Holiday Book Reviews: Season’s Readings!

When my book, The Great Holiday Cookie Swap, was released, I started looking at sales numbers on Amazon. I laughed about it because I knew I wasn’t about to release at the top of the best-seller list! The numbers are all a little surreal. Still, it amused me to look them up and see things like this:

Snapshot in time: in early November, my book was the 2,827th most popular Children’s Christmas book. Who knew there were even that many, right? Two weeks later, I now sit at 5,375 in that category. Publishing is fickle!

It was definitely humbling to look at those numbers, particularly to realize just how many books are out there– and in particular how many holiday books! Having a title that is at its most relevant only for a couple months of the year is a challenge– so today I am featuring some of those. Three of them are new releases for 2020, and the other two were out in the last two years. If you are looking for a good holiday gift book, you can’t go wrong with any of these..maybe paired with a copy of The Great Holiday Cookie Swap, of course!

Title: Santa Bruce
Author/Illustrator
: Ryan T. Higgins
Publisher/Date: 
Disney-Hyperion; Illustrated edition (September 4, 2018)
The “gist”:  Grumpy Bruce wants to be left alone (as usual), but when animals sight him in his red coat and hat, they think he is Santa and naturally, he is forced to oblige…
My favorite part:
 I love when Bruce is in the sled being pulled by the geese, but it turns out the sled is too heavy, so Bruce has to pull it. Poor Bruce!
My response as a reader: 
Ryan’s books are always so much fun– there is a simple timelessness about them but also a great clever playfulness, particularly in the art which always has little funny bits for the adults to notice. I can’t pick a favorite, but this one comes close!
My “take-away” as a writer: 
I will admit it is definitely a life-goal to have a book that is popular enough to have kids clamoring for a sequel.

Title: I’m going to give you a Polar Bear Hug!
Author
: Caroline B. Cooney
Illustrator: Tim Warnes
Publisher/Date: 
Zonderkidz; Illustrated edition (October 6, 2020)
The “gist”:  The story lists all the different ways in which the narrator will give you a hug– a tickly hug, a snowy hug, a shivery hug, etc.!
My favorite part:
The little girl wears a little “polar bear” hat throughout which is just adorable!
My response as a reader: 
There is pure joy on every page of this book — and right now when we can’t hug all of those people we would like to, even this book is like a warm hug!
My “take-away” as a writer: 
This is a concept book, since it doesn’t really have a storyline, it is just a litany of types of hugs, but it definitely holds your interest! I love the beautiful cadence of each line and the choice of such perfect descriptive vocabulary for each page!

Title: The Joyful Book
Author/Illustrator
: Todd Parr
Publisher/Date: 
Little, Brown BYR; Illustrated edition (October 6, 2020)
The “gist”:  There are many ways to be joyful — gathering with friends, lighting candles, opening presents, etc. no matter what your family traditions.
My favorite part:
The very last page contains a wonderful message from the author, Todd Parr, to the readers: “Holidays are a special time. No matter what traditions you celebrate, it is always joyful to be together with family and friends. Try to find joy every day and share it with others all year long!”
My response as a reader:
  I love that there are so many multicultural holidays represented here– I clearly see Hanukkah, Kwanzaa and Christmas, and there may be others, but they are simply illustrated as part of being joyful and that universality is great to see.
My “take-away” as a writer: 
I am biased of course, but it is nice to know that I have something in common with a New York Times Bestseling Author– this book is similar to mine in not focusing on any one holiday but on the importance of sharing and tradition. It would be a great companion book for someone wanting to give two books to a family — or a teacher reading two holiday books.

Title: Happy Llamakkah!
Author
: Laura Gehl
Illustrator: Lydia Nichols
Publisher/Date: 
Harry N. Abrams; Illustrated edition (October 13, 2020)
The “gist”:  Each page brings a new short rhyme with information about celebrations for Hanukkah, always ending with “Happy Llamakkah!”
My favorite part:
It’s llamas! What’s not to love? The illustrations are adorable!
My response as a reader: 
This would be such a great read aloud — I can totally imagine little kids loving to join in with the “Happy Llamakkah!” each time!
My “take-away” as a writer: 
Like my book, there is some good backmatter here, but there is also just a happy story about enjoying traditions.

Title: The Tree That’s Meant to Be
Author/Illustrator
: Yuval Zommer
Publisher/Date: 
Doubleday BYR; Illustrated edition (September 24, 2019)
The “gist”:  Little tree is a bit crooked and not perfect like all the others who are chosen for Christmas trees. But maybe that is ok!
My favorite part:
I love that this book feels so timeless– the illustrations of the trees and the brush stroke style remind me of books from my childhood!
My response as a reader: 
This book really made my heart full– I loved the idea that we are all the WE whom we are meant to be and that comes through here without being preachy.
My “take-away” as a writer: 
It can be hard to make first person stories work, especially with anthropomorphic main characters– this one does it really well, bringing into the tree’s lonely world and helping us feel the love at the end!

The Great Holiday Cookie Swap: Bonus Material for Diwali!

Happy Diwali: Parent and Teacher Materials!!

If you have read THE GREAT HOLIDAY COOKIE SWAP, you know that the cookies might be bickering to this day if it weren’t for the wise peaceful words of Nan Khatai. Although Indian food generally does not involve lots of cookies, the lightly scented cardamom shortbread Nan Khatai is a favorite of many and a great way to celebrate the holiday of lights, Diwali, which starts its celebrations today, November 14th!

Learn how to make your own candles to celebrate Diwali — in the shape of Nan Khatai, the heroic shortbread from THE GREAT HOLIDAY COOKIE SWAP! Then read the book together or make the cookies to enjoy by candlelight!

Click the link below the candle to download the instructions!

Happy Diwali!!

Pandemic PB reviews (with no particular theme)…

Stopped by my local Barnes & Noble today to see my book “in the wild”! It is as thrilling as I had dreamed it would be– now I just hope people will buy it!

Between the pandemic and the chaos of being a teacher right now, I don’t get out to explore new books as often as I used to, but when I do, it sure is amazing to see how many fun and creative new picture books are out there. I wanted to focus on books published since the start of the pandemic, since they are most likely to need some “extra love,” but a couple just jumped out at me and begged to be read, so I couldn’t refuse!


Title: Sweety
Author/Illustrator
: Andrea Zuill
Publisher/Date: 
Schwartz & Wade; Illustrated edition (March 26, 2019)
The “gist”:  Sweety’s aunt calls her a “square peg,” since she just doesn’t seem to fit in anywhere, but does that mean she should change?
My favorite part:
 I loved that of all creatures, Sweety was a naked mole rat– and there was a sweet note about how the illustrator was thankful they liked clothing so there was no worry about drawing “embarrassing” parts!
My response as a reader: 
Sweety’s story resonated with me greatly, because I never had many friends growing up. My social skills weren’t great, and I preferred the company of adults much of the time. My dad once told me he was proud I didn’t have friends because it meant I had not sacrificed who I was and tried to be like the popular kids. But life without friends can be lonely and painful. It wasn’t until I got to college that I met “kindred spirits.” I hope that kids reading Sweety will realize they don’t have to change and things WILL get better.
My “take-away” as a writer: 
Who knew that all this time I could have written about my lonely childhood? Then again, childhood trauma is what makes a good writer, right?

Title: How to Meet a Mermaid
Author
: Sue Fliess
Illustrator:  Simona Sanfilippo
Publisher/Date: Sky Pony (June 16, 2020)
The “gist”: The title says it all: this book takes you through the steps of where to find mermaids, how to make a crown to entice them, etc.
My favorite part:
I love that the children basically have a magical moment of turning into mermaids and then when it is over, they are kids again! How fun!
My response as a reader: 
Who doesn’t love mermaids, right? Not only are they super fun, but they are really popular right now, so I bet kids would love this! (I did!).
My “take-away” as a writer: 
This book is part of a whole series of “Magical Creatures and Crafts” which includes books about Unicorns, Christmas Elves, etc. all of which pair a story with some crafts families can make– genius idea!!

Title: This is NOT that kind of Book
Author
: Christopher Healey
Illustrator:  Ben Mantle
Publisher/Date: Random House BYR (October 15, 2019)
The “gist”: In this very “meta” kind of book, the characters are all confused about just what kind of book they find themselves in.
My favorite part:
I love the apple! Similar to “Groot,” he pops in repeatedly with “I am an apple!” and is simply adorable!
My response as a reader: 
This is the best picture book I have read in while— I am a sucker for books that break the fourth wall or play with the concept of picture books (Julie Falatko’s Snappsy is another big favorite!)
My “take-away” as a writer: 
While the characters in this book are essentially “stock” characters, they do not seem one dimensional and they all fit really well with the plot, ultimately working really naturally together to create a plot.

Title: The Same, but Different, Too
Author: Karl Newson
Illustrator:  Kate Hindley
Publisher/Date: Nosy Crow; (March 19, 2020)
The “gist”: Told in sparse and simple rhyming text, this book highlights what unites us even though we may look different or have different talents.
My favorite part:
The illustrations have a great “Richard Scarry” quality which makes them seem really timeless. (Just googled their two names, by the way, and Hindley lists Scarry as an inspiration– she can feel proud, because she nailed him!)
My response as a reader: 
This would make a splendid board book for very young readers– the text is reminiscent of Dr. Seuss (without the outlandish made-up words) and has a similar “feel good” moral.
My “take-away” as a writer:
Simplify, simplify! I didn’t count, but I would be surprised if this text topped 300 words, but it doesn’t need more than that. What can I cut in my own writing? 

Title: Gurple and Preen
Author: Linda Sue Park
Illustrator: Debbie Ridpath Ohi
Publisher/Date: 
Simon & Schuster BYR (August 25, 2020)
The “gist”: Gurple and Preen are robots whose spaceship has crashed. They use random objects which come out of the broken crayons to fix the spaceship.
My favorite part:
I adore Debbi Ohi and her art, and one of her taglines is “You never know what will come out of a broken crayon.” (I highly recommend her Flickr page for more brilliant examples!) So, I just loved seeing his concept turned into a whole book!
My response as a reader: 
I would love reading this with a little one and asking them to anticipate what you could do with each of the items that comes out of the crayons!
My “take-away” as a writer: 
This book made me even more respectful of the amazing partnership between author and illustrator. I have no idea if Linda Sue and Debbie worked together on the plot for this, but there is truly no separating the text from the pictures here and if I hadn’t known better, I would have sworn they had to come from one person! Bravo, Ladies!

Story of a Covid PB debut….

How do you celebrate a “book birthday” when your book baby is overdue?

Most writers dream of the debut of their book like some little girls plan for their wedding day: party, champagne, excitement…a time just for them. However, when you are celebrating a book release during COVID-19, some of those plans have to get dropped. Not to mention that as a high school teacher teaching in a hybrid model, my life has been a little overwhelming all by itself. I do “zoom” for teaching and department meetings– the thought of zooming a book release party just did not excite me.

As it happens, my book release has also suffered from one more disappointment: a shipping delay. Whether a combination of printing issues, warehouse issues or the slow-down in the post office I do not know, but I have still not received my author copies (which means I don’t have one of those fun “unboxing videos” to show my excitement at seeing the book for the first time). In fact, even on my “book birthday,” I didn’t have a copy, nor did any of the bookstores I know, including the one where I planned to do a pre-order signing on the 10th. Amazon was saying “ships in 1-2 MONTHS.” I was heartbroken! This is a book for the holiday market– what would it mean if it were not available until two months from now?

So, release day was subdued. I posted some things on social media, but it was a bit like a baby’s due date when the baby is overdue. All you can do is anticipate. And pray for the postal service. I shared the cover image with my students at school, promising I would not be promoting my book in every class from now until the holidays. We did take-out for supper, and in my evening zoom session with the Speech & Debate team I coach, I did a dramatic online reading (using my proofs for the illustrations). Their support was great. We all oohed over the awesome illustrations by the great Joe Kulka (there are LESSONS in illustrating there, people!)

As my “debut week” progressed, I checked in with the independent bookstore who was processing my pre-orders, a lovely shop in Bangor, Maine called “The Briar Patch.” It’s about 3 hours north of me, near where my mother lives, and I had planned to visit her for the long weekend, but what if the books weren’t there by then? He told me the had spoken with the publisher and they had been shipped. They WOULD be there by Saturday the 10th. By Thursday, they had arrived, and Gibran, the owner, sent me a photo to prove it!

Finally, my signing day had come! But, since this bookstore is not open to browsing, they set me up with a card table in the back of the store, surrounded by boxes instead of adoring fans. I could have done a table on the street, but happily almost all of the books he’d ordered were pre-sold, so I was ok communing with the pre–order sheets and smiling about all the friends who had ordered copies. I had carefully researched signing pens and purchased a whole box of them months ago, but of course I forgot them, so a quick trip to Target got me both black and metallic– I hadn’t seen the book in person so I wasn’t sure where I would sign or what would look best against the paper. I decided on basic black.

And since we were visiting my mother, my husband and I had her watch our boys so we could go out to lunch afterward. Downtown Bangor has gotten much more fun and quirky since I was a kid– and with lots of good socially distanced outdoor dining choices! We decided on Paddy Murphy’s Pub — great atmosphere! Since this IS Maine, I had fried clams & chips instead of just fish & chips…and yes, I kept the book on the table the whole time!

To cap off the day, we ordered pizza from my favorite local place, Pat’s Pizza (they now have many locations in the state, but Orono was the first!). And my mom made an apple pie (she makes the best in the world!) so we could toast with pink champagne (the small glasses are ginger ale with cherry juice for my boys)! Not a traditional book release, but we found a way to make it special. Can’t wait to see what the next couple months will bring– now if only the postal service will get my books to Amazon and Barnes & Noble!!!

Many thanks to Gibran Graham of The Briar Patch for helping me with a plan for pre-orders. Friends from across the country were able to order in advance and he will ship them off tomorrow! More thanks for the day go to a fellow Melanie, who sells awesome cookie masks in her Etsy shop which you can find at MadeByMelanieUS!

Have your Book and Eat it Too! Tasty PB Reviews!

Only EIGHT DAYS left until the release of my picture book! It is not happening the way I had dreamed– no big “book birthday” parties and signing tours– but I am still excited. And while I spent last month looking at picture books written by fellow “K” authors, this month I have explored fellow “foodies!!” With one exception, all of these books have a recipe in them (and that exception has plenty of food!) Since my book also has recipes, I loved seeing how they were woven into all these other joyful and tasty books!

Title: Holy Squawkamole!
Author
: Susan Wood
Illustrator: Laura Gonzáles
Publisher/Date: 
Sterling Children’s Books (March 5, 2019)
The “gist”:  In a twist on the traditional tale, the little red hen wants to make guacamole and asks animals for help, but ultimately gathers all the ingredients herself and serves it to her friends.
My favorite part:
 I loved the extra ingredient she added at the end!
My response as a reader:
I am a language teacher, so the cultural references, and the little bits of spanish (like calling the red hen “gallinita roja”) were fun and educational. And of course I am a sucker for a book with a recipe in it!
My “take-away” as a writer: 
I love the idea of taking a traditional tale and setting it in a new culture. I have always wanted to do a fairy tale/folk tale retelling, so now I have some brainstorming to do!

Title: Peyton Picks the Perfect Pie
Author:
Jack Bishop
Illustrator: Michelle Mee Nutter
Publisher/Date: 
America’s Test Kitchen Kids; Illustrated Edition (September 1, 2020)
The “gist”: 
Peyton is determined not to be picky this Thanksgiving, so she is trying hard to keep an open mind when deciding which pie to try. There are so many!
My favorite part: 
I don’t make many pies, but I do love them! It was fun to learn about a few of the unique pies such as Lemon Chess (which I did NOT know was originally called “cheese” pie) and the Greek ruffled milk pie.
My response as a reader:
This book reminds me a lot of THE GREAT HOLIDAY COOKIE SWAP — a holiday feast and competing desserts! Just too bad the only recipe is for the apple pie! (Thanks to my mom, I already make a killer apple pie…)
My “take-away” as a writer: 
Making Peyton the central character helps us learn about the foods through her eyes– I have another manuscript with foods and will be making sure my descriptions flow as naturally as these.


Title: Fry Bread: A Native American Family Story
Author
: Kevin Noble Maillard
Illustrator: Juana Martinez-Neal
Publisher/Date: 
Roaring Brook Press; Illustrated Edition (October 22, 2019)
The “gist”:
 It can be flat, fluffy, white, brown, every family may make it differently, but fry bread is an important family dish to the Native American culture!
My favorite part:
 The back matter is not to be missed– so much extra cultural information!
My response as a reader:
I have a friend in Wisconsin who is Native American and used to talk about making fry bread, but I had never heard of it. This gave me a really great insight into the importance of it.
My “take-away” as a writer: 
There is a special music to this writing which is almost like poetry– each page begins with a statement: “Fry bread is food…Fry bread is sound…Fry bread is shape…” with sensory descriptions after each. The style fits beautifully with the magical picture the story paints. If I taught writing, I might use this to get students to explore writing about all the senses using a favorite food from THEIR culture.

Title: Lady Pancake and Sir French Toast: Short & Sweet
Author:
Josh Funk
Illustrator: Brendan Kearney
Publisher/Date: 
Sterling Children’s Books (September 1, 2020)
The “gist”: 
In this, the fourth installment of the Lady Pancake/Sir French Toast series, our heroes are turned into children and experience quite an adventure trying to get back to normal.
My favorite part:
 Brendan Kearney’s illustrations make for mega re-readability! So many adorable little food bits!
My response as a reader:
Josh always brings great creativity to his work and it is great to see these baked goods are not getting stale! I love that the fridge contents are different in each book, so the fold-out map at the end gives you a whole new set of topographical features to explore! (My fave: limes square!)
My “take-away” as a writer: 
I have to think long and hard when I start a new manuscript– is this one going to be rhymed or not? Even though THE GREAT HOLIDAY COOKIE SWAP is a rhyming picture book, many I have written more recently are prose. Rhyming books are HARD to do well and while I really love to do it, I think sometimes I shy away from it– but then I read Josh and realize it is totally worth it!

Title: Every Night is Pizza Night
Author:
J. Kenji López-Alt
Illustrator: Gianna Ruggiero
Publisher/Date: 
Norton Young Readers (September 1, 2020)
The “gist”: 
Pipo loves pizza so much she can’t imagine any other food could compare, but she tries a variety of foods from the neighborhood (from bibimbap to guacamole) and discovers some amazing new tastes!
My favorite part: 
I am in love with this book because it is SO ME! As you might have picked up from my own upcoming book, international food exploration is totally my jam!
My response as a reader:
I love how the author describes how each new food looks and tastes. The illustrations are so happy and colorful it is a real celebration of food!
My “take-away” as a writer: 
Repetition!! I always note it when I see it done well, because kids love a good “refrain” in a book, but I am always forgetting to tie them into my own. With each day of trying a new food, Pipo notes “I do not need it. I do not want it. But I will try it.” I can imagine this book and refrain working great with kids who are picky eaters!

Getting to know the neighbors: Some “K” book reviews!

Yesterday marked the ONE MONTH mark before my debut picture book, THE GREAT HOLIDAY COOKIE SWAP is released! It is super exciting, but also makes me nervous– I feel like I should have done a lot more preparing and setting up events, signings, blog tours, etc. Doing this during a pandemic just seems strange, so I can only hope things will fall into place! Remember, if you haven’t yet preordered, I recommend you order from my friends at “The Briar Patch” — if you use this link and order before the release date, I will sign your copy!

One of my favorite things to do in libraries and bookstores is to check out where “my book” would live– for me that means the “K” section. So in that spirit, today’s book reviews are all amazing new books from my future “K” neighbors. Enjoy!

 

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Teaching Outside the Box

Highlights from the quarantined classroom…

Like the rest of the teachers in the country, I was forced online for the last few months of the school year. Since my department of world language teachers has already used a lot of technology and has always been open to working together to try new things, I was probably better prepared than most. Not to mention that my school district is relatively well funded and was very proactive about ensuring that students had access to technology via Chromebooks, hot-spots, etc.

Students playing the German card game “Mau Mau” in what seems like a bygone era…

But what did all that really mean for teaching?  Without going into a lot of pedagogical detail, teaching German remotely meant continuing with most of the material I would have done anyway, but in slightly different ways. We already use Google Classroom (an online platform for organizing and delivering content), so providing students with videos, online practice, etc. was easy. I left a few things behind which would not have been practical (such as my game-play unit in which students play card games together in German) and filled that space with other activities.

The most important change, and the reason for this post (in what is usually a blog focused on writing and book reviews) is flexibility:  allowing students to show what they know and can do in a variety of ways.  With inspiration from my fellow teachers both at my school and across the country, I found ways to encourage student creativity and motivate them to engage with the material at home. (By the way, do other occupations support each other in Facebook groups like teachers? They should! I get my best ideas from the German teacher Facebook groups!) Here are a few examples:

 

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Brand spanking new books! (And their reviews)

20200218_111246I am in a group for authors with books coming out in 2020 (“2020 Picture Book Stars”), so I have been anxious to read In a Jar, a book by fellow group member Deborah Marcero. In the process, I figured I might as well give some love to other books which are brand spanking new in 2020– and even though it’s only mid-February, there are already a bunch of beauties out there! Let’s explore them!

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Read if you loved…(Gems from some favorite authors!)

booksfeb2020Wow, I haven’t done a set of reviews in a while! Sorry about that! My day job gets in the way sometimes! However, having just submitted my semester grades this past Wednesday, my husband insisted I have some “me time” and go off to read picture books. He’s a good guy!

What an overwhelming selection of great stuff is out there right now! So hard to choose! I am going with some of my favorite authors this time– almost all of them are sequels of a sort. Let’s dig in!!

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