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!
Author: Andrea Wang
Illustrator: Jason Chin
Publisher/Date: Neal Porter Books (March 30, 2021)
The “gist”: A young Chinese-American girl in the midwest stops with her family at the side of the road to pick wild watercress, much to her embarrassment.
My favorite part: I loved the flashback to the girl’s mother explaining the poverty of her childhood.
My response as a reader: My brother, a high school agriculture teacher, is an expert on foraging and would enjoy this book and how it shines a spotlight on nature’s bounty.
My “take-away” as a writer: In some ways, this story is more of an adult memoir than a picture book, but the pictures make it work on a child’s level. I like the way the story has appeal across both generations and cultures.
Title: Attack of the Underwear Dragon
Author: Scott Rothman
Illustrator: Pete Oswald
Publisher/Date: Random House BYR; Illustrated edition (October 6, 2020)
The “gist”: Cole idolizes Sir Percival and writes an empassioned letter asking to be his assistant knight. Ultimately, this involves dramatic battle when the underwear dragon attacks the castle!
My favorite part: I am a long-time fan of Pete Oswald’s work, particularly the “Bad Seed”/”Good Egg” series (by Jory John) so I just loved the quirky illustration style– such great expressions! As for the story, I cackled at the fact that..well, dragons can’t read. (Will not spoil the plot point!).
My response as a reader: In checking online for some publication details, I noticed a reviewer who criticized the book for making no sense: “There is no reason for the dragon to wear underpants.” Wow, that person does NOT get it– I think the actual demographic for the book would definitely love the silliness– underpants are just plain funny, particularly these giant over-the-top tighty-whities! I think that reviewer had HIS/HER underpants in a bunch on this one– it is silly, but that’s the whole point!
My “take-away” as a writer: This book is unique in combining a mostly prose story with occasional bits of rhyming (for lists). This works really well, because I think the story would feel forced if it were entirely in rhyme.
Title: I am the STORM
Authors: Jane Yolen and Heidi E.Y. Stemple
Illustrators: Kristen and Kevin Howdeshell
Publisher/Date: Rise x Penguin Workshop (October 27, 2020)
The “gist”: By following a series of families through various storms (blizzard, fire, hurricane, etc.), the reader sees that all of these families are resilient and unite even stronger after the storm is over.
My favorite part: Living in Maine, I don’t generally have to worry about tornadoes or wildfires, but I have experienced blizzards and power outages. I like the way the illustrations highlighted the way families come together for things like playing games, singing, reading, etc. My son gets very anxious when the power goes out, but I think he also appreciates how much we are able to join as a family during these times of crisis.
My response as a reader: I think this book fills an important niche to help children remember that storms always end eventually — the idea that they can channel some of the storm’s qualities and pick up the pieces afterward is also empowering.
My “take-away” as a writer: I was lucky enough to dine at the same table as Jane Yolen and her daughter Heidi E.Y. Stemple at a writer’s conference a few years ago (cannot wait to get back to those in person!) and they were both lovely and gracious. Jane is a giant in the world of children’s writing with over 400 books to her credit, so everything you read by her is a mini lesson in the craft.
Title: Please don’t read this book!
Author: Deanna Kizis
Illustrator: Sam Boughton
Publisher/Date: Philomel Books (January 12, 2021)
The “gist”: With a feel similar to “The Book with No Pictures,” and “The Monster at the End of this Book,” this book implores the reader not to open this book, or risk the danger of having fun which would be the most terrible thing in the world, wouldn’t it?
My favorite part: I am a sucker for “meta” picture books that break the fourth wall and invite interaction. The cute little splotch on the cover has so much personality I think kids would be roaring over this one!
My response as a reader: I can’t wait to read this aloud to a group of kids and get them to make crazy faces, shout “I’m the best!” etc. Reading it from the back corner of a bookstore, quietly sitting in a rocking chair was NOT the right experience for this book!
My “take-away” as a writer: I am working on a slightly similar concept book and need to channel the zany voice in this book as I dive into my manuscript! I adore funny picture books like this, but they set a high bar!
Title: Bear Outside
Author: Jane Yolen
Illustrator: Sam Boughton
Publisher/Date: Neal Porter Books (March 2, 2021)
The “gist”: Not quite an “imaginary friend,” the main character “wears” her bear on the outside, a companion through her daily activities.
My favorite part: I loved the play between the illustrations and the text– the girl quite literally “wears” her bear on the outside, kind of like a ghost supporting her. I also loved the interplay between what the bear likes and what she likes. Speaking as someone who had a vivid relationship with my imaginary friend Perdita, this was an important part of my childhood and I think many kids would relate.
My response as a reader:I am reviewing six books instead of my usual five today because I just couldn’t decide which Jane Yolen book to include– so I had to include both! And both have a similar theme of summoning inner strength.
My “take-away” as a writer: Again, I have to come back to the great Jane Yolen– these two marvelous books were released within five months of each other. Come on, Jane, leave room for the rest of us to catch up! Her dedication and the variety in her work is definitely inspiring!
Title: yes & no
Author/illustrator: Elisha Cooper
Publisher/Date: Roaring Brook Press (April 13, 2021)
The “gist”: This charming story traces a day of a cat and dog– true to their species, as their human makes suggestions (“Can we clean up?” “Are we excited for the day?”), the dog gives an enthusiastic “Yes!” while the cat offers a disdainful “No” or “Hrummmph!”
My favorite part: I loved how despite their differences, the cat and dog were truly friends and in the middle spreads outside share quiet time together. In fact, if you look closely, there’s a bit of a Yin Yang in that illustration as the Black cat has some tan highlights and the dog has some black highlights. Coincidence? I doubt it.
My response as a reader: Anyone who has had a dog or cat can recognize their antics in this book. In contrast to the previous book, this is one you definitely can read by yourself, soaking in each adorable illustration.
My “take-away” as a writer: This is the only book I have reviewed this month with an author/illustrator, so it’s not surprising it also has the lowest word count. Yet the illustrations, while adorable, are also sparse. It teaches me that not only does an author have to leave room in the text for the illustrator, but BOTH illustrator and author need to leave space for the reader to fill in some of the situations with their own imagination.