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!
Title: Helga Makes a Name for Herself
Author: Megan Maynor
Illustrator: Eda Kaban
Publisher/Date: Clarion Books (November 10, 2020)
The “gist”: Helga longs to be a brave warrior, but her family and friends insist she is just a “farmersdotter.” Then her hero, “Ingrid the Axe,” arrives looking for new recruits!
My favorite part: I loved the backmatter here through which I learned that one of the Viking warriors whose bones had been found years ago were recently DNA tested and found to be female! I have always been a fan of Viking era lore, so this was great to read!
My response as a reader: Without spoiling the ending, I was pleased that Helga was able to achieve her dreams!
My “take-away” as a writer: I appreciated the way this text was able to create a fanciful fiction text (it has a “How to Train Your Dragon” feel), without sacrificing plausibility. The backmatter starts with something on the lines of “This story is made up, but Vikings are real!”
Title: Talking is Not My Thing
Author/Illustrator: Rose Robbins
Publisher/Date: Eerdmans BYR (September 8, 2020)
The “gist”: This book brings us through the day of a little sister who says nothing, but still manages to communicate all her needs and emotions with her family.
My favorite part: As mom of a child on the autism spectrum (though not non-verbal), I really appreciated the scene where she uses her flashcards to indicate a need for the bathroom. In our potty training days, that would have been very helpful!
My response as a reader: I can picture this story as very affirming for families with kids on the spectrum, but also a great opportunity to have conversations in all types of families. In a world where kids are often chided to “use your words,” it is refreshing to see a book which acknowledges that we can work together to understand each other.
My “take-away” as a writer: Readers of this blog know that I love to point out when picture books “break the rules” — in this story there is not exactly a “problem to be solved” aside from just communicating. Instead we have a “day in the life” story, which is often not that exciting, but in this case, the little sister is so endearing, the reader enjoys getting a view of her world and seeing how each obstacle will be surmounted. Furthermore, while she does need assistance from family members, in the end it really is HER initiative which solves her problems, so perhaps it doesn’t break the rules so much after all.
Title: The Couch Potato
Author: Jory John
Illustrator: Pete Oswald
Publisher/Date: HarperCollins (November 3, 2020)
The “gist”: Couch Potato has everything he needs– his video games, snacks, phone, etc. without even leaving the couch. Then there is a power outage…
My favorite part: As always with this series, there are some cute little uses of word play such as his mom the “sweet potato” or his “mashed potato” Uncle Stu.
My response as a reader: To be perfectly honest, this is my least favorite of the series so far, but that is only because “The Bad Seed,” “The Good Egg,” and “The Cool Bean” are SO, SO good! The story here is a tad predictable, but then again, I am decidedly not the target audience (ok, maybe I do need to learn the lesson here as I admit I am far too addicted to screen time). Nevertheless, this concept is a perfect fit for the series, and I think kids will love it!
My “take-away” as a writer: There is a lot to learn from Jory John’s storytelling– the characters are loveable, (partly because of Oswald’s awesome illustrations), but with a Shakespearean tragic flaw. Of course, since these are children’s books and not tragedies, there is a great redemption arc. I wonder what Jory John could do with Hamlet or Macbeth…Hmmm…
Title: Three Ways to Trap a Leprechaun
Author: Tara Lazar
Illustrator: Vivienne To
Publisher/Date: HarperCollins; Illustrated edition (January 7, 2020)
The “gist”: Everyone knows you can get a leprechaun’s gold if only you can catch him, right? This book will give you all the tricks you need to catch your own leprechaun…maybe.
My favorite part: I love the encouragement at the back of the book to go beyond the story and think up your OWN ideas for leprechaun traps! Great classroom or family craft activity!
My response as a reader: Are there any other St. Patrick’s Day books out there? I don’t even know! (Short answer: yes, yes there are– even another one called, similarly “How to Catch a Leprechaun”) At any rate, while holiday books are not generally year-round sellers, there is definitely room for this cutie for the whole month of March and that’s not bad.
My “take-away” as a writer: First, I have to take my hat off for the amazing Tara Lazar, author of this book. She is an inspiration to the kidlit community, for many reasons, but this time of year we all owe her big-time for creating and leading “STORYSTORM”– a one month festival and challenge for writers to write down one new idea every day for the month of January. Through the years, many of those STORYSTORM ideas have turned into published books (including my own THE GREAT HOLIDAY COOKIE SWAP!!), so if that is not enough reason to pick up something by Tara Lazar this year, I don’t know what is! The hilarious 7 ate 9 remains my favorite Lazar book, but this one is pretty charming and a great way to celebrate St. Paddy’s Day this year!
Title: Knot Cannot
Author: Tiffany Stone
Illustrator: Mike Lowery
Publisher/Date: Dial Books; Illustrated edition (April 7, 2020)
The “gist”: Knot envies all that snake can do until he finds the skill that makes HIM special.
My favorite part: I am a sucker for word play like this: can knot shed his skin when he’s getting scruffy? Nope, he’s a “Frayed Knot”!
My response as a reader: Yes, it’s a silly little book with wordplay about a knot, but it does have a great lesson– you never know when your skills might be helpful to others even when you think you don’t have any!
My “take-away” as a writer: I have no idea how Tiffany Stone worked through her writing process on this one, but this strikes me as the sort of book that started with the title. (There is, in fact, a really cute scene in one of the Winnie the Pooh movies where Piglet riffs on this same wordplay to express that he “can not knot”). Sometimes that is all you need, and in this month’s “STORYSTORM,” I am hoping I can come up with at least a few new story titles!