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In Review

By Elizabeth Wroten

Picture Book Review Mania

On 10, Jun 2015 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten

For the summer reading lists I was trying to get some newer, more diverse titles into the suggested titles sections. None of the previous titles were bad, they were just older lists. There was almost no poetry on the lists and I wanted to expose the kids to some good titles in that genre. I also wanted to show parents of older kids (third and fourth grade) that it’s okay for their kids to still read picture books. Many picture books are actually harder to read than chapter books. Plus they’re beautiful. Why turn kids off to them? This post is considerably shorter than the chapter book review mania. Many of the picture books I added are ones I have already reviewed, but I wanted to get a few thoughts down about the following titles.

OrangutankaOrangutanka: A Story in Poems written by Margarita Engle, illustrated by Renee Kurilla

From GoodReads: All the orangutans are ready for a nap in the sleepy depths of the afternoon . . . all except one. This little orangutan wants to dance! A hip-hop, cha-cha-cha dance full of somersaults and cartwheels. But who will dance with her? Written in bold poems in the tanka style, an ancient Japanese form of poetry that is often used as a travel diary, this exuberant orangutan celebration from acclaimed poet Margarita Engle will make readers want to dance, too!

The illustrations in this book are gorgeous and adorable. The story is cute, but the book really shines in that it encourages kids to write their own tanka poems and do their own orangudance. Engle has included some really interesting information in the back of the book too.

This would be the perfect book for kids who love animals, particularly apes and monkeys. In the classroom it would be a great book for units on conservation, environment, habit and habit destruction, Southeast Asia, and poetry.

Don’t be fooled by the word count, it’s amazing what Engle can convey through a few short poems. You get a sense of where the orangutans live, how they live and see the adventure the older sister has with some children visiting the wildlife preserve.

I put this on the third grade list, but it could have gone on any of the younger lists and really even onto the fourth grade list. A third grader could handle the text on their own I think, but it would make an excellent read aloud and I suspect there are animal lovers in fourth grade that would adore the pictures and poems.

Shining StarShining Star: The Anna May Wong Story written by Paula Yoo, illustrated by Lin Wang

From GoodReads: Born in 1905, Anna May Wong spent her childhood working in her family’s laundry in Los Angeles s Chinatown. Whenever she could afford it, Anna May slipped off to the movies, escaping to a world of adventure, glamour, and excitement. After seeing a movie being filmed in her neighborhood, young Anna May was hooked. She decided she would become a movie star!
Anna May struggled to pursue an acting career in Hollywood in the 1930s. There were very few roles for Asian Americans, and many were demeaning and stereotypical. Anna May made the most of each limited part. She worked hard and always gave her best performance. Finally, after years of unfulfilling roles, Anna May began crusading for more meaningful roles for herself and other Asian American actors.

This was an incredible story. I had no idea who Anna May Wong was although I knew there was discrimination and racism in early Hollywood (and there probably still is). Wong is an interesting figure. She dreamed of being an actress and despite her parents objections she made that dream happen for herself. Thankfully her parents eventually supported her, with her father driving her to auditions even though he didn’t understand her desire. Wong went on to see the racism in Hollywood and want to change it. She was in lots of films and her early films often had her playing a stereotypical Chinese woman (either a shrinking violet or a tiger lady). When she began to have more clout and when she began to realize the impact she had as a role model she decided to fight against these stereotypical portrayals.

I put this on our second grade list because they study a few Asian cultures in the second grade curriculum (primarily Vietnamese and Japanese). The book is actually much closer to a fourth or fifth grade reading level (maybe higher?). It’s long, but it’s really interesting and we encourage our families to read aloud with their students all the way through lower school. I also chose the book because it’s a California story. Anna May was born and raised in the Los Angeles area and her father lived and worked right here in Sacramento. There’s nothing like a good story that hits close to home.

Harvesting HopeHarvesting Hope: The Story of Cesar Chavez written by Kathleen Krull, illustrated by Yuyi Morales

From GoodReads: Cesar Chavez is known as one of America’s greatest civil rights leaders. When he led a 340-mile peaceful protest march through California, he ignited a cause and improved the lives of thousands of migrant farmworkers. But Cesar wasn’t always a leader. As a boy, he was shy and teased at school. His family slaved in the fields for barely enough money to survive.
Cesar knew things had to change, and he thought that–maybe–he could help change them. So he took charge. He spoke up. And an entire country listened.

I am embarrassed to admit I knew virtually nothing about Cesar Chavez despite living in the capital of California. Harvesting Hope was a lot longer and more detailed about Chavez than I expected, but that was fantastic. There was a lot of information about his formative years and his beginnings as an activist. The book never read like a dry nonfiction, though. The story was incredibly engaging.

Morales pictures really add to the book too. The warm inviting colors give a sense of the happiness Chavez felt growing up on his family farm. They also really bring his march to Sacramento to life and are just plain beautiful.

As a read aloud it would work for much younger audiences (down into first grade), but tackling it on their own a child would need to be older. It touches on issues of racism and discrimination so be prepared for conversations about those topics. It’s length really does make it better suited to second or third grade and up. Excellent picture book biography.

Emmanuel's DreamEmmanuel’s Dream: The True Story of Emmanuel Ofosu Yeboah written by Laurie Ann Thompson, illustrated by Sean Qualls

From GoodReads: This inspirational picture book biography, written by Laurie Ann Thompson and illustrated by Sean Qualls, tells the true story of Emmanuel Ofosu Yeboah, who bicycled across Ghana–nearly 400 miles–with only one leg. With that achievement he forever changed how his country treats people with disabilities, and he shows us all that one person is enough to change the world.

I liked the message in this book and obviously the story is incredibly inspiring. It is not a detailed picture book biography, but a telling of the story of how Emmanuel came to ride around Ghana and fight for the rights of disabled people in his country. I think this makes it the perfect type of biography for younger kids and for whetting kids appetite for books about activists and/or to get the interested in these types of causes.

I think it’s both important to help children see that people live differently around the world and to encourage them to want to help. I also think the book does a great job showing that you shouldn’t let society’s perception of you hold you back if there is something you want to accomplish, and that’s an excellent thing for kids to hear.



Poems to DreamPoems to Dream Together/ Poems Para Sonar Juntos written by Francisco X. Alarcon, illustrated by Paula Barragan

From GoodReads: A bilingual collection of poetry by acclaimed Chicano poet Francisco X. Alarcon celebrating family, community, nature, and the positive power of dreams to shape our future.

This is a beautiful collection of poems about dreams from Alarcon (who visited our school a number of years ago!). The poems are all fairly short, but they really lend themselves to discussing the craft of poetry. There is a fair amount of word play and a need to understand that dreams and dreaming can mean a lot of different things to different people.

I think this is a great book for exposing children to beautiful poetry, but I really think it would make a great read and discuss book for parents and children or for a class. The book also clearly shares some of Alaracon’s experiences growing up and talks about his family which makes for more interesting discussion about how he has shared these memories as poems instead of short stories or picture books.

The dual language format makes the book accessible to a lot more kids and families (hopefully). Our students take a foreign language in lower school so I included it on the list for anyone who may also be interested in hearing the language they are learning and for kids who might be able to identify a word here or there.

Beautiful BirdsBeautiful Birds written by Jean Roussen, illustrated by Emmanuelle Walker

From GoodReads: In this stunningly illustrated introduction to the world’s most beautiful birds, Jean Roussen and Emmanuelle Walker pay homage to an alphabet of birds in all their feathery fancies. From Warblers to Blue-tits and Kakapos to Owls, Roussen’s playful, melodic poem is complemented beautifully by Walker’s delicate illustrations.

Beautiful Birds is incredibly illustrated. The colors alone practically glow on the page (this picture doesn’t do it justice). The birds are so sculptural and really reminiscent of Charley Harper. The text is clever and draws some really interesting connections as well as introduces some unusual, but beautiful, birds.

I put this on our first grade list because it is a concept alphabet book and they study birds in the spring. However I first got the book for my own daughter who was so taken with it we had to buy our own copy which we have read again and again. There is a very interesting twist/reveal at the very end of the book where you realize there is an actual narrator. My daughter finds this twist riotously funny and laughs every time.

A great book for bird lovers. Also, don’t miss the end papers where the eggs inside the front cover hatch into these darling little fluff balls inside the back cover.

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In Review

By Elizabeth Wroten

Picture Book Review: The Wedding Week by Chimaechi Allan

On 03, Jun 2015 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten

The Wedding WeekThe Wedding Week: Around the World in Seven Weddings written by Chimaechi Allan, illustrated by Amber Cooper-Davies

From Amazon: You’re invited to seven diverse weddings around the world! Join Femi, Kemi and Geko the Lizard on a journey from saris to chuppahs. Each day, you’ll discover an exciting new thing that happens at weddings in different cultures. This vibrant story is set in contemporary Africa.

This is the book from the Kickstarter campaign I posted about awhile back. We’ve had the digital copy for about a month or so now, but I have to admit I don’t tend to read digital picture books to my daughter. I’m not opposed to them, I just don’t bust out the iPad during the day with her. So, I was really excited when a package arrived from the UK with this beauty in it.

You kind of worry with nontraditional publishing channels (i.e. Kickstarter) that a picture book will be poorly written and badly illustrated. That is not at all the case with The Wedding Week. The story is engaging, fun and well written and the cut-paper illustrations (as you can see from the cover) are lovely.

I was personally even more excited because we chose a dual language Igbo and English edition of the book. I don’t speak Igbo, but I want to expose my daughter to tons of languages. Even if we don’t know how anything is pronounced, just seeing the language written out and knowing that someone out there speaks it (and where they speak it) opens her world view up immensely. Even more so because it isn’t a language Americans normally see or hear (there’s more than French and Spanish out there).

In The Wedding Week Femi and Kemi are excited that they will be attending a wedding. To build excitement, and tied in with weekly goings-on, various family members share tidbits about what weddings are like in other countries and cultures. The story was incredibly engaging. My three year old sat through the whole book. She was especially captivated by the little Geko who acts as a guide and appears in every two-page spread. In the Kickstarter video I believe Allan discussed the idea behind choosing weddings for the book was that they are so universal. They are also joyful occasions filled with food, music, and tradition and I think she’s right that kids click with them and are interested in them.

Each tradition and culture that was introduced comes through a connection to the wedding Femi and Kemi will be attending and I like that the reader isn’t overloaded with tons of information. It’s a simple introduction to a few wedding customs around the world with a beautiful and intricate illustration that adds depth. Kids love little facts and the book doesn’t beat them over the head with too much information that would detract from actually telling the story of Femi and Kemi preparing for a family wedding. In other words, it’s a perfect mix of information and storytelling.

Personally, I love the cut-paper illustration style and the pictures for The Wedding Week are fantastic. It’s fun to spot different patterns and colors of paper and I also think this is an inspiring type of art for young readers. Obviously it would take years of practice and training to turn out something this lovely, but I think the idea of layering paper and breaking objects and people into parts that you cut out of different papers is not beyond kids. It’s also a great lesson in really looking at the illustrations and thinking about creating your own art.

In terms of reading level the book is on the upper end of elementary I think, but it would make a perfect addition to any classroom or library collection. The story is incredibly accessible and enjoyable for all ages through elementary school and I’m sure read alouds will elicit many stories of weddings kids have been to. It’s also a great addition to home libraries (we’re loving our copy) particularly if you are going to attend a wedding, have attended one, or if you like books that expose your child to traditions and cultures around the world. Chimaechi Allan wrote the book so Nigerian children could see themselves in books, but works beautifully for giving our children in the US a window onto the world.

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In Review

By Elizabeth Wroten

Picture Book Review: Crossing Bok Chitto by Tim Tingle

On 27, May 2015 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten

Crossing Bok ChittoCrossing Bok Chitto: A Choctaw Tale of Friendship & Freedom written by Tim Tingle, illustrated by Jeanne Rorex Bridges

From GoodReads: Martha Tom, a young Choctaw girl, knows better than to cross Bok Chitto, but one day—in search of blackberries—she disobeys her mother and finds herself on the other side. A tall slave discovers Martha Tom. A friendship begins between Martha Tom and the slave’s family, most particularly his young son, Little Mo. Soon afterwards, Little Mo’s mother finds out that she is going to be sold. The situation seems hopeless, except that Martha Tom teaches Little Mo’s family how to walk on water to their freedom.

The story of friendship here between Martha Tom and Little Mo is really sweet, but the addition of the beautiful illustrations really bring the story to life. Bridges does an excellent job creating suspense and atmosphere to make the story jump off the page.

This is a Tingle book that I don’t have any mixed feelings about. While I think Crossing Bok Chitto makes a great story of friendship, history, and kindness for any picture book reader I think it would make an excellent classroom read aloud. There are a lot of Underground Railroad/slave escape books out there, many of which are excellent, but this one is particularly good because of the inclusion of the Choctaw community. In my experience the books about people helping runaway slaves tend to be white, which can lean toward the white savior complex. Here we see others helping runaway slaves. There’s a lot to the story that could stimulate good discussion. Also, importantly the book is written by a Choctaw author and is illustrated by a native artist.

My only regret about the book is that Little Mo and Martha Tom won’t get to see one another again.

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In Review

By Elizabeth Wroten

Picture Book Review: My Three Best Friends and Me, Zulay by Cari Best

On 20, May 2015 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten

ZulayMy Three Best Friends and Me, Zulay written by Cari Best, illustrated by Vanessa Brantley-Newton

From GoodReads: Zulay and her three best friends are all in the same first grade class and study the same things, even though Zulay is blind. When their teacher asks her students what activity they want to do on Field Day, Zulay surprises everyone when she says she wants to run a race. With the help of a special aide and the support of her friends, Zulay does just that.

This would make an excellent book for the classroom or library to be read aloud. The title is a bit misleading since the story doesn’t really focus around her friends or their frienship. It’s really a story about practice makes perfect. Zulay really wants to run in the foot race on Field Day, but she’s blind and not familiar with the track. She’s been working with Miss XX on how to move around on her own using a cane, but running in a foot race poses a new challenge. With the help of her aide and a lot of practice (and she isn’t the only student to practice, many of her sighted classmates practice too) she is able to complete the race with her friends cheering her on.

Some pieces of the story, although good, felt disjointed. She talks about her friends and how they help each other but beyond cheering for one another on Field Day and linking arms to help Zulay move around the playground you don’t see much beyond that. I would have liked more of their friendship. There were the lessons with Miss XX on how to use a cane for feeling her way on the street and around unfamiliar places. Zulay is frustrated by them and feels a little embarrassed that she is the only one using a cane. But she doesn’t end up using the cane in her foot race (understandably) or at any other time in the story. I guess my point is, I liked Zulay enough that I want to see more of her and learn more about her.

The illustrations are darling. I love Brantley-Newton’s style. Zulay and her friends in their uniforms are adorable. And Zulay is reminicent of the adorable kids in the One Love, also illustrated by Brantley-Newton.

This is definitely worth having in the library collection because the story has a great message and it features Zulay who is blind. I also think it would make an excellent addition to classroom and home collections where there could be discussion and read alouds of it. The text is a little long which make it better suited to the upper picture book age range, say second grade, but my nearly-four-year-old sat through it. The back cover features the Braille alphabet which opened an excellent discussion with my daughter and I could see this being repeated in classrooms and homes.

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In Review

By Elizabeth Wroten

Picture Book Review: Josephine by Patricia Hruby Powell

On 07, May 2015 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten

JosephineJosephine: The Dazzling Life of Josephine Baker written by Patricia Hruby Powell, illustrated by Christian Robinson

From GoodReads: In exuberant verse and stirring pictures, Patricia Hruby Powell and Christian Robinson create an extraordinary portrait for young people of the passionate performer and civil rights advocate Josephine Baker, the woman who worked her way from the slums of St. Louis to the grandest stages in the world. Meticulously researched by both author and artist, Josephine’s powerful story of struggle and triumph is an inspiration and a spectacle, just like the legend herself.

Josephine is the perfect example of what picture book biographies should be. For starters it really includes good information about her. After finishing it I felt like I had a good sense of the events in her life as well as who she was. Sure, this isn’t the definitive biography, but I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend a student use it in a report. Plus it was meaty enough without feeling like you’re reading something for a report.

The book needs to be taken as a whole package. Every element works so well together. The story of her life is broken out into chapters which are introduced with a two page spread of a curtain rising on a new set. Perfect for the stage-loving Josephine. Every so often there is a two page spread that is just a colored background with text on it. This is particularly effective for getting information across without feeling like a dry page of text. The writing is also very lyrical making it incredibly readable.

Robinson’s illustrations are beautifully stylized and Josephine is always recognizable by her large, elongated eyes. The bold solid colored backgrounds make the modern, graphical figures pop off the page. The illustrations feel old and new at the same time, like something from the sixties but with fresh, bright colors.

And Josephine was such an amazing person. She is a true rags to riches story, but she also worked tirelessly to fight against segregation and the prevailing attitude in the US at the time that blacks were inferior to whites. She practiced what she preached too, insisting that audiences be mixed and adopting 12 children all of different ethnicities. She’s just an interesting person to read about. Flashy and energetic, quirky and confident Josephine’s life was anything but average.

I haven’t seen such a good use of typeface in a picture book in a long time (ever?). The author pulls out words and makes them all caps emphasizing them. But they aren’t random words. They’re words with significance for the scene, the story, and for discovering who Josephine was. There are also quotes from Josephine throughout the text and these are printed in an entirely different (and fancier) font that is much larger. I think that emphasizes Josephine’s larger-than-life presence as well as making it clear they are her words. Other books have attempted mixed fonts and it just ends up looking like a sloppy ransom note. Not here. This looks polished, intentional, and adds to the story.

My one regret about the book is that there wasn’t any information about what happened to her children and her siblings. I’m a nosy person and I like to know about anyone mentioned in the text. But the book isn’t about her family. It’s about her and it does a fantastic job of sharing that story and sharing who she was. As I said, I would recommend this to kids writing biography reports. It’s fairly long so it would be better for upper elementary, but there isn’t any reason a middle schooler couldn’t pick this up and read it either for pleasure or for research. It’s a slightly smaller format than a normal picture book making it a little more appealing to older kids who might not want the stigma of reading a book with pictures. Highly recommended!

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In Review

By Elizabeth Wroten

Nonfiction Review: The Animal Book by Steve Jenkins

On 17, Apr 2015 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten

Animal BookThe Animal Book: A Collection of the Fastest, Fiercest, Toughest, Cleverest, Shyest- and Most Surprising – Animals on Earth written and illustrated by Steve Jenkins

From GoodReads: Animals smooth and spiky, fast and slow, hop and waddle through the two hundred plus pages of the Caldecott Honor artist Steve Jenkins’s most impressive nonfiction offering yet. Sections such as “Animal Senses,” “Animal Extremes,” and “The Story of Life” burst with fascinating facts and infographics that will have trivia buffs breathlessly asking, “Do you know a termite queen can produce up to 30,000 eggs a day?” Jenkins’s color-rich cut- and torn-paper artwork is as strikingly vivid as ever.

Animal books certainly aren’t hard to come by in the children’s section, but none of them have quite the interest of charm of this book. I was introduced to Jenkins style through Eye to Eye: How Animals See the World and was totally sold. I actually thought this would be a shorter book (not sure why) but when it showed up at the library it was certainly not. I would say the length alone makes it better suited to upper elementary and middle school animal and science lovers, but (but!) my three and a half year old asked to read it. And we’ve been reading it a few pages at a time for a couple weeks now and she hasn’t lost interest.

I think the combination of AMAZING cut paper illustrations and really interesting facts make this book good for a range of ages. While a sixth grader may be able to sit down and devour this in a sitting or two my daughter needs a lot longer to take it in and digest it. Even as an adult I am amazed by the information in it.

The book is laid out around several broader topics (like animal senses) that include an introductory page that defines the topic and talks generally about it. Then it delves into pages of facts about individual animals. Each two page spread will center loosely around a subtopic (like sight within animal senses). This makes the book feel cohesive and less scattered than other books of facts.There is plenty of white space around the illustrations and text making it less visually distracting (and therefore better for younger readers) than say the Eyewitness series of books (which I love, but had a hard time reading as a kid because of the busyness). Some of the information can be found in Jenkins other books, but this never feels like recycled material.

The end of the book includes a section on how he makes his illustrations. This sparked a lot of discussion with my daughter who was fascinated by the idea that the pictures were all made of paper. There is also a section on the process of making a book from idea to research to writing to illustrating to printing to distribution.

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In Review

By Elizabeth Wroten

Picture Book Review: Wangari Maathai written by Franck Prevot

On 16, Apr 2015 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten

Wangari MaathaiWangari Maathai: The Woman Who Planted Millions of Trees written by Franck Prevot, illustrated by Aurelia Fronty

From GoodReads: Wangari Maathai received the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004 for her efforts to lead women in a nonviolent struggle to bring peace and democracy to Africa through its reforestation. Her organization planted over thirty million trees in thirty years. This beautiful picture book tells the story of an amazing woman and an inspiring idea.

I originally picked this one up because of the art. It’s so lush and vibrant. It has this very modern vibe to it too, with the elongated eyes and tiny ink details on leaves, people, and textiles. Particularly striking about the two page illustration spreads are the background colors. They range from deep blues to pink to red to the yellow-green seen on the cover. It really makes even the more stripped down illustrations pop. They do a wonderful job of setting the tone of each page and passage. The pictures really draw you into the story.

I had not heard of Wangari Maathai before reading this (even grown ups can learn from picture books!), but her story is incredibly inspiring. I think it really stresses the importance of a good education, something Maathai was incredibly lucky to get. Her education exposed her to a wider world and it also inspired her to do something about the destruction of trees and the environment. Her story also shows that one person, if they use their wits, intelligence and determination plus a lot of elbow grease, can change the world. Maathai didn’t do it all on her own, but she was the flash point and she started the Green Belt Movement when she couldn’t get the government to support her or move quickly enough.

I really like the picture book biography trend. I don’t actually know if there are more being published, but I’ve certainly noticed and read a lot of them lately. They’re great for the third-fourth grade range and even really up into fifth. They can be so engaging in the way a dry chapter book is not, especially if they are well illustrated. I would encourage their use in biography projects in school because they contain good information and also because it will encourage students to use more than one resource in their reports. I’m tired of projects where kids are handed one book and write their entire report from that book. It hits a little too close to plagiarism and it isn’t exactly reflective of the real research process. And if single book research is done for the sake of time I think the project is about the product and not the learning process it should be providing (sorry for the tangential rant!) and that’s a problem too.

Head’s up, this book has a very high reading level. It’s somewhere around the sixth grade, so a younger reader might struggle to get through this on their own. Which isn’t, of course, to say a younger reader wouldn’t be interested. Just that if you push it below third grade or so it should be a read aloud with lots of discussion.

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In Review

By Elizabeth Wroten

Picture Book Review: Home by Carson Ellis

On 09, Apr 2015 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten

HomeHome written and illustrated by Carson Ellis

From GoodReads: Home might be a house in the country, an apartment in the city, or even a shoe. Home may be on the road or the sea, in the realm of myth, or in the artist’s own studio. A meditation on the concept of home and a visual treat that invites many return visits, this loving look at the places where people live marks the picture-book debut of Carson Ellis, acclaimed illustrator of the Wildwood series and artist for the indie band the Decemberists.

This was a charming book, from the darling illustrations to the examination of all the places creatures live. It wasn’t revolutionary in it’s selection of homes, although it certainly was creative. There are no mobile homes or low income housing, but there is an apartment building and a shoe.

I don’t think the book is striving to be diverse with a capital D, although there is plenty of incidental ethnicity. It isn’t just a bunch of white children and adults frolicking through twee little houses with a few animals thrown in. The group scenes certainly feature children of all colors and even some of the adults are not white and this is why I ended up buying a copy (that and I was taken with the illustration style). The Middle Eastern scene looks like something out of Scheherazade, but I didn’t think it was offensive (correct me if I’m wrong) and it’s in keeping with the whimsical feel of the book.

Especially charming was the end where the artist, Ellis, is seen sitting at her work table. So many of the objects found surrounding her on the floor, on the table, and on the shelves can be found back in the illustrations. From a flag to a piece of cloth. This seek-and-find element really makes this a great book to pore over. My only wish was that the skep seen on the cover was inside. But that’s a beekeeper’s preference, not a genuine complaint.

To be honest, I don’t sound overly thrilled by the book, but I am. Enough that I bought my own copy. I just can’t put my finger on why I found it so charming. I think it’s the atmosphere created by the illustrations (they’re just so darn cute) paired with the sparse language that really makes you look at what a home is.

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In Review

By Elizabeth Wroten

Picture Book Review: Who Built the Stable? by Ashley Bryan

On 26, Mar 2015 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten

Who Built the StableWho Built the Stable? A Nativity Poem written & illustrated by Ashley Bryan

From GoodReads: Who built the manger where Mary and Joseph found shelter? The answer is conveyed in this beautifully crafted picture book that envisions a young boy, a shepherd and carpenter both who, out of love and kindness, cleared the way for another shepherd and carpenter to be born on Christmas day.

This was actually a book I got from the library back in December to read to my daughter. I didn’t think much of it growing up, but as I got older I began to wonder why the Holy Family was so white most of the time. Sure, they were Jewish, but it’s unlikely they would have been so European-looking. We’re not a religious family, but I strongly believe you need to know biblical stories to be culturally literate so I do read nativity stories to my daughter (and Easter stories, etc.). I can’t totally get away from the traditional portrait, but I want to be sure I include different depictions in a variety of books

I also think stories that link other children to the birth of Jesus are really good for helping children, especially younger ones, make the connection to the characters in the story. The boy who tells this story, of helping build a stable and then offering it to Mary and Joseph, is exactly that kind of entree into a story that is often told in an impersonal and didactic way. Who Built the Stable also treats Jesus as a baby, not a Savior with a capital S. Again, I think kids find this sort of treatment of the story relatable as they were recently babies or because they have younger siblings.

Bryan’s illustrations in the book are also incredible. They are so reminiscent of stained glass. The lush colors pop off the page and really bring the whole story to life. And the little boy is so charming! I think, too, the style of the pictures is something a child could recreate or copy. I love to use books to inspire art and creativity in kids and I think Bryan’s art is rife with that kind of opportunity.

I highly recommend the book to parents looking for a different picture of the Holy Family. I also recommend it to families like ours who are looking to share the Christmas story without lots of overt religious themes. As far as religious families liking the book, I’m not sure. Certainly more traditional religious families may not like the lack of Savior storyline and different picture of Jesus, but it treats the story with reverence and the pictures are so beautiful it may be a moot point.

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In Review

By Elizabeth Wroten

Kidlit Review: Sing to the Sun by Ashley Bryan

On 24, Mar 2015 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten

Sing to the SunSing to the Sun poems and pictures by Ashley Bryan

From GoodReads: “Sing to the sun
It will listen
And warm your words.”
In this beautiful collection of art and poetry, Ashley bryan celebrates all aspects of life–from a rainshower at the seashore to a beloved grandmother gathering fruit. Perfect for reading aloud, these joyful, heartfelt poems will touch all who read them.

In his autobiography, Words to My Life’s Song, Ashley Bryan said his elementary school stressed poetry recitation. They had to memorize a poem a week and share it with their class. This practice helped focus Bryan on the sound of the spoken word. I think it also drew him to poetry as many of his books are about poets or written in poem form.

Sing to the Sun is a lovely little collection of poems perfect for reading aloud and for sharing with elementary age kids. The poems have a bit of depth, symbolism, and imagery, but are not so complex they would baffle that age group. In fact, because of this, they would probably make for a good poetry study where you can take them apart and look at them. The more I read children’s poetry the more I realize I don’t hate poetry, just contrived adult poetry that is required in high school. The poems in Sing are about a variety of topics and while not all of them are strictly for children they will appeal and be relatable to children. It’s important for children to read all types of literature (plays, poetry, fiction, nonfiction), but we need to make it good quality so they aren’t turned off by it. Choosing poetry, like Sing to the Sun, that is relatable and understandable, but also plays with language in an interesting and beautiful way is exactly what children need exposure to.

The illustrations in the book are absolutely gorgeous. They have movement to them that really brings them to life. And paired with their poems the words also come to life through the pictures. I’ve said this before with Bryan’s art, but it has a quality that makes if feel as if a child could recreate his style, despite his clear expertise with art. As with poetry, seeing art they could recreate children will want to enjoy and try their hand at it instead of being turned off by it.

If I have one complaint it was the layout and the library copy I had. The layout feels a bit dated. I think the simple poem and art that accompanies it is a good idea, simplicity will draw your eye to the picture and focus the reader on the poem, but I wonder if a child would pick the book up of their own accord. The library copy I have out is also yellowed. If the white pages and the cover were nice and bright it would seem more inviting. I also wonder if reprinting the pictures with a touch more saturation would help brighten and modernize the book.

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