May Picture Book Reviews: Farewell, Miss Kathleen!!

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
Author/Illustrator: Karascoët
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
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.

Title: Imagine
Author: Juan Filipe Herrera
Illustrator: Lauren Castillo
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
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
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.

April Book Reviews: Happy #IBD!

(That’s Independent Bookstore Day!)

Featuring: The Briar Patch, Bangor, Maine (Where I had my first book signing to debut “The Great Holiday Cookie Swap” last October!)

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!

I just couldn’t resist doing SIX books this month– too hard to decide from all the wonderful books at the Briar Patch!
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March Picture Book Reviews: Perseverance and Joy!

This month’s picture book choices are all about persistence and belief in beauty!

I was so excited to look for books to review this afternoon — so many I have been wanting to read– and yet I also wanted to honor some Asian authors as part of efforts to #stopasianhate. After I ran around grabbing books like a kid in a candy shop I realized they do have a bit of a thread running through them– strong characters, or characters who wish they were strong, stories of stepping out of the shadows and becoming who you were meant to be…all stories we all need right now after a long winter of struggling through a pandemic.

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February Picture Book Reviews: Tell your own story!

My darling husband knows the best present for Valentine’s Day is time in a bookstore! So I am thankful to have time to bring you this month’s book reviews! I was torn between catching up with the new releases I have been dying to read, focusing on Black History month, checking out some award winners, or just grabbing some of those fabulous finds by authors and illustrators I know I love. So this month brings us a little of everything– in fact they could not be more different from each other, and they are all stories unique to their authors!

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THE GREAT HOLIDAY COOKIE SWAP: Bonus Material!! The Great Snowball Soap Adventure!

Ya-ya, the first cookie in The Great Holiday Cookie Swap, actually represents the LAST holiday in the book — Greek Orthodox Christmas. Most Greek Christians celebrate Christmas on December 25th, but many people (including both Greek and Russian Orthodox faiths) celebrate January 7th. It is seen as the day the wise men brought their gifts to the baby Jesus. And by now you may have finished up the other cookies you made during the holidays, so maybe it is time to get baking again! On the other hand, if you are all “cookied out” at this point, you might want to engage in some creativity that does not involve sugar! And I am here for you!

Grab the kids in your life for some great STEM activities today— all you need is a bar of Ivory soap and a few other simple ingredients to do a crazy fun science activity, then play around with some homemade soap dough and finally make your own soap snowballs! For a free download of these activities, perfect for a snow day or a school day, click the link after the photos!

καλά Χριστούγεννα!!

Kourabiedes cookies and soap balls…but which is which?

For free instructions in pdf form just click below:

New Year, New Picture Books!

It definitely NEVER gets old to see YOUR book on display in Barnes & Noble!
…But the real fun is getting to read all the awesome new books by other authors!

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!

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The Great Holiday Cookie Swap: Bonus Material for Kwanzaa!!

Today is the third day of Kwanzaa! My family does not celebrate Kwanzaa, but as I wrote THE GREAT HOLIDAY COOKIE SWAP, it was exciting to learn about the traditions and values around all the holidays of the world, especially those whose cookies are represented. I lived in Charleston, South Carolina, for four years when I taught at the College of Charleston, and benne wafers were one of my very favorite new discoveries there so I knew they HAD to find their way into the book. My good friend Mary Catherine James still lives in Charleston and she graciously agreed to create a video to help introduce readers to the traditions of Kwanzaa and even a Kwanzaa craft that is fun and easy for kids to make. (MaryCatherine frequently leads children in craft projects at her church and is also an artist with work at the Art on the Square gallery!)

Watch Mary Catherine tell about her own family’s connections to Kwanzaa and see her take you step by step through DIY video here– then click on the link following the video to download free printable instructions for the craft!

Mary Catherine James explains Kwanzaa and the magic of the benne wafer!
Left: The nutty not-too-sweet benne wafer cookie, a Lowcountry Carolina tradition!
Right: A corn pendant craft to celebrate the creativity and culture behind Kwanzaa! (And they look just a tiny bit like the cookie, too!)

Holiday Book Reviews: Season’s Readings!

When my book, The Great Holiday Cookie Swap, was released, I started looking at sales numbers on Amazon. I laughed about it because I knew I wasn’t about to release at the top of the best-seller list! The numbers are all a little surreal. Still, it amused me to look them up and see things like this:

Snapshot in time: in early November, my book was the 2,827th most popular Children’s Christmas book. Who knew there were even that many, right? Two weeks later, I now sit at 5,375 in that category. Publishing is fickle!

It was definitely humbling to look at those numbers, particularly to realize just how many books are out there– and in particular how many holiday books! Having a title that is at its most relevant only for a couple months of the year is a challenge– so today I am featuring some of those. Three of them are new releases for 2020, and the other two were out in the last two years. If you are looking for a good holiday gift book, you can’t go wrong with any of these..maybe paired with a copy of The Great Holiday Cookie Swap, of course!

Title: Santa Bruce
: Ryan T. Higgins
Disney-Hyperion; Illustrated edition (September 4, 2018)
The “gist”:  Grumpy Bruce wants to be left alone (as usual), but when animals sight him in his red coat and hat, they think he is Santa and naturally, he is forced to oblige…
My favorite part:
 I love when Bruce is in the sled being pulled by the geese, but it turns out the sled is too heavy, so Bruce has to pull it. Poor Bruce!
My response as a reader: 
Ryan’s books are always so much fun– there is a simple timelessness about them but also a great clever playfulness, particularly in the art which always has little funny bits for the adults to notice. I can’t pick a favorite, but this one comes close!
My “take-away” as a writer: 
I will admit it is definitely a life-goal to have a book that is popular enough to have kids clamoring for a sequel.

Title: I’m going to give you a Polar Bear Hug!
: Caroline B. Cooney
Illustrator: Tim Warnes
Zonderkidz; Illustrated edition (October 6, 2020)
The “gist”:  The story lists all the different ways in which the narrator will give you a hug– a tickly hug, a snowy hug, a shivery hug, etc.!
My favorite part:
The little girl wears a little “polar bear” hat throughout which is just adorable!
My response as a reader: 
There is pure joy on every page of this book — and right now when we can’t hug all of those people we would like to, even this book is like a warm hug!
My “take-away” as a writer: 
This is a concept book, since it doesn’t really have a storyline, it is just a litany of types of hugs, but it definitely holds your interest! I love the beautiful cadence of each line and the choice of such perfect descriptive vocabulary for each page!

Title: The Joyful Book
: Todd Parr
Little, Brown BYR; Illustrated edition (October 6, 2020)
The “gist”:  There are many ways to be joyful — gathering with friends, lighting candles, opening presents, etc. no matter what your family traditions.
My favorite part:
The very last page contains a wonderful message from the author, Todd Parr, to the readers: “Holidays are a special time. No matter what traditions you celebrate, it is always joyful to be together with family and friends. Try to find joy every day and share it with others all year long!”
My response as a reader:
  I love that there are so many multicultural holidays represented here– I clearly see Hanukkah, Kwanzaa and Christmas, and there may be others, but they are simply illustrated as part of being joyful and that universality is great to see.
My “take-away” as a writer: 
I am biased of course, but it is nice to know that I have something in common with a New York Times Bestseling Author– this book is similar to mine in not focusing on any one holiday but on the importance of sharing and tradition. It would be a great companion book for someone wanting to give two books to a family — or a teacher reading two holiday books.

Title: Happy Llamakkah!
: Laura Gehl
Illustrator: Lydia Nichols
Harry N. Abrams; Illustrated edition (October 13, 2020)
The “gist”:  Each page brings a new short rhyme with information about celebrations for Hanukkah, always ending with “Happy Llamakkah!”
My favorite part:
It’s llamas! What’s not to love? The illustrations are adorable!
My response as a reader: 
This would be such a great read aloud — I can totally imagine little kids loving to join in with the “Happy Llamakkah!” each time!
My “take-away” as a writer: 
Like my book, there is some good backmatter here, but there is also just a happy story about enjoying traditions.

Title: The Tree That’s Meant to Be
: Yuval Zommer
Doubleday BYR; Illustrated edition (September 24, 2019)
The “gist”:  Little tree is a bit crooked and not perfect like all the others who are chosen for Christmas trees. But maybe that is ok!
My favorite part:
I love that this book feels so timeless– the illustrations of the trees and the brush stroke style remind me of books from my childhood!
My response as a reader: 
This book really made my heart full– I loved the idea that we are all the WE whom we are meant to be and that comes through here without being preachy.
My “take-away” as a writer: 
It can be hard to make first person stories work, especially with anthropomorphic main characters– this one does it really well, bringing into the tree’s lonely world and helping us feel the love at the end!

The Great Holiday Cookie Swap: Bonus Material for Diwali!

Happy Diwali: Parent and Teacher Materials!!

If you have read THE GREAT HOLIDAY COOKIE SWAP, you know that the cookies might be bickering to this day if it weren’t for the wise peaceful words of Nan Khatai. Although Indian food generally does not involve lots of cookies, the lightly scented cardamom shortbread Nan Khatai is a favorite of many and a great way to celebrate the holiday of lights, Diwali, which starts its celebrations today, November 14th!

Learn how to make your own candles to celebrate Diwali — in the shape of Nan Khatai, the heroic shortbread from THE GREAT HOLIDAY COOKIE SWAP! Then read the book together or make the cookies to enjoy by candlelight!

Click the link below the candle to download the instructions!

Happy Diwali!!

Pandemic PB reviews (with no particular theme)…

Stopped by my local Barnes & Noble today to see my book “in the wild”! It is as thrilling as I had dreamed it would be– now I just hope people will buy it!

Between the pandemic and the chaos of being a teacher right now, I don’t get out to explore new books as often as I used to, but when I do, it sure is amazing to see how many fun and creative new picture books are out there. I wanted to focus on books published since the start of the pandemic, since they are most likely to need some “extra love,” but a couple just jumped out at me and begged to be read, so I couldn’t refuse!

Title: Sweety
: Andrea Zuill
Schwartz & Wade; Illustrated edition (March 26, 2019)
The “gist”:  Sweety’s aunt calls her a “square peg,” since she just doesn’t seem to fit in anywhere, but does that mean she should change?
My favorite part:
 I loved that of all creatures, Sweety was a naked mole rat– and there was a sweet note about how the illustrator was thankful they liked clothing so there was no worry about drawing “embarrassing” parts!
My response as a reader: 
Sweety’s story resonated with me greatly, because I never had many friends growing up. My social skills weren’t great, and I preferred the company of adults much of the time. My dad once told me he was proud I didn’t have friends because it meant I had not sacrificed who I was and tried to be like the popular kids. But life without friends can be lonely and painful. It wasn’t until I got to college that I met “kindred spirits.” I hope that kids reading Sweety will realize they don’t have to change and things WILL get better.
My “take-away” as a writer: 
Who knew that all this time I could have written about my lonely childhood? Then again, childhood trauma is what makes a good writer, right?

Title: How to Meet a Mermaid
: Sue Fliess
Illustrator:  Simona Sanfilippo
Publisher/Date: Sky Pony (June 16, 2020)
The “gist”: The title says it all: this book takes you through the steps of where to find mermaids, how to make a crown to entice them, etc.
My favorite part:
I love that the children basically have a magical moment of turning into mermaids and then when it is over, they are kids again! How fun!
My response as a reader: 
Who doesn’t love mermaids, right? Not only are they super fun, but they are really popular right now, so I bet kids would love this! (I did!).
My “take-away” as a writer: 
This book is part of a whole series of “Magical Creatures and Crafts” which includes books about Unicorns, Christmas Elves, etc. all of which pair a story with some crafts families can make– genius idea!!

Title: This is NOT that kind of Book
: Christopher Healey
Illustrator:  Ben Mantle
Publisher/Date: Random House BYR (October 15, 2019)
The “gist”: In this very “meta” kind of book, the characters are all confused about just what kind of book they find themselves in.
My favorite part:
I love the apple! Similar to “Groot,” he pops in repeatedly with “I am an apple!” and is simply adorable!
My response as a reader: 
This is the best picture book I have read in while— I am a sucker for books that break the fourth wall or play with the concept of picture books (Julie Falatko’s Snappsy is another big favorite!)
My “take-away” as a writer: 
While the characters in this book are essentially “stock” characters, they do not seem one dimensional and they all fit really well with the plot, ultimately working really naturally together to create a plot.

Title: The Same, but Different, Too
Author: Karl Newson
Illustrator:  Kate Hindley
Publisher/Date: Nosy Crow; (March 19, 2020)
The “gist”: Told in sparse and simple rhyming text, this book highlights what unites us even though we may look different or have different talents.
My favorite part:
The illustrations have a great “Richard Scarry” quality which makes them seem really timeless. (Just googled their two names, by the way, and Hindley lists Scarry as an inspiration– she can feel proud, because she nailed him!)
My response as a reader: 
This would make a splendid board book for very young readers– the text is reminiscent of Dr. Seuss (without the outlandish made-up words) and has a similar “feel good” moral.
My “take-away” as a writer:
Simplify, simplify! I didn’t count, but I would be surprised if this text topped 300 words, but it doesn’t need more than that. What can I cut in my own writing? 

Title: Gurple and Preen
Author: Linda Sue Park
Illustrator: Debbie Ridpath Ohi
Simon & Schuster BYR (August 25, 2020)
The “gist”: Gurple and Preen are robots whose spaceship has crashed. They use random objects which come out of the broken crayons to fix the spaceship.
My favorite part:
I adore Debbi Ohi and her art, and one of her taglines is “You never know what will come out of a broken crayon.” (I highly recommend her Flickr page for more brilliant examples!) So, I just loved seeing his concept turned into a whole book!
My response as a reader: 
I would love reading this with a little one and asking them to anticipate what you could do with each of the items that comes out of the crayons!
My “take-away” as a writer: 
This book made me even more respectful of the amazing partnership between author and illustrator. I have no idea if Linda Sue and Debbie worked together on the plot for this, but there is truly no separating the text from the pictures here and if I hadn’t known better, I would have sworn they had to come from one person! Bravo, Ladies!