two wintry picture books that don't feature holidays

Caution, caution! The holidays are closer than they appear! If you haven’t yet, check out my picture book holiday gift guide for last-minute gifting ideas. And if you don’t celebrate and/or are already thinking of the long months of winter that happen after the holiday build-up, let me recommend a couple of picture books to you. Both Almost a Full Moon and Once Upon a Snowstorm feature evocative wintertime scenes, without any mention of specific holidays. They also both have art of a young person riding a wild animal (a favorite legend!) in the snow.

almost a full moon by hawksley workman, illustrated by jensine eckwall cover
Almost a Full Moon is a warm-hearted story of family, community, food and home. A boy and his grandmother host a gathering in their small cabin in the middle of winter. Friends travel from near and far, and some new friends even turn up. The walls of the cabin are elastic and the soup pot bottomless; all are welcome. Based on the lyrics of Hawksley Workman's song from his holiday album Almost a Full Moon, this book evokes both the cold and the coziness of a winter's night: crisp clean air, sparkling snow, the light of the moon, welcoming windows, glowing candles, family and friends. The spare text is beautifully complemented with the rich illustrations of Jensine Eckwall. She brings beauty and a hint of magic to Workman's evocative lyrics; together, they create a world and a night that will enchant readers of all ages.

Hawksley Workman's Almost a Full Moon, the book, is a story based on a song of the same title – about the weather turning cold, making soup, and eating it with friends. I read the book before listening to the song, and thought it simplistic at best. What saved it were Jensine Eckwall’s engrossing, whimsical watercolor images, filled with a welcoming, homey scenes, soup-making, woodland creatures, and both ordinary and fey characters.

And THEN. Then I listened to Workman’s song, and it all coalesced. Almost a Full Moon, the song, is a haunting, solemn kind of wintry meditation on sharing food and fellowship. It kept coming back to me, days later, even though I’d only listened to it once. So I get it now – why this song became a book. But if you’re going to read the book (and you should because the illustrations are FABULOUS – including the star chart endpapers!), listen to the song as well. And maybe the combination will inspire you to make a soup and invite friends as well as strangers to your table!

once upon a snowstorm by richard johnson cover
The Snowman meets the Polar Express in this dazzling picture book, sure to be a new holiday classic.

The story of a father and his son who live by themselves in a cozy cabin in the woods. But, one day they are separated out in the beautifully falling snow. The boy is lost and falls asleep. When he wakes up he is surrounded by blinking eyes, a rabbit, a fox, an owl and all manner of other creatures have surrounded him! But with a bear hug he and the woodland animals become best of friends! But soon he misses his dad and so the animals bring him back home. The father opens up his heart and home, and lets nature and love envelop their previously lonely existence.

Richard Johnson’s picture book Once Upon a Snowstorm is a wordless story about a boy and his father who go out in the snow one day – and then lose each other. The boy ends up taking refuge with a group of animals, eventually finds his way home – and brings his new friends with him. While wordless, the story narrative is fairly well-defined – but children will enjoy putting their own words to the wintry scenes and the age-old experiences of getting lost, finding new friends, and returning home again.

Johnson’s art is the star of this book, with snowy landscapes, woodland creatures, and arduous journeys depicted in a beautiful detail. My favorite page spread showed the animal faces, close-up, when they discovered the boy (and the boy discovered them!). It was a laugh-aloud moment with an otherwise quiet book, and that’s how I know it’ll be a hit with kids – especially the 3-to-5-year-old set.

Both books have their poignant moments, feature woodland creatures, snow-covered hills, and children improbably riding wild creatures. And there’s nary a holiday in sight! If those things sound good to you, pick up Almost a Full Moon and Once Upon a Snowstorm, make yourself a mug of hot chocolate, and settle in for some snug winter reading.

Fine print: I received copy of Once Upon a Snowstorm for review consideration from the publisher. I got Almost a Full Moon from my local library. I did not receive any compensation for this post.

the snow lion

It’s been a gray, wintry day here in Washington, DC – the kind where I am constantly refreshing my coffee and tea in an effort to ward off the chill. Winter is one of my favorite seasons, in part because of the holidays, yes, but also because I love bundling up in oversized sweaters and plopping a knitted hat with a pom-pom on my head. Caro, the heroine of Jim Helmore and Richard Jones’ The Snow Lion, dresses like I do in winter, and that was just one of the things to love about this quiet, beautiful picture book.

the snow lion by jim helmore and richard jones cover
After moving to a new home, Caro wishes she had a friend, but she’s too shy to meet the neighborhood kids. With a little imagination, however, Caro finds the Snow Lion. Together, they have all kinds of fun racing, climbing, and playing hide-and-seek. But when the boy next door asks Caro to come play, Caro isn’t so sure. Then, the Snow Lion has an idea! Making new friends isn’t always easy, but it is always worth it in the end.

This powerful but gentle story about making new friends is gorgeously illustrated to celebrate the magic and imagination that fills every page and will appeal to any shy or lonely young reader.

Caro and her mother have just moved, and everything in their new house is white, white, white! It would seem a little lonely and soulless, except that almost immediately Caro meets a Snow Lion. This Lion blends in with the white walls, helps her explore her new home, and encourages her to be brave and reach out to make new friends. Soon Caro’s life is full of color and friendship!

The Snow Lion is a sweet, simple, and sincere story about loneliness, taking leaps of faith, making new friends, and remembering the old ones. Though the Snow Lion is never named as such, it is an imaginary friend (but as anyone who has had an imaginary friend knows, that doesn’t make them any less real!). I liked that it was never called out in the text, because I think it will make sense to children who already daydream, and open the imaginations of those who don’t so much.

Another thing to love is the way that Helmore has framed Caro, a naturally shy character (in a new setting, to boot!), in a dynamic and positive light. The focus is not on being left out (which I’ve seen many times in picture books and is fine for what it is!), but on finding ways to play with what you have, and then later on being courageous, reaching out, and making friends.

The art! When am I going to get to the art?? Well, as you must be able to tell from the cover, Richard Jones’ mix of paint and Photoshop illustrations are simply lovely. Jones has an eye for patterned, geometric details, and while the palette is at first very muted (all that white!), color and texture gradually seep in as the world opens up for Caro. I really adored the illustrations and would happily open this book again and again just for those. I also desperately hope that there are stuffed, all-white lion toys somewhere out there in the world to pair with this book. That would be sticky-sweet. And! On a final note, the endpapers, which are a cool silver-and-white pattern! They should be made into wrapping paper. I’d buy at least 2 rolls.

Overall, The Snow Lion is quietly delightful – a good book for wintry days.

Recommended for: readers ages 3 and up, for storytimes and one-on-one reading, and especially for shy little ones (or those who’ve just faced a big change).

Fine print: I received copy of this book for review consideration from the publisher. I did not receive any compensation for this post.

harry potter gift guide

Do you know someone who loves Harry Potter A LOT but seems to already have everything they could possibly want related to the series? Are they picky about gifts? Do they prefer tasteful/useful items? Are they me? (asking for a friend) But seriously, there are about ninety-billion (slight exaggeration) HP-branded items in the wild, and how will you pick the right one for your loved person this holiday season!? *tears out hair, with drama*

Here, have this holiday gift guide. It features new Harry Potter items that are Cecelia-approved (aka my mother would see them and not know to associate them immediately with HP)(my mother has never seen the books/watched the films, but that’s a story for another day). Okay one final aside, I can’t resist.

In retrospect, one of the funniest moments of the mother-daughter Scotland vacation we took in May/June this year (for my mom’s 70th birthday ostensibly, but I snuck plenty of Harry Potter landmarks in, like riding the Hogwarts Express and visiting Tom Riddle’s grave!) is that when we got to the café in Edinburgh where Rowling did most of her writing my mom looked around and said “I didn’t know Harry Potter was still a thing!” I almost melted into the sidewalk. “Yes, Mom, Harry Potter will always be a thing.” My mom: “Huh. [pause] Do you think they have hot chocolate?” (they do, but it’s terrible)

2018 Harry Potter Holiday Gift List (finally)


Morsmordre Crossbody Bag – This bag prompted me to put this gift guide together because it is SUBTLE and AWESOME and I can just imagine myself smiling smugly when my mom asks “is Morsmordre a designer brand?” As to why I would want it to begin with, let me put it this way: I read a lot of Drarry fanfic.



Amortentia Crossbody Bag – Okay but as soon as I was on the BoxLunch website I found that they have a whole range of cool HP-themed bags and this one is legit too perfect not to showcase. For your friend who is bubblegum on the outside and danger on the inside. Also if you liked these bags they have a Horcrux Collection. *eyes them all longingly*



Ron Weasley Yule Ball Ornament – Just looking at this makes me laugh, it’s so perfect. Your HP-loving friend’s tree needs this. I don’t make the rules!



Harry Wanted Poster Enamel Pin – You’ve noticed that enamel pins are having a moment (I assume). I argue that you must have this one for a complete and proper set of flair. 

Magic Photo and Video Printer – This is SO AWESOME and you’re going to look at the price tag and feel like you've been Kissed by a Dementor. BUT. It is amazing that we’ve made the moving pictures from Harry Potter a reality (with a little help from your iPhone/android). I have one and using this in your DIY photo booth is the perfect party activity!



Williams Sonoma collection of Harry Potter candies – I am weak for aesthetics, and I know you could probably rig up a version of this at home but I just want to believe I could line these jars of HP-inpsired candies up and transform my kitchen into Honeydukes, okay??



Quidditch carousel candle topper and Hogwarts candle pot – Oooooooo. This set will Lumos your wintry nights. It's beautiful, and stylish, and keepsake-quality. I think it speaks for itself.



Maurader’s Map towel set – I realize that these are backordered and so won’t arrive in time for Christmas, but aren’t they great?? Subtly says "I am up to no good." Cool. In my favorite neutral (gray). I wants it.


Dobby Christmas socks (quidditch-themed this year) – Snitches and brooms on contrasting color socks. What more could you want?? (can you tell I’m getting increasingly more excited/frantic as we go?)(I want it all!!!)


Ron Weasley sweater socks – Yo, just a hint of HP and the coziest looking socks ever. Your feet will thank you.



Azkaban prisoner sweater – I’m including this mostly because it made me laugh, and I would want it (I’m a little twisted). Easiest Halloween costume ever, plus a cozy sweater for wintertime when you’re bundled up on the couch in your Gryffindor throw blanket that you no doubt already own/have made. I may be projecting here.


Owl post earrings – Can you put a price on elegance, subtlety, and/or not having your ears turn green?? In review, I want these.

So there you go. Thanks for taking this ride with me. Further suggestions welcome in the comments!

Fine print: All images from retailer sites (directly linked in the post). I did not receive any compensation for this post and it's not sponsored.

big box little box

Wednesday, November 28, 2018 | | 0 comments
Are you subscribed to any bookish newsletters? I get a couple of publishing industry emails every day, and one of my recent favorites is Book Riot’s The Kids Are Alright, which is focused on children’s books. It’s my go-to for picture book new releases. Annnnnd… it’s how I heard about Big Box Little Box, by Caryl Hart, illustrated by Edward Underwood.

big box little box by caryl hart, illustrated by edward underwood cover
Big box, little box
Hey, that's not a bed box.
My box, your box,
Snore box

How many ways can a cat interact with a box? This cat will entrance young readers as it investigates every box it can – and makes a mouse friend along the way.

With bright, bold illustrations from Edward Underwood, this is a striking and witty book for children and adults alike. Fans of Chris Haughton, Jon Klassen and Sophy Henn will love it.

In Big Box Little Box a cat discovers the world of boxes – in all shapes and sizes. And then in one of the boxes it discovers… a mouse?! After a long chase, the two end up unlikely friends. This picture book is a celebration of contrasts, textures, and playfulness, and will please very young readers as they learn to classify the world.

While for the most part the book is concerned with identifying shapes, sizes, colors, patterns, states, uses, emotions, and actions, it also has its funny, surprising moments (as any successful picture book should!). Upon reaching the end it may feel as if there hasn’t been a single full sentence – and that’s because the point is more about exclamation! and identification! In other words, it’s not well suited for group storytime. Too many lists and phrases that hang by themselves.

That isn’t to say that it’s not enjoyable, because it is. The large pages, the visual-text connection, and the concrete ideas presented in a quirky way will likely make it a favorite. Just a one-on-one reading sort of favorite, if you know what I mean.

Author Hart juxtaposes sizes, shapes, and colors in the text, and illustrator Underwood skillfully renders their equivalent in the art with an eye to pleasing design. There are fun textures and layers throughout, with primary colors and simple shapes (after all, boxes!). This minimalism begs to be paired with a construction paper art project – I can imagine the ripped paper edges now!

This is the sort of smart-looking book that an adult will pick up off the coffee table to page through, as well as the kid (I know this from experience). I’d pair it with Not a Box, and other picture books that encourage imagination and creativity for the very young.

Recommended for: readers ages 2-5, especially those who love cats and/or identifying shapes, colors, and so on.

thank you, omu!

Thanksgiving may now be past in the United States, but there’s no end date on sharing, giving thanks, and giving back. Author-illustrator Oge Mora’s debut picture book Thank You, Omu! is a gorgeous soon-to-be classic. It is perfect for year-round reading, and holiday gifting.

thank you, omu! by oge mora cover
In this remarkable author-illustrator debut that’s perfect for fans of Last Stop on Market Street and Extra Yarn as well as for the Thanksgiving season, a generous woman is rewarded by her community.

Everyone in the neighborhood dreams of a taste of Omu’s delicious stew! One by one, they follow their noses toward the scrumptious scent. And one by one, Omu offers a portion of her meal. Soon the pot is empty. Has she been so generous that she has nothing left for herself?

Debut author-illustrator Oge Mora brings to life a heartwarming story of sharing and community in colorful cut-paper designs as luscious as Omu’s stew, with an extra serving of love. An author’s note explains that “Omu” (pronounced AH-moo) means “queen” in the Igbo language of her parents, but growing up, she used it to mean “Grandma.” This book was inspired by the strong female role models in Oge Mora’s life.

The thick red stew that Omu is making will surely be the best dinner that she has ever eaten. It smells wonderful and the taste test promises great things. However, when she sits down to read while she waits, the scent of her stew draws others to her door – first a little boy, then a police officer, then a hot dog vendor, and so on! After a day spent sharing a bowl with everyone who asks, Omu is left without any stew for her own dinner. Soon a knock on her door reveals everyone with whom she shared her meal, there this time to give, and not take.

Mora’s story is full of good cheer – generosity, hospitality, sharing food, and sharing company. It’s a simple story, but an evocative one, and it serves as a sort of modern parable. Omu’s unselfish giving prompts others not only to enjoy what they take, but also to give back themselves. It portrays an ideal, but one that is always worth sharing in hard times.

Other themes/things to love about the story: giving thanks when you can’t contribute things, making community, kindness to strangers, and a new plan or situation being even better than the old one because of a gratitude, and a full heart.

And the art! The art is *kisses fingers* fantastic. Truly classic picture book material, reminiscent of Ezra Jack Keats’ work, including perennial favorite The Snowy Day. Mora’s cut paper artwork utilizes painted and patterned paper, some clipped from books or maps. She also uses markers, acrylics, and more. It’s a mixed media wonderland. The endpapers are the city street grid rendered in blocky cut paper squares. The wafting scent of the stew is illustrated by rising steam that reaches farther and farther in the city. A mix of cut paper lettering and type make for evocative text setting – readers will know when to emphasize certain words to make the story sing. I can’t praise the art and design enough – they are truly special.

In all, Thank You, Omu! is an artful, food- and community-themed picture book with a diverse cast of characters and gorgeous, vibrant cut paper art. It belongs in every picture book collection.

Recommended for: any and every reader ages 3 and up, and especially for Thanksgiving and Christmas storytimes, though the messages of sharing and caring are necessary and important all the year long.

Interested in other food-related posts? Check out Beth Fish Reads’ Weekend Cooking!

2018 picture book gift guide

The holidays are upon us! There are deals upon deals this weekend, even at bookstores! So of course I’ve compiled a short 2018 picture book gift guide for holiday (or any other time) purposes. All books listed were released within the past year, or I’ve noted otherwise. Feel free to ask questions (or for recommendations for older kids) in the comments if you have any!


For the very littlest readers:

Autumn Babies and Winter Babies are bright, simple board books about visiting the park in different seasons, to be joined next year by series entries on spring and summer. The few words included engage the senses, and if that doesn’t work they’re great for surviving baby drool.

Mi Burrito/My Little Donkey is an accordion-style, bilingual, open-the-flap board book based on a famous Latin American Christmas song. Jaramillo’s books are always a hit with little ones for their bright colors, interactivity, and musical tie-ins. This one and Little Skeletons/Esqueleitos are the new releases for late 2017-2018 and are just as adorable as previous installments.

For 3- to 6-year-olds:

My Bed is An Air Balloon is an inventive, fantastical take on bedtime that will light up imaginations as well as lull children to sleep. A mirror poem with two front covers that works when read back-to-front and front-to-back, this beautifully illustrated book is a sure-fire reread.

Thank You, Omu! is an artful, food- and community-themed picture book with a diverse cast of characters and gorgeous and vibrant cut paper art (reminiscent of Ezra Jack Keats’ The Snowy Day). It is sure to become a classic, and would work well for both one-on-one reading and storytimes.

Hansel and Gretel is the latest in Bethan Woollvin’s twisted fairy tale series, joining Little Red and Rapunzel. Woollvin’s art (always in a limited color palette and utilizing geometric shapes to great effect) is fantastic, but it is her sly humor and slightly bent takes on familiar stories that will have both children and adults chuckling.

A Gift from Abuela is a sweet book about the small habits and special moments spent with family that make relationships special. The Mexico City setting and cultural elements are unique and wonderful – this will be a hit with readers who loved the film Coco.

Tiny, Perfect Things is a quiet, contemplative book encourages that readers young and old to take a walk outside with a loved one, pay attention, and celebrate the act of discovery.

The Things That I LOVE About TREES is a nonfiction picture book that celebrates nature, and especially trees (throughout the seasons). It is full of facts that will delight curious kids, and perhaps prompt them to want to go on tree-spotting walks.

Once Upon a Snowstorm is a wordless picture book that will delight fans of The Polar Express. A young boy loses his way in the snow, makes woodland friends, and eventually returns to his father. Children will enjoy being able to tell their own version of the story and pore over the beautiful winter scenes.

For 5- to 8-year-olds:

The Day You Begin is poignant, earnest, and poetic. Written to and for children whole feel separate and apart because of their differences (due to race, class, language, or culture), this picture book tells children 1) that they are brave, 2) that they can share their unique stories (and the world will make a place for them when they do), 3) that they will find themselves and find friends, and 4) that there is beauty in similarity AND difference.

Hortense and the Shadow is a whimsical, fairy tale-esque picture book with a bit of a dark edge, and it’s vaguely winter-themed without specific holidays. Great for daydreamers and those who enjoy flights of fancy (and gorgeous watercolor artwork).

Dreamers is a picture book autobiography of Yuyi Morales that provides a window into an immigrant experience while celebrating the joy and wonder of reading. This book bridge between languages and lives will spark creativity with its energetic mixed-media art.

Cece Loves Science and Izzy Gizmo are picture books featuring black girls who love science – and engaging stories as well. Cece works on a school project and learns about the scientific method (may be a great accompaniment to class science experiments) and Izzy learns lessons about perseverance and fixing the messes you make. Both are great picks for those who have enjoyed the Rosie Revere, Engineer books.

Graphic novel/picture book crossovers that will appeal to those transitioning to independent reading:

Lyric McKerrigan, Secret Librarian features a heroine with a can-do attitude. Titular Lyric uses the powers of librarianship to defeat evil and save the day. This picture book-sized graphic novel is cute, funny, and an absolute delight to read.

Dear Sister is an ode to sibling relationships. It’s a quick, poignant epistolary graphic novel that walks a middle line between heartfelt picture books and Diary of a Wimpy Kid-type shenanigans. My nine-year-old cousin finished it in 45 minutes and liked it, and so did my thirty year-old brother. 

The Tea Dragon Society is a bright, adorable LGBTQ+- and disability-inclusive graphic novel about fantastical creatures called tea dragons. Themes of found family, finding acceptance, and making your own way will resonate with readers, even as its delightful illustrations charm them.

fangsgiving

I find the picture book world vast and intimidating – do you? It seems as though at least fifty new picture books are released each week. Only the strong could survive such an onslaught (not me, I am not that hardy)! Still, I need to keep up a bit, if only so that I have new titles to recommend to friends and gift to the littles in my life. Ethan Long’s Fangsgiving is a fun monster-mash of a Thanksgiving book that will be a hit year-round, but especially during the autumn months.

fangsgiving by ethan long cover
It's the fourth Thursday of November, and the members of Fright Club are cooking up something spooky… a Thanksgiving feast!

But when Vlad's family arrives unexpectedly, they put their own spin on each of the dishes. Now, the rolls are as hard as headstones and the turkey has been cooked 
to death. Vlad loves his family, but they've made a mess of their meal!

Can this monster-filled family come together to save their feast and celebrate what the holiday is truly about?

Did you know that monsters celebrate Thanksgiving too? Vlad the vampire and his friends (a werewolf, a mummy, a ghost, and a witch!) are getting together for the holiday in Vlad’s treehouse. They’re nearly ready to sit down to eat when… Vlad’s whole vampire clan descends! Vlad’s family have their own ideas about what food looks good – from lump-kin pie with maggot meatballs to completely charred turkey. Will Vlad have a meltdown and kick out his family? In the end family and friends combine efforts to prepare and celebrate a Thanksgiving (Fangsgiving) worthy of the name.

Long’s loving mash-up of Halloween and Thanksgiving elements makes for fun, if predictable, picture book success. Fangsgiving includes themes of family vs. friends, “ruined” holiday plans, and working collaboratively to save the day. Long livens up the text with monster puns that will delight adults, while children will love the slapstick humor and seeing familiar Halloween-staple paranormal creatures in a new context. It’s not scary, though there are some gross-out food combos that will make kids scream “yuck!”

The art is a huge highlight, with appealing nighttime scenes (they’re creatures who go bump in the night, after all!) done in dark purples (graphite pencil, colored digitally), funny sequences rendered with care, and fantastic details (like skull-printed potholders) on each page. Long gives every character googly eyes – even the spider hanging from the ceiling, and this only adds to the enjoyment. With monster-ific food prep depicted on almost every page, kids should have plenty of questions and opinions to share, especially about the vampire family’s idea of cuisine.

In all, Fangsgiving is a cute, lighthearted holiday tie-in picture book that will delight readers young and old, especially at group storytimes in October and November.

Recommended for: children ages 5-7, and for classroom, library, and bookshop storytimes.

my bed is an air balloon

When I was a little one, prime read-aloud hours were from 6-8am, when my mother read to us before the day truly started. Those are some of my favorite memories – the world not quite awake, snuggled in and listening to a story’s twists and turns. Now that I’m an adult I can see that my mom was bribing us to wake up with a story! And it worked. That said, I know that storytime for most families is at bedtime, and there’s a whole subset of picture books produced just for the end of the day. Julia Copus’ and Alison Jay’s My Bed is an Air Balloon is just such a bedtime tale, and its poetic flights of fancy will delight both parents and children.

my bed is an air balloon by julia copus, illustrated by alison jay cover
When night falls my bed is an air balloon.
I sail through the slipsiverse, close by the moon.
I float above treetops where fluttertufts are sleeping
And flowering hills where the whifflepigs go creeping;
Ponds strung with starlight that glitter like glass,
A floog with her velvet nose bent to the grass.
Such treasures I spy on! My bed in the trees
Swings me up high, like a circus trapeze.
Now the cool, night-rustling air
Slips through my finger-gaps, ripples my hair;
Now we glide over water, the moon’s silver light
Blown by a cloudpuff into the bight,
Adrift on the sea where the dream-shapes float;
When night falls my bed is a sailing boat.

A beautifully presented picture book with two front covers, the text can be read from front to back and vice versa. The mirror form poem meets in the middle in a stunning centerpiece image as the two children in the story (twins, one in an air balloon, the other a sailing boat) meet in the clouds!

My Bed is an Air Balloon imagines a world of nighttime travels and adventure, where children’s beds turn into air balloons and sailing boats, floating over a land full of whimsical imaginary creatures. Told in poem form that may be read front to back, or back to front, the format of the book will engage readers as much as the text, and prompt many requests for rereads.

Julia Copus’ poem employs wide-ranging vocabulary, invents new words for make-believe creatures, and charms with its lyricism and rhythm. It’s curious and at the same time lulling – reading through it twice (in different directions!) in the space of the book’s pages should encourage little listeners into dreams. The fantastical nature of the poem may also inspire further storytelling, as kids and adults alike discuss what a whifflepig or floog is, or how cloudpuff might live.

And the art! The art is truly a highlight. Alison Jay has taken the format and the poem and created gorgeous dream landscapes that fit this fanciful story. The book is a beautiful, dreamlike/real mash-up of the familiar and the imaginative with soft edges. The details are delicious, and each page has something to savor, be it boat slippers, floating teapots, or flying laundry. Jay’s art perfectly melds the bizarre and charming for dreamscapes we can identify with and wonder at, and on top of that it’s adorable.

In all, My Bed is an Air Balloon is a slightly strange and all the way wonderful picture book that’s destined to be a bedtime classic. I can’t wait to gift it to the little ones in my life.

Recommended for: bedtime reading for children ages 3-6, and anyone who likes fantastical picture books filled with exquisite art.

Fine print: I received a copy of this book from the publisher for review consideration. I did not receive any compensation for this post.

the language of spells

I, like almost every other reader in the known universe, can be swayed by a pretty book cover. And when a pretty book cover also happens to have the words “language” and “spells” in the title, and a DRAGON on it, well. Shut the front door, as the saying goes. I came in to the reading experience ready to love Garret Weyr’s middle grade fantasy The Language of Spells. I cried-at-the-end ADORED it.

the language of spells by garret weyr, illustrated by katie harnett cover
Grisha is a dragon in a world that’s forgotten how to see him. Maggie is a unusual child who thinks she’s perfectly ordinary. They’re an unlikely duo—but magic, like friendship, is funny. Sometimes it chooses those who might not look so likely. And magic has chosen Grisha and Maggie to solve the darkest mystery in Vienna. Decades ago, when World War II broke out, someone decided that there were too many dragons for all of them to be free. As they investigate, Grisha and Maggie ask the question everyone’s forgotten: Where have the missing dragons gone? And is there a way to save them? At once richly magical and tragically historical, The Language of Spells is a novel full of adventure about remembering old stories, forging new ones, and the transformative power of friendship.

Benevolentia Gaudium, or Grisha for short, is the youngest dragon alive, in a world where magic and dragons have become obsolete. Maggie (Anna Marguerite, properly) is a girl of eleven with a famous poet for a father and an even more famous, though dead, painter for a mother. Both Maggie and Grisha live in Vienna, and it is there that a friendship forms, a mystery unspools, and an adventure is undertaken. The Language of Spells is necessarily about magic, but it’s also a little bit about history, a lot about friendship, a smidgen about education, and a tiny bit about heartbreak. In other words, it is marvelous.

After reading the official summary I was under the mistaken impression that this book was about invisible dragons. It took me a few pages at the beginning to realize that that was *not* the case. No, instead it’s a coming of age story for both Grisha and Maggie, with a lot of fun dragon lore and magical creatures, historical bits, anecdotes about living in a hotel, and talking cats, among other delightful elements. It is (I would think) almost impossible not to fall in love with Maggie and Grisha. They’re very different characters, yet very kind to each other, and it has been too long since I read such a lovely portrait of friendship.

Theme-wise, The Language of Spells is about finding what is special or different about yourself and celebrating it (in Grisha’s case), making friends, and finding ways to solve problems and do the right thing (in Maggie’s case). It also has several fable-like messages woven in about judging people based on their “usefulness,” the innate dignity of rational beings, remembering the past, as well as some musings on freedom and happiness. It could have been quite complicated, but the author’s skill and touches of humor kept the tone cozy and the story moving.

As any good middle grade story is, this one is true (even if it does feature magic and dragons and talking cats), and at the same time absolutely heart-wrenching at the end. It’s the perfect read for a rainy day, with a cat at your feet and a mug of hot chocolate at hand. It’s also a great pick for a chapter-or-two-at-a-time storytime or bedtime, or independent reading for the 911-year-old crowd.

I can’t close out my review without mentioning the gorgeous art! At the beginning of each chapter there are illustrations by Katie Harnett (also the artist of the gorgeous cover!) which complement the text. The overall book design is just fabulous as well – the end papers, mustard-yellow boards, and gold foil on the dust jacket all make for a delightful keepsake of a book.

The Language of Spells has a timeless feel and quality to it, and is sure to earn a permanent spot on many shelves with its gentle, quiet brilliance.

Recommended for: fans of Catherynne Valente’s Fairyland books and Laura Ruby’s York, and anyone who likes cozy, imaginative books that are perfect for curling up with on wintery days.

Are you interested in other reviews of this book? Check out the TLC Book Tour! Or you can learn more via the author's websiteInstagramFacebook, or Twitter.

Fine print: I reviewed this book as part of a TLC blog tour. I did not receive any compensation for this post, and I bought my own copy of the book.

how to make friends with a ghost

In general I am not a Halloween sort of person (didn’t grow up celebrating it, never really caught the fever), but I will make exceptions for spooky + funny and/or spooky + cute. Rebecca Green’s picture book How to Make Friends with a Ghost fits firmly in the latter category – it’s an adorably illustrated guide to ghostly friendship, tailor-made for this time of year.

how to make friends with a ghost by rebecca green cover
What do you do when you meet a ghost? One: Provide the ghost with some of its favorite snacks, like mud tarts and earwax truffles. Two: Tell your ghost bedtime stories (ghosts love to be read to). Three: Make sure no one mistakes your ghost for whipped cream or a marshmallow when you aren’t looking! If you follow these few simple steps and the rest of the essential tips in How to Make Friends with a Ghost, you’ll see how a ghost friend will lovingly grow up and grow old with you.

A whimsical story about ghost care, Rebecca Green’s debut picture book is a perfect combination of offbeat humor, quirky and sweet illustrations, and the timeless theme of friendship.

Ghosts are attracted to people who are sweet, warm, and kind, according to Green’s guide to lifelong (and beyond!) friendship. While directed at the reader who might want to make a cute ghostly friend (the illustrations really do make it seem desirable!), How to Make Friends with a Ghost also contains many friendship insights even if you plan to keep your pals strictly among the living.

With themes of friendship and supernatural sweetness, and sprinkled with funny anecdotes and properly cited “tips” from fake guides, this delightful picture book is sure to be a hit with the 7-10 year old set, adults, and aspiring artists. While a friendship guide is not your typical ghost story, this one charms with notes on care and feeding, growing together, hiding places, hazards, and even a recipe (a gross one, but still)!

While the text will win over many readers, it is the whimsical, witchy illustration style that elevates this book to something special. Green’s pages are filled with colored pencil, gouache, and hand-lettered text, and the clear pencil strokes can be studied/copied with ease. The whole book brims with love and care. I especially loved the busy endpapers full of spooky ingredients (Halloween-friendly)(and the “friendly” bit really is true!).

So, if you’re in the mood for a cute, cuddly ghost story that is not scary at all, How to Make Friends with a Ghost is the book for you. It is made with love, and perfect for autumnal reading.

Recommended for: independent picture book readers, aspiring artists, and anyone who likes Halloween (minus the creepy stuff).

cucumber quest: the doughnut kingdom

Do you ever think about how your reading habits have evolved? I used to be a strictly prose-only reader, but in the past two years I’ve been reading a lot of picture books, graphic novels, and I’ve even dipped into poetry. I have several friends who are branching out into audiobooks as well (and I know that’s a growing category for publishers, so it’s not just them!). This change means that I’m trusting different sources for recommendations – but one publisher that always publishes great graphic novels is First Second. When they sent me Gigi D.G.'s middle grade graphic novel Cucumber Quest: The Doughnut Kingdom, I knew it was going to be a fun read right off the bat.

cucumber quest: the doughnut kingdom by gigi d.g. book cover
What happens when an evil queen gets her hands on an ancient force of destruction?

World domination, obviously.

The seven kingdoms of Dreamside need a legendary hero. Instead, they'll have to settle for Cucumber, a nerdy magician who just wants to go to school. As destiny would have it, he and his way more heroic sister, Almond, must now seek the Dream Sword, the only weapon powerful enough to defeat Queen Cordelia’s Nightmare Knight.

Can these bunny siblings really save the world in its darkest hour?

Sure, why not?

In the Doughnut Kingdom, where this story begins, magic student Cucumber just wants to go off to school. However, his ineffectual mother Bagel and bad dad Lord Cabbage insist that he challenge the evil usurper Queen Cordelia. Never mind that he has no interest in becoming a hero! Luckily, Cucumber’s little sister Almond doesn’t listen to those who insist she can’t be a hero (what nonsense!), and decides that a quest is right in her wheelhouse. She drags Cucumber along with her straight into adventure, travel, and kingdom-saving exploits.

While the series is titled Cucumber Quest, in this volume Almond is the undisputed star. Cucumber plays her foil, worrying and asking important questions, while Almond makes decisions and keeps the action moving along. In a kingdom where almost every creature or place is named for food, you would expect the story to lean to fluff – and while it is super cute, it’s also funny, a little sassy, and there are some unexpected twists to liven things up. In other words, there’s plot to rival the art!

Speaking of art: the world of Dreamside is filled with folks who have different kinds of bunny ears, and that isn’t really explained (they don’t seem to have any other bunny attributes). The art itself is digital and soft-edged, with no lines to speak of. Most of the buildings are foodstuffs (Tiramisu Tower, for instance), and the whole book is, in a word, adorable.

As far as weaknesses go, I have two tiny, tiny nitpicks. First, the cover doesn’t do the story justice. You can’t really tell what’s going on? And the art is kind of a weird shape? But like, it’s such a tiny complaint it doesn’t really register. Second, there are a bunch of extras at the end of the book, and they’re kind of a mishmash. I think that with a little more editing/organization it would have made a lot more sense. But you’ll notice that neither of these had anything to do with the story, which is a great sign. The story is a lot of fun, and stands well on its own. It’s also available online for free as a webcomic!

In all, Cucumber Quest: The Doughnut Kingdom is a charming fairy tale adventure of a graphic novel, with several more volumes available or on the way!

Recommended for: fans of the 5 Worlds and Mighty Jack graphic novel series, and any readers ages 8-12 who enjoy fun, sassy protagonists, and quests to save the world.

Fine print: I received a copy of this book from the publisher for review consideration. I did not receive any compensation for this post.

the day you begin

Friday, October 5, 2018 | | 1 comments
How are you doing, fam? Today has been rough for a bunch of reasons, but I have to keep my head up, keep on believing that I can make the world a better place.  And what better way to do that than to read a book? One of the most affirming, wonderful books I’ve read lately is Jacqueline Woodson's picture book The Day You Begin, beautifully illustrated by Rafael López.

the day you begin by jacqueline woodson, illustrated by rafael lopez cover
There will be times when you walk into a room and no one there is quite like you.

There are many reasons to feel different. Maybe it’s how you look or talk, or where you’re from; maybe it’s what you eat, or something just as random. It’s not easy to take those first steps into a place where nobody really knows you yet, but somehow you do it.

Jacqueline Woodson’s lyrical text and Rafael López’s dazzling art reminds us that we all feel like outsiders sometimes-and how brave it is that we go forth anyway. And that sometimes, when we reach out and begin to share our stories, others will be happy to meet us halfway.

A black girl with curly hair enters a classroom and doesn’t see anyone who looks like her. She feels left out when she realizes that everyone else’s family traveled for the summer while she was at home babysitting. A boy named Rigoberto is laughed at when he speaks in his native tongue. An Asian girl feels less-than because no one understands the delicious food her mother makes for her school lunch. These are the interwoven narratives in The Day You Begin, a picture book about recognizing your differences, finding your place in the world, and beginning to tell the stories only you can.

Ms. Woodson is the 2018-2019 National Ambassador for Young People's Literature and a National Book Award winner, and it shows. The Day You Begin is poignant, earnest, poetic, and needed. Written to and for children whole feel separate and apart because of their differences (due to race, class, language, or culture), this picture book tells children 1) that they are brave, 2) that they can share their unique stories (and the world will make a place for them when they do), 3) that they will find themselves and find friends, and 4) that there is beauty in similarity AND difference.

On the writing itself: Woodson’s similes are reflected seamlessly in López’s art. Words like a song are reflected in musical notes on the page. Getting picked last is depicted in every heart-wrenching detail. The thoughts that kids tuck away so that they will hurt less are here, on the page, and it is enough to make you cry… until you realize that every difference and moment of other-ness is being turned into an opportunity to connect, in vibrant tones. Woodson’s words and López’s mix of textures, colors, and mediums are the perfect fit for this book.

"There will be times when the world feels like a place that you’re standing all the way outside of…"

In all, The Day You Begin is an affirming, heartfelt, and brilliant picture book for everyone and all-ages, but especially for children who feel isolated and different (and who hasn’t felt that way, one day or another?).

Recommended for: all picture book collections, classrooms, storytimes, and for children ages 6-9 need the encouragement that our differences make us special, in the best ways.

in other lands

Monday, September 24, 2018 | | 2 comments
I am on the best sort of streak right now – I’ve been reading one lovely book after another! And the latest in line is Sarah Rees Brennan’s In Other Lands, an affectionate send-up of popular fantasy tropes with lots of hilarity and snark added in. It’s gosh darn entertaining, and I kind of loved it a lot.

in other lands by sarah rees brennan cover
The Borderlands aren’t like anywhere else. Don’t try to smuggle a phone or any other piece of technology over the wall that marks the Border — unless you enjoy a fireworks display in your backpack. (Ballpoint pens are okay.) There are elves, harpies, and — best of all as far as Elliot is concerned — mermaids.

Elliot? Who’s Elliot? Elliot is thirteen years old. He’s smart and just a tiny bit obnoxious. Sometimes more than a tiny bit. When his class goes on a field trip and he can see a wall that no one else can see, he is given the chance to go to school in the Borderlands.

It turns out that on the other side of the wall, classes involve a lot more weaponry and fitness training and fewer mermaids than he expected. On the other hand, there’s Serene-Heart-in-the-Chaos-of-Battle, an elven warrior who is more beautiful than anyone Elliot has ever seen, and then there’s her human friend Luke: sunny, blond, and annoyingly likeable. There are lots of interesting books. There’s even the chance Elliot might be able to change the world.

Elliott Schafer is a short, obnoxious know-it-all of thirteen when an agent of a magical school finds him and escorts him into the Borderlands. He’s glad to go because his home life is pretty terrible, and also: mermaids. And then it turns out that Serene-Heart-in-the-Chaos-of-Battle, a beautiful elven warrior, is in his cohort. So that’s alright. Still, Elliott has to grapple with: a tech-primitive world, a war-obsessed society, issues of gender, race, and sexuality, and the annoying existence of golden boy Luke Sunborn, Serene’s other best friend. In this portal fantasy-turned-parody Elliott’s years in magic school are formative, transformative, and endearingly comical.

I think the first and most important thing about this book is that it made me laugh, a lot, unexpectedly. I probably sounded like a demented loon, barking out a laugh every 5-10 minutes while reading, but the dialogue and Elliott’s inner narrative were just that good. Elliott is uncharitable, sarcastic, and dramatic – and he says everything that comes to mind. I guess you could call him unlikable (he certainly says and does some unlikable things), but I loved him immediately for identifying and highlighting uncomfortable truths, all while pointedly not observing the social niceties. I identified with him.

The second thing about this book is that like any good parody, it interrogated its source material (popular portal fantasy and fantasy fiction at large) and turned tropes on their heads. The elven matriarchal society and its unique prejudices served as a direct foil to the familiar paternalistic human Border Guard. Elliott’s pacifist stance in a military camp raised sometimes obvious questions about who gets to make the decisions and what sorts of actions we value. And as a desperately earnest believer in love, Elliott breaks his heart and makes romantic missteps with partners of both sexes instead of automatically finding his “one” soulmate. I also appreciated that a typical YA fantasy trope (dead/absent parents) was interrogated as well.

Weakness: the copyediting. This book originated as a serial online, and though it made a pretty serious jump to book form with aplomb, I found several errors. Still, that’s nothing when you’re in the flow and really enjoying a book. Which I was.

In Other Lands was ridiculously enjoyable. Although I know not every reader will love Elliott (or the book), I did. Sarah Rees Brennan has a knack for writing comedy, and this book is FUNNY and fun.

Recommended to: fans of science fiction and fantasy parodies (think Rainbow Rowell’s Carry On with 100% more snark), and anyone who likes portal fantasies, LGBTQ+ inclusive young adult fiction, and grappling with big questions while maintaining a sense of humor.

check, please!: #hockey

Friday, September 21, 2018 | | 1 comments
When I held Ngozi Ukazu’s debut graphic novel Check, Please!: #Hockey for the first time in my hands, I thought about how much I loved it already (the entire comic is available online for free and I’ve been reading it for years), how perfect it was for my interests (hockey + baking + LGBTQ+ representation), and how it was going to solve all of my holiday gifting needs. I adore this story, and I think you will too, even if your preferred reading doesn’t include anything mentioned above. It’s just that loveable.

Helloooo, Internet Land. Bitty here! 

Y’all . . . I might not be ready for this. I may be a former junior figure skating champion, vlogger extraordinaire, and very talented amateur pâtissier, but being a freshman on the Samwell University hockey team is a whole new challenge. It’s nothing like co-ed club hockey back in Georgia! First of all? There’s checking. And then, there is there is Jack—our very attractive but moody captain.

A collection of the first half of the megapopular webcomic series of the same name, Check, Please!: #Hockey is the first book of a hilarious and stirring two-volume coming-of-age story about hockey, bros, and trying to find yourself during the best four years of your life.

Let’s get down to it: WHAT is in this book that makes it so beloved? I’ll level with you here: this is a cute story about a baker with a video channel who is also a former champion figure skater, who is ALSO a gay boy and a Southerner, and who is just starting college and joining a serious, competitive hockey team. In other words, it’s about a character with a lot of varied interests and identities, at a pivotal point in time. And Bitty (Eric Bittle, to be precise) isn’t special or perfect, he’s just a guy making friends, learning his new environment, and trying to be himself. It works because author-illustrator Ngozi has tapped into the best parts of the tropes referenced above (coming of age, coming out, etc.), deleted toxic masculinity from the equation, and presented the reader with a bunch of lovable goofballs as Bitty’s support system, hockey miscellany for laughs, and hijinks that will be familiar to anyone who has spent too much time with one group of people. It’s FUN. Good, clean fun (swearing and references to college-aged-shenanigans aside).

What does it do best? It’s funny, the angst is realistic, there are moments of tension and then superb hits of relief, the art is focused on the characters’ faces (so you see a lot of emotion). And, as mentioned, there’s acceptance, friendship, and eventually falling in love. The majority of the book is panel by panel storytelling over the first two years of Bitty's college career, and at the end there are extra comics from specific times and/or explanations of hockey lingo. There is also a section full of Bitty's tweets listed chronologically (for a good chunk of time Ngozi was into multi-platform storytelling, tweeting in character as Bitty). Taken as a whole, you really get a sense of Bitty's life and voice, and it's 100% endearing. 

Shortcomings... hmm, this is a tough one. This book was tailor-made for me, and so it's difficult to take a step back from it and evaluate it fairly. I will say that because this book started life as a webcomic, there are things that didn't make it into the final published edition that add to the context, liveliness and overall fun. Ngozi's Instagrams of personalized bookplates (with hilarious captions), commentary during live-drawing streams (available to Patreon patrons), and the blog posts (one for each "episode" of the comic, posted a day or two after they go up) all add to the world of Samwell, and I missed them as I reread the comic for review. Also I don't think Bitty's love of Beyoncé comes through as much. Weird!

In all, #Hockey is a kick, and graphic novel fans ages 14 and up will love it, even if they don't care much (or at all!) about hockey or baking.

Recommended for: hockey fans, graphic novel fans, and readers who like found families, happy/hopeful coming of age stories, and fun.

good morning, neighbor + apple-raisin cake

Does reading about food make you hungry? Sometimes (often) I will salivate over a meal I’ve come across in a novel. So obviously, the only option left is to make it. I once stopped reading Neil Gaiman’s Stardust mid-book to bake bread, and I learned to make cinnamon rolls (and other treats!) because of their descriptions in Robin McKinley’s Sunshine. Last year I made dinosaur cookies after reading Cookiesaurus Rex. My latest picture book read, Good Morning, Neighbor by Davide Cali and illustrated by Maria Dek, inspired me to make an apple-raisin cake.

good morning neighbor by davide cali, illustrated by maria dek cover
A mouse decides one morning to make an omelet, but needs an egg, and sets out to find one. On his search, he eventually finds everything needed to bake a cake, including apples, flour, and sugar, but also those most precious ingredients—community and friends, from a hedgehog to an owl to a raccoon—and learns about the unexpected gifts of asking for what you need and sharing what you have.

A mouse wants to make an omelet but doesn't have an egg. That is how this adventure begins! Mouse visits various animal neighbors asking for an egg, but instead gathers all of the ingredients for an apple-raisin cake. In the end, a bat has an egg, an owl has an oven, and a cake is baked! But... who will get a slice? Ideas are important contributions, and the animals agree that sharing is the order of the day.  

Good Morning, Neighbor is a story about asking your community for help, sharing the results of a group project (in this case, baking a cake), and being fair to everyone who contributedall great lessons for little readers and their adults. The messages are "baked in," so to speak (see what I did there?), and all of the talk of cake is enough to make you want to bake your own (as I did), and reflect on the story. Reading + baking would be a fun, parent/grandparent/friendly adult-kid activity this autumn.

Mouse's travels from neighbor to neighbor grow with every page as he adds another animal to his entourage. The repetition of each animal involved during each stage of the egg search is a child-friendly device, but may weary adults by the end. Otherwise, the prose is unexceptionable, and even includes a funny aside on the last page. This book is made to be read aloud, and the illustrations pored over.

Speaking of the illustrations! Maria Dek's watercolors are the absolute star of the book. The quirky designs have a cute/eccentric vibe with lots of little forest-y details. My favorite page spreads were those with closeups where an animal almost covered the page, and showed them in their home environment. The book design is also top-notch, with text placement, size, and weight varying based on the action. In all, a visual feast of a book (I will keep going with these food puns until someone yells "Put a fork in it!").

Recommended for: anyone looking for read aloud books about sharing, baking, or being a good neighbor for the 3-6 year old set, and picture book fans with an eye for art and design.

And now... cake!

Apple-Raisin Cake (adapted from this Better Homes & Gardens recipe)


INGREDIENTS

1 cup apple juice or sweet wine (I used Moscato di Asti)
3/4 cup raisins
2 medium tart apples, peeled, cored, and thinly sliced (I used Granny Smith)
1 tablespoon sugar
1 tablespoon lemon juice
1 tablespoon finely chopped crystallized ginger
1/2 cup sugar
1/2 cup butter, melted
3 egg yolks
2 teaspoons vanilla
1 cup all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon baking powder
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
3 egg whites
1/3 cup honey

DIRECTIONS

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Grease and flour a 9-inch springform pan; set aside.

In a small saucepan heat 1 cup apple juice or sweet wine just until simmering. Remove from heat. Add raisins; let stand for at least 20 minutes. Drain well, discarding liquid.

In a medium bowl combine apple slices, the 1 tablespoon sugar, the lemon juice, and ginger. Set aside.

In a large bowl combine the 1/2 cup sugar, the melted butter, egg yolks, and vanilla; beat with an electric mixer on medium-high speed about 2 minutes or until thick and light yellow (I did this with a handheld mixer). Add flour, baking powder, cinnamon, and salt, beating just until combined. Set aside.


If reusing the beaters, wash thoroughly (I did this next bit in my KitchenAid). In a separate medium bowl beat egg whites with an electric mixer on medium speed just until stiff peaks form (tips stand straight). Stir about one-third of the beaten egg whites into the flour mixture to lighten. Fold the remaining egg whites into flour mixture. Drizzle the 1/3 cup honey over batter; fold in until combined.

Spoon half of the batter into the prepared springform pan, spreading evenly. Top with half of the apple mixture. Spoon the remaining batter over apples, spreading to cover apples. Top the batter with the remaining apple mixture (discard any lemon juice remaining in bowl). Arrange raisins over apples.

Bake for 35 to 55 minutes or until top of cake is evenly golden brown (the time is quite variable because the original recipe called for 35-40 minutes, but my cake took around 55 – I did the toothpick test). Cool in pan on a wire rack for 10 minutes (center may dip slightly). Loosen and remove sides of springform pan. Cool completely on wire rack.

Serve with ice cream or whipped cream, split with friends, or eat a slice for a decadent breakfast treat – this is a versatile, and delicious, recipe!


Recommended for: an autumnal treat to share with friends and neighbors (obviously!), an ambitious weekday night if you want to be the star of the dinner table, or a simple-ish but impressive weekend/dinner party dessert.  Also would be especially good after an Italian family-style meal (the recipe is adapted from a torta di mele).

Interested in other food related recipes? Check out Beth Fish Reads’ Weekend Cooking!

Fine print: I received a copy of the picture book for review consideration from the publisher. I did not receive any compensation for this post.
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