Goldfish Ghost


Written by Lemony Snicket, Illustrated by Lisa Brown

Roaring Brook Press, 2017

Goldfish Ghost was born on the surface of the water in a bowl on the dresser in a boy’s room.

The plot in a nutshell: A lonely ghost looks for company.

Goldfish Ghost gets bored in the bowl so he floats up and out the window, in search of someone to talk to. He wanders through the town, avoiding the lighthouse that is rumored to be haunted. The birds near the docks are yelling about the fishing boats and aren’t particularly good company. The people in the town are all busy with various activities and no one noticed pays him any attention. He is pleased to see a bunch of other fish ghosts floating above the ocean and he joins them for a while, but doesn’t feel at home there. He returns to his bowl and finds a new living goldfish in his old home. He hears a voice saying it’s looking for company and he follows it to the lighthouse where he meets the ghost of the former lighthouse keeper. He asks if she is all alone and she tells him that she’s not alone anymore and they live there happily together.

Bookshelf favorites Lemony Snicket and Lisa Brown blend the macabre with the sentimental in this unusual story. The story starts immediately after the main character has died, which is definitely something different for a picture book. There’s a sense of detachment that follows Goldfish Ghost as he travels through his afterlife and you can tell that even among those who are similar to him, he feels different. So when he finally meets the lighthouse keeper, who seems to be in the same situation as him, it makes for a wonderful conclusion, filled with connection and contentment.


These two seem pretty content together.

Ms. Brown’s artwork is done with India ink and watercolor and is full of details, especially in the illustrations of the beach and town, filled with people going about their business. What I love about this is how clearly it shows that someone can feel lonely and isolated, even when they are surrounded by people. There is nothing frightening in the depiction of the ghosts in this book and the lighthouse keeper is depicted as kind and cozy, wrapped up in a warm coat and scarf. I can see comparisons here to people suffering from depression, moving to a new town or just getting over a breakup or loss and it emphasizes the importance of finding someone to connect to, which is a great takeaway. This book gave me a lot of food for thought and I liked it quite a bit.

And what did we learn? What I take away from this book is that even when you feel all alone in the world, there is almost always someone out there somewhere who is looking for someone just like you.


What to Do With a Box


Written by Jane Yolen, Illustrated by Chris Sheban

Creative Editions, 2016

A box! A box is a strange device.

The plot in a nutshell: There are lots of ways to play with an empty box.

A couple of kids and their dog discover a large empty box and explore all the different ways that they can use their imagination to transform it into whatever they want it to be. Some of the things they do include using it as a quiet place to read a book, pretending it’s a grand palace or just sitting in it to look out at the night sky. Inside the box, they can feel safe from pretend dinosaurs or they can welcome their doll friends for a tea party. They can add their own artwork to the box to make it a beach or a forest and even use the box as a car or boat to travel to faraway lands.


Now I want a box.

Author Jane Yolen taps into the world’s most amazing and versatile plaything with this story that celebrates the amazing potential of an empty box. Told in a playful rhyme, it offers lots of suggestions for both playful time and quiet time and does a great job of leaving lots of places for kids to fill in their own details and use their own imaginations. I love that it shows that you can play with it in exciting, active ways as well as calm and quiet ways.

Illustrator Chris Sheban fills the pages with images from boxes, including shipping labels, box dimension stickers, folded edges, remnants of packing tape and printed numbers, which make it seem that the entire book itself was put together on a cardboard box. The two children in this book are a red-headed boy and a black-haired girl with glasses, showing the unisex appeal of a box. It’s a great reminder, especially in this very technological age, that sometimes the simplest things can be the most gratifying.

And what did we learn? What I take away from this book is that with a good imagination, a box is never ‘just a box.’

Thank You and Goodnight


Written and Illustrated by Patrick McDonnell

2015, Hachette Book Group

The sun set, the moon rose, and Maggie helped Clement button his favorite pajamas – the ones with the blue and white stripes.

The plot in a nutshell: Three special friends have a pajama party.

Jean and Alan Alexander show up at Clement’s house for a pajama party. Clement is pretty much ready for bed already, but the three friends have a wonderful time together first. They dance, play, do some yoga, have some food and make a wish on a shooting star. When they hear a bird singing outside, they ask Maggie if it’s time for bed and she tells them it is. So they wash up and get ready. Maggie tucks them in and reads a story, but before they go to sleep, she asks them to say what they are thankful for about the day and they list all the things they did. She kisses them and they all say ‘thank you.’

Bookshelf favorite Patrick McDonnell gives us so much more than a bedtime book here. It’s actually a lovely homage to some classic children’s books and their creators. Maggie is a nod to Margaret Wise Brown and Clement is a rabbit in blue and white pajamas, just like in Goodnight Moon, which was illustrated by Clement Hurd. Jean is an elephant, just like in Jean de Brunhoff’s Babar books and Alan Alexander is a ‘silly old bear’ just like A.A. Milne’s most famous character. But even if you don’t recognize these references, the book is beautiful in its appreciation for the little things that make every day special.

Nom Nom

It’s all about the noms.

The artwork is done in pen and ink, pencil and watercolor on handmade paper, with soft colors and wonderful little touches, such as the memorable curtained window from Goodnight Moon. As the book ends, we see that Maggie is actually curled up in bed with her three stuffed toys, which tells us this was in her imagination, as all of these characters got their starts in the imaginations of wonderful writers and artists. The concept of gratitude is always an important one to remember, especially in contemporary times when complaining is much more prevalent. This is a really special book that means more if you grew up with Pooh, Babar and the sleepy little bunny in the ‘great green room.’

And what did we learn? What I take away from this book is that life is so much sweeter when you take a moment here and there to recognize and appreciate the things you love.

Me Tall, You Small


Written and Illustrated by Lilli L’Arronge

Owlkid Books, 2014

Me tall. You small.

The plot in a nutshell:  A parent and child compare and contrast.

The parent can kick a soccer ball farther than the child can.  The child has tons of energy to play, but the parent can get tired out sometimes. (But they still have fun playing together.) They eat the same things, but in different quantities. When exploring, the parent leads the way, but the child points out all the sights. They can both be silly. When the child is loud, the parent sometimes has to shush them. The parent sometimes deals with unpleasant things like getting wet in order to keep the child from having to deal with them. The parent is smart, but sometimes the child knows how to outsmart them. When the child is hurt, the parent feels pain, too. They love each other and belong together.

Author/illustrator Lilli L’Arronge originally wrote this book in her native German.  It took a few years before it was translated into English and published here in the US. The parent and child here are anthropomorphic critters (possible weasels or otters) and they are genderless, leaving it open so that it can be relatable to any combination of parent and child reading it together. I’m sure any reader will see themselves somewhere in this book and the cool thing is that it could be on either side. I love that the parent here recognizes the good things about their little one while also acknowledging some of the more difficult aspects of parenthood. The take home message is really sweet.

Cool and cooler

It’s the umbrella at the top that ups the coolness factor here.

The artwork is so appealing, sometimes with only minimal background details on the page. Our focus here is on these two characters and the relationship they have, which is made up of all these moments and characteristics.  If I were reading it to my child, I’m sure it would lead into wonderful conversations about the things we have in common and the ways in which our personalities work together in harmony. In the first image, we see the parent as tall and the child as small, but towards the end, the child is on a slide which makes them the tall one, foreshadowing a possible future when the roles between these two may change. It’s a wonderful little book that will stay with you for a while.

And what did we learn?  What I take away from this book is that no matter how we are similar or different, parents and children usually find a way to enjoy being together.

Peanut and Fifi Have a Ball


Written by Randall de Sève, Illustrated by Paul Schmid

Dial Books for Young Readers, 2013

Peanut had a ball.

The plot in a nutshell: Two sisters want to play with the same toy.

Fifi wants to play with Peanut’s new ball. She tries to take it from her, then she tries asking nicely, but Peanut doesn’t want to share it. Fifi suggests dressing the ball up or playing pretend games with it, but Peanut isn’t interested. Fifi brings in a seal named Bob and offers Peanut the opportunity to play with him instead and after some consideration, Peanut agrees. But by then, Fifi has become attached to Bob and now she doesn’t want to share. Peanut considers her ball and tries to suggest a new game to her sister.

Author Randall de Sève based this story on a conversation between her two daughters, which is probably why the exchange feels so grounded, even when it gets quirky. I really like that Fifi gets creative and tries to offer Peanut something else of value, rather than just begging or nagging. And I particularly like Fifi’s realization that what she has to offer is actually pretty cool and worth enjoying for herself. While there is a conflict at the heart of the story, no one ever seems angry and it’s all done with a sense of fun.


I would totally love to bake with Fifi.

Paul Schmid’s digital illustrations keep that sense of fun. The girls seem to be modeled on Ms. de Sève’s actual daughters, based on the images of them included in The Duchess of Whimsy. But there’s a neat twist here, too. Peanut is drawn as a collection of round shapes and soft rounded edges, mirroring the ball she is holding. Fifi, on the other hand, is all angles and sharp corners. In the final image, though, you can see the girls are playing together, with both the ball and Bob the seal, travelling through space in an imaginary rocket, with shapes of all kinds melding together. It’s a cute touch that you might not even notice, but it beautifully conveys the friendship between these two.

And what did we learn? What I take away from this book is that there are usually options around you that are as cool (or even cooler) than the one thing you can’t have.



Written and Illustrated by Tony DiTerlizzi

Aladdin Paperbacks, 2001

Ted blew into my house one Saturday morning.

The plot in a nutshell: A boy and his imaginary friend have fun together.

The main character is a boy whose father is busy and distracted. Ted, an imaginary pink creature with long ears and a big grin comes into the boy’s life and the two of them play together, having a wonderful time. When the boy is planning to go to the movies with his dad, Ted suggests giving him a shave and haircut first, which results in the boy’s father taking him to a proper barber to fix the damage done by Ted. They paint pictures on the wall to try to show Dad that Ted is real, but Dad just gets angry and doesn’t even look at them. Remembering that Dad likes to swim, they fill the house with water, but Dad is furious and forbids the boy to play with Ted anymore. The boy runs away to find Ted at the playground and learns that Ted was once his father’s imaginary friend, too. When Dad shows up, Ted helps the boy find a toy his father had lost when he was young and then his father can see Ted, too. They all go home to play together.

Author/illustrator Tony DiTerlizzi is a major advocate of imagination and this book showcases the importance he places on it. The boy in this book is never named, which is a subtle little detail that allows the reader to even imagine more about his character. I was not expecting the ending, in which the boy’s father had known Ted when he was a boy. It allows him to change and grow in response to the memory of his own imagination, which will hopefully spur some parents reading the book to give in to their imaginations a little bit more. Mr. DiTerlizzi dedicates the book to his parents, who clearly encouraged him to dream and play.


Ted is just so proud of himself here!

Of course, in a book about an imaginary friend, the artwork plays a large role in showing the reader what is going on. The illustrations here are detailed and colorful, full of whimsy and fun, but also grounded in reality in the surroundings, which makes Ted seem even more impressive in comparison. Ted himself is a delight, with his pudgy tummy and floppy ears. When I presented my copy to the author for him to sign, he seemed genuinely surprised at my choice of the book. He was one of the co-moderators of the Inspiration Day event and currently has his own exhibit showcased in the Norman Rockwell Museum, entitled Never Abandon Imagination, which is what he wrote in my copy of Ted. Trust me, sir, that is advice I will always follow.

And what did we learn? What I take away from this book is that imagination is an important part of a full life, no matter how old you are.

Otis and the Kittens


Written and Illustrated by Loren Long

Philomel Books, 2016

It was hot and dry on the farm where the friendly little tractor named Otis lived.

The plot in a nutshell: A brave tractor rescues some kittens.

Otis the tractor likes to relax in the barn and play tug-of-war with the bull and his other friends on the farm. One day, he is in the field with the animals when he sees smoke coming from the barn and an orange cat running toward it. Otis bravely runs into the barn after the cat and realizes she has kittens in the hayloft. He carries five kittens from the burning building, but he can tell from the mother cat’s reaction that this isn’t all of them. Otis goes back into the barn to get the last one, who jumps to the floor and runs to safety. Then the floor collapses and Otis falls through. The fire engine arrives, but the dry weather and lack of rain means there’s not enough water to put out the fire. The animals realize Otis is inside and they rush in to help. Working together (and using their tug-of-war skills), they get some rope around the bull and he pulls Otis to safety, with some help from the firemen. Fire Chief Douglas adopts the kittens for the firehouse.

This is the sixth hardcover book that author/illustrator Loren Long has written about Otis the tractor and the first one that I’ve read in the series. I had made the assumption that the character was written for kids who like trucks and big machines, so I’ve passed the books by and now I’m really sorry that I did. This is a book about friendship, courage and taking care of others. It’s dedicated to ‘the brave who run toward danger instead of away’ and it does a wonderful job of showing a situation in which that kind of bravery is important. The story would also be a good starting point for a discussion of fire safety with your kids.


I hope the farm animals get hazard pay!  (Or at least extra oats.)

The gouache and pencil illustrations are wonderful. They have a very Americana style to them, which really works well with the bucolic setting of the story. I love the use of a darker color palette, which really makes the fire seem more intense in contrast. The final picture of Otis, surrounded by the mother cat and kittens that he’s just saved, is a great way to end the story. An illustration from this book was used in the Collecting Inspiration exhibit at the Eric Carle Museum and it was a real treat to meet and speak with Mr. Long at the Inspiration Day event there. I’m glad that it inspired me to pick up this book and I look forward to reading more about Otis and his adventures.


And what did we learn? What I take away from this book is that it’s nice to know there are real heroes out there, putting themselves in harm’s way for others.