Three Picture Books for the Year of the Horse

Oprn Drdsmr: Kid Lit Musings and Review by Cheli Mennella

Galloping into 2014: Three Picture Books for the Year of the Horse

As the Year of the Water Snake slithers away, the Lucky Chinese Year of the Wood Horse comes galloping in with the promise of victories, adventure, travel, fiery energy, decisive action, good fortune, and free-spirited independence. In searching for books to coincide with the marking of the new year, I discovered these three beautiful picture books that portray ancient China through folktale and fantasy and feature magnificent, powerful horses.

The Race for the Chinese Zodiac

The Race for the Chinese Zodiac comes to us by way of Australia, where it was first published in 2011. Candlewick released it here in the states this past November, perfectly timed for the lead up to Chinese New Year. Author Gabrielle Wang retells the ancient story of the race to become one of the twelve signs of the Chinese zodiac. When the Jade Emperor promises to name a year after the first twelve winners to cross the river, thirteen different animals accept the challenge. Each chooses their own method of crossing the river from swimming and flying to raft-building and log-floating. And each reveals their personality traits through competitive spirit, from being kind and supportive to selfish and deceitful.  The easy pacing and large print make for a good story time. And illustrations reminiscent of ancient China give the book visual appeal. Illustrator Sally Rippin used traditional Chinese ink on watercolor paper and also created linocut “chops,” or stamps, showing the Chinese character for each animal. Designer Regine Abos digitally dropped in the texture and color behind Rippin’s hand rendered illustrations to create a modernized vintage look.  Includes additional annotations on the zodiac years and symbols.

  • The Race for the Chinese Zodiac written by Gabrielle Wang, illustrated by Sally Rippin, with design by Regine Abos. Published by Candlewick, 2013. ISBN: 978-0763667788

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Four Picture Books to Capture the Magic of Snow

Oprn Drdsmr: Kid Lit Musings and Review by Cheli Mennella

Snowflakes Ahead!

“It’s snowflaking!” my youngest shouts every time the snow flies. There is such joy and wonder in his simple expression that I can’t help but turn my face to the sky to catch some of that magic. It’s the same magic that has called all my kids outside, bright and early, after that first snowfall, still in their jammies and wild bedhead, just to get their mittened hands on snow, to catch flakes on their tongue, to grab a sled and go barreling down the hill. Four new picture books capture a bit of that snowflake magic – the quiet, the impermanence, the beauty, the thrill. So when your rosy-cheeked children have returned from a world of winter white, have donned dry socks and are nestled in the warmth of family, share a story of snow. And remember, spring is just a season away.

Big Snow

Open SesameIn Big Snow, David awaits the coming of a winter storm, hoping for the first big snow of the season. He tries to help his mother with holiday housecleaning, but each task reminds him of snow, from the flour that goes into the cookie dough, to the suds in the bathtub, to the crisp, white sheets. His excited anticipation keeps drawing him outside to check the skies. When his mother tells him to take a nap, David dreams of a giant blizzard, with snow drifts piling up in the living room. He wakes to his Dad’s footfalls and the real storm in full swing. The straight-forward storyline and soft watercolor illustrations portray a tender and warm family life, while capturing the excitement and anticipation of the first big snow.

Big Snow written and illustrated by Jonathan Bean. Published by Farrar, Straus, & Giroux, 2013. ISBN: 978-0-374-30696-0

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Gratitudes and Graces: Book of Poetry, Prayers, & Songs of Thanks

Oprn Drdsmr: Kid Lit Musings and Review by Cheli Mennella

New Book Serves Up Gratitudes and Graces

Master Eckhart, who died almost seven hundred years ago said, “If the only prayer you ever say in your entire life is ‘thank you,’ it will be enough.” – From Giving Thanks: Poems, Prayers, and Praise Songs of Thanksgiving

Giving Thanks: Poems, Prayers, and Praise Songs of Thanksgiving is the newest collaboration between Katherine Paterson and Pamela Dalton. Paterson, a Newberry Medalist and author of some of the most beloved children’s books, including Bridge to Terabithia and Jacob Have I Loved, selected over 50 poems, prayers, and praise songs that reflect on the act of giving thanks.

The book is divided into four sections – “Gather Round The Table,” “A Celebration of Life,” “The Spirit Within,” and “Circle of Community” – and each section begins with Paterson’s personal reflections on being thankful. Universal principles of gratitude and joy are served up from across cultural and religious traditions, pulled from songs and spirituals, and echoed in the voices of people through the ages. A Vietnamese farmers’ prayer, an ancient haiku, a Shaker song, a Pueblo blessing, poems from Emily Dickinson and Wendell Berry, the words of Hildegard of Bingen and Martin Luther King Jr., are just some of the nuggets Paterson offers… Read the rest of this entry »

Railroads & Locomotives: Three Childrens Books About Trains

All Aboard!

Coming down the tracks and headed straight into the hands of young enthusiasts, are three new picture books about trains. If you have little engineers in your life, the ones who sleep with trains under their pillows, who hear the whistle from miles away, who build tracks from one end of the house to the other, then check out these exciting books. Featuring both modern and vintage trains, and artwork that transports the reader to railroads near and far, these books will have train lovers wanting to climb aboard.

Locomotive is a rich work by award-winning book creator, Brian Floca. From the moment you connect with the striking portrait of a regal locomotive on the cover, you are transported back through time, to the summer of 1869. Endpapers set the stage with an overview of the trans-continental railroad including a map, history, and small vignettes. Then the title page reveals another more personal layer to the story – a family photo, a railroad guide, and a telegram from Papa saying all is ready in California, come soon. From the beginning, the book has multiple dimensions: it is a fictional story of a mother and her two children boarding a steam train in Omaha, Nebraska, and riding the rails all the way across the country to San Francisco; and it is a nonfictional story of the transcontinental railroad, its history, and landscape, of the steam locomotive herself, her mechanical wonders and the people who kept her and the railroads running. The large size of the book enhances its full sensory effect and is worthy of housing the story of the powerful locomotive. Lyrical, rhythmic text, with lettering that often changes in size and color to help tell the story, brings the whole experience to life. Illustrations are done in watercolor, ink, acrylic, and gouache are often startling in their perspective and emotional renderings. Long notes and resources at the back provide more historical information, including how the trans-continental railroad impacted Native Americans. This is an incredible piece of work and a keeper for all railroad enthusiasts, no matter what their age.

  • Locomotive by Brian Floca. A Richard Jackson Book, Atheneum Books for Young Readers, 2013. ISBN: 978-1-4169-9415-2

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Pair of Fall Favorite Picture Books

Oprn Drdsmr: Kid Lit Musings and Review by Cheli Mennella

A Pair of Perennial Favorites

Here is a pair of picture books I particularly love reading in the fall. They are perennial favorites, books I come back to again and again. Just right for the younger set, though readers of any age will find powerful messages tucked into these small packages.

Here are stories that embody joy, wonder, and the deep truth of our inner nature, illustrated with lovely, emotive artwork, and spiced with two essential images of autumn – leaves and geese…

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Bedside Reading: A Collection of Five

Oprn Drdsmr: Kid Lit Musings and Review by Cheli Mennella

Bedside Reading

I always have a stack of books at my bedside – a wild assortment of fiction and nonfiction, with a handful of kids’ books thrown in the mix.  The current collection stars two picture books, a middle grade and a young adult novel, and a work of children’s nonfiction. They all captured my attention and praise, and I want to share them with you. Read one with your preschooler, or pass one off to your teen, or maybe even tuck one onto your bedside table (It’s okay, I won’t tell.)…

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Five Picture Books That Bubble And Splash

Oprn Drdsmr: Kid Lit Musings and Review by Cheli Mennella

Into The Blue
Five Picture Books That Bubble And Splash

On these steamy, hot summer days, there is nothing my family would rather do than jump into the blue. We gravitate to water, like playful otters, seeking out cool relief, as we splash and dive and kick and paddle. So when I found a handful of new picture books featuring watery landscapes, my kids were delighted to jump in, even though they knew they wouldn’t be getting wet.

Here’s a review of 5 picture books published this year that bubble and splash:

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Summer Reading List for Middle Schoolers

Oprn Drdsmr: Kid Lit Musings and Review by Cheli Mennella

A Dozen Quick Picks for Middle Grade Summer Reading

It’s summer! The perfect time to get away with a great book. Whether relaxing at the beach or the park, chilling in a tent or a hammock, traveling by car or plane, or even standing in line at the amusement park, here are a dozen quick picks for middle graders, all with the common thread of taking place during summer. These books are so good, some of you grown-ups may enjoy reading them as well…

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7 Children’s Books that Embody Peace

Oprn Drdsmr: Kid Lit Musings and Review by Cheli Mennella

Blessed are the Peacemakers

“If we are to teach real peace in this world, if we are to wage a real war against war, we shall have to start with the children.” – Gandhi

Now more than ever it seems imperative that we engage and embody and choose peace. From events that hit close to home like the Newtown tragedy and the Boston Marathon bombings, to our sisters and brothers all over the world who undergo daily violence, to the violent destruction of our very planet by over-consumption and abuse… it is essential to our future that we ignite change through peaceful means. To begin that process, it helps to know what peace is, what it feels like, what it looks like and tastes like and sounds like, and to make sure our children know too.

That is why I’ve chosen a new children’s book by award winning illustrator, Wendy Anderson Halperin, to share with you this month. The book is called Peace (Atheneum Books for Young Readers) and it unfolds around the central question of how can we, as individuals, create peace in the world.

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Bad Girls: Sirens, Jezebels, Murderesses, Thieves & Other Female Villains

Open Sesame: Kid Lit Musings and Review by Cheli Mennella

New Book Portrays History’s Bad Girls with a Modern Twist

Sirens, Jezebels, Murderesses, Thieves, & Other Female VillainsDelilah. Cleopatra. Anne Bonney. Catherine the Great. Mata Hari. Bonnie Parker. Just a few of history’s bad girls. Or are they? Might they just be misunderstood girls? Smart, strong, outspoken girls? Or girls who are victims of bad circumstance?

In their new book, Bad Girls: Sirens, Jezebels, Murderesses, Thieves & Other Female Villains (Charlesbridge, 2013), authors Jane Yolen and Heidi E.Y. Stemple present two dozen female felons to their court of readers. Starting with ancient bad girls, Delilah, Jezebel, and Cleopatra, the book moves through history and around the world to include Bloody Mary, Tituba, and Madame Popova, and ends in the 20th century with gangster Virginia Hill. Each entry includes a portrait drawn in vintage hues and a crisply written short story about the bad girl’s dangerous life, offering up information, perspective, and context so readers can judge accordingly…

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George Washington Carver: A Life in Poems

Open Sesame: Kid Lit Musings and Review by Cheli Mennella

In honor of Black History Month I want to share an extraordinary book about an extraordinary human being:

Carver, a life in poems (Front Street, 2001) is an intimate portrait of the botanist, inventor, scientist, artist, musician, and teacher, known as George Washington Carver. Written by acclaimed poet, Marilyn Nelson, the book takes us through Carver’s life in a series of narrative poems told from the voices of the people who knew him, and from Carver himself. Wrought with emotion and meaning, Nelson gives us a biographical experience of a man whose imprint on the world is still felt today.

Born a slave in Missouri in 1864, and raised by the white family that owned his mother, Carver seemed to always have a special spark, a reverence and joy for life, a thirst for knowledge, and an independent spirit, which led him to leave home in 1877, to attend school and begin a life-long quest for learning.

Carver’s curiosity, his hunger for answers, his drive to find out why, what if, propelled him into his destiny, and Nelson captures that in the poem, “Drifter“: “Something says find out / why rain falls, what makes corn proud / and squash so humble, the questions / call like a train whistle so at fourteen, / fifteen, eighteen, nineteen still on half-fare, / over the receding landscapes the perceiving self / stares back from the darkening window.”

Carver put himself through high school and college, studying art and science, washing people’s laundry to support himself. His success was continuous. He became known for his green thumb and his artistic talent. His paintings were exhibited at the Chicago World’s Fair, he earned his B.A and M.A. degrees, and joined the faculty at Tuskegee Institute, where he stayed for the rest of his life working on ideas and inventions, from crop rotation and cotton seed to peanut recipes and paint colors. His generous nature dictated that he never profit from his discoveries, instead he gave them away for the benefit of all humankind.

In spare, lyrical language, Nelson takes us through moments in Carver’s life, some public, some private, and reveals a man of uncommon talent and faith. She shows his gifts of observation, his thirst for knowledge, his simmering, creative energy, his insights, and his deep spirituality.

And though Carver’s life was full of the complexities of science and nature, and he never lacked for work to do, the poems also show how he valued simplicity and contemplation. Poems like “Dawn Walk” and “Dimensions of the Milky Way” depict him in quiet conversation with the universe. And light-hearted poems like “The Lace-Maker,” “The Joy of Sewing,” and ”The Wild Garden” express the simple pleasures he took in doing handwork and gathering wild greens. Recurring details like the flowers Carver would wear in the lapels of his second-hand suits not only help us imagine what he looked like but are also tender expressions of his character.

Nelson’s poems do not shy from the harsh racial climate of the era. She portrays Carver’s dedication to the Negro people, and his reactions to lynchings and injustices, with powerful poems like “Goliath.” When his Bible study students ask after another lynching, “Where is God now?” Carver responds, “God is right here. / Don’t lose contact with Him. Don’t yield to fear. / Fear is the root of hate, and hate destroys / the hater … When we lose contact, we see only hate, / only injustice, a giant so great / its shadow blocks our sun. But David slew / Goliath with the only things he knew: / the slingshot of intelligence, and one / pebble of truth.”

Each poem in the book is complete and can stand alone as an exquisite piece of poetry. The poems beckon to be read aloud, and to be read over and over again, peeling back layers of meaning and nuance. Read together in a sequence that spans Carver’s life, with seamless transitions from one poem to the next, and thematic strands that connect the poems to each other, the whole collection creates a stunning portrait of Carver and illuminates the man who he was.

As the book draws to a close, Nelson is able to capture Carver’s divine message of conservation in the poem, “Last Talk with Jim Hardwick”: “When I die I will live again. / By nature I am a conserver. / I have found Nature / to be a conserver, too. / Nothing is wasted / or permanently lost / in Nature. Things / change their form, / but they do not cease / to exist … God would be a bigger fool / than even a man / if He did not conserve / the human soul, / which seems to be / the most important thing / He has yet done in the universe.”

The very last poem, “Moton Field,” connects the past and the present, and Carver to the poet herself. The year is 1943, and we see Carver at the end of his life, penning answers to the letters piled at his bedside. While outside his window the poet’s father, Melvin Moton Nelson, one of the first Tuskegee airmen, is piloting a p-40 airplane ”high as a Negro has ever been.” The book ends with the final image of airman Nelson doing a “sky-roaring victory roll.”

Carver earned over a dozen accolades and awards including the 2001 Boston Globe-Horn Book Award, a 2002 Newberry Medal Honor Award, and a 2002 Coretta Scott King Honor Award. Though this was Nelson’s first book for young adults, she was already an accomplished poet with several full-length poetry collections, chap books, and translations. Since the publication of Carver she has written many more books for young people. You can read about her work at

Carver: A Life in Poems written by Marilyn Nelson. Published by Front Street, Asheville, NC, 2001. ISBN: 1-886910-53-7


Cheli Mennella

Cheli has been involved with creative arts and education for most of her life, and has taught many subjects from art and books to yoga and zoology. But she has a special fondness for kid’s books, and has worked in the field for more than 20 years. She is a freelance writer and regular contributor to Valley Kids and teaches a course for adults in “Writing for Children.” She writes from Colrain, where she lives with her musician-husband, three children, and shelves full of kid’s books.

3 Folktales for National Folktale Month

Open Sesame: Kid Lit Musings and Review by Cheli Mennella

Three Favorite Folktales

It’s National Folktale Month! And I’m digging into the vaults to share three of my favorites, all starring leading ladies. For me, folktales are food for the soul. And when packaged into a picture book, also provide a feast for the eyes. They are an important part of your child’s literary diet, so next time you go to the library don’t forget the folktales!

The Woman Who Outshone The Sun

The Woman Who Outshone The Sun is a bi-lingual story about Lucia Zenteno, a beautiful and seemingly magical woman who, accompanied by an entourage of butterflies, arrives in a small Mexican village. Her beauty is so sublime, the river, fishes, otters, and birds fall in love with her. But the people are frightened by her special powers and eventually drive her from the village. The river leaves with Lucia, and the village is plagued with drought. Awakening to their mistake the people search for Lucia, walking for days to an iguana cave where she has taken refuge. At first no one says a word, but then two children make the first move and offer an apology. Lucia sees the people are truly sorry and, feeling compassion, agrees to return to the village and comb the river from her hair. Her parting words to the village people are about kindness and tolerance, even for those who seem different. The last image shows Lucia as a spiritual entity, embracing the village in a gesture of protection, her long black hair full of stars.

This little-known picture book is a real gem. The story is told in crisp, straightforward language, and the illustrations are striking in their play of color and line. Bits of whimsy, such as a girl riding a hummingbird and feet poking out of treetops, hover around the central images and add to the folkloric feel of the story. This particular version of the tale is inspired by a poem written by Alejandro Cruz Martinez, a young Zapotec Indian who collected the oral traditions of his people, including this one about Lucia Zenteno. He was killed in 1987 while organizing the Zapotecs to regain their lost water rights. The book delivers a valuable environmental message, and given the state of our current climate crisis, it seems imperative that folktales like this one are kept alive.

The Woman Who Outshone The Sun from a poem by Alejandro Cruz Martinez, written by Rosalma Zubizarreta, Harriet Rohmer, and David Schecter, illustrated by Fernando Olivera. Published by Children’s Book Press, Sam Francisco, 1991. ISBN: 0-89239-101-4

One Grain of Rice

One Grain of Rice written and illustrated by Demi is a mathematical folktale from India. It opens with a self-described fair and decent Raja, who decides to collect most of the rice from each farmer’s harvest for safe keeping in the royal storehouse. The Raja promises the rice will be used in times of famine so no one will go hungry. For several years the rice harvest is bountiful, and the people give most of their rice to the Raja, with barely enough left for themselves. Then one year the harvest fails and the people have no rice to eat and no rice to give the Raja. Famine and hunger spread throughout the land. But the Raja refuses to honor his promise, and instead covets all of the people’s rice for himself. One day a girl named Rani does a good deed for the Raja and he offers her a reward. She asks for just one grain of rice, doubled each day for 30 days. The Raja, thinking it is a modest request, agrees. But as the story unfolds the Raja, and likely the reader too, is surprised by how fast Rani’s rice is accumulating. When 256 elephants bearing bundles of rice march across a four-page foldout, readers will cheer Rani’s resourcefulness. For by the end of the 30 days, Rani has turned one grain of rice into one billion grains of rice, enough to feed all the hungry people in her land.

Demi has published more than 100 books, and is well known for her multi-cultural folktales, legends, and picture book biographies. The delicate illustrations in this work were inspired by traditional Indian miniature paintings of the 16th and 17th centuries, and were created with Chinese brushes, paint, ink, and Demi’s distinctive use of gold leaf, which adds a shimmering quality to the drawings. A table in the back gives a visual interpretation of how Rani, with her understanding of multiples, outsmarted the greedy Raja. The story has a great moral, a courageous heroine, and an entertaining math lesson all bundled into a 40-page picture book: One Grain of Rice packs a lot of nutritive punch.

One Grain of Rice: A Mathematical Folktale written and illustrated by Demi. Published by Scholastic Press, New York, 1997. ISBN: 0-590-93998-X

How The Amazon Queen Fought The Prince of Egypt

How The Amazon Queen Fought The Prince of Egypt is an ancient Egyptian folktale peeled from a longer work called “Egyptians and Amazons.” Found on a badly tattered papyrus scroll, which is now housed in a museum in Austria, the story was only partly preserved. Author/illustrator Tamara Bower attests that she has stayed true to the original, and there is no denying her extensively researched picture book presents a captivating slice of ancient Egyptian art and culture. The folktale opens long ago in Khor, an area encompassing Syria and Assyria, where the Amazons lived, free of men, in a Land of Women. One day scouts alert the Amazon Queen, Serpot, that an Egyptian army and their Assyrian allies are approaching. Serpot asks her sister Ashteshyt to disguise herself as a man and spy on their camp. Because no one knows she is a woman Ashteshyt is able to infiltrate much of the camp’s inner workings. Readers will enjoy pouring over the illustrated scroll, which shows her spying on the Egyptian army in various scenes.

Queen Serpot decides to fight the Egyptians and gathers an army of women. With the goddess Isis and god Osiris leading them, the Amazon women fight fiercely, each woman fighting like “ten men.” The army drop their weapons and retreat. The Egyptian Prince Pedikhons is enraged, and challenges the queen to single combat. They rush “at each other like vultures” and attack “like panthers,” matching each other in skill and artistry. They fight through the day and as the sun sets, Prince Pedikhons, who “never believed woman could conquer man,” puts down his sword and admits that Queen Serpot is his equal.

This rare piece of folkloric history is intriguing on its own, but when placed in the context of Bower’s detailed illustrations, the full effect is mesmerizing. The Egyptian and Assyrian style paintings, rendered in watercolor and gouache on paper, fill the pages. Hieroglyphic translations of key phrases complement most of the storyline, and symbolic imagery is embedded throughout, all of which the artist explains in her endnotes. The book as a whole is a remarkable journey into the past, and offers a powerful commentary on equality of the sexes we can bring with us into the present.

How the Amazon Queen Fought The Prince Of Egypt written and illustrated by Tamara Bower. Published by Atheneum Books for Young Readers, New York, 2005. ISBN: 0-689-84434-4


Cheli Mennella

Cheli has been involved with creative arts and education for most of her life, and has taught many subjects from art and books to yoga and zoology. But she has a special fondness for kid’s books, and has worked in the field for more than 20 years. She is a freelance writer and regular contributor to Valley Kids and teaches a course for adults in “Writing for Children.” She writes from Colrain, where she lives with her musician-husband, three children, and shelves full of kid’s books.

The Little Drummer Boy: A Story of Humanity & Kindness

Oprn Drdsmr: Kid Lit Musings and Review by Cheli Mennella

Keats’ The Little Drummer Boy Hits All The Right Beats

Okay, I’ll admit it – I have a real soft spot for the song, “The Little Drummer Boy.” Some of you may cringe every time you hear it, and if you’ve been walking around stores this holiday season you’ve probably heard any number of the hundreds of versions by different artists – some rocking, some soulful, and some just overly synthesized and dramatic. But I can’t help it, the song has drummed its way into my heart ever since I was a little girl. The simple lyrics, potent imagery, and rhythmic beat pull me right into the essence of the song’s story, which for me revolves around the spirit of giving, shared experience, and the power of music to transcend language, race, religion, and economics.

Though I always associated the song with Christmas and the birth of Jesus, I never thought of it as a “religious” song. My experience with the song has always been more about humanity and kindness. There’s a child-like wonder to it, embedded in the child’s perspective, the presence of animals, and the honesty of emotion. The rhyme, rhythm, and repetition in the lyrics and in the constant drumbeat of “pa-rum-pum-pum-pum” have always pulled me into the song’s story. And all of this makes “The Little Drummer Boy” ideal to put into book format for young children. My favorite illustrated version is by Ezra Jack Keats, published by Macmillan in 1968. Keats brings the song alive, fills it with patterned, graphic collage and muted hues of paint. He gives faces to the characters and places them in an emotive, desert landscape with a moody sky that changes throughout the span of the day and reflects the breadth of the boy’s emotions.  Read the rest of this entry »

New Book by Louise Erdrich Continues the Story of An Ojibwe Family

Oprn Drdsmr: Kid Lit Musings and Review by Cheli Mennella

New Book Continues the Story of An Ojibwe Family

open sesameIt is 1866. Chickadee and his twin brother, Makoons, have been together every day since they were born. Eight years old and living with their family in a birchbark house in the remote woods near Lake Superior, the brothers must endure a brutal separation when Chickadee is kidnapped by members of his own tribe and taken far from home.

The story, named for the main character, intertwines Chickadee’s escape from his captors and his family’s search for him as they journey from their north woods home to the strange flatland of the Great Plains.

Author, Louise Erdrich, weaves a beautifully written story that portrays a family’s love and their willingness to risk everything for each other against a backdrop of 19th century Ojibwe life.

Chickadee is the fourth book in The Birchbark House series, which will eventually chronicle 100 years in the life of Omakayas, Chickadee’s mother. The series started when Omakayas was just a young girl in The Birchbark House (Hyperion, 1999), a National Book Award finalist, and was followed by The Game of Silence (Harper Collins, 2005), winner of the Scott O’Dell Award for Historical Fiction, and The Porcupine Year (Harper Collins, 2008). Chickadee starts a new branch of Omakayas’ story, with the focus of this book moving away from her and toward her son.

Steeped in detail and authenticity, with Ojibwe words knit into the narrative, and glossary and pronunciation guide in back to help readers navigate through the Ojibwe language, Chickadee displays Erdrich’s mastery of historical fiction. And her delicacy and sensitivity with issues of separation and loss, sadness and fear, joy and faith, are expressed in the characters’ struggles and triumphs.

And what a terrific cast of characters Erdrich has assembled. The multi-generational family members have very distinct personas, from the gentle Omakayas to the fearsome huntress Two Strike, and when woven together form rich and dynamic relationships.

Chickadee is an especially likable character. He is earnest and brave, and though he is at first disheartened with his namesake, a tiny bird without claws or teeth, Chickadee comes to know the truth of what his great-grandmother, Nokomis, assures him – that chickadees are small but powerful. The birds stay around all winter, can survive on the smallest seeds, take care of their families, and stick together like the Anishinabeg people.

And true to its nature, the tiny bird appears when Chickadee needs him, guiding the boy to food, protecting him from harm, and in a critical moment, even giving Chickadee a song. “I am only the chickadee/Yet small things have great power/I speak the truth,” resonates throughout the book, and gives Chickadee strength and courage when he needs it most. His simple song resonates off the page too, as young readers may relate to feeling small in a big world, or for this adult reader, being human in an immense universe. And yet, like Chickadee’s song insists, we have our own great power.

  • Chickadee by Louise Erdrich, published by Harper, New York, 2012.  196 pgs. ISBN: 978-0-06-057790-2

Louise Erdrich, is the best selling author of many acclaimed books for adults, including the 2012 National Book Award winner for The Round House, (Harper, 2012) and The Plague of Doves: A Novel (P.S.) (Harper Collins, 2008), a Pulitzer Prize finalist. She is a member of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa.


Cheli Mennella

Cheli has been involved with creative arts and education for most of her life, and has taught many subjects from art and books to yoga and zoology. But she has a special fondness for kid’s books, and has worked in the field for more than 20 years. She is a freelance writer and regular contributor to Valley Kids and teaches a course for adults in “Writing for Children.” She writes from Colrain, where she lives with her musician-husband, three children, and shelves full of kid’s books.

10 New Picture Books for Halloween

Oprn Drdsmr: Kid Lit Musings and Review by Cheli Mennella

10 New Picture Books for Halloween

Halloween is just days away. In our home there is a flurry of costume making and pumpkin carving and spider webbing as we countdown to the spookiest day of the year. And each evening, as the jack-o-lanterns glow in the dark, we take out the Halloween stories. This year, we’ve added a few new books to our nightly line-up.  Here are ten recently published picture books that prickle the spine, rattle the funny bone and charm the candy right into our hands!

Halloween Forest written by Marion Dane Bauer and illustrated by John Shelley. A cloaked child wanders into a forest of bones on Halloween, but is not scared by the spooky skeletal creatures. Instead the fearless traveler cries out to chase the creatures away and reveals a skeleton beneath the cloak. The scary becomes friendly and treats await to be sacked. (Holiday House, New York, 2012.  ISBN 978-0-82342-324-8)

Vampirina Ballerina written by Anne Marie Pace and illustrated by LeUyen Pham. A young vampire has some challenges to overcome as she practices ballet. From frightening her classmates and not being able to see her reflection in the mirror to dealing with stage fright on the night of her big debut. (Disney Hyperion, New York, 2012.  ISBN 978-1-42315-753-3

Sounds Spooky written by Christopher Cheng and illustrated by Sarah Davis. An old abandoned house is full of spooky sounds. But what are those new sounds? Is the house really empty? Lots of onomatopoeia and chant-like rhythm make for a good read aloud. The detailed pictures, created from photography, illustration, and computer wizardry, feature a model house made from cardboard and plaster and characters made from plasticene. (Random House Australia, 2012. ISBN 978-1-86471-879-9)

Trick or Treat written and illustrated by Leo Landry. When the ghost in the empty house at the end of the street throws a Halloween party, two invitations get mixed-up. When the unexpected guests arrive, there are both tricks and treats. A non-scary Halloween story about generosity and friendship. (Houghton Mifflin, Boston, 2012.  ISBN 978-0-54724-969-8)

A Halloween Treat written and illustrated by Edward Gorey. A back-to-back book featuring unpublished Gorey material. The first half is a short vignette about a trick or treat adventure. The other half is a wordless collection of Gorey ghosts. Charming, with a bit of spook and classic Gorey pen and ink. (Published by Bloomsbury, New York, 2012.  ISBN 978-1-60819-616-6)

Into the Pumpkin written and illustrated by Linda Franklin. In this beautifully illustrated book, readers journey inside a pumpkin to see how witches, bats, ravens, scarecrows, spiders, ghosts and other characters prepare to celebrate Halloween. (Schiffer Publishers, Atglen, PA, 2012. ISBN 978-0-76434-183-0)

Creepy Carrots! written by Aaron Reynolds and illustrated by Peter Brown. A parable about a rabbit who is always after carrots, until one day paranoia slinks in, and it seems as if the carrots are after him. The right amount of creep factor for a picture book about veggies, heightened by a palette of gray and orange. (Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, New York, 2012.  ISBN 978-1-44240-297-3)

That One Spooky Night written by Dan Bar-el and illustrated by David Huyck. Three strange stories about one spooky night, when a broom searches for a witch and mermaids swim in the bathtub and a house party goes batty. Drawn in a comic book/graphic novel style, this 80-page book will appeal to older readers. (Kids Can Press, Toronto, 2012.  ISBN 978-1-55453-751-8)

Frankenstein by Ludworst Bemonster (written by Rick Walton and illustrated by Nathan Hale) is a parody of Ludwig Bemelmans’ classic story Madeleine. Of all the little monsters that live in the castle with spines, the ugliest one is Frankenstein. He can frighten anyone, until he loses his head. A monstrously funny twist on an old classic. (Feiwel & Friends of Macmillan, New York, 2012.  ISBN 978-0-31255-366-1)

The Monsters’ Monster written and illustrated by Patrick McDonnell. Three little monsters who all think they are the biggest and baddest monster, decide to build the biggest, baddest monster of all. But their creation turns out to be very different from what they imagined. A monster story with huge heart. (Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, New York, 2012.  ISBN 978-0-31604-547-6)


Cheli Mennella

Cheli has been involved with creative arts and education for most of her life, and has taught many subjects from art and books to yoga and zoology. But she has a special fondness for kid’s books, and has worked in the field for more than 20 years. She is a freelance writer and regular contributor to Valley Kids and teaches a course for adults in “Writing for Children.” She writes from Colrain, where she lives with her musician-husband, three children, and shelves full of kid’s books.

Charlotte’s Web: A Hymn to Life for 60 Years!

Oprn Drdsmr: Kid Lit Musings and Review by Cheli Mennella

“A Hymn to the Barn”
Charlotte’s Web Turns 60!

The animals of Zuckerman’s barn have something to celebrate. On October 15, the book which launched them into the world, E.B. White’s pastoral masterpiece Charlotte’s Web, turns sixty years old! First published in 1952 by HarperCollins, the book has been re-released in a commemorative edition with a foreword by Newberry Medalist Kate DiCamillo (author of Because of Winn Dixie, The Tale of Despereaux and others).

Charlotte’s Web is one of my all-time favorite books. And I mean all books, not just children’s. This magical story about a runty pig named Wilbur who is spared from the ax by a girl named Fern and saved from becoming the Christmas ham by a spider named Charlotte, still makes me fall in love with rural life and barnyard animals and true friends and stories and words every time I read it.

From the strong opening line, “Where’s Papa going with that ax?” to the ending tribute to Charlotte, E.B. White takes me through seasons and life-cycles, through friendship and tolerance, through mortality and salvation.

With brilliant craftsmanship, that includes exquisitely simple language, characters bursting from the page, engaging plot lines, and an understanding of human emotion, E.B. White spins a story that speaks to the heart of being human and the unceasing wonders of the world.

Though the story runs along the edge of fantasy, the characters remain anchored in living detail. Wilbur may be able to shout and cry but he’s still a young pig who loves rolling in dung. And Charlotte may be able to weave words, but she is still a ferocious spider who drinks the insides of her prey. White’s ability to sew reality and fantasy together helps make the leap to web-spun miracles believable. It makes perfect sense in the context of the world he created that Charlotte can write. So convincing is the possibility, I often find my own self looking for words in webs.

Not every character is as lovable as Wilbur and Charlotte. Templeton the rat is downright despicable and “would kill a gosling if he could get away with it.” But even Templeton plays an integral part in the story. He gathers words for Charlotte and delivers Charlotte’s egg sac from the ceiling of the barn. And he is indirectly responsible for saving Charlotte from being caught by Avery. The fact that even Templeton, in all his gluttony and selfishness, becomes tolerable, likable even, makes the story that much more uplifting. It’s a testament to E.B. White’s belief in possibility and kindness.

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Books for Kids Who Love Ten-Ton Trucks

Oprn Drdsmr: Kid Lit Musings and Review by Cheli Mennella

Got Excavators? These Two Books Do

I went through most of my life blissfully unaware of the divine differences between front loaders and backhoes, and couldn’t pick an excavator out of a crowd of ten-ton trucks. But my sons have changed all that. Despite my sometimes less than enthusiastic responses, they schooled me in the world of work machines. They showed me giant caterpillar tracks in the mud, and made me pull over at numerous construction sites to marvel at the spin of a cement mixer or the crazy height of a crane.

I have to admit after ten years of raising truck-loving boys, their enthusiasm and adoration is rubbing off.  What’s not to love about big, tough, loud machines that can move giant stones and crash down buildings. After all, I adore my own little wrecking balls.

My four-year old is currently in a serious truck crush. When he’s not playing with trucks, or listening for trucks, he’s looking at books about trucks. Two books in heavy rotation right now feature the all-glorious excavator on their covers. While my son loves the collection of work machines within each story, I love how the rhyme, rhythm, and repetition make these picture books highly readable, and easy for me to say yes, when I’m asked to read them again and again and again.

Demolition written by Sally Sutton, illustrated by Brian Lovelock. Published by Candlewick Press, Somerville, MA, 2012.   ISBN: 978-0-7636-5830-4

Demolition, written by Sally Sutton and illustrated by Brian Lovelock (Candlewick Press, 2012), is full of activity as a demolition crew and their heavy work machines demolish an abandoned building, reuse supplies, and haul away the scrap. Both male and female workers of different ethnicities are on the scene, wearing hard hats, driving machinery, and assisting on the ground.  The story ends with a kid-perfect solution to the now-open space when the greening crew plant trees and construct a playground.

The short, rhyming quatrains keep the story moving.  Repeating phrases in the first lines, like “”Swing the ball. Swing the ball.” and a trio of sound effects in the last lines, like “Rip! Roar! Crash!” are easy to memorize, fun to say, and geared for young readers to join in the telling.

The illustrations rendered in pigmented inks portray the work machines in real-life form and show just what a high-reach excavator, bulldozer, and mobile crusher can do. Demolition is highly recommended for young truck lovers, especially those that appreciate a good smash up. We also love Sutton and Lovelock’s previous picture book, Roadwork (Candlewick Press, 2008), which uses the same word and picture format to detail the building of a road.

Goodnight, Goodnight, Construction Site written by Sherri Duskey Rinker, illustrated by Tom Lichtenheld. Published by Chronicle Books, San Francisco, 2011. ISBN: 978-0-8118-7782-4

At the end of a busy day, even work machines have to go to bed. It’s sunset at the construction site, and in their picture book, Goodnight, Goodnight, Construction Site (Chronicle Books, 2011), author Sherri Duskey Rinker and illustrator Tom Lichtenheld show young readers how rough and tough trucks power down and snuggle up.

Rhyming text describes various work machines from crane trucks to cement mixers to the beloved excavator as they end their work and ready themselves for bed. The steady rhythm and repetitive goodnight chorus give the story a rocking, sleepy-time melody just right for tucking in young work machines at bedtime.

The illustrations portray each construction vehicle with a range of facial expressions, serious by day and tender by night. Bits of whimsy will delight tough little truckers, from the tiny teddy bear clutched in the metal arms of the crane truck and the polka-dotted blankie on top of the cement mixer to the dumper’s snores and the excavator’s snaggle tooth. The soft wax oil pastels give the pictures a warm tone and contribute to the cozy feel of this truck lover’s bedtime book.


Cheli Mennella

Cheli has been involved with creative arts and education for most of her life, and has taught many subjects from art and books to yoga and zoology. But she has a special fondness for kid’s books, and has worked in the field for more than 20 years. She is a freelance writer and regular contributor to Valley Kids and teaches a course for adults in “Writing for Children.” She writes from Colrain, where she lives with her musician-husband, three children, and shelves full of kid’s books.

Kindred Souls: A Story About Love and Leaving

Oprn Drdsmr: Kid Lit Musings and Review by Cheli Mennella

Kindred Souls – A Story About Love and Leaving

Well known for her Newberry-winning novel, Sarah, Plain and Tall (HarperCollins, 1985), Western MA author Patricia MacLachlanis gifted at telling stories aimed at the younger set of readers. She can pack so much into a slim book. With lots of white space on each page and bigger type print, this 119-page book is just the right length for new readers to chew on. And told in first person, from a 10-year old child’s point of view, it presents death in just the right perspective for kids. 

Patricia MacLachlan’s new book, Kindred Souls, (HarperCollins) is a story about the love between a boy and his grandfather. 10-year old Jake and 88-year old Billy share a special bond. Jake’s mom calls them “kindred souls.” On their daily walks around the family farm, Billy talks about growing up on the prairie and his beloved sod house, where he was born. Jake cherishes this quiet time together and the predictability of their morning routine.

Then one day something unpredictable happens – a stray dog shows up and adopts Billy as her own. Billy names her Lucy and calls her an “angel dog.” But there’s another surprise for Jake -Billy asks him to rebuild the sod house. Jake is unsure. It’s a big request.

When Billy is hospitalized for bronchitis, Jake realizes the best gift he could give Billy, the gift that would help him get better, is waiting out in the prairie. And with the support of his brother and sister, his mom and dad, they start cutting sod.

Billy recovers enough to come home to his sod house that the family has built together. Jake is proud to show Billy the house, and yet for Jake there is also a pang of sadness. Billy and Lucy leave Jake to go stay in the sod house, and this foreshadowing of their diverging paths, is sharp and true.

Lucy adds a bit of four-legged magic to the story. Her loyalty to Billy, the way she affects everyone she meets, even the other patients in the hospital, is otherworldly. Her presence shows Billy is not alone in his journey. She’s there to accompany him through his last days on earth. And when Billy dies in his sod house, looking out at his favorite view in the world, it is Lucy who comes to let the family know.

The natural rhythms of the farm, and of the prairie – the hummingbirds, the slough that fills with water and ducks, the birthing of a calf – help tie death into the larger picture of life. And under the gifted hand of author Patricia MacLachlan, the subject matter is handled with grace, gentleness, and love. Read the rest of this entry »

12 Baseball Books for Kids

Oprn Drdsmr: Kid Lit Musings and Review by Cheli Mennella

Take Me Out To The Ball Game:
New Baseball Books for Kids

In this boy-dominated batch of new baseball books, there are picture books and middle grade novels, action packed stories and baseball history, team spirit and individual courage. So, if your in-house sluggers are baseball crazy, try pitching one of these dozen new books to them. They just might hit a home run.


F is for Fenway: America’s Oldest Major League Ballpark written by Jerry Pallotta, illustrated by John S. Dykes
In celebration of Fenway Park’s 100-year anniversary, this A-Z picture book introduces historic and nostalgic facts about America’s oldest major league ballpark. Readers can learn about the green monster, Peskys Pole, the lone red seat, and the long-standing Yankees rivalry. Red Sox fans will want this one in their collection.
Published by Sleeping Bear Press, Ann Arbor, MI, 2012. ISBN 978-1-58536-788-7

Poem Runs: Baseball Poems and Paintings written and illustrated by Douglas Florian
A collection of poems that takes ball lovers through the game and introduces them to the players on the field. From “Warm Up” to “The Season Is Over,” Florian pitches perfect in his newest book of poetry.
Published by Harcourt Children’s Books, New York, 2012. ISBN 978-0-547-68838-1

Brothers at Bat written by Audrey Vernick, illustrated by Steven Salerno
The amazing true story of the Acerra family, who had sixteen children, twelve of them boys who all played baseball and who made up their very own baseball team. Set in New Jersey, from the 1920s through the 1950s, this picture book follows the brothers from boys playing ball after school to serious players forming their own semi-pro team to soldiers in World War II to their induction in the Baseball Hall of Fame. Their story exemplifies true team spirit.
Published by Clarion Books, New York, 2012. ISBN 978-0-547-38557-0

Lucky Luis written by Gary Soto, illustrated by Rhode Montijo
Luis, a baseball loving and somewhat superstitious rabbit, believes the free food samples he tries at the market gives him good luck in his games. But when the food samples run out, so does his luck on the baseball field. In the bottom of the ninth inning with two outs, Luis is up to bat. Will he let go of his superstitions and remember what his coach taught him before he strikes out?
Published by G.P. Putnam’s Sons, New York, 2012. ISBN 978-0-399-24504-6

Homer written by Diane deGroat, illustrated by Shelley Rotner
In this picture book by local children’s book greats, Diane deGroat and Shelley Rotner, it’s the neighborhood dogs who take to the field. While the humans sleep, the Doggers take on the Hounds for the championship. Can Homer hit it out of the ballpark to lead the Doggers to victory? Short, simple text and photographic images that put an array of canines in uniform will have young sluggers cheering.
Published by Orchard Books, New York, 2012. ISBN 978-0-545-33272-9

Just As Good: How Larry Doby Changed America’s Game written by Chris Crowe, illustrated by Mike Benny
It’s 1948, in Cleveland, Ohio, and Homer and his father are buzzing with excitement. Their team, the Cleveland Indians, has made it to the World Series, and they’re rooting for Larry Doby, the first African-American player in the American League. In this exciting game, Doby not only helps the Indians win their first World Series in 28 years, but breaks the color barrier in baseball and helps lay the foundation for the civil rights movement.
Published by Candlewick Press, Somerville, MA, 2012. ISBN 978-0-7636-5026-1

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George & Sendak: A Tribute to Two Remarkable Children’s Books Creators

Oprn Drdsmr: Kid Lit Musings and Review by Cheli Mennella

Giant Talent
A Tribute to Two Remarkable Children’s Books Creators

The month of May marked the loss of two creative giants in the field of children’s literature – Maurice Sendak and Jean Craighead George. Both were prolific masters of their craft, and two of the last great talents fostered by maverick editor, Ursula Nordstrom. Their books should be in every family library, for no kid should grow up without them.

Jean Craighead George, Ambassador of Wilderness, 1919-2012

When I first read Julie of the Wolves (1972), by Jean Craighead George, I was a modern girl living in an east coast town on the edge of a big city. The story about an Eskimo girl fleeing an arranged marriage and surviving on the tundra with a pack of wolves was far from my own reality. But I couldn’t put the book down. I escaped into the Alaskan wilderness. I heard the howl of the wolves, saw the frozen landscape through the furry hood of a parka, felt the bite of bitter cold. It was exciting and dangerous, and nothing short of magical.

This is one of the gifts Jean Craighead George imparts in her writing. She takes you to wild, beautiful places, like the Alaskan wilderness, or the Florida Everglades, or a Venezuelan rain forest, and introduces you to its animals and people, its weather and topography. A strong footing in science and nature, meticulous research, keen accuracy, and inspired imagination characterizes her writing and makes it vivid and alive. It was her hope that in taking readers to wild, beautiful places, they would come away from her stories wanting to protect earth’s creatures and the vanishing landscape.

George grew up in Washington, D.C., part of a naturalist family who spent much of their time outdoors, hiking, camping and canoeing, which laid an early foundation for George’s life-long passion for the natural world. She started her career in journalism, and was part of the White House Press Corps before her leap into children’s books. Her first book, Vulpes the Red Fox, was published in 1948, and George went on to publish more than 100, many of them award winners, in fiction and nonfiction, from picture books to novels, during her lengthy career.

She traveled extensively, bringing an exacting authenticity to her work. On assignment in Barrow, Alaska, she learned to communicate with a wolf and the seed was planted for her book about Julie and her wolves. In her travels, she also took time to be with the people native to that area, and learned about their culture and traditions, thus weaving another dimension into her work.

For My Side of the Mountain (1959), George traveled back into her own childhood when she herself tried to run away. Her protagonist, Sam Gribley, goes farther than George ever did, leaving New York City for the Catskill Mountains, where he creates his own world in the wilderness. George drew from a well of experiences for this story, from Sam’s feelings about nature to the idea of living inside a tree and even to using a falcon for hunting. Sam’s resourcefulness and his ability to survive despite the odds have inspired readers across the world to renew their relationship with the outdoors.

The force of nature and George’s relationship with it continuously shaped her work. Her series, “Thirteen Moons,” which portray natural events associated with a seasonal moon, was hatched when she heard the call of a great horned owl outside her window on a January night. And her “One Day” series, eco-dramas set in a specific environment, came about when she saw life interacting in the ecosystems of the woods, the desert, the prairie, the alpine tundra, and the tropical rain forest, and really felt she had become an ecologist.

Ever passionate about her calling, she never stopped working. More recently, she had collaborated with illustrator Wendell Minor on a series of picture books, and with composer Chris Kubie, to bring the sounds of nature to her stories. She published a handful of books in the past few years, including The Last Polar Bear (2009), The Cats at Rockville Station (2009) and The Buffalo Are Back (2010). With so many children still being inspired by Sam Gribley, she also put together the Pocket Guide to the Outdoors (2010), so readers can do all the things Sam does in My Side of the Mountain, like build a shelter, start a fire, find water, and identify wild edibles. She was still working on several projects at the time of her death at age 92, and these will be published posthumously. Look for books on a Galapagos turtle, eagles, and whales.

All of Jean Craighead George’s work brings to the forefront the importance of protecting wild places and the animals that live there. She was not afraid to tackle serious environmental issues like endangered species, global warming, conservation, and coexistence in her stories. And by doing so, showed us how connected we are to nature, and how, ultimately, our own survival as human beings depends on it. If there were an ambassador of wilderness in kids’ books, it surely would have been Jean Craighead George.

Maurice Sendak, Wild Thing, 1928-2012

I grew up feasting on Maurice Sendak’s Nutshell Library (1962). Cracking open the little books, I’d read and re-read the stories and poems, especially Pierre. I couldn’t get enough of him. I was shocked by his behavior and yet spellbound by it, his naughtiness and ennui, even in the face of a lion. Odd and darkly comedic, the book didn’t just knock my funny bone but resonated deep in my psyche.

I kept reading Sendak throughout my childhood, and then into adulthood, and on into parenthood. His picture books operate on many levels for me, from being good, romping stories to visually exuberant stages to landscapes of archetypal images and rich symbolism. They embody both the mythic material of dreams and the hard truths of real life.

Sendak grew up in Brooklyn, New York, the youngest of three children, in a Jewish family. He loved to draw, and was already illustrating his brother’s stories when he was a young boy. A fortuitous job as a window designer for FAO Schwartz led him to a collaboration with Ursula Nordstrom, and his career in children’s books was launched. After illustrating other people’s stories, like Ruth Krauss’s A Hole Is To Dig (1952), and Meindert De Jong’s The Wheel on the School (1954), he illustrated his own story called Kenny’s Window, in 1956.

Sendak went on to illustrate over 100 books, including the work of Isaac Bashevis Singer and Leo Tolstoy. And how can we forget that it was Sendak who created the timeless images of Little Bear (1957) for Else Holmelund Minarik’s stories. He also brought his talents off the page and into the theater where he designed sets and costumes for operas and ballets for many years, even making appearances on stage singing and acting.

He had enormous creative talent, and he was an absolute genius of the picture book. His dark humor and artistic magic, his ability to tell a story within a story, and his unabashed truthfulness, elevated his work to a superlative art form. His books won numerous awards including the Caldecott Medal and the Hans Christian Andersen Award for illustration. He understood pacing and timing and what happens in the gap between the pages. He knew how to play with words and pictures to create a third layer of story, like what he does between the terse, unsentimental storyline and the overly romantic pictures in Higglety Pigglety Pop (1967), a portrait of his beloved dog, Jennie.

The book he is probably best known for, Where the Wild Things Are (1963), smashed open the controlled world of the nursery and all its niceties. Max was a new kind of character, bold and bad, and he led the way for many more wild, unruly characters to sail into children’s books. And, of course, there were the monsters, which had never really appeared in kids’ books before this time. Their wild rumpus, which encompasses the wordless climactic peak of the book, caused quite a stir. Now considered a childhood classic, Where the Wild Things Are continues to enchant children and to validate their complex, often tangled inner life. With its perfect intermingling of simple text and pure Sendak style illustration, it continues to hold relevance nearly 50 years later.

Where the Wild Things Are, together with In the Night Kitchen and Outside Over There, form a triumvirate of childhood and a window into Sendak’s own inner life. He described writing those three books as “excavation work,” each book taking him deeper into himself.

In the Night Kitchen (1970), which is about a young boy and his delicious adventure helping the bakers make the morning cake, was inspired by a real event from his childhood. While at the 1939 World’s Fair, he was watching bread baked by little men in white caps. Little Maurice stood with the crowd waving at the bakers, the smell of biscuits and cake wafting over when he realized his sister had left him. There was panic and crying, policemen, and eventually a ride in a police car. Those bakers dressed in white re-appear in this book, as does the baking and the batter, and what Sendak called a “profound love of luscious things.” The boy’s nakedness in several of the pictures raised some controversy, prompting the book to be banned and to even be graphically altered with diapers drawn onto the boy. But for Sendak, the nakedness was part of that lusciousness, and completely right for the story. There was no shame in it. That willingness to take risks, to not sell out, to choose instead to make dangerous art, sets his work apart.

Outside Over There (1981) is about a baby kidnapped by goblins, a shadow of a memory that haunted him from childhood – the kidnapping and death of the Lindbergh baby. He had to plummet as far down into himself as he could go to unearth the story. Barely re-emerging, Sendak was able to rewrite the ending of the Lindbergh story by having the baby in his own story return home alive. The book explores the deep fear of separation and what Sendak felt was the indifference with which some adults could treat children.

And yet, even a story with this kind of edge could become something remarkable in Sendak’s hands. He had a special ability to turn something dark into a thing of beauty, whether it is a kidnaping in Outside Over There, or the Holocaust in Brundibar (2003), which was based on an opera performed by the children of Terezin, a Nazi concentration camp, or death in Dear Mili (1988), a Wilhelm Grimm fairytale about a young girl who is sent into the woods to escape war and dies when reunited with her mother, or homelessness, poverty, and AIDS, in We Are All in the Dumps with Jack and Guy (1993), which uses two old nursery rhymes as the framework for a potent visual interpretation and social commentary on the ills of the modern world.

His most recent work, Bumble-Ardy (2011), is the first book he both wrote and illustrated in 30 years. The story is about a pig who gives himself a birthday party even though his aunt forbids him to. It is loosely based on a two-minute animation Sendak did with Jim Henson for Sesame Street in 1971. The story is a wild masquerade, full of the exuberance of childhood, that harkens back to Where the Wild Things Are. And like Max, who returns home to find his hot supper waiting for him, Bumble-Ardy is forgiven for his infraction, and the story ends with that strong, enduring love between a parent and child. But this is not the last work we’ll see from Sendak. He had been working on a picture book inspired by his brother, which will be published next year.

Sendak believed in going all the way, in being “ferociously honest.” That honesty is part of what makes his books so compelling and fearless, and at the same time, strange, provocative, and often controversial. At the core of Sendak’s power is his fierce respect for children and their ability to handle intense issues and ideas. He once wrote that his books are written for and dedicated to ”Children who are never satisfied with condescending material. Children who understand real emotion and real feeling. Children who are not afraid of knowing emotional truth.”


Cheli Mennella

Cheli has been involved with creative arts and education for most of her life, and has taught many subjects from art and books to yoga and zoology. But she has a special fondness for kid’s books, and has worked in the field for more than 20 years. She is a freelance writer and regular contributor to Valley Kids and teaches a course for adults in “Writing for Children.” She writes from Colrain, where she lives with her musician-husband, three children, and shelves full of kid’s books.

Picture Books for Spring Time

Oprn Drdsmr: Kid Lit Musings and Review by Cheli Mennella

A Trio of New Picture Books Just In Time For Spring

Every year I am surprised when the fields and forests finally turn green. Just when I think it will be brown and barren forever, the snow turns to rain, the ground thaws, and those first brave shoots make their appearance. — Springtime gives me a chance to be a child all over again. Heading out into the woods I’m as giddy as my four-year old, discovering the trout lily and wild oats come to life on the forest floor. Planting seeds in the garden, listening to birdsong, watching clouds sail by, leaving our winter coats behind, my kids and I relish the season and all it embodies.

Here’s a trio of new picture books which capture that childhood wonder. And the beauty of finding this within the pages of a book is that we can jump in any time of the year.


And Then It’s Spring, written by Julie Fogliano and illustrated by Caldecott medal winner, Erin E. Stead, tells the story of a boy waiting for his spring seeds to sprout. The first double page spread opens up to the boy and his dog looking out at the brown fields, the sparse text reads, “First you have brown, all around you have brown.”

The second double page spread shows the boy planting seeds, and the words, “then there are seeds.” The boy waits for his seeds to sprout, he wishes for rain, and he worries that the seeds may have been eaten by birds or stomped on by bears. The boy looks for green with a magnifying glass as a turtle, rabbit, birds, and even a worm look on too.

The penciled illustrations are delicately drawn in soft, faded hues, and have a vintage feel to them. Small details, like miniature garden signs and little birds, offer young readers something to be discovered within the simplicity of the pictures. The text, told in a single sentence, is broken up into poetic lines, which help set the gentle pacing of the story. Though the words and pictures are spare and simple, they work together to give the reader a sense of the boy’s patience and quiet anticipation.

Slowly the weeks go by, more seeds are planted, and the boy continues to wait. But then he hears a “greenish hum,” and readers get a window into the activity happening beneath the ground, where ants, worms, and sprouting seeds are busy at work. The story ends with the boy stepping out of his house to check on all that brown, but what he sees is green, “all around you have green.”

And Then It’s Spring written by Julie Fogliano and illustrated by Erin E. Stead. Published by Roaring Brook Press, A Neal Porter Book, New York, 2012. ISBN 978-1-59643-624-4


Green is that singular color that heralds spring wherever winter precedes it. Laura Vaccaro Seeger pays homage to green in her picture book of the same name. Simple text takes the reader through different shades of green – the green of plants, of animals, of foods, of patterns. There’s forest green, sea green, slow green, even wacky green.

The painted illustrations are rendered with thick brush strokes, adding texture and depth to the pictures. Like Seeger’s previous work, First the Egg, her new book also incorporates her characteristic die-cut pages. Each page has a small cut-out shape that reveals an image on one page, and becomes something different when the page is turned. These shapes add surprise and urge you to turn the page to find out what the shape will become next. Green is perfect for the youngest readers, but the die-cut pages will hook older readers too.

Green written and illustrated by Laura Vaccaro Seeger. Published by Roaring Brook Press, A Neal Porter Book, New York, 2012. ISBN 978-1-59643-397-7


The Cloud Spinner written by Michael Catchpool and illustrated by Alison Jay tells the enchanting story of a boy who can spin thread from the clouds and weave it into cloth that is “as soft as a mouse’s touch and as warm as roasted chestnuts.” And just as his mother taught him, he sings a simple tune as he works his loom, ”Enough is enough and not one stitch more.”

One chilly spring day the boy is in town when the king rides by and notices the boy’s scarf. The king orders the boy to weave him a scarf made of clouds. Though the boy warns against it, the boy does what he is told. But the king is still not satisfied and demands a cloak for himself and dresses for the queen and princess. The boy sits on his hilltop, spinning clouds into thread until there are no clouds left. The king and queen are overjoyed with their new clothes, but the princess says nothing.

Without clouds to give rain, the fields soon dry up. The people of the kingdom beg the king to return the clouds, but the king refuses. The princess however has her own plan, and that night she steals away with all the clothes the boy had woven. Together, she and the boy unravel the clouds and return them to the sky. The next morning the king and queen wake up to rain and the people rejoicing. The princess stands atop a hill, ”with a smile as bright as a rainbow,” singing the song the boy’s mother had taught him.

The story makes a good read aloud and offers a lesson, without being preachy, of how our actions affect the natural world. The illustrations done in alkyd paint and crackle varnish on thick cartridge paper, give the pictures an aged look and add a fairytale feel to the story. Kids will enjoy finding faces the artist has painted into the landscape, and will revel in the two children who are the heroes of the story.

The Cloud Spinner written by Michael Catchpool and illustrated by Alison Jay. Published by Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 2012. ISBN 978-0-375-87011-8


Cheli Mennella

Cheli has been involved with creative arts and education for most of her life, and has taught many subjects from art and books to yoga and zoology. But she has a special fondness for kid’s books, and has worked in the field for more than 20 years. She is a freelance writer and regular contributor to Valley Kids and teaches a course for adults in “Writing for Children.” She writes from Colrain, where she lives with her musician-husband, three children, and shelves full of kid’s books.

200 Years Ago: The Boyhood of Charles Dickens

Oprn Drdsmr: Kid Lit Musings and Review by Cheli Mennella

A Boy Called Dickens
Imagining the Boyhood of A Legendary Author

This year marks the 200th anniversary of the birth of Charles Dickens. Though Dickens never published an account of his life, and didn’t speak of his childhood until he was in his 30’s, a new picture book imagines what a slice of his youth might have been like. A Boy Called Dickens written by Deborah Hopkinson and illustrated by John Hendrix, tells a fictionalized story based on real incidents from Dickens’ life.

The story takes place shortly after Dickens’ twelfth birthday, about 1824, when his family lived in Old London. Life for young Charles was difficult. At this time, his parents and younger siblings lived in a debtors’ prison and Dickens worked ten hours a day in a blacking factory, earning the few shillings per week on which his family depended.

From the very first page we are invited right into Dickens’ world. We look down upon the brown and gray rooftops of the city, smoke puffing from chimneys fills the air. “This is Old London, on a winter morning long ago. Come along, now. We are here to search for a boy named Dickens.”

We find him “huddled in a doorway, wearing a worn, patched jacket” and “watching the schoolboys with hungry eyes,” longing for their books even more than food.

And then suddenly he is gone, running through the dreary streets to a “run-down, rickety house by the river,” where he wraps bottles of polish all day while rats squeak from the rafters. We meet his friend Bob Fagin and hear Dickens tell a story before the foreman yells for quiet.

The details in both words and pictures give a real sense of time and place. Readers can see, feel, hear, even taste the Old London of young Charles Dickens. The illustrations, in shades of browns and grays are rendered in graphite, pen-and-ink, and acrylics, and work with the text to set an authentic stage for the characters, who are crisply drawn and stand out against the sooty background.

A two-page spread of Old London shows a classic Dickensonian setting.  The streets brimming with people and carts, shouts from food vendors, children running, and there’s Dickens on his way to a rooming house, eating bread, cheese and a “four-penny plate of beef ” surrounded by “pickpockets; ladies with shattered hopes; a miserly old man; a young gentleman with great expectations; a proud, heartless girl.”

Characters from his life come alive in his imagination. We see the first hints of David Copperfield, when late after work, he takes out “his most prized possessions – a pencil and slate” and writes about a young runaway and his Aunt Betsey. Despite the squalor and nearly hopeless situation of his existence, Dickens holds fast to his love of story and his dream of becoming a writer.

Towards the end of the book, the Dickens’ family’s luck does change. They move out of debtors’ prison, an inheritance provides financial relief, and eventually, young Charles Dickens leaves work at the blacking factory. We see him on a sunny morning, wearing tattered clothing and a smile, a book in hand, walking to school.

The book fast-forwards then, and leaves us with a picture of an adult Charles Dickens, striding down a London street, wearing a fine coat and polished shoes, tipping his hat to passerbys, a book and pencil in hand, his dream of being a writer come true.

  • A Boy Called Dickens written by Deborah Hopkinson and illustrated by John Hendrix. Published by Schwartz & Wade Books of Random House Children’s Books, 2012. ISBN: 978-0-375-86732-3


Cheli Mennella

Cheli has been involved with creative arts and education for most of her life, and has taught many subjects from art and books to yoga and zoology. But she has a special fondness for kid’s books, and has worked in the field for more than 20 years. She is a freelance writer and regular contributor to Valley Kids and teaches a course for adults in “Writing for Children.” She writes from Colrain, where she lives with her musician-husband, three children, and shelves full of kid’s books.

Poetry for Young People by African-American Poet, Langston Hughes

Oprn Drdsmr: Kid Lit Musings and Review by Cheli Mennella

Langston Hughes, The Dream Keeper

“Bring me all of your dreams, You dreamers, Bring me all of your Heart melodies That I may wrap them In a blue cloud-cloth Away from the too-rough fingers Of the world.”

Bring me all of your dreams,
You dreamers,
Bring me all of your
Heart melodies
That I may wrap them In a blue cloud-cloth
Away from the too-rough fingers
Of the world.

This is the opening to one of my very favorite books of poetry for children. Originally published in 1932, The Dream Keeper, written by African-American poet, Langston Hughes, included 59 poems selected especially for young people. Hughes, born in Joplin, Missouri, in 1902, became an important literary figure during the Harlem Renaissance.

He was a successful poet, novelist, short story writer, editor, translator, and lecturer, publishing dozens of works during his lifetime. His experiences traveling around the world informed his poetry, which readers will enjoy in the section titled, “Sea Charm.”

Poignant, sensitive, passionate, brilliant, beautiful, sweet, musical, intuitive – the poems in this collection are all of the above. Ranging in subject matter from the sharpness of the winter moon to a piano player’s weary blues, Hughes is able to communicate universal truths that ring just as true today as they did 80 years ago.

Through verse that sometimes rhymes, and sometimes doesn’t, and images that are sometimes playful, and sometimes serious, Hughes expresses a love for humanity and a hope for the world which young readers will find deeply inspiring. His ability to write about the life and emotion of black people in poems such as “The Negro” and “Mother To Son,” while maintaining a child-like sense of wonder and whimsy in poems such as “Fairies” and “Snail,” shows his versatility in communicating diverse experiences through poetry and mastery of his craft.

The Dream Keeper was re-issued in 1994 with seven additional poems and more than 50 scratch-board illustrations by African-American illustrator, Brian Pinkney, making Hughes’ poems even more accessible to children today. Readers, both young and old, will be uplifted by Hughes’ message of love and unwavering faith in reaching for your dreams.

The Dream Keeper and Other Poems written by Langston Hughes, illustrated by Brian Pinkney, published by Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 1994. 83 pg. ISBN: 0-679-88347-9


Cheli Mennella

Cheli has been involved with creative arts and education for most of her life, and has taught many subjects from art and books to yoga and zoology. But she has a special fondness for kid’s books, and has worked in the field for more than 20 years. She is a freelance writer and regular contributor to Valley Kids and teaches a course for adults in “Writing for Children.” She writes from Colrain, where she lives with her musician-husband, three children, and shelves full of kid’s books.

In Honor of Black History Month, 5 Award Winning Books

Oprn Drdsmr: Kid Lit Musings and Review by Cheli Mennella

In Honor of Black History Month, 5 Award Winning Books

Every January the American Library Association announces the much-anticipated Youth Media Awards, some of the highest honors given to books for children and young adults in this country. The Coretta Scott King Book Award is one of those awards. It commemorates the work of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and honors Mrs. Coretta Scott King for her courage and continuing work for peace. The annual award recognizes outstanding books for children by African-American authors and illustrators that reflect the African-American experience.

Heart and Soul: The Story of America and African Americans

The 2012 Coretta Scott King author winner is Heart and Soul: The Story of America and African Americans, written by Kadir Nelson. This epic work, told by a nameless grandmother narrator, who interweaves her family’s trials and tribulations with the history of America, sheds light on how African Americans helped shape our country’s history. From colonial times and abolition, through several wars, Reconstruction, and the Great Migration, to the Civil Rights Era and a 21st century presidential election, the narrator takes listeners on a perilous journey, that in the end, leads to freedom and equal rights. The book comes to a close as the narrator proudly tells how she cast her vote for the first African-American president, Barack Obama.

The storytelling voice is direct, no-nonsense, unflinching in its truth telling. But the narrator’s tone and warmth, her endearments of “honey” and “chile,” which are sprinkled throughout, add a sweetness that makes this difficult period in American history a bit easier for children to swallow. This intimacy pulls the listener right in, you want to listen, even though what she’s saying is often hard to hear. There’s a sense that receiving her story is a gift, and a responsibility, to remember the past and to always be moving toward equal rights and justice.

Heart and Soul was also awarded the 2012 Coretta Scott King honor award for illustration. Kadir Neslon’s lush oil paintings are rendered in deep, colorful tones that shine with an inner brilliance. Their impact is enormous, powerful, arriving with every turn of the page, some spreading across two pages at once. These portraitures of history tell a story of their own.

Heart and Soul: The Story of America and African Americans, written and illustrated by Kadir Nelson, published by Balzer & Bray of HarperCollins Publishers, New York, 2011. 108 pg. ISBN: 978-0-06-173074-0

The Great Migration: Journey to the North

Two books received Coretta Scott King honorable mentions for authorship. One is The Great Migration: Journey to the North, written by Eloise Greenfield and illustrated by Jan Spivey Gilchrist, a picture book about a transformational time in American history.

More than a million African-Americans left the south and moved north between the years of 1915 and 1930. They left behind all they had known to escape the brutalities of the Ku Klux Klan, a dire economic situation, and the harsh realities of segregation.

Read the rest of this entry »

12 Picture Books to Celebrate Chinese New Year

Oprn Drdsmr: Kid Lit Musings and Review by Cheli Mennella

A Dozen By Demi: Books to Celebrate Chinese New Year

A recurring subject Demi's large body of work is that of ancient China. Many of her books are steeped in Chinese art, history, folklore, and tradition. Here are a dozen titles written and illustrated by Demi that celebrate Chinese culture.

With over 140 children’s books published to her name, the author/illustrator known simply as Demi has given readers dozens of stories to savor over the years. From the many picture book biographies she has created to the retellings of different cultural folktales, Demi provides a visual feast every time. Her authentic and original work shows a reverence toward her material and strives to uncover universal truths in both stories and pictures. Her books are not only good reads but also leave you with something to ponder.

Demi has a distinct artistic style, characterized by vivid color, exquisite detail, and the use of gold leaf, which makes the illustrations glitter and shine and imbibes them with a kind of magic. Tiny, lively figures populate her books, and intricate patterns, often resembling rich brocade, adorn clothing, furniture, buildings, even the end papers.

She is said to use the “four Chinese treasures” in every book: Chinese paintbrush, ink, ink-stone, and paper. Her commitment to traditional methods and materials is evident in The Dragon’s Tale. On the copyright page she wrote about the colors used in mixing her paints, and how “To all, powdered jade was added for good fortune!” She also noted, “The brushes were made of sheep, rabbit, goat, weasel, and wolf hairs picked in autumn for pliancy. A brush of one mouse whisker was used for extremely delicate work. Changes were made by applying the juice of the apricot seed.”

A recurring subject in her large body of work is that of ancient China. Many of her books are steeped in Chinese art, history, folklore, and tradition. Here are a dozen titles written and illustrated by Demi that celebrate Chinese culture. Happy New Year! Kung-Hsi Fa-Ts’ai!

The Dragon’s Tale and Other Animal Fables of the Chinese Zodiac   — Twelve fables rendered within circular motifs tell stories about the animals of the Chinese zodiac. Each fable leaves the reader with a morsel of wisdom to chew on. (Published by Henry Holt & Co., 1996.)

Happy, Happy Chinese New Year!  —  A simple, but charming introduction to the rituals and ideas behind Chinese New Year, from the last fifteen days of the old year spent cleaning and preparing to the first fifteen days of the new year spent celebrating. (Published by Crown Books for Young Readers, 2003.)

Happy New Year! Kung-Hsi Fa-Ts’ai!  —  A look at the traditions, zodiac, symbols, and foods associated with Chinese New Year, and illustrated with vibrant double page spreads. More information than her other new year book, but this edition is harder to find. (Published by Dragonfly Books, 1999.)

The Boy Who Painted Dragons  —  Ping paints dragons all over his house, not because he loves them, but because he is scared of them. The Heavenly Dragon gives Ping three pearls of wisdom. But in order to gain the wisdom of dragons, Ping must confront his greatest fears. (Published by Margaret K. McElderry Books, 2007.)

The Girl Who Drew a Phoenix —  When Feng Huang  attempts to draw a phoenix to attain its magical powers, she is met with ridicule. The Queen Phoenix intervenes, however, and sends Feng Huang on a journey to discover powers that enable her to draw a phoenix that comes to life off the page. (Published by Margaret K. McElderry Books, 2008.)

The Empty Pot  —  In order to choose his successor, an emperor challenges every child to grow the most beautiful flower from the seed he gives to them. Not one flower impresses the emperor. It is Ping’s empty pot which holds the truth. (Published by Henry Holt & Co., 1990.)

The Greatest Power  —  Young emperor Ping sends the children of his kingdom on a year-long quest to find the greatest power in the world. At the end of the year, children present Ping with money, weapons, beauty, and technology, but none are as great as the tiny gift a young girl gives to the emperor. (Published by Margaret K. McElderry Books, 2004.)

The Legend of Lao Tzu and The Tao Te Ching  —  An artistically stunning introduction to the legendary Chinese figure, Lao Tzu, accompanied by twenty verses from the Tao Te Ching. (Published by Margaret K. McElderry Books, 2007.)

Su Dongpo: Chinese Genius —  With rich and elaborate illustrations, Demi tells the story of the 11th century Chinese genius, Su Dongpo, whose many talents include being a great statesman, poet, philosopher, painter, architect, engineer, and humanitarian.Lee & Low Books, 2006. (Published by Lee & Low Books, 2006.)

The Magic Pillow  —  Based on a Chinese folktale about a boy who is given a magic pillow able to grant his wishes for fame, power, and wealth. But after a night of sleeping on the magic pillow, the boy is grateful for his humble life. (Published by Margaret K. McElderry Books, 2008.)

The Emperor’s New Clothes  —  A retelling of Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale, set in old, provincial China. An emperor who loves to dress in new clothes is shown who is clever and who is a fool when he walks into the province wearing what he believes are magical robes. (Published by Margaret K. McElderry Books, 2000.)

Liang and The Magic Paintbrush  —  Liang, who longs to paint, finds a magic paintbrush which can bring his subjects to life. When the greedy emperor tries to use the brush to paint treasures for himself, the magic fails, giving Liang a chance to free himself and oust the emperor forever. (Published by Henry Holt & Co., 1980.)


Cheli Mennella

Cheli has been involved with creative arts and education for most of her life, and has taught many subjects from art and books to yoga and zoology. But she has a special fondness for kid’s books, and has worked in the field for more than 20 years. She is a freelance writer and regular contributor to Valley Kids and teaches a course for adults in “Writing for Children.” She writes from Colrain, where she lives with her musician-husband, three children, and shelves full of kid’s books.

14 Stories Reveal the Mysteries of Harris Burdick

Oprn Drdsmr: Kid Lit Musings and Review by Cheli Mennella

The Mysteries of Harris Burdick Revealed

"Is there any author more mysterious than Harris Burdick? Modesty prevents me from answering this rhetorical question, but the fact remains that Harris Burdick has cast a long and strange shadow across the reading wolrd..." - Lemony Snicket

More than twenty-five years ago, writer and illustrator, Chris Van Allsburg, introduced readers to the strange and mysterious drawings of Harris Burdick. The picture book titled, The Mysteries of Harris Burdick, published by Houghton Mifflin in 1984, opens with a short tale about a curious meeting between Peter Wenders and Harris Burdick. While working in his office one day, Wenders, who worked for a book publisher, was visited by Harris Burdick, who had written and illustrated fourteen stories. Burdick brought one picture from each story to see if Mr. Wenders was interested in publishing his work. Wenders was fascinated by the drawings and asked to read the stories right away. Burdick said he’d bring the stories the next day, but was never seen again.

The fourteen black-and-white illustrations, each with a title and caption, are full of intrigue, surprise, and magic. For years, readers have imagined stories to go with these puzzling images.

Now, fourteen writers reveal the mysteries behind each of Harris Burdick’s fascinating drawings. The Mysteries of Harris Burdick, published this fall (2011) by Houghton Mifflin, includes an introduction by Lemony Snickett, the original drawings, titles, and captions by Chris Van Allsburg, and fourteen short stories by fourteen extraordinary writers. The stories are every bit as peculiar, haunting, magical, strange, surprising, creepy, and unpredictable as the original images. From mystical harp music and a levitating nun to intelligent caterpillars and a house taking off like a rocket, these stories are sure to ignite the imagination and leave you spell-bound.

The Mysteries of Harris Burdick illustrated by Chris Van Allsburg, stories written by Tabitha King, Jon Scieszka, Sherman Alexie, Gregory Maguire, Cory Doctorow, Jules Feiffer, Linda Sue Park, Walter Dean Myers, Lois Lowry, Kate DiCamillo, M.T. Anderson, Louis Sachar, Chris Van Allsburg, and Stephen King. – Published by Houghton Mifflin Books for Children, 2011. ISBN: 978-0-547-54810-4


Cheli Mennella

Cheli has been involved with creative arts and education for most of her life, and has taught many subjects from art and books to yoga and zoology. But she has a special fondness for kid’s books, and has worked in the field for more than 20 years. She is a freelance writer and regular contributor to Valley Kids and teaches a course for adults in “Writing for Children.” She writes from Colrain, where she lives with her musician-husband, three children, and shelves full of kid’s books.

‘Tis the Season for Stories: 20 Picture Books for Solstice, Christmas, Hanukkah, and Kwanzaa

Oprn Drdsmr: Kid Lit Musings and Review by Cheli Mennella

Holiday Books

Open Sesame (photo credit: Cheli Mennella)

‘Tis the season for stories. And what better way to share a story than snuggling up with your favorite kids and turning the pages of a beloved holiday book. Here are twenty suggestions for Solstice, Christmas, Hanukkah, and Kwanzaa. Some are brand new books and some are not-so-new favorites, but all are sure to get you and your kids into the holiday spirit.

  1. The Polar Express written and illustrated by Chris Van Allsburg. Published by Houghton Mifflin, 1985. A boy takes a magical Christmas Eve train ride to the North Pole.
  2. Chanukah Lights written by Michael J. Rosen and illustrated by Robert Sabuda. Published by Candlewick, 2011. Follow the Festival of Lights through time and place from Herod’s temple to an Israeli kibbutz, by way of poetry and exquisite pop-ups.
  3. Seven Candles for Kwanzaa written by Andrea Davis Pinkney and illustrated by Brian Pinkney. Published by Dial Books for Young Readers, 1993. Describes the festival of Kwanzaa, its origins and practices, while pictures follow a family through the seven-day celebration.
  4. The Longest Night written by Marion Dane Bauer and illustrated by Ted Lewin. Published by Holiday House, 2009. On the longest night of the year, a crow, a moose, and a fox think they can bring back the light, but it is the song of the chickadee that wakes the sun.
  5. The Third Gift written by Linda Sue Park and illustrated by Bagram Ibatoulline. Published by Clarion Books, 2011. A boy and his father collect the tears of myrrh trees, then bring them to market, where they sell them to three men who need a special gift for a baby.
  6. The Jolly Christmas Postman Written by Allan Ahlberg and illustrated by Janet Ahlberg. Published by LB Kids, 2001. As the Jolly Postman delivers holiday letters and gifts to fairytale characters readers can join in the fun by finding messages tucked into pocket envelopes.
  7. Herschel and the Hanukkah Goblins written by Eric A. Kimmel and illustrated by Trina Schart Hyman. Published by Holiday House, 1994. Clever Herschel of Ostropol uses pickles, eggs, and a dreidel to outwit the hill-dwelling goblins and save Hanukkah.
  8. The Little Tree written by E. E. Cummings and illustrated by Chris Raschka. Published by Hyperion books for Children, 2001. A little tree from the country and a little family from the city find each other at Christmastime.
  9. Seven Spools of Thread: A Kwanzaa Story written by Angela Shelf Medearis and illustrated by Daniel Minter. Published by Albert Whitman & Co., 2000. When given the task of turning thread into gold, seven Ashanti brothers embody the principles of Kwanzaa to attempt the impossible.
  10. The Money We’ll Save written and illustrated by Brock Cole. Published by Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2011. When Pa brings home a turkey poult to raise in the family’s 19th century New York City tenement, hilarity and problems arise, but the family pulls together and saves Christmas from being ruined.  Read the rest of this entry »

Balloons Over Broadway: The True Story of the Puppeteer of Macy’s Parade

Oprn Drdsmr: Kid Lit Musings and Review by Cheli Mennella

Open Sesame

The debut of Hilltown Families newest column, "Open Sesame" by Cheli Mennella, reviews "Balloons Over Broadway," a children's picture book that takes a look at the history behind the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade.

Open Sesame’s debut review is a hot-off-the-presses picture book about an extraordinary artist and a Thanksgiving Day parade. Balloons Over Broadway: The True Story of the Puppeteer of Macy’s Parade, written and illustrated by Melissa Sweet, tells the story of Tony Sarg, the genius behind the upside down puppets of Macy’s annual parade.

Sarg, a self-taught puppeteer, artist, and inventor, was fascinated by movement from the time he was a boy. Indeed the story opens with Sarg’s own words: “Every little movement has a meaning of its own.” Beneath his hand, marionettes would come to life, moving like real people and animals. Sarg brought his marionettes to New York City, where it didn’t take long for people to notice his special gift, including R.H. Macy’s department store. In 1923, Macy’s asked Sarg to create their holiday window display. He invented  mechanical puppets that paraded all day, enchanting passerby.

Then, in 1924, Macy’s hired Sarg to help with their very first Thanksgiving Day parade.  The parade was a huge success, and Macy’s decided to have one every year. They asked Sarg to think of something extraordinary for the parade. Sarg rose to the occasion, designing large rubber puppets filled with air and mounted on sticks.

But Sarg realized his puppets were hard to see from the ground, where crowds swelled along the sidewalks. In a brilliant stroke of creative genius, Sarg decided to make upside down marionettes, which would float above the crowd and be worked by puppeteers on the ground. And on Thanksgiving Day, 1928, his helium-filled balloon puppets rose into the air, high above the crowds, and paraded down the streets of New York City, where Sarg-inspired balloons still rise every year.

Caldecott Honor winning illustrator, Melissa Sweet captures Sarg’s playful spirit in her mix of watercolor illustrations and mixed media collages. The pictures provide a visual feast, full of wonderful details for children to savor and discover. Even the end papers are something to pour over. Sweet uses simple language to interweave story and pictures, with words sometimes leaping in and becoming part of the illustration itself. This makes for a story full of whimsy that will appeal to even the youngest reader. Children will connect right away with Tony, and delight in his ingenuous way of getting out of chores when he was a boy. Adults will find interest in this slice of history and enjoy the way Melissa Sweet tells it. A detailed author’s note and bibliography at the end adds to the experience.

Balloons Over Broadway: The True Story of the Puppeteer of Macy’s Parade by Melissa Sweet. Published by Houghton Mifflin Books for Children, 2011. – ISBN 978-0-547-19945-0


Cheli Mennella

Cheli has been involved with creative arts and education for most of her life, and has taught many subjects from art and books to yoga and zoology. But she has a special fondness for kid’s books, and has worked in the field for more than 20 years. She is a freelance writer and regular contributor to Valley Kids and teaches a course for adults in “Writing for Children.” She writes from Colrain, where she lives with her musician-husband, three children, and shelves full of kid’s books.

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