My goal is to put out one batch of five picture reviews per month, spending the rest of my writing time on, well, actual writing (and sending out queries to agents and publishers). But when my son told me this morning “Mama, we should go to the bookstore so you can read more books!” how could I resist? My first goal with today’s batch was to choose only books which were NOT faced outward in the store, and I failed that by one, but that’s only because I couldn’t resist a book which, like my upcoming picture book, THE GREAT HOLIDAY COOKIE FIGHT, combines a story with a recipe. All five books are tied together by stories of diversity, acceptance and bravery of one kind or another, and in that way, it’s unfortunate they were not all “face out.”
Title: The Someone New
Author: Jill Twiss
Illustrator: EG Keller
Publisher/Date: HarperCollins (June 4, 2019)
The “gist”: Jitterbug the chipmunk gets nervous when things change, so he’s unhappy when Pudding the snail wants to move into their neighborhood, but his friends teach him that everyone is new sometime.
My favorite part: I love that when Jitterbug went after the snail who had left them, it didn’t take him long, since snails are slow!
My response as a reader: I loved the character of Jitterbug and I bet many kids can relate to the twinges in his stomach when things are unfamiliar. Although the story can be seen as a parable of immigration, it is less about vicious racism and more about the fear of change, making it very approachable and endearing.
My “take-away” as a writer: The decision to make the reader love Jitterbug before introducing the “outside element” is brilliant. The adorable chipmunk’s nervous nature makes us want to protect him– it would have been easy to make the main character the outsider instead and put him up against a grumpy xenophobic porcupine whom he can “teach a lesson,” but this works so much better. As a writer, I wonder how long it took Twiss to come up with her main character and whether she had any drafts of the story from other perspectives.
Title: The Epic Adventures of Huggie & Stick
Author: Drew Daywalt
Illustrator: David Spencer
Publisher/Date: Philomel Books (October 23, 2018)
The “gist”: Stick (a stick) and Huggie (a slightly worn stuffed animal) fall out of their owner’s backpack and end up touring the world. We learn the story of their travels through diary entries from each of them, which reflect their extremely different personalities.
My favorite part: Love the illustrations on the “Africa” spread with Stick’s annotations, including labeling the giraffe as a “very tall dog,” and the sharks as “helpful fish.”
My response as a reader: Both of my kids enjoyed this book and it happens to be the one I chose to buy and take home today. As you might guess if you know my boys, they each identified with a different character. My very contrary younger son totally loved Huggie’s attitude and the older one is every bit as cheerful as Stick…most of the time. That makes for interesting road trips, by the way, though not quite as epic as this book!
My “take-away” as a writer: Drew Daywalt is an expert at the “Why didn’t I think of that?” book. His blockbuster The Day the Crayons Quit is one of my favorites ever and so creative. Likewise, The Legend of Rock, Paper, and Scissors takes a familiar concept and gives it a hilarious twist. The “new” twist on this buddy story is the diary entries. Similar to the twin narratives of Josh Funk’s Dear Dragon, we see the story of H&S’s adventures through both of their very different perspectives. Daywalt’s work helps me think outside the box — it’s worth checking out his work if you need to think about completely blowing up your manuscript and trying it a different way!
Title: Bilal cooks Daal
Author: Aisha Saeed
Illustrator: Anoosha Syed
Publisher/Date: Salaam Reads / Simon & Schuster BYR (June 4, 2019)
The “gist”: Daal is one of Bilal’s favorite foods and he’s excited to share it with his friends, but worried they won’t love it like he does.
My favorite part: I enjoyed seeing the names for the different types of daal. I make it frequently myself and never thought about the fact they probably have different flavors– now I need to buy them all and taste test! (When I first started eating lentils, you could only find the green/brown ones– it’s great that groceries carry so many now!)
My response as a reader: I loved the underlying sentiment that good things take time. I’ve never cooked my daal in the slow cooker, but need to try that next!
My “take-away” as a writer: The author used wonderful descriptors for the daal (creamy, nutty, buttery) that made the dish not only attractive to Bilal’s friends, but also to the reader. The anticipation built beautifully throughout the book so that we were really hoping his friends would love the end product. I love books that include recipes (as you might gather, seeing as I’ve written one), and I love international cooking, so this is a particularly good fit for me!
Title: I will be Fierce!
Author: Bea Birdsong
Illustrator: Nidhi Chanani
Publisher/Date: Roaring Brook Press (April 23, 2019)
The “gist”: The book begins: “Today I will be fierce! I will answer the call to adventure.” And so goes the enumeration of all the girl will face in a day and how she will face even intimidating events fiercely and bravely.
My favorite part: I love the way the girl’s description of the day’s events is given a fantasy filter: packing her backpack becomes “I will fill my treasure chest.” Getting on the imposing school bus becomes “I will charge the many-headed serpent.”
My response as a reader: Although this book doesn’t fall into the category of “diverse books” simply from the title and storyline, the illustrations show a character who needs to be brave– and between her skin color, rainbow jumper and the scene of her befriending an ostracized peer, there is plenty of diversity.
My “take-away” as a writer: Knowing that an author doesn’t usually get to communicate with the illustrator, and that this book is not author-illustrated, I am completely curious about which parts of the illustration came from manuscript notes, and which were ideas from the illustrator. Writers are usually advised to have few if any notes to the illustrator in their manuscripts but there’s such great play between the words and pictures here, I’m really wondering how this book came to be!
Title: Lubna and Pebble
Author: Wendy Meddour
Illustrator: Daniel Egnéus
Publisher/Date: Dial Books (March 5, 2019)
The “gist”: When Lubna leaves her home behind and arrives in a refugee camp, she finds a pebble which becomes her only friend.
My favorite part: “When Lubna opened her eyes, it was morning. They had landed in a World of Tents. Lubna clutched Daddy’s hand and gripped her pebble. Somehow she knew they’d keep her safe.” This tiny snapshot gives such a meaningful picture of the refugee experience through the eyes of a child. Sob.
My response as a reader: As a German teacher, I spend a good bit of time discussing cultural issues like immigration. I also have a partner in poetry writing who concentrates mainly on poetry about the refugee experience, so this book really connects with me.
My “take-away” as a writer: The hashtag #weneeddiversebooks is popular in the Twitterverse because it’s true for many reasons. Kids like Lubna need to see themselves represented in the books they read, but kids very much NOT like Lubna also need to see what life is like for others in the world who haven’t had their experiences. There’s also big discussion in the Twitterverse about the importance of #ownvoices, and encouraging marginalized voices to tell their own stories. While I generally encourage that, I don’t have a problem with this story: kids like Lubna need us to speak for them so the rest of the world can see how important it is to take care of them…until they are ready to speak for themselves.