Last week I had to head up to my mom’s house to do some cleaning out after a pipe bust in an old bedroom. In the process I brought home several boxes of picture books I’d had as a child. Of course there were timeless old classics like Mike Mulligan, Cat in the Hat, and One Morning in Maine, but also oodles and oodles of books that I’d completely forgotten about as well as a few little gems that I loved, but which are pretty obscure and I bet you have never heard of. So for our reviews today, indulge me in a little time travel. Yes, I generally focus on books published in the past couple years, but looking back at books from the 60s and 70s (I am the youngest, so many of my books were hand-me-downs) just might teach us a few lessons about how much the market has changed!
My apologies for letting the ball drop on my April book reviews, but I’m back and so excited to share five new picture book reviews for May. I’m even more excited to share a wonderful new bookstore with you that JUST opened this weekend! Booktenders is owned by Rick and Michelle Clarke, and it’s going to make my book shopping a LOT easier! Although I’ll admit I’m guilty of abusing my Amazon Prime subscription, or stopping in at my local Barnes & Noble for a latte and a bestseller, I would much rather support an independent bookseller, where my money will not only go back into the local community, but where the owners know me and can give me recommendations — and vice versa! The owners let me know that they could definitely use a little help keeping up with the current picture book scene since their kids have mostly outgrown picture books (In my opinion, there’s no such thing as outgrowing picture books, but you know teenagers…). I’m happy to oblige, but for this month, let’s take a look at five current picture books these folks already have on the shelves!
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.
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 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!
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!
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:
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 Author/Illustrator: Ryan T. Higgins Publisher/Date: 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! Author: Caroline B. Cooney Illustrator: Tim Warnes Publisher/Date: 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 Author/Illustrator: Todd Parr Publisher/Date: 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! Author: Laura Gehl Illustrator: Lydia Nichols Publisher/Date: 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 Author/Illustrator: Yuval Zommer Publisher/Date: 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!
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!!!
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!
Father’s Day around our house often means an outing to the bookstore– I rarely buy my husband books because only he knows exactly which ones he’s looking for, and everyone in our family enjoys a good trip to browse new books. So, time for another crop of reviews! Some of today’s choices include father figures, some are just fun. Let’s explore!