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!

Story of a Covid PB debut….

How do you celebrate a “book birthday” when your book baby is overdue?

Most writers dream of the debut of their book like some little girls plan for their wedding day: party, champagne, excitement…a time just for them. However, when you are celebrating a book release during COVID-19, some of those plans have to get dropped. Not to mention that as a high school teacher teaching in a hybrid model, my life has been a little overwhelming all by itself. I do “zoom” for teaching and department meetings– the thought of zooming a book release party just did not excite me.

As it happens, my book release has also suffered from one more disappointment: a shipping delay. Whether a combination of printing issues, warehouse issues or the slow-down in the post office I do not know, but I have still not received my author copies (which means I don’t have one of those fun “unboxing videos” to show my excitement at seeing the book for the first time). In fact, even on my “book birthday,” I didn’t have a copy, nor did any of the bookstores I know, including the one where I planned to do a pre-order signing on the 10th. Amazon was saying “ships in 1-2 MONTHS.” I was heartbroken! This is a book for the holiday market– what would it mean if it were not available until two months from now?

So, release day was subdued. I posted some things on social media, but it was a bit like a baby’s due date when the baby is overdue. All you can do is anticipate. And pray for the postal service. I shared the cover image with my students at school, promising I would not be promoting my book in every class from now until the holidays. We did take-out for supper, and in my evening zoom session with the Speech & Debate team I coach, I did a dramatic online reading (using my proofs for the illustrations). Their support was great. We all oohed over the awesome illustrations by the great Joe Kulka (there are LESSONS in illustrating there, people!)

As my “debut week” progressed, I checked in with the independent bookstore who was processing my pre-orders, a lovely shop in Bangor, Maine called “The Briar Patch.” It’s about 3 hours north of me, near where my mother lives, and I had planned to visit her for the long weekend, but what if the books weren’t there by then? He told me the had spoken with the publisher and they had been shipped. They WOULD be there by Saturday the 10th. By Thursday, they had arrived, and Gibran, the owner, sent me a photo to prove it!

Finally, my signing day had come! But, since this bookstore is not open to browsing, they set me up with a card table in the back of the store, surrounded by boxes instead of adoring fans. I could have done a table on the street, but happily almost all of the books he’d ordered were pre-sold, so I was ok communing with the pre–order sheets and smiling about all the friends who had ordered copies. I had carefully researched signing pens and purchased a whole box of them months ago, but of course I forgot them, so a quick trip to Target got me both black and metallic– I hadn’t seen the book in person so I wasn’t sure where I would sign or what would look best against the paper. I decided on basic black.

And since we were visiting my mother, my husband and I had her watch our boys so we could go out to lunch afterward. Downtown Bangor has gotten much more fun and quirky since I was a kid– and with lots of good socially distanced outdoor dining choices! We decided on Paddy Murphy’s Pub — great atmosphere! Since this IS Maine, I had fried clams & chips instead of just fish & chips…and yes, I kept the book on the table the whole time!

To cap off the day, we ordered pizza from my favorite local place, Pat’s Pizza (they now have many locations in the state, but Orono was the first!). And my mom made an apple pie (she makes the best in the world!) so we could toast with pink champagne (the small glasses are ginger ale with cherry juice for my boys)! Not a traditional book release, but we found a way to make it special. Can’t wait to see what the next couple months will bring– now if only the postal service will get my books to Amazon and Barnes & Noble!!!

Many thanks to Gibran Graham of The Briar Patch for helping me with a plan for pre-orders. Friends from across the country were able to order in advance and he will ship them off tomorrow! More thanks for the day go to a fellow Melanie, who sells awesome cookie masks in her Etsy shop which you can find at MadeByMelanieUS!

Have your Book and Eat it Too! Tasty PB Reviews!

Only EIGHT DAYS left until the release of my picture book! It is not happening the way I had dreamed– no big “book birthday” parties and signing tours– but I am still excited. And while I spent last month looking at picture books written by fellow “K” authors, this month I have explored fellow “foodies!!” With one exception, all of these books have a recipe in them (and that exception has plenty of food!) Since my book also has recipes, I loved seeing how they were woven into all these other joyful and tasty books!

Title: Holy Squawkamole!
: Susan Wood
Illustrator: Laura Gonzáles
Sterling Children’s Books (March 5, 2019)
The “gist”:  In a twist on the traditional tale, the little red hen wants to make guacamole and asks animals for help, but ultimately gathers all the ingredients herself and serves it to her friends.
My favorite part:
 I loved the extra ingredient she added at the end!
My response as a reader:
I am a language teacher, so the cultural references, and the little bits of spanish (like calling the red hen “gallinita roja”) were fun and educational. And of course I am a sucker for a book with a recipe in it!
My “take-away” as a writer: 
I love the idea of taking a traditional tale and setting it in a new culture. I have always wanted to do a fairy tale/folk tale retelling, so now I have some brainstorming to do!

Title: Peyton Picks the Perfect Pie
Jack Bishop
Illustrator: Michelle Mee Nutter
America’s Test Kitchen Kids; Illustrated Edition (September 1, 2020)
The “gist”: 
Peyton is determined not to be picky this Thanksgiving, so she is trying hard to keep an open mind when deciding which pie to try. There are so many!
My favorite part: 
I don’t make many pies, but I do love them! It was fun to learn about a few of the unique pies such as Lemon Chess (which I did NOT know was originally called “cheese” pie) and the Greek ruffled milk pie.
My response as a reader:
This book reminds me a lot of THE GREAT HOLIDAY COOKIE SWAP — a holiday feast and competing desserts! Just too bad the only recipe is for the apple pie! (Thanks to my mom, I already make a killer apple pie…)
My “take-away” as a writer: 
Making Peyton the central character helps us learn about the foods through her eyes– I have another manuscript with foods and will be making sure my descriptions flow as naturally as these.

Title: Fry Bread: A Native American Family Story
: Kevin Noble Maillard
Illustrator: Juana Martinez-Neal
Roaring Brook Press; Illustrated Edition (October 22, 2019)
The “gist”:
 It can be flat, fluffy, white, brown, every family may make it differently, but fry bread is an important family dish to the Native American culture!
My favorite part:
 The back matter is not to be missed– so much extra cultural information!
My response as a reader:
I have a friend in Wisconsin who is Native American and used to talk about making fry bread, but I had never heard of it. This gave me a really great insight into the importance of it.
My “take-away” as a writer: 
There is a special music to this writing which is almost like poetry– each page begins with a statement: “Fry bread is food…Fry bread is sound…Fry bread is shape…” with sensory descriptions after each. The style fits beautifully with the magical picture the story paints. If I taught writing, I might use this to get students to explore writing about all the senses using a favorite food from THEIR culture.

Title: Lady Pancake and Sir French Toast: Short & Sweet
Josh Funk
Illustrator: Brendan Kearney
Sterling Children’s Books (September 1, 2020)
The “gist”: 
In this, the fourth installment of the Lady Pancake/Sir French Toast series, our heroes are turned into children and experience quite an adventure trying to get back to normal.
My favorite part:
 Brendan Kearney’s illustrations make for mega re-readability! So many adorable little food bits!
My response as a reader:
Josh always brings great creativity to his work and it is great to see these baked goods are not getting stale! I love that the fridge contents are different in each book, so the fold-out map at the end gives you a whole new set of topographical features to explore! (My fave: limes square!)
My “take-away” as a writer: 
I have to think long and hard when I start a new manuscript– is this one going to be rhymed or not? Even though THE GREAT HOLIDAY COOKIE SWAP is a rhyming picture book, many I have written more recently are prose. Rhyming books are HARD to do well and while I really love to do it, I think sometimes I shy away from it– but then I read Josh and realize it is totally worth it!

Title: Every Night is Pizza Night
J. Kenji López-Alt
Illustrator: Gianna Ruggiero
Norton Young Readers (September 1, 2020)
The “gist”: 
Pipo loves pizza so much she can’t imagine any other food could compare, but she tries a variety of foods from the neighborhood (from bibimbap to guacamole) and discovers some amazing new tastes!
My favorite part: 
I am in love with this book because it is SO ME! As you might have picked up from my own upcoming book, international food exploration is totally my jam!
My response as a reader:
I love how the author describes how each new food looks and tastes. The illustrations are so happy and colorful it is a real celebration of food!
My “take-away” as a writer: 
Repetition!! I always note it when I see it done well, because kids love a good “refrain” in a book, but I am always forgetting to tie them into my own. With each day of trying a new food, Pipo notes “I do not need it. I do not want it. But I will try it.” I can imagine this book and refrain working great with kids who are picky eaters!

Getting to know the neighbors: Some “K” book reviews!

Yesterday marked the ONE MONTH mark before my debut picture book, THE GREAT HOLIDAY COOKIE SWAP is released! It is super exciting, but also makes me nervous– I feel like I should have done a lot more preparing and setting up events, signings, blog tours, etc. Doing this during a pandemic just seems strange, so I can only hope things will fall into place! Remember, if you haven’t yet preordered, I recommend you order from my friends at “The Briar Patch” — if you use this link and order before the release date, I will sign your copy!

One of my favorite things to do in libraries and bookstores is to check out where “my book” would live– for me that means the “K” section. So in that spirit, today’s book reviews are all amazing new books from my future “K” neighbors. Enjoy!


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Teaching Outside the Box

Highlights from the quarantined classroom…

Like the rest of the teachers in the country, I was forced online for the last few months of the school year. Since my department of world language teachers has already used a lot of technology and has always been open to working together to try new things, I was probably better prepared than most. Not to mention that my school district is relatively well funded and was very proactive about ensuring that students had access to technology via Chromebooks, hot-spots, etc.

Students playing the German card game “Mau Mau” in what seems like a bygone era…

But what did all that really mean for teaching?  Without going into a lot of pedagogical detail, teaching German remotely meant continuing with most of the material I would have done anyway, but in slightly different ways. We already use Google Classroom (an online platform for organizing and delivering content), so providing students with videos, online practice, etc. was easy. I left a few things behind which would not have been practical (such as my game-play unit in which students play card games together in German) and filled that space with other activities.

The most important change, and the reason for this post (in what is usually a blog focused on writing and book reviews) is flexibility:  allowing students to show what they know and can do in a variety of ways.  With inspiration from my fellow teachers both at my school and across the country, I found ways to encourage student creativity and motivate them to engage with the material at home. (By the way, do other occupations support each other in Facebook groups like teachers? They should! I get my best ideas from the German teacher Facebook groups!) Here are a few examples:


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Brand spanking new books! (And their reviews)

20200218_111246I am in a group for authors with books coming out in 2020 (“2020 Picture Book Stars”), so I have been anxious to read In a Jar, a book by fellow group member Deborah Marcero. In the process, I figured I might as well give some love to other books which are brand spanking new in 2020– and even though it’s only mid-February, there are already a bunch of beauties out there! Let’s explore them!

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Read if you loved…(Gems from some favorite authors!)

booksfeb2020Wow, I haven’t done a set of reviews in a while! Sorry about that! My day job gets in the way sometimes! However, having just submitted my semester grades this past Wednesday, my husband insisted I have some “me time” and go off to read picture books. He’s a good guy!

What an overwhelming selection of great stuff is out there right now! So hard to choose! I am going with some of my favorite authors this time– almost all of them are sequels of a sort. Let’s dig in!!

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Open sesame: At the intersection of faith and hope…

20191231_145437-1Hello Blog readers!

Happy New Year!!  As I look ahead to what 2020 will bring,  I am more and more excited for the arrival of my picture book, The Great Holiday Cookie Fight, which will be published on October 15 of this year.

Of course, New Year’s Day is also the final day of Kwanzaa, which runs from Dec. 26th to January 1st.  The holiday was invented in 1966 by Dr. Maulana Karenga as a way to honor African-American culture, but also to celebrate family and community. Each of the seven days represents a different principle: unity, self-determination, collective work & responsibility, cooperative economics, purpose, creativity and faith. That means New Year’s Day is not only a worldwide celebration of new beginnings, but also a day, as Karenga wrote, “To believe with all our heart in our people, our parents, our teachers, our leaders, and the righteousness and victory of our struggle.”

Now I am white and would not presume to fully understand the struggles of people of color in America, but I like to think we can all be more sensitive at this time of year and that includes learning a little about the myriad of celebrations which unite us more than they divide us.* We can all use a little more faith and belief in our parents, teachers and leaders: a little more hope for the year to come.

My trusty Kitchen-Aid mixer, “Beauty,” whipping up a batch of benne wafers.

With that in mind, I have chosen to bake benne wafers this year in celebration of the intersection of Kwanzaa’s day of faith and of New Year’s Day.  Benne is the Bantu word for sesame, which symbolizes good luck in many cultures and is a symbol of immortality for the Brahmins– perfect for New Year’s.  Benne wafers themselves are African in origin and particularly popular in Charleston, South Carolina, where I lived for four years while teaching at the College of Charleston. The cookies are nutty, buttery, and not too sweet, a lovely antidote to the overindulging you may have done in the past week.



You can find recipes for benne wafers online, or just wait for the extra special recipe in my book, coming this year! May you move into 2020 with hope and faith in a beautiful future for the year to come!  Harambee!

A warm batch of benne wafers ready to bring to a New Year’s Brunch tomorrow!

*To paraphrase Akilah Bolden-Monifa in his article “Can White People Celebrate Kwanzaa And Other Questions You Were Too Afraid To Ask,” white people CAN celebrate Kwanzaa because American culture is becoming more multi-racial and diverse. He goes on to write, “When invited, I go to cultural and religious celebrations that are not part of my cultural or religious heritage. I participate in a way that is comfortable for my host and for me. It would be arrogant of me, a non-Jew, to dominate a Seder or Hanukkah celebration, for example. People who are not of African descent should approach Kwanzaa with the same attitude.  A proverb often quoted during Kwanzaa reads: “I am because we are; because we are, I am.” Harambee! (Let’s pull together!)

“Beyond Scribbles”: Writing on Walls

20190913_185917October is here! This weekend I took down my second gallery show ever — a culmination of work on the “Art & Poetry Project” — a writing critique group which was originally founded to pair writers and artists but which has evolved over the years as each poet’s interpretation of that theme. My first show, “Family Album,” in fall of 2017, was a show of 12 poems which sought to capture the lives of family members as represented by vintage photos. It was very meaningful to me, as it let me put a dozen family photos together of my Aunt Helyn, my Uncle Larry, my Grammy Dot, etc., but I was surprised that my stories seemed to strike a chord with the community as well and help them to treasure their own family stories.

20190807_144313When time came for a new show, (yes, I was amazingly invited back!) I decided to look to a different family inspiration– the art of my children.  If you’re a parent, you’ve probably experienced the deluge of kid art: it comes home in piles, you love it, but do you really need to keep every scrap, doodle, and scribble?  A good friend shared her solution of taking photos of everything before you get rid of it, and I do that with some, but some is just too good to toss.  Not only that, looking at their creations presented me with a lingering philosophical question on the nature of art. For me, a big part of art is what we love and value. (Would you rather own a portrait of you drawn with love by your child than the Mona Lisa? I would!) Art can answer questions– or raise them.  Art can represent — or deconstruct. Art can be skilled — or just attempted. Furthermore, I’ve always wondered just what makes art valuable or “important” enough to be in a museum.  Is a canvas painted completely in red with one blue dot a masterpiece? Couldn’t anyone have done it?

Anyway…With that in mind, “Beyond Scribbles” became my new show — 14 works from both of my children paired with my poetry.  Most of the poems were written with close inspiration from the art themselves, a few simply caught my eye and made me realize “Hey, I wrote a poem about that already!” Slowly, a collection of poems and art began to take shape, even more so as I framed the pieces I had collected and realized they suddenly looked like “real art.”

The show is down now, but some will be back up for an “encore” to accompany a public reading at 6:30 on Nov. 2nd in the York Public Library, where I will share the stage with the other three poets who also had shows this fall. If you’re in the area, I hope you’ll come. In the meantime, I will leave you with two of my favorites from the show:  “Bigfoot” (art by my son Robbie) and “Egg Beach” (art by my son Maxwell). Enjoy!


BIGFOOT (Inspired by art from Robbie Kyer)

Saw a bigfoot on the way to work,
Taking a shortcut through the woods.
Thought of pulling out my phone,
Posting pictures– going viral.
I don’t need the hassle, nor does he.
Figured he’d be grateful
For his privacy,
Or hers, I guess.
It’s not my place to judge.
Nodded once, the way you do.
Got a nod back with the slightest smirk,
As if to say:
Man, Mondays, am I right?

Copyright July 30, 2019


EGG BEACH (Inspired by art from Maxwell Kyer)

It’s easy to write of depression,
You’ll find it wherever you look:
There’s bombings and wanton aggression,
More pain than could fill up a book.

The news tells of terror and dying,
The darkness can weigh like a curse.
Some days getting up is too trying,
And trying to care makes it worse.

The folks you thought friends now despise you,
The world doesn’t work like it should.
What good will your sorrowful cries do,
When even the “good guys” aren’t good?

But even with too much to handle,
It’s never ok to give in.
It only takes one single candle,
To push back the darkness within.

Oh sure, that’s a lame proposition.
It’s greeting card fodder, cliché.
Just how can it help your condition?
It’s like saying “Have a nice day!”

If that’s true, then never buy ice cream,
Or watch foxes play in the wild.
Don’t pet kittens sleeping in sunbeams,
Or ponder the art of a child.

But my form of immunization,
Against all that threatens my joy
Are lobsters and “Egg Beach” vacations
As seen through the eyes of a boy.

Copyright MK, July 10, 2016