It’s pretty amazing how my book review excursions work out sometimes. I was a little limited by time tonight, because my dog was at the groomer, so I wandered around picking out random books to read, putting a few back that weren’t quite right (I won’t post a review unless I can be completely honest about loving the book) and settled on these five lovelies. I did not start off with any kind of theme like I sometimes do. I just chose books that were new releases (all in 2021!) and that happened to catch my eye. And yet, in the end, they all seemed to coalesce around a theme: be who you are.
Title: Fatima’s Great Outdoors
Author: Ambreen Tariq
Illustrator: Stevie Lewis
Publisher/Date: Kokila; Illustrated edition (March 30, 2021)
The “gist”: Fatima’s is excited to leave behind the oppression of her unfriendly school environment and go camping for a “typical American adventure,” which gives her not only the chance to explore the outdoors, but to feel even closer to her own family and heritage.
My favorite part: I cheered when the father was unable to build a fire because he grew up in the city, but the mom showed him (and Fatima) just what to do from her experience making cooking fires as a girl.
My response as a reader: It’s such a joy to read fun picture books that not only tell a warm, engaging story, but also bring me into a new world. Ambreen Tariq uses just the right amount of cultural references (Bollywood, samosas, the singer Rafi, etc.) to give flavor and pique interest in the Indian culture, but not enough to confuse a young reader.
My “take-away” as a writer: One thing that surprised me about this picture book as a writer was a relatively high word count. I didn’t count the total, but there are multiple sentences on most pages which is unusual these days. When I work with critique partners, we generally advise each other to keep it short– usually under 500 words– but it is good to know some longer books really do get published! Yes, this book could probably be trimmed, but the extra words provide wonderful and enriching cultural detail.
Title: The House of Grass and Sky
Author: Mary Lyn Ray
Illustrator: E.B. Goodale
Publisher/Date: Candlewick; Illustrated edition (April 13, 2021)
The “gist”: With a cover and interior art reminiscent of Andrew Wyeth’s “Christina’s World,” and a story that evokes feelings of Virginia Lee Burton’s “The Little House,” this story brings us into the world of a beautiful old farmhouse and its search for new owners who will love it and bring it back to life.
My favorite part: I appreciated the indignance of the house when potential buyers mentioned it was small and would need to be added on to. The poor house felt perfect just the way it was and did not need to be changed! It reminds me of watching real estate programs where the buyers are always dissatisfied even with beautiful houses.
My response as a reader: Although this book was published only a couple months ago, it really does feel timeless. I adore walking through an old farmhouse and trying to imagine the families who had lived there before– that is exactly the sentiment in this book.
My “take-away” as a writer: Readers of this blog know that I love to point out books that “break the rules.” The previous book, Fatima’s Great Outdoors, broke the word count rule. This book defies the suggestion that you should avoid writing characters which are inanimate objects. There also isn’t a lot of action. So why is it a successful story (and not just for old saps like me)? The house’s fear is the same as the one in all of today’s books: being accepted for who you are.
Author/Illustrator: Derek Desierto
Publisher/Date: Feiwel & Friends (May 25, 2021)
The “gist”: It’s a really hot day and the little gray bird wants to go in the water, but rest of the birds find him ugly and shoo him away. How can he win them over?
My favorite part: I love how brightly colored and different all the birds are– I can picture an art project (perhaps with similar technique to the brushed paper collage work of Eric Carle) where kids create their own birds from paper scraps.
My response as a reader: As a fat woman, I have never let myself be shamed into not wearing a swimsuit and cooling off in a pool or lake when it is hot. I’m an odd bird and maybe not one of the flashiest, but I am going to cool off when it is hot! I loved that about the Oddbird.
My “take-away” as a writer: This story reminds me of two similar books: Markus Pfister’s Rainbowfish and Dr. Seuss’ Gertrude McFuzz. Like both Rainbowfish and Gertrude, the little gray bird ultimately realizes that being flashy is not what is truly important. it’s a common enough trope, but this one succeeds in being just a bit different! Oddbird starts out by trying to fit in, but then realizes he doesn’t really care!
Title: All Kinds of Awesome
Author: Jess Hitchman
Illustrator: Vivienne To
Publisher/Date: Feiwel & Friends; Illustrated edition (April 13, 2021)
The “gist”: In this sparsely written rhyming story the question is asked: Which kind of awesome will YOU be? Art awesome? Chart awesome? Following your heart awesome?
My favorite part: The backmatter was a really wonderful mini-lesson about how you can follow your passions, whatever they are. I loved that it encouraged readers to imagine what they might do with their interests, whether it is a future job (even one that does not yet exist) or just as a hobby.
My response as a reader: It was heart-warming to see the diversity in the illustrations– from a wheelchair user rolling across a meadow to all genders and ethnicities doing all kinds of activities.
My “take-away” as a writer: The text here is almost the polar opposite of Fatima’s Great Outdoors, reviewed above– it is extremely short and has basically no storyline– but the message is still about loving and being true to who you are. I have trouble writing with such a low word count, but I do frequently write in rhyme, so sometime soon I will challenge myself to do a really short rhymer like this one!
Author/Illustrator: Helen Yoon
Publisher/Date: Candlewick (January 12, 2021)
The “gist”: Wolf dons sheep’s clothing to get in with the sheep for obviously nefarious purposes…until he realizes he likes them!
My favorite part: I was charmed when the little lamb gave Wolf a kiss on the cheek!
My response as a reader: If you love the “Mother Bruce” books by Ryan Higgins, you will love this book — it has the same lovable curmudgeon sensibilities and adorably detailed illustrations. (They are also a bit reminiscent of the great Sandra Boynton which doesn’t hurt!)
My “take-away” as a writer: It’s been a while since I sang the praises of the author-illustrator, but this is the time. In this story, more than half of the joy is through the illustrations, making me yet again lament my lack of artistic talent. Not that writers can’t shine in other ways, but Helen Yoon marries text and illustration beautifully (and I can imagine she is often asked which comes first!)