Quote of the Month

When love and skill work together, expect a miracle. John Ruskin

Thursday, November 26, 2015

Insider Secrets

Last night the first big storm of the season left behind five inches of snow.  Looking up from shoveling my driveway as the sun was starting to set; I noticed two deer quietly walking down the sidewalk across the street, a doe and an eight-point buck.  We watched each other for several minutes as I moved in rows back and forth tossing snow.

In mere seconds on a turn around I was startled to see they had gone.  They had vanished without a sound.  Not for the first time I wondered about the ability to accomplish something marvelous demonstrated in the animal world.  In a title recently named to the Outstanding Science Trade Books for Students K-12:2016 (Books published in 2015) the wife and husband collaborative team of Robin Page and Steve Jenkins reveal fascinating instructions.  How To Swallow A Pig: Step-By-Step Advice From The Animal Kingdom (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, September 1, 2015) will increase your admiration and respect for these creatures.

So you want to learn how to swallow a pig.  You've come to the right place.  

If you want to ease into this particular bit of knowledge, it is suggested to start out slowly with the less dramatic tricks of the trade.  Seventeen unique techniques are disclosed before the final eighteenth feat.

Teamwork among blue whales, circular swimming and blowing of bubbles, makes for a tasty meal.  An aptly named tailorbird uses creative stitching skills to shape a nest.  You'll look at millipedes differently with the new awareness of their value in the insect-plentiful rainforest.  Although the capuchin monkeys approach might make you utter the word gross.

Bighorn sheep teach us how to woo, crows cleverly crack nuts and beavers engineer a new pond.  Diving into the depths we witness the masquerade of the octopus.  Legs, a beak and spread wings define the hunting prowess of the reddish egret.  Paper manufacturer, mathematical genius, and umbrella engineer might be words used to describe the nesting building skills of a paper wasp.

Do you know why a barn spider spins the same web twice?  Do you know how bowerbirds work like interior designers?  Do you know why velvet monkeys have more than one alarm call?  Do you know why leaf-cutter ants leave a chemical trail?

Camouflage like a member of the tree family if you want to snatch dinner from the water like a crocodile.  Never settle for only one line of defense if you want to survive like an armadillo.  If pit digging is your style follow the lead of an ant lion.

The western grebe could teach contestants on Dancing with the Stars a move or two.  You most definitely won't want to engage in a hugging competition with a python.  Nothing compares to learning from members of the animal community.

For each creature Robin Page and Steve Jenkins use the repetitive words

How to ...
like a ...

This is followed by a captivating descriptive paragraph inviting the readers, if they desire, to follow their numbered steps to accomplish the same results as the mentioned animal.  The matter-of-fact conversational suggestions will have you believing you might blow a bubble net, smash heads with a rival or enjoy a

fungus feast.

Here are some excerpts from the

How to
Spin a Web
Like a Spider

...Before you start, however, you'll need to find a protected place to build your web, and---this is the tricky part---you'll have to learn how to spin silk threads.

1 Cast a line.
Once you've found the right spot, cast a single silk thread into the air.  If you're lucky, the breeze will catch it and it will snag on a nearby branch or other object.
2 Make a loop.
Walk across the first thread and spin another that droops to form a U.

The python coiled around the title, author and illustrator text on the front of the matching dust jacket and book case is stunning.  The placement of the tail and head and using the patterned skin as a frame is a truly eye-catching design.  On the back, to the left, on a background of the same rusty red as found on the front are six white circles.  Each features a portion of a different illustration from the interior.  The title font hue covers the opening and closing endpapers.  On the title page the image from the front jacket and case is repeated with a noticeable change.  All that remains of the python is an "s" portion of the tail.  The reptile is on the move.

White space showcases the torn-and-cut-paper collage art of Steve Jenkins.  The tiny details and the play of light and shadow creating life-like eyes are astounding.  The set of instructions may be placed on a single page or span two pages.  For each number a separate image is shown.

One of my favorite series of illustrations is for the tailorbird.  As the bird selects a leaf we see him on a branch coming from the top of a page.  Then it has moved to work the two edges of the leaf together with spider silk.  As the holes are poked in the leaf edges and found material is used to sew them together the angle of the pictures changes.  The final visual is larger as the tailorbird flies gathering soft items to line the nest.

It's understandable in addition to being on the Outstanding Science Trade Books for Students K-12:2016 (Books published in 2015), How To Swallow A Pig: Step-by-Step Advice From The Animal Kingdom written and illustrated by Steve Jenkins and Robin Page is also one of the Commended Books on the 2016 AAAS/Subaru SB&F Prize Finalists list.  At the close of the book several pages highlight more facts about each of the animals.  There is also a short bibliography.

If you desire to learn more about Robin Page and Steve Jenkins please visit their website by following the link attached to the first name.  Attached to the second name are pages dedicated to the making of this book. Don't miss the book, reading it aloud or chatting about the information found at their website.

Please stop by Kid Lit Frenzy hosted by Alyson Beecher to see the other titles selected by bloggers this week who are participating in the 2015 Nonfiction Picture Book Challenge.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Dropping Leaves

Mother Nature insists it happen.  We see it in the caterpillar and the butterfly, the tadpole and the frog, the acorn and the oak, the cracked blue eggs, the beaks peeping from a nest top and the fledglings learning to fly.  It's evident in the speckled fur of a fawn and the many-pointed antlers on a mighty buck.  It's showcased in sunrises and sunsets.  Life is in constant motion; even when it's still, change is happening.

Humans can't wait to grow up wishing to be adults; then wanting to slow growing old.  Sometimes we reluctantly acknowledge the need to shift our mindset in order to be our best possible selves.  We move from one professional position to another to better assist others.  We relocate from one community to one nearby to surround ourselves with more positive, like-minded people.  One day we find ourselves packing all our personal belongings to leave one state and start anew in another thousands of miles from where we've spent our entire lives.  There are times, all too often though, when we refuse to budge from our comfort zone.  Little Tree (Philomel Books, an imprint of Penguin Group (USA), October 27, 2015) written and illustrated by Loren Long is about such a being who loves everything about his world.  Why should he be or do anything else?

Once there was a little tree
filled with little leaves...

He was not alone.  There were other little trees with loads of little leaves next to him.  These leaves protected him from the summer heat as the forest animals enjoyed the branches on Little Tree.

When fall arrived the little leaves on all the little trees traded in their green for shades of red, yellow and orange.  When the other trees dropped their leaves, Little Tree did not.  Advice was offered but not taken.  There was security in sameness.

Winter came and went.  Spring's arrival brought new growth to the other trees but Little Tree still has his now brown leaves, keeping them close.  Summer, fall, winter, and spring again arrived and left but Little Tree did not change.  Other forest animals expressed concern and offered encouragement.  Little Tree fiercely held on to his leaves.

Eventually he realized the little trees next to him were huge.  He could barely hear the forest animals enjoying their branches rather than his.  When the snow covered the forest floor once more, Little Tree gazed around him, seeing the majesty of the other trees stretched upward.  He felt a longing grow.  And he did what he had to do to satisfy that longing.

Spare text and simple sentences by Loren Long extend a hand to readers, asking us to quietly walk along with Little Tree on his journey of discovery.  We share his pleasure in being a part of a group, in the squirrels at play among his boughs and in the beauty of a morning dove's cooing.  We understand his unease and the need to maintain the protection his leaves offer.  Long reinforces the disparity between Little Tree and his fellow trees with repetition and comparison.   The dialogue of four forest animals serves to let us, along with Little Tree, know we are never alone.

A fox said, "Little Tree, it's autumn.  It's time for you to drop your leaves.  You can do it. Ready? One, two..."

Rendered in acrylic, ink and pencil the beauty of Loren Long's paintings begins on the dust jacket.  Ample white space here, and throughout the title, serves to illuminate his signature characters and the world's in which they live.  You already want to hug Little Tree but for different reasons than the definition usually implies.  On the back, to the left, Little Tree stands alone with the forest giants in the snow.  This image is circular in shape seeing Little Tree more closely as if through a telescope.

Beneath the jacket the book case reflects the color found in the raised title letters.  Embossed in a lighter shade in the lower right-hand corner is Little Tree with a squirrel gazing at him.  The opening and closing endpapers are the rich, chocolate brown of Little Tree's dried leaves.  The initial title page focuses on a small tree with a squirrel nearby.  The formal title and dedication pages' image extends across two pages, forest grass, a scampering squirrel and a cardinal in flight.

In perfect pacing with the text, the pictures appear on single pages or on double pages.  Carefully placed fine lines indicate motion.  Although Little Tree remains in the same place in each visual, as do the first three companion trees, new trees appear as the years pass giving us a sense of reality.  Life moves forward even as Little Tree does not.

One of my favorite illustrations is when Little Tree decides to

hugged his leaves tight.

It's the same image embossed on the book case.  Regardless of the advice from the squirrel, it's a huge decision for Little Tree.  It is a visible sign of his reluctance and willingness to grow.  It's a place all of us visit in our lives, again and again.

Little Tree written and illustrated by Loren Long is, as he has stated, a deeply personal story.  It's a gentle look at being courageous enough to change.  It speaks to every reader, young and old.  It's a classic gem.

To learn more about Loren Long and his other work please follow the first link attached to his name to access his website.  The second link takes you to a page dedicated to Little Tree.  You will want to stop by the Nerdy Book Club to read Little Tree and Me by Loren Long.  Loren Long was a guest on teacher librarian Matthew C. Winner's Let's Get Busy, Episode 185 podcast.  Teacher librarian Jennifer Reed offers up how she and her students read and used Little Tree in a blog post, ReedALOUD:  Little Tree.   Loren Long is a guest at November Picture Book Month A Celebration!, Why Picture Book Are Important.  Scholastic's Ambassador for School Libraries John Schumacher talks with and about Loren Long in two separate blog posts a couple of years ago, here and here.  Enjoy the video.

There are Little Trees everywhere.  I have one in my backyard.  I guess the snow storm today changed his mind.

Monday, November 23, 2015

The Soul Of A City

The last week in August 2005 a nation, admittedly persons around the world, watched with growing alarm as a force of nature spun toward the southern edge of the United States.  On the 29th it reached landfall along the Gulf Coast.  Hurricane Katrina stretched some four hundred miles with sustained winds reaching between one hundred and one hundred forty miles per hour. The loss of life, the loss of a way of living and personal property was catastrophic.

One man, Cornelius Washington, in the wake of devastating destruction dug deep into his heart doing what he had done daily.  Marvelous Cornelius: Hurricane Katrina and the Spirit of New Orleans (Chronicle Books, August 4, 2015) written by Phil Bildner with illustrations by John Parra is an inspirational tribute to an extraordinary human being.  His strength in the face of events beyond his control was a spark that fueled flames in others.

In the Quarter,
there worked a man
known in New Orleans as Marvelous Cornelius.

Cornelius was known for his cheerful salutations to all he saw each morning, afternoon and evening on his route.  Men, women and children raised their hands and voices in returned greetings.  Cornelius was a sanitation worker spreading joy throughout the city riding on the back of the big truck.

This man took tremendous pride in his work; realizing we all have jobs to do, so we need to do them in the best possible way.  His calls rang out like trumpets.  His beats on the side of the truck and clashing of lids were like the matching percussion in a big brass band.

He moved from curb to truck with the skills of an acrobat and the smoothness of a dance king, bags sailing through the air.  People happily paused to watch or join Cornelius, marveling at the magic he dispersed.  This all stopped when the storm struck.

The mighty wind and water stirred the city into a stew of destruction.  When they finally receded Cornelius felt the weight of the world on his shoulders as he saw the piles of rubble farther than his eyes could see.  He sobbed.  He then got to work from the back of his truck.  So did others in his city, the state, and the nation.  One man's spirit rallied others then and still does today.

One person can make a difference.  Once man's presence can brighten a day and lighten a load.  Phil Bildner gives respectful recognition to such an individual with words lifting off the page like the notes in a song, sung in a storyteller's voice.  Bildner has Cornelius acknowledge three distinct people as the story begins.  They play an essential role toward the end of the tale.  Alliteration describes the worker's day.  The rhythms in the Crescent City ring out in this man's every action.  Here is a passage.

He clapped the covers like cymbals and
twirled the tins like tops.  Whizzing and
spinning back and forth across the street.

Rendered in paint the two separate illustrations seen on the front and back of the matching dust jacket and book case speak to the spirit of the man and the work ethic he presented to all who encountered him.  The perspective on the front depicts Cornelius as a larger than life figure in the city he loved.  The rays of the sun are akin to the rays of cheer and go-to attitude of this man.  He was a sunrise to the people before and after Katrina.  To the left on a background of burnished orange Cornelius is waving as he rides on the back of the truck.  On the opening and closing endpapers forty-eight different symbols of the city are patterned in small rectangles.  A city street, a row of houses, spans from left to right as the truck passes on the verso and title pages.

Single page and double-page images display a full range of color with a nod to the architecture of the vibrant city of New Orleans.  Greens, blues and the blush of dawn provide the background colors.  Readers will note the bluebird, a symbol of happiness, seen in the first picture is visible repeatedly throughout the book.  When Cornelius makes a decision to begin his work after the storm even though the odds against him are huge, the bluebird returns with a sprig of green.  This is most definitely a nod to the receding of the waters and sadness being replaced with determination and hope.  The tiny details, ants in the street, logos on the discarded items Cornelius picks up, the clothing worn by the residents, the vines growing on railings, a bee on a string of lights, street musicians, an umbrella caught in the wind, the type of boats on the water, and the NY 2 NO on the side of a bus tell us about the care John Parra takes when creating his visuals.

One of my favorite illustrations is the first one of Cornelius kneeling in the center of a street, a can held in one hand, a bag in the other.  He is smiling as he looks at a bluebird perched on a curved handle poking from the can.  Rays are radiating behind him.  On either side are rows of homes people out and about enjoying the day.  At the top two ribbons arc from a star on the left is New, on the right is Orleans.  

Readers, this reader, can't help but feel gratitude toward author Phil Bildner and illustrator John Parra for bringing our attention to this man in Marvelous Cornelius: Hurricane Katrina and the Spirit of New Orleans.  The text and images raise it to the status of tall tale as intended but the truth of this life well-lived glows on every page.  Phil Bildner explains further in an Author's Note.  

To learn more about Phil Bildner and John Parra and their other work please visit their respective websites by following the links attached to their names.  If you go to the publisher's website there are several interior images and a teacher's guide.  Two years earlier John Parra was a guest at author, reviewer and blogger Julie Danielson's Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast.  Two years ago Phil Bildner stopped by Scholastic's Ambassador for School Libraries John Schumacher's blog Watch. Connect. Read. Stop by Latin@s in Kid Lit to read In the Studio with Illustrator John Parra.  A series of blog posts at Color Me a Kidlit Writer showcase this title.  Phil Bildner talks about A Modern Day Folktale: MARVELOUS CORNELIUS Blog Post.  CELEBRATING THE SPIRIT OF NEW ORLEANS 10 YEARS AFTER KATRINA is an essay by Phil Bildner revealing the story behind this book.  Teacher librarian Matthew C. Winner talks with Phil Bildner and John Parra in Let's Get Busy, Episode #175 podcast.  John Parra reads this title aloud on KidLit TV.  You are going to enjoy this.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Within One, Thousands...

When learning to count, one comes first.  It's a beginning.  The true value of one can be found in the difference one year, month, day, hour or second can make in shaping lives.  We have often requested to do something one more time.  We know there is one thing we never want to happen again.  One person or one dog can impact our life choices or make our lives worth living.

In her most recent nonfiction publication Kate Messner explores the power of one.  Tree of Wonder: The Many Marvelous Lives of a Rainforest Tree (Chronicle Books, August 11, 2015) with illustrations by Simona Mulazzani takes us where many of us will never visit.  It's a journey of discovery multiplying with every page turned.

Deep in the forest, in the warm-wet green, ONE ALMENDRO TREE grows, stretching its branches toward sun.

Eleven life forms are descriptively introduced in poetic paragraphs.  Further astonishing facts follow in a separate portion of the page.  When more than one million blossoms appear on a single tree in one year, it's a tree worth investigating.

This tree will be a permanent home for the same couple year after year; a duo of birds who mate for life.  Another flock finds the fruit here enticing.  You might see keel-billed toucans using their bills to throw fruit to their branch pals.

The largest monkeys in Latin America can be heard loud and clear as they warn other howler monkeys to stay away from one particular almendro tree.  The distance from which this sound can be heard is astounding.  Night feeders become unknowing gardeners, dropping the seeds from the almendro tree.  Will they be planted later?

Perhaps it would be a good idea to not be near the most venomous snake in Costa Rica when the babies are born; fifty, one-foot long squirmers.  Even the rain forest has hoarders.  The agoutis must be busy.

A delicate butterfly can mimic a deadly foe.  Caring parents making many trips seek shelter in the tree's leafy dens.  Unsuspecting frogs need to beware of the lurking spider hiding in its lair.  It's hard to picture but leafcutter ants can live with from three to four other leafcutter ants in colonies under the ground.  They can nearly deplete the leaves on a tree in twenty-four hours but nature has a way for them to help too.

From one to one thousand, twenty-four we count the ways this tree supplies life to the forest.  From flowers to fruit, on branches, within the bark, among leaves and on the ground below, it gives.  It's easy to understand why...

In Latin America, the almendro tree is known as the "tree of life," ... .

When Kate Messner writes nonfiction she does so with diligence and meticulous research.  She first brings us into the experience with sensory perceptions.  We are then privy to mind-boggling specific aspects about each plant, bird, mammal, reptile, insect, amphibian and arachnid.  Her technique of having the numbers mentioned double puts an intriguing mathematical spin on the information.

A sun-kissed sky, pale in the background, glows against the bright bold colors of rain forest dwellers on the image spanning from left to right, back to front, on the matching dust jacket and book case.  With no effort whatsoever you can hear the boisterous howler monkeys, the chatter of the great green macaws and keel-billed toucans.  If you are the bark on the tree you can feel the flutter of passing butterflies and soft-padding of persistent frogs.  Silhouettes of the mentioned creatures are patterned in two hues of green on the opening and closing endpapers.

A rhythm, like breathing, is created with the illustrations crossing the gutter from left to right leaving a half page for a column in which the informative text appears.   Above this a number tops the etched images of the animals; 16 with sixteen fruit bats beneath, 32 with thirty-two fer-de-lance below and 64 with sixty-four agoutis in rows.  The background colors in these columns change to reflect the pictures to the left.

Rendered in acrylic and pencil Simona Mulazzani details her paintings with a realistic quality using soft, sure brush strokes.  No matter the time of day or night or location, she brings us into the world of the almendro tree with her shifts in perspective.  It's interesting to note the leafcutters are shown in more than one image reinforcing their continual work.

One of my favorite pictures is of the great green macaws.  A pair is inside their nest hole, two eggs next to them.  We are inside the nest with them looking outside at other birds resting on branches and flying near the almendro tree.

Tree of Wonder: The Many Marvelous Lives of a Rainforest Tree written by Kate Messner with illustrations by Simona Mulazzani is a stellar work of nonfiction in a picture book format.  The text and images work immediately to engage readers and inspire further investigation.  I've already looked up the average size of rusty wandering spiders.  One fact leads us to another which is exactly as it should be.  At the close of the book a discussion about the almendro tree with links to three organizations is provided.  There are several pages with challenging Rainforest Math. We are invited to read additional books and view a documentary.

To learn more about Kate Messner and her other work follow the link attached to her name to access her website.  I was most happy for her when reading this tweet.

Kate Messner chats with teacher librarian Matthew C. Winner on his Let's Get Busy Podcast #176 about this title. 

The link attached to Simona Mulazzani's name takes you to an artist's website where her work is featured.  You can view more illustrations from this title at the publisher's website.  One of her newly illustrated books was highlighted at author, reviewer and blogger Julie Danielson's Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast recently.

It's a pleasure each week to participate in the 2015 Nonfiction Picture Book Challenge hosted by educator Alyson Beecher at Kid Lit Frenzy.  Please stop by to see the other titles selected this week by bloggers.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

To Heed Or Not To Heed...That Is The Question

It would seem when it comes to following written instructions, directions, commands or requests, people fall into two distinct categories, those who do and those who don't.  If you comply you may save time, reap rewards and spare yourself trouble.  If you fail to observe what is asked you may find yourself and others in a bit of a predicament.

When author Adam Lehrhaupt and illustrator Matthew Forsythe introduced readers to a cast of crazy primates and rambunctious toucans plus one nasty reptile in Warning: Do Not Open This Book! (A Paula Wiseman Book, Simon & Schuster Books For Young Readers, August 27, 2013) readers should have done as they were asked or at least had a boatload of bananas handy.  The gang has returned in a crackerjack companion title, Please, Open This Book! (A Paula Wiseman Book, Simon & Schuster Books For Young Readers, October 6, 2015).  The jungle bunch has changed their tune and is pleading for assistance.

Someone turn on the light.

A monkey holding a lantern is jubilantly shouting.  You have saved the day by opening the book.  The last reader trapped the entire company of characters inside.  Survival cost them dearly, physically and emotionally. Their final fruit is looking like something dragged from the garbage bin.

They are attempting to catch the responsible culprit; hopeful you have seen him.  As they continue to patch up the mess, you are asked to leave the book open.  You are not to turn one more page.

Promises are made if you simply walk away now. What!?  How could you turn another page?  As a reader you can't help it.  You fail to understand their reasoning.  You wouldn't think of ensnaring these poor innocents.  Would you?

Panic and pleading is evident in the expression of the narrator.  A bribe is offered; well at least a half of a bribe.  STOP! STOP! STOP! That ends that...or does it?

Adam Lehrhaupt has infused an array of emotions in the voice of the narrator.  We sense the relief felt by our presence.  We understand the plight of the animals.  We are aware of the damage done by our predecessor.  We knowingly nod when given a promise and presented with a bribe.

 Despite all this we are persuaded to proceed by the cloak of comedy covering the narrative.  We willingly wear it as we march toward the end trying not to laugh.  But it's hopeless thanks to the adept use of language by Lehrhaupt.  Here is another sample passage.

We're still fixing things from last
time.  So you should leave this book
open.  Just put it down.
Step away from the book.

As a companion, comparison and reversal of the first title, the first thing you notice is the black background as opposed to the white in the initial book.  This serves to showcase the wide-eyed look of the inhabitants due to fear and lack of light.  The pennants held when coupled with the facial expressions begin the hilarity.  You will have to read the book to discover what the back on the matching dust jacket and book case reveals.  The opening endpapers are completely dark.  The closing endpapers highlight what your deed has done.  Before the story starts sign-holding characters offer suggestions to the readers.

Rendered digitally by Matthew Forsythe the illustrations elevate the words of Lehrhaupt by telling us more than the text.  The alligator wearing a sling and a cast, the toucan's bill wrapped in bandages and the lemur hiding beneath a cardboard box provide us with a visual as to the extent of the destruction done.  The close-ups of the banana and the monkey's face will have you bursting out in laughter; as will the papers strewn about the floor as a gorilla types, hunt and peck fashion.  The font color and placement of the text adds to the telling, becoming part of the visual whole.

One of my favorite illustrations is of the narrator promising to change the story, making it better.  We see him on the left; body language suggesting the sincerity of his words.  On the right sits the gorilla typing in earnest.  The same word appears over and over, page after page.  They are both looking straight at the reader.  It's impossible not to grin.  It's impossible to believe the monkey.

Please, Open This Book! written by Adam Lehrhaupt with pictures by Matthew Forsythe captivates readers with an invitation to participate.  It's a read-aloud gem with every page turn.  It's destined to be a family and classroom favorite with repeated requests to "read it again."

By following the links attached to their names you can discover more about Adam Lehrhaupt and Matthew Forsythe at their respective websites.  Six interior images are shown at the publisher's website. On Watch. Connect. Read. the blog of Scholastic's Ambassador to School Libraries, John Schumacher hosts the amazing book trailer premiere and a post by Adam Lehrhaupt.  To see how this all began, read You've Been Warned... a question and answer with Adam Lehrhaupt and the book trailer reveal for the first book.  UPDATE:  November 20, 2015 Adam Lehrhaupt and Matthew Forsythe chat with teacher librarian Matthew C. Winner on his Let's Get Busy, Episode 208 podcast.

Monday, November 16, 2015

Being Your Best Self

Every single individual has potential.  Choices made daily determine how this capacity is developed.  We get to decide how we look at ourselves, each other and the world as a whole.  We very quickly learn we will not have control over everything that happens but we do have the ability to create our response.

Three titles published within the last several months focus on developing a positive perspective so our lives, the lives of those closest to us and the lives of people we may never meet are rich and full.  Collaborators author Amy Krouse Rosenthal and illustrator Tom Lichtenheld present Friendshape (Scholastic Press, August 25, 2015), a charming tale on the comforts trustworthy companions bring.  I Used To Be Afraid (A Neal Porter Book, Roaring Brook Press, September 29, 2015) written and illustrated by Laura Vaccaro Seeger explores conquering fears by stepping back and looking at them with different eyes.  A daily ritual of a father with his children becomes Beautiful Hands (Blue Dot Press, September 29, 2015) written and illustrated by Kathryn Otoshi and Bret Baumgarten.

What's so great about having


We're glad you asked!
See, the great thing about having friends is ...

A blue circle, a yellow square, a green triangle and a red rectangle cheerfully list all the attributes of having a friend.  Each quality is not only displayed textually but visually.

Friends make you feel happy.

On the opposite page the foursome are indeed grinning but their shapes make a smiling face.

You know how you feel like you can be yourself in your own home.  Friends make you feel the same way no matter where you are.  It's like your minds are in sync. They have a gift for seeing play when no one else can and they do so with equality for all participants, even newcomers.

When you don't see eye to eye, they value you more than being right.  Through thick and thin there's nothing they won't do for you.  In case you are wondering why friends are friends to the end, the quartet arranges themselves to spell out the answer.

Amy Krouse Rosenthal speaks the language of her readers knowing what they value most.  She understands the importance of simplicity; her words clearly defining eleven virtues of lasting relationships in single sentences.  Each one builds toward the final thought.  Here is one of the sentences.

Friends may quarrel...
...but they don't stay bent out of shape for long.

Rendered in pencil with digital color the illustrations on the matching dust jacket and book case playfully extend the text in a punny sort of way.

An uplifting celebration of friendship 

is highlighted with a balloon (a symbol of celebration) floating upward with the Square happily hanging on tight.  On the back, to the left, the words

Here's to a great circle of friends! 

curves around Circle as Rectangle, Square and Triangle surround it.  The four pages of the opening and closing endpapers are in green, yellow, blue and red.  Everyone is equal.

Tom Lichtenheld places the characters on a crisp white background with the exception of elements placed on cosmic black to reflect one of the statements.  The secondary asides in the narrative are sure to elicit grins galore due to Lichtenheld's pacing and placement.  With careful curves and two dots emotions are readily depicted.

One of my favorite images is for the second portion of the quarrel statement.  Circle and Square are apologizing to each other on the left.  On the right Rectangle looks at Triangle and says

You know,
you have a good point.  

I used to be afraid of SPIDERS
but not anymore.

A young girl shares her fears with readers.  She then introduces us to her new view inviting us to try the same with our fears.  In a rhythmic back and forth of exchanges we are privy to her thought processes.

When a spider swings down on a silken thread we are startled but the beauty in their web work helps to ease the initial moment of panic.  Shadows shift when we have control of their creation.  In the face of change relief is found in those things which remain with us.

Some fears stay but not all the time.  We can turn the fear into fun.  Family does that for us.

Laura Vaccaro Seeger establishes a cadence, a sense of expectation, with the repetition of

but not anymore

in each of her sentences.  The fears addressed are real to many.  She moves from concrete (spiders and shadows) to more abstract (change and being alone) and then back to a person.  This final fear ends the entire narrative in laughter and warmth.

There is real fear expressed on the face of the girl on the matching dust jacket and book case.  By bringing the girl close to us we immediately have empathy and a little curiosity.  What has her frightened?  Opening the cover the narrative starts with us stepping back to see her peering from behind a living room chair as the dog looks at her.  This is also the title page.

Each image rendered in acrylic paint and collage spans two pages.  First the fear is portrayed followed by the relief found when looking at it differently.  Laura Vacarro Seeger is a master of the die-cut.  When the page is turned what initially appears alarming, turns into beauty, love, light, heightened self-esteem, or comfort.  Four two-page spreads are devoted to being alone and to her big-brother, extending into the closing endpapers.  The twist at the end is perfectly pictured.

One of my favorite visuals (Xena's too) is her fear of the dark.  She is seen peeking over the edge of her covers in bed with her pink stuffed bunny by her side.  A circle in the upper right-hand corner turns into the moon with a page turn.  Now she is sitting outside gazing at the sky with her canine companion at her side.

What will your beautiful hands DO TODAY?

This introductory question guides each subsequent series of questions and a reply that is also a question.  We are first asked

Will they PLANT?
What can you plant?

We are engaged in this conversation.  Our minds race as possibilities come to the surface.  Will we plant seeds, vegetable, flowers, or trees?  Oh no...


Now we are wondering what hands can do.  Will they fix, fashion or grasp?  They will touch, lift, stretch and reach but what will they touch, lift, stretch and reach?

Once again we think of potential words to join with the questions.  We understand we are being challenged to expand our ideas into larger concepts.  Will this end today?  Do we do this every day?  What do you believe?

Kathryn Otoshi's text is based upon the first question which Bret Baumgarten asked his children every day as he held their hands.  By having the replies followed by a question mark, she is asking us to continue our thoughts.  She welcomes discovery through a more philosophical approach.

The rainbow color palette seen on the book case is used throughout the book.  All the images are created using the hands of Kathryn Otoshi's and Bret Baumgarten's families with the exception of a final illustration employing more than one hundred hands.  Most of the background color is a pristine white.

Portions of the first two questions are written in cursive.  The letters on the key words are cut from hand prints as are the replying questions.  For a few the letters look as if they were written in finger paint.  The layout and design flows from left to right.  We see beginnings and the beautiful results; seeds to flowers, a caterpillar to a butterfly and a lizard to a dragon.

One of my favorite illustrations is the two-page spread at night.  The background is a rich deep blue.  A tree spans across the gutter, branches extending to nearly the page edges.  It is covered in fireflies.  In white we are asked

What will your beautiful hands DO...

These three books, Friendshape written by Amy Krouse Rosenthal with illustrations by Tom Lichtenheld, I Used To Be Afraid written and illustrated by Laura Vaccaro Seeger and Beautiful Hands by Kathryn Otoshi and Bret Baumgarten will add joy in your classrooms and home.  They will have every reader extending themselves, wanting to grow into the best they can be.  I can already imagine the discussions between readers and listeners and readers and readers....of all ages.

To discover more about Amy Krouse Rosenthal, Tom Lichtenheld, Laura Vaccaro Seeger and Kathryn Otoshi please visit their respective websites by following the links attached to their names.  Update:  November 21, 2015 A wonderful Pinterest board has been created by Amy Krouse Rosenthal for their book.  Eight interior images from I Used To Be Afraid can be viewed at the publisher's website.  Author, reviewer and blogger Julie Danielson at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast has some artwork and a link to her review at BookPage.  Hand in Hand: Kathryn Otoshi on Her Collaboration with Bret Baumgarten for "Beautiful Hands"  is posted at School Library Journal.  Enjoy this video about the book.

Saturday, November 14, 2015

A B C What Can You See?

When nothing else makes sense, it's good to go back to the beginning.  It's important to focus on the tried and true, on those things which remain the same.  In any language, written, spoken or read, each relies on their respective set of letters, their alphabet.  These letters represent the pebble dropped in the pond from which rings spread outward.

In our alphabet twenty-six letters form a foundation from which wonder quietly goes forth, silently awaits discovery or excitedly reveals new knowledge.  Two outstanding alphabet books written and illustrated by notable names in children's literature were released this year.  8: An Animal Alphabet (Orchard Books, an imprint of Scholastic Inc., July 28, 2015) written and illustrated by Elisha Cooper displays an array of creatures from around the world.  Alphabet School (A Paula Wiseman Book, Simon & Schuster Books For Young Readers, September 8, 2015) written and illustrated by Stephen T. Johnson asks readers to look more closely at those everyday things outside, around and inside their learning spaces.

Elisha Cooper begins his title with an introduction requesting something interesting of readers.  Within each representation of a letter one animal will be found eight times.  Here is the * portion of his introduction.

*Why the number 8? Because 8 is great.  Because 8 is round and adorable.  Because 8 is fun to count to (move over, 10).  Because 8 is not too big, and not so small, but just right.  Because 8 is my favorite number. 

A letter may be defined with as few as one animal, x is for xerus, or as many as eighteen, salmon, sandpiper, seagull, sea horse, seal, sea turtle, shark, sheep, skunk, sloth, slug, snail, squid, starfish, swallow, swan and swordfish.  We seek and find critters wild and domestic.  We note animals from the air, land and sea.  Every continent is represented.

Ants and anteaters casually roam together.  A butterfly flutters near a bison's nose.  Mouths open the letter E creatures are raising the noise level.  Three lionesses seem to be hungrily eyeing a moose.  A walrus questions the abundance of warthogs.  There's a zebra dove?

After the feature for the letter Z we see the words The End with an asterisk placed in the middle of the following page.  The asterisk directs us to four pages of single sentence fun facts about each of the animals.  There are one hundred, eighty-four in total.  Many captivating tidbits are further shared along with an author's note about sources and acknowledgements.

Opening the rich rust dust jacket readers are invited to explore and locate the special eight in a design spanning jacket flap to jacket flap.  The book case is a beautiful blend of all the animals painted on white.  Each of the endpapers highlights twenty-six creatures, one for each letter of the alphabet.  Across the verso and title pages Elisha Cooper spreads a line of his animals heading from left to right to find their spaces in the interior.

On most of the pages an insect, beast, bird, amphibian, reptile, or sea dweller will be on or very near the designated letter.  Soft, flowing brush strokes detail physical characteristics.  Notice the eyes on each of the creatures.  The eight are portrayed in individual shapes, sizes and positions.

One of my favorite of several letters is G.  Cooper selected to picture a gazelle, gerbil, gibbon, giraffe, gnat, goat, goose, gopher, gorilla, grasshopper, groundhog and a guinea pig.  The eight goats are in a variety of types and colors as well as varying in age.  The grasshopper clings to the underside of the capital G.  The gorilla is looking at the gnat hovering nearby his face.  Each of the body postures on this page (on all of them) suggest liveliness, the ability to move at any moment.

As he did in the Caldecott Honor award winning, Alphabet City, Stephen T. Johnson tours common ground but shifts his vision looking for the highly visible twenty-six symbols. A ladder in a library begins the journey.  A shadow on a bus falls in second place.

A globe, a painted playground strewn with wood chips, a partially eaten lunch, stair rails, and a pencil sharpener crank under his careful eye become word builders.  Several of the detected letters begin the words of which they are a part.  Johnson lets his readers know there is no set time of the day, month or year for spying letters; different seasons are part of the composition.

Before the first page in an author's note Johnson advises readers to look around with a discerning eye.  In the twenty years since the publication of Alphabet City 

I have been delighted by the creative booklets, imaginative drawings, alliterative letters, and intuitive photographs sent to me by students, teachers, librarians, and parent who have used the images I generated to draw associations in their own worlds...

You never know what you can find in the least likely places when you are looking.

The matching dust jacket and book case draw in readers with the complimentary colors of purple and yellow.  On the back, to the left, the letter Z is showcased in a painted parking lot.  Bright yellow opening and closing endpapers continue the theme.  Images from the interior become the beginning letters on the title page.

Rendered with

monoprints on paper and digitally enhanced 

each letter, if not at first, noticeable will slowly appear to patient readers.  Stephen T. Johnson cleverly connects us to additional details in the prints.  For the letter C a captured angle of the metal holding the globe is seen.  Beneath this object are stacks of books in bins on a shelf.  One is titled C is for Continents!  The grainy texture on the images helps to make us feel as if we are hunting after hours for these hidden gems.

One of my favorite illustrations is of the pencil sharpener, the only one to span across two pages.  It took me longer than the other pictures to find the letter L.  I like the way Johnson brings us in close to the object but does not alter the size.

These two titles, 8: An Animal Alphabet written and illustrated by Elisha Cooper and Alphabet School written and illustrated by Stephen T. Johnson are highly recommended for your classroom and library book shelves.  I know they will find a spot in my alphabet book collection.  They are two completely different approaches to the wonderful twenty-six but they accomplish the same thing; they help you to see with new eyes and make you eager to explore more.

By following the links attached to Elisha Cooper's and Stephen T. Johnson's names you can access their websites.  They reveal more about them and their work.  Elisha Cooper was a guest at author, reviewer and blogger Julie Danielson's Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast. Elisha Cooper has been posting items on his Facebook page about the process for this title.  You can view eleven interior images of Alphabet School at the publisher's website