I love the design of this beautiful picture book, Demi’s intricate drawings framed in circles on each page (like you’re looking down into the Empty Pot), but what I love most is the emotion this story evokes in me and those who take in the story during a read aloud (it’s an excellent read aloud). I’d glance up during story time and see worried eyebrows, maybe a kid would creep closer to study the pictures, and then there was the surprised “Oh!” at the end.
Ping, the main character, takes pride in his skill and works hard to grow the seed the Emperor gives him. He’s got this great gift of growing things, but the seed won’t grow, no matter what he tries. Months later, it’s spring and all the other kids in the land rush to the palace with their beautiful flowers but all Ping has is an empty pot. The child with the best flower will be the next Emperor, so the stakes are high.
Oh, how I feel for Ping. My writer self knows how it feels to run out of words, or not be able to find the right words. Sometimes my pot is empty, too, and there’s no explanation for it. Or if there is, I don’t know why the words aren’t there.
There is an explanation for Ping’s empty pot, but I won’t ruin the awesome ending. I will tell you this story makes me so proud of Ping. It takes great courage to offer only the empty truth, but sometimes what’s needed more than a full pot is an honest answer. Maybe what I’m looking at to judge whether I’m good enough, isn’t where I need to be looking. This is a story for everyone, not just kids, like most great picture books.
This book is strange, and maybe that’s one reason I love it. It was published in New Zealand by Gecko Press, yet another reason to love it. I generally love books coming out of Australia, New Zealand, Canada, England . . . they have a fresh perspective and seem to break the boxes of form found in American books. It’s not your typical 32 page picture book. It clocks in at 102 pages, but with illustrations on every page and sparse text it still feels picture booky.
I love that on the end flap, where you usually find pictures and short bios of the author and illustrator in US picture books, there is instead an illustration of a strange creature, kind of a winged, four-legged snake with a pelican bill standing on his hind legs. Underneath it is a simple truth, “It’s hard to imagine someone you’ve never seen.” On the first page we read, next to a picture of a giraffe pinned to the wall, “‘Write my story,’ Giraffe said. ‘It’s perfect for people who are alone. And for people who are bored. And even people who are busy might like to take a little break and read it, too.” I was so, so hooked.
What follows is a bored giraffe writing the first of many letters which he sends as far as possible across the other side of the horizon. They are delivered by a bored pelican looking for something to do, and received by a seal who delivers to a penguin going to school on Whale Island where his teacher is, of course, a whale. See, I told you, strange. And silly, and yet wonderful. It is a book about friendship and how we connect with each other and imagination. I can just see the creative writing assignment for this one: Describe what you look like to an alien who has never seen a human.
One of the things I love about a novel written in verse is that you can take the entire thing in quickly, sometimes in one sitting. With one gulp I took in the sadness and the hope of this book, dust storms and death laced with glimpses of sweetness. I read it first when my oldest was a toddler and my reading time was sporadic and brief, and again before writing this post, my oldest engaged to be married. The writing is amazing, it won the Newbery after all, and it is Karen Hesse, the first book of hers that I read but certainly not the last. It doesn’t feel right to say that I learned about the dust bowl, it feels right to say that I felt it, the grit on the piano keys, in the sheets, between the teeth, everywhere. There is a grasp of story in this book, a sense of when the reader can’t take one more bit of sorrow and so we get some lightness. It is a book to make you cry, to make you pull out your highlighter so you can capture the truths, the kind of book you have to share with someone. Like this part:
Ma has rules for setting the table.
I place plates upside down,
glasses bottom side up,
napkins folded over forks, knives and spoons.
When dinner is ready,
we sit down together
and Ma says,
We shake out our napkins,
spread them on our laps,
and flip over our glasses and plates,
exposing neat circles,
on what life would be like without dust.
See how she does that? Placing us in February, 1934, Oklahoma, at the table with such precise details and then using them to show us just how bad it was. The dust was relentless, quick, everywhere, and we feel it at this dinner table. This kind of writing is on every page, making up a story that is gritty as the dust bowl and hopeful as a rainstorm.
Elizabeti’s Doll, a picture book by Stephanie Stuve-Bodeen, illustrated by Christy Hale, is an oldie but a goodie. Alayna loved this book when she was little, a sweet story of a young girl who wants her own baby to care for while her mom tends her baby brother. I love how the illustrations flesh out this story. The text never says that the girl lives in rural Tanzania and has no access to store bought dolls. There is no pity for Elizabeti, for while her house may look different and her food may be cooked over an open fire, she has a loving family and a great sense of purpose in not only caring for her rock-baby but fetching water and helping with dinner. Kids will admire Elizabeti’s resourcefulness and see they have something in common with this child who lives such a different kind of life. It shows us, it doesn’t tell us, one of the first writing rules I learned and one I still work on today.
I recently needed a book that showed what the word “devotion” means. I can’t think of a better example of devotion than a mother’s love for her child, and this child’s love for her precious rock-baby, Eva.
This book has got such an amazing setup, the first chapter kills me and make me want to take the main character up in my arms and hold her tight, but I know she’d squirm. I know because author Holly Goldberg Sloan paints her so precisely. Willow is super intelligent, and her quirky obsessions with the number 7, medical conditions, and plants, make me want to keep reading just to be with her longer. I didn’t just read this book, I studied it. Author Sloan deals out so much information in the first ten pages and yet it isn’t confusing or hard to keep track of. I didn’t know where it was headed, but I knew I was in good hands.
I give you some lines that capture Willow, and wish I could give you the whole book:
I’m about to start a new school.
I’m an only child.
And I’m different.
As in strange.
But I know it and that takes the edge off. At least for me.
I love this dynamic duo of author/illustrator Philip C. Stead and illustrator Erin E. Stead. A Sick Day for Amos McGee is about a gentle, punctual soul who works at the zoo doing his tasks but always taking time out for his friends and doing with them exactly what it is they like to do. He plays chess with the elephant and sits quietly with the penguin and reads bedtime stories to the owl who is afraid of the dark.
When Amos gets sick, the animals come take care of him, giving him just what he needs. Wordless spreads chronicle their journey across town, their deliberate determination and eventually kind smiles as they show up at his bedside. I love the illustrations as much as the story. The rhino wears a red scarf (because he always has a runny nose) and elephant holds shy penguin’s wing with his trunk as they leave the zoo. It all seems to make sense, there is not question that an elephant and rhino could find the bus stop and sit in an orderly line, peering out the window. This is a book of sweetness, kindness, and friendship, and a world I love to enter again and again.
I love stories that dive into obscure details. I never knew that during WWI, British and American ships were painted in crazy patterns so that submarines wouldn’t be able to tell which direction they were headed, so that when a German sub launched its torpedo it would miss. That’s crazy! This is the kind of book that could flesh out a history teacher’s unit on WWI, a picture book with great pictures and clever text that engages kids as well as adults. The author, Chris Barton, recently sent a newsletter with a link to this series of articles on why picture books should be used in middle school classrooms that was compelling, picture books are for everyone! Chris Barton writes lots of nonfiction picture books that should be used in classrooms as well as homes, and he has a knack for giving information as story, my favorite way of learning. So why did I choose this one for my virtual bookshelf? Why would I put it into my friend’s hands and tell them “you have to read this one”?
Yes, I’m a little smarter after reading Dazzle Ships, I have more head knowledge. But my heart is also touched when I read how scary it was to cross the seas, and how Germany’s goal was not only to sink war ships but those carrying food so they could starve Britain, its strongest opponent. I love that Chris dug deep into research and included the fact that two dozen women graduates from art school helped Norman Wilkinson come up with the designs for the ships. But I think my favorite part of this book is when Chris says at the end, ” . . . a willingness to tackle problems by trying the unlikely, the improbable, the seemingly bonkers will always be needed.” There is truth in this book that goes beyond the amazing story. Kids and adults alike will be inspired, and reminded that thinking outside of the box can have some pretty dazzling results.
Just look at all the medals on this book! I learned so much about a small sliver of Cuban history (1850-1898), a subject I had never really thought about or pursued, and it made me realize how much I don’t know of the suffering and triumphs in this world. The format, history in verse, drew me in, along with the beautiful writing. The short poems, rarely longer than a page, use spare details to paint pictures:
We bring wanted posters from the cities
with pictures drawn by artists,
pictures of men with filed teeth
and women with tribal scars,
And later, this description:
People imagine that all slaves are dark,
but the indentured Chinese slaves run away too,
into the mangrove swamps,
where they can fish, and spear frogs,
and hunt crocodiles . . .
Arching over these precise poems is the story of a girl hiding in caves and healing the wounded, and Lieutenant Death who hunts down escaped slaves. Reading this made me want more, and I have since become a huge Margarita Engle fan.
This is a book for all the girls who need to hear the words, “Girl, you are amazing!” It’s a book about being brave and using your gifts and not being discouraged or put in a box. I read the whole book with the author, Debbie Gonzales‘s, voice in my head, her cheerful, happy voice. The book gives a history of women in sports, and calls out some big names over the years, both athletes and political activists. I learned a lot, and it made me want to dive deeper into the stories of some of these amazing women who were brave pioneers, bucking the system in bloomers on the basketball court or pants (shocking!) on the polo field. There’s a lot here for educators and parents and kids, with illustrations that are each poster-worthy.
Debbie is a good friend of mine and an encourager by nature, and we have a lot in common. We’ve both been Regional Advisors of the Austin chapter of SCBWI (Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators). We are both pretty cheerful, optimistic women that love to keep learning. We both had our first book published “later” in life, and we were both debut authors in fall of 2019. Even though Debbie left Austin for Michigan, we remain good friends and continue to encourage each other.
Debbie is not only a gifted writer, she’s a gifted teacher and educator. She makes education guides for tons of children’s books through her Guides by Deb business. She’s also a champion of young and old when it comes to learning the ropes in marketing our books. The Austin tribe of children’s writers and illustrators is a strong and supportive bunch of girls and guys with guts. When Debbie showed up in Austin alongside another good friend and talented children’s author Carmen Oliver (who will get her own post) for a joint book launch at our beloved Bookpeople, we were all there to cheer. There are many more races to run, and I look forward to more Debbie Gonzales books on my shelf.
I have no shame in saying this book is face out on my bookshelf. Writing it with Rebeka Uwitonze, the fact that we can call each other not just friends but coauthors, is a story I’ll tell again and again. You can find plenty of posts on this blog about living life with Rebeka, and the process of writing her story together. Yes, I love the story told in these pages. But I also love the story outside these pages. The experience of traveling to Rwanda multiple times to interview her parents and teachers and others who know her. The experience of making a video, sharing artwork kids have sent, facetime calls at 3AM, and Rebeka getting to come back to the US so we could go to the NAACP Image Awards together in LA. We’ve been able to do school visits together and sign books side by side with our left hands (because we’re both left handed).
Our lives will always be linked. Not just because Rebeka lived with us in 2012-13 while she went through one of the hardest experiences of her life, but because our names are side by side on this book. It will hold a place of honor on my bookshelf all my days not because it was my debut, but because it tells a story that changed both our lives, forever.
I love sharing stories like Rebeka’s in Her Own Two Feet. That’s what this blog is all about. My stories. Other people’s stories. Writing stories for children. Once upon a time I told the story of our family traveling around the world for nine and a half months. You can find those here at Faces in the Street.