Ever since moving back to Maine in 2011, I have been bringing my kids to our wonderful local public library. Today was the first time in over a year we had been able to visit and was bittersweet, because it was also a farewell for the beloved and long-serving children’s librarian, Miss Kathleen, who retires this week. She has not only been a great resource for book recommendations over the years, but also a cheerleader for my writing career. The first thing she said when I walked into the Children’s Room this morning, despite being surrounded by well-wishers for her retirement, was “And there is our author!” As part of her goodbye, the library asked her to compile a wall of her favorites– you can see them in the photo above, although there are lots of gaps because they have been checked out by her fans! So, in honor of Miss Kathleen and her years of dedication to young readers, my book reviews today come from “her” shelves. They are not all completely recent (my blog readers know I try to keep the reviews within the last couple years), but they are all winners!
Title: I walk with Vanessa
Publisher/Date: Schwartz & Wade (April 24, 2018)
The “gist”: A new girl in class is shunned and bullied, but one girl steps up and befriends her, then everything changes.
My favorite part: Since this was a library book, it just happened to have a post-it inside which said “Fiona- try to imagine what the characters are feeling!” I have no idea who put it there, but it made me smile!
My response as a reader: This is a wordless book, so I love being able to just dive into each picture as the story is told.
My “take-away” as a writer: In a wordless book like this, I sometimes get frustrated that my “job” as a writer isn’t even necessary. But every book is different and you have to find the right way to tell each story– sometimes with a lot of pictures, sometimes with barely any.
Title: The Other Side
Author: Jacqueline Woodson
Illustrator: E.B. Lewis
Publisher/Date: G.P. Putnam’s Sons Books for Young Readers (January 15, 2001)
The “gist”: A sturdy fence segregates the black and white parts of town, but the children manage to strike up a friendship across it anyway.
My favorite part: The final line of the book has a great message about tearing down fences!
My response as a reader: This book was released in 2001 and feels like it is set in the 1960s, and yet it is still completely relatable today– it hits you and stays with you!
My “take-away” as a writer: Wow, does this story have “voice”! The little girl is characterized perfectly in lines like “She never sat on that fence with anybody, that girl didn’t.” The whole poignant story is just steeped in her youth and perspective– something writers need to feel when they create their characters.
Author: Juan Filipe Herrera
Illustrator: Lauren Castillo
Publisher/Date: Candlewick; Illustrated edition (September 25, 2018)
The “gist”: If the author can experience joy and accomplishment in small things like tadpoles and big things like learning English, what more can we do?
My favorite part: The book (or really, poem) starts slowly, with simple pleasures through the perspective of a child until you realize it is an autobiographical journey through the author’s immigrant story until he becomes poet laureate of the US. That took the book from sweet and sappy to truly inspiring.
My response as a reader: The illustrations are wonderfully classic and pair beautifully with the poem text. It is both a picture into another world and an invitation to dream.
My “take-away” as a writer: I have always loved writing and bounce back and forth from poetry to children’s books (and some other genres, too), so it’s great to see a work that bridges two worlds by creating an inspiring picture book from such lovely lyrics.
Title: Twenty-one Steps
Author: Jeff Gottesfeld
Illustrator: Matt Tavares
Publisher/Date: Candlewick; Illustrated edition (February 12, 2021)
The “gist”: Quiet and reflective (but not boring!) this non fiction picture book describes both the history of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and the traditions surrounding the guards who watch over it.
My favorite part: I never knew that the tomb was originally set up without much adornment or a guard and people had just picnicked around it until they set up the amphitheater and instituted the 24 hr. guard.
My response as a reader: I enjoy non-fiction, but didn’t expect to be as captivated and moved by this story as I was — would be a wonderful reading for Memorial Day or Veterans Day.
My “take-away” as a writer: Mad Props to all those who write non-fiction, a genre I have never really attempted (except for the backmatter in many of my manuscripts). The advantage? You often have a few more words to play with, as they tend to be a bit longer than fiction picture books. The disadvantage? Those words STILL have to count, because non-fiction has a reputation for being, well, dry. Not so in this example, however!
Title: Rescue & Jessica: A Life-Changing Friendship
Authors: Jessica Kensky and Patrick Downes
Illustrator: Scott Magoon
Publisher/Date: Candlewick; Illustrated edition (April 3, 2018)
The “gist”: Rescue is trained to be a service dog, unsure if he will be able to help when needed, but after Jessica’s leg amputations, he proves to be just the right fit.
My favorite part: I love how the story is told through both Rescue and Jessica’s perspectives: Rescue is worried he won’t be able to help his person, and Jessica is worried she won’t be able to do things on her own.
My response as a reader: Who doesn’t love a good story about a dog, particularly a service dog? My own dog is amazing, but not nearly as well trained as Rescue– it’s wonderful to read about their partnership, particularly knowing it is based on a true story.
My “take-away” as a writer: What is that I say almost every month? Oh yeah, say it with me: Tell YOUR story! I bet Jessica had no idea she would become a picture book author. Sure, I write lots of stories that are not strictly autobiographical (like one of my latest about a pegasus with a fear of heights), but there is always something in there that is MINE, otherwise the story will not feel authentic. At the same time, realize that just because it happened to you, does not mean it is the perfect picture book story– Jessica Kensky changed her main character to a young girl to make it more relatable to a young audience. I think that was a brilliant shift.