Ask Me by Bernard Waber, illustrated by Suzy Lee

Bernard Waber's posthumously published Ask Me is a gem of a book. And Waber's text is perfectly paired with Suzy Lee's illustrations. Ask Me is more of a moment than a story, with no real plot or revelation. As an adult reading Ask Me, it may feel like a memory to you - from your own childhood or from your children's. A father and daughter head out on a walk, the daughter gently commanding her father to, "Ask me what I like." He responds, his words in a faded blue - no quotation marks are used. The girl's answers sometimes lead to more questions and sometimes lead to her reply, "Ask me what else I like." Her answers are perfectly childlike and never coy, syrupy or clearly an adult trying to write a child's voice. Which is why reading Ask Me feels like a memory - you know you have heard these questions asked and answered before, maybe even by your younger self.

Sometimes when asked if she likes a thing, as with ice cream cones, the little girl will respond, "No, I love, love love ice cream cones." Waber captures another charmingly childish trait when the little girl says, "Ask me some more I likes," and, "Now ask me a How come?" as she and her father meander through the park. The day ends sweetly, with goodnights, teddys, tuck-ins and a final "Ask me," when the little girl says, "Ask me if I want another good night kiss?" Suzy Lee, a magnificent illustrator of her own books (my reviews here) brings a perfect pace and scope to the meandering text, keeping it moving with her gorgeous illustrations of a park in the fall. Sticking to a limited color palette also strengthens and supports the text and always feels in sync. Lee's colored pencil illustrations capture the movement, ebullience and joy of the little girl as she experiences, explores and enjoys the world around her and the attention of her father simultaneously.

Source: Review Copy


In a Village by the Sea by Muon Van, illustrated by April Chu

Muon Van and April Chu's In a Village by the Sea is the kind of book that always makes me wonder what kind of working relationship the author and illustrator have. Whatever kind of communication the two shared during the illustrating of this book, Van's text is a strong, poetic foundation upon which Chu hangs her elegant, detailed, inviting illustrations.

In a Village by the Sea is a circular story with a rhythmic, almost nursery rhyme pace, calling to mind "The House that Jack Built." It begins, "In a fishing village by the sea there is a small house. In that house, high above the waves, is a kitchen." At sea, a father and fisherman weather a storm while at home in the kitchen, his wife and baby await his return. Linking the two and moving the story forward are the family dog and a creative cricket. As noodle soup steams over the fire in the kitchen where the mother cooks and the sleeps child stretches and yawns, "tucked in the shadows is a dusty hole," where a "brown cricket, humming and painting." With brushes in all four hands, the cricket paints a stormy ocean scene where a fisherman, worry on his face, opens a special box that holds photographs of his family and home and an origami cricket.

The final illustration shows the cricket, who we saw preparing to paint before the start of the story, signing a painting with the same initials as the illustrator, AC. In her author's note, Muon tells readers that her story was inspired by her father, who was a fisherman, and her ancestral village in Central Vietnam. Just like the family in In a Village by the Sea, Muon's family would wait and wonder where her father was, "if he found the catch he was looking for, and when he was returning home again, safe and sound."

I love the simple, circular story of In a Village by the Sea, but it is Chu's illustrations that draw me in and keep me returning to this beautiful book. Chu, who also illustrated the superb Ada Byron Lovelace and the Thinking Machine and the notable book of poems and prose, Summoning the Phoenix, began her career as an architect. Her style is warn and inviting and openly appealing. This, Chu's strong black lines and attention to detail call to mind the marvelous David Wiesner. I can't wait to see what April Chu does next!

One final note, both In a Village by the Sea and Ada Byron Lovelace and the Thinking Machine are both published by Creston Books, a brand new children's book publisher based in Northern California dedicated to resurrecting the "golden age of picture books, when fine books were edited and published despite not being blockbusters." Creston Books's books, which are printed IN THE USA, are beautifully packaged and standout on the shelves for what is on the outside as well as the inside. Best of all? Creston Books was founded by children's book author Marissa Moss! You can read my reviews of many of her books here.

Source: Review Copy


The Perfect Gift for the Writer in Your Life! The Children's Picture Book Writers & Illustrators Conference, January 23 & 24, 2016

If you have ever thought about writing or illustrating a picture book or you have a manuscript that you are working on, you definitely need to sign up for Book Passage's Children's Picture Book Writers and Illustrators Conference at the end of January. I've been to the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators summer conference in Los Angeles twice and it was an experience I'll never forget - and I am nether a children's book writer nor illustrator. As you might imagine, the community of people who create, publish and agent children's books is a wonderful one and the opportunity to be in this creative environment is stimulating and enriching, whatever your level of interest and activity. The conference, hosted by the fantastic independent bookstore Book Passage, is in Corte Madera in Marin County - just across the bay from San Francisco and next to Northern California's Wine Country. Definitely a win-win!

Check out the information here or view the flyer below to see the details and faculty:


Goodbye, Stranger by Rebecca Stead 287pp, RL: MIDDLE GRADE

Rebecca Stead is the author of four books, two of which, Liar & Spy and the Newbery Medal winner, When You Reach Me, I have reviewed here. When You Reach Me is a book that will stay with me the rest of my life. I shy away from making Top 5 or Top 10 lists, but I know that every time I see the cover for this book I will feel a thud of emotion and recall what a powerful experience reading that book was. And I know that I will have the same experience in the future after reading Stead's new novel, Goodbye Stranger. Stead is a gifted writer and a masterful storyteller. She reminds me of one of the few novelists for adults I consistently read and always find gratifying, Kate Morton. Morton's novels, which are rich with compelling characters, weave stories from the past and present, revealing the connection between the two at the end of the story and always delivering an emotional punch, one that has made me gasp out loud before. While Morton - and Stead's - novels are anything but formulaic, they both employ similar formulas for storytelling that keep me engaged and guessing. Having read so many books, I can often see a plot twist pages in advance (and I am no fun to watch movies with) but I never see coming the surprises and rewards Stead (and Morton) always have in store.

Of course, this also makes writing a review a challenge. Goodbye, Stranger divides page time between Bridge, Sherm and an unknown, first person narrator. Bridge and Sherm's stories unfold at the same time, but the unknown narrator's story takes place on Valentine's Day, with Bridge and Sherm's storylines catching up by the end of the novel. Stead has the incredible ability to write a relatively short book that packs an amazing amount of detail and layers into the story. Bridget Barsamian is a seventh grader who is part of a tight trio of friends who have agreed never to fight and never to end their friendship after one of the three experiences the end of her parent's marriage. Bridge is also the survivor of a traumatic accident that took four surgeries and a year of recovery. When she was eight, Bridge was rollerskating with Tab, their mothers walking a few yards behind, and, distracted by a VW Bug and her version of the "Punch Buggy" game, she was hit by a car. Except for a recurring nightmare, Bridge is fully recovered, although something a nurse said to her on the day she was discharged changed the way she thought about herself. The nurse told her that she must have been put on earth for a reason, to survive that kind of accident.

Sherm is also in seventh grade. While he is part of Bridge's story, his narrative comes in the form of letters to his grandfather, Nonno Gio. Bridge and Sherm connect when they discover they are both signed up for Tech Crew with Mr. Partridge, who also leads the Banana Splits Book Club for kids of divorced parents. Emily, the third in Bridge's circle of friends, is in the Banana Splits club. She is also a star soccer player and a pretty girl who is hitting puberty harder than her best friends. Then there is Tab, little sister to Celeste and newly radicalized feminist, thanks to her English teacher, Ms. Berman, who prefers to be called "Berperson." Together, the three friends weather the challenges that are part of growing older, growing up and discovering who you are. Stead takes Goodbye, Stranger into the 21st century when she has Em become involved with a popular eighth grade boy who encourages her to text increasingly inappropriate pictures of herself to him. Talking to this boy, Bridge thinks to herself, "Patrick was only one grade above them, but something about him was older, as if he'd crossed a line Bridge couldn't even see yet."

I realize that at this point, I really haven't told you much about Goodbye, Stranger that might lead you to believe it's as amazing as I say it is, and that is in part because of what I can't say about it. But it's also because Stead takes threads of everyday life and weaves them together to make something larger and more meaningful, much like the Georges Seurat painting pointillist painting that was at the center of Liar & Spy. Small details like Hermey, a character from a television show that Bridge and her older brother Jamie quote to each other, Mr. P buying black and white cookies from Nussbaum's for the Banana Splits and a pair of cat ears that become a "comforting presence" add up to something bigger. But it is the emotional complexity of Stead's writing that is most powerful and unforgettable. While talking about the most moving storyline in the book would be too much of a reveal, there is another emotionally mighty moment that comes when a character reflects on a betrayal of trust, asking, "Who is the real you? The person who did something awful, or the one who's horrified by the awful thing you did? Is one part of you allowed to forgive the other?" The character does something I think suspect is universal among adolescent girls - sharing a secret you promised to keep. In Goodbye, Stranger, this sharing is done as a way to reconnect with a friend who has begun distancing herself, a friend who has also begun to reveal a deep, wide streak of meanness. Stead describes the momentary, euphoric connection that this sharing brings and also the anguish, with a clarity that brought me vividly back to my own adolescence and my own missteps.

In the end, as with all her books, Stead tells a story about connections between people, connections that ultimately are about love and compassion. The connections may be tenuous and strained and characters may find themselves alone and hurt, but they always find their way to each other.

Source: Purchased

Other books by Rebecca Stead:

Another example of masterful storytelling 
that will make you gasp:

Search and Spot Animals! by Laura Ljungkvist

Search and Spoth Animals! by Laura Lungkvist, Swedish artist and designer, is the perfect book for little listeners, and just plain fun to look at. Adults will appreciate Ljungkvist's attention to design and color palette, her illustrations often having the feel of a sophisticated wallpaper.

Ljungkvist begins in the city with a pretty tough challenge - find 10 cats looking out their windows. From there, readers search for seven specific dogs amidst a sea of dogs, some illustrations and some from photographs. Search and Spoth Animals! alternates between easy finds with larger images and harder finds on pages packed with details, like the forest page where you need to find rabbits and squirrels and the page filled with bugs. There is always more than one challenge per page, making Search and Spoth Animals! fun that can be spread over several readings.

Follow-the-Line Books by Laura Ljungkvist:

Great Look-and-Find books by Britta Teckentrup

Source: Review Copy


Who Done It? by Olivier Tallec

Olivier Tallec has published over sixty children's books in his native France and a handful of them, like the brilliant Waterloo and Trafalgar, have made it across the Atlantic. Happily, his very creative and stealthily hilarious Who Done It? has been published here. The book, which is almost 12 inches tall and only 6 inches wide, needs to be turned horizontally to be read. Each two page spread asks a questions then provides a line up of possible suspects.

Who played with the mean cat? That one is pretty easy to spot. So is the question, Who ate all the jam? Nevertheless, it is fun to pore over the perps. Who didn't get enough sleep? Who forgot a swimsuit? and Who is shy about dancing? are a bit more subtle and require some closer looking. Even when you spot who done it, it's still fun to keep looking at the animals and kids on the page - there is always something to see. My favorite in Who Done It? - Who couldn't hold it?

Source: Review Copy


GLOW: Animals with Their Own Night-Lights by W. H. Beck

I absolutely love GLOW by W. H. Beck, both for the subject matter and the playful way in which she presents it. Beck introduces readers to the word bioluminescence then walks them through the natural world, on land an in water, examining creatures that have this rare quality as well as the hows and whys as to their glow. GLOW, which is filled with stunning photographs on a black background, works on two levels, making it perfect for a wide age range of listeners and readers. Text in a larger font is informative and inquisitive while smaller text provides more details older readers will find intriguing, like the names of the creatures and why they make light.

Beck informs readers early on that the majority of bioluminescent animals live in the water because sunlight can't reach very far under the waves. On the page with the glowing sucker octopus, seen above, the smaller text lets readers know that water covers two-thirds of the earth and that 80% of all life forms are found in the ocean.

An aspect of GLOW that I found especially fascinating comes in the back matter where Beck tells readers that most bioluminescent animals are the size of an apple or smaller. Because of their size and habitat, they are incredibly hard to photograph. Because of this, Beck includes an index of the animals found in the book with their name, size and the depth at which they can be found. The images that go with this information, like the two above, are drawings that highlight the areas where the bioluminescence occurs. GLOW is the perfect introduction to this amazing aspect of the natural world that is sure to spark further inquiry in readers of all ages!

Source: Review Copy


Mother Bruce by Ryan T. Higgins

I had been seeing glimpses of Mother Bruce by Ryan T Higgins here and there on the internet and kept meaning to get a copy. The cover art alone is eye catching, not to mention the title. Once I finally got my hands on a copy, I was not disappointed! Mother Bruce is a hilarious book that is a joy to read out loud, which I did repeatedly last week, to everyone from the pre-kinders to the fifth graders, and I'm going to read it again this week. The one downside is that, when I read out loud, I don't always get a good look at the pictures and Higgins's illustrations are magnificent. They evoke so many things, from graphic novels to comic strips to animation to landscape painting, and the facial expressions and body language of Bruce and the geese are priceless. 

Best, of all, Mother Bruce is such a smart, clever book. Higgins's premise brilliant and the way he tells his story is very engaging. Bruce is a bear who is a grump. But, he is a grump who has a fondness for one thing - eggs. Bruce collects eggs from all over the forest, but he does not eat them raw like other bears. No, Bruce cooks them into "fancy recipes that he found on the internet." When Bruce finds a recipe for "hard-boiled goose eggs drizzled in honey-salmon sauce," he grabs his cart and goes shopping, which makes for my favorite illustration in the book - Bruce, hip deep in a river, his cart filling up with fish.

Bruce collects his eggs, asking Mrs. Goose if they are "free-range organic,"and goes home to cook. A small hitch sends him out to fetch more wood and when he returns, he finds he is the "victim of mistaken identity!" Despite his best efforts to return the goslings, they have imprinted on Bruce and he is in it for the long haul, as you can see in my second favorite illustration in Mother Bruce on the left.

The humor continues as Bruce tries to convince the geese to migrate. When nothing works, Bruce forgoes hibernation to take the geese to Miami by bus. There, they "laze about at the beach in tacky shirts, sipping ice-cold lemonade, while Bruce dreams of new recipes - that don't hatch!" And, proving his is a truly gifted author and illustrator, the final pages of Mother Bruce show one of the geese plopped in the sand, staring at a newly hatched sea turtle who is gazing up at him asking, "Mama?" On top of all the other praise I have for Mother Bruce, what I, as a librarian, value most about this book are all the different conversational topics it brings up. When I read Mother Bruce, I get to talk to the kids about hibernation, migration, nursery rhymes, the difference between ducks and geese and egg preferences. However, my favorite question comes at the end of the book when I ask the kids, "Why do you think the author chose a baby turtle to say, 'Mama' to the goose?" This is always thought provoking and the answers range from interesting to hilarious. I can't wait to see what Ryan T. Higgins does next!

And, for those of you with kids in 2nd - 5th grade who are lucky enough to live in or near Kittery Maine, Ryan T. Higgins runs a summer camp!!! I wonder if he would let me crash it...

Source: Review Copy

The Bear Report by Thyra Heder

I fell in love with Thyra Heder in 2013 when her book FraidyZoo was published. FraidyZoo bursts with creativity, imagination and familial love that you rarely see expressed so authentically in a picture book. With Bear Report, Heder delivers yet another magnificent picture book that is filled with imagination and playfulness.

Using panels, full page illustrations, few words and an icy blue palette, Heder tells the story of Sophie, a kid who cuts some corners on her homework so that she can watch television. Her class is studying the Arctic and she has been asked to find three facts about polar bears. With increasing sloppiness, she writes, "they are big. they eat things. They are mean." Then she skips off to the living room.

Olafur is a polar bear who is short for his age and ready to take Sophie on a journey. She's reluctant at first, but once she agrees the magic begins. Heder has a superb author's note at the end of The Bear Report that adds to the wonder of this book. She writes about a trip she made to Iceland in 2014 where she took a guided hike of a glacier. Of the somewhat perilous tour, she writes, "What at first had felt like nothing but ice now seemed to have a personality, a heartbeat." This is conveyed, both in Sophie's initial thoughts on polar bears and in Heder's illustrations (and Sophie's experiences with Olafur) as one seemingly expansive, white and barren land becomes a musical terrain filled with (sometimes hidden) life and adventure.

The Bear Report is such a simple, beautiful book that I am reluctant to heap theory upon it, but . . . I went to a conference for educators dedicated to "project based learning" in which students immerse themselves in a subject across all disciplines for several weeks and Heder's books remind of of innovative ways of teaching that were discussed. Authentic learning (learning through applying knowledge in real-life contexts and situations) and hands-on learning, along with "student buy-in" were concepts on the table. When I think about Sophie's experience in The Bear Report, it seems like the perfect example of all three of these things. Of course we can't send students to the Arctic to hang with a polar bear for the day to get them to buy-in to a lesson, but I have no doubt that more creative thinking, the kind that Heder has displays in both of her picture books (in FraidyZoo, the family of a little girl who is scared to visit the zoo try to find out what's scaring her by making sculptures of zoo animals using sheets, sleeping bags, cardboard boxes and themselves) would go a long way towards engaging students and igniting a passion for what they are learning. While I love every page of The Bear Report, the spread that speaks most to me is the final one where Sophie is back home and working, now with fervor and dedication, on her Bear Report, where pages of writing, pictures, sculptures and diagrams spread across the living room and covering up the television. Somehow, what we teach our children needs to inspire the same buy-in that Sophie's time with Olafur spurred in her.

Source: Review Copy


Ada Byron Lovelace and the Thinking Machine by Laurie Wallmark, illustrated by April Chu, 40pp, RL 3

It's pretty cool that, on the 200th anniversary of her birth, there have been three books (fiction, graphic novel and narrative non-fiction) published featuring Ada Lovelace. Ada Byron Lovelace is the person considered by many to be the inventor of computer programming and also the daughter of notorious romantic poet Lord Byron. She's also a wonderful role model in this age of GlodieBlox, STEM and Rosie Revere, Engineer. Happily, Ada Byron Lovelace and the Thinking Machine by Laurie Wallmark and illustrated by April Chu, the third book featuring Ada Lovelace to be published this year, is a biographical picture book that is accessible to readers of all ages. Chu's illustrations are filled with life and movement (and Ada's loyal cat by her side for most of the book) and call to mind the work of Brian Selznick. Add to this the fact that Ada Byron Lovelace and the Thinking Machine is published by Creston Books, a relatively new publisher dedicated to putting out a broad range of quality picture books - that are printed in the United States - and you have an absolutely gorgeous book in your hands!

It seems perfectly fitting that a picture book biography of Ada Byron Lovelace be written by a teacher of computer science and illustrated by an architect. Wallmark focuses on aspects of Lovelace's life in a way that will appeal to young readers, beginning with the fact that, while her father was a famous writer, and "Ada was born into a world of poetry," it was "numbers, not words, that captured her imagination." She goes on to share that Ada's mother, who had a passion for geometry, was called the "Princess of Parallelograms." As a child, Ada was fascinated by birds and flight and, through a series of equations and observations, she builds a set of real wings.

Wallmark goes on to write of the case of measles that temporarily blinded and paralyzed Ada. Her full recovery took three years, but her mother was always at her bedside, keeping her mind sharp with mathematical problems. When Ada was ready, her mother hired Mary Fairfax Sommerville, the well known scientist and mathematician who, as Wallmark writes, "was living proof that girls could do math and do it well." It's hard to imagine a time in recent history when this needed to be proved and yet, 200 years later, there is still such a noticeable dearth of women in the sciences that newspaper articles are written about it, organizations and scholarships are created to reverse this and special "girl versions" of engineering toys are created to address this.

Through Sommerville, Ada makes new connections in the world of mathematics and science, including Charles Babbage, the man who originated the concept of the programmable computer. It was Ada Lovelace who, after poring over Babbage's thirty lab books filled with notes about his Analytical Engine, discovered that, without mathematical instructions, the machine would be a "useless pile of metal parts." Babbage never finished his Analytical Machine, so Lovelace never got to see her program run. But, as the final page of Ada Byron Lovelace and the Thinking Machine tells us, more than "one hundred years beofre the invention of the modern computer, Ada had glimpsed the future and created a new profession - computer programming." What's more, Ada was not lost to the pages of history. There is a computer language named after her and it is used, most appropriately, to guide modern flying machines. I hope that Wallmark and Chu have another book about Lovelace in the works, one that will delve a bit deeper into the Analytical Machine itself, and possibly more about what Lovelace's adult life was like living as a lady mathematician in London in the 1850s.

Other books about Ada, or with Ada as an (anachronistic) character...

The Wollstonecraft Detective Agency: The Case of the Missing Moonstone by Jordan Stratford, illustrated by Kelly Murphy

The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage by Sydney Padua 
(review to come!)

Source: Review Copy


Secret Coders Book 1: Get With the Program! by Gene Luen Yang & Mike Holmes, 88 pp, RL 4

Binary code. Computer programming. New town and new school. Gene Luen Yang, graphic novelist extraordinaire, is great storyteller, whatever subject he focuses on. Yang moves with ease from literary historical fiction like Boxers & Saints, to superheroes, like The Shadow Hero, Avatar, the Last Airbender and Superman, and on to everyday life, like Level Up, American Born Chinese, and The Eternal Smile. As a former high school computer science teacher, who made comics at night, Yang is a big supporter of teacher kids to code at an early age and his newest graphic novel seriesSecret Coders: Get With the Program!, created with Mike Holmes, bringing what Yang calls a "Saturday morning energy" to it, does just that.is designed to do just that. There is even an excellent website for the book filled with great instructional videos, coding activities, including a downloadable file that lets you create Little Guy, the robot from the book, on a 3D printer!

Stately Academy, the setting of Secret Coders: Get With the Program!, is a bit like Hogwarts. As Yang says, it's a secret school that "teaches coding instead of magic." And, as Yang points out, coding is even better than magic because you can do it at home! Hopper is new to the slightly creepy, sort of mysterious Stately Academy. She gets pudding chucked at her head, makes a fool of herself in Mandarin class and at lunch her earrings, shaped like the number 7, trigger a startling reaction in a weird bird.

Seeing this oddity, Eni, son of a software engineer, comes over to investigate. Besides having some mad skills on the basketball court, Eni has a solid grasp of binary numbers and explains the controlling binary code to Hopper with a cool demonstration using pennies and chalk. Once Hopper gets it, the two experiment on the bird and begin to understand why the number 9 appears all over the school. There seem to be secret codes everywhere at Stately Academy and as Eni, his buddy Josh and Hopper break them they travel deeper and deeper into the secrets of the school and the crusty old janitor, Mr. Bee.

Some secrets are exposed and even more are unearthed by the end of Secret Coders: Get With the Program!, which has a bit of a cliffhanger. Book 1 is a great set up, focusing on making sure that readers understand binary code (over more character  and plot development) before moving on to the next book in the series, Secret Coders: Paths & Portals, which comes out in January of 2016!

Source: Review Copy