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Monday, January 31, 2022

Ready for the Spotlight, written and illustrated by Jaime KIm. Candlewick Press, Penguin Random House. 2021. $23.99 ages 4 and up

"After class, Mom takes us for ice cream, but I'm 
still not in a good mood. Today was just not my day. 
My shoes were slippery. And my tutu felt so heavy.
I'm sure that's why I couldn't keep my balance.

I think it must be hard to be a little sister. It has to be even harder when your big sister is a talented and much-admired dancer. Tessie is very envious of Maya and the time she spends in the spotlight at dance class. Her performances get rave reviews, earning her both a crown and multiple floral bouquets. That's what Tessie wants as well. 

Tessie has been taking classes for a month, and is sure she is best in the class by now. Well, maybe not as good as Maya who is a veteran dancer. Tessie is willing to put in the work; she just doesn't get the same results. The fall recital is on the horizon, and Tessie wants to be a princess. That will mean wearing a crown - just one of her goals. Auditions are complete, choices will soon be made.

While waiting, Tessie does what she does best. She loves freestyle dance. 

"When the music starts, I swing my hips, waving my hands
and clapping to the music. No rules. No pointed toes. 
Who needs lessons when you have rhythm?

The announcement is made; Maya will take the princess role while Tessie will be a bumblebee. That does not sit well with Tessie. She is mad at everyone, especially Maya. As big sisters so often do, Maya thinks she knows what Tessie needs to make her feel better, and she is right. 

Jaime Kim uses watercolor and digital tools to create warm, appealing illustrations.                                                                                         


Sunday, January 30, 2022

The Good Fight, written by Ted Staunton and illustrated by Josh Rosen. Scholastic, 2021. $16.99 ages 9 and up


What's with the sour puss?
C'MERE, you look like you 
need to HIT something. 

I hear there was some doings 
on the BOARDWALK last 
night. You weren't THERE
were you?

August 1933 in Toronto is wrought with many difficulties for its residents. The Depression has led to long breadlines for people needing food to survive, and unable to afford it. Racial tensions are out of control as those who agree with the Nazi regime concerning Jewish people are brazenly sharing their views. In the midst of the chaos, two best friends, Sid Klein and Plug Venditelli, are doing their best to earn enough money to exist and to help their families do the same. Their methods are many; running errands, selling newspapers, picking pockets, busking, even catching cockroaches for money. 

Baseball games are perfect for picking pockets. Their gang, poor and desperate Jewish and Italian immigrants, is known to police. When they are caught, the police offer a way out. They need the boys to steal a paper from a man they believe to have communist tendencies. The boys agree, putting their plan in action at the next baseball game. A riot caused by Nazi supporters creates havoc. In the midst of it all, Sid sees what they have stolen. It is a list of people who are doing their best to organize unions meant to improve working conditions. Sid sees his father's name there, as is Plug's mother's. Sid does what he thinks is right. 

I knew nothing about the Christie Pits Riot in Toronto, despite being very interested in Canadian history in high school and at university. This is a story needing telling - this graphic novel gives readers a picture of a dark time in our history. It is a very compelling and appropriate read for middle grade students. The illustrations stand out in presenting the fears of the time and the sense of foreboding that permeates. They absolutely place readers in the middle of the action - both time and place.  

Saturday, January 29, 2022

New in Town, written and illustrated by Kevin Cornell. Farrar Straus Giroux, Macmillan. Raincoast, 2021. $25.99 ages 6 and up


"Towers, in fact, were 
just as delicious as bridges!
Perhaps even more so!

Why, only a small 
amount of chewing ... 

...could easily cause 
an entire tower to fall ...

It takes a mean and nasty bridge troll, some apparently voracious termites, and a gullible community to bring this story to readers who love tales of adventure and comeuppance. Puddletrunk is a town with a big problem; a bridge across the chasm that keeps them from reaching land on the other side has collapsed for the 271st time.  Everyone is quick to blame termites, as they have every other time. That is the truth according to Mortimer Gulch anyway. Each time it happens, Mr. Gulch goes to the good townspeople for the money needed for reconstruction. They offer cash and jewelry, with nary a question about bad luck. 

This time there is a visitor in town. He is a repairman meant to fix the town clock. When asked for financial support, he refuses. Instead, he will fix the clock at no charge. The work begins on the bridge, while the visitor works on the clock. When the townsfolk run out of wood, Mr. Gulch goes to the 'new' man for help. Again, the repairman refuses, citing his worry that the termites might choose it to satisfy their needs on the clock tower. They are at a standoff. 

Mr. Gulch does as he has ever done; he chews through the wood at the clock tower's base. It crashes with a huge noise, destroying the unfinished bridge. Angry, the townspeople bring the 'new in town' man to Mr. Gulch. The repairman has quite the surprise in store for him. Young readers will thoroughly enjoy a much-appreciated conclusion to this humorous tale. 

The design for this tricky tale is absolutely fascinating, start to finish. Kevin Cornell fills the pages with witty details that are sure to have readers returning for another look ... and often. There is so much to see, and to appreciate about every page turn. I could go on and on, but you should see it for yourself, and for your kids' sake.                                                                                  

Friday, January 28, 2022

Stealing Home, written by J. Torres and illustrated by David Namisato. Kids Can Press, 2021. $18.99 ages 9 and up


"What's the matter, Mama?

We have to pack ... 


We have to go ... 

To one of the ghost towns? 
I don't want to go! 

There are no ghosts, Sandy." 

Sandy Saito is a huge baseball fan. His favorite team is the Vancouver Asahi. The team is a source of pride for the Japanese Canadian community, bringing honor and respect at a time when harsh racial discrimination is rampant. When they lose in the 1941 semifinals, Sandy's father sees it as a harbinger of things to come. 

In December that year Japan bombs Pearl Harbor, and life changes dramatically for Sandy's family. They are suddenly confined in certain areas to 'dormitories' and must respect a curfew put upon them by the Canadian government. When Sandy's father, a doctor, is taken from the family to a place where he is deemed essential, the family is forced to move to an internment camp. It is hard for the children to understand why their lives have taken such a bad turn. Life in the camp is no piece of cake. Cruel and uncompromising, it offers little hope that things will change for Sandy and his family. The challenges of spending any time with his father are fraught with misunderstanding and fear. 

This graphic novel is based on real events for the Japanese Canadian community and the Asahi baseball team (which was disbanded that year). Their lives are changed forever, and families faced lasting repercussions for their treatment and the time spent in the camps. There are other stories of how baseball made a difference for many living there. Emotional and telling, these are stories that need to be shared in classrooms. Look for They Called Us Enemy (Top Shelf, 2019) and Displacement (First Second, 2020) to offer middle grade readers. 

Thursday, January 27, 2022

Line and Scribble, written by Debora Vogrig and illustrated by Pia Valentinis. Chronicle Books, Raincoast. 2021. $24.99 ages 3 and up


"When line digs a tunnel, 
Scribble takes a ride on a roller coaster. 

And if Line draws with a ruler, 
Scribble scribbles, zigzags,
devises, dwells, and ...

Can those with opposing views live together in our world, and still be friends? In these trying times, there are many who would doubt there is any truth to that idea. Perhaps they should spend some time reading and sharing this book meant for readers as young as 3. I can guarantee children understand that all things are possible if we care about each other, and listen to what the other is showing, or saying. 

Line and Scribble have little in common, if you look at the outside. Line loves straight, Scribble loves curvy. Line feels dignified, Scribble feels fluffy. They go back and forth with each other in a way that shows total acceptance of their individual take on all things. Readers will quickly realize that what is unique to each enriches their friendship. 

The spare text is lettered in red. In fact, the entire book is designed in three colors: red, black and plenty of white space. Using black lines with touches of red to enhance details, the presentation of opposite ideas will encourage readers' creativity and imagination. Toward the end of the book, the two exhibit (shown in increasing font size) how powerful each can become. In the end, they do what most children do when looking for a solution in what appears to be conflict - wipe the slate clean, and begin again. 

What a wonderful book to read aloud! Kids are sure to show an honest and forthright acceptance that what makes us different only adds to the depth of a friendship.                                                                              

Wednesday, January 26, 2022

Thingamabob, written and illustrated by Marianna Coppo. tundra, Penguin Random House. 2021. $22.99 ages 3 and up

"One by one, the thingamabobs 
became all of the things
we know today ... 

big things, 
little things
and even very 
complicated things.

Marianna Coppo has written some of my favorite books of the past four years. If you are interested, be sure to look for Petra (2018), Ray (2020) and Such a Good Boy (2020) and be on the lookout for A Brave Cat, to be published in March 2022. 

In this book she offers a brief look at the evolution of the solar system, beginning with the big bang. Soon, everything had found its place in the universe ... except for 'one small, shapeless thingamabob'. Sadly, no one knew what it was or what it was meant to do. It was not much good for many things. 

"It wasn't this or that. 
It wasn't here or there."

Time passed, the thingamabob moved from place to place, looking for its purpose. On a walk through the park one day, it gave a little boy a cool idea. The boy, as young children often do, discovered many special ways to use the thingamabob. They spent a very happy day together. That's what friends do. It proved helpful in a rainstorm, at bedtime, and even perfect at being 'anything'. 

I will now add this one to my growing list of Marianna Coppo books that I can fully appreciate for their ingenuity and readability. 

Tuesday, January 25, 2022

Alphabreaths: The ABCs of Mindful Breathing, written by Christopher Willard and Daniel Rechtschaffen and illustrated by Holly Clifton-Brown. Sounds True, Raincoast. 2019. $23.50 ages 4 and up


"Gratitude Breath 

As you breathe in, think of a person
you're grateful for. As you breathe out, 
send them a smile.

In this interactive and unusual alphabet book readers are given instructions for practice in mindful breathing. Each page, accompanied by soft and appealing illustrations, presents a new letter of the alphabet. It also names the breath that begins with that letter and a quick description of how to breathe in a new way. 

"Question Breath

As you breathe in, ask yourself how you 
are feeling. As you breathe out, answer.

Most children with whom this book is shared will follow the instructions with little difficulty. Using the book with children at school and at home will reap benefits for reader and listener. The ideas are kid-friendly and will provide a way for them to take stock of their feelings, their need for calming down, and allow for using what they are learning when needed at another time. 

The artwork helps children understand the benefits of being in different places under varying circumstances, and allows the ability to see themselves learning something brand new to them. Kid-tested and compassionate, the ideas are helpful for early years classrooms. Worth trying as a group, then allowing for discussion following the practice.                                                                                        

Monday, January 24, 2022

Lion Lullaby, written by Kate Banks and illustrated by Lauren Tobia. Candlewick Press, Penguin Random House, 2021. $23.99 ages 2 and up


"Six little lions climbing a hill. 
Why is it trembling rather than still? 

A pair of elephants are stomping their feet
while a herd of wildebeests drums a beat.
Oh, little lions, run along home.

Ten lion cubs have been busy exploring their savanna environs. As dusk 'paints stripes across the sky', it is time for them to find their way home together. The one in a tree is taking stock of the sights there. Two are busy watching a cobra and a tree frog. The narrator's voice continues to encourage them all to head for home. 

Using their senses and instinctive curiosity, they slowly make their way back. Each page turn adds another cub to the text, which is carefully placed on double-page spreads that allow little ones a look at the wonders and wide expanses of the savanna. Careful consideration of the digital images provides an introduction to the flora and fauna that dot the landscape, and provoke distraction for the little lions as they wander. 

In the final two spreads, nine little lions are rolling about and ready to settle in. Then, all ten are 'huddled up tight', and fast asleep. 

Perfect for bedtime reading, it will be returned to for multiple listens and for counting practice. 

Sunday, January 23, 2022

Fearless World Traveler: Adventures of Marianne North, Botanical Artist. Written by Laurie Lawlor and illustrated by Becca Stadtlander. Holiday House, Penguin Random House. 2021. $24.99 ages 9 and up


"When an artist came to create a family 
portrait, she became enthralled by the 
bright colors of oil paints. She thought 
the paints would be perfect for her 

I cannot imagine the courage it took for Marianne North to set out on her own, at 40, to chase her dream of world travels to paint the flora and fauna she loved so dearly. Up until her father's death (when she was 40), she had spent her life bowing to the expectations of her proper family. She had not been allowed to play music, study art, or get a desired education. Instead, she was to focus her life looking for a rich man to provide the life her father had provided for his family. 

Marianne taught herself to paint what she found in nature near her home. Following her father's death, she committed her life to world travel and painting what she discovered. The many far-off places she visited came with their own perils: weather, transportation, rapids during river trips, tropical diseases, prejudice against her privileged life, and dangerous evil-tempered camels. Still, she traveled. And, she painted everywhere she went. 

When there was no room left in her home to provide a place for her prolific artwork, she came up with a brilliant idea. She would donate her work to Kew Gardens, and build a museum to house the collection. As the museum was under construction, she returned to her travels. 

" ... she spent two years on an exhausting
marathon journey exploring and painting 
in Australia, Tasmania, and New Zealand.
She traveled by steamer to Hawaii and
California, crossed the United States by 
train, and returned to England."

The Marianne North Gallery opened in 1882 to huge crowds, and displaying 627 paintings. Her personal views of flora and fauna showed images from nature rarely before seen. Not yet ready to end her travels, she spent more than two years adding to her work. It meant reordering and improving the space to hold the 832 paintings it houses today. 

For most of the rest of her life, Marianne lived in a peaceful cottage where she spent time in her garden, and wrote a '1,727-page manuscript of her autobiography, Recollections of a Happy Life'. Her passion, perseverance, and wonder at the natural world remained a dream to the end of her life. 

This is thoroughly researched and expertly written look at a life of adventure. Back matter attests to that, and provides a clear look as the work that must be done to write a book of nonfiction. Ms. Stadtlander's black ink, watercolor, and colored pencil illustrations are stunning. Full of detail and bold color, they provide ever-changing backdrops for the brave and unlimited travel experiences of a dauntless woman. A bonus is found on the endpapers - the artist's own paintings. 

What a legacy she left!             

Saturday, January 22, 2022

Petal the Angry Cow, written by Maureen Fergus and illustrated by Olga Demidova. tundra, Penguin Random House. 2022. $21.99 ages 5 and up


"Unfortunately, Petal had a temper. 

If the dog borrowed her stuff
without asking, she'd try to bite him. 

If the pigs played a practical joke on her, 
she'd try to kick them. 

If the chickens teased her, 
she'd shout bad words at them.

Petal is an amazing cow; she works hard, she creates appealing art, she dances like a champ, and she is smart and kind. She also has the most awful temper. She is a menace when things don't go her way. The farmer is not pleased with her behaviors. He lectures, he demands apologies, and he gives time-outs.  

 At times she gives in to thinking about other ways to handle things, but she prefers retribution. When the farmer makes an exciting announcement, the animals are delighted. They are going to the water park, with a stop for treats afterwards. In her exuberance, the horse jumps joyfully into the air. Regretfully, she lands on Petal's hoof. Petal's explosive anger and name calling upsets the farmer. Petal will no longer be able to attend their field trips until she can control her temper. 

Oh, dear! Petal hurries away, crying. A swan offers an ear, and then displays some pretty peculiar behaviors. As Petal watches the swan scream and knock things over when things don't go its way, or stalk off when the farmer doesn't choose the story it wants to hear, Petal quickly offers advice. 

"If you want to be our friend, you need 
to start acting like a friend. No screaming. 
No shrieking - "

Can Petal take her own advice? What do you think? 

Friday, January 21, 2022

The Girl Who Loved Giraffes and Became the World's First Giraffologist, written by Kathy Stinson and illustrated by Francois Thisdale. Fitzhenry and Whiteside, 2021. $19.95 ages 8 and up


"Then she was off to South Africa!
Soon after that ship landed - two months
after she had left home - Anne found out 
that Mr. Matthew's ranch was still
thousand miles
away. No trains or buses 
went anywhere near it. 
So Anne bought herself an old car. She 
named it Camelo, short for the scientific 
name for giraffes.

When Anne Innis was born in Canada in 1933, her future was mapped out for her. Girls at the time were expected to settle for a life as wife and mother. There were many things she was not allowed to do. All that she really wanted to do was travel to Africa and see giraffes. She had loved them her whole life, and wanted to see them up close enough to study their traits and habits. Then, she would tell others about them. 

She saved the money she would need and set sail for Africa. It was a more arduous trip than she had imagined. Leaving the man she loved behind, she had arranged for a place to stay upon arrival. The man who had accepted her plea for a room to use while she studied her beloved giraffes did not know she was a woman, until she was on her way. He provided shelter, and became a good friend to Anne. 

Anne gathered plentiful information and became a leading expert on giraffes. Upon her return to Canada, she married, had three children, and studied to earn her doctorate degree. Believing it would allow her to teach at a university, she was disappointed in the lack of acceptance for women in her field. She was denied her right to be a full-time professor because the prevailing thought was that a married woman ought to stay home and take care of her family. She sued the university, and began writing about the inequities that woman faced at the university level and in society. 

After she had been back in Canada for 50 years, she returned to Africa to help those working with giraffes today in efforts to preserve her beautiful and endangered giraffes. 

Kathy Stinson tells Anne's story in clear text, allowing readers to see the woman admired by so many today. Each page of text includes a footnote to further enhance the story being shared. A number of letters written to various people are included. Double-page spreads by Francois Thisdale feel almost photographic as they show the expanse of the African savanna and the events that filled Anne's life of learning. 

Approaching her 89th birthday later this month, Anne remains a strong advocate for the protection of her beloved giraffes. You can visit her website and learn more about her.

Thursday, January 20, 2022

Moose's Book Bus, written and illustrated by Inga Moore. Candlewick Press, Penguin Random House, 2021. $23.99 ages 4 and up


"Soon everyone was 
borrowing storybooks 
from the book bus ... 

and taking them home 
to read for themselves. 
Or with their neighbors.

Moose loves to tell stories with his family; every evening they sit together in front of the fire and listen while he regales them with tales to love. What a blessing it is! When he finally runs out of stories of his own to tell, his wife suggests borrowing a book to read. Off he goes to ask his neighbor Bear. Bear does not have a book! Moose is surprised to learn that not one of the woodland animals he visits has a book to loan him. 

"So, next day, Moose went  
to the Library in Town.

The librarian, as librarians do, offers sage advice for Moose's reading pleasure. Home he goes with a welcome pile from the fairy tale shelf. Bear notices his return and brings her cubs to that evening's story time. News about the wonderful readings spreads from neighbor to neighbor. Each successive evening brings more and more listeners, until they are packed in like sardines. Something must be done! 

A call to the Librarian results in a grand idea - a book bus. Moose works hard to get it up and running, and fills it with 'lots and lots of books." Now, there are books enough for every woodland family. Wait! They don't know how to read them. Moose teaches Bear, Bear teaches Badger, and on it goes. It isn't long until everyone looks forward to visiting the book bus and finding their own books. Still, Moose remains a draw for his friends to visit. 

"Only now it was just in a cozy way, 
with never a whiff of sardines!

Inga Moore's wonderful pencil, pastel and watercolor illustrations fill every page with a glorious setting, and charming characters who love to read together in snug family homes. I hope it leads you to check out its companion book, A House in the Woods (Candlewick, 2011).                                                                                 

Wednesday, January 19, 2022

Home Is Not a Country, written by Safia Elhillo. Make Me a World, Penguin Random House. 2021. 23.99 ages 12 and up


"I know something happened on the news again
because my mother has stopped wearing her scarf
to work    & instead tucks each strand of her hair
into a knit hat   the nape of her neck new
& tender in the light   she who once said 
I will never be ashamed of where I come from 
I will never let you be ashamed of who we are
seems to have changed her mind    & I wonder
if this means I should feel ashamed too

Nima has never felt comfortable being who she is. Her father died before her birth. Her mother chose to leave family and friends for a new life. Nima doesn't feel at home in this new life in America., and doesn't feel any real connection to her culture. She has one friend ... Haitham. Following his hate-crime beating and while he is recuperating, she has no one. Her days are spent with no social contact and little communication with her mother. The reality of this life where she is bullied for not speaking English without an accent, the poverty that is the life of a single mother raising a child alone, the hate for Muslims at the time, and her inability to speak with Haitham while he is in a coma lead her to a belief about what life could be, if only she knew about her home country and heritage. 

Her dreams offer a different way of life; the kind of life she has never known. In that other reality, her father is still alive, her extended family is large and welcoming, and her mother has time away from work to spend with her. Her dream world, and Yasmeen, lead her to take risks she might never take in the real world. Yameen could be her other self, the one who knows what her life might have been. 

The narrative voice in this novel in verse is authentic, and often heartbreaking. The fantasy that allows a life of belonging and love in the land of her birth soon collapses, and points Nima toward a new appreciation for what she does have and who she is. Gaining that perspective makes for a hopeful conclusion to her story.  

Tuesday, January 18, 2022

The Wind and the Trees, written and illustrated by Todd Stewart. Owlkids, 2019. $19.95 ages 4 and up

"Although the soil is rich, and I get plenty of 
sunshine and just enough rain ... 

... the blowing wind pulls and shapes me.
It stretches my roots, dries me out, 
and will break me apart. 

Then I don't like the wind!"

This conversation between two pine trees speaks to the power of nature, and its effect on the trees themselves. The talk is between a young sapling whose comments are made on the verso side of the spread; the recto features a fully grown pine tree and its responses. The text clearly shows their developing relationship as one might expect between a young child and an older, wiser adult. 

Much has been learned, through reliable research, about the communication that happens between trees. Mr. Stewart uses that knowledge to create a convincing discussion concerning the dangers and wonders of the wind. Roots are stretched. Trees dry out. Breaks in branches are right there to see. On the other hand, wind also has its perks. 

"As the wind blows against me, 
my roots grow deeper and my 
bark becomes stronger.

Years pass, and the trees change. Always the wind blows, with both positive and negative consequences. The two face it together, one teaching the other until a final storm leaves only the now fully-grown youngster standing. Readers are reminded of the fallen tree's wise words on a page that bridges the gap between the old and the new reality. Now, the wind releases seeds from the verso to the recto, leading to the beginning of a brand new conversation. 

The silk screen artwork is impressive. The colors are vivid, and moody when they impact understanding. Full of movement and the drama of nature, a reader's attention is always focused on the trees themselves. The sky changes from morning to night, through seasons, and a lifetime of growth. The inhabitants of the tree's branches change. Life moves forward and accepts what nature has to offer. 

Mr. Stewart's dedication is heartfelt: 

For every tree that has shared its story; for all who have shared those stories; and for all the storytellers to come.” 

Monday, January 17, 2022

Bathe the Cat, written by Alice B. McGinty and illustrated by David Roberts. Chronicle Books, Raincoast. 2021. $23.99 ages 4 and up


"I've lost my MARBLES. Understand?!


Dad will mow the vacuum!
Baby, rock the mop! 
I mean Sarah, 
mop the Bobby! 
I'll fish the floor. 



Oh, oh! Grandma is on her way and the house is a big mess. There's a bunch of stuff that will need to be done before her arrival. Dad gets right to work divvying up the jobs by making a list in magnetic letters on the fridge: mop the floor, scrub the dishes, vacuum the rug, feed the fishes, mow the lawn, sweep the mat, rock the baby, and bathe the cat. Each of the tasks is doable in quick time. Wait! Did anyone ask the cat? It is obvious from its countenance that having a bath should not have made the list. 

A wordless spread at this point in the story shows an orange paw messing with said list. While the other dad and children are not taking their roles seriously, first dad is miffed at the lack of progress with only one hour to go. Keeping to the list, Sarah will feed the floor, Dad will sweep the dishes, Bobby will rock the rug. It is obvious to readers and listeners what the cat has done, even if no one saw the list being changed. 

When the task becomes 'mow the cat', the list changes again. Kids will howl at the nonsense. Still, no needed work is being done. Oh, my! Vacuuming the cat certainly does not seem an acceptable option. 

"Nothing is going as I planned! 

This list is TOTALLY out of hand. 

I've lost my MARBLES. 

Kids who are readers will be rolling on the carpet. They will be shouting out the scrambled list with great delight. Dad finally collars the cat, as Grandma is about to burst through the door. The tasks unscrambled, everyone gets at the jobs to be done, and just in time! 

David Roberts' illustrations are done in pencil and watercolor. The bright colors, clever expressions, and constant movement ensure rapt attention. The attempts to heed the list of constantly changing tasks become more frenetic as time runs out.  Goofy, rhythmic and an absolute delight to read aloud.  

Sunday, January 16, 2022

Niki Nakayama: A Chef's Tale in 13 Bites, written by Jamie Michalak and Debbi Michiko Florence, with illustrations by Yuko Jones. Farrar Straus Giroux, Macmillan. Raincoast, 2021. $25.99 ages 8 and up


"But when she turned twelve, 
Niki had to help out at the family
business - a seafood warehouse for 
chefs. Niki didn't like the icy 
building. The fish stared at her 
with dead eyes. 

When I grow up, Niki thought, 
I'll do my own thing."

I knew nothing of Niki Nakayama prior to reading this excellent picture book biography. Now, I know much more about her story and want to share it with you. When I was telling a friend about it, she said she had seen Niki on Netflix. I have done some research to learn more about her. Although it really is not necessary, as the artists who wrote and illustrated it have done a great job. 

Niki was born in Los Angeles to Japanese parents. The outside world and the family's home were two very different places ... except in the kitchen. Niki's mother cooked many American dishes with a hint of Japanese cuisine to add interest. Niki saw mealtime as an occasion for happiness with family, filled with love and laughter. Growing up she loved to create her own meals. There came a time when Niki helped with the family business - selling seafood to chefs. She did not like working there. 

Niki's parents paid close attention to her brother, not so much to their young daughter. Her determination to prove herself successful took her to Japan after her high school graduation. There she learned the nuances of telling stories with food, a feast named kaiseki. It became her calling. Cooking school was next, a place where she watched and learned to use her talents to became a sushi chef. 

A return trip to Japan and great determination led to her work learning what was needed to tell her own stories through food. Her own sushi restaurant was next. Told it was impossible, she refused to be stopped by the expectations of others. 

"From morning till night, she planned and
ordered, sliced and chopped, prepared and 
plated. She even washed dishes. 

By the end of the year, customers lined up 
at the door.

Knowing a sushi restaurant was not her dream, she decided to close. That closure led her to the success she is experiencing today - a restaurant named n/naka. It was her dream fulfilled. 

"And whenever anyone says a woman 
can't be a master chef, Niki lets her food 
do the talking.

Told in a story of 13 bites, this admirable book brings Niki's life the attention of those wanting to hear stories of real people chasing, and reaching, their own personal goals. 

If you haven't yet seen it, you might look for her on Netflix's Chef's Table. 

Back matter includes a timeline of her life, an further explanation of both Kuyashii and Kaiseki, and a recipe for wonton pizza. Ms. Nakayama is quite the inspiration!                                                                                    

Saturday, January 15, 2022

Maxine, written and illustrated by Bob Graham. Candlewick Press, Penguin Random House. 2021. $23.99 ages 4 and up


"At lunch, Maxine saw cool T-shirts
and jeans ripped just right. 
Her super cape hung listless as a sail. 

Blushing, she tried to hide it. 
Garth was no help. 
He just walked up walls.

Fans of Max (Candlewick, 2001) will be pleased to meet up with his family once again, and to delight in the new addition to their superhero family. The story opens with the family (Mom obviously pregnant) flying their way to the hospital. There, a sonogram shows that the baby has a fully formed mask. All are impressed. 

Once delivered, her new name is chosen. Max is thrilled. Maxine is welcomed home with appropriate gifts from her grandparents, also caped superheroes. Everyone at the office (police station) is happy to meet her as well. Maxine grows quickly and is soon flying. She is young when she is enrolled at school, and anxious to be like the others in her class. They wear ripped jeans and swell T-shirts. 

Maxine talks to her parents about it. When told that no one in the family has ever worn such things, Maxine explains her need for change. Off the family goes to find what Maxine wants so badly. Apprehensive, she returns to school to answer questions about her abilities without her cape. She is determined to be herself, and even gives her mask to a little boy who needs it more than she does. 

Will she still be able to fly? 

I am a devoted fan of Bob Graham and his books. They are often humorous, and always empathetic. His cartoon-like artwork appeals at every level, offering kids warm looks at family life and so much more. 

Friday, January 14, 2022

Art Is Everywhere: A Book About Andy Warhol. Written and illustrated by Jeff Mack. Henry Holt and Company, Macmillan. Raincoast, 2021. $26.99 ages 8 and up


"Look at her. Do you think SHE'S pretty?
She was a famous movie star. 

I saw her face everywhere. 
So I printed her over and over again. 

Did I make her famous? Or did she 
make me famous?

Although it is written in a way that would seem to be meant for young readers, this book is more likely to elicit discussion in an art class with older students. The text, voiced by the artist himself, describes the trajectory of his career, from his roots in graphic design for a shoe company to his firm, and oft reiterated, belief that everyone deserves their fifteen minutes of fame. 

The imagined conversation he has with his audience explains that, although the shoes he drew in the beginning were monotonous, they were also 'cool'. He explains that he and his mother were virtually inseparable. They liked to be together on all occasions. She even drew some of his shoe designs for him when he needed help. Andy admits that he wanted to be seen as different when he was in art school. 

"I wanted my art to change with 
the times. So I drew the things I 
saw around me. 

They're the same things 
we all see all day long.

That led to his soup drawings, his silkscreens, movies, and Interview magazine. Each new enterprise grew his notoriety within the art community. People wanted to buy what he was producing, so he kept producing. Nothing was too much. Everything he did, he considered art. He was keen to make everyone famous.

"If everyone were famous, 
who would really be famous?

He continually asks such questions of his readers about fame, about art, and about famous people. The more people talked about his art, the more famous his art becomes. He has been credited with saying, "I'm a deeply superficial person". He may have been right.                                                                      

Hope At Sea: An Adventure Story, written and illustrated by Daniel Myares. anne schwartz books, Penguin Random House. 2021.$23.99 ages 5 and up

"There's no turning back now.
I can hear the sails snap to attention
and salute the wind as we pick up 

My stomach in in knots. 
Will I be discovered?
Will Papa be angry with me?

Hope is the daughter of a clipper ship's carpenter, and our narrator for this adventurous tale. She longs to go to sea with her father and knows he will never allow it. She is tired of hearing the stories he  shares after each new voyage. With 'hope' in her heart and careful observation, she takes a chance and steals her way aboard. 

When she is discovered, her father expresses his emotions visually: surprise, anger, frustration, and ultimately love and acceptance. Soon, Hope is helping in any way she can and making many new discoveries. Each stop on their route adds cargo, and offers new sights and sounds. Hope fills her days with work, and adding stories to her journal. She is homesick for her mother as the ship nears the end of its travels. 

"We're not far from port now. 
I can almost smell the bread 
baking in her oven.

A sudden and fierce storm blows up. All hands are needed to help. The crew cannot right the ship once it crashes on rocks. They abandon ship to try and find their way to shore in two lifeboats, which are no match in the darkness for the turbulent waters. Then, out of that darkness comes a line of lights along the shore meant to guide them home. Mama is there! The surprise as the story ends is memorable and uplifting.  

 And the art?  Rendered in pen and ink and watercolor, it affords the audience an accurate historical setting. Changing perspectives and fully detailed spreads encourage close consideration of every scene. It explores a grand adventure. 

I have a quote from Peter Reynolds on the white board above my desk: "great children's books are 'wisdom wrapped in words and art!'" That is absolutely true for this 'great book'.                                                                        

Thursday, January 13, 2022

Color the Sky, written by David Elliott and illustrated by Evan Turk. Little, Brown and Company, Hachette. 2022. $22.99 ages 3 and up


is drinking 
from my cup. 

White has flown away. 

Yellow sings, 
"Wake up! Wake up!

Green shouts, "Come and play!"

It's amazing what happens when children pay attention to the natural world. In this rhythmic picture book, a young child first notices a red cardinal through the window. The child is enticed to look more closely at the beautiful bird, going outside to peek around a tree for a better look. While there, a blue jay makes an appearance, flying both low and high in close proximity to the child.  

Evan Turk gloriously fills each spread with charcoal outlines and pastel images that give the black lines and bold colors an energy sure to attract attention and delight. Each successive page bursts with color. When all birds finally gather in one tree, they begin to sing together, as colors swirl with abandon through the air.  

The child can no longer leave the sounds and movement to the birds. 

"And I sing with them, 
clear and light. 

And spread my wings ...

What child could resist? 

Wednesday, January 12, 2022

My Pet Goldfish, written and illustrated by Catherine Rayner. Candlewick Press, Penguin Random House. 2021. $23.99 ages 4 and up


"Richard came to live in the big tank
in our kitchen, with all my sister's 
fish. There were lots of plants to 
nibble, rocks to suck, and pebbles to 
search through for bits of food. 

Goldfish have been kept as pets 
for more than a thousand years.

When you get your first pet, it is quite obvious that said pet needs an important moniker. Our young narrator determines, upon coming eye-to-eye with this 'very own goldfish', that he would be named Richard. It is a good life for the tiny fish. The narrator's voice is observant, providing a precise picture of their days spent together. Sharing these observations and feelings from the child's perspective allows the author to add related facts in a different, smaller font. 

"Scientists believe goldfish can remember 
things for up to five months."

"Goldfish have verry good eyesight - they
can see even more colors than humans.

When a friend comes over to meet Richard, he proves to be very knowledgeable when it comes to goldfish and he shares a lot of facts not yet mentioned. Sandy also offers an invitation for the future: if Richard should get too big for his roomy aquarium, he can come and live in Sandy's backyard pond. 4 1/2 years later that is exactly what happens. Who knew a goldfish could live so long and grow to be such a size? 

Everything about this narrative nonfiction is appealing: the text is written with young children in mind, and from Ms. Rayner's own experience; the mixed media artwork attracts attention with gorgeous color, a serene setting, and constantly changing perspectives. An author's note and a useful index are presented in back matter.   


Tuesday, January 11, 2022

Chunky, written and illustrated by Yehudi Mercado. Harper, 2021. $15.99 ages 8 and up


"Oh man. 
That was intense. 

Are you okay?

Stop asking me that! 
I'm fine. I don't need 
to be cheered up all 
the time. 

I think you would be happier 
if you went back to doing 
something that showed off 
your funny side.

In a graphic novel that speaks to the author's experiences as an overweight kid growing up in the 1980s, readers learn that Hudi's parents insist that being involved in sports will improve his health and help him lose weight. Hudi would rather work to improve his comedy chops ... he is seriously funny. But, being a star athlete has some appeal. 

He tries baseball and soccer - not nearly coordinated enough to think of being a part of those teams. He keeps trying; first at swimming where he achieves some success; then at tennis which holds no interest for him. Finally, he proves he has a natural talent for football. He has found his place, and a coach who uses Hudi's size to soundly defeat all opposition. With his coach and another player screaming from the sidelines that his job is to put players out with hits that end the game for them, Hudi barrels on. 

When he realizes that the opponent he is meant to crush is a friend, Ronald, Hudi has a needed change of heart. Hudi helps him up, and is quickly banned from the field. Turns out he doesn't like football nearly as much as he thought he did. His antics following the order to get off the field brings out the comedic entertainer in Hudi; he manages to entertain the entire crowd, filling the stands with laughter and applause. If not, football, then what? 

It isn't long before Hudi finds just exactly what will make his heart sing. Convincingly, he earns the trophy that means more than any other one could. Throughout his many attempts to do as his parents ask of him, Hudi is accompanied by an uplifting, supportive imaginary mascot named Chunky. He is the perfect companion as Hudi exhibits self-acceptance and a generally sunny outlook, despite his health issues and all the advice to lost weight. 

Hudi is a great character who will find empathy with readers. Chunky is the pal he needs badly; one who makes all attempts at finding a sport that suits palatable. The illustrations are dramatic and poignant. This book is ideal for middle graders. 

"Being "Chunky" isn't about being fat. Being Chunky is about feeling like you don't fit in. As a Mexican Jewish kid with loads of health problems growing up in Houston, Texas, I never felt like I fit in anywhere. It wasn't until I discovered theater that I felt like I finally found my people."                                                                           

Monday, January 10, 2022

Knight Owl, written and illustrated by Christopher Denise. Little. Brown and Company, Hachette. 2022. $22.99 ages 4 and up


"Owl was an excellent student. 

But he had a tough 
time with a sword. 

Even the smallest shield 
was a problem. 

And he had a habit of nodding 
off during the day.

Owl only had one wish - he wanted to be a knight! He dreamt the same dream every morning before he settled in for a day's sleep. He could imagine what it would be like; but, it was simply a dream. Until it wasn't. 

There came a day when few knights could be found in the castle. This was his chance. Owl applied and was accepted for training as a knight. What a marvelous thing! The training was not without its complications. However, hard work paid off and soon his long-held dream came to fruition. What an honor! 

Knight Night Watch was the perfect assignment. While other knights slept, Owl kept watch in their place. He was so proud. On one dark and quiet night, he heard a strange sound. Within minutes, Owl was faced with his first invader. His brave and clever countenance seemed to be ineffective - until he happened upon the perfect solution to assuage the intruder's hunger. Can you guess what it might be? I will bet that you cannot. 

The detailed artwork is quite wonderful. Young readers will find much to discover as they pore over the pages. The dark of the night watch and the appearance of the hungry raider requires quite the act of bravado. 

Sunday, January 9, 2022

Where Do Creatures Sleep At Night, written by Steven J. Simmons and illustrated by Ruth E. Harper. Charlesbridge, Penguin Random House. 2021. $19.99 ages 4 and up


"Horses gallop with wind in their mane. 
They'll eat from your hand - carrots or grain.
But unlike most animals, they can sleep on their feet, 
and they won't fall over while they are asleep. 

They can do this at night or during the day, 
in a stable or field or wherever they stay.

The animals presented on this book's pages will be familiar to most young readers. How familiar are they with where and how these animal families sleep at night? Both author and illustrator are eager to provide answers to such questions.

In a series of full-page spreads, the animals are introduced one by one. On the left-hand page, they are shown doing what they do in the light of day. A poem accompanies the brightly colored images that place the creatures in their own particular habitats. On the right-hand page, they are shown at night with a focus on what they do when the sun goes down. Poetic languge is again placed there, describing what happens when they need rest. 

"With tiny clawed feet, it hangs upside down, 
making it difficult to be found.

The watercolor artwork is realistic and in keeping with the time of day being described in text. It is defintiely enlightening to discover the many ways creatures find comfort when seeking rest from their busy days. Listeners will be intrigued to learn that golfish have no eyelids, meaning they sleep with their eyes open. Or, that ducklings sleep in a line so that one at each end can keep an eye on what is happening, and sound out a warning if the family is in danger. 

I wonder what other questions might arise when the reading is done? Will they want to do further research to find out about other creatures - perhaps less familiar ones? 

Saturday, January 8, 2022

Love Was Inside, written and illustrated by Andrew Joyner. Random House Studio, Penguin Random House. 2021. $23.99 ages 4 and up


"Nan was inside.

A song was inside. 

Breakfast was inside. 

Lunch was inside. 

Dinner was inside."

The opening spread shows a large urban area, showing a number of buildings with colored windows. Turn the page and a little girl sits atop her bed in a room that speaks to her interests: books, family, music, her computer, the environment, drawing, and her dog. She lets her audience know that 'I was inside'. Inside with her many treasures, she went to school on her computer with all the other children in her class. They, too, were inside. 

Everyone was inside, together and only able to see each other on screens. The family ate inside, did puzzles and read books there, too. Inside, three was night and day for every day of the week. Inside they all stayed ... sometimes bored, or sad, or mad and scared. A recurring dream offered hope for days when being inside was no longer the only place to be. 

"Everyone would be outside. 
A game would be outside. 

All my friends 
would be outside. 

Even Ms. Gomez 
would be outside.

Inside taught many things, because love was also there. 

Following his text which never mentions the word COVID, the author encourages children to share their own stories of being inside, and to add drawings of what they did while there.                                                                                

Friday, January 7, 2022

HOME: A Peek-Through Picture Book, written and illustrated by Britta Teckentrup. Doubleday Books, Penguin Random House. 2021. $22.99 ages 2 and up


"Nature has such clever tricks ... 
Beavers build a home from sticks!

Shaping them into a mound, 
They make a shelter, safe and sound.

Toddlers will enjoy this new addition to a stellar discovery series from Ms. Teckentrup. She captures immediate attention with the cover which shows the opening to a cave. Inside, a mama bear and her cub are touching noses in a warm and loving display. 

The title page invites readers into the forest that is the bears' home. It's early morning when the bear cub shows an interest in exploring what is outside the cave opening. Looking out, it sees an owl in a nearby tree, and many squirrels scampering from tree to tree. There is a lot for the little one to discover, and many homes to see.  

There is also a beaver lodge, a bird's nest, an icy river for the salmon, and hidden homes as well. Rabbits scurry to warmth and safety in cozy warrens and underground tunnels. Wolf packs venture out of their dens in search of food on moonlit nights. Birds are gathering to fly to warmer places. Cooler weather has arrived, and animals are making preparations.

After a day's adventure, Mama and her cub head back to the cave to tuck in for a long winter's sleep. Little ones will be captivated by the many holes that allow a peek at the animals they encounter on the trip through the forest. Perfect for sharing anytime. Check out the other books in this fine series: Tree, Bee, Moon and Ocean. 

“All of us need a place to rest:
A cave, a warren, a pond, a nest.
Wherever we may choose to roam,
we need a place to call our home.”

Thursday, January 6, 2022

Dead Wednesday, written by Jerry Spinelli. Alfred A. Knopf, Penguin Random House. 2021. $23.99 ages 12 and up


"And just as fast, brilliant turns 
to stupid. He hardly knows her, 
spectral maiden or whatever, and 
yet in some sense he can't put a 
finger on, he knows her well. And 
one of the things he knows is that, 
whether he's her assignment or not, 
not in a million years is she going to 
play that game. With Becca Finch 
there's no having it both ways. He 
enters Play It Again Sam.

It is no secret that I have great admiration for Jerry Spinelli and his distinguished ability to author meaningful and memorable stories. My favorites have a special place in the library, awaiting the time when my granddaughters will be old enough to read them. 

I was absolutely intrigued by the premise for this story: eighth graders in Amber Springs, Pennsylvania play an important role in their small town's ritual called Dead Wednesday. At 11:43 that day these students are released from school for a half-day. They are given a black shirt, and the name and a picture of a teen killed through reckless behavior in the year since last year's Dead Wednesday. At that point, everyone in town completely ignores them and treats them as if they are dead. His identity card reveals that he is Becca Finch for the day. 

Robbie has been eagerly awaiting his turn to be part of it, seeing it as a day to skip the afternoon at school and do whatever he wants, rather than spend time thinking about the purpose of the day itself ... a chance to think seriously about what happens when teenagers act in foolhardy ways.  

All that changes with the appearance of an unusual, and quite remarkable, girl only he can see and touch. Becca Finch seems to be as surprised as Robbie (aka Worm). All she remembers is that she lost control of her car on an icy roadway on Christmas Eve. As the two spend time together wandering through town, they make discoveries about each other - and themselves. Becca feels she is present to help Worm see how life can be, to help him stop hiding who he is from everyone else. When they must face the finality of Becca's death, Worm is happy to have known her and her story. 

As he has done so often, Mr. Spinelli creates characters to love and honor, and meaningful relationships that are forever remembered. It's funny at times, insightful, and so very good. It seems an unbelievable premise, yet it does not feel so. I could not put it down until the very last sentence, the very last word. 

I am adding it to my 'keepers' shelf! 

Wednesday, January 5, 2022

Big as a Giant Snail: Discovering the World's Most Gigantic Animals, written by Jess Keating and illustrated by David DeGrand. Alfred A. Knopf, Penguin Random House. 2021. $23.99 ages 8 and up


"As the largest members of the deer family,
moose have a leg up on their smaller 
cousins. Or rather, several feet up! Some 
MOOSE tower more than ten feet tall, 
and their massive antlers can be nearly 
two yards wide."

You already are aware of two of the most gigantic animals included in this amazing new entry for The World of Weird Animals series: the moose and the giant snail. Quick! Name five more, and see if you made the right guesses once you get down to reading. I'll wait!   

As they have done so successfully before, Jess Keating and David DeGrand offer a plethora of animals that fit the bill for this book about gigantic animals. They offer clear information through careful research on a handful of such animals that will be familiar to their target audience: blue whale, polar bear, elephant seal, capybara, giant anteater, and red kangaroo. Others perhaps are not as well known: Malabar giant squirrel, cassowary, atlas moth, harpy eagle, kakapo and the goliath birdeater. 

A note for readers, before meeting any of the noted animals, allows that true size is measured in bananas (each being about six inches long). Thus, a moose is 14 bananas high, while a polar bear is 20 bananas long. It helps if a young reader has a banana at hand to do some measuring as the book is read. 

Each double page spread is designed to provide many pertinent facts. A clear and titled photo faces a factual, short paragraph, a cartoon image, an information splash that offers one distinct peculiarity, and a sidebar that provides species name, size, diet, habitat, and predators, and other threats to the animal presented. 

Back matter includes The Handy, Dandy Banana Scale which provides a comparison chart of sizes from the biggest to the smallest. Readers are invited to measure themselves using bananas and then compare themselves to the chart. Where would they fit on it? A glossary of useful words is the final entry.  

"Not all animals are scary - some are downright adorable! The KAKAPO is the world's heaviest parrot and also happens to be the only species of parrot that can't fly. But who needs flight when you've got excellent hiking, climbing, and jumping abilities?"

Tuesday, January 4, 2022

Sour Cakes, written by Karen Crossing and illustrated by Anna Kwan. Owlkids, 2021. $19.95 ages 4 and up


"What DO you want? 

I want ... 
      I want ... 

I want to 
throw rocks. 
And kick leaves. 
I want the sun to turn off. 
And the flowers to melt away."

Conflict arises in the early morning when an older child suggests outdoor play. The younger one is contrary when faced with a decision made by someone else. Being kind and accommodating the older one agrees, and suggests quiet songs. What would you guess happens next? When the two begin to sing a loud song, the younger one leaves with other pursuits in mind. 

Will coloring work? Colors are suggested; none are right. Gray will do. No matter the idea proposed, it is unacceptable. 

"I don't want to bake
I don't want to color. 
I don't want to 

In fact, what the child wants is to disappear, setting a plan in motion to keep each other company while doing just exactly what the little one wants to do. A loud song, a gray picture ... even a sour cake. Well, could it be sweet? Together they stay until joy returns and play is an option. 

A book written fully in dialogue provides an opportunity for two readers to work together to read the book. It is an acquiescent way to share feelings and sympathy that normalizes the contrary emotions children exhibit at one time or another. Some days are just like that. 

A sensitive portrayal of acceptance and patience, accompanied by meaningful artwork that honors the feelings expressed by a little one on a bad day, as well as the loving acceptance of an older, tolerant sibling.                                                                              

Monday, January 3, 2022

Walrus Song, written by Janet Lawler and illustrated by Timothy Basil Ering. Candlewick Press, Penguin Random House. 2021. $23.99 ages 4 and up

"Digging, wiggling, 
whiskers jiggling, 
Walrus, sea beast, 
wants a clam feast. 

What's he doing? 
Seafloor stewing. 
Lips on shells, Walrus sucks, 
slurping clams, leaving shucks."

Little ones love to learn about animals they may never see, but do recognize. A walrus leads an impressive life filled with ocean and land noises, with forays onto land and into deep waters, and with an endless search for food. 

The tiny puffin that provides company for its enormous friend is there when the walrus rises from the ocean's depths. While in water, the walrus does what walruses do. Upon its return, it springs a surprise for its pal, which will surely encourage laughter. The difficulty faced in finding leverage for a return to the ice floe is carefully described with perfectly chosen words, such as haul, lumber, flap, nuzzle. 

A return to the herd keeps attention on 'our' walrus. It also leads to a close-up look at the mayhem that results when one walrus chooses to fight another. It is quite the battle of brutish creatures. And the sounds heard while watching walrus as they call to one another and sing songs are quite fascinating. 

"Honk, honkkk! 

Squee! Squee, SQWEEE!
Toot, TOOT!

SPUUH, sppputtterrr

Swee, SWEEE!
Grrr, GRRUFF!"

Listeners will be in their element helping to interpret these sounds. There is a lot to learn in this full-of-fun introduction about habitat, food, physical traits and various sounds made. The acccurate lifelike artwork is quite stunning and offers close-up details of a walrus in the water and on the ice floes. An afterword section called Walrus Facts explains descriptive language used in this fine informational picture book.