Storytime: Kindness

I recently had a friend text me asking if I had any suggestions for books on kindness. Her boy and some friends were excluding some kids at school and she wanted to address it now, tenderize his heart. I have so much admiration for her vulnerability, and her acknowledgement that a powerful way to impact our kids is through story. I found myself exploding with suggestions as I went to my shelves, and I’ll share a few below.

Also, I just want to say thank you for all your many, many kindnesses, from personal messages, to pictures posted and reviews written and the 100+ people showing up for the launch party for my most recent middle grade release, The Minor Miracle.

It has truly been a miracle to see how this book came to be published, and how it is now going forth into this world. It’s all about a kid who finds out he has superpowers, and how we all are super powerful. Whether it’s choosing not to eat your classmates, sharing, sticking up for a friend or making time to visit a lonely owl, these books are filled with superheroes who choose kindness.

We Don’t Eat Our Classmates by Ryan T. Higgins

If you haven’t met Penelope Rex yet, you’re in for a treat. And if you have (there are four books about her), you’re probably smiling right now. This book makes me laugh so hard. The set up: Penelope Rex is nervous about starting school. She wonders and worries and gets a new backpack with ponies on it, which are her favorite. Because ponies are delicious.

There are great page-turn-surprises, like when Penelope opens the door to her classroom and finds out her classmates are CHILDREN! So she ate them. Because children are delicious. Crack. Me. Up. The illustrations are equally hilarious.

And it’s all rooted in a very relevant issue kids (and adults) face. How do you make friends? Hint: it’s not by eating them, or doing what you want with no regard for the people around you. Then one day the class goldfish bites Penelope’s finger. She realizes it’s not fun to be someone’s snack and becomes empathetic, sharing and playing and being kind instead of carnivorous. Kindness may be hard sometimes, but it’s worth it!

If You Plant a Seed by Kadir Nelson

I love Kadir Nelson’s art, so expressive, and I love how this book does so much with so few words. In just eighty words, to be exact. What you sow is what you reap. Carrot, tomato, and cabbage seeds, with time and love and care, bring forth carrots, tomatoes and cabbage. The rabbit and mouse rejoice, and munch, and then along come the birds. They stare at rabbit and mouse. We know what they want, but in a brilliant wordless double page spread, they break the fourth wall and we see their intense gaze from the perspective of rabbit and mouse. They want some of those veggies . . .

Then a brilliant transition to a great truth. If you plant a seed of selfishness, in a very short time, it will grow, and grow, and grow into a heap of trouble. There is fighting, and the food is ruined. Nobody wins. But if you plant a seed of kindness . . . we see mouse give one of the birds a tomato. Then all the birds take flight, and return holding bags filled with seeds which drop from the sky like confetti. The middle schooler in me wonders if the seeds falling from the birds are a symbol for bird poop, which really does sow lots of seed. Whether it’s a symbol or not, what’s certain is the powerful message that kindness bears much fruit. Sharing doesn’t deplete. It multiplies, and the result is very, very sweet.

Stick and Stone by Beth Ferry, illustrated by Tom Lichtenheld

This is another super short book with a powerful message told in simple rhyme. Stick and stone start off lonely and alone. But when pinecone comes along and makes fun of stone, stick stands up for stone (a great kindness). Pinecone walks off in a huff and a new friendship blossoms as stick and stone hang out. Is there anything cuter than a rock with eyes closed tight, tiny mouth puckered to blow bubbles with his friend? But then a storm comes and the wind blows stick (and pinecone) away. Stone is alone again. He searches day and night, and finally finds his friend stuck in the middle of a large puddle. So stone launches himself and with a KER-SPLASH! rescues his friend.

There’s a great little grace note at the end as the two friends walk off with a third new friend. It’s pinecone, who says, in the tiniest of text, “Sorry I needled you so much.” Humor and sweetness all packed into a brilliant picture book you could read to the most wiggly toddler, or gift to a beloved adult. Our copy is inscribed to our son who was eighteen at the time, with the words You are a good friend to many, loyal and kind, one of the many reasons “you rock!”

The Smallest Girl in the Smallest Grade by Justin Roberts, illustrated by Christian Robinson

This book speaks to my heart, makes me tear up, and cheer, YES!! Christian Robinson creates great art, again and again, and with clever rhyme Justin Roberts introduces us to Sally McCabe, the smallest girl in the smallest grade. She goes through the school day unnoticed, but she’s paying super extra special attention. Who would think of that as a superpower? It is. She notices an abandoned kite with a tangled string and keys on a janitor’s ring, things that come back as clever metaphors later in the story. She also notices kids who get bullied, and one day, she’s had enough.

On a particular day (February 3rd), at a particular time (11:29) she steps out of the lunchroom line, raises her hand and says she’s tired of seeing kids hurt each other. A few laugh, but then something super extra special happened. Other kids raise their hands in the air, then the lunch lady, and a new teacher, until soon the lunchroom is filled with fingers pointing to the sky, saying, “I agree. Enough. Stop being unkind.” I get chill bumps reading how this small girl makes people take notice of injustice, which leads to new acts of kindness. The world could transform and a change could be made by the smallest girl in the smallest grade.

A Sick Day for Amos McGee by Philip C. Stead, illustrated by Erin E. Stead

I am in love with the dynamic duo of Philip C. Stead and Erin E. Stead, and I’m in love with Amos McGee and the menagerie of animals we meet in this book. Amos gets up early each morning, puts on his uniform and thanks his sugar bowl for the spoonfuls he puts on his oatmeal and in his tea. Right off the bat, we know he’s kind. He’s also peaceful. He doesn’t rush off to work. He ambles out the door. He affirms the bus driver, who arrives at 6 a.m., saying he’s right on time. What a great way to go through life.

Amos had a lot to do at the zoo, but he always made time to visit his good friends. It is a kindness we can all do, small, and yet powerful. Amos plays chess with the elephant, runs races with the tortoise (who never loses, in the illustration a mouse and bird are cheering him on, soooo much kindness in this book). He sits quietly with penguin, gives rhino a hankie when his nose runs, and reads stories to the owl, who was afraid of the dark.

Then one day Amos wakes up feeling sick, so he doesn’t go to work. The animals are lonely, so they leave the zoo, wait for the bus, and go for a visit. They tend to their friend, playing chess, sitting quietly by his side, wiping his nose and as night falls, cuddling up around his bed as the owl reads a story and they all fall asleep. When we are kind to others, we receive kindness in return. It is true, it is good, and it is beautiful.

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Storytime: Superheroes!

This is a special bonus newsletter featuring picture books with superheroes or superpowers or super hair or super notebooks. Why a special bonus newsletter? Because  THE MINOR MIRACLE: THE AMAZING ADVENTURES OF NOAH MINOR comes out in just three weeks!

I’m super excited to share this book that explores where we get our worth, what we do when we screw up, and the superpower of friendship. Oh yeah, and how you can manipulate gravity. It’s pretty cool. And now, here are reviews for super picture books about super people doing super things. Enjoy!

Max by Bob Graham

This was such a favorite with my kids, and I love that it’s still in print! It’s a book about acceptance, and heroism, and being patient while you try to figure out who you are.

Max is born into a family of superheroes, but he can’t fly. By the time he’s old enough to go to school, he’s just, “an ordinary boy with a cape and a mask . . .” He gets teased and belittled, and then one morning, he’s the only one to see a baby bird fall from its nest and he FLIES to save it!

Once he has his powers, he uses them. He hovers over the school grounds, pulling a long line of his friends, holding hands, into the air, even though they still think of him as “plain and ordinary Max. Well, not quite ordinary. But then, as Aaron said, ‘Everyone’s different in some way, aren’t they?’” That is the crux. His family accepts him whether he becomes legendary like his parents, or goes about doing small, heroic deeds like saving a spider from going down the drain. He’s, “A small hero doing quiet deeds. The world needs more of those.” Yes!

 

Super Hair-O and the Barber of Doom by John Rocco

This is such a weird, wonderful book. Rocco’s source of power is his giant poof of hair, and his three friends are the same. Crazy hair, super powers. Together, they’re unstoppable! But then Rocco gets captured (we see him in the back of a station wagon) and dragged into the villain’s lair (a barber shop). The illustrations are funny and expressive and wry. What we read is over-the-top superhero lingo like, “the big brute stole my powers,” and what we see is the barber, bald and smiling, as Rocco perches on a toy horse with his hair in piles on the ground. In a speech bubble, he mutters, “I will have my revenge.”

Rocco finds out his friends met the same fate. They’ve all been shorn, reduced to black and white illustrations as they meet on the playground, defeated. But then a little girl runs to tell them her stuffed bunny is in trouble, and they’re back in action. Empathy is a superpower, and even without hair, they’re still super!

Tacky the Penguin by Helen Lester, illustrated by Lynn Munsinger

We have a tattered copy of Tacky that’s been much loved by my own kids and at story times over the years. Why is it so beloved? Because it’s funny, and sweet, and satisfying. Tacky is an odd bird. His companions (not friends) are named Goodly, Lovely, Angel, Neatly and Perfect, and they do everything in a dignified, orderly, graceful way. Tacky is loud and goofy. He is not what is expected from a penguin, but that comes in handy when hunters show up to the “land of pretty penguins.”

All the penguins hide, except Tacky, who stands alone. But the bear and his hunting friends are puzzled by Tacky, who claims he hasn’t seen any penguins and then acts very un-penguin like. When the other penguins see that it’s working, they join in for a rousing rendition of a loud, dreadul song that sends the hunters running away. Tacky is celebrated as a hero, he saved the day even though he’s, “an odd bird but a very nice bird to have around.”

The Brave Cowboy by Joan Walsh Anglund

This book also appeared in my newsletter sharing picture books about play, and it’s a classic. It opens with a great line, Once there was a cowboy, and we see a small boy in a cowboy hat. The text goes on to tell us that he was strong and brave, not afraid of coyotes or mountain lions or ornery rustlers. In the illustration, the boy and his “real” world is drawn with black, and what he imagines throughout is drawn in red.

Each day he does ordinary things, like brushing his teeth and feeding his cat, and we turn several pages of black ink drawings, until we enter his world of make believe where all sorts of exciting scenes play out with him as the hero. Things don’t always go well for the young hero, “but he was never baffled . . . he was not afraid . . . and he never gave up.” All amazing superhero qualities.

The Minor Miracle stars Noah Minor, a boy who was a lot like the brave cowboy when he was younger. All his life, he imagined he was a superhero, and then one day, he finds out he can manipulate gravity. But it isn’t the superpower that makes him a hero. Keeping his cool, and being a courageous friend who persists when times are tough, those are the things that make Noah truly heroic.

Sergeant Reckless: The True Story of the Little Horse Who Became a Hero by Patricia McCormick, illustrated by Iacopo Bruno

This nonfiction picture book is text-heavy and takes place in Korea during the Korean War, so best for longer attention spans. It’s one of those books adults will love as well. It tells the amazing true story of U.S. Marines who find a scrawny, hungry mare who ends up helping them in their fight against North Korea. After some training, and snacks (she liked chocolate and Coca-Cola), she learns how to duck incoming fire, retreat, and carry heavy ammunition. She also ate the same breakfast as the men, right down to the coffee, and gradually became one of the guys.

At the Battle of Outpost Vegas, even when under fire and after being wounded with bits of shrapnel, Reckless carried heavy shells up to a cannon on the hill again and again. By the end of the battle she had made 51 trips up the hill, traveling a total distance of 35 miles of steep terrain, carrying nine thousand pounds of ammunition. She was a super horse! The battle changed the course of the war, and the mare was promoted to Sergeant. She’s the only animal to officially hold military rank and received two Purple Hearts. Incredible!

Miss Rumphius by Barbara Cooney

Can an old woman wandering around with seeds in her pockets be a superhero? Yep. When she was little, Alice told her grandfather that when she grew up, she was going to go to faraway places and live beside the sea. He told her there was a third thing she must do. “You must do something to make the world more beautiful.”

Alice grew up and became Miss Rumphius. She had adventures in faraway places, eventually settled by the sea, and then it was time to do that third thing she’d promised her grandfather. She spent a summer wandering and tossing the seeds everywhere she went. The next spring there were beautiful lupines everywhere.

Making the world more beautiful is absolutely a superpower. Here in Texas, a superhero named Lady Bird Johnson gifted us with most beautiful wildflowers all along our highways, coloring them indigo, periwinkle, scarlet, coral, and gold. Each spring we stop what we’re doing and take pictures in the bluebonnets. What a super, amazing, fantastic gift.

The Notebook Keeper: A Story of Kindness from the Border by Stephen Briseño and Magdalena Mora

I first reviewed this book in the newsletter about Journeys.

“Our home is no longer a home,” Mamá tells her little girl, and so they head to the border, packing only what they can carry. At the border, they are told to find the notebook keeper who will tell them when they can cross. The illustrations do an excellent job of portraying emotion without getting too heavy for a young child. There is sadness, but there is also hope.

When they find Belinda and her notebook, she takes their name and country and adds them to her list, treating them kindly. It is an everyday superpower we’re all capable of, but we have to choose it. When Belinda gets the chance to cross the border, she chooses Noemí and her mother to be the next notebook keeper because she’s seen that they have generosity in their hearts and kindness in their souls.

The end is hopeful, and an author’s note explains how the real notebook keepers kept records at the San Ysidro Border, where refugees gather to wait admittance to the US from Mexico. They weren’t paid, or celebrated. They were quiet heroes, bringing a small bit of order and dignity to a chaotic and desperate situation. They used the power they had for good. May those ripples of kindness continue to expand as this story is shared.

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Storytime: Patience

Spring seems like a fine time to share some picture books about waiting. Is there a more perfect example of good things coming to those who wait than waiting for an egg to hatch? Unless it’s waiting for a seed to sprout, or waiting for that seed to sprout and grow into a tree so you can retrieve that precious toy airplane you threw on the roof when you were a child . . . but I’m getting ahead of myself. May this month be one of anticipation whether you’re waiting for gardens to grow, chicks to hatch, or parties to happen. It is a season of hope. And if you’re in Texas, you don’t have to wait any longer for bluebonnets. They are incredible this year!

I couldn’t resist sneaking in the grandchild post. Or this one.

Yep, I did that. Me and my next book baby in the bluebonnets, coming out May 7th. And now, for our April picture books. Thanks for your patience (see how I did that?)

The Carrot Seed by Ruth Krauss, pictures by Crockett Johnson

This classic is a testament to perseverance in the face of naysayers. A boy plants a carrot seed, and each person in his family warns him, “it won’t come up.” But every day the boy tends the ground, pulling weeds and watering, and . . . “nothing came up. And nothing came up. Everyone kept saying it wouldn’t come up.” What is wrong with this family? But the boy keeps weeding and watering and one day . . . “a carrot came up.” A carrot so big the boy needs a wheelbarrow to haul it off!

This book speaks to the writer in me who tries and tries and waits and waits, and nothing comes up, until one day, it does. The idea. The contract. The book on the shelf. It also speaks to a toddler that can’t wait one more minute for his “yunch” because he’s “hungee!” The simple design and color palette of The Carrot Seed say so much with so little. Big picture? Patience can bear much fruit (and vegetables).

The Boy and the Airplane by Mark Pett

There’s not a single word in this book, and it’s illustrated with the same three subdued colors you see on the cover, and yet that’s all it needs to be brilliant, heart-warming, and funny. It begins with a little boy receiving a box wrapped with a bow as someone walks off the left side of the page. Inside is a toy airplane. The boy has a blast playing with it, but then he accidentally throws it on the roof. So he gets a ladder, but it doesn’t reach. He tries a lasso, a pogo stick, a high-powered hose and a fastball, but nothing works.

And so, he plants a seed. That’s right, a seed.

Then we see the boy age as the tree slowly grows. This is the brilliant, wacky, weird part of this book that I love so much. Finally, when he’s an old man with a big beard and a big belly, he climbs up that tree and finally gets the plane back. And he’s so happy, just grinning like a kid, but it isn’t over. He looks over his shoulder. We don’t know what he sees, but it makes him hesitate. Turn the page, and on the next spread, there’s a small girl holding a box wrapped in a bow, and the old man is smiling as he walks off the edge of the page to the right. The story is perfectly wrapped with a bow, coming full circle and telling us without one word the value of being patient, and also showing that it’s better to give than to receive. Simply brilliant.

Daisy and the Egg by Jane Simmons

Daisy can’t wait for Mama’s egg to hatch, but she has to. She listens to the soft tap from inside the shell, and watches as her cousins struggle out of their eggs, but Mama’s egg doesn’t hatch. The illustrations are bright and lush, you can see the brush strokes of the wavy grass and the way the colors mix on their orange bills, and I love the way Simmons plays with perspective, taking us up close and then way overhead.

Mama tells Daisy that some eggs “just don’t hatch,” but Daisy wants to stay with Mama’s egg.” So patient. This story really captures longing as Daisy waits through a cold, dark night until finally, “Pip! Pip! Pip!” Her new brother struggles out! This story also captures joy. Longing from something, waiting patiently, and then joy. It’s so good.

To Make by Danielle Davis, pictures by Mags DeRoma

When a book can make an adult teary and keep a child engaged, it’s a winner. The text is so spare I read it to my grandson who isn’t yet two, and he stayed with it. On the first page there are just four words, “To make a cake,” and we see a child, hands on hips, looking at a fully stocked pantry. Turn the page, and we see this.

Turn the page, read “make,” and the next page, “wait,” with equally adorable illustrations. “To make a cake, gather, make, wait.” This pattern is followed for making a garden and a song, with a page turn for each word, and then the pattern breaks. “Keep making. Keep waiting.” Then the kids make more things until . . . can you guess what all the making has been for? The last spread is a beautiful party, and a benediction. “Because one day you will share something wonderful that only you know how to make.” Sigh. I hope it speaks to you, and the littles in your life.

The Emperor’s Egg by Martin Jenkins, illustrated by Jane Chapman

The male Emperor penguin is an incredible example of patience. This is an accessible nonfiction picture book with not too much text and interspersed with a few great questions that really engage the reader. “‘Can you imagine it? Standing around in the freezing cold with an egg on your feet for two whole months?” The choice to tell as a second person narrator is great.

And why is the dad doing this? “He’s doing a Very Important Job. He’s taking care of his egg.” Mom lays the egg and then goes off to fill her belly in the sea while the dad keeps the egg warm, tucked up into his feathers and perched on his feet. He huddles up with all the other dads and they trundle along, waiting and protecting their eggs. And then, when the chick hatches, the dad actually feeds it. “Deep down in the father penguin’s throat, there’s a pouch where he makes something a little like milk.”

I never knew that! The illustrations and design are sweet and expressive, and there’s lots to learn about Emperor Penguins, and patience. When I opened it up, I saw that we inscribed it for our son back in 2005 (he was six). To Nate, who loves to learn new things, and who is faithful and true as an Emperor Penguin. So sweet.

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A Rebeka Update

This morning I woke up to a superpower email. I’ve been inviting people to send me their superpower and then posting them on my website because “we all have superpowers,” a theme of my next book, The Minor Miracle. These always give me a thrill, but this one in particular made my heart go ZING! Cathryn G. writes:

I have the superpower of determination. I have arthrogryposis and have had many casts and a surgery to fix my feet. I am not afraid of big challenges.

This connected my first two  books in such a sweet way. Rebeka Uwitonze and Noah Minor are both superheroes. So is Cathryn G.  I can’t wait to ask Rebeka what she’d say her superpower is. She may just choose the same power as Cathryn.

I’ve had several nudges over the past month to post an update on Rebeka, including letters from three families who’ve reached out after reading Her Own Two Feet because they have kids who also have arthrogryposis. It’s so cool that they have been encouraged by Rebeka’s story, and amazing to see how our book finds its way into different reader’s hands.

These families with these brave, strong kids, want to connect and share their own stories, and they are eager to know how Rebeka is doing. They aren’t the only ones. I get this question a lot, because Rebeka’s circle was wide. She had a lot of friends and supporters and cheerleaders. So how is she doing?

Great! We actually got to see her August 2022. Alayna and Choi weren’t able to come since River was still tiny, but the rest of us had an amazing visit with her family.

Everyone has grown up so much. Medea (in the pink dress) is a young woman now, just like Rebeka. I love seeing the butterfly t-shirt on Dukwandanay. These girls are all strong like butterflies, and all four sisters are in school, thanks to Africa New Life.

Rebeka’s family has been able to use the money earned from our book to enlarge their garden, and they sell much of the produce to provide for their family.

Rebeka’s father in their flourishing garden

Medea helped Rebeka learn how to walk in the garden, and now the garden has grown, just like the two sisters!

In Her Own Two Feet, you read about all the beautiful snowflakes that hung from the ceiling of Rebeka’s home. They finally started to fall apart and so they’ve traded them out for something bright and festive.

But while some things have changed, many have stayed the same. Rebeka’s parents exude joy. Her father gives the best hugs, and her mother has such a beautiful smile. Her dad has always had a special affection for Benji. When he was younger, he would pick Benji up and hug him tight.

He’s a bit old for that now, but I think if he could, he still would. Rebeka’s dad loves Benji.

As for school, Rebeka is now in tenth grade and at the top of her class. We took a picture in front of the upper school where she attends class at Africa New Life Academy in Kayonza.

It’s been a year and a half since we made this trip, but Nate’s wife Jordan is working for Africa New Life and she made a trip to Rwanda in January this year, so I’ll leave you with this last picture for this edition of  “The Rebeka Update.”

She’s got glasses now! And they are adorable. She also looks very spiffy in her school uniform, a real scholar. We are so proud of Rebeka, and so excited to see what her future holds. Her life is a major miracle, and an inspiration to many, including me.

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Interview with Illustrator Billy Yong

I have the great pleasure of sharing an interview with The Minor Miracle’s talented illustrator, Billy Yong with you, such a thrill. I first connected with Billy through his work while looking for my “dream illustrator.” It was a privilege to get to be part of the search, and when I saw Billy’s work on instagram I just loved his style. One picture in particular captured my heart.

I also loved his action sequences and sense of humor in books like Thor Quest: Hammers of the Gods and he did not disappoint. He captures, action, heart and humor in The Minor Miracle so well. A brief bio: BILLY YONG is an illustrator and character designer who loves drawing the sweet and nonsensical. He’s been privileged to work on a wide range of projects, from picture books to middle grade novels and even packaging for fish. When he’s not doodling around, he’s busy surviving parenthood or fighting against his addiction to bubble tea. Billy lives in sunny Singapore.

It is an honor and a thrill to share more about him, his creative process, his inspiration and his “angst-filled goblin” alter-ego in this interview.

Billy, have you always loved drawing? What is the path that led you to The Minor Miracle?

I have! When I was young, it was all about huge robots or tanks blowing stuff up. Then came Final Fantasy 7 and I was so enamored by the character designs that I wanted to draw people more. My sister was also a big fan and would draw the characters from games like Metal Gear Solid. Her influence on me to become an artist cannot be overstated haha.

Eventually I wanted to become a visual development artist like Helen Minjue Chen, who worked for Disney as one of the concept artists. Through that journey I stumbled upon other artists who were illustrating works that were NOT like the CG animation aesthetics I had been chasing, but were drawing in ways that felt both personal and at the same time, completely marketable.

It’s so cool to hear about the path that led you here. I’m curious, when you get a job to illustrate a middle grade book, cover and interior, what are the steps you take to tackle the job?

Most times I’d first be doodling out what the characters look and feel like. It’s usually really rough, but that’s the whole point. I typically ask for a simple description of the characters. What are their mannerisms, who they are in their environment. At the same time, I’m also reading the manuscript and piecing together a cover idea that tells the audience what the book might be about. Kinda like a synopsis made visual, but not detailed enough that the audience knows what’s going to happen.

The team liked the vibes C6, though the idea of a falling baby was rather unsettling ~~~ So that part was dropped. 

Left was initial cover design, right is final cover design

Interior illustrations can be very direct. Oftentimes I just translate the text into an illustration. That said, with the case of THE MINOR MIRACLE, having our characters defy gravity allowed me to use the pages themselves as distance from the ground. So that was a fun one to apply.

I remember how exciting it was to receive those first cover sketches! And it’s so cool to see how these characters took shape during revision. What keeps you motivated when you’re feeling stuck?

Ahahaha, paying my bills! I also go out for bubble tea runs, or just meditate by doing something else completely. I practice Iaido, so when I’m stuck, sometimes I pick up the sword and practice. It’s very refreshing, since I am moving and also turning my attention to something that is not related to drawing or design. Even rarer, though I wish it was more often, I like to play indie games. They often have design elements that catch my eye and I let those elements brew in my head while I play.

 I agree that sometimes stepping away is exactly what I need to clear my head and get unstuck. I wish I did something as cool as Iaido! You do such a great job infusing each character with personality. What’s your process for doing this so well?

 Aww~ Thank you. I had such a wealth of information describing our characters from you that it was pretty much a breeze. For secondary or tertiary characters without much description, I often look to the script to see how they behave towards our main characters. That gives me an idea of how they might look / act like.

Some early designs below:

Seeing the behind-the-scenes development of each character was such a cool part of our process. I love the little details like the Dizzy Gillespie cheeks on Rodney’s t-shirt and the cowlick on the back of Rodney’s head. Also, your notes were awesome. I felt like I was getting to know you through the evolution of the characters and the creativity you brought to the project. You have a great sense of humor. Who was your favorite Minor Miracle character to draw?

Haley! I’ve always loved drawing girls more. Haley was quite a difficult one to design since there were so many ways she could go, but through Sonia (our art director) and yourself, we were able to narrow her look down quite a fair bit.

One of Haley’s many designs:

Your note that “even her curly hair has to fall in line with Haley’s will” is so perfect, even though Haley ended up looking quite different. With each iteration, you capture a different aspect of her spunk and type A personality. Who are your artistic influences or favorite illustrators?

Ha, that’s quite a bit to unpack. Perhaps for The Minor Miracle, my inspirations were a mix of Cory Loftis, GuriHiru and Cam Kendall. Kendall’s work on FART QUEST was instantly a favourite for its design and sense of humour.

(pausing here to LOL and immediately order Fart Quest . . . okay, back to the interview)

I’ve lately been trying to adopt some of Amelicart’s work. I really love how gentle his works are.

Otherwise, I’m starting to revisit my love for manga and anime. I love the designs of EVANGELION’s Asuka, but also the soft gentle designs of YOTSUBATO’s Fuuka. I’ve been re-watching SKIP AND LOAFER for its super positive and gentle vibes, as well as the silly antics from BOCCHI THE ROCK.

There’s also Ulysse Malassagne’s work for KAIROS. Such defined shapes with such gorgeous texture.

Haha, all this to say, I’m so overwhelmed by the works of so many artists, that sometimes I’m completely stuck on who to follow or be inspired by. Most recently, I like soft, gentle shapes. But there’s always the inner edgy, angst-filled goblin in me that wants to make these shapes edgier, more sorrowful. I’m sorry I’m like this. (TT ^ TT)

I think this blend of soft and gentle with a surprising “inner edge” is what first appealed to me. What’s something about your job that we might find surprising?

 When I’m not drawing, sometimes I draw / design in my head. I often let my thoughts brew around an idea and just do other things to give the ideas time to cook.

I think what many of my non-art friends are surprised by is that you don’t really need talent. Most successful artists were not the best in their class growing up. They simply persevered and studied the things that they liked. 

My stories brew in my head even when I’m not writing, too-we have that in common! And I agree, perseverance and pursuing what you’re passionate about are the key to a successful creative career. Talent will only get you so far. For aspiring illustrators, what’s your best piece of advice?

Draw what you like. But also learn how to communicate with others. It really helps to be able to communicate clearly with your clients so both of you are in sync. It also helps to build a reputation that you are easy to talk to, which will put your clients at ease.

Also agree with this. Relationships and clear communication are so important in this business! Are there any upcoming projects you would like to tell people about?

I’m working on a cute little project about an eco-friendly girl who’s all about reusing as much as she can. It’s a fun story about being gentle to your environment. I try to make my designs have a similar vibe.

I’ve also started a washi tape design shop called SWASHIMI. It was borne out of a conversation between my wife and I over sushi and how we could make something cute from it. So we came up with a name that combined washi tapes and sashimi. If anyone is interested, you can buy SWASHIMI on Etsy and follow via Instagram.

You can find my main works on my website at www.billyyongdraws.com or at billyyongdraws on Instagram.

Thanks again, Billy, I look forward to seeing more of your work in book two of The Amazing Adventures of Noah Minor (currently titled The Minor Rescue) and using my new washi tape to make all sorts of ordinary things extraordinary. 

a Billy Yong original-he captured me well!

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Storytime: Love 2.0

Last year I did a round up of love picture books that I’ll now call Love 1.0. Some were specifically meant for Valentine’s and some showed what love looks like any day of the year. But there are so many more picture books to love about love! And what better month to celebrate this fruit of the spirit than February?

If my grandson, age 22 months, were to write valentines, I’m certain he’d write ones for his people, mom, dad, grandparents . . . but he’d also write one for trucks.

River loves trucks. He kisses them goodnight. He runs straight to the truck books on the shelf, reads them to himself while jabbering, notices a truck on the page or on the street when nobody else does. We can talk about and celebrate all kinds of love with even the very young, and finding just the right book can help. Here’s a few to add to your stash.

Be My Valenslime by Kris Tarantino, illustrated by Cori Doerrfeld

This one just came out a month ago, and it’s adorable. There’s all these monsters who are “A tad bit gruffy. A big grumpy. And definitely not lovey-dovey.” And then there’s Snoodle (pretty much the most adorable name for a monster ever). Snoodle loves candy hearts and sparkly stickers and valentines, but these monsters don’t do Valentine’s Day. Snoodle sets out to convince them otherwise. She shows them how to decorate boxes, and even when they get gloppy with glue and chaos ensues, she is patient, because “love is patient.” When a monster tears a hole in Snoodle’s box with his claws to make a slot for the valentines, it’s not what Snoodle pictured, but that’s okay. She says thank you, because “love is kind.”

The monsters keep being monstrous, but “love isn’t quick to get angry,” and it “doesn’t remember mistakes” and it “doesn’t have to be perfect.” For the kids in your life that stress out when things don’t go their way (and the adults), this silly story shows how great things can be if you just love, and let go. There’s lots of funny things to notice in the illustrations, and it will give you all the fuzzy feels.

Dance, Tanya, by Patricia Lee Gauch and Satomi Ichikawa

Little Tanya loved to dance.” The illustration of Tayna, slouched in a wicker chair with a tutu thrown over the back of it, is pure joy. She’s got one tube sock half off, and her feet don’t touch the floor. This intro and all the perfectly sweet illustrations set the stage, literally, for a little girl who dreams of dancing ballet like her older sister, Elise. She practices with Elise, not getting it quite right but never stopping. She dances by herself, because when you love something you just can’t give it up. She dances with her bear. But she’s too little to take lessons, she can only watch. True love yearns. And hopes. And waits.

Tanya celebrates Elise, is proud of her at her recital, not jealous, and still she dances, Even when she doesn’t know anyone is watching. But someone is watching, and that Christmas Tanya gets her own leotard and slippers. This picture book gives us family love, as well as dance love. You’ll love this book and so will the kids in your life.

Little Gorilla by Ruth Bornstein

I also included this in my post featuring picture books about Baby Animals, but I include it here, too, because it’s such a perfect picture of the love of a family for a baby. It’s a wonderful read aloud with simple text and big, bright pictures and a crowd favorite that I often gift at baby showers.

Everyone loves baby gorilla, from his parents and grandparents, aunts and uncles, to green parrot and big boa constrictor. There’s this great moment, this awesome page turn when everything changes.

Just about everybody in the great green forest loved Little Gorilla! Then one day something happened . . .

Little Gorilla grows and grows and three pages later, Little Gorilla is BIG! He’s got this melancholy expression, no longer a baby, but then “everybody came, and everybody sang, Happy Birthday Little Gorilla!” and then the last page and such a poignant line, “And everybody still loved him.” It now comes in board book, perfect for the littles in your life and everyone else. Still makes me tear up.

Harry the Dirty Dog by Gene Zion, illustrated by Margaret Bloy Graham

This is an oldie but such a goodie. Certainly not your typical Valentines book, but it’s all about love. There’s tough love. Harry’s family tries to give their dirty dog a bath, but Harry isn’t having it. He buries the scrubbing brush in the yard and runs away from home. At first, he feels free, playing at construction sites and the railroad as he gets dirtier and dirtier. He gets so dirty he changes “from a white dog with black spots, to a black dog with white spots.”

There’s also the love of family. Ever had a kid who threatened to run away from home when they were unhappy? Were you that kid? There’s nothing like being tired and hungry to help you realize how much you miss your people. You’ll do almost anything to get back to them. Harry runs home, but when his family doesn’t recognize this black dog with white spots, he digs up that scrubbing brush and puts himself in the tub. He gets the soapiest bath he’s ever received, but this time he’s smiling. Once he’s clean, his family recognizes him and “combed and brushed him lovingly.” He’s a scamp of a dog, he even hides that scrubbing brush again, but he’s happy on his pillow, knowing he’s loved. May it be so for every child, and all pups.

How to Send a Hug by Hayley Rocco, illustrated by John Rocco

This is the first time Hayley Rocco has teamed up with her talented and award-winning husband to write a picture book, with several more coming (lucky us!) I love this ode to letter-writing, and I guess I also love that it was written by a husband and wife team. My husband Clay is my fellow brainstormer and sometimes collaborator. He helps me revise and years ago, back in 2006, we wrote a picture book together about meerkats. Maybe someday we’ll publish it . . . but I digress.

In this book, a girl that’s really good at hugs wants to send one to her grandma. Talking on the phone or computer isn’t the same. Luckily, the girl has figured out how to send a hug, and she’s here to show us the steps. Get something to write with, and write on, and create a hug with words and pictures. When it’s just right, fold it and “put it in a special jacket to keep it safe and warm.” I love this description of putting a letter in an envelope.

Give your hug directions and a “ticket” (a stamp) and a “Hug Delivery Specialist” (postal worker) will pick it up. There’s a special building where hugs are sorted (post office) and then you have to wait and wait and wait. But love and hugs are worth waiting for! While the girl waits, she imagines all the journeys of all the hugs traveling around the world, “And when they arrive after their incredible adventures, the real magic happens . . .” page turn to see all sorts of people reading letters, including Grandma who is hugging the letter from her granddaughter.

Hayley Rocco has a great website where she features books she wrote as a kid (they’re a hoot). And John Rocco’s talent and breadth have won him a Caldecott Honor. What a team, and what a perfect love story they’ve written.

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Storytime: Peace

There’s lots of ways to look at peace, and when you find it, you know it is sweet fruit indeed. There’s the peaceful repose of a dog sprawled out on the bed . . .

. . . and the kind of peace that connects people and places. I think reading a picture book is always an invitation to slow down, settle in, and rest as you enter another world. As I prepare for launching a new middle grade into the world (THE MINOR MIRACLE, out May 7th), I found reading the following picture books particularly restorative. One inspires us to see connections that bind us together on common ground. Another beckons us to contemplate the beauty of an egg. Though it be fragile or hard to find, peace be with you.

A River of Dust: The Life-Giving Link Between North Africa and the Amazon by Jilanne Hoffmann, illustrated by Eugenia Mello

Did you know that dust from the Sahel in Africa travels across the ocean to nourish the soil of the Amazon rain forest? Did you know there was such a thing as cram-cram grass? I love this book for so, so many reasons. The narrator is dust. The illustrations are beautiful. The scope is grand, while using very few words. It begins like this:

“Millions of years ago, no ocean lay between us. You and I were one. And then slowly, slowly, great forces tore us apart, creating seven continents surrounded by vast oceans.”

The language is gorgeous. As the dust travels across the ocean, some of it falls to the sea, but it doesn’t stop until it releases it phosphorus over the Amazon, an essential mineral the trees desperately need to survive. Achieving peace is tied to realizing how connected we all are. When we’re connected, we care. Check out the back matter for lots more interesting information. Do I believe a picture book can get us one step closer to world peace? Yes, I do.

All the World by Liz Garton Scanlon, illustrated by Marla Frazee

Speaking of world peace, this book. All the world is wide and deep. Yes, it is. We see children and adults working and playing together, as the simple rhyming text takes us around this world, and this day, to beaches, a garden, a farmer’s market, up a tree, to a fountain, a sea, until wind and rain send everyone inside a cozy cafe.

Spreading shadows, setting sun

Crickets, curtains, day is done

A fire takes away the chill

All the world can hold quite still

I want to enter Marla Frazee’s brilliant illustrations, sit around the piano, harp and violin we find on the final spread, and join the party. There’s so much peace and togetherness in this book, and the last words are like a goodnight kiss: All the world is you and me.

An Egg is Quiet by Dianna Hutts Aston, illustrated by Sylvia Long

They had me at the first double page spread (before the copyright or title page) with a gorgeous array of intricately illustrated eggs. There’s the Dogfish egg that looks like a pouch with curly tendrils at the ends, the Red-winged Blackbird’s pale blue egg with black squiggles, and over fifty more. The Lobster egg is tinier than a pencil eraser. The Field Cricket’s looks like a Cheetoh.

When I finally tore myself off that first page and to the text, feeling peaceful from the meditation on all those gorgeous eggs, a giant Black-necked Stilt egg egg rested next to the words, written in script, “An egg is quiet.” Simple, rhyming text goes on to tell us some eggs sit on top of the father’s feet, and some get buried in the sand. Warm. Cozy. Eggs are colorful and shapely, clever and artistic. Some pages have more text, fleshing out the simple rhymes. You can choose to take a moment, be peaceful, learn and linger. When you get to the end, that same Black-necked Stilt egg hatches, and then, “an egg is noisy!” It’s followed by the final double page spread, illustrating all those gorgeous creatures who were waiting in their eggs at the beginning of the story. We often hear peace paired with quiet, as in, “I sure could use some peace and quiet.” May this book get you there.

Frederick by Leo Lionni

This is an oldie and such a goodie. My copy’s white cover has yellowed, and the Caldecott sticker is peeling off at the bottom. I’ve kept it all these years, gone back to its message and cheeky last line . . . but I’m getting ahead of myself.

All the mice are busy preparing for winter. They work day and night, gathering food, except Frederick, who sits in the sun with his eyes half closed, peacefully basking. His mouse friends ask him why he isn’t working and he says he’s “gathering sun rays for the cold dark winter days.” He’s gathering colors and words, too. Choosing to sit in peace, to be intentional and industrious at something that doesn’t look important, when everyone around you is hurrying and scurrying at Very Important Tasks, can be difficult. But it can be important. Just as important as whatever made the others so busy.

When winter comes and the food is gone and all is gray and cold, Frederick tells the mice to close their eyes, and they do. They settle in, peaceful, as he speaks of the warmth of the sun with its golden glow, the colors of the flowers and the berry bush, and crafts all those words he gathered into a poem. The book’s last lines come to me when I’m writing, whether poetry or children’s books or blog posts or book reviews. There is value in working with words and then sharing them.

“But Frederick,” they said, “you are a poet!”

Frederick blushed, took a bow, and said shyly, “I know it.”

Grandfather Twilight by Barbara Berger

Reading this book invokes peace. With just one or two sentences per page we watch an old man get ready to bring about the night. “He opens a wooden chest with an endless string of pearls. He lifts the strand, takes one pearl from it, and closes the chest again.” Deliberate. Gentle. Simple. So peaceful.

Grandfather Twilights looks as if he’s made of, well, twilight. It drifts behind him as he walks through the forest, like a kind of cape that envelops everything. He’s like a Slumber superhero, inviting rest and silence.

He holds the pearl in the palm of his hand and goes for a walk. With each step, the pearl gets larger. The leaves whisper and “little birds hush.” The cadence calls you to linger on the “shhhh,” of hush as you flip across wordless double page spreads. The pearl Grandfather Twilights holds has grown by the time he reaches the water, and he gently, “gives the pearl to the silence above the sea.” It rises and becomes the moon, and Grandfather Twilight goes home to bed, setting readers up for a peaceful night’s slumber.

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Butterflies and Superpowers

I find myself in a unique position these days. I am in the thick of revisions for the second book in The Amazing Adventures of Noah Minor series (THE MINOR RESCUE), while preparing for the launch of THE MINOR MIRACLE on May 7th.

Both of these tasks, revising and launching, require me to figure out what I’m really trying to say. Not the plot, but where I want the plot to take the reader. The heart connection. When I do an author visit or give a keynote, this is the thing go for, the deeper meaning underneath the surface. Figuring this out requires stepping back from the keyboard, thinking big picture and asking big questions. Sometimes holding a dog helps.

For HER OWN TWO FEET, the phrase “strong like a butterfly” emerged. It was something Rebeka said at the dinner table one night, trying to make us laugh. Clay was strong like a chicken, and she was strong like a butterfly.

Rebeka may not look strong, perched on top of those curled feet, but she is. But the heart part of that comes when I connect that idea with readers. At school visits, I tell kids you can’t always tell how strong someone is from the way that they look. It’s true for a butterfly, with its delicate wing, it’s true for Rebeka, and it became a rallying cry for all kids to be brave and courageous and strong like butterflies, no matter how they look or feel. I’ve received hundreds of colored butterflies in the mail, and at every school visit they flutter on the walls.

So what’s my “butterfly” for THE MINOR MIRACLE? What’s the thing that will resonate with kids, that rings true for them and for me? A really important theme in this series is the idea that we’re all extraordinary (sound familiar?). The main character, Noah Minor, feels like just an ordinary kid, especially next to his two best friends. Rodney is a music prodigy and Haley is a practically perfect, straight-A student.

Then Noah finds out he has the power to manipulate gravity, he’s super after all!

But finding out he has superpowers doesn’t make Noah’s life easier or better. He begins to understand the famous words from his favorite Spiderman comic, with great power comes great responsibility. Noah will realize he’s capable of doing great things, but the greatest of these doesn’t require the ability to manipulate gravity, but the ability to put his friends first, no matter what. What looks ordinary can be extraordinary, whether it’s a butterfly or . . . a bracelet.

When Noah finds out he’s a gravitar, he’s given a bracelet that looks like any ordinary Rim Rock Mustangs rubber bracelet, but it’s not. It’s bugged. And just as an ordinary-looking bracelet can do extraordinary things (like transmit all verbal and written communications), an “ordinary” kid can to extraordinary things. For Christmas, Clay got me a box full of Rim Rock Mustangs bracelets. They’re sitting on the floor by my desk, still in the red and green gift bag.

I can’t wait to use them as giveaways, little reminders that what looks ordinary can be extraordinary and something amazing could be sitting right under your nose. These bracelets are like an invitation to the “team,” where everyone belongs, and we’re all capable of being super. I think I’ve found my theme, and what seems to be a common denominator in my work. I like to write about kids who discover they are capable of far more than they ever thought. Maybe because it’s the message I need to hear.

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Tracing the Threads

Four months before my second book, THE MINOR MIRACLE comes out (May, 2024), I am excited to start sharing all the stories behind this story.

Before this book ever got a contract, threads began weaving together to pave a way to THE MINOR MIRACLE’s publication. I could go way back to 2012, when Rebeka Uwitonze came from Rwanda to live with our family for a year.

 

While she was with us, I signed with my agent, Alyssa Eisner Henkin, who was well aware of all that was going on in my “personal” life as I continued to pursue a book contract in the children’s publishing world. Those worlds were intricately connected in ways I didn’t realize until much later.

When two of our projects failed to sell, Alyssa suggested I tell Rebeka’s story, and so I partnered with this Rwandan girl in 2017 to tell the story of how she spent the first seven years of her life crawling, and eventually taught herself how to walk on the tops of her feet.

At age nine, Rebeka left her family and home to fly across the ocean to live with our family while she had surgeries to correct her clubbed feet. Alyssa was right. It was an incredible story that I was uniquely suited to partner with Rebeka to tell. We knew we’d want a sensitivity reader, and I found the perfect person on my first research trip to Rwanda. While there, I stayed in the ANLM mission house alongside a group of teachers from the US who were there to work with Rwandan teachers on curriculum. One of those US teachers was a woman named Bunmi Ishola.

Bunmi grew up in Texas and Nigeria, and was kind enough to give HER OWN TWO FEET a sensitivity read before Rebeka and I published it. At the time, Bunmi was teaching middle school in Texas. Her feedback was important and valuable, and we thanked her at the back of HER OWN TWO FEET in the acknowledgements.

I went on to work on other manuscripts, continuing to submit to publishers, looking for that perfect fit that would lead to my next contract. Meanwhile, Bunmi changed careers and started working in the publishing world. See how the threads are coming together?

Several years and many submission later, still pursuing the perfect fit for my next book, Alyssa had an idea. My work could easily bridge to a faith-based publisher. And so we submitted to a new round of editors, including Bunmi who was now at the faith-based imprint of Penguin Random House, Waterbrook/Multnomah.

I had no idea that chance encounter in Rwanda would lead me to my next editor, a beautiful partnership that has resulted in another book we’re both proud of. And in a way, isn’t that a Minor Miracle? The way those threads, that didn’t seem as if they’d ever intersect, are woven together to make a new a story, the story behind the story? It’s a reminder to me to walk through life with anticipation, recognizing that minor miracles are happening all the time—incredible connections that may take years before they become apparent. I look forward to seeing them, and sharing them, with readers.

left to right, fellow Waterbrook author Carolyn Leiloglou, Bunmi Ishola, Meredith Davis

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Storytime: Joy

Years ago, when my daughter went to summer camp she learned a song about the fruits of the spirit. “The fruit of the spirit’s not a coconut!” she’d yell, and rap on her head with her knuckles while clucking her tongue like it was hollow. And “the fruit of the spirit’s not a papaya!” and she’d “hi-ya” karate chop. I don’t know if she really understood what the fruits of the spirit were, but she certainly remembered them. The song went on to name the fruits: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.

So how do we come to understand, and pass on the wisdom, of these big concepts that can feel so big and unwieldy? A picture book can be a powerful tool, winsomely engaging even the youngest child’s attention with the magic of beautiful illustrations and carefully chosen words. I thought it would be fun over the next nine months to find picture books that exemplify these fruits, one a month, starting with joy (because I want to save love for February). And also, what better way to start the new year than with a little joy?

Stand Tall, Molly Lou Melon by Patty Lovell, illustrated by David Catrow

Molly Lou Melon is full of joy. Even though she’s short, with buck teeth, and has a voice “that sounded like a bullfrog being squeezed by a boa constrictor.” Her grandmother encourages her to be herself, and that self is full of joy. But what happens when she moves away from her grandmother and all her friends and has to start in a new school? A bully named Ronald Durkin calls her SHRIMPO! and BUCKY-TOOTH BEAVER! But the rest of the kids are impressed with the way Molly runs under Ronald’s legs to score a touchdown, and the way she can stack ten pennies on her teeth. Turns about being filled with joy and being your best self is a great way to make friends, and even Ronald eventually comes around. The illustrations are bright and outrageous and perfectly capture the little spitfire that is Molly Lou Melon.

The Happiness of a Dog with a Ball in Its Mouth by Bruce Handy and Hyewon Yum

Is joy the same as happiness? Maybe not, but they live close to each other, and this book looks at all different flavors of happiness, and lots of other emotions, too. There’s, “the patience of a dog at the door,” and we see a dog waiting with a leash in his mouth, and then, the happiness of a dog with a ball in its mouth,” and the dog races across a grassy field. And how about, “the worry of looking,” we see a little girl lost in a sea of legs, and then fold out the right hand page and read, “the happiness of finding” as the girl hugs her mother. This is one of those books that adults will enjoy as much as kids, and I love how it names the good that follows bad. I also love the illustrations, simple and childlike. It’s published by Enchanted Lion, a fantastic publisher that makes beautiful books.

Baby Loves by Michael Lawrence, illustrated by Adrian Reynolds

Babies can exude such a simple joy, and Baby Loves captures all the feels throughout a day. Each page features something Baby loves more than anything except . . . we turn the page to see what else baby loves. “Baby loves breakfast more than anything in the world except . . .” and the picture is a big, bright picture of baby with a bowl on his (or her?) head. Turn the page, and we read, “. . . Teddy. Baby loves Teddy more than anything in the world except . . .” Turn the page and we see baby who has loved teddy so much she’s (or he’s) pulled a leg off. Baby and teddy look at us with eyebrows raised, like oops! Makes me laugh every time. So does this illustration:

Baby finds joy no matter what she’s doing! It circles round at the end. “Mommy and Daddy love Baby more than anything in the world except . . .” page turn . . . “No. Mommy and Daddy love Baby more than anything in the world . . . anything at all!” My copy of this book got lots of giggles and snuggles and joy when our kids were babies, so much that several of the pages are taped, always a sign of a good one.

Feeding the Sheep by Leda Schubert, illustrated by Andrea U’Ren

You can see the joy starting on the cover, as this smiling little girl asks her mother, “What are you doing?” The mother responds in short, rhyming text throughout to the same question. First she’s feeding the sheep, “Snowy day, corn and hay.” Then she’s shearing the wool, “soft and deep, sheepy heap.” The illustration shows the mother holding a sheep up against her and using scissors to cut the wool while the little girl hides under a wooly pile, holding up two leaves for ears as she pretends she’s a sheep.

In every spread, they’re laughing together, filled with joy. Even the dog is happy, whether rolling in the mud with glee, or shaking inside as mom and girl wash the wool, “soap and steam, fleecy clean,” (mom and girl laugh at their naughty pup). There’s so much to love about this book. The rhymes are clever, the illustrations cheery and sweet, and the girl gets to help her mother every step of the way.

Bonus, you’ll learn all the steps that go into making a soft cozy sweater, which the mother makes for her little girl in the end. So much joy as we see the little girl and her mother, “sweater snug, woolly hug.” And on the last spread, the girl who has been so full of questions answers her mother when she asks, “What are you doing?” “Feeding the sheep,” the girl answers, as she tugs a heavy bag of corn and the process starts all over again, the little girl empowered by all she’s learned.

Let’s Go Visiting by Sue Williams, illustrated by Julie Vivas

This is a very simple book about a child asking different baby animals if they want to play. There’s a lilt to the question as the child (could be a boy or a girl) says to a dog with a big smile, “Let’s go visiting. What do you say?” And then turn the page and we read, “One brown foal is ready to play.” The adorable foal nuzzles the child, who throws up their hands and grins as the dog crouches, tail up, wanting to play. What joy there is in simple play!

This book can be used as a simple counting book with young readers as the animals accumulate. The dog, foal, calves, kittens, piglets, ducklings and puppies romp and roll until, “No more visiting. No more play. Let’s curl up and sleep in the hay.” There is joy in the visiting, and joy in the resting as they literally dog pile into a heap of happiness. Julie Vivas is one of my favorite illustrators. She captures the expression of joy so perfectly (she’s the one who illustrated The Nativity which I featured December 2023).

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