin Tresselt. “For a hundred years or more…” The tree grew and spread its shade, and birds and other animals nested in its branches. “Squirrels made their homes in ragged bundles of sticks and leaves held high in the branches.”

The tree is impossibly old – and it’s accompanied by animals – but nature holds more surprises. “Life gnawed at its heart,” Tresselt explains, describing in turn the ants, termites, woodpeckers, and even rot-causing spores that weakened the tree. Its branches “turned grey with death” – while baby woodpeckers hatch inside. “In winter storms, one by one, the great branches broke and crashed…” Soon only the trunk is left – but it’s a “proud” trunk, reaching to the sky with “its broken arms.”

It’s a story told through beautiful illustrations by Charles Robinson which give the magic old tree an almost fanciful feeling. The purple tree trunk spreads to leaf-shaped clusters of faded blue, yellow, and green. An owl spreads the points of its wings over snowy trees and a field of greys, whites, and blues. One painting even shows a cross section of the tree’s inside, where termites “ate out passageways in wondrous patterns.”

It’s surprising how compelling this story becomes. After a fierce wind, the tree falls, leaving only “a jagged stump to mark where it had stood for so long.” It’s followed by “the cruel days of winter,” where something special happens. In its hollow stump, a rabbit finds shelter. A family of mice settle into its fallen trunk. Even the ants and grubs can hide from winter in its bark and wood. Soon the sunshine of spring returns, and young acorns began to sprout.

Now it’s chipmunks that nest in the old woodpecker holes, and raccoons in its hollow trunk. But the book also mentions the carpenter ants and the termites that will play a crucial role. Soon there’s mosses, ferns, mushrooms and lichen, and eventually centipedes, snails, slugs, and earthworms. “The years passed, and the oak-hard wood grew soft and punky.” A family of skunks appears to feed on the insects in the bark, and birds also scavenge its bark, while “the melting winter snows and soft spring rains hastened the rotting of the wood.”

On the final page, there’s a new tree growing from the soil, “And in this way…the great oak returned to the earth.” It’s not clear if that’s meant literally – decomposing into the earth itself – or reappearing among the living. But the illustration seems to supply an answer.

There’s golden yellow sunshine filling the background as the young tree sprouts its new acorns and broad green leaves.

The Big Green Book by Robert Graves and Maurice Sendak

The Big Green Book by Robert Graves and Maurice Sendak

One year before Maurice Sendak wrote Where the Wild Things Are, he contributed the illustrations to a remarkable book. Robert Graves was 67 years old, and had already written the popular novel I, Claudius (as well as a memoir of his experiences in World War I). But as both a poet and a scholar, Graves decided to write a children’s book about the magic of reading. The Big Green Book describes a little boy named Jack, who discovers the very magical book in his uncle’s attic.

This story is surprisingly edgy – even before Sendak contributes his dark, angular drawings. “Jack’s father and mother were dead, and the uncle and aunt were not very nice to him,” Graves writes – setting up Jack’s desire to find a sanctuary. The boy scowls at the couple’s enormous sheepdog, and objects to long walks in the field. But Sendak finally draws the boy finding a moment to himself – alone in a room at the top of flight of stairs…

It was better than a story book. “The big green book was full of magic spells. It told him how to make himself as old or young as he liked…and how to make birds or animals do just as he liked, and how to disappear.” There were “spells” for winning card games, and lessons on speed-reading. And Sendak draws a row of six pictures capturing the boy’s delighted reactions – standing in open-mouthed surprise, jumping with delight, reading intently, and confidently following the instructions…

67-year-old Graves writes how Jack turned himself into an old man with a long beard. (His aunt and uncle don’t recognize him – and when they start to approach him, Jack makes himself disappear – and then reappear.) I wondered if Graves was using the character to deliver his own wry observation about life itself. “Yes: a little boy was here only a minute ago… Now he’s disappeared.”

The boy plays cards against his aunt and uncle – and he wins every time. Soon they owe Jack “about a hundred thousand dollars.” Sendak’s drawing captures the despair on the couple’s face perfectly. By the end they’re on their knees begging for a chance to win it back. And instead they lose their house to the boy – along with their enormous sheepdog.

Before the book is over, the boy plays more pranks on his guardians that are sometimes even nastier. His uncle’s fingernails grow through his hand. (“‘Ow!’ said the uncle.”) Their sheepdog is chased away by a belligerent rabbit. But best of all, Jack surveys the house he now owns, from top to bottom – and then turns himself back into a little boy.

And then he revisits his aunt and uncle to tease them about their losses.

Grandaddy’s Highway by Harriet Diller

Grandaddy's Highway by Harriett Diller

“As he tucked me in to bed, I glanced past him, out the window, to the strip of black across the yard. And I could see it — stretching all the way to the Pacific Ocean…”

That’s the last line of Grandaddy’s Highway, but it could just as easily be the first. As a little girl’s grandfather tucks her in bed at night, they watch the headlights of a passing truck cast light across her bedroom wall. But then the narrating little girl says, “We are headed as far west as you can go on 30 West.” When you turn the page, she and her grandfather are together in the truck’s cab — and he’s even honking its horn.

“On your right — the City of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Squirrel Hill Tunnel directly ahead,” her grandfather narrates. But they’re just passing through, and the text only describes things you can see from the highway. Throughout the book, the author also sprinkles a couple of hints that this trip might be imaginary. “I can already see the squirrels,” the little girl says, “millions of them, watching me from the top of Squirrel Hill.”

The girl’s vivid imagination also serves another function, since it helps readers remember the (real) cities along the route of the famous highway. U.S. Route 30 includes much of the famous Lincoln Highway, the first single road that crossed all of America, according to Wikipedia. But even if you’re not trying to memorize its route, the book is educational in another way. Their trip travels from the east coast to the west coast of America — and it takes in many of the geographical landmarks you’d see along the way.

Author Harriett Diller mixes the details of the trip with the story of the girl’s responses. They’re sometimes very thoughtful, though the “naturalistic” story style may be challenging for young readers. Each page gets a wonderful watercolor illustration by Henri Sorensen (who also worked with Caldecott medal-winner Alvin Tresselt). Sorensen lives in Denmark, but according to the book’s jacket, “to get the feel of heading west in a tractor-trailer, he and a truck driver actually drove part-way west on U.S. Route 30.”

The publisher of the book thanks “the many people at Yellow Freight System, Inc, Overland Park, Kansas, who helped make ‘Grandaddy’s Highway possible.” (And Sorensen himself dedicates the book “to Donald Stover and Jan Cheripko, who made my trip on 30 West most enjoyable.”) But the book’s jacket also reveals that there’s another real-life adventure that may have played a role in Harriett Diller’s story. It reveals the plot is “loosely based on memories of her own summer nights watching the play of passing trucks’ headlights on the walls of her grandparents’ home near a Georgia highway.”

In the story, the girl and her grandfather pass through Chicago, and then approach the Mississippi River. (“Mist and river coolness rise from the brown water.”) There’s a beautiful drawing of the wide river at sunrise. And since Grandaddy needs a nap, he lets the little girl drive the truck.

Even if it is an imaginary trip, it looks like a wonderful bonding experience. They share a cup of coffee in a Nebraska diner that’s “lit up like a lightning bug in the hot night.” Grandpa lights a cigar as they ride past a Wyoming lake, and they point their truck towards the Rocky Mountains. And as the altitude gets higher, the little girl confesses that all the beautiful sights have been giving her goosebumps. There’s “The glow of town from the other side of a hill. The rattle of a train rushing off to who-knows-where.

“Wondering if the Wyoming sky is the same sky that hangs above Pennsylvania…”

The Very Fairy Princess: Graduation Girl! by Julie Andrews and Emma Walton Hamilton

The Very Fairy Princess Graduation Girl

It’s sparkling! (This book actually twinkled when I opened it by my sunny window.) All the books in the “Very Fairy Princess” series arrive with real glitter on their covers, so they’ll always catch the light whenever your daughter opens it… And The Very Fairy Princess: Graduation Girl! is also a large-sized picture book — a tall, 10-inch square — so it’ll seem even more magnificent in the hands of a little girl…

But at the center of all this lavishness are the warm and homey drawings by Christine Davenier. (By now, your daughter should recognize her “Very Fairy Princess” character — a happy little girl named Gerry.) She’s smiling, and talking to the reader from the very first page. “Hello hello…! I’m a very fairy princess…”

Unfortunately, it’s the last day of school, and as Gerry imagines next year, it’s hard for her to find her sparkle. “Miss Pym says my ‘exuberance’ will set the tone wherever I go,” she writes. But it’s a genuine worry, and it gives the book a legitimate problem to solve — even while telling it all from the perspective of the little girl. Her family tries to cheer her up, but she still worries. Change is hard, she’ll miss her friends, and next year, her teacher is going to be…a man!

“This is going to be the most UN-sparkly year in school history….”

This book would make a wonderful gift for a girl’s graduation from kindergarten. It’s written with real affection for its character, echoing emotions that parents may want to share with to their own daughters. The narration is fond and playful, and while it stays in the voice of its own confident little narrator, it actually provides a loving reason for all the things that a mother might cherish about her own little girl. Why is she so creative and enthusiastic? Because she’s a fairy princess!

When the book finally arrives at graduation day, there’s a moment of bittersweet tension. “Keep that sparkle bright,” says Ms. Pym. But there’s a happy ending, and lots of fun enthusiasm throughout the book, which felt like a big slice of birthday cake. And it manages to sneak in every mother’s secret wish for her own daughter — to share your sparkle with the world.

Julie Andrews actually wrote this book with her daughter, Emma Walton Hamilton. (Maybe that’s how so much real affection seems to find it’s way into the story…) Daughter Emma also wrote Raising Bookworms: Getting Kids Reading for Pleasure and Empowerment, so I like to believe that she’s learned something about truly honoring a child’s point of view. As the Very Fairy Princess tells her story, she’ll gradually learn that change can mean fun and delightful surprises.

And that moment is even more special when you remember that this optimistic story about hope for a child’s happiness was written together by a mother and her daughter…

Coming Soon: Mo Willems’ “Pigeon Needs a Bath”

Cover of "The Pigeon Needs a Bath" by Mo Willems

That pesky pigeon is back. Here’s all the details on Mo Willems newest children’s book (about that pesky pigeon who wanted to drive the bus.) His next pigeon book will be released in just a few months — on April 1st of 2014 — but you can pre-order it now on Amazon.

Yes, it’s being released on April Fool’s Day, and sure enough, it looks like the pigeon is up to some more tricks… The book is titled The Pigeon Needs a Bath, but on its front cover, the pigeon delivers a message of its own!

“No I don’t!”

Uh-oh, I see where this is going… Mo Willems first warned us (back in 2003), “Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus” (though the bird spent the entire book trying to convince readers otherwise…) But the pigeon’s adventures continued later the next year, in The Pigeon Finds a Hot Dog! ), and two years later readers were warned, Don’t Let the Pigeon Stay Up Late! They’re all delightful and funny stories where the pigeon just keeps on cajoling his readers, begging to be allowed to do something that a pigeon probably shouldn’t be allowed to do! Although in at least one story it’s the pigeon who’s being bothered, by a pesky little duckling!

Those birds are always after something. (In 2012 published The Duckling Gets a Cookie!, and in 2008, Willems wrote The Pigeon Wants a Puppy!). In fact, when you buy a boxed set of the first three books, they come in their own cardboard bus! “It’s a Busload of Pigeon Books!” reads the title on the box — and the books come in adorable 6-inch edition (rather than the 9-inch versions you’d find at your local library).

Mo Williams Pigeon book box set bus

I’m a big fan of the pigeon books, so it’s exciting that there’s a new one coming soon. And it looks like I’m not the only one. Here’s the promotional image that was just sent out through Publisher’s Weekly‘s mailing list. It looks like everyone’s getting ready for some more fun with the pigeon this April!

The Pigeon Needs a Bath promotion

This Saturday is Bookstore Day!

Take Your Child to a Bookstore Day Poster

Someone had an idea for a lovely new tradition for December. It’s “Take Your Child to a Bookstore Day”, and it happens this Saturday in bookstores all across America. “On December 7th, 2013, take a child in your life to a bookstore,” explains its official web site. “Watch his face light up as you give him free access, not just to a new book, but to tomorrow.”

That’s a quote from author Jenny Milchman, the event’s founder and an author of suspense novels who’s enjoyed doing promotions in bookstores . She’s one of four people on the team for the event, but there’s more than 600 different bookstores participating, according to an article in Publisher’s Weekly. “Take Your Child to a Bookstore Day has grown exponentially since 80 bookstores first promoted it in 2010,” they point out. Milchman is even considering adding a second day (not so close to the Christmas shopping season) — and creating a nonprofit organization to spend the whole year encouraging parents to take their children to bookstores.

It’s hard to quibble with the group’s mission, since so much of it is based on the joy of reading — and the special experience that’s provided by bookstores. “The unique pleasure that comes with being in a treasure trove of books, communion and collaboration with a bookseller who has made this their life’s work, and the feeling of investment that comes when a book is discovered and taken home to keep…”

“A book of one’s own, and a bookstore of one’s own. That’s what we’re about at Take Your Child to a Bookstore Day.”

Fat Santa by Margery Cuyler

Fat Santa book cover

“More than anything in the world, Molly wanted to meet Santa Claus.”

This children’s picture book offers a funny twist on the cliched Christmas story about a little girl who stays up to see Santa arrive. Unfortunately, this year Santa ate two much plum pudding, and gets his fat stomach stuck in the chimney. So when the little girl wakes up, she finds Santa growling with exasperation from insider her chimney. “Santa? Is that really you?” the girl asks sweetly.

“Of course it’s me!” Santa growls back. “Who else would be stuck in a chimney on Christmas Eve?”

She ties a rope around Santa’s ankles, but she just ends up yanking his boots off, along with his socks. (Santa’s bare feet dangle from the chimney, as he yells that “My toes are cold! And I’m still stuck.”) The little girl’s next idea is a little sadistic – tickling Santa’s toes – but her next idea finally dislodges the overweight man with the beard. She throws pepper into the fireplace, and it makes Santa sneeze.

The illustrations by Marsha Winborn really give this book a Christmas-y feel — even if it is called Fat Santa. The little girl wears red-and-white pajamas, and her house is filled with festive symbols of the seasons. There’s a decorated tree, and a long green wreath along the staircase where she watches for Santa. And of course there’s stockings on the chimney – plus the jingly bells on Santa’s black boots.

This book was written in 1987, and it’s fun to watch for clues about how Christmas has changed. Molly waits for Santa while plugging in her earphones and listening to Christmas carols – on her tape deck. But the story might be even more timely today, with our concerns about childhood obesity. When Santa falls out of the chimney, Molly even gasps because he’s “round as a snowball” – and from the illustration, he looks enormous!

In fact, Santa’s afraid to climb up the chimney again, even though he’s got one more house to visit that night. He shanghais Molly into making the run for him, and dresses her up in his red coat and hat. “I know you can do it…! Get your boots on…! Scoot…!” I feel bad for the little girl, because it all happens “Before Molly could make up her mind…” It almost felt a little codependent, with Molly enabling Santa’s addiction to overeating. And I worried for a second we were teaching children to laugh at people who are overweight.

But maybe we’re just teaching them to laugh at grown-ups, which is good every once in a while. And the little girl does get to enjoy riding in Santa’s sleigh, which is obviously a lot of fun!

A Pirate Book! Edward and the Pirates by David McPhail

The cover of the children's picture book Edward and the Pirates by David McPhail

September 19th is “Talk Like a Pirate Day” (a tradition started by humor columnist Dave Barry). So to honor this momentous occasion, I’d like to share a review of one of my favorite children’s picture books about pirates.

“Edward and the Pirates” is such a great title for a children’s picture book. (This book was a “Publisher’s Weekly” bestseller!) And David McPhail more than lives up to it. McPhail had already written more than 40 children’s books, including three about a troubled little boy named Edward. The boy first appeared in “Santa’s Book of Names,” but in this first sequel he’s meeting a more exciting character – pirates! (And his next adventure would be “Edward in the Jungle”…)

McPhail writes and illustrates the books – but fortunately, he’s good at both! There’s a great illustration on the title page of a moonlit ocean and a shadowy chest of doubloons (with a skull and crossbones on its side). But all the illustrations are gorgeous. There’s a ship on an aqua sea, and a drawing of rolling waves swamping the boat as Edward struggles at it’s wheel. They add a lot to the book, and some of the drawings even look like oil paintings – even if it’s just Edward at his breakfast table!

“Once Edward learned to read, there was no stopping him,” McPhail writes. It’s a nice segue from the first book (in which Edward couldn’t read until after a magical meeting with Santa). Now he’s reading cereal boxes at the breakfast table, and “seed catalogs that arrived on the coldest day of winter.” But especially…books! And it seems appropriate that as Edward discovers the joy of reading, he’s drawn with some suitable wonderful illustrations. The library has now become Edward’s favorite place, and McPhail adds that Edward “especially liked stories of adventures…”

Edward imagines himself rescuing Robin Hood, or traveling by dog sled to the North Pole. Once he even imagines he sees real dinosaurs outside his window. And as he’s reading a book about pirates, pirates gradually start to appear. McPhail makes a seamless transition, showing the ocean itself rolling up to Edward’s bed (where he’s deeply engrossed in the book). Pirates want to borrow it – since it tells where their treasure was buried. But Edward refuses, since he’s already checked out the book on his library card.

In his bedroom, the pirates threaten him, until his mom arrives on a white horse and later his father with a bow and arrow. “I don’t think they meant any harm,” says Edward politely. “They only came for this book.” There’s a beautiful drawing of the lagoon under a silvery sky, with the window of Edward’s room in the foreground. Unfortunately, the pirates aren’t able to find their treasure with the book after all.

Because unlike Edward, they’re not able to read!

A sequel to Calvin and Hobbes?

Some comic artists/fans on the web are imagining a sequel to Calvin and Hobbes called Calvin and Bacon

Everyone I know loved Calvin and Hobbes, the comic strip about a boy and his stuffed tiger. Some comic artists have now imagined a kind of sequel, where it’s 36 years later, and Calvin is all grown up and married to Susie. And he has a little girl who’s playing with the same stuffed tiger!

Each artist is a fan of the original comic strip, and it’s inspired them to create some wonderful artwork. There’s a real fondness for the original characters, and it looks like they’re trying to stay true to the spirit of Bill Watterson’s original strip. The original Calvin and Hobbes ran for 10 years, from 1985 until 1995 (according to Wikipedia), and there’s apparently a lot of people who still really miss it.

The first artist drew just four full-color “Sunday” comic strips back in 2011, according to an unofficial history of the project. Keeping with the tradition of playfully naming zany characters after famous philosophers, he’d imagined that Calvin would name his daughter Francis Bacon, and the strip was called “Calvin and Bacon”. But then other online comic artists — who were also fans of the strip — decided to continue the idea. There’s now three different cartoonists who have each created a few more strips, imagining the further adventures of Calvin, and the little girl who inherits his beloved stuffed tiger.

I thought they were inspired partly by this heart-tugging painting of a grown-up Calvin, who first re-discovers his tiger Hobbes in a box in the attic. But it looks like that painting was done in 2013. I guess it means lots of people have found memories of Calvin and Hobbes, and maybe also a secret wish that the characters would somehow magically come back!

The 500 Hats of Dr. Seuss

Hat drawing by Dr. Seuss

Dr. Seuss had a private collection of hats!

There is the iconic red and white striped hat from Dr. Seuss’ “The Cat in the Hat”… There is the red felt cap with a white feather famously featured in Seuss’ “The 500 Hats of Bartholomew Cubbins”…

And his hats are now touring the country, starting at the public library in New York City and travelling as far as Sausalito, California. Seuss had more than 150 hats, according to the curator of the Dr. Seuss art collection, and he told the San Francisco Chronicle that visitors will recognize them from their memories of the hats in his books. Fitting, the hats were hidden in a secret room behind a book shelf in his house in La Jolla.

And Dr. Seuss also had a second secret…

Unbeknownst to his reading public, Dr. Seuss also created a series of secret paintings, which he labored on privately to deliver ” elaborate works from the imagination”. The paintings are described as “compelling” by the curator of a new traveling exhibit, who described them as “midnight paintings” (created on the artist’s own time). Both the paintings and the hats give a better idea of the life of Dr. Seuss. And it also makes it seem like his life must’ve been a lot of fun.

For example, in 1937 his sister Marnie told one newspaper that ” I have seen him put on an impromptu show for guests, using the hats as costumes! He has kept a whole party in stitches just by making up a play with kitchen knives and spoons for actors…” And of course, he even worked his hobbies into some of his hobbies.

The second book he ever published was “The 500 Hats of Bartholomew Cubbins.”

Little Mouse’s Birthday Cake, by Thacher Hurd

Little Mouse's Birthday Cake by Thacher Hurd

“Today was Little Mouse’s birthday…”

But unfortunately, all his mouse friends have other plans for the day. So the story switches to a day in the life of a mouse – climbing Mouse Mountain, drinking hot chocolate at the top, and then skiing down the snowy hillside. It looks like fun, though there’s still festive thoughts in the head of the solitary mouse. When he reaches the top of the hill, he even imagines that he’s sitting on a giant birthday cake!

Thacher Hurd drew cheerful illustrations for Little Mouse’s Birthday Cake, and the book feature bright pastel colors filling simple sketches of the little mouse with the big, pointy nose. He comes from a family of illustrators, and his father (Clement Hurd) was the illustrator of Goodnight, Moon. Thacher’s mother, Edith Thacher Hurd, also wrote more than 75 children’s books, according to the Harper Collins web site. It’s hard not to wonder if their son Thacher absorbed their love of children’s literature, and was influenced by their work when he drew this book’s illustrations.

The story seems a little predictable, but its real appeal is Hurd’s funny drawings of the little mouse. The mouse takes a tumble on the ski slope, falling head first into a deep drift of snow. Soon the drawings turn more expressive, as the little mouse wanders off into the woods as the sun is setting. He gets lost, and climbs to the top of a tree, “But when he looked out from the tree, all he saw were more trees.”

It looks lonely, but it makes the story more effective, since it’s ultimately a book about friendship. Alone in the tree, the mouse dreams about a giant pink birthday cake that’s rolling after him down a hill. And when he wakes up, he sees bright yellow lights flickering through the trees in the distance. “Far away, Little Mouse heard someone calling his name.” It’s his friends, who’d come looking for him, and followed his ski tracks until they found him. And when they lead him back to his home, the mouse discovers it’s been decorated for a birthday surprise party.

Hurd wrote one other book about the character – “Little Mouse’s Big Valentine” – but it never really caught on with the book-buying public. Maybe the story was too generic, but I thought the illustrations were appropriately cheery. When the mice all arrive for the birthday party, the room is filled with a yellow light from the fire. And the book ends with the mouse’s face lit by the yellow glow of his birthday candles.

“‘Yum!’ said Little Mouse…”

Maurice Sendak Gets a Birthday Tribute “Doodle” at

June 10th is the birthday of Maurice Sendak — and to celebrate it, Google created an amazing “Doodle” on their home page. Just go to today, and you’ll see an animated version of one of Sendak’s most famous characters. It’s Max, the little boy from “Where the Wild Things” are — dressed in his wolf suit, and doing a wild dance.

Maurice Sendak birthday doodle on Google (2)

There’s a “dialogue balloon” over his head, though it only contains a flashing blue arrow. But if you click it, Google delivers a gorgeous animation. It shows the boy magically walking over the top of a rotating circle. As it turns, the scene changes from his room to the jungle Where the Wild Things Are — and he’s followed by all the friendly monsters from Sendak’s most famous book!

Maurice Sendak birthday doodle on Google - Where the Wild Things Are

But as the circle continues to turn, the boy travels on into scenes from other Sendak books. Next are scenes and characters from In the Night Kitchen, followed by characters and scenes from his final book, Bumble-Ardy.

Maurice Sendak birthday doodle on Google - finale (2)

Maurice Sendak died last year just a few days before his 84th birthday — but it’s nice to see that there’s still fond memories about his children’s picture books, and they’ve found their way into the next century.

And I’m glad Google decided not to let today go by without wishing a happy birthday to Maurice Sendak!

Disney’s version of “The Wind in the Willows”

Mr Toad and Horse

My girlfriend and I enjoyed a fun treat tonight — watching the Disney version of The Wind in the Willows. When I was a kid, I’d loved “Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride” at Disneyland, and now that I’m older I’ve also had a chance to appreciate the original book by Kenneth Grahame. Yet somehow through all that, I’ve never had a chance to see the entire cartoon by Walt Disney — at least, not since I was a kid. So tonight, I was finally going to get to watch it.

There’s a fascinating history behind the movie. Walt Disney started animating the film in 1941, and it would’ve been only the fifth feature-length film ever released by the Disney studios, according to Wikipedia. But of course, World War II reached the U.S. at the end of the year, and some of Disney’s animators were drafted. Even his finished cartoons were impossible to distribute overseas in the biggest markets. So the project was put on hold…

It didn’t start again until 1945 — and by then, it was trimmed down until it was just half of a two-story movie. (The other half being The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.) This leaves the movie feeling kind of lopsided — although it also feels more like a storybook instead of a Walt Disney cartoon, with Basil Rathbone providing the narration.

“If you were asked to choose the most fabulous character in English literature, who would it be? Robin Hood? King Arthur? Becky Sharp? Sherlock Holmes? Oliver Twist, perhaps? Well, any one of them would be an excellent choice. Still, for the most fabulous character of all, I would nominate… a toad….”

I think I was most disappointed by the fact that there is no wild ride in the movie. At least, not with a motor car. But at least there is one delightfully reckless scene where Toad crashes through the countryside in a horse-drawn carriage — singing a duet with his horse! This is the moment that catches the giddy joy of the character that I’ll always remember, as he sings — with his horse — that “we’re merrily on our way, to nowhere at all!”

Honey… Honey… Lion! A Story from Africa by Jan Brett

Cover Illustration from Honey Honey Lion by Jan Brett

I didn’t know this. In Africa, there’s a bird that will track a bee to its home, and then lead over a badger to crack open the hive, so that both of them can share the honey. “That is the way it has always been,” writes Jan Brett in a wonderful children’s picture book. But as always, the star of this story is her detailed illustrations of all the animals.

There’s a black badger gorging on eight different stolen honeycombs. (“Maybe this day Badger was hungrier than usual,” writes Brett.) You can tell that the Badger’s partner, the bird, is starting to feel peeved. Brett’s drawing shows the bird perched on the remnants of a tree trunk, with its head cocked to one side, and a scowl in its tiny brown bird eyes…

As with all her books, there’s a wealth of illustrations — including extra illustrations on either side of the page. There’s the giant tall trees on a grassy African Savannah. And she peeks in on all the story’s other animal characters, including the elephants and the hippopotamuses. But my favorite illustration shows the happy badger as he sleeps off his tremendous meal. He lies on his back — pointing his soft belly fur to the sky — while his pink-soled feet roll lazily to the side.

It’s wonderful to see the scenery of Africa as the bird plays a trick on the badger. It flies past his home in the baobab tree, and over the hippopotamuses in the water hole. It flies over the warthogs by the termite mound, and past the jackals near a long hollow log. There’s a stand of papyrus, and a field of golden bristle grass — but the puffing badger, following behind, only wants to get to the honey.

You have to lift a flap to see what’s hiding under the acacia tree. But there’s a big, yellow paw sticking out — and in a second set of illustrations at the sides of the page, two giraffes point their strange heads to watch with interest. “Honey… Honey… Lion!” reads the crucial line of dialogue.

“Lion, lion, lion!” screams the badger — as the lion emerges on the next page with a gloriously shaggy mane…

Then all the animals of the savanah start to run — the giraffes and the jacakals , and the elephants. And by the book’s last page, all the animals are now telling a different story — of how important it is to share your honey with the little bird who leads you there. “Be sure and reward her,” they say, over the “bush telegraph” that connects all the animals of Africa.

“Or next time, she will lead you to a lion!”

The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame

The Wind in the Willows illustrated by Robert Ingpen

I just finished reading a fun book that’s beautifully written and full of surprises. It’s a classic “chapter book” for young readers, following the lives and adventures of a society of animals. I once called it the perfect book for springtime, because the author obviously appreciates the beauty of the great outdoors. It opens with a mole who decides he’s tired of cleaning his underground hole — so he throws down his brush and runs out into the sunshine, where the fields lead him to his very first glimpse of a sparkling river.

The mole is welcomed to the river by a friendly water rat, and a few chapters later he meets the wise old badger who lives in the nearby woods. But of course, they talk about that grand yet frivolous Mr. Toad who lives in the exquisite manor that’s just around a bend in the river. The toad flits from one passion to the next — when the book opens, it’s boats, and then later, it’s horse-drawn wagons. But the toad is absolutely spellbound by the newly-invented automobile, and starts purchasing (and then crashing) several of them…

I love the story about the book’s author, Kenneth Grahame, who had retired from his job as a secretary at the Bank of England. He’d just gotten married, and as he settled into a comfortable life on the river, he didn’t publish any fiction for the next 10 years, according to Wikipedia. But when his wife gave birth to a son, Grahame would entertain him with bedtime stories, and it was the little boy’s energy which ultimately inspired the character of Mr. Toad. Grahame described the impetuous frog as dreamy, audacious, frivolous, and triumphant — and he ultimately collected all the animals’ adventures into a novel-sized book.

It’s a book that’s beloved by adults as much as children, since it’s really two different books rolled into one. That opinion comes from the original Christopher Robin himself, in a book called The Enchanted Places. (Winnie the Pooh was written by A. A. Milne, who based the character of Christopher Robin on his own son, Christopher Robin Milne.) When he grew to the age of 54, Christopher Milne wrote The Enchanted Places, remembering that The Wind in the Willows was much loved by his family when he was growing up, and was often re-read. Ultimately his father A. A. Milne even created a stage play based on The Wind in the Willows!

Another fan of the book was the president of the United States, Theodore Roosevelt. At the close of his presidency in 1909, he took the time to write Kenneth Grahame a thoughtful note of appreciation. “Indeed, I feel about going to Africa very much as the seafaring rat did when he almost made the water rat wish to forsake everything and start wandering,” the president fondly tells the author. And just six weeks later, Theodore Roosevelt left the presidency behind – and embarked on a safari of Africa.

I guess I’m saying that this book is powerfully written, and its left a strong impression on people who’ve read it!

Georgie’s Halloween by Robert Bright

The cover of the children's picture book Georgie's Halloween

It was 1958, and President Eisenhower was presiding over the post-war boom. And illustrator Robert Bright decided to write a gentle children’s book about a charming little ghost named Georgie. Bright had already written stories where George meets a magician and some attic-pilfering robbers. But eventually, he’d end up writing a book about Georgie’s Halloween.

It’s a fun book for Halloween, because Bright uses two colors – orange and black – for each of his illustrations. The first picture shows seven children dressed in costumes – there’s a witch, a pirate, and a clown. A dark black patch signals night behind them, making the costumes seem even more cheerful. And the book opens with a warm moment of appreciation. “Wherever there are children there is Halloween, with pumpkins and funny faces, with tricks and with treats.”

First Bright recaps the basics of his character. (Georgie lives in the attic of Mr. and Mrs. Whitaker, and he’s friends with Herman the cat and an owl named Miss Oliver.) Georgie was shy and stayed hidden – like a ghost should – which gives the story a kind of hushed magic. And of course when Halloween comes around, he doesn’t have to wear a costume, since “he was so especially perfect for Halloween just as he was.”

His mouse friends in the attic urge him to enter the yearly costume contest – though that doesn’t seem proper to Georgie. Even his owl friend, and Herman the cat, urge him to enter, and there’s a smiling moon, and a grinning pumpkin in his window. But instead, Georgie spies on the town’s party on the green, peeking out from behind a tall tree. Yet in each illustration he creeps closer to the costumed parade…

Bright really outdoes himself with this book’s illustrations. The moonlit house and the nighttime party scene both lend themselves to exciting effects with light and shadows. The white spaces seems to be the gleam of moonlight, and the dark lines turn into stark shadowy highlights. And in a two-page drawing, the light spaces are complemented by the orange of the children’s costumes.

Georgie hides behind a corn stalk, but the cat and the owl urge him on. And when he finally arrives, the children shout “It’s Georgie! It’s GEORGIE!” The happy ghost runs home to tell his mouse friends about his triumph. When he gets home, the mice will present him with their own award for best costume of all.

“And all the way he could still hear the children cheering.”

Captain Underpants Comes to Boise

Captain Underpants and the Revolting Revenge of the Radioactive Robo Boxers

This is pretty exciting. Scholastic Inc. held a big contest this month, and over 3,000 librarians entered for a chance to win it. The prize? An in-person visit from Dav Pilkey, the author of the popular Captain Underpants series. The winner? A small public library in Boise, Idaho. And then pandemonium broke out…

“Word of the author’s visit isn’t just a schoolyard rumor,” reported the Boise Weekly.

“It spread like wildfire,” a Boise librarian told the newspaper. They’d actually stopped some of the event’s publicity, because the news was already spreading like a virus.

“I had never seen such buzz about an event in Boise…” remembers a friend in Boise. “Later, I read that people waited in line for three hours, and some were turned away!” A librarian later told him that over 1,500 people converged on the library! Fortunately, my friend arrived early, bringing his two children for a special treat, and they ended up being among the first 20 people in line.

Captain Underpants comes to Boise

So what was the famous author like in person? “He was awesome and chatted with the kids, drawing little sketches in each of the kid’s books.” Ironically, Dav Pilkey began his doodling as a fidgety kid in elementary school, according to the article in Boise Weekly. As a grown-up, he turned that experience into a series about two elementary students who ultimately convert their doodles into a photocopied comic strip, showing how they helped fight supervillains with the help of Captain Underpants. And now all across America, students are drawing their own comic strips, which ultimately find their way to Dav Pilkey (who gives them an appreciative nod).

“I didn’t want the book to be a story about a superhero,” he tells the newsweekly. “I really wanted it to be about a kid or two kids who just didn’t fit in with school.” fact, some parents still complain about the book’s rowdy tone, and according to the American Library Association, it was last year’s #1 target for book-banning campaigns — receiving even more complaints than 50 Shades of Grey. But Pilkey shares the other side of the story with the Boise newspaper, saying that some parents actually get emotional as they tell him their children love reading now — thanks in part to his funny books.

And seated at a public library in Boise, he tried to return some of the love. Rather than just giving a talk, he requested a chance to sit down and meet individually with the children, autographing their books — and often adding another doodles. “That really makes book-signing worthwhile for me, that personal connection,” he said.

Captain Underpants - Dav Pilkey autograph

“I’m very honored to have this job. It feels like, in some silly way, my books are making a difference.”

“Willie and the All-Stars” by Floyd Cooper

Willie and the All-Stars by Floyd Cooper

In honor of Jackie Robinson Day — the anniversary of his debut in major League baseball — I’d like to share this review of an appropriate children’s picture book — Willie and the All-Stars (written and illustrated by Floyd Cooper).

“It was 1942 and nothing came easy, not even a boy’s dreams.”

Even young Willie’s baseball is made out of string and tape, and he lives alone with his grandma in “a tiny one-room apartment on the North Side of Chicago.” But on his grandmother’s radio, he listens to the baseball games at Wrigley Field, and dreams about someday hitting a home run of his own. Even when he’s running to the store, he imagines he’s stealing bases!

Unfortunately, in 1942 it takes more than talent for a boy to grow up to be a Major League baseball player. “It’s also about the color of his skin,” explains an old man in Willie’s neighborhood. Later Willie talks to his friend – a white Irish boy who has the same dreams. “Ol’ Ezra tells me I ain’t never gonna play in the Majors,” Willie says.

“You don’t know that for sure,” his friend replies.

Author-illustrator Floyd Cooper created some wonderful illustrations for this book. There’s realistic watercolors, many of which feature a greyish-yellow background, like the special haze of an old photograph. He catches Willie’s expressions perfectly, like when he’s dreaming wistfully at his window, or holding the radio almost reverently. Even Ol’ Ezra comes across as very thoughtful – and eventually he’s the one who gives the two young boys tickets to a very special game at Wrigley Field…

An author’s note at the back of the book explains the history behind this story. Baseball became segregated in 1888, and for decades all-black teams traveled America’s back roads to play exhibition games. During World War II, the Major League owners staged special all-star games against players from what were then called the “Negro Leagues.” As the story arrives at its big moment, Cooper writes that their players “seemed a bit hungrier for the victory.”

Willie watches a game – but what inspires him even more is how when it’s over, two players from the opposing teams dared to walk to the pitcher’s mound, shaking hands in a show of acknowledgement. Then the story ends abruptly, though the book’s next page still adds in some extra significance. “Who knows how many dreams were kindled by their determination?” the author writes at the end of the author’s note. Though the real happy ending to this story obviously lies in the history of professional sports.

Major League baseball was integrated in 1947….

Outside Over There, by Maurice Sendak

The cover of Outside Over There by Maurice Sendak

It had been nearly 20 years since “Where the Wild Things Are,” but at the age of 53 Maurice Sendak completed the third book in the trilogy. I didn’t read this book for years, because it looked disturbing – and it is. On the title page, there’s a little girl teaching her baby sister to walk, and they pass a white picket fence, and an enormous bush of daisies. But sitting at the end of the fence is a hooded mystical figure. It could be the grandson of Death, and Sendak’s answer isn’t much more comforting. They’re goblins – and they’ve come to kidnap the little girl’s baby sister. There’s even a second title page – spanning two pages – in which three more of the hooded goblins arrive.

Sendak has come up with another grand and mysterious fairy tale. “When Papa was away at sea,” he begins, in a fancy font on a grand two-page spread. Sendak draws a yellow sky over a ship in the harbor, with a mountain on one side and on the other a beautifully-detailed drawing of a tree. The little girl, named Ida, stands in the middle, holding her baby sister next to her mother on the rocks – and two more of the hooded goblins on the left. ” On the next page, there’s a different view showing a whole forest of his detailed trees, plus a gorgeous leaf-colored trellis, a husky dog – and two hooded goblins, now carrying a ladder.

They’ll use the ladder to kidnap Ida’s baby sister when she isn’t looking.

Sendak hides surprises in every picture. While Ida plays her horn, the leaves of a daisy vine poke into her room through another window. But in the next illustration, they’re already starting to bloom, and soon there’s enormous daisies intruding into her bedroom. Meanwhile the other window, where the goblins escape, inexplicably becomes a view to a ship on the ocean. And in the next illustration, it’s a stormy sea where lightning strikes over the sinking ship.

Sendak’s story uses enigmatic sentence fragments, while the illustrations seem to run away with the story. In response to the baby-napping, Ida puts on a yellow rain coat, takes her horn, “and made a serious mistake.” It’s not explained, but the next illustration shows her floating backwards over the daisies and the green-leafed trellis – while the background shows three goblins carrying her baby sister over a bridge. Sendak writes simply that: “She climbed backwards out her window into outside over there.”

And the story gets more and more magical. Ida floats on her yellow rain coats, “whirling by the robber caves,” and it’s one of the most beautiful drawings in the book. There’s a white moon turning the clouds silver, that frame the girl’s yellow raincoat – just her face peeking out of the center. Below her is a horizon filled with detailed trees – and presumably under the ground, a cave with stalactites and a burning flame where two goblins wait by a moonlit ocean. Eventually Ida confronts the goblins, who’d hoped to turn her sister into a goblin bride.

Just like “Where the Wild Things Are,” Ida triumphs in a magical world – and then returns home to her loving family.