The mark of a silly old bear

Finding Winnie by Lindsay MattickThe wide-ranging artwork of contemporary children’s book illustrators earns the spotlight at an impressive exhibit at Brandywine River Museum of Art in Chadds Ford, PA.

Guest curator H. Nichols B. Clark has selected art by eight renowned artists, several of whom I’ve featured on this blog: Sophie Blackall, Bryan Collier, Raúl Colón, Marla Frazee, Jon Klassen, Melissa Sweet, David Wiesner and Mo Willems. For any children’s book lover in the Philadelphia area, the exhibit, running through October 9, is a must.

Since children, as well as us older ones, often face so many changes and challenges as the new school year approaches, this seems like the perfect time for a reassuring story such as Finding Winnie: The True Story of the World’s Most Famous Bear, which earned Sophie Blackall the 2016 Caldecott Medal.

Blackall’s watercolor-and-ink illustrations provide a lively sense of movement, both literally and figuratively, and evoke sweet emotional connections among loved ones. The connection between children and their stuffed animals or similar toys is often psychologically rich and deserves attention and respect. This title taps that vein and adds an interesting realistic angle, as well.

The author, employing a story within a story, introduces readers to a loving mother and her rosy-cheeked son, Cole, cuddling at night while the child clutches his bear and requests a bedtime story — “a true story. One about a Bear.”

The mother tells the boy the story of veterinarian named Harry Colebourn, who, while heading off to serve in World War I, encountered a trapper with a baby black bear at a train depot. Colebourn, wanting to rescue the bear, bought it and took it across Canada to the army base in England. He named the bear Winnie, short for Winnipeg, his hometown.  Winnie made himself at home, but when the troop had to ship out to France, Colebourn managed to find his pet a new one, at the London Zoo. In time, a father and his son, Christopher Robin, visited the zoo, and the boy couldn’t get enough of the bear. His father, A.A. Milne, began to spin stories about the bear, whimsical stories that went on to garner a coveted spot at many a child’s bedside.

This endearing true story, told by Colebourn’s great-great granddaughter, has enough substance for upper elementary students, while also sweeping up younger ones.

Complement Finding Winnie with …

Knuffle Bunny by Mo WillemsDahlia by Barbara McClintockAlexander and the Wind-Up Mouse by Leo Lionni.jpg






2015 Children’s Book Awards Announced

Lovers of children’s literature, the wait is over. Yesterday the American Library Association announced the 2015 prize winners for the top books, audiobooks, and videos for children and young adults. They include the following:

John Newbery Medal
for the most outstanding contribution to children’s literature

The Crossover by Kwame Alexander is the 2015 Newbery Medal winner, published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.Crossover by Kwame Alexander

Two Newbery Honor Books:

El Deafo by Cece Bell, published by Amulet Books.

Brown Girl Dreaming written by Jacqueline Woodson and published by Nancy Paulsen Books.

Randolph Caldecott Medal

for the most distinguished illustrations in an American picture book for children:Adventures of Beekle The Unimaginary Friend by Dan Santat

The Adventures of Beekle: The Unimaginary Friend, illustrated by Dan Santat and written by Dan Santat, is the 2015 Caldecott Medal winner. The book was  published by Little, Brown.

Six Caldecott Honor Books named:

1. Nana in the City, illustrated and written by Lauren Castillo, published by Clarion Books.

2. The Noisy Paint Box: The  Colors and Sounds of Kandinsky’s Abstract Art, illustrated by Mary GrandPre, written by Barb Rosenstock and published by Alfred A. Knopf.

3. Sam & Dave Dig a Hole, illustrated by Jon Klassen, written by Mac Barnett and published by Candlewick Press.

4. Viva Frida, illustrated and written by Yuyi Morales, published by Roaring Brook Press.

5. The Right Word: Roget and His Thesaurus, illustrated by Melissa Sweet and written by Jen Bryant, published by Eerdmans Books. (As you know, I second that emotion!)

6. This One Summer, illustrated by Jillian Tamaki, written by Mariko Tamaki, published by First Second.

Coretta Scott King (Author) Book Award

recognizing an African American author and illustrator of outstanding books for children and young adults:

Jacqueline Woodson for Brown Girl Dreaming, has won the King Author Award. The book is published by Nancy Paulsen Books.  Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson

Honor Awards to go …

1. Kwame Alexander for The Crossover, published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

2. Marilyn Nelson for How I Discovered Poetry, illustrated by Hadley Hooper and published by Dial Books.

3. Kekla Magoon for How It Went Down, published by Henry Holt.

Coretta Scott King (Illustrator) Book Award:

Firebird, illustrated by Christopher Myers, is the King Illustrator Book winner. The book was written by Misty Copeland and published by G. P. Putnam’s Sons.

Two King Illustrator Honor Books were selected:

Christian Robinson for Josephine: The Dazzling Life of Josephine Baker, by Patricia Hruby Powell, published by Chronicle Books.

Frank Morrison for Little Melba and Her Big Trombone, by Katheryn Russell-Brown, published by Lee and Low Books.

Pura Belpre Award

honoring a Latino writer and illustrator whose children’s books best portray the Latino cultural experience:
The Pura Belpre Illustrator Award goes to Viva Frida by Yuyi Morales

Viva Frida, by Yuyi Morales, published by Roaring Brook Press.

The Pura Belpre Author Award goes to

I Lived on Butterfly Hill, written by Marjorie Agosin, illustrated by Lee White and published by Atheneum Books.

Robert F. Sibert Informational Book Award
for most distinguished informational book for children:

The Right Word: Roget and His Thesaurus, written by Jen Bryant, is the Sibert Award winner. The book is published by Eerdmans Books.

Five Sibert Honor Books were named:

Brown Girl Dreaming, by Jacqueline Woodson, and published by Nancy Paulsen Books.

The Family Romanov: Murder, Rebellion, & the Fall of Imperial Russia, by Candace Fleming, and published by Schwartz & Wade Books.

Josephine: The Dazzling Life of Josephine Baker, by Patricia Hruby Powell, illustrated by Christian Robinson and published by Chronicle Books.

Neighborhood Sharks: Hunting with the Great Whites of California’s Farallon Islands, written and illustrated by Katherine Roy, and published by David Macaulay Studio.

Separate Is Never Equal: Sylvia Mendez & Her Family’s Fight for Desegregation, written and illustrated by Duncan Tonatiuh and published by Abrams Books.

Perhaps you, too, will add some of these beauties to your pile(s) of must-read books. You can read the ALA’s press release at

What a Mighty Locomotive

“Hear the clear, hard call of her bell: CLANG-CLANG! CLANG-CLANG! CLANG-CLANG! Hear the HISSSSSSSSS and the SPIT of the steam! Hear the engine breathe like a beast: HUFF HUFF HUFF!” You don’t have to be a railroad lover (but you might become one!) to head West with Brian Floca’s Locomotive, as the 2014 Caldecott Medal Winner takes readers on a rollicking journey on the Transcontinental Railroad in the summer of Locomotive by Brian Floca1869.

Locomotive packs in plenty of details about how and when and why the steam engine transformed the landscape and culture of the American West. Make no mistake, though, this is not textbook land. Floca has wisely used an intimate second-person perspective (as he did in Moonshot, 2009), putting the reader right in the action. That’s just the beginning. His abundant energetic verbs–huffs and hisses and bangs and clanks–show up in various colors, fonts, and sizes. Often the rhythm echoes the action: “Faster, faster, turn the wheels,/faster, faster breathes the engine!/The country runs by,/the cottonwoods and river.” And children will delight in surprising facts such as the train’s lack of plumbing,  or the switchmen’s risk of losing their fingers on the job.

Floca’s stellar illustrations feature a range of perspectives, along with as much detail as a curious young mind might crave. Beginning with endpapers displaying the path of the Transcontinental and a title page sporting a drawing of a May 10, 1869 telegraph, the book lets readers know they’re embarking on a real-life journey. Pages are filled with lively pen-and-ink and watercolor paintings that depict not only believable children and their families but a variety of workers toiling to make the steam engine take its passengers all the way from Omaha, Nebraska, to San Francisco.

This nonfiction book was born to be read aloud, either one-on-one or to an upper-elementary-age group. It’s a bit longer (60 illustrated pages) and more detailed than most, but the trip is sure to thrill.

And don’t miss …

Moonshot The Flight of Apollo 11 by Brian FlocaIf I Built a Car by Chris Van DusenOnce Upon a Cool Motorcycle Dude by Kevin O'Malley



Always Up for Aesop

The simple fables attributed to Aesop have been told and retold for centuries, yet they still touch us. The brevity and relevance of the stories bring out the best in some illustrators. One of the most stunning editions published in the last decade is Helen Ward’s The Town Mouse and thThe Town Mouse and the Country Mouse an Aesop fable retold and illus by Helen Warde Country Mouse

Who could resist such a gorgeous feast of colors and textures, of vivid words and painted details? The lovely cover image is only the beginning; readers enter a sensuous and fully realized world. We see through the eyes of the country mouse, who knew “the insect-filled fields of summer and the rich, ripe orchards of autumn.” We experience the seasons, from spring’s fluffy pink apple blossoms to fall’s tawny red apples to winter’s crusted snow and then, back to the bluebells and sprigs of spring.

One bright morning, the city-slicker cousin arrives and points out differences between the two homes. No mud and no wild animals in the city, the mouse says. And “we dine on rich, exotic foods in sumptuous surroundings.” Ward’s paintings of the country, showing the beech trees’ golden and bright green leaves, berries glowing like amethysts and rubies, and a pond’s silvery reflections subtly explore another kind of wealth and foreshadow the story’s message.

The city mouse’s descriptions soon lead to the country mouse’s discontentment and longing for a new and different way of life. In the winter, he “hitched a ride toward the bustle and hum of the city.” Here, he finds a world of lights! elevators! fine, shiny Christmas ornaments! And the magnificent spread of cakes and cookies, tarts and eclairs seems heavenly until … the big-eyed, hungry pug arrives to spoil the day.

We last see the country mouse back home in the country, curled up in his simple, cozy nest. What a telling contrast with the last, wordless page showing the bloated city mouse sleeping in the cut-open wedge of blue cheese. It’s hard to imagine a more beautifully rendered version of this fable; it’s a work of art perfectly aimed at ages 5 to 7.

Contest Between Sun and Wind An Aesop's Fable retold by Heather ForestIn Heather Forest’s The Contest Between the Sun and the Wind: An Aesop’s Fable, readers will find themselves pondering the question: “Can gentleness, instead of force, be an effective way to achieve a goal?” 

The simple but meaningful story involves a man who’s wearing a coat as he walks down the road. The Wind blustered that he was stronger than the Sun, and the sun agreed to see which of the two could get the man to take off his coat. As was his custom, the Wind blew with all its might, but the harder he blew, the more tightly the man held the coat next to his body. The huffy Wind gave up, and then it was the Sun’s turn. And when the Sun shone brightly, so brightly, the man grew warm and decided to remove his coat.

The storyteller has collaborated with the fabulous illustrator Susan Gaber on four other books. As expected, this one shines with the artist’s impressive range of perspectives, a pleasing palette, and a luscious sense of energy and movement. For more of their fine work, see their charming version of The Little Red Hen: An Old Fablewhich focuses on the value of cooperation and community.

And no child should miss Jerry Pinkney’s magnificent The Lion and the Mouse, for which he earned the 2010 Caldecott Medal.Lion and the Mouse retold and illus by Jerry Pinkney One of Aesop’s most beloved fables, Pinkney’s wordless version tells the story with his amazingly detailed artwork, making it a great choice for educators who want to engage children in making predictions.

The fable’s plot, in which the seemingly insignificant mouse is brave and generous enough to save the lordly lion, offers wonderful opportunities to discuss the importance of kindness and respect for all.

Give a Carrot a Chance?

Who knew carrots could be so wacky and wonderful? Creepy Carrots! reaped a 2013 Caldecott honor for its original, way-too-much-fun illustrations by the acclaimed Peter Brown (Children Make Terrible Pets and A Curious GardeCreepy Carrots!n and others). Feature this in your story hour, and you’ll harvest a bushel of laughs and a high demand for an original tale that appeals to many children’s taste for slightly scary stories.

A mashup of funny and frightening images done in retro black, white, and orange, Creepy Carrots! features a carrot-obsessed bunny who learns you can have too much of a good thing. The ridiculous nature of the plot — that carrots stalk a rabbit — supplies much of the frisson that sets this picture book apart from others.

The pacing of author Aaron Reynolds’ crazy tale will keep listeners wide-eyed and curious to hear more. Just after relishing his victory snack, Jasper the rabbit is puzzled by a soft, sinister sound: “the tunktunktunk of carrots creeping. He turned … but there was nothing there.”

And what expressions Peter Brown shows on the faces of Jasper and the carrots! Even though Jasper laughs at himself for even thinking carrots might be following him, the illustrator displays a range of conflicting emotions: eyebrows that look bewildered, eyes that seem anxious, and a mouth sporting a shallow smile. As for the carrots, some look like fierce, gap-toothed jack o’lanterns, while others look worried, surprised, intimidating.

The tale ends with a twist that will endear this book to many a reader. Make room for Creepy Carrots! in your story time or on your shelves. You won’t regret it … or will you?

Giant Carrot by Jan Peck

A more lovable but still humorous perspective on carrots sprouts in Jan Peck’s The Giant Carrot, illustrated with verve by Barry Root.  Sweet little Isabelle, the youngest in the family, comes up with a special way to deal with a carrot that just won’t budge.

With visions of all the good stuff to come — carrot juice, carrot stew, carrot relish, and carrot pudding — each family member takes turns nurturing a carrot seedling. Papa tends the plant, Mama weeds around it, brother Abel waters it, and Isabelle … sings. And that’s what makes the plant grow and grow and grow.

At last, it’s as tall as Papa Joe, but it seems impossible to pull it out of the ground. Only when they all work together can they harvest the carrot that will supply a bounty of tasty treats.

Some of you no doubt will find this familiar fare, as it’s a riff on the Russian big turnip folktale. While there are many versions of the story, I recommend this charming one for children ages 5 to 8. The Giant Carrot illustrates the value of cooperation, while it also implies we should respect everyone, no matter how tiny. And that’s not all; it offers opportunities for multiple curricular uses. Science teachers can use this title in a unit on plant life, and reading teachers might employ it to teach the skill of predicting, or cause and effect. No matter the intention, you and your listeners will reap plenty of fun.

Another folktale that features sassy veggies is The Talking Vegetables Talking Vegetables
by Won-Ldy Paye and Margaret H. Lippert. The villagers plant a garden, but Spider doesn’t do his part. Finally, he tires of eating plain old rice and decides to help himself to the vegetables. But they won’t hear of it — and tell him so! This hilarious Liberian folktale, illustrated with exuberant paintings by Julie Paschkis, reveals the importance of working together to accomplish a goal.

Any of these fun read-alouds can be paired with Juanita Havill’s clever poem “The Monster,” from her collection I Heard It from Alice Zucchini: Poems About the Garden. The rhythmic, mostly unrhymed lines explore how the vegetables feel about the scarecrow in their midst. It’s one of twenty fun poems that celebrate the cycle of a garden, from winter’s seeds that “rattle their packets with chattering” to a potato buried in the snow.

I Heard It From Alice Zucchini Poems About the Garden by Juanita Havill

And see my previous post, “How Does Your Garden Grow?”

Simms Taback and His Bright Creations

Without Simms Taback’s books, the land of children’s literature would look less colorful, less lively, less creative. One of my favorite stories to tell young ones is the old Yiddish tale of “Something from Nothing,” in which a tailor takes his worn-out coat and makes a smaller garment out of it, and on and on until there’s nothing left (in my version) but a story, which can last forever!

After telling that story, I’d read the group Taback’s cheerful Caldecott-winning Joseph Had a Little Overcoat, holding up each page with its fun die-cut hole so the children could guess what Joseph would make next. This lively picture book, illustrated with watercolors, gouache, pencil, ink and collage, provides a banquet of buttons, bright scraps of fabric, petite photos of flowers, all popping out from the pages’ dark background. Listeners get to peep through smaller and smaller holes, as the items — a vest, a tie, etc. — diminish in size.

Based on the Yiddish song “Hob Ich Mir a Mantl,” or “I Had a Little Overcoat,” which Taback loved as a boy, this book belongs in EVERY child’s school or home library. Not only does it make for a rousing read-aloud, its evocation of Eastern European shtetls provides a link to a rich culture. And the message of making the most of whatever you have is a timely and important one for us all. Educators or parents can tap this little treasure for lessons in recycling, music, social studies, art, and reading, especially in teaching the skill of prediction. Taback includes the lyrics to the song that inspired the story.

Sadly, Simms Taback died of pancreatic cancer last Sunday. He has bequeathed us his bright, unforgettable books to share with children:


Architects of Memories

Wells, Rosemary and Secundino Fernandez. My Havana: Memories of a Cuban Boyhood. Illus. by Peter Ferguson. Candlewick, 2010. Ages 8-12.

Memories can move us forward or backward, depending on how we use them. My Havana: Memories of a Cuban Boyhood evokes the intensity of one child’s connection to his home in 1950s Havana. Prolific children’s book author Rosemary Wells once heard a radio interview with the Cuban-American architect Secundino Fernandez and years later located Fernandez and worked with him to produce this resonant little historical novel burnished with hope and light.

Secundino, or Dino, relishes his city avenues “lined with coral-stone archways, ancient doors, and window frames painted bright as birds-of-paradise.” As twilight arrives, neighbors begin their checker games, and the cafes fill with people. Dino loves to sketch the buildings, with their porticoes and marble columns. The first time Dino leaves the city of his heart, he crosses the Atlantic to spend time with his grandparents in Spain. When he finally returns home, he expects to stay. Dictators — first Batista, then Castro — take over, though, and the family abandons their restaurant to join relatives in New York City.

So homesick in this dark and dreary new environment, Dino relies on his memory to recreate his beloved Havana in the confines of his bedroom. With great care, he cuts out cardboard to represent its archways, balconies and cafes. Aluminum foil glued to plywood and glazed with blue nail varnish becomes a sparkling turquoise harbor. The double-spread illustration depicting the imaginative boy, scissors in hand, beautifully captures his resourceful nature. The novel closes with Dino adapting to his new world: “New York sunlight, shimmering with the promise of summer, settles round my shoulders like the arms of my mother. It is almost like my Havana.” This brief novel would brighten units on immigration, Cuba, or architecture.

Macaulay, David. Built to Last. Houghton Mifflin, 2010. Ages 9 and up.

In my decade as a school librarian, I often watched children poring over Macaulay’s remarkable architecture books. Rather than merely compiling his acclaimed books, Castle, Cathedral, and Mosque, Macaulay has created new colored illustrations, revised the text, and clarified some explanations.

While some might still long for the previously published cross-hatched illustrations, Macaulay’s changes enhance the reader’s experience of the architecture of the past. He ushers us into his Castle, for instance, with a double-spread illustration of a purple-robed king surveying a map, with pawns awaiting strategic placement. The castle Macaulay highlights is imagined but based on castles built for the conquest of Wales between 1277 and 1305, His interesting perspectives of the workers and how they go about building still capture the hearts of readers, young and old. In Cathedral, Macaulay was inspired by the 13th-century Gothic cathedrals of France. It’s hard to resist sharing Macaulay’s passion for the plans, methods and tools used by those builders “whose towering dreams still stand today.” Finally, the least changed and most recent of the three, Mosque, is another dazzler. The section opens with a map showing the intersection of Africa, Asia, and Europe, with major cities such as Mecca, Baghdad, Cairo, Istanbul, Jerusalem, and Damascus noted. This time, Macaulay’s model is based on structures built around Istanbul, between 1540 and 1580, when the Ottoman Empire was the largest Muslim empire in the world. Again, Macaulay uses color to great effect, as when the intricate designs of ceramic tiles from Anatolia shine with heavenly shades of blue. Built to Last includes a glossary that will further enhance readers’ understanding of significant architectural feats.

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