Saturday, December 21, 2013

Zoobean - Last-Minute Gifting Problem-Solver

Hey peeps! It's been a bit quiet here on the blog this week as Hubs & I have been scrambling to get our holiday shopping done. Usually I'm way ahead of the curve, but this year, between vacation, work and a germ-infested kiddo, we've fallen behind. I'm sure more than a few of you can relate.

If you know me IRL, you probably know that I spent several years working in retail, bookstores to be exact. This was always the point in the holiday season when my coworkers and I started to feel the pinch -- it's too late to order anything, the shelves are starting to get bare, yet shoppers still cling to the desperate notion that they'll find *exactly* what they want. It's tough.I can totally understand what those frantic folks are feeling, because no one wants to admit that it's too late to find that perfect present. But sometimes you have to realize that the ship has sailed, and make the best of the situation.

Many people in that situation succumb to the ease of the gift card. And while that's a fine solution, I have another idea for you this year. Zoobean is a subscription-based book service that's a definite win-win. Each book in their library is curated by parents who also happen to be kidlit experts -- yours truly being one of the folks honored to be a Zoobean curator. I can honestly say that their library is the best of the best. All the picture books I curate are field-tested first by Sprout and myself, and I only share with Zoobean the ones that pass his stringent test. (You'll recognize several from our reviews here on the blog.) Zoobean curators know how to sift through the dross to find the best books out there, the ones your kids will return to again and again.

I was drawn to Zoobean because of their focus on multicultural and diverse titles. And I'm thrilled to see how their library has grown, and how many truly amazing multicultural books they've featured. New subscribers fill out a profile that helps Zoobean customize a subscription just for the child in question. Let me tell you, these folks work HARD to ensure that the books they pick meet each child's needs and interests. I've had the opportunity to help select a few books for personalized subscriptions, and it's very gratifying to hear later that the titles we chose lit up a child's eyes!

You're in the drivers' seat when it comes to a Zoobean subscription. Choose your binding (hardcover or paperback), as well as how often you'd like the books to arrive -- from a one-time gift to a years' worth of yummy literary goodness. Featured books are also accompanied by a reading guide packed with awesome. And Zoobean also recently launched their apps feature, so parents can get help picking out the best of the best in the app world as well.

The Zoobean folks have graciously offered a special discount for Sprout's Bookshelf readers. Make a purchase at Zoobean through 12/31/13 and take $5 off your purchase -- just use code MaryKHoliday to redeem. Give the gift of reading to a kid in your life and save money too?? What's better than that?!

Regular readers will know that I won't recommend anything to you that I don't believe in myself, and Zoobean is a great example of that. For all those who've realized they forgot stocking stuffers, or would just rather stay home in their pjs than head to the mall this weekend -- Zoobean can be the perfect solution to your last-minute gifting crisis. And it's a great way to extend the holiday fun well beyond when the last gift is unwrapped!

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Counting by 7s - Holly Goldberg Sloan

Wow! Can't believe the response to our 30 Days of Picture Books series. This is such a fun project for us to do, and it's nice to hear how it's affecting readers. For all those who've told us how much you enjoyed our picks, or mentioned that you're adding titles to your library list - thank you! And don't worry, we're already thinking about books to feature in next year's list. :)

In preparation for this year's 30 Days, Sprout and I read a ton of picture books, but that wasn't all I was reading. Today I'm featuring a title I read a while back, that touched me so much I couldn't help but share it with you. Holly Goldberg Sloan's Counting by 7s is being compared by many to R.J. Palacio's Wonder, and for good reason - both books feature narrators with compelling voices, unique challenges, and incredible people in their lives. But you can't really compare these books on any significant level, because each brings such individual strengths and impact to the reader. So let's acknowledge that one and move on, m'kay?

Counting by 7s tells the story of Willow Chance. Willow's a middle schooler who's best described as different from others she encounters. Willow's family is transracial, as Willow, who is multiracial, was adopted by "two of the whitest white people in the world (no exaggeration.)". But this isn't an adoption story. Willow's a genius, finishing the state proficiency exam so quickly that the school puts her into behavioral counseling. But this isn't a smart kid story. Willow's an oddball, not quite fitting in with anyone else at her middle school because of her talents and her interests. But this isn't an odd-girl-out story.

No, what defines this story is what happens to Willow in almost the first couple of pages: Willow's parents are killed in a car accident, and Willow, the adoptee/smart girl/oddball, is suddently and irrevocably on her own. Willow's got no support network to speak of, but from the emptiness around her, a web of family begins to appear. There's Mai Nguyen, a Vietnamese-Mexican girl who encounters Willow at the counselor's office and becomes a friend almost against her will. There's Pattie, Mai's mother, who sees Willow's plight and becomes convinced that foster care is no place for this tremendous child. There's Quang-ha, Mai's brother who disdains Willow but can't help but be impressed by her talents. And there's Dell Duke, the going-nowhere counselor who's treading water in his job until he becomes entangled with Willow and her story, and suddenly finds his whole life turned upside down.

It's tough for me to sum up in mere words just how much I loved this book. As with Wonder (here we go with the comparisons again), Counting by 7s is a watershed book, one whose story stays with you and that makes you think differently about assumptions you've previously held. Willow's a remarkable character in that her unswerving focus on her particular interests sweeps up everyone around her, a force that's changing their lives before they even realize it's happened. Though the narrative is propelled by a tragic event, this is by no means a sad book -- rather, it's a book about hope, about the goodness of human nature and how every minute can be a turning point. Willow's story speaks to the cynic in all of us, proving that even the most isolated and insular among us can be moved outside of our bubbles to be a force of change in another's life.

I highly recommend Counting by 7s for middle school readers, and for older readers as well, because I think even adults can learn a lot from this wise girl and her story, lessons about valuing yourself and about reaching out, believing that we can change the world. If you read one chapter book this year, make it Holly Goldberg Sloan's - and if you give one, make it this as well. You'll be glad on both counts.

Counting by 7s by Holly Goldberg Sloan, published by Dial Books for Young Readers
Ages 9-12 +
Source: Library
Sample: "I was taken to see an educational consultant that autumn and the woman did an evaluation. She sent my parents a letter.
I read it.
It said I was 'highly gifted.'
Are people 'lowly gifted'?
Or 'medium gifted'?
Or just 'gifted'? It's possible that all labels are curses. Unless they are on cleaning products.
Because in my opinion it's not really a great idea to see people as one thing.
Every person has lots of ingredients to make them into what is always a one-of-a-kind creation.
We are all imperfect genetic stews."
Highly recommended

Sunday, December 8, 2013

30 Days of Picture Books - What a Wonderful World, illustrated by Ashley Bryan

It's Day 30 in our 30 Days of Picture Books. We made it! Can't believe how quickly that 30 days -- and 30 books -- zipped by. At the beginning of the project I always feel as if I'll never have enough selections to fill up 30 days, and then by the end I'm compiling a list of titles for next year's picks. I hope you've enjoyed reading along with us as much as we've enjoyed sharing these books with you. The research is tough, but someone's got to do it! :)

Tonight we're sharing a pick that seems to sum up the feeling we have at this time of the year, when thoughts turn to giving and sharing, and being grateful for all the blessings we've been given. Ashley Bryan's What a Wonderful World distills those thoughts nicely, using the classic lyrics by George David Weiss and Bob Thiele. Kids and parents alike will recognize this song, made famous by Louis Armstrong, just from the title alone. Sprout can't stand for us to read the words of this one -- we have to sing it, which is just fine by me.

Bryan's version has been around for quite some time, and it stands out as an example of how vivid illustrations can breathe new life into a familiar theme, or in this case song. Bryan brings his signature multicultural perspective to this work, weaving together people of various ethnicities through the storyline of a group of children putting on a puppet show. Louis Armstrong makes a cameo appearance, even working the puppet version of himself in the finale, where all the children gather to sing the last line of the song. It's a fantastic example of diversity, in which each individual is distinct but together makes a beautiful panorama.

Pick up What a Wonderful World at your library or bookstore, and share this one with a child this holiday season. It's an easy read that's impactful both in image and meaning, and one that reinforces the message we always try to send -- that the difference and variety between people, all people, is what makes this indeed a wonderful world.

What a Wonderful World, illustrated by Ashley Bryan, published by Atheneum Books for Young Readers

Saturday, December 7, 2013

30 Days of Picture Books - The Highway Rat by Julia Donaldson

It's Day 29 of our 30 Days of Picture Books. We're winding down in our selections, and it makes me a little sad - there are so many more great titles we'd like to share, but that just didn't make it into this year's 30 Days list. If you're interested in checking out the titles we've shared this year and last, just click on the 30 Days of Picture Books tab above, or follow our Pinterest boards for 2012 and 2013 to see every title!

Our choice tonight is one we picked up because of Sprout's love for The Gruffalo. He was ambivalent the first time we read The Gruffalo, and in fact I don't think we even checked it out that day. But one of his absolute favorite teachers at preschool really brought the book to life for him. (Truth is, if Miss Valerie loves it, it's an automatic win for Sprout too!). So because he's come to love The Gruffalo, I knew he'd be excited to see The Highway Rat, the new collaboration by Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler. And even though there are plenty of sequels that don't live up to the hype, this one delivers on every level.

First and foremost, it's helpful if you have at least a passing familiarity with the poem "The Highwayman" by Alfred Noyes. (Go ahead and read it, we'll wait.) Okay, if you're good with that, then you're ready to dive into The Highway Rat. Donaldson translates Noyes' poem into a critter-friendly world, where the Highway Rat rules the highway, taking whatever he pleases. "His life was one long feast," she writes, and it certainly seems to be true as all the characters give up their food to the Highway Rat. But then one day a duck comes along, and because the duck has no food for him to take, the Highway Rat declares he'll eat the duck instead. However, unbeknownst to the Highway Rat, this duck has other plans. . . .

Donaldson's command of the picture book genre is evident here, as she transforms the classic poem into a piece that appeals to kids of all ages. Her adherence to the rhyme scheme is flawless, and she uses the form to bring readers the resolution they're craving. And as with their previous collaborations, Scheffler's illustrations aptly suit the tone of Donaldson's work, taking the edge out of what could be a dark plotline by translating it with visual touches kids will love. How many artists would think to show emotion on the faces of a chain of ants? That's a master at work, my friends.

The Highway Rat may be a baddie, but he's an adorable one, and his fate in the end, while clearly a punishment for his misdeeds, is one that always makes Sprout smile. A joy to read aloud, The Highway Rat is one you'll want to share with everyone -- kiddo or adult!

The Highway Rat by Julia Donaldson, published by Arthur A. Levine Books

30 Days of Picture Books - Captain Cat by Inga Moore

It's Day 28 of our 30 Days of Picture Books. What part of holiday shopping trips you up? I always struggle with stocking stuffers. It's silly, because it could be anything, but I always try to find fun things that are inexpensive but not junk. Thankfully I came across an awesome post on Growing Book by Book about Literacy Stocking Stuffers, which is chock-full of brilliant suggestions. One of the best on her list is a library card! Such a terrific idea and best of all, it's usually free - a great way to give your kids a whole year of awesome content anytime!

Today's pick is by one of our favorite author/illustrators, Inga Moore. Captain Cat is her newest picture book, and it was destined for us since we've now added a kitty to our household. Sprout was super excited to read this one, and though it's longer than many books we choose for bedtime, he always stays with it until the very end -- the story is just that good. It definitely has the feel of a classic around it, from the way Moore weaves the tale together to the timeless illustration style that she employs for this, as with all her other titles.

Captain Cat is a trader who sales the seas making his living. The other traders make fun of him because Captain Cat can always be persuaded to trade his goods for a cat, and has a whole clowder of cats as company on his ship. One day Captain Cat decides he'll sail off to see the world, but he blows off course and ends up on an uncharted island. The queen of the island is so taken with the cats (she's never seen one) that she trades Captain Cat a wealth of riches in exchange for his feline friends. When Captain Cat returns home and the other traders get wind of his newfound wealth, they decide to make their own trades - but things don't turn out for them exactly as they'd planned!

Moore's illustrations are haunting, echoing the loneliness of the sea with the comfort and domesticity of a snuggly feline. One of the spreads that was most affecting for Sprout was the one where Captain Cat says goodbye to his kitties - Sprout was overwhelmed at the thought that the cats were going to be left behind, tender-hearted as he is (don't worry, it all turns out happily in the end). Moore manages to capture the personality of cats quite well, as she's obviously done a little first-hand research. And she spins her story with a practiced hand, mixing in enough action to keep little readers on the edge of their seat, along with a dash of humor to make for a satisfying resolution.

Captain Cat is a great book to snuggle up with on a cold evening, hot cocoa in hand and a fire roaring in the fireplace. Add this to your kiddo's library for a storytime selection with staying power!

Captain Cat by Inga Moore, published by Candlewick Press

Thursday, December 5, 2013

30 Days of Picture Books - Pug & Doug by Steve Breen

It's Day 27 of our 30 Days of Picture Books. Tonight we're sharing a pick that we first read several months ago, but it was top on my mind when I started compiling a list of 30 Days candidates. The backstory to this one is that my sister and her family have a pug named Leon. He's absolutely adorable, but when Sprout first met Leon, he was truly terrified. He wasn't scared of any other dog, and in fact liked dogs quite a lot, just not the pug. I'm not sure what he thought that squishy little puppy was going to do to him, but he burst into tears every time poor Leon got anywhere near close.

So we embarked on a campaign of desensitization by exposing Sprout to anything pug-related. And I guess it's carried over, even though he now thinks Leon's very cute, because we still seek out pug-ish titles at the library. One of our best finds was the recent Pug & Doug by author/illustrator Steve Breen. This book had instant kid-appeal with its cover image of cheerful friends Pug and Doug bouncing and having fun. Breen uses watercolors to lend an easy feel to the images, which are interspersed with comic-style panels throughout, a nod to Breen's background as a Pulitzer Prize-winning political cartoonist.

The story is one of friendship and misunderstanding, something that's instantly relatable for most preschoolers. Pug and Doug are besties, with the same favorite likes and dislikes, and just enough individuality to keep things interesting. But then one day Doug discovers that Pug has thrown out a picture of the pair at the UFO convention. Doug's upset, and he goes to talk to his friend, only to discover that Pug is too busy to hang out. Things of course spiral from there, and Doug becomes convinced that Pug's completely over him. Is the friendship really over? Or does Pug have something else going on that's been taking him away from his best friend?

Breen intersperses plenty of humor in the story that adds to the overall charm of this book. The misunderstanding, for that's what it really is, is realistic and kids will emphathize with Doug's feelings even as they see why things were misinterpreted. I love the little eccentric touches that Breen includes, like the fact that the friends love UFOs and that they're both afraid of the same things (vampires, mummies -- and Chinese cresteds!). Best of all, there's a nice joke right at the end that Sprout really loves. He's fairly quivering until we turn the last page and see the punch line - well played, Mr. Breen!

For a light-hearted story of friendship, reconciliation and old doughnuts, Pug & Doug is an awesome choice. I'm very hopeful that we'll see more of this pair - like Frog and Toad, they have an easy rapport that seems destined for more adventure.

Pug & Doug by Steve Breen, published by Dial Books for Young Readers

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

30 Days of Picture Books - Don't Spill the Milk! by Stephen Davies

It's Day 26 of our 30 Days of Picture Books. Last night I wrote about giving books as gifts, which put me in mind of the books I received as a child myself. One of the best gifts I ever got was a boxed set of the Chronicles of Narnia, when I was about 5 years old. I was a precocious reader, but even still I didn't get around to reading The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe for a couple of years, when I was sick in bed with the flu. From the very beginning I was hooked, and I raced through the rest of the series shortly thereafter. I still have fond memories of finishing one book and knowing that the next was right there waiting for me - my guess is I probably put the first book down and picked the second up immediately!

Tonight's choice is a title that reminds me a lot of the kinds of picture books I loved as a kid. Stephen Davies' Don't Spill the Milk! is lively and full of action, with lots of little details embedded in every spread. Kids love books like this - at least every kid I've ever known certainly does, and Sprout is no exception. The first time we read this title he was picking out things I never noticed when reading it on my own. So don't think you're going to flip through this one super fast, because you'll want time to linger.

Davies' story takes place in West Africa, specifically Niger, which we find out from his author's note. (I wish he had specified this in the text itself, rather than using the generic "Africa", but that's a small enough quibble since we were able to look up the country name for Sprout.) Penda's father is far away in the grasslands tending the family's sheep, and she volunteers to take him a bowl of milk. You can tell right off that Penda's a sparky little firecracker. But she channels her energy by telling herself to walk slowly, slowly, slowly so she doesn't spill Daddy's milk. On she walks, past distractions like a herd of giraffes and a flock of masked dancers, and even takes a boat - but will she make it to Daddy without spilling the milk?

Davies could easily have left this as a fun tour through a West African country, but instead he uses it as a vehicle to explore the love between family members. I absolutely adore that touch, because it shows a strong African family united through caring for one another, a message I very much want to crystallize for my own son. The pictures by Christopher Corr are absolutely stellar, and work not only to give a specific sense of place but also to bring Davies' themes to life. There's a folk-art flair about them that perfectly suits the setting, and the sun-drenched colors will cheer up even the most dreary winter day.

If your library or bookstore doesn't yet have Don't Spill the Milk!, by all means ask for it. This is a terrific title that far deserves a wider audience - you can bet that, like Penda's milk, we're sharing it with the ones we love!

Don't Spill the Milk! by Stephen Davies, published by Andersen Press

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

30 Days of Picture Books - Copycat Bear by Ellie Sandall

It's Day 25 of our 30 Days of Picture Books. One thing I hope this month of sharing picture books has done is inspire you to include bookish gifts in your holiday giving. Gift cards are fine, socks are necessary, but books -- books are a gift that stays with a child for a lifetime! Often I see bloggers posting advice on "how to pick out the perfect book for a child" or some such. I know these folks mean well but honestly there is no magic trick to finding a good literary gift. My best advice is to go to a store or library, read a whole mess of picture books, then go get a coffee or lunch and see which books linger in your mind. Whatever book you remember is likely to be the one you'll most enjoy sharing with a child, and that joy is infectious!

Tonight's pick is a fairly recent one that I think would make a lovely surprise under someone's Christmas tree. Ellie Sandall's an author/illustrator with one fine eye for design, as you'll see when you flip through her new book Copycat Bear. She clearly knows how to set up a page not only to emphasize the important points of her story, but also to draw readers through the text. Her illustrations, while graphic and eye-catching, aren't going to overwhelm a young reader either, a balance that's important to strike. And Sandall makes it feel effortless.

Likewise, Sandall's story reads easily but doesn't spare her message. Mango's a bird and Blue is her gigantic bear friend. The two get along great except for Blue's one annoying habit - he likes to mimic Mango's behavior. Mango doesn't care for that too much, and she tries to do things that Blue can't do. But try as she might, Mango can't find anything that Blue won't at least attempt. Finally Mango flies away in frustration - but then she discovers that she can't stop thinking about that big blue bear. At last Mango goes back to find her friend, and figures out that a copycat bear is just the kind of friend she needs.

I love the sentiment in this title, because I think it's an important lesson to learn -- though we might at times be annoyed by the people we love, in the end it is often that very behavior we miss the most. Blue's copying ways remind me so much of the toddler set, for whom imitation is not only sincere flattery but also the most easily expressed kind. Little ones will love this book for its simple, satisfying resolution every bit as much as its gentle pictures - an absolutely great choice for bedtime or the storytime wind-down!

Copycat Bear by Ellie Sandall, published by Tiger Tales

Monday, December 2, 2013

30 Days of Picture Books - Too Many Toys by David Shannon

It's Day 24 of our 30 Days of Picture Books. As I'm writing this, it's already starting to feel a lot like Christmas around Casa de Kinser. Hubs and Sprout put up our outdoor lights this weekend and we've got our tree up as well, though not fully decorated. (Our new kitty Jasper isn't sure what to think about it - he's intrigued, but wary.) We've started shopping for Sprout and Santa's been informed of the wish list, which this year includes Legos and the new Otis Christmas book. :)

And that leads me right in to today's pick, David Shannon's Too Many Toys. This book hits close to my heart as we find ourselves actively working to keep the volume of toys in Sprout's closet to an absolute minimum. It's a hard fight sometimes, let me tell you! But in our way of thinking, it's more important to have significant, well-chosen toys than just a lot of -- well, junk.

And junk is indeed the problem in Spencer's house, as he and his parents are being gradually buried under a flood of toys. Spencer pretty much has every toy under the sun, so many he can't possibly play with - or even find - all of them. He's not bothered by the mess, but his parents are. And one day Spencer's mom finally snaps and insists that Spencer re-home some of his playthings. As you might expect, this doesn't go down too well with Spencer, who fights Mom at every step of the way. But at last the pair assembles a box full of stuff that's headed to another destination. All is looking good until Spencer decides there's one thing he can't let go of. . . and you won't believe what it is!

Shannon brings his trademark energy to Spencer's chaotic world of toys. The masses of plastic playthings this kiddo has assembled are impressive, and they definitely imprint with kids. As we read, Sprout kept remarking, "He's got too many stuffs!" - even without my intervention (Shannon's point is hard to miss). I really appreciate not only that this topic was addressed, but that Shannon demonstrates Spencer's resistance in a realistic way. And the resolution is proof positive that some of the best playthings are those you discover all on your own.

Look, let's be honest -- kids rarely want to part with their toys, even when it's obvious that the piles need to be cleared out. But in the holiday season, with lots of goodies coming in stockings and packages, Too Many Toys might just be the bibliotherapy your little ones need to clear out the old and make way for new!

Too Many Toys by David Shannon, published by Scholastic

Sunday, December 1, 2013

30 Days of Picture Books - The Tiny King by Taro Miura

It's Day 23 in our 30 Days of Picture Books. Hopefully you've found some new titles to read this past three weeks. We certainly have, and we continue to explore more authors and illustrators who are unfamiliar to us, as well as our old standbys. I'm fortunate to work at a day job that gives me near-constant exposure to picture books. But if you don't have that luxury, blogs like Pragmatic Mom, What Do We Do All Day?, Delightful Children's Books, Growing Book by Book and Jen Robinson's Book Page are all terrific sources for awesome new picture book finds, just to name a few.

Tonight's pick is one that I probably never would have noticed but for the fact that it came across my desk. I'm so glad it did, because Taro Miura's The Tiny King is a powerhouse of a concept book. It's a fantastic choice for even the littlest readers, because visually it's quite stimulating, with its primary colors and blocky bold artwork. And the simplicity of the story means it works for a wide age range, with different points to explore with readers at different stages.

The Tiny King (pictured actual size on the cover of the book) lives a very lonely life. He's got a big house, a big table and a big bed, but no one to keep him company except his army of soldiers. Then one day the Tiny King meets a Big Princess and falls in love. Marriage soon follows and suddenly the Tiny King finds his household bustling with the addition of 10 children! Now the house isn't too big, the table of food is easily consumed, and everyone sleeps better at night all snuggled up together in the big, big bed.

The use of color and shape are quite dynamic in The Tiny King. Miura contrasts the Tiny King's lonely state at the beginning of the book, marked by black backgrounds, with his blossoming as a family comes into his life. Then the color palette shifts abruptly, with brights and pastels the order of the day. Each spread is more and more joyful, to emphasize how much happier the Tiny King is now, as Sprout pointed out tonight when we read this for about the tenth time. You can't help but smile at the sight of all those adorable kiddos, numbered 1 through 10, cavorting through the previously forlorn castle.

My library has categorized The Tiny King in our concepts area, and it works beautifully there, but don't ignore the depths that the story contains, and the opportunity to talk with kids about life and relationships. This one's a winner for sure - hoping to read more from Miura soon!

The Tiny King by Taro Miura, published by Candlewick Press

Saturday, November 30, 2013

30 Days of Picture Books - Moonday by Adam Rex

It's Day 22 of our 30 Days of Picture Books. Picture Book Month may be ending today, but our celebration doesn't stop - we still have 9 more picks for you, lucky readers! We've been hard at work reading new picture books every night and culling out only the best. It's a process for sure, and often the ones I like don't make the cut in Sprout's book, but we do seek to strike a balance.

Tonight's choice is one that's a hit with all three of us - Mama, Daddy and Sprout - Moonday by Adam Rex. The visuals are hands-down the big attraction here, as you can probably imagine. With that gigantic glowing moon right smack on the front cover, Sprout was drawn to it first thing, and frankly so was I. And the gorgeousness continues throughout. Some spreads are just pulsing with so much energy you feel as if the page doesn't exist, and you could be pulled right in to the story yourself.

Moonday reads like a "what if" -- what if the moon didn't disappear one morning, but instead settled into a family's backyard and stayed there? That's what happens to our protagonist, who wakes up to find that the full moon she saw so clear and bright the night before has come to rest outside her back door. It's intriguing but disturbing too, as the whole town's rhythm of the day is thrown off. Even the teacher is too sleepy to conduct class, and our heroine finds that a yawn she begins at one corner bounces around from person to person only to catch her on the way around. It's pretty clear that someone has to do something, and when the tide comes in, our hero decides she knows what to do to get the moon back where it belongs.

This lovely bedtime read has the whiff of a tall tale about it, and it's definitely one that will spark a kiddo's imagination. After we read it the other night, Sprout started spinning his own tale about what would happen if the sun landed in our front yard and stayed there ("I think it would burn up all our grass, Mom!"). Rex demonstrates a much more contemplative side here, and I like that about him - he shows that for all the humor of some of his previous works (Chu's Day, his collaboration with Neil Gaiman, for one, which is funny even to the littlest reader), he's got a thoughtful aspect as well.

The moon is mystery and magic for so many reasons, and Rex captures a bit of that magic in picture book form with Moonday. Pair it with a book like David Wiesner's Tuesday for a storytime that's surreal and dreamy, just like a moonlit night.

Moonday by Adam Rex, published by Disney Hyperion

Friday, November 29, 2013

30 Days of Picture Books - Giant Dance Party by Betsy Bird

It's Day 21 in our 30 Days of Picture Books. What's that you say? Yesterday was actually Day 21 but I didn't share a post? Very astute -- well, that dreaded Thanksgiving turkey coma took over and I wasn't alert enough to post a new book last night. And that's all we're going to say about that. . . .

Anyhoo, it's no matter because you'll still get the benefit of yesterday's pick one day late. And what a pick it is, exuberant and colorful -- just take a peek at that cover and tell me you aren't excited about this one right from the get-go! Betsy Bird's Giant Dance Party is terrific in lots of ways, and that's not surprising since Bird herself is a children's librarian and author of the popular kidlit blog Fuse #8. The woman knows her kidlit, and because she knows what kids like, this one's a slam-dunk. But don't worry, it's not that kind of kid-fave that's also an adult nightmare. Giant Dance Party is read-aloud friendly and funny, with a message wrapped so deep it'll sneak by the kiddos without them even catching on.

Lexy lives to dance, but she's decided to quit. Her parents know why, and it's not even hard to understand - recitals. Who likes those anyway? Not Lexy, because once the lights go on she freezes up solid ("blammo! Ice pop.") But she finds she misses her favorite pastime, so she decides to become a dance teacher instead. It takes a little while, but at last Lexy has clients -- blue, furry, gigantic clients, to be exact. And giants aren't exactly known for their gracefulness. Still, Lexy's persuaded to teach them, and all goes fine until the night of the Giant Dance Recital, where the students turn into giant blue furry ice pops. Uh-oh! How will Lexy salvage the big event?

Brandon Dorman did the illustrations for Giant Dance Party and it has to be said that this is a big part of the book's charm. The giants are in no way intimidating, more like big fuzzy kids themselves, which of course makes their predicament all the more relatable. And Lexy herself is spunky and lively, the kind of girl who doesn't wait around for a solution to her problems but figures out how to work through it all on her own. My one disappointment would just be that I'd wish for more diversity here. But perhaps we'll get that with Bird's next go-around? One can hope, anyway!

When your kiddo's struggling with a fear that seems insurmountable, reach for Giant Dance Party. With humor, spirit and a whole lot of grace, this title shows young ones how to reach for the stars!

Giant Dance Party by Betsy Bird, published by Greenwillow Books

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

30 Days of Picture Books - Blackout by John Rocco

It's Day 20 in our series of 30 Days of Picture Books. With the holiday season upon us, there's so much to do that it's easy to get caught up in our busy-ness. Life is crazy anyway, with work and school and all our other responsibilities - add a bunch of holiday festivities on top of things and some parts of life get pushed to the side. Unfortunately in my own life, that sometimes means my family takes a backseat, which means I need to stop, reevaluate my priorities, and make time for what's really important, which is spending time with the people I love.

That's the message behind today's pick, which, although it takes place in the dead of summer, is perfect for this busy, hectic season. With Blackout, John Rocco explores what happens when our regular routine is interrupted and we have to think creatively. The action starts on a hot summer night when the whole family is engaged in activity - solitary activity - and the youngest member can't get anyone's attention. (Sound familiar? Our Day 11 pick, Journey, starts under similar circumstances.) Bored, he resorts to a video game, somewhat half-heartedly. But then the lights suddenly go out, not just in the family's apartment but all across the city. What's a family to do? Crouch inside in the hot dark house? No way - they head up to the roof for exploring or down to the street to see what everyone else is up to!

Rocco is an incredible artist, and it almost goes without saying that Blackout is a visual splendor (it won a Caldecott Honor). The way he translates the night sky, with its glowing stars and welcoming dark, lends a feeling of endless possibility to the world. The use of light here is fantastic too; the play of shadow and darkness against the bursts of illumination make for a stunning effect. Above all, Rocco gives us a great contrast, between the harsh light of early evening, when everyone is focused on their own pursuits, and the friendly sense of community that comes out when the electricity's cut.

All good things must come to an end, though, and so the power comes back on. But our hero isn't satisfied with that - he was having too much fun! - and he comes up with a solution that the whole family can get behind.

Blackout is a great choice for preschoolers, who'll appreciate not only the spare text (allowing them to insert their own interpretation of certain events) but also the absorbing illustrations. Be forewarned though - reading this title may lead you to your own spontaneous family fun - which sounds like just the ticket for a holiday weekend!

Blackout by John Rocco, published by Hyperion Books

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

30 Days of Picture Books - Romping Monsters, Stomping Monsters by Jane Yolen

Today is Day 19 of our 30 Days of Picture Books. Our book for today is one that just makes me smile every time I look at the cover, or even hear the title for that matter. Do you have a picture book that makes you happy right on sight? That's one of the things I love most about children's books - when was the last time a tell-all memoir or work of literary fiction made you burst into a smile?

Tonight we're sharing Jane Yolen's Romping Monsters, Stomping Monsters. Yolen's a legend in the world of kidlit. It has to be the very rare child nowadays who hasn't heard at least one of Yolen's books before moving out of elementary school, and for good reason - Yolen captures the moments of kidlit like few other authors can. Whether she's addressing serious issues or just exploring the playful side of life, this is an author who knows what kids like and excels at giving it to them.

And it is that very playfulness that's at the center of Romping Monsters, Stomping Monsters. Young fans of the Pixar franchise are the obvious audience for this title, which explores a monster neighborhood full of creatures at their leisure. We're following a pair of monster siblings as they take a trip to the park with Mom. They're sliding down slides, blowing bubbles, riding bikes and sailing boats. And at the end of the afternoon, everyone wants to cool off with a monster-sicle, of course - but unfortunately a little spat ensues, a scenario any parent will find oh-so-familiar.

Yolen's simple, direct phrases are brought to life with deadly cute illustrations by Kelly Murphy. Murphy's translated many of the characteristic behaviors of young children into a monster-verse populated with kids at play. Readers will love poring over the pages to see all the small details Murphy includes, and all the adorable facial expressions (Sprout loves the page where our starring characters fall on the ground during a three-legged race). And adults will see the humor in the parallels with  our own days out with little ones.

At days' end, the monster sibs are headed home with Mom, tired and full of great memories. And when you close the book, you'll share the monster mama's smile at another childhood day gone by.

Romping Monsters, Stomping Monsters by Jane Yolen, published by Candlewick Press

Monday, November 25, 2013

30 Days of Picture Books - Old Mikamba Had a Farm by Rachel Isadora

Today's Day 18 of our 30 Days of Picture Books. Tonight I'm sharing a new book from one of the authors that first made me want to blog about multicultural kids' books. When we began our process to adopt a boy from Ethiopia, Rachel Isadora was one of the artists whose work I found especially inspiring and really wanted to add to our collection. I've blogged about a number of Isadora's titles thus far, and there are many more to come. One of our absolute favorites is her version of The Night Before Christmas, which has become a tradition in the Kinser household for the way it marries African sensibilities with the familiar Christmas poem.

Sprout was super excited to see tonight's pick by Isadora, Old Mikamba Had a Farm. The detail he seized on right away was the houses that Isadora has on the front cover, which echo the style of his Ethiopian family's home. We talked a bit before we read the book, because I wanted to explain the back story - Old Mikamba is, as you might expect, a riff on Old McDonald, but instead of domesticated animals, he's a keeper on a game farm in Africa. (Pet peeve: I really wish we could have a specific country identified, rather than the all-encompassing but so generic "Africa".)

So, rather than cows, sheep and chickens, Old Mikamba has zebras, baboons and elephants. Isadora keeps with the format of the song ("E-I-E-I-O" and all), so kids will have fun singing along and inserting the names of different animals along with their characteristic sounds. Sprout liked the baboon best, with his "ooh-ha-ha" noise -- it's tons of fun to get into this! I also love that we have some diversity with the animals here, including less familiar critters like springbok, dassies and warthogs. A nice author's note at the end offers some explanation of the stars of each verse.

And as you might expect with Isadora, the illustrations are fantastic. She blends drawings with collage, and I love the mixed media she uses for each piece. The elephants are our favorite, with their collaged newspaper skin - so adorable! And around each page are lovely borders with scenes from the East African countryside. The gorgeous orbs of orangey sunset are especially nice, and definitely add to the feel that we are close to the land with this one (a close second are the leaping springboks, which pay homage to Isadora's connection with ballet).

If you're looking to refresh your collection of classics at home or in the classroom. Old Mikamba Had a Farm is a terrific choice. It's familiar enough for kids to identify with, but broadens everyone's world nicely. And that, dear reader, is the sign of great kidlit!

Old Mikamba Had a Farm by Rachel Isadora, published by Penguin Young Readers

Sunday, November 24, 2013

30 Days of Picture Books - The Thanksgiving Door by Debby Atwell

It's Day 17 in our 30 Days of Picture Books. Today I'd like to share a Thanksgiving title that's new to us this year. I often see -- and pin -- fantastic lists of holiday books, the kinds of lists that are overflowing with awesome choices. I rarely create lists like that, though, because I'm always trying to find holiday titles that are diverse or multicultural in nature. And if you've been reading my blog long, you know books like that are few and far between. So generally when we do a holiday feature, it has some diversity included - makes for a smaller but more impactful list, I think.

Today's book is one I've heard about for a couple of years now but hadn't had a chance to read. I'm so glad we made the effort to seek it out this Thanksgiving though, because it was simply charming. Debby Atwell's The Thanksgiving Door is unique in that the action starts on the front cover of the book - you really need to focus on what's happening there in order to have context for later events, but that's all the spoiler I'm giving you. :)

The story focuses on Ed and Ann, an elderly couple who are all alone for Thanksgiving. Ann accidentally burns their dinner, and it looks like the holiday is going to be ruined. But then Ed decides the couple is going out to eat (taking a page from The Christmas Story, our favorite holiday movie!). They decide to try a new restaurant in the neighborhood - at first they aren't sure the place is serving, but the door was open, so they venture in. Well, actually the family that runs the place was having their own dinner, and some members are a bit dismayed to see guests. But Grandmother believes that hospitality is essential, especially on the family's first holiday in America, so the family welcomes Ed and Ann. And it's a wonderful, if unexpected, Thanksgiving for all!

This is such a heartwarming story of acceptance and inclusion, just right for Thanksgiving. The folk art-infused illustrations definitely add to the classic feel of the story, which would be a good choice to share with preschoolers on up. I love that both parties -- Ed and Ann, and the family -- were uncertain about accepting the other, but overcame their fears and uncertainties and let down their guard. Ed and Ann experience aspects of the family's culture (Atwell never specifies where they are from, just "the old country", but I'm guessing Ukranian?). And the family learns new things too, such as when Ann teaches everyone the conga. Now that's what a holiday should be.

Make the time to seek out The Thanksgiving Door -- it's a colorful and upbeat title that captures the true spirit of giving that is central to this winter holiday!

The Thanksgiving Door by Debby Atwell, published by Houghton Mifflin

Saturday, November 23, 2013

30 Days of Picture Books - Swirl by Swirl by Joyce Sidman

It's Day 16 in our 30 Days of Picture Books. I might have mentioned it before, but Sprout is really into science these days. We recently made a trip to a nearby science center to see their dinosaur exhibit, and Sprout was absolutely mesmerized by nearly everything there. He has a very inquisitive mind and wants to know how things work and what's going on beneath the surface. I love that my husband is willing to explain things like the water cycle in terms Sprout can grasp - yet another way for my boys to bond.

And so any science-related book I bring home is a sure-fire hit, and today's pick, Swirl by Swirl, was no exception. Joyce Sidman wrote a book we featured in last year's 30 Days of Picture Books, Red Sings from Treetops, which is so incredible that we've read several more titles by her in the past year. But the one that sticks out for me most is Swirl by Swirl, for the way Sidman's text and the images by Caldecott winner Beth Krommes intertwine to produce a fully realized work of art and science.

Sidman's focus here is the spiral shape -- who else would have thought to create an entire picture book around this topic? It's remarkable, when you start to look around nature, how much that very elemental curl occurs over and over. Snail shells, fern fronds, animals wound into a ball for protection or hibernation - spirals are everywhere. I adore the descriptions Sidman uses throughout. "A spiral is a clever shape," she writes. "It is graceful and strong." She chooses her words carefully but purposefully, and for me that increases the impact so much more.

You can't describe this book without mentioning the visuals. Sidman's examples are illustrated beautifully by Krommes, who uses her signature scratchboard technique to provide depth and movement to each image. Suddenly the spirals become little jewels, sparkling throughout the natural world, each alive with purpose and surrounded with a sense of wonder. Even the endpapers are dazzling, not a spare inch left unconsidered. Sprout likes to read this one straight through and then go back a second time so we can pick out the little descriptors of what we're seeing, all thoughtfully labeled. Further, there's a nice meaty afterword that will satisfy the curiosity of any budding scientist.

If there's one thing I hope I can demonstrate with the titles we're sharing this month, it's that picture books are so much more than sleepy bunnies and hat-wearing felines. Next time your kiddo is wondering how the world works - check out a picture book like Swirl by Swirl for a fresh perspective!

Swirl by Swirl by Joyce Sidman, published by Houghton Mifflin

Friday, November 22, 2013

30 Days of Picture Books - Joseph Had a Little Overcoat by Simms Taback

Welcome to Day 15 of our 30 Days of Picture Books! If you need to catch up, click the link to check out the whole list on Pinterest - and while you're there, you may find one or two other boards that seem timely, help you build a booklist or just make you smile!

Tonight's pick is one that I first read a couple of years ago when I was taking a children's literature class for my degree. I was ridiculously excited to take that class, for lots of reasons, but one of the big things that tickled my fancy was a HUGE assignment I'd heard about. My prof had us gather the Caldecott winners from each year the award was given (or Honor titles, if need be) and then analyze the developments in art and style from the first to the last. Holy cooooow, was that ever a lot of work! And you should have seen the stacks of books on our kitchen table! But it was also very informative and made me examine not only picture book art but the relationship between art and text in a more synergistic fashion. (Hmmm, I think I might have ripped that sentence right out of my paper. . . )

Anyway, Simms Taback's Joseph Had a Little Overcoat was one of the titles that stood out to me for the way the creator married innovation and plot. The book uses a technique of die-cut holes that overlay a page - the view changes depending on if you're looking through the die-cut from the front or the back. I know that probably doesn't make a whole lot of sense, but trust me, it's pretty ingenious. Kids will be flipping the pages back and forth to see the trick (heck, that's what I do every time I read it!).

That little bit of inventiveness works just perfectly with the story Taback is telling. Joseph has an overcoat, but it's riddled with holes. So, rather than waste the fabric, Joseph uses his tailoring skills to turn it into a jacket. When the jacket wears out, it becomes a vest. On and on it goes, until at last, Joseph has nothing left - but our creative hero is even able to make something out of that. At the end, Taback explains in an author's note that the story is based on a Yiddish folk song he enjoyed as a child, which is a nice nod to culture and adds some depth to the work as a whole.

This is a great example of a cumulative tale, and it makes a great read-aloud, as listeners try to guess what it is Joseph's going to create next. The lessons are pretty terrific too -- do with what you have, celebrate life, enjoy your family -- all values we're interested in passing on to Sprout, wrapped up in an interesting, visually bountiful package. Taback knows how to work with the tools of his trade, mixing color, texture and perspective to present a world that's lively and inviting. I can see this used in a classroom or library as a springboard to a child's own creative adventure.

Head out to your library or bookstore and pick this one up as soon as possible. Taback's created a modern classic here, one that's sure to survive not just because of the gold seal on the cover, but because of the jewels wrapped within.

Joseph Had a Little Overcoat by Simms Taback, published by Viking

Thursday, November 21, 2013

30 Days of Picture Books - Grumpy Bird by Jeremy Tankard

Today's Day 14 of our 30 Days of Picture Books. It's at this point in the project that I realize I'm probably not going to get to every single book I want to share with you. Sigh. It's just that there's such a bounty of picture book goodness out there, that it's hard to winnow it all own. Oh well, that only means there is that much more for next year, yes?

Our pick today is one I put off reading for a long time, which is weird, because I really love the cover:

But I think it's because I read a ton of raves when the book came out, and I just didn't want to be disappointed in the result. I mean, that bird - he has such promise, right? That tuft of feathers, that upturned eyebrow, that beak out-of-joint. And if Grumpy Bird didn't live up to Jeremy Tankard's amazing cover work, well, I'd be all kinds of cranky myself.

Lucky for us, and for you, dear reader, Grumpy Bird is ever bit as great as you might expect. In fact, it has become a frequent library checkout (and re-checkout) for us because it always delivers as a mood-lifter. So whenever Sprout's getting a little frumpy about life -- such as the days he complains about being "so bored" -- I know it's time to perk things up with Grumpy Bird.

The story starts out with our title character, who wakes up with his feathers in a bit of a twist. He decides to go for a walk, because he's even too grumpy to fly. But right off the bat, to Bird's annoyance, Sheep sees him walking and wants to join along. Whatever, Bird thinks, but then Rabbit sees the two and decides to come along. On each new spread, another animal decides to join in, until there's a whole crew keeping the very disgruntled Bird company. Bird plans to drive them away by jumping, hopping and the like - but to Bird's surprise, all he manages to scare away is his own crabby mood. And now he's got some awesome friends to have a snack with!

This colorful title is a great one to break kids, or adults for the matter, out of a funk. How can you stay grouchy around this cute little dude? Even grumpy, Bird is super adorable - which I think is what makes this book work so well, because kids can't help but be drawn to him, and that message Tankard's woven in sneaks up on them before they know it. It's a perfect springboard to talking about friendship, emotions, and the power of looking beyond your own mood. (And also, it's just a lot of fun to read!)

Grumpy Bird by Jeremy Tankard, published by Scholastic

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

30 Days of Picture Books - How To by Julie Morstad

It's Day 13 of our 30 Days of Picture Books. One of the things I love most about picture books is the pairing of words with visuals. It's well-documented that this is a powerful tool for language acquisition in young children, as little ones are able to discern the meaning of text by examining the images that accompany them. Beyond that, though, there's the allurement factor. Picture books allow us to lavish our kiddos with an outpouring of art that would be difficult to attain in every other venue. Think about it -- would you rather take a rambunctious toddler to a museum for art appreciation, or visit the children's room at the library and bring home a bunch of literary goodies?

Today's pick is a great example of the kind of art you can find in picture books  -- How To by Julie Morstad, a gentle title where graceful images and simple text marry effortlessly to produce artistic bounty. Morstad turns a slip of a phrase, "how to feel a breeze", for example, and combines it with an unassuming yet arresting drawing, in this case of a boy riding his bike downhill. The drawings aren't complex, they don't scream for your attention - and yet there's something incredibly sincere about the work. The images are adorable and very soulful at the same time.

Morstad weaves in a good dose of humor, too. On a spread where four kiddos of various ethnicities lie stacked up in pillows, her text reads "how to make a sandwich". A page with a girl in a raincoat, face upturned to the rain, is titled "how to wash your face". Sprout got a huge kick out of this, and it afforded us the opportunity to talk about variable meanings, and how if you changed the image, the text would mean something entirely different, or vice versa. Context is everything, and this book teaches that beautifully. How To also offers young readers the chance to sort out some bits of the story on their own -- like how did that boy get up in the tree, or why is the girl sleeping on so many mattresses?

Picture books are a treasure trove of beauty, the epitome of magic wrapped between squares of cardboard. How To is one unassuming book from the outside, but crack the cover and you'll find plenty to get your young reader talking and thinking - and probably to get your own mind working as well.

How To by Julie Morstad, published by Simply Read Books

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

30 Days of Picture Books - Planes Fly! by George Ella Lyon

We're at Day 12 in our 30 Days of Picture Books. Are you loving what we've read so far? I have to say that this is probably my favorite blogging project of the entire year. It's an excuse for us to crack out our TBR list and request some titles we've been eyeing, and to revisit some of our favorites from the past several months. The only problem is narrowing the list to just 30 titles!

Tonight's pick has been described by Sprout as "super awesome", and I have to concur (what can I say, the boy has good taste!). George Ella Lyon is a poet, and she brings a poet's sensibilities to her work. That unique perspective definitely comes through in her recent picture book Planes Fly! This is a lyrical celebration of all kinds of aircraft, perfectly captured in Lyon's simple yet powerful verse. You name the plane, she's covered it, including commercial aircraft, seaplanes, and even Air Force One. From the first lines ("Planes have engines. / Planes have wings / lifted by the air that sings."), it's clear that this is an author that's not only skillful in her craft but also knowledgeable about her subject. It's a combination that's enough to make young aviators swoon.

And while I'm mentioning swoon-worthiness, let's talk about these illustrations by Mick Wiggins. Tinged with a flavor from vintage advertisements, these pictures definitely make you feel as though you're just about to wing off to somewhere fabulous. Wiggins manages to convey the wonder of flight in a way that suits Lyon's text to a tee. I'm not exaggerating when I say that Sprout's jaw absolutely dropped when he saw the spread with an aerial firefighter spraying water over a forest aflame and smoking. And on a second look-through with Daddy, he delighted at all the small details he found, like the picnickers on a bluff and the tiny shadow of a jumbo jet soaring above the landscape.

Planes Fly!, and with this informative and imaginative title, your little ones can too!

Planes Fly! by George Ella Lyon, published by Atheneum Books for Young Readers

Monday, November 18, 2013

30 Days of Picture Books - Journey by Aaron Becker

It's Day 11 of our 30 Days of Picture Books. A reader asked the other day if we read a new book every night - the short answer is no, especially lately, because we have been reading chapter books at bedtime more frequently (Ralph S. Mouse by Beverly Cleary is the current pick). But we do read quite a few new books every week, and revisit old favorites too. There are some picture books we just can't get enough of!

Today's title, Journey by Aaron Becker, is a bit different in that it's a wordless book. This type of picture book is tough for me, because my initial reaction on hearing that a particular title is to think "Oh, but I don't like wordless books." I don't know why I feel that way, since honestly I've enjoyed a number of wordless and near-wordless titles (Jerry Pinkney's The Lion and the Mouse is probably the most notable of these). But that's always what goes through my mind. Luckily there are plenty of terrific titles out there to prove me wrong, and Journey is a notable recent addition to this sub-section of picture books.

The story Becker has laid out is a familiar theme in many kidlit titles (traces of Harold and the Purple Crayon linger in the mind), but it receives an entirely new and fresh treatment in this peerless pictorial. A young girl, bored and lonely, tries to engage her family members in some activity with no success. Slumped on her bed, she suddenly spies a red crayon in the corner of her room, and, thinking quickly, she draws an archway on her wall and escapes through the door that appears. Immediately she's transported from her colorless existence to a world of shimmering beauty - a forest with golden lanterns strung from tree to tree. There's a stream there, and a dock, so, doing what nearly anyone with a magic crayon would, our heroine draws herself a boat, and she's off.

This is the kind of book kids crave, in my experience. The fantasy world that Becker's created here is the stuff of a young child's dreams, and the pictures are such works of craftsmanship that one could easily lose oneself in them for a long time. Each new spread reveals a new turn in the story, and the fun is in seeing how the girl will use her crayon (and her wits) to keep the adventure going. The girl's everyday world is echoed in the realms of imagination she explores, and the final turn in the story provides an ending that's satisfying and yet completely unexpected. This may be Becker's debut, but I sincerely hope it's not the last we'll see of him - this is a fierce and uniquely talented artist.

For all those who think that picture books are just for very young children, Journey will prove them wrong. There is a depth and complexity to this narrative that is sure to mesmerize any adult. That is, if you can pry it away from your kids.

Journey by Aaron Becker, published by Candlewick Press

Sunday, November 17, 2013

30 Days of Picture Books - It's Time for Preschool by Esmé Raji Codell

It's Day 10 of our 30 Days of Picture Books. What's your favorite of the titles we've shared so far?

Today happens to be Sunday, and as he does almost every weekend day, the second he woke up, Sprout wanted to know, "Is it a school day??" Sprout loves his preschool, and so do we. He's been fortunate to have had excellent day care providers, and now is in a more structured preschool program where he really shines. His teachers are involved and creative, thoughtful and kind. As a parent, it makes my day so much better when I know that Sprout is thriving in his everyday environment.

When Sprout first started preschool, we read and recommended a number of excellent titles for the transition. It's Time for Preschool! by Esmé Raji Codell is a great addition to that list. One glimpse at the cover and you know you're in for a good time with this one. Lively and fun, this is a great look at all the activities that most preschools incorporate into their regular routine. The only downside I can think to this title is that it makes me want to spend all day in such a cool place.

Codell is a teacher, librarian and reading specialist, so you know you're in good hands with the text here. She's got an engaging thread of rhyme that crops up now and again, and she does a fantastic job of explaining just what an average day in preschool looks like. She even covers special events, like field trips and fire drills, that are left out of most preschool-prep titles. Sue Ramá did the illustrations for this title, and true to form with her other work, she includes a healthy dose of diversity among teachers and students. There's loads of variety in the games and activities , as well - boys and girls alike playing house, making crafts, playing dinosaurs (and princess dinosaurs!).

Best of all, the book includes acknowledgements that kiddos may have a hard time during the day, and addresses worries like a parent not showing up at pick-up time ("But never never never / (I will say it with a shout) / Would your folks forget to pick you up. / It's not even worth thinking about.") This is a nice reassurance for kids who may feel uneasy about this new phase in life.

Whether your kiddo's a preschool veteran or still has that phase to look forward to, It's Time for Preschool! is a great escape into the fun of a busy school day.

It's Time for Preschool! by Esmé Raji Codell, published by Greenwillow Books

Saturday, November 16, 2013

30 Days of Picture Books - The Day the Crayons Quit by Drew Daywalt

It's Day 9 of our 30 Days of Picture Books. Tonight's post is going up a bit later than normal because we were gone most of the day to a friend's birthday party. I must say, it's quite nice to have other adoptive families in our lives, and especially nice that our boys, all within 6 months of another, get along really well. Today was cupcakes, pizza and a major bounce house - what else do a bunch of 4 and 5 year olds need to have a fun day??!?

Our pick today is one that was a birthday gift to Sprout from one of the coolest folks we know (you know who you are, Auntie S.). She works at a book wholesaler and so we know a package from this auntie is going to be full of some bookish goodness. She didn't disappoint with this pick, The Day the Crayons Quit by Drew Daywalt. It's every bit as fun as you'd think a book about crayons could be, and then some.

The title tells the story in a nutshell - one day Duncan reaches for his colors and discovers that the crayons have gone on strike. It all starts with Red, who is a bit stressed out from being in very heavy rotation, as colors go. Purple's upset that his color seems to be going outside the lines. Black is fed up that he's just used for outlines, Yellow and Orange are feuding over who is the best color for the sun, and Pink feels underused. Each color has its own unique complaint, and each writes Duncan an impassioned letter pleading its case. Duncan, fortunately, takes all the issues into consideration, and at last comes up with a solution that's the perfect display of each color's palette.

Oliver Jeffers does an amazing job of personifying the crayons themselves, manifesting in his drawings each of the complex range of emotions that Daywalt's text brings out. Each spread features not only the color who has written the letter in question, but also an example of Duncan's drawings that *illustrates* (like that artsy pun, there?) the problem at hand. We like White the best, I think; its complaint, as you might expect, has to do with going unnoticed, and is captured nicely within its letter -- written, of course, on black paper.

The Day the Crayons Quit is best for older preschoolers, just so that they understand the point of the story. It took a bit for Sprout to get the jokes here, as the humor is somewhat meta in nature. But once he did, he thought it was hilarious that the crayons had opinions and feelings. And I notice that ever since we first read it, he's a little more even-handed with his colors, making sure that everyone gets a turn.

Coincidence? Maybe, or maybe Sprout's just trying to prevent his own crayon walkout!

The Day the Crayons Quit by Drew Daywalt, published by Philomel Books

Friday, November 15, 2013

30 Days of Picture Books - Whistle for Willie by Ezra Jack Keats

Welcome to Day 8 of our 30 Days of Picture Books! It's a cold, wet November evening here in the Pacific Northwest, which to us just means a chance to curl up with a blanket, a kitty and a great book. We hope you have a chance to do the same!

Tonight's pick is an oldie-but-goodie that we've been reading since Sprout was a wee -- well, sprout. In fact, Ezra Jack Keats' books The Snowy Day, Peter's Chair and today's pick Whistle for Willie were some of the first books we added to our home library, when we knew we would be bringing home an Ethiopian boy. We felt then that it was important to surround our son with literary heroes and heroines of diverse backgrounds. And today, nearly 3 1/2 years later, we feel even more strongly about the subject, which you probably know if you've been following along here on the blog.

Whistle for Willie follows Keats' recurring character Peter in another urban adventure. In this outing, Peter is wishing he was able to whistle for his dog, Willie, like he sees another boy doing. While Peter's working on his whistling skills, he explores the neighborhood, then heads home for a little pretending. He decides it would be funny to surprise Willie by hiding and whistling - and after a couple of tries, he really does it! But of course Willie doesn't know Peter from a whistle, and he's plenty surprised at Peter's new skills, as are Peter's mom and dad. And in the final spread, on a trip to the store, Peter "whistled all the way there, and he whistled all the way home."

Keats absolutely nails the character of Peter here - rarely will you see a young boy so faithfully depicted, in his absolute randomness. I love the randomness of what Peter does when he's trying to learn to whistle, and I especially adore the scene with Peter and his mom, when Peter's trying on his dad's hat (no spoilers - you have to read the book to get it!). The collage technique Keats used for the illustration is just as fresh and exuberant today as it was when the book was published first in 1964. And best of all, there's a board book version available so even the youngest readers can have access to this bit of yummy way-back kidlit. (The set makes a great baby shower gift for boys or girls!)

Make your way to the library or bookstore and add this lesser-known Peter adventure to your kiddo's picture book stack ASAP. You'll be whistling too, in no time flat!

Whistle for Willie by Ezra Jack Keats, published by Viking

Thursday, November 14, 2013

30 Days of Picture Books - Pouch! by David Ezra Stein

It's Day 7 of our 30 Days of Picture Books Series. We have loads more wonderful titles to come, and I hope you're planning to follow along with each entry in the series. Follow us on Facebook and you'll be getting two picks per day - our selection in the 30 Days of Picture Books Series, plus the Picture Book of the Day choice, nominated by a rotating selection of bloggers. Either way, you can't lose with all this good stuff.

Today's pick is so vibrant, it just about leaps off the page at you - and it stars a kangaroo, so I'm almost being literal here! David Ezra Stein has written a host of fantastic picture books, but Pouch! is one of our favorites. It's perfect for every very young kids, as the illustrations, while colorful and complex, are also sketchy and full of movement. You may find yourself doing what Sprout and I did the first time we read it -- acting out the hops of the baby kangaroo and counting each one. Hey, books + movement = a total win-win from my perspective!

Stein's main character, predictably named Joey, is a baby kangaroo who feels he is more than ready to leave the nest -- er, pouch. "I want to hop!" Joey tells his mama. And Mama encourages him to climb out of the pouch so he can do just that. Right away Joey encounters an unfamiliar creature, namely a bee. That's enough to scare Joey right back into the pouch, where he stays until he is able to muster up the bravery to do it again. Of course on the next hop he runs into yet another stranger, and on and on the book goes. Finally, though, Joey runs into someone with whom he has more than a little in common, and finally finds the courage to stay out of the pouch on his own.

Pouch! provides plenty of reassurance for little ones on the verge of venturing out themselves - whether that's going to preschool for the first time or spending time with a new friend. Stein gently encourages kids to push their boundaries a little at a time, just like Joey does, each time finding a little more security in the otherwise unfamiliar world. I love that Stein dwells more on the surprises that Joey finds, and doesn't diminish Joey's need to recharge in his mama's pouch. Haven't we all been just like Joey at one time or another?

For a sweet and spunky title that's great for the toddler set, look no further than Pouch! Just don't forget to explore the world around with some hops of your own!

Pouch! by David Ezra Stein, published by G.P. Putnam's Sons

Bonus: a fun look behind the scenes at the making of Pouch!

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

30 Days of Picture Books - Charley's First Night by Amy Hest

It's Day 6 in our 30 Days of Picture Books series. Bookish folks like myself know that there's no better way to mark a transition in your life or comfort yourself in tough times than through a good story. When I need to know something, or need to remind myself that I know something, I always turn to a book. That's a quality that I'm hoping to instill in Sprout, and we're starting by looking for picture books that work with whatever phase we're in.

Today's pick is timely for us in that we just added a new member to our family - a sweet and affectionate kitty named Jasper. We recently had to put our beloved dog to sleep, and the house just hasn't been the same without someone to greet us at the end of the day, so off we went to the shelter and came home with a feline friend. I immediately thought of a book we first read last year. Although Amy Hest's Charley's First Night is about a boy and his dog, the sentiments in it were just right for how we've felt this last few days with our new pet.

Charley is Henry's new puppy; Henry picked his name and Henry is responsible for his new friend, a prospect the little boy finds quite thrilling. On Charley's first night home, Henry does all he can to make the puppy comfortable, helping him understand the ins and outs of the household. Henry's mother and father were very clear on one point: Charley is to sleep in the kitchen, no ifs, ands, or buts. Unfortunately, though, that turns out not to be so great from Charley's point of view, as the little pup commences crying in the night. Henry's there to soothe his friend, and help him get through the first night - even if it's not exactly how Mom and Dad pictured it.

This is a gentle tale with a timeless quality about it, one that would make a perfect addition to any library or collection. Hest narrates from Henry's point of view, and she once again has the child's perspective and voice down pat. And Helen Oxenbury's illustrations -- if there's anyone else whose work so aptly encapsulates cozy and warm and wonderful all in a simple spread, I've yet to find them. Plus there's the added bonus of Oxenbury's dumpling of a doggy. Honestly, Charley makes me wish I could scoop him right off the page.

Charley's First Night is acquaintance, friendship and compassion all rolled into one delightfully charming picture book. Add this one to your library list and curl up with it on a chilly night!