August Picture Book Reviews: Making good choices…

5 Picture books for review this month

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…

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July Picture Book Reviews: Fish out of Water…

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!

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June Picture Book Reviews: Celebrating Individuality

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.

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May Picture Book Reviews: Farewell, Miss Kathleen!!

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.

April Book Reviews: Happy #IBD!

(That’s Independent Bookstore Day!)

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!

I just couldn’t resist doing SIX books this month– too hard to decide from all the wonderful books at the Briar Patch!
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March Picture Book Reviews: Perseverance and Joy!

This month’s picture book choices are all about persistence and belief in beauty!

I was so excited to look for books to review this afternoon — so many I have been wanting to read– and yet I also wanted to honor some Asian authors as part of efforts to #stopasianhate. After I ran around grabbing books like a kid in a candy shop I realized they do have a bit of a thread running through them– strong characters, or characters who wish they were strong, stories of stepping out of the shadows and becoming who you were meant to be…all stories we all need right now after a long winter of struggling through a pandemic.

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February Picture Book Reviews: Tell your own story!

My darling husband knows the best present for Valentine’s Day is time in a bookstore! So I am thankful to have time to bring you this month’s book reviews! I was torn between catching up with the new releases I have been dying to read, focusing on Black History month, checking out some award winners, or just grabbing some of those fabulous finds by authors and illustrators I know I love. So this month brings us a little of everything– in fact they could not be more different from each other, and they are all stories unique to their authors!

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THE GREAT HOLIDAY COOKIE SWAP: Bonus Material!! The Great Snowball Soap Adventure!

Ya-ya, the first cookie in The Great Holiday Cookie Swap, actually represents the LAST holiday in the book — Greek Orthodox Christmas. Most Greek Christians celebrate Christmas on December 25th, but many people (including both Greek and Russian Orthodox faiths) celebrate January 7th. It is seen as the day the wise men brought their gifts to the baby Jesus. And by now you may have finished up the other cookies you made during the holidays, so maybe it is time to get baking again! On the other hand, if you are all “cookied out” at this point, you might want to engage in some creativity that does not involve sugar! And I am here for you!

Grab the kids in your life for some great STEM activities today— all you need is a bar of Ivory soap and a few other simple ingredients to do a crazy fun science activity, then play around with some homemade soap dough and finally make your own soap snowballs! For a free download of these activities, perfect for a snow day or a school day, click the link after the photos!

καλά Χριστούγεννα!!

Kourabiedes cookies and soap balls…but which is which?

For free instructions in pdf form just click below:

New Year, New Picture Books!

It definitely NEVER gets old to see YOUR book on display in Barnes & Noble!
…But the real fun is getting to read all the awesome new books by other authors!

I don’t get out to do book reviews much these days, so it is a special treat when I can immerse myself in all the wonderful new picture books of 2020. Our batch for today are all recent releases, but very different– it really is a golden age for picture books!

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The Great Holiday Cookie Swap: Bonus Material for Kwanzaa!!

Today is the third day of Kwanzaa! My family does not celebrate Kwanzaa, but as I wrote THE GREAT HOLIDAY COOKIE SWAP, it was exciting to learn about the traditions and values around all the holidays of the world, especially those whose cookies are represented. I lived in Charleston, South Carolina, for four years when I taught at the College of Charleston, and benne wafers were one of my very favorite new discoveries there so I knew they HAD to find their way into the book. My good friend Mary Catherine James still lives in Charleston and she graciously agreed to create a video to help introduce readers to the traditions of Kwanzaa and even a Kwanzaa craft that is fun and easy for kids to make. (MaryCatherine frequently leads children in craft projects at her church and is also an artist with work at the Art on the Square gallery!)

Watch Mary Catherine tell about her own family’s connections to Kwanzaa and see her take you step by step through DIY video here– then click on the link following the video to download free printable instructions for the craft!

Mary Catherine James explains Kwanzaa and the magic of the benne wafer!
Left: The nutty not-too-sweet benne wafer cookie, a Lowcountry Carolina tradition!
Right: A corn pendant craft to celebrate the creativity and culture behind Kwanzaa! (And they look just a tiny bit like the cookie, too!)