Storytime: “Scary”

While doing an author visit recently, sharing my middle grade book Her Own Two Feet with middle school and elementary kids (coauthored with Rebeka Uwitonze), I asked the kids what kind of books they liked, and a lot of them said, “scary.” This was confirmed by the librarians, and the size of the “scary books” section on the library shelves. As a storyteller, reading “scary” stories to kids always got such a delicious edge-of-the-seat reaction. They couldn’t wait to see what happened on the next page! I’ve picked a few picture book titles to get little hearts pumping, but don’t worry, only for a page or two.

Big Bad Bubble by Adam Rubin, illustrated by Daniel Salmieri

The title and cover say it all, this is a not-so-scary scary book for young kids. It opens with such a great line, “You may not know this, but when a bubble pops, it doesn’t just disappear. It reappears in La La Land . . . where the monsters live.” This book may not scare readers, unless they’re afraid of adorable monsters, but it certainly captures the feeling of being scared. The monsters in this book are afraid of bubbles. Kids get to participate with the narrator in trying to talk Yerbert, Froofle, Wumpus and Mogo (those names!) down from their hysterics and reason with them. It’s brilliant, pairing something kids really might be afraid of (monsters) with something so harmless (bubbles) and then giving them the language to reassure that things aren’t so bad. It’s interactive. It’s adorable. I love it.

Snip Snap! What’s That? by Mara Bergman, illustrated by Nick Maland

The suspense starts on the title page, when we see the cover of a manhole removed, and the dedication spread, where we see a man running down a sidewalk. Turn the page, still no words, but we see a front desk man reading the paper and the tip of a tail going up the stairs. Turn the page and read, “When the alligator came creeping . . . creeping . . . creeping up the stairs . . . were the children scared? I LOVE waiting for the next page turn, two children and their mother looking at an alligator’s shadow on the wall. Finally, turn the page to read, “YOU BET THEY WERE!”

It’s so great that in this story it’s okay to be scared. Some things, like alligators in your apartment, are scary! The alligator is described slowly, it’s long teeth and wide jaws, and the two kids and mother run and hide, but eventually, they’ve had enough. “They plucked up their courage and gave a great shout: ‘Alligator, you get out!’ And was the alligator scared? YOU BET IT WAS!” So, so satisfying to see their journey from scared to brave, and to see that alligator slither back into it’s manhole. With short text it’s a great book for young kids, with a message that would encourage anyone encountering something scary.

Miss Nelson is Missing! by James Marshall

This is an oldie but a goodie about a class full of misbehaving kids, their sweet teacher Miss Nelson who doesn’t show up at school one day, and a mysterious substitute teacher named Miss Viola Swamp. Miss Swamp wears a black dress and striped stockings and has sharp black nails. In fact, she looks an awful lot like a witch as she raps on a desk with a ruler and tells the kids to get out their arithmetic books, then loads them down with homework. There’s no story hour and the kids must sit perfectly still with their mouths shut or, “you’ll be sorry,” says Miss Swamp.

The class misses sweet Miss Nelson and decide to try and find her. A detective is no help, and when they go to her house they narrowly escape being seen by Miss Swamp as she comes round the corner with a grocery bag. The kids become resigned to the fact that Miss Swamp may be their teacher forever, but then one morning, Miss Nelson is back! They are overjoyed, and finally obedient, but when Miss Nelson asks them what brought about the change, they say it’s their little secret. Little do they know, Miss Nelson has a secret of her own. She doesn’t say it, but later that night as she’s going to bed we see, in the shadows, a little black dress hanging in her closet and a box labeled “wig.”

Kids love figuring out the mystery, and knowing something the kids in Miss Nelson’s class don’t. And I imagine teachers love reading this book to their class when they get a bit rowdy. James Marshall was a genius.

Where’s My Teddy by Jez Alborough

Oh my gosh my kids loved this book, my copy is falling apart! It’s written in catchy rhyme that sticks with you, so sticky I can still recite it all these years later. The suspense starts right away as we see a kid who’s lost his teddy, “He lost him in the woods somewhere. It’s dark and horrible in there. ‘Help!’ said Eddie. ‘I’m scared already! I want my bed! I want my teddy!’”

He walks in the woods with these great tall, thin trees and he sees something really weird and scary . . . . page turn, it’s a giant teddy bear! Eddie wonder if it’s his teddy, but how did it get so big? Then he hears a voice sobbing and out pops a gigantic bear holding a tiny teddy. The boy and the bear got each other’s teddies, and they’re both terrified of each other. As soon as they get their own lovies they go running off into the woods, back to their homes, “all the way back to their snuggly beds, where they huddled and cuddled their own little teds.” See what I mean about that perfect rhyme? And the illustrations are darling. It’s a perfect read aloud and you can really ham up the suspense.

That’s Good! That’s Bad! by Margery Cuyler, illustrated by David Catrow

I’m a big fan of David Catrow’s illustrations, they’re wacky and bright and silly, the perfect pair with Margery Cuyler’s crazy story about a boy who gets a balloon at the zoo that’s so big it lifts him up into the sky. “Oh, that’s good. No, that’s bad.” We turn the page to see why it’s bad. It drifts for miles and pops on a prickly tree, and we read, “Oh, that’s bad. No, that’s good!” Turn the page to see why. The boy falls into a swamp and a hippo gives him a ride out, which seems good, but it’s bad because . . . and the story continues, alternating between good and bad.

I love how this story models the concept that life is full of good and bad, it’s a cycle, so if it’s bad just wait a while, wait for the good. I love how each page turn is a suspenseful moment. There’s a terrifying picture in the middle of a snake with mouth wide open and fangs bared, its head as big as the boy (who thought it was a vine), which is another reason it belongs in this “scare” category. My boys loved this page. I always wanted to turn the page fast, and they always wanted to linger for a delicious scare before finding out this horrifying picture is good. How can it be good? The boy was so scared he lost his grip and landed on the back of a giraffe, which we think is good, but is actually bad because . . . don’t worry, the boy makes it back to his parents in the end. “Oh, that’s good. No, that’s great!” is the satisfying last line.

The Monster Bed by Jeanne Willis, illustrated by Susan Varley

Enter the Withering Wood if you dare, but “the creatures who live there are up to no good.” There are nasty gnomes and hairy trolls (though we don’t see them). What we see is a “dank, gloomy cave” (but there’s a lovey and chalk with hopscotch on the floor so what you read isn’t necessarily what you see). We also meet a monster named Dennis who lives with his mother in said cave. Dennis, who is the most adorable monster ever, is afraid to go to bed because the humans will get him. We see this great picture of him imagining a bunch of kids crouching under his bed, criss-cross applesauce or hugging their knees, peering out.

His mother reassures him humans are only in stories, they aren’t real (kids eat this up). There’s this great line where mom monster bends down to kiss Dennis goodnight and “he chose to fasten his fangs round her warty old nose. He tied up his toes in a knot round her knees, ‘Led go of be, Deddis, you’re hurtig be, please!’” his mom says. Cracks me up. I love the clever rhyme and the sweet, silly story. Dennis eventually does meet a little boy who’s crept into his cave, looking for a place to rest, and they both scare the dickens out of each other. It ends with a reader beware, don’t go to Dennis’s cave, where, “You might meet his mother, just think how you’d feel, if she were to tell you that you are not real.”

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Storytime: Baby Animals

We recently took a trip to Colorado and while heading to the rental lot to drop off our car, we encountered a scene straight out of Robert McCloskey’s Make Way for Ducklings.

Mama duck was leading her babies down a busy street to a busier intersection and it was both adorable and terrifying (don’t worry, they made it!). The world is pretty much in love with baby animals (just check out social media) so I thought I’d pick some books about them this month, starting with:

Stellaluna by Janell Cannon

To be honest, bats kind of creep me out with their leathery wings and furry bodies, but Janell Cannon is able to make even a baby bat cute (and does the same for a python and a cockroach in her books Verdi and Crickwing). Stellaluna opens like a fairy tale, “In a warm and sultry forest far, far away, there once lived a mother fruit bat and her new baby.” And then, for the cute factor, “Oh, how Mother Bat loved her soft tiny baby. ‘I’ll name you Stellaluna,’ she crooned.” Soft and tiny? So cute.

There’s drama as an owl swoops down and Mama Bat loses her hold on her baby. Stellaluna falls and ends up in a bird’s nest. She’s so hungry she eventually eats a grasshopper (even though she’s a fruit bat who doesn’t like insects). The art is just incredible.

As time goes on she tries to be like the other baby birds and learns to fly with them, but one day when night comes, she doesn’t return. She’s found by some other bats, including one who sniffs her fur and whispers, “You are Stellaluna. You are my baby.”

But wait, it’s not over yet! Stellaluna goes back to see the baby birds, who try to do the things she can do (like fly at night) but fail and they all realize they’re different, “But we’re friends. And that’s a fact.” So many “aaaaaah’s” over this book, and at the end there’s lots of interesting bat facts. Did you know of the nearly 4,000 species of mammals on Earth, almost one quarter are bats?? Great story (it’s a little long, good for older kids and longer attention spans), interesting facts, and the cutest little bat you ever did see.

If You Were Born a Kitten by Marion Dane Bauer, illustrated by JoEllen McAllister Stammen

In this gorgeous book you learn a little something about each baby animal with each turn of the page. The language is so beautiful and specific it’s hard to describe it. Better to just share.

If you were born a kitten,

you’d slip into the world in a silvery sac,

and your mother would lick, lick, lick you free.

A mother cat is pictured with her teeny kittens, their eyes not even open, painted with pastels. Turn the page and read about baby seahorses, porcupettes, bear cubs and more. It appeals to young children and adults with its sparse, informative text and big, pretty pictures. And at the end, we see a human baby.

Naked as a bear cub.

Soft as a porcupette.

Wrinkled as a deer mouse.

Free as a kitten. You.

Sigh.

Little Gorilla by Ruth Bornstein

So this book could fall into several categories. It’s great for birthdays (we gave it away at my daughter’s second birthday party for party favors) and it’s about extended family and unconditional love, but I’m putting it with baby animals because it works here, too. It’s a wonderful read aloud with simple text and big, bright pictures and a crowd favorite.

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.

Come Along, Daisy by Jane Simmons

This book was a favorite read-aloud when my kids were little. The bright, rich colors, interesting perspectives, short text and real tension kept kids engaged to the very last page. Daisy’s mama tells her to stay close and Daisy tells her mama she’ll try but . . . she doesn’t. Her mom tells her to come along, but Daisy is exploring. She watches the fish, chases dragonflies, and bounces on lily pads.

Then we come to the moment of great tension. Daisy is far from her mama, and “Something big stirred underneath her. Daisy shivered.” We see a giant fish with yellow eyes crouched in the grasses beneath the lily pads. Page turn and an eagle screeches from above, page turn and Daisy hides. Keep turning the pages to see Daisy peeking around tall grass as something rustles, coming closer, and closer, and . . . phew. It’s Mama, who tells Daisy to come along, and this time, she does!

Any child who’s tried hard to obey but failed, or been lost, and scared, will identify with Daisy. It’s pretty brilliant the way it’s scary for little kids, but not too scary. Like all great picture books, it can fit many themes, including one of the cutest baby animals you ever did see: sweet duckling Daisy.

Full Moon Pups by Liz Garton Scanlon, illustrated by Chuck Groenink

Lis Garton Scanlon is such a genius with rhyme, like this stanza:

These first few days, they’re nursing

They sleep and scootch and cry,

with the wolf pack watching over

like the moon does from the sky.

Each page turn is a new stanza as we follow a litter of wolf pups born on a full moon for a month, until the moon is full again. There’s danger, but the wolf pack protects them. The pups open their eyes to a wonderful world to explore as they “tumble, tussle and hide,” and there’s this brilliant phrase, “this pack of waxing wolf pups,” that ties the growing pups to the changing moon.

At the end there’s more information about baby wolves and how the species almost became extinct, and about phases of the moon. This truly is a perfect book for a storytime about baby animals and could also be used as part of a more robust science lesson.

Hug by Jez Alborough

I debated whether I included two cute picture books featuring baby apes (this time it’s a chimp instead of a gorilla) and also lots of other jungle animals, but I couldn’t resist. I will use way more words to talk about this book, which has a total of three distinct words in it: hug, mommy, and Bobo. Even the words are cute!

The story is as simple as the text. A baby chimp sees a mommy and baby elephant hugging and says, “hug.” The chimp sees parent and baby lizards and snakes hugging (“hug” and “hug”), and gets sad. The mommy elephant lifts the chimp onto her head and they set off, seeing lots more hugging, and baby just can’t take it. It’s big this time, the sob and the word, ‘”HUG” as all the concerned animals look on. He falls apart, whimpering “hug” as he cries.

And then, the most amazing page turn and we see a grown chimp running out of the forest yelling “BOBO” and on the next page, baby chimp runs into her arms saying “MOMMY” and then turn the page to see all the animals saying “hug” as mommy and baby embrace. But it isn’t over, which I love. Bobo thanks the mommy elephant, embracing her trunk and saying “hug,” and it ends with mommy and baby chimp hand in hand and the words repeated, “mommy” and “Bobo.” I love the name Bobo, all the hugs, the expressions, the storyline. I love this story so much. I want to hug it.

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Storytime: Play

When I was young, I’d spend the day at the pool and then come home to Tang and cheese popcorn. Or me and my friend would pretend we were horses. Or I’d read until my mom told me to go play outside, so I’d go read outside. There were birthday parties where you tied a balloon around your ankle with a piece of string and then ran around trying to pop everyone else’s balloon while protecting your own. There were trees to climb and frogs to catch and the days were full of play. May the last few weeks of summer break find the kids in your life playing games and imagining and reading and noshing on cheese popcorn, washed down with a swig of Tang.

Flora and the Flamingo by Molly Idle

Can you play with a flamingo? Absolutely! In this wordless book a darling girl decked out in a pink swimsuit, big black flippers and a yellow swim cap mimics a flamingo who is at first aloof, and then laughs when she tumbles over, but then feels bad and helps the girl back up. Together they dance, finally leaping and cannon-balling into the water. The expressions are classic, from shyness to hurt feelings to utter joy. This book makes me smile.

I’m Bored by Michael Ian Black, illustrated by Debbie Ridpath Ohi

In an odd twist of fate, this book has a flamingo in it, too! But that’s where the similarities end, because it also has a bored potato (who’s pretty much not going to be happy unless he’s with a flamingo) and a scruffy little girl wearing yellow barrettes who was also bored, until she came across the insolent potato who refuses to be entertained, no matter what she does. Escalating from cartwheels to grand feats of imagination, the potato remains bored but the girl doesn’t. Finally, she says:

And then she storms off just as a flamingo comes on the scene. The potato says now they can finally have some fun, but the flamingo says, wait for it . . . I’m bored. I love a funny picture book, and these illustrations are just as funny as the text, capturing expressions perfectly.

The Field by Baptiste Paul, illustrated by Jacqueline Alcántara

Set on a lush Carribean island, this picture book about the local kids gathering for a soccer game is told with spare text interspersed with Creole words. There are things that are the same the world over, like making a goal, but also different. Here they heft some bamboo strung together for a goal as they shoo sheep and cows off the field. Wherever they are, kids pass and shoot and race to get that ball. A rainstorm comes, but they play on, score goals, and there are:

High fives.

Fist bumps.

Happy tackles.

And all the world over, mamas call their kids in from play to take a bath before bed. “Bonswè. Good night.” The illustrations capture motion using colors as saturated as the green, green forest and fields and the bright painted houses. Don’t skip the author’s note in this one! Paul Baptiste, who was raised on St. Lucia, has a lot of good things to say about play. “The way we keep playing through challenges makes us who we are today,” and “I love the concept of play: everyone cheering together, forgetting about whatever challenges life can bring.

Clap Hands by Helen Oxenbury

My grandson is sixteen months old, and he loves this book, and the other three Oxenbury board books in this series (All Fall Down, Tickle, Tickle and Say Goodnight). With only four double page spreads it can be quickly read, turned over, and read again (which we do, again and again and again). In Clap Hands, babies of different ethnicities clap and dance and spin, blow a paper towel roll trumpet and wave to their parents. We act it out, playing while we read, fun for both of us. I love, love, love these illustrations where all the world is happy babies, four of them, with round heads and plump arms and legs. My mark of a good board book is one that baby loves and readers don’t mind returning to again and again. It’s usually one with spare text and simple illustrations. This is it.

The Brave Cowboy by Joan Walsh Anglund

This one is a classic. My kids loved it when they were young, and it still sits on my shelf, waiting for my grandson River to get old enough to love it, too. 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. The stick he carries has a captured angry mountain lion hanging from it, and though he’s actually perching on a stool, we see in his imagination it’s a galloping horse. Any book that encourages imaginative play is a win, and I love how this blends the real and imaginary worlds together.


If you’d like a cumulative list of the picture books I’ve recommended, you can find it at my Picture Book shop on Bookshop.org, where every purchase supports independent bookstores. I receive a small commission if books are purchased through my link. Honestly, in a very small way it gives me a chance to be a bookseller again, my most favorite job ever.

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Storytime: Home

Moving in June, 2023, put me in the mood to find some good picture books about homes. Our new house is graced with porches front and back and chock full of built-in bookshelves for ALL the books, so the hands will never be empty while rocking on said porches. Whether you’re moving or you’re all nested snug and tight, these books explore what makes a house a home, and all the ways we feather our nests.

The Home Builders by Varsha Bajaj, illustrated by Simona Mulazzani

Homes comes in all shapes and sizes, especially if you’re an animal. There are lots of reasons to love this simple, rhyming picture book. The feel of the thick, matte pages is lovely, and the detailed illustrations are full of things to point at, from a fox burrowed in his hole to the owls in the tree. But down in that hole, with the mole, we also see the roots of vegetables stretching through the soil, and worms curled in the brown earth. What I’m saying is, the illustrations show more than what that text points to, and the text is wonderfully rhymed.

Shovel and plow

construct and flit,

rummage and roam,

gather and knit.

On the two pages where the previous four lines are found, we see a mole (shoveling and plowing), bees (constructing and flitting), and an eagle and a deer gathering sticks for a nest, or grass for a soft bed. Have you ever thought about knitting a home? Sweet. Or what moles, bees, deer and eagles have in common? They all have homes. And there are these great questions interspersed, leading us from “Do you see the home builders?” to, “Do you see the babies,” and “Do you see the families?” These homes are built for a purpose! To house the growing animal families. And to tie a bow on it, we read, “Home is our earth, shared by us all.” Ahhh.

Farmhouse by Sophie Blackall

I am a huge fan of Sophie Blackall, her illustrations capture personality quirks and scenes that make you wish you could step into the page. And the text, it has this great occasional rhyme and wonderful rhythm that works for young kids and adults, like this line that spans a couple pages, “Over a hill, at the end of the road, by a glittering stream that twists and turns, stands a house where twelve children were born and raised, where they learned to crawl in the short front hall . . .”

The house has just as much personality as the people it holds, bearing witness to the daily lives of the family. There are marks on the doorframe to record growing kids, the kitchen where meals are prepared, chores are done, and a sick baby is nursed. The kids pin pictures on their bedroom walls and grow older and move away and still the farmhouse stands. The story isn’t over.

Rain and raccoons sneak in, and one winter a bear sleeps in the basement and a tree slowly grows through the floor until one day . . . and this is the thing that I especially love, a woman buys the farmhouse and finds old dresses and wallpaper stamped by potatoes and a button made from a shell, and even though it’s falling down, not salvageable, she finds a way to save it. To infuse it with story and people and give it back its memories, by making the book you hold in your hands.

Sophie Blackall bought that farmhouse. The illustrations are made with scraps she found, and her story is imagined after speaking to the neighbors who knew the owners. What a treasure of a book! It’s a reminder that our homes are filled with stories, ours and the ones that have come before, back to the hands that built them.

Miss. Twiggley’s Tree by Dorothea Warren Fox

There’s a common theme with some of the books this month, focusing on those who are a bit different. Miss. Twiggley (don’t you love her name?) lives in a house in a tree “with a dog named Puss and a color TV,” and she’s quite happy. “She did what she liked and she liked what she did, but when company came, Miss Twiggley hid.”

She’s a bit shy around people, who think she’s odd, so she stays in her tree and sends her dog to do the shopping in town. (She’s on great terms with the bears, though, and they stop by often, shedding on her couch and mussing her tidy treehouse.) The mayor’s wife is especially offended by Miss. Twiggley.

But when the rain comes and the town floods, people flock to Miss. Twiggley’s tree, grateful for her oddity, even the mayor’s wife! They all become friends, and Miss. Twiggley isn’t so shy. The simple rhyming text and pen and ink illustrations make this book accessible for younger readers and it’s got some important truth. We should celebrate our differences, and we can overcome our shyness when we take our eyes off ourselves.

And Miss Twiggley found out

Something wonderful, too:

When emergencies come

You don’t think about you.

Moving the Millers’ Minnie Moore Mine Mansion: A true story by Dave Eggers, illustrations by Júlia Sardà

I didn’t look at who wrote this book when I first picked it off the shelf at my local Indie, Bookpeople. I loved the wry humor, and wasn’t at all surprised to see Dave Eggers wrote it! The way this story (which is already pretty incredible) is told makes it twice as enjoyable. The first line had me hooked “Like all of the best stories, this takes place in Idaho.”

This is a TRUE STORY. A widow and her son moved their house out of town so they could raise their pigs, and by move I mean they had their house rolled four miles down the road, which took about a month. And they lived in it as logs were slowly, slowly moved from the back to the front of the line so it could keep rolling . . . incredible.

I’ve always had a thing for books that are based on true stories, and a thing for Dave Eggers who is smart and funny and clever. And now I have a thing for Júlia Sardà who I somehow just discovered. Adults will love this just as much as kids, and though the text is a bit long for the youngest kiddos it’s easy to read ahead and adapt to their attention span-they’ll still love the story and pics.

The Ramble Shamble Children by Christina Soontornvat, illustrated by Lauren Castillo

One of the many things I find so intriguing about this book is that there is a family of five kids living in a house with no parents in sight. They all have jobs to do, and they do them with smiles on their faces, including the baby whose job is to “look after the mud.” It reminds me of when I was a kid, deep in play, no grown-ups around, and I was the one in charge. I was the one who needed to make dinner (using leaves and bark), and decorate (the fort forged under a hollow bush). How satisfying to see a book where children are doing just that, inhabiting their world fully and independently.

When they read a book with pictures of a “proper house” they set out to make their ramble, shamble home proper, too. They proper up the chicken house and the scarecrow and even the mud, which makes the baby unhappy. In fact, nobody looks very happy. Things go from bad to worse when they realize their attempts to be proper aren’t working, and the baby has gone missing. They find him in a different puddle of mud, and return to their ramble, shamble home contented with the way it is because it’s theirs, and it’s perfect.

Christina Soontornvat captures the essence of what it is to be a kid, but she also makes an eloquent statement about what really matters, and how when we try to be something we’re not, it doesn’t work. Lauren Castillo’s rich illustrations saturate this story with color.

Old Henry by Joan W. Blos, illustrated by Stephen Gammell

Once again, we meet an unconventional character in this gem I read to my kids when they were little. Old Henry and his parrot move into a tall, thin house in a neighborhood filled with tidy neighbors, but he doesn’t mow his grass or sweep his walk or water his plants. He does stand on the back balcony in his boxers to greet the day and wave at the birds. I really, really love the language:

With money enough to pay the rent,

his books, birds and cooking pots,

he was content,

and never did notice (or else didn’t care)

that people whispered everywhere

“That place

is a disgrace.”

His neighbors become more and more annoyed. They try to be nice, twice. They offer to shovel his snow and bring him pies, but Old Henry says no to the shoveling, no thank you to the pies. “Now Henry, too, had had his fill. That night he grumbled, ‘I never will live like the rest of them, neat and the same. I am sorry I came.”

So he moves, and his neighbors start to remember him, sharing stories and they realize they miss him. The rhymes in this text are so great, the page turns brilliant, and Gammell’s illustrations really capture the personality of Old Henry and the neighbors. It ends on a bit of a cliffhanger. Old Henry writes a note to the mayor of the town, asking if he mends his gate and shovels the snow, would they not scold his birds and let his grass grow? The end. It’s up to you and your kiddos to wonder and talk about what you think they’ll do, and maybe what you’d do if an “Old Henry” moved into the ‘hood. I like that it goes both ways, both parties realizing they are missing something valuable when apart.


If you’d like a cumulative list of the picture books I’ve recommended, you can find it at my Picture Book shop on Bookshop.org, where every purchase supports independent bookstores. I do received a small commission if books are purchased through my link.

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Storytime: Oceans

I celebrated my 30th anniversary with my husband in Kauai, where we spent a lot of time in the ocean, whether snorkeling or wading or tide-pooling or riding boats up and down the Napali coast. We saw a whale breach . . .

. . . and dolphins racing our boat, a white and black eel slithering out of a hole and turtles hanging suspended in turquoise waves.

It was amazing. The ocean is amazing. I’ve lived in Texas my whole life, and made a few trips to the gulf where the ocean is warmer, and browner, but there are still shells to find and waves to send your boogie board sailing and who knows what incredible things swimming out there between you and that far line of the horizon. I hope these books give you a salty taste, and if you’re lucky, you’ll get to see an ocean soon, too.

Granny and Bean by Karen Hesse, illustrated by Charlotte Voake

Granny and Bean go to the beach, a simple love story. It’s a cold beach, they’re wearing coats and hats and their cheeks chafe red, but they don’t care. They let the waves crash over their boots, sing, greet dogs, leap over logs, and share “tea.” Bean eats a banana and Grandma has a cupcake, and then they sort their best shells and a stone before going home.

I love so many things about this book. I love that Grandma is the one eating a cupcake, and she’s the kind of Grandma who doesn’t mind the cold or the wet as long as she’s with her sweet Bean. Bean never grumbles, content with his Grandma, “their hats blowing free, their hair in a tumble.” Ah, the words. The world. Yes, I’m a Grandma with my own sweet little bean, and while I don’t live near the beach, we find our own places to roam and with my bean by my side, the world is sweet.

Fetch by Jorey Hurley

With one word per page we follow the story of a dog chasing his ball on the beach and into the ocean. Perfect for the very young, it has pictures that beg the reader to tell “more of the story” as the child is ready for it. It also introduces us to the waters off the coast of California (we learn in the author’s note) as we see what’s underneath the dog while he swims after his ball. Rock fish, a kelp forest, and even a shark are on spreads that require the book to be turned on its side to appreciate the long, vertical pictures that show the world deep below the water.

Anyone that’s watched a dog retrieve a ball over and over again will recognize the lengths this dog is willing to go to get the ball back, and appreciate the last spread. The dog sets his ball down and cocks his head as we read the simple word, “again?” I have a dog that is (sometimes) ball crazy and I love a good beach story. I also love finding books that use spare text to tell a good story that resonates whether you’re a child or an adult. And this artist, her simple pictures are so nice (go check out her website and instagram-delightful).

Blue on Blue by Dianne White, illustrated by Beth Krommes

The short, simple rhymes in this book paint a picture even without the beautiful illustrations. And though the text never talks about the ocean, the pictures show a darling white house on a high cliff overlooking the sea. What’s it about, you ask? It’s layered, like the words.

Cotton clouds.

Morning light.

Blue on blue.

White on white.

There are so many layers, more and more the longer you look. We see a picture of blue sky over blue waters (blue on blue) and white clouds floating over the white house (white on white). It’s about being outside on a sunny day when the weather changes,

Gray on gray.

Dark and glooming.

Black on black.

Storm is looming.

While it rains we see a child hiding under the covers when it thunders, a baby crying, the same child at the table with head in hands, pigs in a sty and horses in a stable . . . and then the sun comes back out and there is glorious mud to play in. The child makes “mud angels” instead of snow angels and the day ends with a good bath and bedtime as a whale leaps in the sea. It’s about how the world is big and beautiful and sunny and stormy, but after storms, goodness waits. Brilliantly, the pace slows as fewer words appear on a page, causing us to slow down, pausing to look at the pictures. It inspires me to slow down and look at the world around me, too, just like the ocean.

If You Want to See a Whale by Julie Fogliano, illustrated by Erin E. Stead

I pretty much love any book by this pair (see April’s pick, And Then It’s Spring). The style, the tone, the wry humor and deeper layers, quirky and simple . . . they’re pretty much brilliant. We’re told if we want to see a whale, we’ll need a window, and an ocean, and, most importantly, “time for waiting, and time for looking, and time for wondering ‘is that a whale?’” A child sits on a long-legged stool, his long-eared dog on the floor beside him, and they wait and watch together.

The book becomes more fantastical as the boy’s chair floats out to sea (but not a chair that’s too comfy, because, “sleeping eyes can’t watch for whales and whales won’t wait for watching.”) I should just type up the whole book because half the joy is reading how Fogliano stitches her words together. The other half is the illustrations . . . get your hands on this book!

We wait, and wait, not paying attention to roses or boats that could have pirates in them or pelicans or “something inching, small and green across the leaf.” After all that waiting, the next to last spread shows the boy in his little rowboat with his dog, out to sea, and a giant humpback beneath them, and then the satisfying last spread shows the tip of the whale’s nose popping up, right in front of the boat. So much to talk about, like what is there that we aren’t seeing, and is waiting worth it? It is when it’s a whale!

Over and Under the Waves by Kate Messner, illustrated by Christopher Silas Neal

A girl paddles with her mom, sharing a boat as they follow her dad out into the ocean and readers are introduced to over 20 ocean animals and plants, some under the water and some over. There is the watery world beneath their boat, where kelp bass hunt and “anchovies play follow-the-leader in a shimmering silver school,” and there’s the world above where sea lions bark and shorebirds “swoop and soar.” I love the changes of perspective, sometimes looking down on the kayak from the sky, or seeing it slip across the top of the page as pale moon jellies float below.

Messner nails the experience of being in a kayak on the ocean, the excitement of seeing a spray of mist and paddling out to see if you can catch sight of the whale, waiting, it’s time to go, and then WHOOSH! The whale breaches, such a thrill. Then it’s back to shore, as an octopus glides beneath them, changing colors to blend in with the rocks, and striped sea perch circle the pilings of a wharf. When what we can see may seem to be unchanging (water, water, and more water), it’s wonderful to imagine all the things going on that we can’t see. And the book ends with my idea of a perfect day, the sun setting, complete with “wave-wobbly legs and paddle-sore arms.” If you like this one, Messner has a whole series of Over and Under books (the snow, the pond, the rainforest, the canyon, and the dirt).

Wave by Suzy Lee

The orientation of this book is long and thin . . . like a wave rolling in, stretching across the sand. It’s a beautiful wordless book where a girl and some gulls watch the waves, run from them, roar at them, and splash exuberantly into them. Eventually they get chased and knocked down in a long, double page blue splashy spread, and then get to work in the wet sand, gathering treasure the wave deposited. Can you make friends with the ocean? Absolutely.


If you’d like a cumulative list of the picture books I’ve recommended, you can find it at my Picture Book shop on Bookshop.org, where every purchase supports independent bookstores. I do received a small commission if books are purchased through my link.

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Mary Oliver and Holoholo

I’ve spent the last week with Clay in Kauai, celebrating our 30th, and I have a few observations.

1) This long-legged, beaky white bird is a stalker.

I’ve watched him walk along the top of that tropical hedge, following people who may or may not notice.

Why is this important to share? It’s not. But I love this bird, and Mary Oliver says in her poem Sometimes, published in her book Red Bird, “Pay attention. Be astonished. Tell about it.” So here I am, telling about the astonishing way this bird turns his back to the ocean and cocks his head at the people, rolling back and forth as regularly as the waves.

Oliver’s words are the first words you’ll see when you go to my website, and they articulate why I write and share. It’s not only the big things, like giant cliffs and humpback whales that are noteworthy, although these are also certainly worthy of note. Which brings me to my next observation.

2) Keep your head on a swivel.

This is not the season to see humpback whales in Kauai. Most of them are already headed to Alaska to fill up on krill, but this mama had a baby she wanted to fatten up before they set out. Their big, black backs rolled above the surface of the ocean as they dove and swam, and it was totally magic, partly because it was unexpected. Which brings me to my third observation.

3) When people are standing by the side of the road, pointing at the ocean, pull over. Park (even if it’s illegal) and see what all the fuss is about.

There were at least half a dozen big turtles hanging out in a small, rocky bay. The waves would pick them up, and in the light blue curl before it crested, we could see them hanging suspended, unbothered by the roll or the crash or the onlookers. A pod of dolphins passed by as we watched the turtles. They were racing, leaping out of the water, dozens of them. Incredible. You know what else is incredible?

4) Peanut butter, oozing over the crust.

We’ve had some amazing meals (and spent some amazing money on them) but the simple pleasure of a peanut butter sandwich, brought to you like a gift from the man I’ve loved well over half my life, while sitting on a balcony overlooking the crashing ocean, a long-legged, beaky white bird on a hedge, whales and turtles out there like unexpected gifts . . . priceless.

A boat captain introduced us to the Hawaiian term “holoholo.” When looking it up on the Hawaiian language resource provided by Ulukau called Wehewehe wikiwiki (love that name so much) it’s defined as, “to go for a walk, ride or sail; to go out for pleasure, stroll, promenade.”

Captain Glen explained it like when you work a full week, and then it’s the weekend and you pack up the kids and an ice chest and head out into your day not knowing what the day may bring exactly, but ready to enjoy it.

Here’s an example from Wehewehe wikiwiki, used in a sentence: “He pule holoholo ʻana, a continuous prayer.”

I think Mary Oliver was an expert in holoholo because it takes strolling, going out for pleasure, looking at life like a continuous prayer to notice like she noticed, and write like she wrote. And it doesn’t take being in Kauai to pay attention, be astonished, and tell about it (but it doesn’t hurt!).

There are sunsets and peanut butter back in Texas, countless things to notice with the people I love and plenty of holoholo to be had.

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Storytime: Journeys

Desert Girl, Monsoon Boy by Tara Dairman, illustrated by Archana Sreenivasan

The simplicity of this book, only a few rhyming words per page, makes it a really great readaloud.

Patterned veil

Covered hair

Desert here

Monsoon there

The format, showing the desert and monsoon terrains separately for most of the book, is a great way to follow two narratives. We’re introduced to cultures that are very different in some ways (the boy goes to school but the girl stays home) but also the same (they sit on the ground to eat and both are victims of their climate.) Both families have to pick up and leave when sand storms (desert) and flood waters (monsoon) invade their homes, and it’s so satisfying when we see them both arrive in a better place. Their worlds come together in a shared spread at a high hill where they share a campfire and songs and cultures. For readers who want more, there’s an author and illustrator’s note that unpack each represented culture.

How to Make an Apple Pie and see the world by Marjorie Priceman

I love the wry voice in this book that sends a girl around the globe, looking for ingredients for her pie. What starts as an easy task, making an apple pie (get ingredients, mix them well, bake and serve) becomes more complicated when the market is closed. “In that case, go home and pack a suitcase,” we read, and then we’re instructed to bring our shopping list and walking shoes and spend the six days we’ll be on the steamship bound for Europe to brush up on our Italian.

From the farm where you gather “superb semolina wheat” you’ll travel to France for a French chicken’s elegant egg, and the chicken which travels with you so the egg doesn’t break. You’ll go to Sri Lanka for cinammon, England for the cow who joins your travels along with the chicken so your milk will be fresh, and so on. Jamaica, salt from the ocean on the way, and finally Vermont for the apples before heading home. There’s a simple map of the world at the back to track your route and an apple pie recipe. Basically, this book has it all, including fun illustrations.

Same, Same but Different by Jenny Sue Kostecki-Shaw

Two boys, one in America and one in India, exchange letters, first with pictures of their worlds. I love that their letters begin with, “this is my world,” and not “this is my home in America” or “this is my home in India.” Where we live is our world most days, and there are so many “worlds” in this big world to awaken our curiosity.

In some ways the boys are the same. They both love to climbs trees, but Elliot has a tree house in his tree, and Kailash has monkeys in his, so they are same, same, but different. Bright illustrations take us back and forth, from Elliot’s family of four to Kailash’s family of 23, plus animals. City and country, how they get to school (both on busses but they look very different), their alphabet, and even how they say hello, repeating the simple refrain, same, same but different. It ends with a lovely sentiment, “We’re best friends even though we live in different worlds . . .” page turn to see the boys in their bedrooms, their letters from the other on their walls, and the final words, “or do we?” The simple text and fun pictures are great for readers young or old.

Journey by Aaron Becker

You know how sometimes you’re busy and you just can’t seem to get a breath? I encourage you to sit down with someone you love, maybe someone who’s begging for a little attention, and crack open this wordless book. Take the most beautiful journey together, where a girl draws a door with her red crayon (echoes of Harold and the Purple Crayon here), and enters a lush forest, draws a boat so she can ride down the river, and enters a magnificent city. People pole their boats through elevated waterways that spill into waterfalls (good thing the girl can draw a balloon before she goes over). She enters a world where a boat floats through the sky, and a blimp chases a long-tailed purple bird, and . . . in the end there’s a rescue and a friend. You’ll want to turn back and take this journey all over again.

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

“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. For the girl, that’s her blanket, notebook, and her muñeca (doll). Their lonely group gets larger and more colorful but when they reach the border, they aren’t treated with kindness. 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. Then Noemí and Mamá settle into their new life, living in a tent among many others who are waiting their turn. It turns out even Belinda is waiting, though her smile never fades. When her number finally gets called she chooses someone with generosity in their heart and kindness in their soul to take over the job. Noemí has given her beloved muñeca to another child, choosing to be kind, so Belinda chooses her and her mother to be the next notebook keepers. They go on to encourage, remind and comfort, just like Belinda did. The end is hopeful, with Noemí and Mamá gazing at the sky where birds fly free, holding hands, walking into their future together.

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. This book is beautiful, and is a great springboard to conversation, and empathy.

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Storytime: The World

I recently did school visits in eighteen different elementary schools in Richardson, Texas. At each one, I shared the story of Rebeka Uwitonze, my coauthor for Her Own Two Feet: A Rwanda Girl’s Brave Fight to Walk. What I realized as I shared was that many of these children were first or second generation immigrants from countries just as foreign as Rwanda, with stories just as brave and hard as Rebeka’s. Each one of them has a story to tell, and I wish I could have heard them all. This month I focus on books that give a peek into other countries and cultures and experiences. The more we connect through our stories, the better our world will be.

I Just Want to Say Goodnight by Rachel Isadora

This goodnight book, set on the African plains, is beautiful for the paintings, vibrant and saturated with color, and also for the sweet story of a little girl that needs to tell everyone and everything goodnight before she goes to bed. She says goodnight to the fish, the cat, the goat, the little ants, the rock, and finally, in the the end, her book (a copy of Goodnight Moon). I love the way this shows a foreign country from a child’s eyes and how we can see the similarities and differences in our western world. Baby chicks come through the open door to her bedroom and there are monkeys in the trees outside, but Lala must go to bed as all children do. She has a bed, a stuffed animal, and a book. It’s a beautiful story to drift off to sleep with.

My Two Blankets by Irena Kobald and Freya Blackwood

Imagine immigrating to the US and going from a girl called Cartwheel to a girl who doesn’t want to go out anymore. She wraps herself “in a blanket of my own words and sounds. I called it my old blanket.” English, a foreign language for her, is brilliantly pictured as strange shapes coming out of stranger’s mouths. When the girl takes a walk with her mother, both wearing traditional clothes from their country, heads covered, another little girl smiles and waves. Next time they meet the girl says something, but the words come out as strange shapes. So they swing, something they both understand and love. And in that moment of shared experience, they become friends.

The girl still feels isolated and alone, but as they continue to meet and the American girl teaches her words, the shapes coming from their mouths become recognizable. A bird, a leaf, a tree, the girl repeats the words until they begin to sound “warm and soft.” Like a quilt. Each new word is like a new square in her new blanket that becomes just as comfortable as her old one. The blankets are languages, and in the end she cartwheels again, realizing, “I will always be me,” no matter where she is, or what language she speaks. Light on text with gorgeous watercolor and oil paintings, this book shows what compassion, courage, and friendship look like in the context of moving to a whole new country.

Sakamoto’s Swim Club: How a Teacher Led an Unlikely Team to Victory, by Julie Aberi and Chris Sasaki

Set in Hawaii in the 1930’s, this picture book takes readers to a time and place that feels foreign, even if it is in the US. Blending content that’s interesting to both adults and children, it’s an inspiring story for all ages. A short preface begins with: “Who would believe that children cooling off in the irrigation ditches of sugar plantations on the Hawaiian Island of Maui could become Olympic swimming champions? Science teacher Soichi Sakamoto believed.” So you get the scope of the story, and then turn the page and paired with gorgeous illustrations you read short, four line, rhyming stanzas. More than a historical accounting, it puts us in this place:

Valley Isle.

Lush terrain.

Migrant workers

cutting cane.

Simple, and yet it paints a clear picture, even without the illustrations, which are gorgeous. It also does a good job of drawing on common experience to really tug a child into this story, the next page:

Dawn to dusk

they toil away.

Children left

alone to play.

Kids almost a hundred years later still identify with that feeling of being around a busy adult and relying on their own resources and ingenuity to find a way to play. So many reasons to read and love this book! The note at the end includes a photo of the Three Year Swim Club, reminding the reader this is a real story about real kids.

Room For Everyone by Naaz Khan, illustrated by Mercè López

I first saw this picture book, which is set in Zanzibar, at TLA 2022. It jumped out at me as I was co-writing a picture book with a friend that was also set in Africa. I love the swahili words like daladala (a minibus/shared taxi) and parachichi (avocado) and the language, falling into clever and unpredictable rhymes and rhythms. “It’s hotter than peppers out there in the sun! Come in, there’s room for everyone!” What a lovely message, there’s room for everyone. For one old man, a herder with two goats, three fruit sellers, a farmer and his four shiny pails of fresh milk, five mamas . . . and so on. Bright colors, lots of different people doing different things, including ten divers in the end, all on their way to the shore. It’s a fun read and begs retelling and re-looking, the illustrations are equally fun.

My First Day by Phùng Nguyên Quang and Huynh Kim Lien

Set in the Mekong Delta of Vietnam, the story begins with a boy sitting on his front porch, his feet dangling in the water and his “little open boat” tied up nearby. We’re told, “Today is the first day,” but we don’t know where he’s headed or what he’s about to do. All we know is this is the first time he’ll travel alone. With spare text and beautiful illustrations, we set out with him.

Clever text hints at his destination as he braves rain and rough water. “It’s different when you’re alone in the unfamiliar halls of the forest. I hear the chatter of a classroom full of animals as I move by.” This book nails the familiar experience of a first day of school. The boy paddles across a dark double page spread that reads, “When you don’t know a place, it can be scary.” He’s finally welcomed by schools of fish, a herd of water buffalo and new friends as he lands at the shore of his school.

An author’s note explains how kids get to school around the world in lots of different ways and shares facts about the Mekong Delta. And at the very end is a beautiful note to the reader from Christopher Myers. He writes that, “strangeness and familiarity are braided together,” in our world where technology, immigration and ease of travel have brought us closer. He goes on to say this book, “collapses the space between same and different and in doing so creates something very close to wonder in our everyday.” Yes. Yes, yes, yes.

My Day with the Panye by Tami Charles, illustrated by Sara Palacios

I’ve seen many women in Rwanda carrying large baskets, or yellow water containers, or bundles of maize or sweet potatoes on their heads. I’ve tried to do it myself, and failed.

In this story, set in Port-au-Prince, a little girl is finally getting to learn how to carry a basket on her head as she goes to market with her mother. Little Sister is left back with Grann so it’s just Fallon and Manman. At first, the basket falls off Fallon’s head and her Manman tells her the wisdom she learned from her mother, “Pitit, pitit, zwazo fe nich li. Little by little the bird builds its nest. Not everything is learned fast.” When I read this I was working on a manuscript of my own with a Kenyan phrase, Haraka, haraka, haina baraka, hurry, hurry has no blessing. Both wise, universal truths.

Fallon is eager to try to balance the basket on her head again, but she must first learn from her surroundings. A tap-tap bus passes playing Kompa music and Manman says to carry the panye she must be graceful, even under the weight. Then they pass walls that still stand years after the earthquake in Haiti, and Manan says strength is also needed. And to carry the panye is to care for the family, she tells Fallon as they pass mothers and daughters in the market. Finally, it’s time to try again . . . and once again it falls. Fallon almost gives up but Manman says, “Pitit, pitit, build your nest,” and after one more try, Fallon does it. She walks like a queen, like Manman, all the way home with the panye on her head.

Back at home, when Manman asks Fallon what the panya means to her, she says, “The panye means we are graceful when the load is heavy. We are strong, even when the earth is not. We are family, fed from love.” I kind of want to paint this on my walls at home. Empowering, and beautiful.

 

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Storytime: Love

Whether your sweetheart is a tiny toddler in your lap, the kid across the aisle in homeroom, your child, your dog, your date, your mate . . . these books about love are the perfect excuse to cozy up and share some time together.

Love, Splat by Rob Scotton

Splat is such a great character. I love his foamy toothpaste mouth as he dreams of his crush, Kitten. I love that he steps on a piece of toilet paper on his way to the kitchen, and he has his own personal raincloud when he thinks he’s not good enough. Kitten has “snowy white paws and pea green eyes, and Splat likes her more than fish sticks and ice cream.” Rob Scotton has a knack for capturing personality, and sweetness. He makes no mention of the red umbrella Kitten holds over Splat’s head as she hands him her valentine, shielding him from his own storm, but it says a lot about who she is and how to love someone well. They end up giving each other “I like you” cards and it’s just an “awwwwwwww” kind of story that takes me back to the days of grade school crushes.

The Uncorker of Ocean Bottles by Michelle Cuevas, illustrated by Erin. E. Stead

The Uncorker of Bottles has an important job, to deliver the messages he finds in bottles floating on the sea. Sometimes they’re sad but usually they “made people quite happy, for a letter can hold the treasure of a clam-hugged pearl.” The Uncorker sees himself as unlovely, receiving a message addressed to him “was about as likely as finding a mermaid’s toenail on the beach.”

Soft colors and lovely pencil drawings illustrate this story about a man who takes his job seriously and sets out to find the owner of a party invitation that isn’t addressed to anyone. He asks, “a seagull, a sailor, and a one-man band,” but nobody claims the letter. I love the quirky characters and language, and the arc that takes us from low to high, like the tide. I love the mystery of who sent the invitation that draws everyone to the beach. It doesn’t really matter. What matters is everyone comes, and the man who thought himself unlovely dances at the water’s edge with his new friends, his heart a “glass vessel, filled to the brim.”

Viking in Love by Doug Cenko

I was hooked from the first line of this story, “Stig was like most Vikings. He loved fresh air, hearty stew, and, or course, adorable kittens.” Yes! Unfortunately Stig doesn’t like the sea. When he falls in love with a fearless viking named Ingrid who is swept out to sea he writes her a love note. What follows are two of the funniest picture book moments I’ve seen in a while. He tries sending the note out to Ingrid folded as a boat, and then folded as a bird, but when that fails . . .

 

These are followed by another funny scene, he grabs a kid’s inflatable horsie floaty and sets out on the sea, determined to conquer his fear and get his love note to Ingrid. But the waves toss him around, popping his floatie. We get a wordless double page spread where Stig sinks down into the sea alongside his two kittens but then . . . page turn, we see two hands plunging down to grab them, and then another page turn, Ingrid in her Viking boat holds Stig in one hand and the kittens in the other. Turns out she has a love note for Stig, tied to her own kitten, and they fall in love and sail off into the sunset, passing between two octopi who make a heart with their tentacles. It is about love and conquering your fears and it is silly and goofy and sweet and I love it.

Hug Machine by Scott Campbell

We gave this book to my son Christmas 2014 with the inscription, “To Nate, who is a great hugger.” He was fifteen years old at the time, and he really was and still is a great hugger. In this book the “hug machine” is a kid with buggy eyes and outstretched arms who calms people down and cheers them up with his hugs. But he doesn’t just hug people, as you can see from the cover. No fire hydrant, mailbox or tree is ignored. Nothing is too pokey (a porcupine) or too big (a whale) for a hug.

It is a great picture of unconditional love and the capacity of anyone, even a child, to make a difference in the world with this simple act of kindness. In the end, the hug machine is exhausted from all that hard work. When he can’t give one more hug, he receives one, and we’re reminded that givers need to be receivers, too. All that in just over 200 words, this book is simple enough to be enjoyed by toddlers with a message adults need to hear, too. It is the beauty and brilliance of a well-written picture book, nailing universal truths with humor and simplicity.

More, More, More Said the Baby by Vera B. Williams

I love thinking about all the different kinds of love when Valentine’s Day comes around. In this book the love of a daddy, mama or grandma for their sweet child is shown as they scoop those babies up, sing to them and give them affection. The paintings are bright and ethnicities are diverse. A 2015 New York Times tribute to Williams after her death says, “Her illustrations, known for bold colors and a style reminiscent of folk art, were praised by reviewers for their great tenderness and crackling vitality.” In this book each story plays out almost as if on stage. A chair or couch are the only props so our focus is on the activity, whether a kiss on the bellybutton, a swing all around, or a rock in the arms.

Each story has a similar refrain, a chant, focusing on an adorable part of the baby’s body. “Just look at you with your perfect bellybutton, right in the middle, right in the middle, right in the middle of your fat little belly, “ or, “Just look at you with your ten little toes, right on the ends, right on the ends, right on the ends of your two little feet,” and finally Little Bird’s mama croons, “Just look at you with your two closed eyes, right on either side, right on either side, right on either side of your neat little nose.” The babies can’t get enough, they beg for more, more, more, or in sleepy Little Bird’s case, “Mmm. Mmmm. Mmmm.” So, so sweet, the entire text acts as a refrain, a tribute to being treasured and loved and cared for.

Hot Dog by Doug Salati

I can’t resist including Hot Dog, especially since it just won the Caldecott Medal for most distinguished American picture book for children in 2023. We moved downtown a few years ago during the pandemic, and because of our doodle Humphrey (he’s a Double Doodle actually, as if the word doodle isn’t quite cute enough) we entered the world of dog parks. We began to meet lots of dog owners, many who got “pandemic pups.” Most of these new friends were single without kids and their dogs were their children. We just recently went to Humphrey’s friend Penny’s third birthday party. I have never encountered such love for pooches as I have the past couple years, and if a dog can have a birthday party, they most certainly can be a valentine.

This review is my love letter to this wonderfully simple book. I love the illustrations, the super brief rhyming text, and the world of city and sea. Hot dog is a weiner dog with a kindly bespectacled owner who gets it when the city is so hot he can’t sit, and the crowds are “too close! too loud! too much! THAT’S IT!” That dog won’t move one bit . . . until something changes. His owner calls a cab, hops on a train, then a ferry, and takes them both to a “welcome whiff of someplace new where she kicks off her shoes and that doggie runs and runs.” A bunch of wordless spreads follow, inviting you to take your own sweet time to notice the shells, the seal, and the setting sun. I love that they go back to the city, all cooled off, and now it’s a good place. It’s familiar. It’s home. Sometimes we all just need a break. I loved taking one with this book.

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What I’ve Learned from River

I’ve had the privilege and joy of watching my grandson, River, twice a week for the past few months as Alayna went back to work part time. In a shameless display of grandmotherly picture sharing, I give you ten things I’ve learned from River lately:

  1. It’s okay if your hair looks funny. It makes people smile
  2. Reread your favorite books.
  3. You can never say enough “I love you’s.”
  4. Get on the floor. It’s as whole new world down there.
  5. Food should be experienced, not just eaten.
  6. Go outside as often as possible
  7. Naps are important.
  8. Take lots of walks.
  9. Dogs can be great playmates.
  10. Eat lots of fruit, it’s sweet and delicious! Also, apples can be toys.
  11. And one more . . . our bodies are amazing. That thing in your mouth that makes a sound like a motor? Amazing.

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