The Count’s Hanukkah Countdown, a new Shalom Sesame title by authors Tilda Balsley and Ellen Fischer, is fun way to get into the holiday spirit. A childhood icon, the lovable purple Count has been counting with children for decades and now he and Grover, the shaggy blue monster, share the story of Hanukkah with them as well. Shalom Sesame, an international spinoff of Sesame Street, has been introducing Israel and Judaism to children and families for years through PBS, videos, and books. Parents and kids will recognize the familiar brightly colored characters by Tom Leigh, longtime children’s book illustrator of Sesame Street and Muppet books. Together, they prepare for this fun Festival of Lights featuring the special number eight – the perfect Hanukkah number – and traditions like exchanging gifts, playing the dreidel game, eating latkes and sufganiyot (jelly donuts), and lighting the eight candles of the menorah, one for each of the eight nights. Kids and adults who share this book can count on having a totally awesome Hanukkah!
In Daddy Christmas and Hanukkah Mama, by Selina Alko, two parents’ cultural and holiday traditions combine to create a unique experience for one little girl and her family. Like the pop culture reference to the fictional “Chrismakkuh” (Christmas + Hanukkah), this happily blended holiday features the best of both traditions. The gently colored stylized illustrations are gouache, collage, and colored pencil on Arches watercolor paper. They depict the quirky happy hipster family stuffing the Christmas turkey with cranberry kugel dressing, leaving latkes and milk for Santa, and decorating the Christmas tree with a shiny star and gelt (chocolate coins). They even use both candy canes and candles on the menorah. It’s a warm, loving story great for multicultural families and others who might like to create some new traditions of their own.
Here are a few tips for surviving life with Mark Tatulli’s cartoon character Lio, who returns to library shelves in Lio: There’s a Monster In My Socks:
If there's a KEEP OUT sign on his door, don't try to vacuum in there.
You maybe should just concede the Science Fair to him.
And for goodness sake, don't give Lio a turn at Show and Tell.
Lio's decidedly unorthodox (and frequently disproportionate) responses to familiar school-age situations and pursuits are depicted in a scratchy black and white style with a distinct Gahan Wilson flavor. When flying kites with the other kids, Lio brings a dragon. When it's time to play football, Lio brews a Mr. Hyde potion that turns him into the ultimate linebacker. Some strips take a little effort to decode, which makes their punchline that much funnier.
Despite hearty helpings of grotesque slapstick violence, Lio is a goodhearted character with an active sense of justice, frequently victimizing bullies, sticking up for other kids, and championing the voiceless -such as prey animals, aliens, and monsters. Like Big Nate, Lio lives along with his patient, long-suffering schlub of a dad. Lio steals his garbage can to make a robot, the steaks from the fridge to feed the monsters under the floor, and routinely uses him as a test subject. Overjoyed at breakfast time to find a giant egg in the kitchen, he ends up with an alien stuck to his face. Lio's near-wordless, anarchic humor will appeal to teens and adults, not to mention a wide variety of kids - smart kids, kids who think they are weird, pranksters, and kids who sometimes get in trouble.
First time author Natasha Lowe delivers a heartwarming tale of magic, baking and the recipe for happiness in The Power of Poppy Pendle. Born amongst warm, spicy scents on the floor of a French bakery in Potts Bottom, Poppy Pendle came into the world destined for Great Things. From her parents’ point of view, the path to Great Things should spiral tightly around Poppy’s extraordinary magical gifts. From her earliest days it’s been obvious that Poppy has inherited the special talents of her Great Grandmother Mabel, a famous witch and the pride of the family.
From Poppy’s point of view, Great Things lie down another path entirely. For Poppy has another, altogether more precious gift – or at least, more precious to her – and that is her talent for baking. When she was seven, her parents enrolled her at Ruthersfield, Potts Bottom’s premier school for aspiring witches. Now, three years later, 10-year-old Poppy is at the top of her class, yet she could hardly be more bored. She dreams of having a normal life with non-magical friends and of someday opening her own bakery to share her gift with the world. When her parents place a moratorium on her baking, Poppy decides to take destiny into her own hands and runs away. Finding shelter at Patisserie Marie Claire, a local bakery that seems strangely familiar, Poppy finds friendship and purpose beyond the ideals her parents have constructed for her. But can this idyll last?
Lowe’s inviting narrative explores the nature of independence, friendship, child-parent conflicts and the importance of following one’s passion. At the close of the story, children and adults alike may enjoy creating such treats as coffee cupcakes or lemon bars from a collection of Poppy’s own favorite recipes.
The porcine heroes of The Three Ninja Pigs by Corey Rosen Schwartz have finally had enough of the wolf bully terrorizing their Japanese mountain village, so off to the dojo they go. Told in snappy limerick verse, this modern retelling follows the sibling pigs as each trains in a different martial art. But one brother is quickly bored with aikido, while the second defies his sensei by cockily refusing to study past his yellow belt in jujitsu. Their sister, however, is a testament to the power of dedication and determination. She studies karate for months (perfecting a perfect pork-chop!) in preparation for her showdown with the big bad wolf.
The Three Ninja Pigs is an action-packed story that begs to be read aloud, preferably not at bedtime. Half the fun of reading this thrilling picture book is taking in its cinematic illustrations, courtesy of the talented Dan Santat, a dad himself to two spirited boys. To add an authentic Japanese feel, he rendered the background art (plenty of cherry blossoms, bamboo and pagodas in the shadow of Mount Fuji) using traditional sumi ink brushwork on rice paper. The characters themselves show off their moves in Santat’s signature comically expressive Photoshop illustrations. Panels mimic the best action scenes from Bruce Lee martial arts movies; a Japanese glossary at the end rounds out the experience. Be prepared to watch your young readers reenact the pigs’ moves all around the living room.
Two new picture books use animals to teach the alphabet. In A is for Musk Ox by Erin Cabatingan, readers learn why every letter in the alphabet is for “musk ox.” This hysterical take on the classic ABC book begins with Joseph the Musk Ox ruining Zebra’s alphabet book by eating the apple. Claiming it would have been boring to start ANOTHER book with “A is for Apple”, Joseph takes this opportunity to describe the greatness of musk oxen. Not sure what musk oxen are? Read this book and you will discover numerous tidbits like “Eskimos call musk oxen Omingmak” and “the soft underwool of a musk ox is called Qiviut.” Hilarious illustrations by Matthew Myers will have readers giggling non-stop as they watch what happens to the original subject of each letter after Joseph is done.
All the Awake Animals Are Almost Asleep by Crescent Dragonwagon takes a more gentle approach to the topic. The mother in this book uses alliteration to describe sleeping animals while tucking her young child into bed. Inclusion of less common animals, such as an Ibex who “inches his way up the icy incline toward a good day’s nap” adds to the charm of the story. Starting and ending the story in a lyrical rhyme, the soothing text calms the restless child and lulls the animals into a peaceful sleep. The soft watercolor illustrations by David McPhail match the tone of the story perfectly. This is a wonderful bedtime story and will quickly become a favorite.
Who would have thought that Bigfoot would make such an engaging picture book protagonist? Two recent tales put this elusive hairy man-beast at the forefront of literature for young readers. In Ashley Spires’ charming Larf, the title character leads a solitary but fulfilling life in a cabin in the woods, save for his pet bunny Eric. He worries that if people found out he was real, he would attract the wrong kind of prying attention. But one morning’s newspaper article proves life changing when he finds out he may not be the only sasquatch in the world. Larf knows he must travel to town to find out. But what if the other sasquatch doesn’t like him? What if he eats meat instead of vegetables? And worst of all, what if he is a she? Spires’ watercolor and ink illustrations lend a gentle, quirky and humorous tone to a story that ultimately explores what it means to open yourself to the possibilities of friendship.
Kent Redeker’s Don’t Squish the Sasquatch! is a raucous ride on a city bus where the first passenger to be picked up is Señor Sasquatch. Boldly colored digital art with a retro feel by illustrator/graphic designer Bob Staake completes a picture book chock full of absurd creatures and sly humor. Each new rider to enter the bus (including Mr. Octo-Rhino) receives the same direction from the driver, Mr. Blobule. “Don’t Squish the Sasquatch!” Of course, the bow-tied bright green Sasquatch, all gangly spiky arms and long legs, can’t avoid being crowded out, which leads to a horrible crash and a surprise ending. Expect this winning read aloud to become a family and storytime favorite.
What is the color of a happy cat? In Red Cat, Blue Cat, written and illustrated by debut British artist Jenni Desmond, two jealous cats try to figure it out. Red Cat is nimble and lives downstairs; Blue Cat is clever and lives upstairs. Whenever the two meet, much caterwauling ensues. Little do they know that each secretly longs to be like the other. Whimsical and bright, the playful illustrations of colored pencil, collage, water color and ink spill over each page as the cats try wacky ideas to make themselves over. “If I turn myself red, I will become fast and bouncy!” thinks Blue Cat, as he eats an assortment of red things, like cherries, watermelon, even rose petals, to no avail. Red Cat, who really wants to be smart, then tries blueberries, bluebells, blue pudding and certain cupcakes, with no better luck. It’s not until the two work together that they understand that each has special qualities to appreciate and share. Until they spot a yellow cat - Meow!
Finders Keepers, written by William Lipkind and illustrated by Nicolas Mordvinoff, first delighted children and families in 1951 and won the Caldecott Medal for distinguished American picture book. This classic tale of two dogs and one bone, is charmingly illustrated with simple, vintage line drawings and a measured color palette. Reminiscent of Aesop’s or La Fontaine’s fables, the dogs, Winkle and Nap each lay claim to a bone in the barnyard. They then query the farmer, the goat, and others in the quest to determine rightful ownership. Fooled by greed and tricked into tasks along the way, they too work together in the end to reclaim and share their bone.
Jacqueline Woodson successfully teams up once again with illustrator E.B. Lewis in Each Kindness, a picture book that tells a difficult, haunting, but vital story about passive bullying, an all-too-common form of persecution among children. In the style of a person looking back on life, Woodson instantly grabs the reader’s attention: “That winter, snow fell on everything…” When Maya, a young girl, arrives at her new school in tattered clothes and damaged shoes, she shyly greets her new classmates. However, the narrator, one of Maya’s classmates, shuns the new student for her appearance. Despite Maya’s varied attempts to break down the walls put up by her fellow pupils, they refuse her each time. One day, when it is clear that the new student has left and is not coming back, the narrator realizes her mistake and laments her unkindness toward Maya.
Lewis’ slice-of-life pastel watercolors enhance the poignancy of the story. Expressions on the faces of the children are precisely defined, and the beautiful pastoral setting stands in counterpoint to the cruelty exhibited by Maya’s peers. One double-page spread showing Maya’s now-empty desk is gripping, as are Woodson’s word choices as the narrator contemplates her actions at the conclusion: “…the chance of a kindness with Maya / becoming more and more / forever gone.” Readers who savoured E.B. Lewis’ illustrations when he paired with Woodson on The Other Side will recognize his brilliance here as well. Each Kindness is a natural companion to Eleanor Estes’ classic The Hundred Dresses and, for slightly older readers, Wonder by R.J. Palacio, previously reviewed.
Tuberculosis has been called the greatest serial killer of all time, and remains a crisis in many countries. Two new books for children tackle this scourge and shed light on the incredible pain suffered by its victims and the horrors of treatment.
In 1940, thirteen year old Evelyn (“Evvy") Hoffmeister is sent to Loon Lake Sanatorium, a treatment facility for tuberculosis patients in Breathing Room by Marsha Hayles. Evvy is frightened by her new surroundings and must learn to adapt to the harsh rules – no talking, no visitors, strict bed rest. Evvy soon finds her place and makes friends with the other girls in her ward. Hayles provides a fascinating glimpse into the medical technology of the day, such as the pneumothorax which blew air into the chest, or thoracoplasty, the surgical removal of a rib which would supposedly allow a lung to collapse and heal. Period photographs add depth to the story and an author’s note provides additional information. Evvy’s voice captures the resentment, fear, determination, and hope of a young patient fighting an insidious disease with no real cure.
Evvy could very well be one of the young ladies pictured in the dramatic cover photograph of Jim Murphy’s Invincible Microbe: Tuberculosis and the Never Ending Search for a Cure. This is an impeccably researched narrative nonfiction title complete with photographs, prints, and source notes. Murphy starts with the history of this deadly germ and offers evidence of tuberculosis in a 500,000 year old fossilized skull. Murphy also details the many ineffectual treatments in ancient Egypt and Greece before following the course of the dread disease through Europe and America. Finally, readers learn of the social history and impact of tuberculosis. Examples include chapters describing the warped nineteenth-century romantic view of the disease, and the difficulties encountered by African-Americans and immigrants in their search for treatment. The research, photographs, notes and easy narrative flow make this biography of a disease a fascinating read.
Three picture books recently published use the power of simplicity and silence to communicate strong messages of warmth, friendship, and love. Homer, written and illustrated by Elisha Cooper, is a sweet story of an older dog who prefers to spend his days just watching the world go by. When asked to join the others on a frolic on the beach, or a romp through the field, Homer is content to witness the proceedings from the comfort of the porch. Cooper’s illustrations are pitch-perfect, using watercolors in warm sunset tones to capture the satisfaction of a life well-lived.
Bear Has a Story to Tell, by the husband-and-wife Caldecott-winning team of Philip and Erin Stead, is an autumnal tale of a bear and his forest friends. When Bear wants to tell his story, his friends Mouse, Duck, and Frog each politely decline, as all have preparations they must finalize before winter sets in. With Bear’s help, each of them gratefully attain their goals. When Bear wakes from his hibernation, will he remember the story he wanted to tell months earlier? The Steads once again bring elegance and charm to each page. The illustrated expressions of the sleepy inhabitants of the woods are captured beautifully.
The Swiss import Little Bird is a fable of sorts. A man drives deep into a desert landscape to release the birds he carries in the back of his truck. All of them fly away, except for a little black bird. No amount of coaxing by the man seems to get this small bird to fly. With minimal text, a cinematic feel is portrayed. While having a very different tone and feel to most American picture books, this unusual but ultimately gratifying tale sends a message that should resonate with both kids and adults.