Tuesday, September 17, 2019 | | 2 comments
In case you weren’t reading my blog last winter, I am in love with Oge Mora’s art! I bought… oh, 5 or so? copies of her debut picture book Thank You, Omu! and gave them to the small children in my life. It was that. good. So when I saw that Mora was doing a signing at ALA, I bought a copy of her new book, Saturday, without hesitation. And friends? It is delightful. Gorgeous, intricate illustrations paired with a lovely story make for another future classic. Saturday is outstanding.

saturday by oge mora book cover
Today would be special. Today would be splendid. It was Saturday! But sometimes, the best plans don’t work out exactly the way you expect...

In this heartfelt and universal story, a mother and daughter look forward to their special Saturday routine together every single week. But this Saturday, one thing after another goes wrong–ruining storytime, salon time, picnic time, and the puppet show they’d been looking forward to going to all week. Mom is nearing a meltdown...until her loving daughter reminds her that being together is the most important thing of all.

Author-artist Oge Mora’s highly anticipated follow up to Caldecott Honor Thank You, Omu! features the same magnificently radiant artwork and celebration of sharing so beloved in her debut picture book.

In Oge Mora’s second picture book, Ava and her mother look forward to Saturday each week, because Ava’s mother has to work the other days (Sunday-Friday). Saturdays have a special routine, and a treat at the end – but this Saturday doesn’t go as planned! Each time something doesn’t turn out, mother and daughter take a deep breath and move on, determined that the day will still be special. On the surface, Saturday is a story of family togetherness, but it also includes lessons on continuing through life with a positive attitude instead of getting frustrated in the face of obstacles, valuing people over things, and making your own fun no matter what happens.

One of the things I loved about Mora’s debut was that although the story had the look and feel of a classic, it also contained the touchstones and details that set it in a particular cultural community and neighborhood (African-American, immigrant). Mora’s Saturday does the same, but even more so. While any parent and child with too little quality time together will identify with the story, it will be especially poignant for working mothers, single parents, and African-American families (the salon scenes!). That doesn’t mean it won’t be a classic (it will)! The themes in Saturday are universal, and the story is told so charmingly that I can see this book being requested over and over again for storytime, bedtime, and any time.

But let’s get to the Art, with a capital “A” intended – the true highlight of a Mora picture book (and yes, I feel comfortable saying that after only two books!). Mora works in a bright palette, using paint markers, patterned paper, and old book clippings. The layering of cut paper pieces adds texture and dimension to each scene, and the vivid patterns and colors are a feast for the eyes. Mora is also excellent at imbuing her spreads with motion – choosing to portray things that are happening “mid-shot,” and including rounds of changing character looks on a single page. I also love the inclusion of hand-cut letters that distinguish the text and add excitement (“zoom” and “Saturday” are the two most frequently singled out words).

Listen, it’s just a beautiful book, through and through. Mora is a fantastic artist and a good storyteller, and she has a crew at her publisher (Little, Brown) who compliment her art with gorgeous design. I want to keep this book to myself forever, but I suppose I’ll share it with some lucky little in my life!

Recommended for: fans of vibrant, diverse picture books in the vein of The Last Stop on Market Street and The Snowy Day, and any and all readers ages 4 and up.

Saturday will be released by Little, Brown on October 22, 2019.

a big mooncake for little star

The American Library Association's (ALA) annual conference was in DC this year, and so of course I went! Two days spent tooling around the exhibit hall, meeting authors and librarians and publishing folk – what's not to love? And then of course there were the moments of literary serendipity, like happening by a signing for Grace Lin’s Caldecott Honor picture book A Big Mooncake for Little Star! I hadn’t yet read this title, but I knew Lin from her middle grade books, and like any self-respecting former library brat, I knew that a Caldecott sticker meant “GOOD THINGS INSIDE.” I’m happy to say it’s several levels better than good.

a big mooncake for little star by grace lin book cover
Pat, pat, pat…

Little Star’s soft feet tiptoed to the Big Mooncake.

Little Star loves the delicious Mooncake that she bakes with her mama. But she’s not supposed to eat any yet! What happens when she can’t resist a nibble?

In this stunning picture book that shines as bright as the stars in the sky, Newbery Honor author Grace Lin creates a heartwarming original story that explains phases of the moon.

In this picture book, novelist Lin both writes and illustrates a story about a mother, a daughter, and a too-tempting mooncake in the sky. It’s too delicious to leave alone, so each night Little Star takes a bite of the mooncake after she goes to bed. Little by little, the mooncake disappears, just like a waning moon, until all that’s left is a trail of glittering crumbs.

There’s obvious symbolism throughout the book: the mooncake as the moon, growing smaller every night. Both mother and daughter wear star pajamas that melt into the black, nighttime background. And of course, Little Star’s name (or nickname) fits the bill as well. All of these (and more in the endpapers) will delight younger readers just beginning to notice and appreciate the different ways language can be used, as well as adults.

There are other elements that will be familiar to children as well: bedtime routines, sneaking food when you’re supposed to be asleep, “tricking” your parents/adults, and so on. Taken together with the symbolism, and the striking art, the book feels like a fable or legend – something epic that explains natural phenomena in story form. Lin illustrated the book in gouache paint on paper, and each page is glossy and dark with white font and bright painted illustrations that draw the eye. The unique design is a welcome change from the default of negative white space. It also makes sense for a book set at night.

Another welcome element? Both Little Star and her mother are Asian (making this an #ownvoices book), and mooncakes are a culturally Asian food associated with the Mid-Autumn Moon Festival. I believe that diversity in books for young people is so important, and I’m thrilled that children will see themselves, and possibly their cultural heritage, represented in this beautiful, epic story. Seeing yourself as the protagonist in a story can be the catalyst to believing in your own future! And for others, there will be learning about mooncakes, Moon Festivals, and cultural traditions different from their own (and appreciation for a simple bedtime story!).

In all, A Big Mooncake for Little Star is a gorgeous, charming, and deceptively simple picture book packed with symbolism and meaning. It will appeal to readers of all ages and it’s a must for any child’s shelf.

Recommended for: any and all readers ages 4+, and especially anyone who enjoys exceptional picture books with mythological themes.

Fine print: I picked up a final copy of this book from the publisher at ALA for possible review. I did not receive any compensation for this post.

my island

Right away, when you see the cover of Stéphanie Demasse-Pottier and Seng Soun Ratanavanh’s picture book My Island, you sense that it will be whimsical, and maybe a little strange. After all, there’s a girl standing on top of an enormous seashell, and there’s a bird on top of her head! What’s happening? She’s also holding kites with stitched threads in her hands. The overall feeling is that this book will require some imagination – and it does, a bit – but it also encourages flights of fancy and dreaming as well. It’s a feast for the eyes and the daydreaming part of your soul.

my island by stéphanie demasse-pottier and seng soun ratanavanh book cover
A young girl imagines a lovely island populated by thousands of birds, where she picnics with her animals, plays games, reads, and collects flowers. You too are welcome on this island, if you know how to dream. Gorgeous, colorful illustrations accompany this gentle yet impactful story that celebrates the imagination of young readers.

Do you know how to sing, how to share, and how to dream? Then you are welcome on the unnamed island and in the house found in this book! While the story itself is minimal, it includes just enough detail to go along with gorgeous page spreads full of charming, vibrant detail. Animals, flowers, sea creatures, birds, and more sail, dance, perform, and go to parties on each page. The scale changes again and again, so readers are left to imagine why and/or how certain elements and characters are growling larger or smaller, depending on the circumstance. The constant is the little girl and her chickadee bird friend – you’ll see them adventuring together on every page spread.

Seng Soun Ratanavanh’s art is meticulous, gorgeous, and worth the read alone. Her patterned illustrations create a pencil, watercolor, and stenciled wonderland full of unlikely capers and situations, à la Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Flower garden snow globes, sea snail-back islands and paper boat sailors, picnic basket parties and more are rendered in shades of yellow, teal, and red are all at once charming, inventive, quaint, and marvelously-detailed – so much so that they require long perusal (or multiple re-reads!).

In all, My Island is an ode to the imagination, and is sure to be a hit with children and adults alike.

Recommended for: curious readers ages 4-7 who enjoy magical visuals that prompt day dreaming, and picture book aficionados of any age with a penchant for gorgeous illustration.

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

be prepared

Did you go to summer camp as a child? I did, for a week-long religious camp when I was in 5th, 6th, and 7th grades. It was a summer highlight (along with outdoor summer swim team!), and I have vivid recollections of camp-wide water balloon fights, arts and crafts, lakeside activities, and drinking coffee for the first time. But because the camp I went to was religion-focused, and only a week long, I always envied the girls in The Parent Trap or in books who went away to camp for months, or whole summers even, and pulled complex pranks! I wanted a taste of that freedom, independence, and mischief. Vera Brosgol’s middle grade graphic novel Be Prepared is an autobiographical take on her own summer camp experience – which wasn’t what she expected at all, and yet formative all the same. And (bonus!) it made me feel a bit better about never being sent away for a whole summer!

be prepared by vera brosgol cover
In Be Prepared, all Vera wants to do is fit in—but that’s not easy for a Russian girl in the suburbs. Her friends live in fancy houses and their parents can afford to send them to the best summer camps. Vera’s single mother can’t afford that sort of luxury, but there's one summer camp in her price range—Russian summer camp.

Vera is sure she's found the one place she can fit in, but camp is far from what she imagined. And nothing could prepare her for all the "cool girl" drama, endless Russian history lessons, and outhouses straight out of nightmares!

When young Vera’s attempts to make friends with girls from her suburban school go embarrassingly (and hilariously, in retrospect) awry, she decides that Russian summer camp is the answer to her problems. Surely there she will fit in and find people who will appreciate her! But it turns out that at camp Vera has just exchanged one miserable experience for another – and the camp doesn’t have running water!

Brosgol’s camp story chronicles experiences that will be familiar and/or recognizable to all – feeling different or excluded, wanting to fit in, and having a “thing” or experience built up so much in your head that turns out to be not-so-great after all. Brosgol treats her past self with grace and humor, drawing laughs out of her audience as she remains true to past events, hurts, and relationships.

Be Prepared is a dose of reality – the kind that will make you tear up in sympathy for young Vera’s plight and feelings, laugh at an unexpected turn of events, and at the end, sigh with contentment. It’s a story well-told, and beautifully illustrated. It’s a perfect summertime read for the tween set, and adult readers will find much to sympathize with as well. Brosgol’s art, dialogue, and pacing all combine to create a book that you won’t want to put down, and will want to put in others’ hands ASAP as soon as you’re done.

A good portion of the hilarity in Be Prepared comes from Brosgol’s depiction of her younger self – especially her eyes. They’re almost as big as her face, surrounded by glasses, and intensely expressive – here you can see all of Vera’s anxiety, worry, and disappointment laid bare. Brosgol imbues her art with emotion, and the reader feels it. The page spreads illustrated in shades of olive green, black and white will appeal to fans of cartoons and animation, and though panel sizes vary, the focus is nearly always Vera and her reactions to various experiences.

Be Prepared is a summer camp memoir that’s perfect for fans of Lucy Knisley’s Relish and Shannon Hale’s Real Friends, and any graphic novel fan who is ready for a story filled with humor and heart!

Recommended for: graphic novel readers ages 8+ who enjoy the work of Shannon Hale and Raina Telgemeier, and anyone who went to camp or wanted to go – and found it different than they expected!

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

the quiet crocodile goes to the beach

Your first experience with any book is with its cover, and that often makes all the difference in whether you pick it up. The proverb, “Don’t judge a book by its cover” was for budding literary snob 12-year-old me, not the adult who likes dragons and spaceships and beautiful-picture-books-that-could-double-as-permanent-coffee-table-residents. Natacha Andriamirado and Delphine Renon’s The Quiet Crocodile Goes to the Beach is firmly in the latter category, by the way. And it is funny and whimsical too – and therefore on its way to being a rare parent AND child favorite.

the quiet crocodile goes to the beach by natacha andriamirado and delphine renon book cover
Fossil the quiet crocodile loves to go to the beach with his friends. Fippo the Hippo, Sonny the Bunny, Ryan the Lion, and all the rest jump right in and splash about in the waves while Fossil watches from the shore. Could it be that Fossil is scared of the water? What happens when Fossil finally joins them? Is he really as quiet as he seems? Readers can find, name, and count all of Fossil's boisterous friends, as well as the rings, racquets, fishing nets, and shells hidden in the delightful drawings.

Fossil’s (the quiet crocodile from the book title) friends cavort and enjoy the beach in summertime, and Fossil appears to be joining in, but he’s not really – because he’s scared of the water (a funny predicament for a crocodile!). Eventually, those friends find out and encourage him to overcome his fear(s), leading to even more beach fun. This book, with its recurring characters on each page, is filled with details that will invite re-read after re-read.

While simple on its face, this story taps into two very common childhood fears – of water and/or swimming, and of what your friends will think of your fears. The fear of water is approached very straightforwardly, which has its pluses and minuses, but the anthropomorphism of the animal characters gives it a buffer from reality (I’m imagining conversations that go, “The crocodile is scared of swimming! Have you ever been scared of the water?”) that should work for most. Apprehension at what your friends will think if they know your fears/see you vulnerable is not addressed directly – an addition that I think would have strengthened the book.

A “hidden” element is that of the lineup of all of the crocodile’s friends’ names, and the type of animal they are in the endpapers. There are also, in each spread, other concealed elements for kids to find, à la Richard Scarry’s work (though not quite as busy). Reading this book aloud together could be a fun way to prompt kids to identify colors, shapes, animal types, and common beach-going equipment, and/or to go through the book trying to find a specific friend of Fossil’s on each page. It repeats the same cast as the first in this series (The Quiet Crocodile), so there is that continuity too, if you happen to have both books.

Renon’s artwork is precise, colorful, and sure to appeal to those who appreciate a perfectly executed right angle/check pattern/stippled shadow. Her illustrations feature colored pencil and pen drawings that excel in delineating texture. Added together with the fine details mentioned above, and this is a very handsome book – one that wouldn’t be out of place in the most discriminating of homes.

In all, The Quiet Crocodile Goes to the Beach is a seasonally appropriate and beautifully-illustrated and -detailed picture book for the very young (ages 2-4).

Recommended for: fans of picture books about overcoming fears, especially fear of the water (such as Lottie and Walter), families with very young children who are planning or have just returned from beach trips, and anyone with an eye for picture book design.

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

this was our pact

One of the lovely side benefits of being a Cybils Literary Award judge last autumn was that I tuned into the world of graphic novels in a big way. I got on the email lists of several publishers I wasn’t even aware of before, I started paying attention to upcoming lists, and I’ve upped my graphic novel reading ever since. It’s lovely, because a novel-length graphic novel is easy for me to digest in one sitting – and super useful for recommending books in my future classroom (did I mention over here that I’m changing careers to be a high school English teacher this fall??). That said, I’ve been a fan of Macmillan’s First Second graphic novel imprint for years, and I always have a couple of books each season on my to-read list. Ryan Andrews’ This Was Our Pact made my wishlist right out of the gate for its gorgeous artwork and magical premise.

this was our pact by ryan andrews book cover
It's the night of the annual Autumn Equinox Festival, when the town gathers to float paper lanterns down the river. Legend has it that after drifting out of sight, they'll soar off to the Milky Way and turn into brilliant stars, but could that actually be true? This year, Ben and his classmates are determined to find out where those lanterns really go, and to ensure success in their mission, they've made a pact with two simple rules: No one turns for home. No one looks back.

The plan is to follow the river on their bikes for as long as it takes to learn the truth, but it isn't long before the pact is broken by all except for Ben and (much to Ben's disappointment) Nathaniel, the one kid who just doesn't seem to fit in.

Together, Nathaniel and Ben will travel farther than anyone has ever gone, down a winding road full of magic, wonder, and unexpected friendship*.

*And a talking bear.

Ben and his crew of friends decide to make a pact before their town’s Autumn Equinox festival – they will finally follow the lanterns all the way down the river to find out where they end up. No one has seen or followed the lanterns’ path for generations – so they assume the old songs are myth or legend. But before they get too far down the road, Ben’s friends begin to peel off, one by one, breaking the pact. Soon the only companion left is Nathaniel, who wasn’t even part of the original pact, and who Ben has been avoiding because everyone else thinks he’s a nerd. What will Ben and Nathaniel find on their quest? Well, the first thing is a talking fisherbear. Yeah, and it only gets weirder and more whimsical from there!

This Was Our Pact seems to fit a contemporary mold at the start – after all, who didn’t imagine that they’d be the first to uncover some mystery when they were an intrepid kid explorer/investigator/spy?? But as the boys race along on their bikes and the last few stop and decide to turn back (and only Ben and Nathaniel are left), fantastical elements begin to intrude. But the question is – are they real, or is it a metaphor or a manifestation of their fears? Well, when they meet a talking, walking bear… it seems as though the story is taking a turn into fantasy territory. Andrews has written (and illustrated) an adventure story that reminds me of nothing so much as a Miyazaki film – with twists and turns (literally, even!), magical and/or uncanny creatures, unlikely problem-solving, and learning how to act like a true friend.

This is a book about the stars, and astronomy, and the autumn sky, and magic… and pushing beyond your fears and your worst instincts to do something special. And it is full of epic art to match that grandiose purpose. Andrews’ art of pencils on watercolor pressed paper is mostly done in shades of blue, but it varies as the boys encounter new situations and light sources. It’s gorgeously and lovingly detailed, and focuses a lot on the scenery, unique angles/viewpoints/perspectives of the downriver journey, and the fantastical elements that they cross in their paths. There’s a nice mix of panel sizes, though Andrews definitely prefers several small panels per page (giving you an edited clips feeling, like a film or animation) interspersed with larger, full page spreads every now and again for scope and/or wonder’s sake. I felt like I was INSIDE the book in several spots, as the art is just that good at pulling you into the story.

However, that brings me to my one gripe with the book, as it pulled me out of the story in spots: there weren’t any female main characters, aside from [begin spoiler] one old, somewhat-evil witch-type [end spoiler], which is obviously a stereotype. Andrews actually does a decent job with diversity otherwise, but this is definitely a boys-only adventure and there’s no deviation, even with mentor figures and all of the fantastical encounters between the covers. Maybe it won’t be noticeable to others, but I have my eyes peeled these days, and combined with the traditional gender roles/stereotypes throughout (through tiny mentions/inferences, mind you!), it reads as very traditional, even with the fantastical story. And that’s a bit disappointing.

Still, if you remain unbothered by that nit, and are interested in a really beautiful graphic novel that feels like it could fit inside the Miyazaki canon, then I do recommend This Was Our Pact. I admire its art and whimsy, and I’ll be thinking about Ben and Nathaniel and their journey and the super cool things they came across in their quest for a long time. This story is made of weird dreams and superior visual art, and it definitely made my imagination soar.

Recommended for: fans of Miyazaki animation, readers ages 8+ who like graphic novels and fantastical (magical!) adventures, and anyone interested in stories that tie in to the Autumn Equinox or astronomy.

otto and pio

Monday, July 22, 2019 | | 0 comments
On occasion, I’ll put the picture books I’m planning to read out on a communal table by my desk at work (mostly to remind and/or guilt myself into finally reading them!). When I had Marianne Dubuc's picture book Otto and Pio out for a day, three different visitors asked me “What’s the white thing?? [referring to Pio]” That’s a recurring question in this story as well – what IS Pio, and how did he arrive outside Otto’s house? In trying to unravel the mystery, these two unlikely companions learn to value each other – and their story makes for a delightful bedtime (or anytime) read.

otto and pio by marianne dubuc book cover
Otto the squirrel is perfectly content living by himself in his treehouse in the forest, when a small creature, Pio, arrives on his doorstep, looking for his mother, and Otto invites him in. Pio eats all the hazelnuts, takes up the entire bed, and just gets bigger and bigger! Though Otto worries he may not be very good at caring for a little creature, Pio is very happy. Otto and Pio is a heartwarming tale about finding love and family when it is expected least and needed most.

One day, Otto the squirrel finds a spiky green ball outside his front door. He doesn’t worry about it, because he isn’t the curious type. But when it hatches a furry white creature who calls him “Mommy!” – well! That’s another story. In their quest to find out who Pio is, and where his Mommy is, Otto and Pio begin to value each other and learn the meaning of found family.

Dubuc’s sweet meditation on belonging and family hits some hilarious notes along the way – slapstick as Pio grows too big for Otto’s house, for one! It’s also got the slightly meandering, just-repetitive-enough style that is perfect for bedtime, and reminds me of classics like Are You My Mother? and Am I Yours? There’s the mystery element of: What is Pio?? But there are also warm, homey moments, and lots of hazelnut-munching and hammock-sleeping. In the end, Otto and Pio decide to be each other’s’ family, and that’s about a heart-warming as it gets. For the record, I did not expect to like a book about an uncurious squirrel and a maybe-a-yeti this much. It’s fun.

Now, the art! The watercolor and colored pencil drawings are done in a simple style, in a limited setting – the enormous tree where Otto lives (and his doorstep), and the inside of his home. The illustrations progress sequentially, and fairly literally – perspective does not alter much except to pan out and in. This will appeal to children during one-on-one storytime or bedtime as they can follow along frame-by-frame.

In all, Otto and Pio is a loveable, longer picture book perfect for kids with generous attention spans and for bedtime read-alouds.

Recommended for: one-on-one reading for children ages 5 and up, and readers any age who enjoy forest friends, light mysteries, and funny antics in picture book form.

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

catwad: it’s me.

Jim Benton (he of Happy Bunny fame) has started publishing a new graphic novel series about a character named Catwad, and I’ve been trying for an hour to figure out how to describe it. In the first book, Catwad: It’s Me., Catwad reminds me of nothing so much as a book version of the Grumpy Cat meme. Or a cross between Grumpy Cat and a Garfield comic. Whichever way you slice it, the book is full of biting, physical humor, and it will be a hit with kids no matter their reading level!

catwad: it's me. by jim benton cover
From New York Times bestselling author Jim Benton, meet Catwad! He's blue, he's a bit of a grouch, and his best friend is a dim-witted cat named Blurmp who can see the bright side of anything. From pizza and computers, to love and happiness, this crabby tabby has a funny take on just about everything, and he's not afraid to share it.

Catwad is a cat (did the name give it away?), and star of a new graphic novel series featuring two cats (Catwad and Blurmp) who play off each other for laughs. It’s a bit like a modern, gross-out version of Amelia Bedelia, and sure to spark belly laughs. Catwad loves nothing (except coffee), and Blurmp loves everything – even when it doesn’t make sense. Their adventures, reluctant friendship, and jokes make for a hilariously meme-able reading experience that is sure to appeal to anyone who has searched the internet for “funny cat videos” (and who hasn’t, at this point??).

With a book filled with jokes about growing up, grossout moments, immaturity, wordplay, meditations on friendship, “dumbness,” and more, Catwad's adventures are destined to be a popular series. I especially appreciated the strategic use of faulty grammar for comedic effect (I might use it as an example in my 9th grade classroom). I see this book as a natural successor to Dog Man, Diary of a Wimpy Kid, and other mega-popular graphic novel series that rely on physical humor. It ups the sophistication level a bit (and it’s quite clever at times), but the reading level remains low and the focus is on the contrast between visuals and text.

Speaking of the art, Catwad: It’s Me. is full of vibrant colors, simple images, and a good mix of panel sizes. The stories within also vary in length – some sections are several pages long, and others are brief, contained spreads. Since there isn’t much in the way of background, the focus is squarely on Catwad and Blurmp, and they are easily-traced shapes – so this book may inspire some budding cartoonists as well!

In all, Catwad is a hilarious addition to the elementary and middle grade graphic novel canon, and a great choice for kids who like humor and are at lower reading levels.

Recommended for: readers ages 7+ who enjoy reading newspaper comics, Diary of a Wimpy Kid, and other humorous sequential art.

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

little doctor and the fearless beast

Imagine a girl veterinarian who lives somewhere deep in the jungle. Now imagine that she treats... crocodiles! What would her clinic look like? What kinds of injuries would crocodiles have and a Little Doctor heal? What kinds of stories could crocodiles tell? Sophie Gilmore's debut picture book Little Doctor and the Fearless Beast takes that premise and those questions and spins a yarn that is engrossing and satisfying.

little doctor and the fearless beast by sophie gilmore book cover
Crocodiles come from far and wide to seek Little Doctor’s care. She treats each one with skill and kindness—even the toughest crocs with thick skins and large, powerful jaws. Little Doctor marvels at these fearless beasts, listening to their stories, while she diagnoses and cures what ails them. But when she meets Big Mean, the largest crocodile in the land with jaws clamped tightly shut, Little Doctor can’t figure out what’s wrong. And she might be just a little bit afraid.

When one creative idea lands Little Doctor right inside Big Mean’s tremendous jaws, she is sure she’ll be munched or crunched—until she sees that Big Mean isn’t so horrible, after all. As it turns out, the crocodile is only protecting her hatchlings, all tangled in plastic, inside her mouth.

Watercolor illustrations create a richly imagined world in this awe-inspiring story about how even little kids can be fearless, and even big, mean creatures sometimes need help.

Apparently when crocodiles tell tales, their legends are full of "terrible danger, dizzying escapes, and acts of great mischief." And if you treat them well, as Little Doctor does, crocodiles will share their stories as a reward. Little Doctor and her crocodile patients are part of an absolutely beautiful and patently charming picture book that always feels just one jaw snap from disaster, but full of kindness as well. As a bonus, Gilmore's storytelling is matched (or exceeded, even!) by her fantastic illustrations.

Each page spread in Little Doctor and the Fearless Beast is full of details to be examined and pored over read after reread. There are crocodiles in every corner of Little Doctor's home, and it's fun to anticipate where the next one will be. When Big Mean (the biggest, most fearsome creature of all!) comes on the scene, the spreads get even more creative. How will such a big animal (reptile??) fit in Little Doctor's house? Especially when Big Mean is feeling mean and uncooperative?

Gilmore's watercolor and pencil illustrations are a delight. She masterfully captures light, shading, texture and color, and adds whimsy and magic to boot. Both adults and children will enjoy the dangerous suspense of sharp teeth juxtaposed with fearless kindness. Little Doctor and the Fearless Beast is an unexpected (and welcome) surprise, and a soon-to-be classic.

Recommended for: storytimes and read-alouds with little ones ages 4-7 (especially with children who love animals, reptiles, and a little bit of bite), and for fans of beautifully illustrated picture books à la Where the Wild Things Are.

the tea dragon society

It’s been an age since I updated this blog! Too long. I’m out of practice and I have the anxiety to prove it (typing up reviews is v. therapeutic, who knew??)(I did, I just conveniently forgot to make time for it… ). But enough of that. Today I want to talk about one of my favorite bookish things: dragons!  Dragons are the best. THE BEST. Most of my favorite fantasy books have dragons in, and though I know correlation is not causation… DRAGONS are deeply awesome. So when a graphic novel is titled The Tea Dragon Society, well. Let’s take it as a given that I’ll be reading it (and expecting enchantment).

the tea dragon society by katie o'neill cover
From the award-winning author of Princess Princess Ever After comes The Tea Dragon Society, a charming all-ages book that follows the story of Greta, a blacksmith apprentice, and the people she meets as she becomes entwined in the enchanting world of tea dragons.

After discovering a lost tea dragon in the marketplace, Greta learns about the dying art form of tea dragon care-taking from the kind tea shop owners, Hesekiel and Erik. As she befriends them and their shy ward, Minette, Greta sees how the craft enriches their lives—and eventually her own. 

Greta is learning the old art of blacksmithing from her mother when she happens across a tea dragon in distress. She returns it safely to its owner, Hesekial, who offers to teach Greta tea dragon lore. But what is a tea dragon? Well, it’s an adorable little denizen of the fantasy world that O’Neill creates in this book. But it is also explained in-text, and I wouldn’t want to spoil that! So take it as read that tea dragons are slightly mystical, unbearably adorable, and the rest of this story is as well.

K. O’Neill’s The Tea Dragon Society started its life as a webcomic, and that’s how I originally came across it. In print, it’s a large format graphic novel with a gentle, LGBTQ+-positive story and absolutely gorgeous (and distressingly cute??) art. I read it for the 2018 Cybils awards, and it made the elementary and middle grade graphic novel shortlist—everyone loved it.

So what’s to love, aside from cuteness overload (but really, that’s all you need sometimes!)? Well, there are several things I’d put in the ‘plus’ column. First, the art is full of flowers, and I’m all in on flowers (see my instagram if you have any doubts). Then there’s inventive character design and characters of color. Add in LGBTQ+ rep, disability rep, and a fluffy story that will make readers feel just as happy as main character Greta… plus cool fantasy and magic world-building, and an open ending for future volumes, and there you have it. It’s basically perfect.

When I tried to think of negatives, all I could come up with was that there’s not a whole lot of urgency in the story or plot. That’s not… a fault. Oh well!

If you’re in the mood for quiet magic, soul-soothing beauty, and a moment or two of laughter, then The Tea Dragon Society is the book for you. It will make you wish that tea dragons are real and that you had a big mug of fragrant tea to sip from—even if it’s not tea-drinking weather!

Recommended for: fans of sweet middle grade graphic novels like The Prince and the Dressmaker and Nightlights, readers ages 8 and up with an eye for art, tea drinkers, and anyone who likes quiet, original fantasy in a beautiful setting.

tiger days: a book of feelings

You know that feeling when you read a book at exactly the right time? The sneaking suspicion you then have that it’s speaking directly to you and your problems (or the world’s problems!) and fate must have put it in your path? M.H. Clark and Anna Hurley’s picture book Tiger Days: A Book of Feelings has been that book for me this week. I had originally scheduled it for review on Monday, but the universe knew I needed to read it on Tuesday, and again on Thursday, and again today after hearing about the terrible tragedy in New Zealand. It’s a picture book, but a meaningful book is meaningful no matter the format or audience, and this one is delightful and indispensable.

tiger days by m.h. clark, illustrated by anna hurley
From tiger fierce to snail slow, there are lots of ways to feel and be. A walk through this colorful, rhyming menagerie helps young readers understand their feelings and the ways those feelings change.

Children will recognize their own emotions on these pages—their enthusiasm, stubbornness, excitement, silliness, sadness, and strength. And they’ll come to see that, no matter how they act or feel each day, they’re always still themselves.

In this vibrant picture book, the first person narrator associates emotions with specific animals in rhyming text. If you’re having a Tiger Day, for example, it means that “…I want to climb. I’M WILD AND I’M FIERCE. I pace around and POUNCE and ROAR…” For me, today is a Fish Day, and I feel watery, just as the text suggests. Feelings are paired with not only animals, but also actions they might take while under the sway of those emotions. With themes of naming and acknowledging emotional states, self-acceptance, and recognizing that shifting feelings are okay (or even positive!), Tiger Days is a simple, accessible guide and/or introduction to complex emotions. It’s also a joy to read.

Illustrator Anna Hurley has created lovely art to go along with M.H. Clark’s delightful text, and it is here that I think the book takes a step up from good to excellent. The animals are rendered in cut paper-like blocks, with ink detailing and some shadowing, against lively colored spreads – one color for each kind of day. And there are a few intervening “day” pages without a signature animal that are turquoise with white crayon-effect illustrations that are a lot of fun for the eye and remind the reader that different types of feelings (and complex feelings!) are okay. Tiger Days’ text and illustrations are seamlessly integrated, entertaining, and poignant, and will be popular read after read.

I would be remiss if I didn’t also take a moment to talk about the book design! This colorful title will pulled off the shelf time and again for its striped, multicolored binding. ALSO the dust jacket has a velvet touch effect for the title shadows and the tiger’s stripes! In other words, it begs to be petted! I can’t stop running my fingers over the texture, even now… so you KNOW it will be a hit with kids! Altogether, Tiger Days is a feast for the senses, and also a way to get in touch with them. A true book of feelings!

All in all, Tiger Days will be a hit with both kids and adults, and I can’t wait to recommend it to all of the parents I know!

Recommended for: anyone who is struggling to find the words to talk about complex emotions, and especially children ages 2-6. Perfect for story time, bedtime reading, and anytime reading if you like bright, fun books that encourage interaction and movement and have extra helpings of heart.

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


I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: First Second publishes great graphic novels. I consistently adore their titles (Check, Please! Shattered Warrior! The Prince and the Dressmaker!), so it’s no surprise that I was looking forward to Kevin Panetta and Savanna Ganucheau’s Bloom as soon as I heard about it. Umm, also, it ticks several of my “favorite things” boxes?? A of all, it’s a book about cute boys working in a bakery, and B of all, it is a sweet LGBTQ+ romance with lots of heart. Oh gosh, I loved it a lot.

bloom by kevin panetta and savanna ganucheau cover
Now that high school is over, Ari is dying to move to the big city with his ultra-hip band—if he can just persuade his dad to let him quit his job at their struggling family bakery. Though he loved working there as a kid, Ari cannot fathom a life wasting away over rising dough and hot ovens. But while interviewing candidates for his replacement, Ari meets Hector, an easygoing guy who loves baking as much as Ari wants to escape it. As they become closer over batches of bread, love is ready to bloom . . . that is, if Ari doesn’t ruin everything.

Writer Kevin Panetta and artist Savanna Ganucheau concoct a delicious recipe of intricately illustrated baking scenes and blushing young love, in which the choices we make can have terrible consequences, but the people who love us can help us grow.

Ari has just finished high school and is looking forward to moving to the big city with his band. Meanwhile, he’s trying to manage his family’s expectation that he’ll keep working at the family bakery. To assuage his guilt, he settles on the idea of hiring a replacement for himself, and that’s how he meets Hector Gallea, in town from Birmingham to close up his grandmother’s house. Hector’s steady presence and love of baking draws Ari in bit by bit… but will it be enough to keep him in tiny East Beach, or will his big city dreams take precedence? Ari will find out this and more over one fateful Maryland summer…  

You know how there are stories that just feel like food for the soul? They may make you cry a little, but they mostly fill you up with that bubbly, content feeling of that-was-just-what-I-needed? Bloom is one of those stories. Panetta and Ganucheau have collaborated to create a beautiful book, and luckily it’s a *good* one too.

Things I liked (get ready, there are many): Ari’s family is part of the story. Young adult and children’s lit gets dinged a lot for having absent parents to build plot, so it’s absolutely wonderful to see whole family and realistic parent-kid relationships in books. Conflict in Bloom builds out of differing expectations for Ari’s future: his dad wants him to help out in the struggling family bakery, and he wants to follow his friends out into the unknown. To add to that, Ari’s family is solidly working class, and not sure if their business will survive. There’s no college-bound future here, and I can’t think of the last YA book I read that included a family like Ari’s, where economic uncertainty is part of the story.

I also really loved how Ari’s relationship with his high school/band friends played out. It was authentic in a little-tough-to-watch kind of way. Those moments when you realize you’ve outgrown your friends, or they’ve outgrown you, or maybe you were never really friends to begin with? Super poignant. The title of the book really points out what’s happening here: not only a sweet love story, but a real growing up and turning your face to the sunshine kind of maturing. And it’s illustrated to match! I adored that certain panels (no spoilers!) had flowers creeping over the edges.

Speaking of illustration, Ganucheau really hit it out of the park. I mean, gosh, it’s a gorgeous book. And the two-toned illustrations in shades of teal really worked in a way I wasn’t expecting. And the baking collages! *heart eyes* What can I say, I am a sucker for cute boys + baked goods.

On the note of baked goods, there’s a recipe at the end! If you can finish this book without wanting to go whip something up in the kitchen, you can safely say you have a will of iron! So it’s very convenient that there’s one just at the end, how nice and thank you v. much to the authors. Also p.s. I adored the nods to Hector’s Samoan and the Kyrkos family’s Greek backgrounds with the food they made. Ugh, I loved all of it. I think you will too.

So if you’ve ever swooned over a fictional boy throwing bags of flour over his shoulder (and I know you all have – don’t lie to me! Peeta from The Hunger Games happened, we all remember that right??), and/or just want to read an adorable slow-burn romance with lots of flirting and blushing, this is the book for you.

Recommended for: fans of Check, Please! and Heartstopper, and anyone who likes comics about finding yourself and finding your way, with a little romance baked in.

Fine print: I received an ARC of this title for review from the publisher. I did not receive any compensation for this post.

the girl who ran: bobbi gibb, the first woman to run the boston marathon

The very first thing you notice about this picture book is the gorgeous cover art. The Girl Who Ran in large, white font, against a fiery watercolor background slanted crosswise on the dustjacket. And then you see the little picture of Bobbi Gibb at the bottom, running with her hair streaming behind her, echoing the colors above. If it gets you to pick up the book, the cover has done its job. In this case, I don’t see how anyone could resist it!

the girl who ran: bobbi gibb, the first woman to run the boston marathon by frances poletti and kristina yee, illustrated by susanna chapman cover
“She said she would do it, she wasn’t a liar; she’d show them by running like the wind in the fire.” When Bobbi Gibb saw the Boston Marathon her mind was set—she had to be a part of it. She trained hard, journeying across America to run on all kinds of terrain. But when the time came to apply for the marathon, she was refused entry. They told her girls don’t run, girls can’t run. That didn’t stop Bobbi.

This picture book tells the true story of how she broke the rules in 1966 and how, one step at a time, her grit and determination changed the world. The energetic and bright illustrations capture the emotions of Bobbi’s journey and the fluidity of running. Created in collaboration with Bobbi Gibb, The Girl Who Ran is perfect for would-be runners, kids of all ages, and everyone out there with a love of sport.

Frances Poletti and Kristina Yee's picture book,  The Girl Who Ran: Bobbi Gibb, The First Woman to Run the Boston Marathon, illustrated by Susanna Chapman (who also created that gorgeous cover!) tells the story of Bobbi Gibb. Who is Bobbi Gibb? She is the first woman to run the Boston Marathon (the most famous marathon in America). Bobbi loved to run from a young age, and she ran, as the book repeats, “like the wind in the fire.” The book chronicles how attitudes toward her running changed as she grew up – she faced not only official rejection from race officials, but at home, from her family. But after secretly training and determining to race, Bobbi would not be dissuaded. And her mother changed her mind! So Bobbi ran, right into history. And her life, and the lives of others changed because of that.

On one hand you could characterize this picture book as an inspirational biography for younger readers. But really, it’s more than that. The prose is lyrical, and it’s accompanied by lovely art that will appeal to any reader, whether they prefer nonfiction or not. It also doesn’t hesitate to tell the story of familial disapproval and conflicts between traditional gendered expectations and personal aspirations – something that we can always use more of in books for younger kids.

As expected in a book about a runner, most of the page spreads show movement, and the illustrator portrays this with the swirls of watercolor “fire” so that you can see Bobbi’s path through the landscape. The art really shines, and in the final pages, at the marathon finish line, there’s a foldout spread that broadens the scope of the moment into something dramatic.

Another positive: at the end of the book there’s a concise 2-page spread with both a formal biography and a timeline showing Bobbi’s marathon runs, Boston Marathon milestones and women’s involvement. It would be a good starting point for a school project!

In all, The Girl Who Ran is a beautiful picture book that illustrates the value of persevering despite setbacks, or even the disbelief or opposition of your family.

Recommended for: readers ages 6-9 who are interested in nonfiction biographies, running, and people overcoming the odds, and folks any age who enjoy positive, inspirational stories.

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