alte zachen / old things

One of the things I value about volunteering as a Cybils Awards judge is the element of book discovery. I have publishers, authors, librarians, bloggers, etc. that I trust to suggest excellent titles, and I don’t step outside that circle very often. But the Cybils push me to read more widely within a genre (in this year’s case, in graphic novels). One book that I’m not sure I would have picked up on my own? Nominee Alte Zachen / Old Things by Ziggy Hanaor, illustrated by Benjamin Phillips. And that would have been a tragedy because it’s a heart-full title, and one I’ve been thinking of over and over since I put it down. 


alte zachen / old things by ziggy hanaor, illustrated by benjamin phillips book cover
A beautifully illustrated and presented intergenerational graphic novel that follows 11-year-old Benji and his elderly grandmother, Bubbe Rosa, as they traverse Brooklyn and Manhattan, gathering the ingredients for a Friday night dinner.

Bubbe’s relationship with the city is complex – nothing is quite as she remembered it and she feels alienated and angry at the world around her. Benji, on the other hand, looks at the world, and his grandmother, with clear-eyed acceptance. As they wander the city, we catch glimpses of Bubbe’s childhood in Germany, her young adulthood in 1950s Brooklyn, and her relationships; first with a baker called Gershon, and later with successful Joe, Benji’s grandfather. Gradually we piece together snippets of Bubbe’s life, gaining an insight to some of the things that have formed her cantankerous personality. The journey culminates on the Lower East Side in a moving reunion between Rosa and Gershon, her first love. As the sun sets, Benji and his Bubbe walk home over the Williamsburg Bridge to make dinner.

This is a powerful, affecting and deceptively simple story of Jewish identity, of generational divides, of the surmountability of difference and of a restless city and its inhabitants.


In Alte Zachen (Yiddish for “old things,” as the title suggests), grandmother Rosa and her young grandson Benji zigzag New York City on a mission: to gather the necessary ingredients for Friday night dinner. Along the way Rosa comments on the changes in the city, and in life and culture over time. Some of these remembrances and flashbacks are sweet, but many are bittersweet, or sad, or resonate with unfulfilled longing. The parallel journeys of a modern-day shopping trip and a long life, combined with watercolor illustrations in a wash of grays and other muted colors, create a deeply impactful narrative.


Some of the most poignant moments in the book occur when Bubbe Rosa is rude, and Benji must deal with this embarrassment in the moment, and buffer between her and others. These moments aren’t indicative of a cruel temperament, but rather open the way for the reader to learn about some of the traumas of Rosa’s life: escaping to Switzerland from Germany ahead of the Holocaust, the loss of old love, changes to cultural norms, and more. At the same time, you feel almost viscerally for Benji, who loves his grandmother but is trying to gracefully manage in the real world. His Bubbe is trying to impart words and traditions (there’s a Yiddish glossary at the back for context if the reader is struggling), and Benji is just trying to get them to the shops and back without incident. It’s sweet, authentic, and entirely human.


Phillips’ art – a muted watercolor palette in the book – contrasts with the bright orange of the book’s spine, title, and end papers (illustrations of lots of everyday food items in black-and-white on an orange background in a repeating pattern). The art feels unfinished and unpolished in a way, even as it washes over memorable architecture in precise detail. There are wordless stretches, where the art is the only context, and Phillips’ art then shines with the attention to expressions, small details, and the elements of culture: dancing, music, and family. Somehow, they all come to life, in real ways.


In all, Alte Zachen / Old Things is a tribute to memory, to culture, and to intergenerational relationships. It’s a lovely meditation on how we pass on ourselves to our loved ones – imperfectly, but with care (and feeding). I loved it, and I think you will too.


Recommended for: fans of contemporary graphic novels featuring intergenerational relationships, Jewish traditions and culture, and city life. Excellent reading and art for the 12+ set, though appropriate for younger ones as well.

counting board books for art lovers: kahlo's koalas and one white crane

I like gifting board books and picture books whenever I visit the children in my life – it is not-so-secretly my ambition to be remembered as that aunt, the one who always gave interesting books! (and maybe also in some small way sparked a love of reading) I’ve noticed that at most baby showers and birthdays, folks give the same board books they cherished as children. And that’s lovely – who wouldn’t want to share the books they hold dear! I am a little paranoid, however, that I will copy the same book that someone else just gave, so I am ALWAYS, always on the lookout for standout board books to add to my gifting repertoire. Grace Helmer’s Kahlo's Koalas and Vickie Lee and Joey Chou’s upcoming One White Crane are two that I wholeheartedly recommend for art-appreciating parents and their little ones.

kahlo's koalas by grace helmer book coverFrom Henri Matisse’s monkeys and Jackson Pollock's poodles to Roy Lichtenstein's llamas and Wassily Kandinsky’s kangaroos, this beautiful 1-10 counting book provides an imaginative learning experience that will appeal to adults and children alike.

Introduce your little one to some of the world’s best artists while teaching them their numbers 1 to 10. With illustrator Grace Helmer's quirky renderings of animals in the style of world-famous artists, Kahlo’s Koalas extends the basic counting concept in a simple, one number, one image per spread format that introduces the smallest children to their first concept of numbers, animals and art appreciation.


On each page of Kahlo’s Koalas, a different animal and number are featured in the style of a different artist. For example, the book starts with 1 Picasso panda, 2 Kahlo Koalas, and goes from there. The alliterative animal choices make for a fun tongue twister with the artists’ last names, and there are playful artistic choices as well (the Monet mouse in an inner tube among the water lilies was a fun touch!). The artists featured within hail from a wide range of styles and eras, but there are none who are pre-Modern – it’s all Impressionists and onward. One final page at the back of the book talks about each artist’s style and “how” they made their art. Helmer focuses on creating illustrations that mimic the artists’ styles, and leaves the text simple – an effective choice among complex images.


In all, Kahlo’s Koalas is a beautiful, interesting board book introduction to art and counting that is sure to appeal to both toddlers and their parents.

one white crane by vickie lee, illustrated by joey chou book cover
One white crane, two black bears . . .

Simply told and beautifully rendered, this counting board book takes young readers through the months of the year. Each month focuses on a new animal, from seals in May to cicadas in September. Sweet, accessible text in English and Chinese pairs with eye-catching art for a wonderful repeat reading experience.

One White Crane is a bilingual (English and Mandarin) counting book that also teaches the months of the year, and colors as well! Given the twelve months, the count goes up to 12, and there are 12 different animals. The gorgeous Charlie Harper-esque geometric art is featured on each left facing page, and text in English and Mandarin on the right. It is a simple, effective, and quite frankly, beautifully designed book – even if you don’t speak Mandarin and don’t intend to learn! I enjoy gifting bilingual books to children even when their parents don’t speak both languages because any language exposure is good exposure, but this could be a fun way for parents and children to learn side-by-side, or for bilingual parents and families to share their language culture together with their children.


In all, One White Crane is a delightfully simple board book with beautiful art and a lot of learning potential.


One White Crane will be available from Henry Holt & Co./Godwin Books on December 13, 2022.

Fine print: I received a finished copy of Kahlo's Koalas and an ARC of One White Crane from the publishers for review consideration. I did not receive any compensation for this post.

2022 book gift guide


It’s time for my annual book gift guide! This is only the second time I’ve done one, and last year’s effort was a last-minute, slapdash list of the books that I was gifting to friends and family. That’s what this year’s list is too, but at least it’s not the 11th hour. [Insert laughing crying emoji] As always, these aren’t all newly released books, but they’re books I found this year & am gifting for the holidays!


Friends and family: If you are seeing this, it might be a spoiler alert for you and/or your child. Read on at your own risk!


Board books for babies (ages 0-2):


What is a Sloth? by Ginger Swift, illustrated by Manu Montoya – A shiny, short, lift-a-flap board book for babies. I’m getting this one for the newest nibling.


Crack-Crack! Who Is That? by Tristan Mory – There’s a handle to pull, sound effects, and baby animals appear – this board book is inventive fun and sure to delight the youngest readers, either read independently or with an adult for storytime.


Little Red Barn by Ginger Swift – This board book has a unique shape and fun lift-a-flap adventures on a farm with a little red barn. Nothing new or spectacular, but a solid choice!


Bumblebee Grumblebee by David Elliot – The only board book on this list without an interactive element on the page. Instead, this one has fun wordplay that will make little ones smile and allow adults to play along with silly rhymes and made up words.


Picture books for littles (ages 3-5):


Pip & Pup by Eugene Yelchin – A wordless picture book featuring a tiny chick and a farmhouse dog who fears storms. Expressive features and layouts help parents (or children themselves) tell this empathetic story.


Farmhouse by Sophie Blackall – New from the Caldecott Award-winning artist, this title’s meticulously detailed pages feature dollhouse-like cutaways of a house and the many generations and families who lived in it. For little ones who might someday grow up to read & love the Little House or Anne of Green Gables books.


City Under the City by Dan Yaccarino – A charmingly illustrated picture book/early reader with an intriguing sci-fi premise. Great pick for a wide range of ages – I can see this being a hit read aloud choice with a four-year-old, and also a very proud accomplishment independent read for a six- or seven-year-old.


Full Moon by Camila Pintonato – Answers the ever-pressing question: What do animals get up to after small children are tucked in bed? Lovely art and simple, whimsical story.


Only the Trees Know by Jane Whittingham, illustrated by Cinyee Chiu – Nondenominational wintertime story with anthropomorphic animals and beautiful snowy forest scenes.


Hey! A Colorful Mystery by Kate Read – Read’s picture books are clever, colorful, and both surprise and delight from start to finish. This one’s set underwater and features a MYSTERY.


George and His Nighttime Friends by Seng Soun Ratanavanh – Seriously gorgeous art is Ratanavanh’s trademark, but this one takes it up a notch with the story of a lonely boy whose mind won’t stop racing when the lights go out. An excellent bedtime read for ages 3+, with details and easter eggs on every page.


Graphic novels for early readers (ages 6-7):


Cranky Chicken by Katherine Battersby – A funny early reader graphic novel featuring a dynamic duo (think Norma & Belly from Donut Feed the Squirrels or the Narwhal and Jelly series), one of whom is… well, a cranky chicken!


Two-Headed Chicken by Tom Angleberger – A funny, frenetic graphic novel from the author of the Origami Yoda series. Could be a good choice for kiddos up to age 9, depending on their reading confidence and sense of humor (the premise is goofy, with several long-running gags!).


Slightly older elementary school kids (ages 8-12):


My Aunt is a Monster by Reimena Yee – From my review earlier this year: this graphic novel “is FUN, silly, pretty, and a breath of fresh air. For… anyone with a large imagination and a hankering to explore the unknown.”


The Nutcracker and the Mouse King: The Graphic Novel by E.T.A. Hoffman, adapted by Natalie Andrewson – The nostalgia of The Nutcracker paired with the updated whimsy of Nat Andrewson’s fantastic graphic novel art, for a middle grade crowd.


Books for the teen crowd (ages 13-18):


Supper Club by Jackie Morrow – A brightly colored graphic novel about the final year of high school and a club centered around cooking & food for those who loved Raina Telgemeier’s books when they were a bit younger.


Victory. Stand! Raising My Fist for Justice by Tommie Smith, Derrick Barnes, and Dawud Anyabwile – One of the best books I’ve read this year, and a shoo-in favorite for anyone (ages 13+) interested in history, social justice, sports, and underdog stories. You don’t have to be all of those – just one will do. I’m sending it to my high school student cousin and pushing it on my own students in the classroom.

For adults:


Gâteau: The Surprising Simplicity of French Cakes by Aleksandra Crapanzano – I saw a very positive review of this cookbook in Shelf Awareness and thought it might be the perfect gift for my college roommate and best friend who is a baker and studied abroad in France.


The Wild Hunt by Emma Seckel – For anyone who likes a bit of romance, historical fiction, and a touch of fantasy. This one takes place somewhere in Scotland in the aftermath of WWII, and isn’t tidily characterized as literary fiction or horror or romance or anything else! Sending to my friend who adored All the Light We Cannot See.


Remote Control by Nnedi Okorafor – Okorafor (author of Binti) writes inventive, layered science fiction. In Remote Control, Okorafor imagines a “weird, haunting, and visceral future” in a tidy novella package. I’m getting this one for my brother who likes sci-fi and fantasy!


Gideon the Ninth by Tamsyn Muir – Giving this one to myself for the holidays! I’ve heard others rave about it online for years (it won a Goodreads Choice Award in 2019!), and one of my coworkers finally convinced me to give it a try. After all, lesbian necromancers?! Sounds fun, and like the perfect read for grown-ups who obsessed over Garth Nix’s Sabriel as young adults.


Not books, but gifts you can find in a bookstore (links to Barnes & Noble):


Gnome for the Holidays Advent Calendar – A punny, funny advent calendar with jokes for every day of the advent season. Each day’s “surprise” (not hidden by doors, so it’s more about taking them out of their places) is an ornament, so could be a fun way to decorate a small tree or add new festive cheer to a holiday collection by stringing them into a garland! For the friend or family member who likes wordplay or is always making dad jokes.


Nathalie Lété Woodland Dreams 2023 Wall Calendar – Fanciful watercolor art of mushrooms, birds, butterflies, and other woodland delights populate the pages of this full-color, maximalist calendar. Perfect for that friend or relative who is into loud florals and/or vibrant colors.


Music Genius Playing Cards – For the music-lovers in your life! Test musical knowledge or create playlists of some of the greats while you play cards. Each suit (spades, hearts, diamonds, and clubs) features a different musical genre.

the woman in the woods and other north american stories

After my own years in school ended and before my teaching days, I didn’t take much notice of themed months of the year. For instance, did you know that November is National Native American Heritage Month in the United States? I didn’t! Luckily it’s been mentioned in several teaching and book publishing newsletters I subscribe to. What I find helpful is that those newsletters often come with book recommendations or lists included – titles that I can add to the shelf to make my classroom library (or even just personal library!) a little more inclusive and representative of my students and the US as a whole. One book I haven’t seen on any lists but want to make sure you know about is the young adult graphic novel anthology Woman in the Woods and Other North American Stories, edited by Kel McDonald, Kate Ashwin, & Alina Pete. It is the fifth installment in the Cautionary Fables & Fairytales series, and if the others are anything like this slim volume, they are treasures! 


the woman in the woods and other north american stories book cover
Tricksters? Rabbits? Rougarou?

Shapeshifters so frightening you shouldn't speak their name? That's just the start of this collection of folklore from the Indigenous people of North America, retold in comic form.

The fifth volume of the Cautionary Fables and Fairytales graphic anthology series is a thrilling, funny and totally unexpected take on stories spanning North America, with loads of traditional stories from Indigenous Nations such as the Taíno, Navajo, Odawa, and more!

The Woman in the Woods is an excellent collection of Native American legends and stories from across North America. While the title of the series is Cautionary Fables & Fairytales, these are no gory, fright-filled stories. Instead, they read like the sort of tales you’d share around a campfire – a little bit of cultural history, a dash of tall tale, and an uncanny thing that happened to someone you know/one of your ancestors, etc. They range from a creation tale that deals with two spirit and trans identity to a diving encounter with a monstrous octopus on the sea floor of the Puget Sound.


While each chapter was written and illustrated by a different duo (and is handed down from/told according to different indigenous peoples and traditions), a universal theme running throughout all of them is acceptance of difference, the other, and the strangeness that is present in the world. A couple of the stories deal with some element of gender nonconformity, and others speak to a diverse understanding of how humans function in society. Some are teaching tales; some merely point to the unexplained and ask the reader to make of it what they will. Some aim to make the reader uncomfortable, or to challenge their disbelief.


The standout comic of the collection is the Métis story The Rougarou by Maija Ambrose Plamondon, illustrated by Milo Applejohn. This story’s length (a bit longer than the others included in the volume), gorgeously detailed line art, and theme of transformation all combine to create an exceptional entry. I will be keeping an eye on Plamondon & Applejohn’s work in the future!


The art throughout the volume is in black and white and styles vary from artist to artist. Several employ strong or thick line work and varying shades of gray and black for a feeling of heaviness and (at times) menace. While the standout is mentioned above, there was no weak link – the writing and art in the volume is strong all the way through.


In all, The Woman in the Woods is a varied anthology in terms of setting, societies, norms, and time periods. It’s an interesting collection, and an important one for libraries large and small!

Recommended for: fans of fables and fairy tales, especially those adapted into graphic novel format, anyone looking to diversify their shelves with more indigenous American literature, and readers ages 10+ who are interested in campfire tales they may not have heard before!

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