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!

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

30 Days of Picture Books - Creepy Carrots! by Aaron Reynolds

It's Day 5 of our 30 Days of Picture Books. We hope you've been enjoying the titles we've shared so far, and that you're as excited to see more as we are thrilled to be sharing them!

Today's pick could arguably be considered a Halloween book, and certainly is good for the times when you want to add a little thrill to storytime. I'm very glad we happened upon this title, because honestly it's not one that I probably would have picked out for us to read. Sprout tends to be a little hesitant with anything spooky or scary, so I would likely have passed this by. But when Aaron Reynolds' Creepy Carrots arrived in a box of other bookish goodies, Sprout seized on it. I read it to him, not really sure what to expect, and he ADORED it, right from the get-go. Lesson learned: offer more varied reading selections, you never know what the kiddo will like.

The story of Creepy Carrots touches on themes that run throughout kidlit, like being the only one to see a phenomenon and having to take things into your own hands to solve a problem. Jasper Rabbit is a carrot-loving guy, as you might expect from a bunny. His favorite carrots are the ones growing wild in Crackenhopper Field, and Jasper just can't get enough, hitting the place up for treats morning, noon and night. But then one day Jasper experiences something unusual: he thinks he sees a trio of creepy carrots following him. Try as he might, Jasper can't catch the carrots in the act, and no one believes him of course. Finally at the end of his rope, Jasper takes some extreme measures. But who's really taking care of who?

Oh my word, this book is fantastic. The sly humor Reynolds employs grows on you the more you read it, the the pictures are knock-down amazing. (It won a Caldecott Honor for Peter Brown's illustrations.) My husband especially loves the way the spreads are a nod to cinema classics, with a Vertigo feel to one picture that is just terrific. The way Brown chooses to have his carrots stand out as the lone bursts of color against the black-and-white landscape is genius. Kids may not be able to put their fingers on what this makes this such a tasty visual tidbit, but adults will appreciate every bit. And the humor's a winner with all ages -- just don't be surprised if you start looking behind yourself to catch some creepy carrots!

Creepy Carrots by Aaron Reynolds, published by Simon and Schuster

Monday, November 11, 2013

30 Days of Picture Books - Grandpa Green by Lane Smith

It's Day 4 of our 30 Days of Picture Books series. Today's pick is a title that I haven't read with Sprout - yet. I know, that's a little unusual for me. But this book honestly gets me so emotional that I'm barely able to read it on my own without crying, so I'm not sure how I'd ever get through reading it aloud. My husband bought it for me last Christmas, and it's a treasured part of my own collection that will, someday, be shared with Sprout.

But I wanted to share Lane Smith's Grandpa Green with you, dear reader, because it's the perfect book for Veteran's Day. The story is poignant and lyrical, laced with the hints of memories shared and stories long past. Narrated by his great-grandson, the book tells of the story of a young boy who grew up on a farm, having adventures and living an everyday life (complete with chicken pox). The boy became a man who wanted to study horticulture, but a war got in his way; instead he went to France, fell in love, got married, had a family. The man grew old, and started to forget things - luckily he found a way to blend his memories into his landscape, and keep the past alive.

My description cannot in any way do this book justice, because the text and Smith's winsome illustrations blend together to create the entire experience of the story. (It won a Caldecott Honor - need I say more about the absolutely breathtaking nature of this pictures?) We watch Grandpa Green's grandson as he wends his way through the garden, narrating the events of his great-grandpa's life in the manner of one who has heard the stories all his life. The intensity of familial feeling permeates the story, and we feel what the boy feels - by the end, you'll love Grandpa Green just as much as our hero does.

Smith leaves the door open for all sorts of discussions at the end of this: talking about aging, family history, relationships, and the fragile nature of memory. Kids will draw their own conclusions about the story's themes, as will adults, but one thing is clear: this is an homage to remembrance, to honoring the lives and sacrifices of those who came before. And that makes it the perfect choice for today: Veteran's Day, when we stop to remember our freedom, and the price at which it comes.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

30 Days of Picture Books - The Village Garage by G. Brian Karas

It's Day 3 of our 30 Days of Picture Books. Scoot over to Pinterest where I've created a board for our 2013 picks, and you can find a board for our 2012 picks there as well. And if you've got suggestions for titles we should feature in the series, we'd love to hear them -- comment here on the blog, or post them to us on Facebook!

Today's choice is one that we've read every fall, and that never fails to satisfy. I've posted before about our appreciation for author/illustrator G. Brian Karas, and his skillful integration of diversity into the cast of characters he uses for virtually every book. The Village Garage originally caught Sprout's eye because of the giant piece of machinery on the front cover. We brought it home in a huge stack of other titles, but this is the one that stuck with us. I'm not sure why it became associated with fall for us -- it's actually an exploration of the seasons -- but fall it is, and ever will be.

Karas goes inside the Village Garage to examine what workers do every season to keep life flowing smoothly in the small village where they live. From spring cleanup, to summer paving projects, from fall leaf wrangling to winter snow removal, each time of year brings unique challenges and requires different equipment. Karas frames the story with small bits of humor (Sprout loves when one worker sprays another with water during a truck washing) that feel authentic and add the perfect depth. No matter how mundane or unappealing the job might be, these village workers make it look like fun!

This is a natural fit for kiddos who love vehicles and who are fascinated by any aspect of big machinery. But it's a good way to introduce a discussion about the rhythm of life, and how what's critical in one season -- mowing lawns, for instance -- is totally a non-issue in others. Sprout especially likes part where the workers are waiting for snow, and then it comes, mountains of it. The scene with the snowplow rumbling through the night is especially thrilling for Sprout, and never fails to delight (plus it's followed by sledding - what could be better?).

For a unique take on seasons that's nicely balanced between informative and fun, look no further. But watch out for snowballs!

The Village Garage by G. Brian Karas, published by Henry Holt and Company

Saturday, November 9, 2013

30 Days of Picture Books - Platypus by Chris Riddell

It's Day 2 of our 30 Days of Picture Books. What do you love about picture books? I'd hazard a guess that if you asked 100 different people, you'd get 100 different answers. For us it's more than one thing, and each book we read brings out a different aspect of the format that we enjoy. But I have to say that we are often bowled away by the sheer charm of picture books, especially those that are just bubbling over with wit.

And that pretty well sums up today's pick, Platypus by Chris Riddell. I don't know how I missed this title (or this series, because there are two other titles featuring the beguiling main character) until now, but I was happy to stumble upon it one day at work. Of course it was the cover that got me -- how could you not be totally taken by this cute little guy -- but the story instantly won me over, and Sprout as well. In fact, the first time we read it we had to reread it twice more, and then Sprout asked for it at bedtime. If that's not a ringing endorsements, friends, I don't know what is.

Beyond the darling illustrations, which are bound to tickle even the youngest readers' fancy, the plot is a total winner for us. Riddell knows his craft, and he keeps the storyline uncluttered by diving right into a day in the life of Platypus. We learn that our hero is a collector, and this day he's out to add to his collection. But nothing he finds seems quite right, until he happens upon a lovely curly shell in his bucket. What fun! Only pretty soon Platypus figures out that something's up with this perfect souvenir, and readers will love happening on the answer to the mystery along with Platypus.

I mentioned that it's the charm of books like this that we especially appreciate, and I think that's where the true craft of Platypus comes through. Because it's not just the twist of the story, or the cheerfully adorable visual style Riddell employs. No, the charm is in the way Platypus is a preschool-age everyman, and that's something that parents, teachers, and even kids themselves will pick up. Platypus' behavior rings true with how a young child would behave, faced with the same set of circumstances - and in that facet comes not only the humor, but the immediate pleas to "read it again!".

Platypus by Chris Riddell, published by Harcourt

(note: the Platypus books are, sadly, tough to find -- so put these titles on your list for the library or the used bookstore!)

Friday, November 8, 2013

30 Days of Picture Books - Locomotive by Brian Floca

Well hello again! It's nice to be back to real life after a WONDERFUL family vacation. Our lives are so busy in the everyday rush of trying to get things accomplished that Hubs and I always feel better when we're able to step back, get away and reconnect. It was a great chance to be together as a family and hopefully make some lasting memories for Sprout. But of course even the best vacations have to end, and truth be told I'm a bit relieved to pick up our normal routine (at least, it will be normal once I catch up on all that email!).

Since I was so crazy busy before we left that I hardly had time to blog, I've got a nice big batch of books I'm bursting to write about, which is perfect timing for this year's 30 Days of Picture Books. I started this feature last November to tie into Picture Book Month: a time of the year when authors, illustrators, reviewers, bloggers, teachers, librarians and aficionados all turn the spotlight on this unique and critical format. It's no secret that we adore picture books, and I can't ever imagine a time when we won't be reading and sharing them. And a big part of our mission here at Sprout's Bookshelf is telling everyone how vital picture books are in the life and development of young children. I honestly believe the saying that "children are made readers on the laps of their parents" (Emilie Buchwald), and picture books are the vehicle that makes that interaction possible. The best thing is, picture books are easily accessible for everyone, parents and kids alike - just check out your library for loads of good stuff!

(Thanks to vacation, we're getting a late start on our 30 Days of Picture Books - but no worries, because you'll still get the full 30 picks, just overlapping into December, okay?)

First up is a book that might not fit exactly into everyone's definition of a picture book. Oh, it's plenty full of illustrations all right, and gorgeous ones at that. But it's also very text-heavy, so it's the kind of picture book that often ends up lurking around in the nonfiction area of the library or bookstore, which doesn't receive near enough love, in my humble opinion. I'm describing Brian Floca's latest wonderwork Locomotive, a title that every train-obsessed child and adult absolutely must lay eyes on, post-haste. Seriously. Sprout was so blown away by this book when we first read it, that he would hardly let me close the cover, and then proceeded to pore over it for at least an hour afterward.

Floca focuses on a rail journey from Omaha to San Francisco, in the summer of 1869. He really knows how to draw readers into the story, making them feel that they are actually on the train themselves. Most of this is accomplished by his spectacular illustrations, which have a photographic feel to them but also capture the humanity of his characters. But the text is also a big part of the immersive experience Locomotive offers. It reads like poetry, in small bursts that match the power of the big engine and the splendor of the landscape depicted. And the design work is fantastic - we love the way the font and type size is varied to emphasize certain portions (the page with the "rickety, rickety, rickety" trestle bridge is a total favorite!).

Locomotive definitely tops the list of the most stunning picture books we've read this year. If you need a gift for a young history or transportation fan this holiday season, look no further than Floca's newest book -- and don't be surprised if you see it on a "best of" list or two this year!

Locomotive by Brian Floca, published by Simon and Schuster