Bookshelf: A Sick Day for Amos McGee


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.

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Bookshelf: Dazzle Ships: World War I and the Art of Confusion


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.

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Bookshelf: The Surrender Tree

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,

new slaves.

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.

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Bookshelf: Girls with Guts

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.

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Bookshelf: Her Own Two Feet

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.

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Bookshelf: Mr. Nick’s Knitting

This is an oldie but a goodie, a picture book I read with my kids when they were little. You may only be able to find it at a second hand store or a library, but it’s well worth your time. The illustrations by Dee Huxley are charming, she captures emotion so well. And I love the story author Margaret Wild spins, of an old man named Mr. Nick who knits on the train, hedgehogs and kangaroos and sweaters for his nieces and nephews. All the while he sits next to his good friend, Mrs. Jolley, until the day she doesn’t show up.

I love Mr. Nick’s pince-nez and bowler hat, and Mrs Jolley’s purple hat and sensible shoes and overstuffed purse spilling yarn and knitting needles. But mostly I love the friendship between these two, and Mr. Nick’s creativity and dedication (He knitted during his lunch hour, and in the bathtub, while he cooked his dinner and while he listened to the radio.) so that he can help his friend feel better. It ends with a surprise (what has Mr. Nick been working on?) and a sense that we can all be connected, even when we’re apart.

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Bookshelf: Three by Annie Dillard

I love Annie Dillard, the way she writes, the way she opens my eyes to the natural world, its beauty and violence. I am still traumatized at her account of a small green frog deflating before her eyes, liquified from the inside out and then consumed by a giant water but. But she also grounds me in the real work of being a writer. She tells it straight. I love that the same woman who wrote these words in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek when describing a creek that streams over a series of sandstone tiers,

I feel as though I stand at the foot of an infinitely high staircase, down which some exuberant spirit is flinging tennis ball after tennis ball, eternally, and the one thing I want in the world is a tennis ball.

also wrote these practical words in The Writing Life,

Appealing workspaces are to be avoided. One wants a room with no view, so imagination can meet memory in the dark.

I love the words she chooses, and the pictures they conjure in my mind. I still have not read An American Childhood, sandwiched between these two greats. I love that I have more Dillard to discover.

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Bookshelf: Born a Crime

This book has been my introduction to a man who is quite famous in other mediums, from comedy to host of The Daily Show. I learned so much about south Africa and apartheid through the eyes of Trevor Noah, whose voice is irreverent and honest. It is told slant, of course, through the eyes of a kid who gets into lots of mischief/trouble, a kid born of a white father and a black mother. At a time when people were neatly slotted into categories based on the color of their skin (as they often still are), he found his way, seizing opportunity when he saw it. I love this powerful quote, when Trevor visits his dad for the first time in many years as an adult and realizes his dad hadn’t rejected him:

Being chosen is the greatest gift you can give to another human being.

Noah has a knack for hitting on universal truths. Here’s another one:

 But regret is the thing we should fear most. Failure is an answer. Rejection is an answer. Regret is an eternal question you will never have the answer to.

My book is feathered with blue page markers, and I really love this cover, too. When I was talking with Scholastic about the cover of Her Own Two Feet and they asked me for my vision, this was one of the ones I sent them. While mine turned out quite different, the blues and yellows are an echo of it.


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Bookshelf: Bedlam in the Backseat

I discovered this book before we took our kids on our trip around the world in 2007-08. Perhaps just as much as the idea of traveling around the world, I fell in love with this family. Author Janet Gillespie keeps it real traveling with her husband and four kids ages 8-16 around Europe. They aren’t always thrilled, it’s not always fun, but it’s definitely an adventure and she paints what she sees with authentic strokes, like this:

Our gondolier shouted to other gondoliers and occasionally burst into scraps of song. With his single oar he sent the gondola through the pink evening like a bird through the air and this swift silent flight put us all under a spell.  Billy, who sat in the bow with the curved beak of the gondola rising behind his head, was too overcome even to smile. Solemn as a little owl, he stared at the people who waved at us from bridges.

And then a little later, still in Venice at a museum with the four kids:

The gigantic canvases of Venetians eating and drinking left the younger members very cold, but fortunately we found paintings of the Martyrdom of Saint Ursula which had great appeal.

I love the honesty and humor. I convinced my book club to read this book and we still agree, it’s one of our favorites.

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Bookshelf: The Underneath

Full disclosure, not only is author Kathi Appelt an awesome teacher and an amazing writer, she is a good friend of mine. She helped me start the Austin chapter of SCBWI way back when, and she’s been in my life ever since. She taught me at VCFA and writers workshops, and she’s written alongside me at writers retreats. One of the things I love about Kathi is that she’s always learning.

But even if I didn’t know her, even if I’d never crowned her queen for the day with a paper crown and a toilet plunger scepter, this would still be one of my favorite books. I remember the first time I read it. My three kids were younger and one of them was pestering me just as I was getting to the last few chapters, so I hid. I squeezed between the couch and the wall and I finished the book, teary-eyed, and then I hugged it to my chest.

It has this great, gut-wrenching, heart-clenching first line: “There is nothing lonelier than a cat who has been loved, at least for a while, and then abandoned on the side of the road. A small calico cat.” Okay, so that’s two sentences, but there is something so specific and tender and perfect about that second line that drew me in the first time and draws me in still. Draws me under the porch with the hound dog, into a setting that is palpable. I wish I could put it in your hands this very second but since I can’t, I may curl up and read it again.

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