Conversation Highlights: The Sunday Edition, May 5, 2019

‘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!

  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 »

4 Books that Explore the History of Thanksgiving

Oprn Drdsmr: Kid Lit Musings and Review by Cheli Mennella

A Slice of History
Four Non-fiction Titles for Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving ties us to those colonists who nearly four hundred years ago celebrated their first harvest in a small coastal community now known as Plymouth. The holiday also ties us to the Wampanoag Indians who were vital in helping the Pilgrims survive their new world.

Every year Americans prepare their feasts of thanksgiving, each celebration an echo of that very first feast in 1621. Here are four non-fiction books that give interesting perspectives about our national holiday, dispelling some of the more romantic myths and introducing some fascinating facts. This year along with your harvest feast, go ahead and have a slice of history too.

1621: A New Look At Thanksgiving written by Catherine O’Neill Grace and Margaret M. Bruchac, with photographs by Sisse Brimberg and Cotton Coulson. In this photo essay, the Pilgrims’ first Thanksgiving feast is re-enacted at Plimoth Plantation, a living history museum in Plymouth, MA.  Recorded by National Geographic photographers over three days, the book dispels the more romantic myths of pilgrims dressed in buckles and hats, and Indians wrapped in blankets. And instead gives “a new look,” a fresh perspective, to the beginning of our national holiday. Historically accurate, with full-color photos, the book brings this important piece of history to life, and in particular, gives voice to the Wampanoag Indians’ role in helping the pilgrims to survive. (Published by National Geographic Children’s Books, Washington, D.C., 2001. ISBN: 0-79-22702-74. 48 pages.)

Eating the Plates: A Pilgrim Book of Food and Manners (The pilgrims thought about food all the time. They had to!) written by Lucille Recht Penner with illustrations selected by author. This book explores the customs, manners, and eating habits of the Pilgrims, from their first years surviving in the wilderness to their later years as successful farmers and hunters. Filled with details about the Pilgrims’ struggle for survival and how smelly, messy, and perilous it was, the book portrays their daily life, while specifically focusing on food. The book also highlights how Pilgrim survival depended on the help of native peoples. Line drawings and photographs accent the information, and with chapter titles like “Bugs for Dinner” and “We All Scream for Pudding,” readers’ curiosities will be piqued.  Pilgrim menus and recipes included. (Published by Perfection Learning, Iowa 1997. ISBN: 0-75-69410-91. 117 pages.)

Giving Thanks: A Native American Good Morning Message adapted by Chief Jake Swamp and illustrated by Erwin Printup, Jr. In this children’s version of the Iroquois Thanksgiving Address, readers can hear a message of gratitude that originated with the native peoples of New York and Canada. Traditionally spoken at the beginning of each day and at special ceremonies, the Thanksgiving Address expresses a reverence for nature and recognizes the unity among all living creatures. The message stretches the idea that there isn’t just one day of the year for giving thanks, but sees every day as an opportunity for thanksgiving. The message is also written out in the Mohawk language. Bold, color-block paintings provide a vibrant landscape for reading. (Published by Lee & Low Books, New York, 1995. ISBN: 1-88-00001-56. 24 pages.)

Thank You, Sarah: The Woman Who Saved Thanksgiving, written by Laurie Halse Anderson and illustrated by Matt Faulkner, is told in an easy conversational style and illustrated with lush drawings full of detail and historic relevance.  The book introduces a little known heroine, Sarah Hale, (who is also responsible for penning “Mary Had A Little Lamb”), and her crusade to make Thanksgiving a national holiday. Noticing how Thanksgiving was losing its importance in American traditions, Hale spent 38 years writing magazine articles and petitioning four different presidents until her perseverance and pen power finally won out. President Lincoln was persuaded by her argument that a national holiday would re-unite the union, and in 1863 he made it official. ”A Feast of Facts” outlines more information about Thanksgiving, Sarah Hale, and 1863 in history. (Published by Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, New York, 2002. ISBN: 0-68-98478-74. 40 pages.)


ABOUT THE AUTHOR

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.

16 Picture Books That Celebrate Apples

Oprn Drdsmr: Kid Lit Musings and Review by Cheli Mennella

A Bushel of Books about Apples

‘Tis the season when orchards bear autumn fruit, and cider is poured into eager cups, and the smell of pie beckons from the oven. ‘Tis the season for apples.

Hand-picked from dozens of titles, here’s a bushel of picture books that celebrate the apple. There are a few new books, books about the life cycle of apples, apple–picking, and America’s mythic hero, Johnny Appleseed, plus some apple arithmetic, and books with apple pies baked into their stories. Enjoy!  Read the rest of this entry »

Open Sesame: 5 Picture Books Present Amazing Women In History

Open Sesame: Kid Lit Musings and Review by Cheli Mennella

Five New Picture Books Present  Amazing Women In History

For Women’s History Month, here are five new picture books honoring women who made a difference in art, photography, science, sports media, and education!

One of the many aspects of the picture book I adore is that they are compact vessels of information. My children and I often have the experience of discovering little-known pieces of history and fascinating people of interest while immersed in a picture book biography. And this month has been no exception.

In the five new picture books presented here, all of which honor women in history, I was familiar with only one name. What a marvelous power the picture book holds in this regard – to tell the story of important but overlooked pioneers, to share their life and work through art and narrative, and to introduce children to the idea of dreaming big.

Here are five inspiring stories about girls who made a difference, packaged ever so delightfully in the form of a picture book.  Read the rest of this entry »

Open Sesame: Spotlight on Jerry Pinkney

Open Sesame: Kid Lit Musings and Review by Cheli Mennella

Spotlight on Jerry Pinkney
In Celebration of Black History and an Illustrious Career

In January of 2016, the American Library Association announced the highly anticipated Youth Media Awards, some of the most prestigious awards in children’s literature. The Coretta Scott King – Virginia Hamilton Award for Lifetime Achievement, which recognizes an African-American author or illustrator whose body of published work has made a significant contribution in children’s literature, was given to Jerry Pinkney. Minutes later the Laura Ingalls Wilder Award, which honors an author or illustrator whose books have made a substantial and lasting contribution to children’s literature, was awarded. Also to Jerry Pinkney. The crowd cheered wildly – history had been made.

Read the rest of this entry »

Open Sesame: End-Of-Year Round Up for Children’s Literature

Open Sesame: Kid Lit Musings and Review by Cheli Mennella

End-Of-Year Round Up

2015 has been a fantastic year for children’s literature. Every week our library bag was full of amazing books, many of which I’ve shared with you here. And I can’t let the year come to a close without telling you about just a few more!

Check out these notable picture books and middle grade and young adult novels, including one of the best narrative nonfiction books I have ever read.  Read the rest of this entry »

Open Sesame: 10 New Picture Books to Ring in Holiday Cheer

Open Sesame: Kid Lit Musings and Review by Cheli Mennella

‘Tis the Season: 10 New Picture Books to Ring in Holiday Cheer

As we enter the holiday season, and it’s celebrations of light, of togetherness, of kindnesses great and small, I am reminded again how holiday cheer sees us through the darkest time of year. Here are ten new picture books that embody the wonder and love of the holiday season.

Sharing the Bread – An Old Fashioned Thanksgiving Story is a book to be read aloud. The lyrical text presented in rhyme is ideal for sharing, much like the bread this 19th century family bakes. “We will share the risen bread./ Our made-with-love Thanksgiving spread./ Grateful to be warm and fed./ We will share the bread.” The family also shares in the work it takes to create a huge Thanksgiving feast. Each person, from child to grandparent, has their own special job in helping make the holiday special. Home-spun illustrations pay ode to the time period with an old-fashioned look. A warm and cheerful read that embodies the spirit of Thanksgiving. Read the rest of this entry »

Open Sesame: New Picture Books by Carle & Henkes

Open Sesame: Kid Lit Musings and Review by Cheli Mennella

A Pair of Irresistible New Picture Books
By Two Masters of the Craft

The Nonsense Show is the newest picture book from beloved author and illustrator, Eric Carle. The master of picture book art uses his iconic tissue paper collage to create delightfully absurd images, introducing kids to surrealism, the avant-garde movement of the early 20th century, which sought to unleash the wild imagination of the unconscious mind. Carle does not teach the concept of surrealism, rather he allows kids to experience it firsthand through his whimsical interplay of the expected and unexpected. From the cover image of a yellow duck emerging from a peeled banana and the title page with a deer sprouting a rack of flowers, to an irresistible invitation – “Welcome, friends!/ Don’t be slow./Step right up to/ The Nonsense Show!” – the crazy is contagious. Young readers will rush the stage to see the rabbit magician pull a small boy out of a top hat. In vivid color and rhyming text, a parade of illogical juxtapositions, such as a bird flying underwater, a fish swimming in a birdcage, a child in a kangaroo’s pouch, and a girl playing tennis with an apple, stretch the imagination and twist the mind. Kids will laugh out loud at the ridiculousness while pondering the possibility of the preposterous. Carle understands the inner world of children, their innate creative freedom, their penchant for play, and their ease with the silly, the strange, and the surreal. And he translates this through incomparable style and artistic genius. At 86 years old, he continues to be an innovator of the picture book and a ringmaster of entertainment. Nonsense lovers of all ages will want a first row seat at this show.

  • The Nonsense Show by Eric Carle. Published by Philomel Books, 2015. ISBN: 978-0-399-17687-6

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Open Sesame: 6 New Picture Books for Young Movers

Open Sesame: Kid Lit Musings and Review by Cheli Mennella

Things that Go!

Do you know a young child who is crazy for cranes? Who dreams of diggers and bulldozers? Who is a fan of firetrucks and a believer in buses and bikes? Well, these are for them!

Here are six new picture books featuring things that go, that move, that come to the rescue.

Perfect read-a-loud books with eye-catching illustrations, these books might move your little ones to park themselves right onto your lap.  Read the rest of this entry »

Open Sesame: 4 Summer Bedtime Stories

Open Sesame: Kid Lit Musings and Review by Cheli Mennella

Summer Bedtime Stories: Four New Picture Books Teeming with Animals

Summer nights come alive with the sounds of nocturnal creatures, with shadows moving through the dark, with the scent of night-blooming flowers and the pungent perfume of skunks.  It is the season to spy fireflies in the dewy meadow and Luna moths under the porch light, to be surprised by rabbits and frogs and deer that leap across the road in front of car headlights, and to search for the glint of eyes in the beam of flashlights. In these four new picture books, readers will find pages teeming with animals at night. Some are trying to fall asleep at the end of the day, while others are waking up to explore the nighttime world. Some are humorously portrayed, while others appear in their natural habitat. If you’re looking for a new story to read to your child at bedtime, especially a child who loves animals, try tucking in with one of these.  Read the rest of this entry »

Open Sesame: 4 New Books to Welcome Summer

Open Sesame: Kid Lit Musings and Review by Cheli Mennella

Four New Books to Welcome Summer

Welcome Summer! Welcome glorious season of long days and warm nights, perfect for swimming and ice cream and going to the circus and gazing at a sky of shimmery stars. Here are four new books – three picture books and a middle grade novel – that revel in these summer delights.

Pool by JiHyeon Lee is a beautiful example of wordless storytelling at its finest. The book opens at a public pool, where a boy waits beside the water. By the time he jumps in, the pool is full of other swimmers. He dives below the crowded surface to the depths where he meets a girl. The black, white, and gray line drawings of the surface juxtapose a world below, where colors shift and change and become brighter in colored pencils and pastels. The new friends share an aquatic adventure as they encounter fish and other interesting creatures in an imaginative, watery landscape. When they swim to the surface, all of the swimmers (drawn in black and white) leave the pool, and only the friends remain, in color. The book’s large format allows readers to dive into the wondrous illustrations and experience the feeling of being underwater and the pure joy of friendship.

  • Pool by JiHyeon Lee. Published by Chronicle Books, 2015. 56 pgs.  ISBN: 978-1452142944

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Open Sesame: Poetry Springs Forth

Open Sesame: Kid Lit Musings and Review by Cheli Mennella

April is for Poetry: Six New Books for Kids

April is National Poetry Month! And if ever there were a month for spontaneous outbursts of snowdrop-covered verse and dandelion rhymes – it’s now. After a long, grueling winter, to see the ice recede and flowers push up and bloom, to hear birdsong in the morning and to leave heavy coats behind, is poetic glee. Spring itself is living poetry. What a glorious time to share some couplets with a couple of kids, so here are six new books for young bards.  Read the rest of this entry »

Open Sesame: Celebrating Women’s History with Children’s Picture Books

Open Sesame: Kid Lit Musings and Review by Cheli Mennella

Women In History: Three New Books

For more than thirty years, the National Women’s History Project has been devoted to “writing women back into history.” They created a national clearinghouse of multicultural women’s history, which includes information, materials, resources, referrals, training and strategies to anyone interested in learning about women’s roles in American history. Their successful lobbying efforts led Congress to recognize March as Women’s History Month, which has become a time to celebrate the bold and beautiful, courageous and curious, strong, smart, and compassionate women in our collective history. We have so much to learn from their example, which is why we need to keep getting books about these women into children’s hands. Here are three new books that recognize girls with big dreams. But first, recognition of a local woman who left her imprint on American history and on our own local history… Read the rest of this entry »

Open Sesame: Celebrating Black History with Children’s Picture Books

Open Sesame: Kid Lit Musings and Review by Cheli Mennella

10 New Books Celebrating Black History

In celebration of Black History, here are 10 new books for children of all ages and the grown-ups who love them. Full of inspiration, incredible acts of heroism and bravery, and striking illustration, these are needed books not just in February, but in every month of the year.

Love Will See You Through: Martin Luther King Jr.’s Six Guiding Beliefs (as told by his niece) presents the principles of nonviolence that “Uncle M.L.” practiced and lived by. Each principle, presented in oversized font and bold, mixed-media illustration – have courage; love your enemies; fight the problem, not the person who caused it; when innocent people are hurt, others are inspired to help; resist violence of any kind; and the universe honors love – is further explained with specific actions and events of Martin Luther King Jr. ‘s life, from peaceful protests to rousing sermons.

Read the rest of this entry »

Open Sesame: 7 Picture Books That Celebrate Winter’s Whimsy

Open Sesame: Kid Lit Musings and Review by Cheli Mennella

Snowmen Stories: Picture Books That Celebrate Winter’s Whimsy

“Do you want to build a snowman?” is a question kids have been asking for far longer than the song made popular by the movie, “Frozen.” And kids will continue to ask whenever the snow falls, because building a snowman is a quintessential act of winter whimsy. One that is working in layers, whether the creator realizes it or not. At its most basic, building a person out of snow is just good, plain fun. When you add a friend or two or three into the mix, building a snowman becomes a cooperative effort, an exercise in teamwork. It requires a playful attitude and an artistic eye. And it never hurts to believe in a bit of magic. For if the stories are true, snowmen do come to life! It also calls for a certain acceptance of impermanence. As even the youngest builders discover, snowmen do not last forever. And as such, the snowman becomes the perfect symbol for the cycles of love, loss, and renewal. With snow in the forecast, isn’t it time to build a snowman? Read the rest of this entry »

Open Sesame: 11 Notable Kids’ Books of 2014

One Last List: A Few More Notable Kids’ Books of 2014

2014 saw the publication of many brilliant books for kids. My family and I were smitten with fantastic new characters and imaginative stories – many of which I reviewed here in this column.

As we ready to turn the page on another year, I have one last parting list of notable books – a few picture books, a few novels, a bit of nonfiction – to herald out 2014. Find a moment, with or without a cozy companion, and open a book today. Read the rest of this entry »

Open Sesame: 9 Picture Books Capture the Great Beauty of Fall

Autumn’s Paintbox: Picture Books That Feature Foliage

It’s that time of year when sweaters come out of hiding, and soup bubbles on the stove, when the cold descends and wood smoke rises, when morning fog gives way to crisp afternoons and long, star-filled nights. It’s that time of year when pumpkins smile from porches and apples pile up in the kitchen. It’s a time of change and preparation, of magic and mischief, of quiet and camaraderie. It’s fall in New England, and the signs of the season are abundant. Just look to the trees, the lure of leaves, where autumn’s paintbox hangs on every deciduous limb. This month’s selection of picture books, featuring one newly published book and a handful of perennial favorites, is an ode to autumn leaves, those fiery, smoldering, golden bursts of color before the landscape pales and freezes.

Fall Leaves, written by Loretta Holland and illustrated by Elly MacKay, is a brand new picture book celebrating the changing season. From the onset, the book pulls you right into its ethereal setting: an image of an autumnal forest with two children playing at the edge of a pond. While soft yellow and orange light filters through the trees, their reflection on the water shows a much different winter scene. Opening the book, readers find a multi-layered experience. The light-box illustrations were cut piece by piece from yapo (plastic) paper and set up in a three-dimensional mini theater, into which light was shone from different angles. The effect is stunning and luminescent, and captures that golden, autumnal light of the season. Throughout the scenes, the two children move in time with nature, playing, bird-watching, biking, and dancing, until fall itself leaves, and the orange, red, and umber turns to the gray, lavender, and blue of winter. Two-word lines in large print play on the meaning and usage of the words, fall and leaves, creating a poetic context for what is happening in the pictures, such as “Fall arrives/Birds leave/Leaves twist/Rain falls/”. Below these pieces of poetry, is a nonfiction component that explains what is happening in nature from a scientific standpoint. While these explanations may be too wordy for young enthusiasts, older naturalists will appreciate the information. A beautiful book to herald the season. — Published by HMH Books for Young Readers, 2014. ISBN: 978-0544106642. Read the rest of this entry »

Open Sesame: 5 Picture Books For Kindergarteners

School is the New Frontier: 5 Picture Books For First-Timers

The first day of school is a huge leap for many young children. The world of school is different than the world of home. Excitement, anxiety, curiosity, fear, and uncertainty are feelings shared by all petite pioneers as they head into the big, new territory of school. Sometimes a good story is all that’s needed to calm a fear, tickle a nerve, boost confidence, and generate joy.

Here are five new picture books for young adventurers getting ready to explore school for the first time. You’ll find an astronaut, a cat, a panda, monsters, and even a Norse goddess, venturing into the unknown, finding fun, friends, and their own brand of special… Read the rest of this entry »

Open Sesame: New Picture Books Explore Rich Themes

A Wave of New Picture Books

It’s summer! One of my family’s favorite seasons to jump into the pages of a good book. Lucky us, there’s a wave of new titles rolling off the presses. Here are eight picture book picks for young readers. You’ll find bulldogs and poodles, a panda and a pilot, a dragon, a ninja, barefoot critters, a home on wheels, and an imaginary friend. Hold on to your little ones and jump in – the story’s fine!

Have You Seen My Dragon? by Steve Light, invites readers on a city prowl and counting expedition as they help a boy find his dragon somewhere in lower Manhattan. Detailed cityscapes drawn in mostly black and white provide an urban playground for young adventurers. Numbered maps on the end papers show the story’s route through the city and add more interactive appeal. Fun seek-and-find picture book. (Candlewick Press, 2014   ISBN: 978-0763666484)

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Open Sesame: Craft & Storytelling Urge Us to Jump Into This Graphic Novel

This One Summer: A New Graphic Novel For Young Adults

Rose has returned to the summer cottage at Awago Beach, the special get-a-way her family takes every year. Her summer friend Windy is at the beach too. Rose’s memories of the cottage are happy, treasured times, but this summer feels different. Rose wants to watch horror movies instead of cartoons, she’s crushing on the teenage boy at the general store, and some of Windy’s childish habits are starting to get on her nerves. Plus her parents’ fighting is making their special retreat full of tension and sorrow.

This One Summer, the new graphic novel by cousins Mariko Tamaki and Jillian Tamaki, serves up an emotionally drawn story about change, friendship, and family. From the onset, readers are invited to jump right in, like the cover illustration of the two girls jumping into the water. And what readers may notice first is the color. Shades of blue, ranging from light gray to dark purple, are reminiscent of vintage manga and evoke a feeling of nostalgia. The blue is soft, which makes it easy to sink into the story’s experience, but it’s also somber and serious, which deepens the story’s emotional tug.

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Poem-Mobiles: Bizarre Cars & Humorous Rhymes

Crazy Car Poems

In a nod to National Poetry Month and to my youngest, an April baby who loves things that go, here is a new book filled with humorous rhymes and fantastically bizarre cars. Poem-mobiles: Crazy Car Poems is the work of the 2011-2013 US Children’s Poet Laureate, J. Patrick Lewis, and award-winning children’s poet, Douglas Florian. Together, they have created a collection of futuristic automobiles, from the Giant Bookmobile of Tomorrow and the Caterpillar Cab to the Eel-ectric Car and The Sloppy-Floppy-Nonstop-Jalopy, which will have readers wheeling with delight. The poems, cast in short lines, simple language, and clean rhymes, are highly accessible, great for reading aloud, and full of clever puns. Like the “Bathtub Car,” “With hot-water heating/ And porcelain seating,/ The bathtub is speeding – /A white limousine./ That’s sudsy with bubbles./ Forget your car troubles./ Its purpose? It doubles/ By keeping you clean!.”  Read the rest of this entry »

A Flock of New Bird Books Take Flight

A Flock of New Bird Books Take Flight

Standing in the middle of Northampton, the day before spring equinox, I looked up at the sky just as a flock of geese were veering north. The forecast may have called for freezing rain and snow, but the geese knew otherwise. They knew winter was sinking, and spring was most certainly on the rise. I love birds for that. Their return to our feeders, their songs weaving through newly budded branches, their nests taking shape under the eaves of our porch – are all signs of spring. And this year, to our delight, a flock of new bird books has landed in our reading repertoire just as the first robins have returned to our yard. A perfect complement to bird watching, here are seven new bird books to share with your own little peeps.

Mama Built A Little Nest, written by Jennifer Ward and illustrated by Steve Jenkins, is just right for the youngest bird enthusiasts. Combining a playful four-line poem with a few lines of scientific facts, the picture book introduces a specific bird and the type of nest they make for their young. Includes the weaver bird, hummingbird, penguin, falcon, woodpecker, and more. A great creative nonfiction pick for wee learners.

  • Mama Built A Little Nest written by Jennifer Ward and illustrated by Steve Jenkins. Published by Beach Lane Books, 2014. ISBN: 978-1442421165

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Black History Month: Six Featured New Titles Bring History Alive

Open Sesame: Kid Lit Musings and Review by Cheli Mennella

Five New Picks for Kids and One Just for Grown-Ups

In honor of Black History Month, I’ve selected five new kids’ books that bring history alive. Courageous individuals, unsung heroes, and influential, but little-known, events, reach through pages of text, photos, art, and poetry, and connect young readers to the struggles and achievements of the civil rights movement. And as a special addition this month, I have a book recommendation just for grown-ups, because I can’t help spreading the word about a wonderfully outrageous book related to abolitionist John Brown.

Malcolm Little: The Boy Who Grew Up To Become Malcolm X, written by his daughter, Ilyasah Shabazz, and illustrated by AG Ford, tells the story of Malcolm’s boyhood, with a special focus on his parents, Earl and Louise Little, who raised their children with love and “unstoppable optimism and faith.” The enchanted world of his mother’s garden and the stirring speeches of his father help shape Malcolm in his early years. When his father dies and Malcolm and his siblings become wards of the state, his upbringing helps forge an indomitable self-reliance, which carries him through difficult times, and eventually helps him become a zealous leader of equal rights. Lots of emotionally wrought text and rich-hued oil paintings throughout the book’s 48 pages create an intimate portrait of Malcolm’s boyhood. A good read for middle graders and beyond.

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Let’s Play: Favorite Reads Inspiring Creative-Free Play

What to Play? by Carrie St. John

Favorite Books

I am currently working with a small and energetic group of 2 and 3 year-olds. Our daily routine involves lots of food, group activities and free play with the usual suspects—cars, babies, trains, play food and building toys. We have art time with play dough, paints and simple projects. And, of course, we all (including the 2 adults) need outside time to run and breathe in some fresh air before lunch and nap. The cold, cold days mean less time to run outside. There is only so longthose short legs can trudge through the snow piles and those tiny fingers can keep warm and dry. Everyone loves a snowy day but the frigid temps often take over.

We are constantly seeking new activities to spark play and imagination. We need to keep those minds and bodies engaged through the winter cold. I turn to favorite books to add surprise games. During the fall a train book slowly became a pre-nap favorite—The Goodnight Train by June Sobel. One little one insists upon it before a final heads down, blankets on and “Have a good sleep, everybody.” Like many children with favorite books, they have it memorized. If I skip a word or say the “Choo, Choo, Sleeeeep, Sleeeep” line with different emphasis they catch me. I like to change things up for my interest but not the kids…

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Wendell Minor’s America: Premier Historical Picture Book Illustrator on Exhibit at Norman Rockwell Museum

Exhibition Celebrates 25 Years of Work by Historical Picture Book Illustrator Wendell Minor
Saturday, November 9, 2013 – Monday, May 26, 2014

Image credit: Wendell Minor, “Abraham Lincoln Comes Home,” 2008. Cover illustration for “Abraham Lincoln Comes Home” by Robert Burleigh, Henry Holt and Co. Watercolor, gouache and pencil on paper. Norman Rockwell Museum Collections. ©Wendell Minor. All rights reserved.

The Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, MA, invites families to “Wendell Minor’s America,” a special exhibition featuring more than 150 original artworks, artifacts, and references from illustrator Wendell Minor’s distinguished portfolio.

The award-winning illustrator drew his way through childhood in Aurora, Illinois, inspired by the richly illustrated magazines that were so much a part of American life during the mid-twentieth century. The exhibition celebrates his many cover illustrations and his 25th anniversary illustrating children’s books, each of which has been inspired by Minor’s love of history, art, science, and the natural world…

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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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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 www.marilyn-nelson.com/.

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


ABOUT THE AUTHOR

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


ABOUT THE AUTHOR

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)


ABOUT THE AUTHOR

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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