It’s tough to have a day job, be a mom AND write– don’t let anyone tell you it isn’t. It can be done, but there will always be times one of the balls in the air falls to the ground and you stumble around for a while until you get them back in the air again.
Since getting my picture book contract, I’ve been busy with a lot of writing-related tasks, but I’ve also been teaching full-time and balancing family tasks like parent-teacher conferences, choir practice, and getting estimates on our house renovation. You know, the usual.
But through it all, my mind is still filled with story ideas, snippets of poetry, insatiable curiosity about works I see on Twitter, etc. So, let’s get back at it and review some picture books, shall we?
This time the crop is inspired by a display in my local Barnes & Noble showing off 50 books your child should read before the age of 5. Many of them are books I read as a child, many more are books I’ve already reviewed (and loved), but were are a bunch I hadn’t read yet, so let’s go!
Title: When a Tree Grows
Author: Cathy Ballou Mealey
Illustrator: Kasia Nowowiejska
Publisher/Date: Sterling Children’s Books (April 2019)
The “gist”: In a flow chart of choices reminiscent of the “When You Give a Mouse a Cookie” series, every event in life is broken down into two options: either A happens, or B happens. Fortunately, this book is much funnier and more suspenseful than that sounds!
My favorite part: I love that the squirrel decides to jump into the truck for an adventure! Very random and fun!
My response as a reader: My first thought was that this was going to be a spinoff of the “When You Give a Mouse a Cookie” series, but I was pleasantly surprised. In a way it’s more like the “Choose your own Adventure” series, except the choices are made for you. “Choose Your Own Adventure” books were always a hit with me because I loved thinking of the myriad of possibilities behind every decision.
My “take-away” as a writer: I would love to play this game with my children and ask them what two things might happen in any situation! (Or to stop the story at any point and see what would happen if the other alternative was chosen!) The best part is, I bet they’d come up with some crazy ideas that would lead me straight to my next story!
Title: Sometimes Rain
Author: Meg Fleming
Illustrator: Diana Sudyka
Publisher/Date: Beach Lane Books (October 2018)
The “gist”: “Sometimes drizzle. Drip-drop drain. Sometimes picnic. Sometimes rain”…this book brings us through the seasons with a family experiencing nature and all the outdoor activities through the year.
My favorite part: This is a quiet “concept” book and really doesn’t have a lot of plot, but the illustrations are almost fairy-tale like at times (see the cover).
My response as a reader: I would enjoy reading this multiple times with a child to look at the illustrations and feel the quiet predictability of the seasons.
My “take-away” as a writer: This is a lyrical and rhyming book. I frequently write in rhyme, but I’m usually pretty strict about making sure my rhyme schemes are metered and exact. Not all rhyming books work that way and this one is really successful through its use of repetition and musicality without a traditional “scheme.”
Title: Tiny T. Rex and the Impossible Hug
Author: Jonathan Stutzman
Illustrator: Jay Fleck
Publisher/Date: Chronicle Books LLC (March 2019)
The “gist”: Poor Tiny — his friend Pointy (the stegosaurus) is sad and needs a hug, but that seems impossible for a dino with short arms like Tiny.
My favorite part: I love Tiny’s perseverance. He repeats over and over again “I will try. Pointy needs me.”
My response as a reader: I will admit that the middle sagged a bit for me– I felt it was somewhat predictable for him to go to various family members for advice (the traditional picture book formula is for the protagonist to fail several times before succeeding). But, similar to a mystery novel where the reader thinks he or she has solved the murder, I was pleasantly surprised by the sweet ending.
My “take-away” as a writer: Jonathan has given Tiny a voice that sounds authentically child-like in a quirky but very simple way. So many picture books are designed to be read aloud, but this could also easily be read by a small child. I can imagine many tiny dino-obsessed children would enjoy reading this all by themselves!
Title: When you are Brave
Author: Pam Zietlow Miller
Illustrator: Eliza Wheeler
Publisher/Date: Little, Brown BYR (March 2019)
The “gist”: The main character doesn’t feel very brave, but she learns that by finding the quiet place within herself, she can remember how amazing she is and pull together the strength to be brave anytime she needs to.
My favorite part: You can see this on the cover, but I love how once she recognizes her inner strength, she has these sparkly butterfly wings that basically only she can see. We all need to feel our wings!
My response as a reader: From the first two-page spread, when I saw that the illustrator had created the context of a girl who is moving from her home and riding into the unknown in a car with all her belongings, I felt the girl’s anxiety. However, the illustrator is brilliant in making the setting seem timeless and almost Italian/European.
My “take-away” as a writer: One of my writing groups on Facebook recently discussed “quiet books” and how agents often say they don’t want them, and yet they’re still commonly published. It’s similar to rhyming books, I think: it’s all in how well you do them. Our world has a lot of unknowns and a book like this is definitely needed. Pam uses beautiful imagery in both examples of being brave (a bird taking the first flight away from the next) and in situations which make us afraid (like looking for a friendly face in the audience when on stage).
Title: The Bad Seed
Author: Jory John
Illustrator: Pete Oswald
Publisher/Date: HarperCollins; 1 edition (May 2018)
The “gist”: The “bad seed” is just that– a pretty disagreeable character. He is mean, he cuts in line, and everyone avoids him and talks about him. But what if he doesn’t want to be bad?
My favorite part: I loved reading the backstory of the seed and learning that he actually had a happy childhood on the sunflower where he was “born.”
My response as a reader: It was hugely satisfying that the author didn’t take the easy way out and have the seed just “decide” to be good and then suddenly have everything be perfect. Even when he wanted to change, sometimes he still made bad choices. Speaking as a mom, this is super important for kids to see.
My “take-away” as a writer: Like Tiny’s voice in the book above, the “Bad Seed” has great voice– he has pure attitude, but it is consistent throughout and doesn’t go overboard. First person can be really tough, but Jory pulls this off in a big way!