I mentioned Mud, Sand, and Snow in my last review of another of Charlotte Agell’s books, Maybe Tomorrow? But, I had to wait for the official sticky, muddy stretch of spring to review it. While her previous series of board books published by Islandport Press each describes a single season – Mud Makes Me Dance in the Spring, Wind Spins Me Around in the Fall, I Slide into the White of Winter, and I Wear Green Hair in the Summertime, Mud, Sand, and Snow takes the reader on a sensory journey through them all. The story follows two friends as they get wet muddy knees, listen to birds sing, and let grass tickle their bare feet. Agell whimsically illustrates each season in small details – a rain boot flying off one foot while swinging in the fall and then a snow boot getting stuck in the snow on a winter walk. Her drawings are almost childlike in their brightness and simplicity, but with attention to color and facial expression that give the family pictured here warmth and personality. The shift between the little girls’ family with her baby brother and the scenes of the two friends reminds the reader of the coziness of home and family amidst the changing seasons. The ending ties the story sweetly together by picturing a bear sleeping outside in his snowy den followed by a scene of the little girl sleeping inside with her teddy bear. Agell contrasts between light and dark here, reminding the reader of the quiet darkness of both winter and of night.
Suggested Ages: This is a simple little board book that is great for ages 3-5 as a read aloud. The word choice is appropriate for early readers and the rhyme can help them along and appreciate the playfulness of language.
Sometimes it is easier to use a metaphor than to talk about the real thing. In Maybe Tomorrow?, Charlotte Agell uses a block that little Elba the pig drags around to symbolize a loss that she is feeling. The literal weight of the block keeps her from playing with Norris the alligator who dances lightly through the flowers with butterflies flitting along beside him. All Norris wants to do was to bring Elba on a picnic, but she always declines saying, “Maybe tomorrow.” Norris wants to know what is inside and to help get it out, but Elba says no. Then, he and his butterflies carry it wordlessly to the beach, just as anyone feeling sad might wish a good friend to do. And when Elba finally says that her sadness is from missing her friend Little Bird, Norris offers to miss her to even though he didn’t know her. What a sweet, simple sentiment. The turn at the end is elegant. Norris’s butterflies fly off and when Elba shouts “COME BACK,” he says simply, “Sometimes, we have to let things go.” The heart of the story is deep and speaks to anyone who has experienced a loss or sadness in a gentle, thoughtful way. And, the images that Agell uses like “Elba couldn’t see him in all that shininess” and “the butterflies looked a little damp” are elegant and fresh. While she usually does her own artwork, this book is illustrated by Ana Ramirez and its bright colors and airy feel lend a lightness to a difficult subject. The images help the reader to focus on the friendship and not the weight of loss.
Charlotte Agell has written many other picture books including one of my favorite series of seasonal board books: I Wear Green Hair in the Summertime, Mud Makes Me Dance in the Spring, Wind Spins Me Around in the Fall, and I Slide into the White of Winter. These are collectively a celebration of each time of year. Her newest board book, Mud, Sand and Snow, brings the seasons together in an approachable and fun way. She has also written for middle and upper grade readers.
Suggested Ages: As with many of my favorite children’s books, I often think I would give this one to a friend experiencing loss. So, I would suggest this for any age, although it is approachable and simple enough for even the youngest readers.
Who doesn’t want to imagine that they are in the Caribbean when sipping hot chocolate while sitting on an iceberg on the coast of Maine? Diana Applebaum’s Cocoa Ice tells the story of two little girls half a world apart who are connected by the trade between their two lands that existed in the 1800s. “On the island of always summer where chocolate grows on trees” a little girl sits in the top of a coconut tree waiting for a schooner with ice to arrive. And, in Maine, where “The days are short, bright, and so cold that sometimes nothing moves, not the wind, not the birds, not even the river,” another little girl drinks hot chocolate while the men in her town harvest ice from the bay. Applebaum’s detail of the two girls exchanges a conch shell for a balsam bag perfectly show how easily children from different cultures can connect and imagine each other’s lives. The girl in Maine thinks of a place “where I don’t have to wear boots” and the girl on the island of Santo Domingo (now the Dominican Republic) a place “where children walk on rivers of ice”. Applebaum deftly structures the book in two sections – the first entitled “Cocoa” and the second “Ice” with first person narration from each of the girls. Even the cover of the book reflects this structure, with the title appearing upside down on the back so that you could read it “ice first” if you desired. Holly Meade’s colorful collage illustrations are both fun to look at as well as show accurate details of the processes of drying and grinding cocoa and harvesting and packing ice blocks.
There is a poetic quality to this book of parallels between the two girls, the two places and the two seasons. Applebaum evokes the feeling of winter in the midst of summer and vice versa. “Opening the icehouse door in summer is like stepping into the castle where winter fell asleep.” And the little island girl eats cocoa ice that “makes [her] shiver to think of children living in such an icy place.”
Applebaum has written one other picture book for children, Giants in the Land, a story of the old forest that was once in New England and supplied masts for many ships overseas. It is a similarly accurate and lyrically told story.
Suggested Ages: The story is appropriate for all ages, including adults. The reading level is most suited to students in the upper elementary grades, as there is a decent amount of detail and word count per page. But, with its lovely language, it is also a fun read-a-loud for younger readers.
Heather Lang’s biography, Fearless Flyer: Ruth Law and Her Flying Machine, is a rich tribute to an impressive woman. And Raul Colon’s colored pencil illustrations have a period feel to them and several of them appear in circular window shapes as if a view from a plane. Although I come from a family of aviators, I did not know about Ruth Law and Lang offers ample detail about her life and the period in history when she lived. This is a signature of Calkins Creek’s picture book biographies and a reason I seek them out. Lang uses quotes from to help the reader to imagine what it would be like to experience the story she is telling. Her narrative is gripping and evokes fear – “One wrong move would send her tumbling from the sky.” But, we know from Ruth’s words that “to become an aviator one has to dismiss all fear”. She write using series’ of short, spaced-out sentences to mimic the anticipation of Ruth’s harrowing descents, and sounds to spark the readers’ imaginations. She ends with a lovely quote showing Ruth’s awareness of her own impact and making the reader appreciate her contributions more broadly. She says, “The sky was my limit and the horizon my sphere. It’s any woman’s sphere if she has nerve and courage and faith in herself.” The book ends with a nice collection of supplemental material including a substantial “More About” section as well as illustrative photographs, lists of books, websites, collections and exhibits for further exploration. This is not the first time Heather Lang has illuminated a complex and influential woman. Her other books including Anybody’s Game, Swimming with Sharks, and Queen of the Track are all great accomplishments and worth checking out.
Suggested Ages: The publisher recommends this book for ages 5-8, but I would buy it for an adult. The amount of detail is unusually high for a picture book, but Lang tells the story in such a way that it is readable at a variety of levels.
Stephanie Roth Sisson takes a well-known figure and deftly turns her back into a child in her new picture book biography of Rachel Carson. Spring After Spring starts at dawn with a young Rachel lying in bed listening to the sounds of the birds. It follows her explorations in nature through the seasons as she listens and looks at the world around her. Sisson playfully gives the animals in the story speech bubbles, allowing the readers to live inside of Rachel’s head as they hear the same sounds. She takes Rachel’s passion indoors in the winter and draws her cozied up like the animals reading books in order to learn more about them. These are the seeds of her writing, which launches the second part of the story. As Rachel grows up, the complexity of the story and the text grow with her. She looks beyond her small observations to see what is going on in the world around her and begins to think about what she can do about it. And then she succeeds in making a change that matters not only to her, but also to the natural world and all of the other people living in it. This is a lovely tale to share with children who can feel empowered by the path that Rachel Carson took from learning and caring about something to helping to protect it and change it for the future. With no other prodding aside from reading this book, my two seven-year-old girls set off to make posters about plastic pollution and were determined to organize a town cleanup. I was already a Rachel Carson fan, so I certainly sought out this book, but now I am eager to look up Sisson’s other books. There’s one about Carl Sagan’s fascination with stars, also published by Roaring Brook Press that may find its way into a review soon. You can find out more about Sisson’s writing and art on her website: https://www.stephanitely.com/.
Suggested Ages: The word choice at the beginning of this book is fairly simple and will work well with pre-readers as well as early readers. As the story progresses, it will be more interesting for slightly older readers in the middle elementary grades who can understand the problem-solution arc of Rachel’s life.
Is there a child who isn’t fascinated by the moon? In If You Were the Moon, Laura Purdie Salas leads the reader through an imaginative journey of the parallels between a child’s life and the life of the moon. The primary text is simple and lyrical as the moon “spin[s] like a twilight ballerina” and “tease[s] the Earth”, while the parenthetical text provides factual details that explain various aspects of the moon’s behavior. From the simple explanation of how the moon “catches” the sun’s light to the description of meteorites whizzing through space, Salas playfully teaches the reader about some tricky concepts with a light touch. Jaime Kim’s illustrations are bright and sparkly, boldly showing the facial expressions of the moon and the earth as they interact. Her illustration of the phases of the moon is particularly clear in showing the shadows upon its “face” as it waxes and wanes. This is yet another of Salas’s picture books that sneaks the science into a story, letting the reader choose how much detail to take in. Her website (http://laurasalas.com/) will lead you to other books like her Water Can Be, A Rock Can Be, A Leaf Can Be series as well as her lovely collections of poetry and myriad resources for both teachers and authors. Her books can also be found on the Millbrook Publishing website (https://lernerbooks.com/Pages/Millbrook-Press), a wonderful source for many educational picture books.
Suggested Ages: While this books is designed for readers ages 5-8, the sidebar material expands its readership to include older readers interested in more of the technical information about the moon. However, younger readers will still enjoy the simple storyline as well as the bold illustrations.
When I’m feeling out of options for a particular challenge with my girls, I often head to the library to look for something humorous to spark a new approach. The picture on the cover of Louis Thomas’s Hug It Out! said, “Check me out!” It was likely end of the school year/early summer fatigue that led to an increase in the number of squabbles between my girls. Regardless, my Zen-like approach to the sometimes-sticky dynamic was getting decidedly un-Zen like! So, I found Thomas’s illustration of the bug-eyed mother with fingers followed by one of the siblings cowering in fright at the punishment she was about to inflict upon them particularly funny. Thomas stretches the anticipation of “You’re going to have to . . . “ over two page turns until you get to the “HUG IT OUT” decree. Their bewildered response is perfect. “Hug it what? Hug it who? Hug it how? Hug it huh.” After some fierce hugging between Annie and Woody, they end up coming up with their own solution (aha, the real intent of parenting) of giving each other a little space. And then . . . they found that they wanted to play together again. And, their mother stands back, arms crossed with a knowing smile watching them happily hug. I was disappointed to read that this is Thomas’s first picture book, as I immediately went to look for another. So . . . I’ll have to wait for the next one. Or spend more time exploring his website (louist.blogspot.com), which has a fantastic array of illustrations and other projects he has worked on.
Suggested Ages: This is a fun read aimed at children ages 3-6, but is equally enjoyable for their parents! The facial expressions on all the characters will amuse young children who have not yet started to read. Early readers will enjoy the simple text and refrains throughout as well as the well-placed ellipses that lead to quick page turns.
Books about kids tackling a problem and succeeding are always a hit at my house. In Bees in the City, Andrea Cheng tells the story of Lionel, a little boy living in a Paris apartment, who convinces his neighbors to help the city’s bees. He spends the summers tending bees with his Aunt in the countryside and she tells him that the bees have been dying. “What can we do,” he asks. He returns to his apartment building, which looks whimsically a bit like a beehive when an idea flies into his head. These fun phrases pepper Cheng’s storyline in a playful way. Then, their mission begins – to ask all the residents if they can keep bees on the roof. It isn’t easy, but they get the support of everyone there and soon bees are buzzing around the building’s window boxes, pollinating their flowers. Cheng celebrates the diversity of those living in a Paris apartment building by including neighbors from all over the world. And the bees celebrate too by creating “Around the World” honey made from everyone’s gardens. The airy watercolor illustrations are evocative of Paris and Sarah McMenemy’s use of bright bursts of color in her images is striking. The swirling paths of bees across the pages lend a sense of motion and excitement to the story. Finally, the “Honeybees and Urban Beekeeping” section at the end of the book has some great information on bees, bee keeping and bee gardening. Bees in the City is another of Tilbury House’s lovely books about nature. Others I’ve enjoyed include Before We Eat: From Farm to Table and My Busy Green Garden, which I recently reviewed and wrote about along with this book as part of an article about bees for the Horn Book’s Family Reading Blog.
Suggested Ages: Preschool listeners will enjoy the bright illustrations and a story about a familiar backyard animal. Elementary students will be attracted to the can-do attitude of Lionel who makes a difference in a big city. Those interested in learning more about bees will appreciate the inclusion of the section at the end.
I love reading My Busy Green Garden out loud. It reminds me a bit of “The Old Lady Who Swallowed the Fly” except this story centers on a butterfly. Sorry if I gave away the punch line. The story begins with a mystery – a “surprise in a clever disguise” waiting in “my busy green garden”. Each page brings another animal, which builds the rhyme – a ladybug, a honeybee, a hummingbird, etc. until we reach the end of the story where surprise “wriggles and writhes, then stretches and flies” away as a butterfly. It is a good game of memory for listeners who have to pay attention to each animal so that they can repeat the refrain with the new addition. Terry Pierce does a nice job of telling the story through repetition and rhyme without it feeling forced or sing-song. This is also true of her book Mama Loves You So, a lullaby book for newborns. This book’s illustrations are wonderful too. Readers can search for each animal as they turn the pags, some of which are well-hidden amidst Carol Schwartz’s exquisite illustrations. The illustrations are quite detailed, showing the patterns in the leaves and textures in a dragonfly wing. As in the other wonderful Tilbury House Nature Books like The Secret Pool and The Very Best Bed, the story is interwoven with natural history information in an elegant way. The section at the end of the book, “Your Busy Green Garden” includes additional facts about each of the animals in the garden.
Suggested Ages: This book is great for young pre-K children who will enjoy listening and repeating the text. Kindergarteners and early readers can practice reading skills as they read the same lines again and again. Older elementary students and parents will appreciate the scientific information at the end of the text.
This is such a fun idea – a book to take on the trail that helps keep kids motivated and teaches them about many of the things they might see in nature. In Storey Publishing’s Backpack Explorer: On the Nature Trail, you can earn patches when you see things like leaves, birds, or butterflies. Once you’ve found them on the trail, you then get to find the page in the book where you can put your sticker and learn more about those plants or animals. Each page has a “Take a Look” section that prompts readers to us the magnifying glass that comes with the book to look more closely at a detail about that type of plant or animal. In addition to following the visual scavenger hunt, readers can use their other senses like smell and hearing to notice other things as they go. There are activities to do along the way as well like moving like an animal, making music with an acorn cap, or making art with items found in nature. I like the addition of practical information like the pages for trail etiquette and safety as well as a packing list for your adventure. Finally, the make your own map at the end was a big hit with my girls. There are stickers for direction signs and things you see so that you can map your favorite trail and decorate it with detail. Much like other books by Storey Publishing , this book has a unique combination of information and activities and provides a nice guide for parents and kids to use to enhance their trail experiences. Owling, Farmer’s Market, and Mason Jar Science are a few of Storey Publishing’s books on other topics that are also worth checking out.
Suggested Ages: This is a great book for children ages 4 and up. Younger children can explore the book and activities with their parents, while upper elementary grade students can use this guide independently.