Last week I had to head up to my mom’s house to do some cleaning out after a pipe bust in an old bedroom. In the process I brought home several boxes of picture books I’d had as a child. Of course there were timeless old classics like Mike Mulligan, Cat in the Hat, and One Morning in Maine, but also oodles and oodles of books that I’d completely forgotten about as well as a few little gems that I loved, but which are pretty obscure and I bet you have never heard of. So for our reviews today, indulge me in a little time travel. Yes, I generally focus on books published in the past couple years, but looking back at books from the 60s and 70s (I am the youngest, so many of my books were hand-me-downs) just might teach us a few lessons about how much the market has changed!
My apologies for letting the ball drop on my April book reviews, but I’m back and so excited to share five new picture book reviews for May. I’m even more excited to share a wonderful new bookstore with you that JUST opened this weekend! Booktenders is owned by Rick and Michelle Clarke, and it’s going to make my book shopping a LOT easier! Although I’ll admit I’m guilty of abusing my Amazon Prime subscription, or stopping in at my local Barnes & Noble for a latte and a bestseller, I would much rather support an independent bookseller, where my money will not only go back into the local community, but where the owners know me and can give me recommendations — and vice versa! The owners let me know that they could definitely use a little help keeping up with the current picture book scene since their kids have mostly outgrown picture books (In my opinion, there’s no such thing as outgrowing picture books, but you know teenagers…). I’m happy to oblige, but for this month, let’s take a look at five current picture books these folks already have on the shelves!
Did you know that today is “Very Hungry Caterpillar Day”? I didn’t! I’m a huge fan of Eric Carle– his completely unique and bright art style, his simple but brilliant stories..and of course the fact that he was born in Germany makes him perfect for me, a German teacher. I read my German students “Die kleine Raupe nimmersatt” every year during our “Storytelling” unit. They analyze whether or not it has the elements of a fairy tale. (It does have some– including exaggeration and transformation, but it lacks the magic and moral-teachings that would put it into fairy tale world). In honor of Eric Carle and this wonderful story, I am reviewing picture books this month that somehow have food in their theme. Enjoy and…guten Appetit!
Maine has a week long vacation in February, so I’m up in Canada visiting my husband’s relatives and exploring one of our favorite cities, Toronto. We stopped in at a bookstore yesterday so I could do some exploring and read some of the newest picture books — including these five fabulous Canadian finds!
I have a great story for you about cookies — no, not “The Great Holiday Cookie Swap” — that one is already published and on the shelves. (Shameless plug: please buy and/or review!). But first, let’s get the obligatory “Wow, what a year 2021 has been!” and “Sorry it’s long since I posted” dance over with. By way of explanation I will say that last month I had a wonderful set of book reviews ready to write and I came home from the bookstore to find my basement flooded and several boxes of my favorite picture books destroyed. In itself, that would have made for a great post about mentor texts (which you see laid before drying out in these photos), but alas we were too busy drying out our entire basement and fighting with the insurance company (who in the end refused to pay since it counted as flooding). So I will just share my normal “book fan” photo with the books I would have reviewed that day and say they were all quite lovely and you should check them out! Feel free to comment with questions.
And now, on to happier things! Two weeks after this flooding, I was honored by one of my professional organizations, the AATG (American Association of Teachers of German) with the FL-A-CH Award, given each year to a German teacher who shows exceptional teaching of the cultures of Switzerland, Austria and Liechtenstein. It was a great honor, because as a German teacher, it’s easy to focus just on Germany, but having spent a year studying in Salzburg, Austria, in college, I have always been passionate that German-speaking languages and cultures extend far beyond the borders of Germany. Well, that prize came with a monetary award as well, and I decided to spend some of the money on something that would serve as a reminder of my passion for those cultures. Combining that with my love of baking, it was easy to decide: I would invest in some “Springerle” cookie molds. “Springerle” cookes are a very old style of cookie from Switzerland and other German-speaking cultures which is rolled and pressed with molds. (Though the molds themselves can be used for many other things such as shortbread and marzipan). Originally these were made of wood, but often they are now cast in resin. I found mine from the website Gingerhaus and imported from the Swiss company Änis-Paradies. These beautifully detailed cookie molds come in a huge variety from flowers to holiday scenes, but I wanted to focus on molds to represent the cultures of Germany, Austria, Switzerland and Liechtenstein. I chose the molds below– including one more, a star of David, to represent the German-Jewish culture. I love them so much– I can foresee adding more to my collection as the years go by!
But this is not the end of the story! I placed my order in November and near the end of the month, I got an email from the owner of the company, Ms. Lee Shepherd. She was packaging my order and noticed that I lived in York, Maine. Now, it’s somewhat common for people to have heard of York, as it is a popular tourist destination on the coast. However, Ms. Shepherd had grown up there and attended the high school where I teach! In a nod to this “small world” connection, she said she would like to send me a gift along with my order — a copy of her new book. Wow! I hadn’t noticed her book when I was shopping for my molds, but I thanked her and told her I would be very pleased to get it — assuming it would be a small book of recipes. As you can see from the photos, this is no small recipe book, but rather a huge and comprehensive coffee table book with an extensive history of Springerle and many recipes with gorgeous photos! So you see, this IS a book review post after all! I will be working my way through the recipes and of course sharing the cultural information with my students!
And here’s the holiday epilogue…I make Christmas ornaments every year– usually I have a simple ornament that I make with my German classes (this year it was an origami star), and a more ornate one to give as gifts to friends and fellow teachers. So this year, I couldn’t resist making a homemade cornstarch air-dry clay and creating some works of art with these beautiful molds. Have a look at how they turned out! I love them both with and without the ink touches (done with fine permanent markers– I could never achieve that detail with paintbrushes!). Hope you have had a wonderful 2021 despite all of its challenges– wishing you an even better, safer and more peaceful 2022!
I’m getting in just under the wire with my reviews this month. I had every intent of writing them while we were in Canada on vacation last week, but exploring the local bookstores had to fall by the wayside for time with relatives we have not seen since well before Covid. So, I made a trip to the nearby Barnes & Noble yesterday and found a big picture book sale– 50% off many titles, even new ones! Don’t let that fool you that they are cast off titles, however! These are all amazing books you should definitely check out! My “theme” once again didn’t surface until I was writing the reviews, and it still doesn’t fit for one of the books (which one of these is not like the others?), but the rest fall into place fairly well even though I had no idea what that theme would be when I grabbed the books. I’m convinced fate is at work when I gather them up each month…
July has been a busy month. School may be out, but even though I have been “on vacation,” my days have been filled. We have been building an addition on our house and it’s finally progressed far enough to move furniture (And books! So many books!) which also involves lots of sorting and de-cluttering. Combine that with some family issues, houseguests and plans for a week-long teacher workshop next week and I’ve had my hands full. Fortunately, I was finally able to get another bookstore visit in and explore some more wonderful new picture book releases– many of which are by authors I already know and love. I rarely go into this with a theme in mind, but yet again they seem to have coalesced into some commonalities. Each of them is about being in a new place and all the nervousness/change that can bring. Enjoy!
It’s pretty amazing how my book review excursions work out sometimes. I was a little limited by time tonight, because my dog was at the groomer, so I wandered around picking out random books to read, putting a few back that weren’t quite right (I won’t post a review unless I can be completely honest about loving the book) and settled on these five lovelies. I did not start off with any kind of theme like I sometimes do. I just chose books that were new releases (all in 2021!) and that happened to catch my eye. And yet, in the end, they all seemed to coalesce around a theme: be who you are.
Ever since moving back to Maine in 2011, I have been bringing my kids to our wonderful local public library. Today was the first time in over a year we had been able to visit and was bittersweet, because it was also a farewell for the beloved and long-serving children’s librarian, Miss Kathleen, who retires this week. She has not only been a great resource for book recommendations over the years, but also a cheerleader for my writing career. The first thing she said when I walked into the Children’s Room this morning, despite being surrounded by well-wishers for her retirement, was “And there is our author!” As part of her goodbye, the library asked her to compile a wall of her favorites– you can see them in the photo above, although there are lots of gaps because they have been checked out by her fans! So, in honor of Miss Kathleen and her years of dedication to young readers, my book reviews today come from “her” shelves. They are not all completely recent (my blog readers know I try to keep the reviews within the last couple years), but they are all winners!
Title: I walk with Vanessa Author/Illustrator: Karascoët Publisher/Date: Schwartz & Wade (April 24, 2018) The “gist”: A new girl in class is shunned and bullied, but one girl steps up and befriends her, then everything changes. My favorite part: Since this was a library book, it just happened to have a post-it inside which said “Fiona- try to imagine what the characters are feeling!” I have no idea who put it there, but it made me smile! My response as a reader: This is a wordless book, so I love being able to just dive into each picture as the story is told. My “take-away” as a writer: In a wordless book like this, I sometimes get frustrated that my “job” as a writer isn’t even necessary. But every book is different and you have to find the right way to tell each story– sometimes with a lot of pictures, sometimes with barely any.
Title: The Other Side Author: Jacqueline Woodson Illustrator: E.B. Lewis Publisher/Date: G.P. Putnam’s Sons Books for Young Readers (January 15, 2001) The “gist”: A sturdy fence segregates the black and white parts of town, but the children manage to strike up a friendship across it anyway. My favorite part: The final line of the book has a great message about tearing down fences! My response as a reader: This book was released in 2001 and feels like it is set in the 1960s, and yet it is still completely relatable today– it hits you and stays with you! My “take-away” as a writer: Wow, does this story have “voice”! The little girl is characterized perfectly in lines like “She never sat on that fence with anybody, that girl didn’t.” The whole poignant story is just steeped in her youth and perspective– something writers need to feel when they create their characters.
Title: Imagine Author: Juan Filipe Herrera Illustrator: Lauren Castillo Publisher/Date: Candlewick; Illustrated edition (September 25, 2018) The “gist”: If the author can experience joy and accomplishment in small things like tadpoles and big things like learning English, what more can we do? My favorite part: The book (or really, poem) starts slowly, with simple pleasures through the perspective of a child until you realize it is an autobiographical journey through the author’s immigrant story until he becomes poet laureate of the US. That took the book from sweet and sappy to truly inspiring. My response as a reader: The illustrations are wonderfully classic and pair beautifully with the poem text. It is both a picture into another world and an invitation to dream. My “take-away” as a writer: I have always loved writing and bounce back and forth from poetry to children’s books (and some other genres, too), so it’s great to see a work that bridges two worlds by creating an inspiring picture book from such lovely lyrics.
Title: Twenty-one Steps Author: Jeff Gottesfeld Illustrator: Matt Tavares Publisher/Date: Candlewick; Illustrated edition (February 12, 2021) The “gist”: Quiet and reflective (but not boring!) this non fiction picture book describes both the history of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and the traditions surrounding the guards who watch over it. My favorite part: I never knew that the tomb was originally set up without much adornment or a guard and people had just picnicked around it until they set up the amphitheater and instituted the 24 hr. guard. My response as a reader: I enjoy non-fiction, but didn’t expect to be as captivated and moved by this story as I was — would be a wonderful reading for Memorial Day or Veterans Day. My “take-away” as a writer: Mad Props to all those who write non-fiction, a genre I have never really attempted (except for the backmatter in many of my manuscripts). The advantage? You often have a few more words to play with, as they tend to be a bit longer than fiction picture books. The disadvantage? Those words STILL have to count, because non-fiction has a reputation for being, well, dry. Not so in this example, however!
Title: Rescue & Jessica: A Life-Changing Friendship Authors: Jessica Kensky and Patrick Downes Illustrator: Scott Magoon Publisher/Date: Candlewick; Illustrated edition (April 3, 2018) The “gist”: Rescue is trained to be a service dog, unsure if he will be able to help when needed, but after Jessica’s leg amputations, he proves to be just the right fit. My favorite part: I love how the story is told through both Rescue and Jessica’s perspectives: Rescue is worried he won’t be able to help his person, and Jessica is worried she won’t be able to do things on her own. My response as a reader: Who doesn’t love a good story about a dog, particularly a service dog? My own dog is amazing, but not nearly as well trained as Rescue– it’s wonderful to read about their partnership, particularly knowing it is based on a true story. My “take-away” as a writer: What is that I say almost every month? Oh yeah, say it with me: Tell YOUR story! I bet Jessica had no idea she would become a picture book author. Sure, I write lots of stories that are not strictly autobiographical (like one of my latest about a pegasus with a fear of heights), but there is always something in there that is MINE, otherwise the story will not feel authentic. At the same time, realize that just because it happened to you, does not mean it is the perfect picture book story– Jessica Kensky changed her main character to a young girl to make it more relatable to a young audience. I think that was a brilliant shift.
Featuring: The Briar Patch, Bangor, Maine (Where I had my first book signing to debut “The Great Holiday Cookie Swap” last October!)
In New England, school vacations are run a bit differently from most of the rest of the country. We have a week off in February, and a week off in April. So Maine schools were out this week and I had the chance to get back North to visit my hometown and my favorite independent bookstore, The Briar Patch. Bangor Maine’s nickname is the “Queen City,” and this little bookstore, stuffed to the gills with wonderful books (including piles everywhere you look) is definitely a gem in the Queen’s crown. Owner Gibran Graham and the lovely Abby gave me glowing recommendations for several of these books, then set me loose to explore on my own, just like good book sommeliers should! I hope you find your OWN gem as you explore today for Independent Bookstore Day! Read on for the reviews of MY favorites!