How to Be a Hero


Written by Florence Parry Heide, Illustrated by Chuck Groenink

Chronicle Books, 2016

Once upon a time, there was a nice boy and his name was Gideon.

Gideon wants to be a hero, with his name and picture in the newspaper. But he doesn’t think of himself as brave, strong or clever. He notices, from reading fairy tales, that lots of people become heroes simply by being in the right place at the right time. (He also notices a lot of kissing, but isn’t prepared to go to those lengths.) So he tries to pay attention to everything around him to look for opportunities to be a hero. He goes to the supermarket and picks out a candy bar and as he pays for it, he is suddenly surrounded by people congratulating him. Without knowing it, he has become the 10,000th person to shop at the store and because he was in the right place at the right time, he gets his name and picture in the paper for it, just like he always wanted.

Author Florence Parry Heide passed away in 2011 and from the dedication page, it appears that this book was put forth for publication by her children. It’s definitely one of those in which the illustrations tell the larger and more important part of the story. The summary above doesn’t show the fact that, on his way to the store and even in the store itself, there are multiple opportunities for Gideon to do real heroic things. Over and over again, he keeps missing them. This makes the actual story ironic and leaning into satire, which will merit a lot of discussion with your kids.


A cape doesn’t make you a hero, kid.

Chuck Groenink’s pencil and digital illustrations use muted colors and softer colors in the depiction of Gideon’s real world and fuller, richer colors in his imagination. There are lots of little funny moments in the artwork as well, such as the headlines in the newspaper his mother is reading (‘Adults do boring stuff’) or the names of the neighboring shops, which all reference fairy tale authors. If you’re so inclined, you could definitely make a case for a political or social message at the end, when the African-American girl who saves the falling baby at the grocery store gets less recognition than the white boy who lucks into a meaningless award. This story offers a lot of opportunities for good conversation.

And what did we learn? What I take away from this book is that if you spend all your time focusing on your own greater glory, you can miss real opportunities to do genuine good.

How to Teach a Slug to Read


Written by Susan Pearson, Illustrated by David Slonim

Two Lions, 2011

When you teach a slug to read, you should:

  1. Start out by putting labels on his favorite things.

The second step is to find the right book. One that is interesting and preferably also has slugs in it is best. Rhyming books are good, because rhymes will help with remembering. Prop the book up on the ground and help your slug sit on a rock so he can see the book well. Show him the words that repeat, so that he will find them easier. Help him to sound out words and teach him the meanings of words he doesn’t know. Let him underline his favorite words and be ready to read his favorite books over and over. But be patient, because it can take time for him to master reading. One day, he will be able to read books to you. Books will open lots of doors for him, showing him the whole world. And he will have you to thank for teaching him to read.


I love this picture so much.

Author Susan Pearson must have a thing for slugs, because this is the first of three books she’s written about them. What’s great about this one, though, is that her advice for teaching them to read is actually very good advice for teaching anyone to read and if your little ones aren’t reading yet, they’ll likely be motivated to learn from the examples set here. Even better, they’ll be motivated to laugh, as the books pictured here are ‘slug-ified’ versions of real poems and picture books. Illustrator David Slonim uses charcoal and acrylics to make these slugs appealing and enthusiastic. As a parent, the ending, in which you’re reminded of all that your little one can do once you’ve taught them to read, is a satisfying and upbeat conclusion. I’d love to know how many kids have used the advice here to help younger siblings get an early start on reading.

And what did we learn? What I take away from this book is that with a little patience and a good plan, almost anyone can learn to read.

How to Cheer Up Dad


Written and Illustrated by Fred Koehler

Dial Books for Young Readers, 2014

Little Jumbo’s dad was having a bad day.

Dad makes a few mistakes throughout the day (in Little Jumbo’s opinion), including putting raisins in his oatmeal, suggesting a bath and forgetting that Little Jumbo was not a fan of his brown overalls. But when Little Jumbo tries to put his dad in time-out, he winds up being put there himself. While in time-out, he thinks about ways to cheer up his dad, who seems a little grumpy. He starts with a hug, and then they have a catch. Little Jumbo shares an ice cream cone with dad and then they go fishing. They end the day by reading dad’s favorite story and snuggling before Dad falls asleep in Little Jumbo’s bed. Little Jumbo starts wondering how much cheering up his dad will need tomorrow.

Ice cream

I hope Little Jumbo paid for that ice cream.

Author/illustrator Fred Koehler makes his picture book debut in this funny story that is loaded with subtext. Even young readers should pick up on the fact that Dad’s ‘bad day’ is all due to Little Jumbo, who is a rambunctious little guy. The story is told from Little Jumbo’s viewpoint so he doesn’t take any responsibility for his dad’s bad mood, but he does at least take the initiative to make him feel better and the love between these two is very clear. The comic punch at the end is that he is already starting on mischief for the next day, so poor Dad appears to be in for another rough day. The illustrations, in digital media, pencil, pen and ‘lotsa love’ are extra cute and you wind up loving both of these characters.

And what did we learn?  What I take away from this book is that cheering the ones you love up is great, but not annoying them in the first place is even better.

How to Hug


Written by Maryann Macdonald, Illustrated by Jana Christy

Marshall Cavendish Children, 2011

When you’re happy or sad, hugs can show how you feel, but hugs can be tricky!

You have to be careful not to hug anyone too tight or in such a way that you get stuck together. It’s important to know when to let go, so that you’re not holding on too long. If someone is angry, you should give them time before you try to hug them. Realize that some people are shy about hugging. Some folks might just want to hold hands or others might want a kiss on the cheek. It’s okay to speak up if you don’t want a hug. There are all kinds of hugs out there and lots of ways to feel about them. The best way to approach them is to open your heart, then open your arms and wrap them around someone.

Guess who

I have no idea who it is!

Author Maryann Macdonald states on her website that she wrote this book while living in France, where she noticed that French people kiss others more than they hug them. This story covers a lot of the basics on hugging, including the fact that it’s not always the right time to hug someone (which is important) and the crucial issue of consent. Towards the end, when it just starts covering different types of hugs, it veers away from the ‘how to’ concept and it loses some steam, in my opinion. Jana Christy’s digital illustrations show nearly all of these hugs happening between children and animals, which gives them all an extra boost of cuteness. I liked the idea of the book more than the execution of it, but all things considered, I have to endorse anything that gets more people hugging.

And what did we learn? What I take away from this book is that hugs can be awesome, but it’s good to know when and how to do it properly.

How to Train a Train


Written by Jason Carter Eaton, Illustrated by John Rocco

Candlewick Press, 2013

So you want a pet train? Well, of course you do!

If you want to have a train for a pet, you first need to figure out what kind of train works best for you. Then you’ll need to catch one, which can be tricky. Give your train a new name and help it adapt to its new surroundings. You can help settle your train in by reading it stories and playing train sounds to help it get to sleep. Get to know it by finding out what it enjoys and what makes it nervous. Try teaching your train a few tricks and some good manners. Introduce it to your friends’ pets, especially if they are also trains or trucks or planes or even submarines. And when your train is happy, you will know.

Author Jason Carter Eaton proves that the best way to make a silly concept book work is to present it in the same way that you would present it as a serious thing. The book’s narrator is dressed as a safari guide, which gives him the appearance of being an expert on his topic. A lot of the advice offered is the same advice you would give to anyone learning to care for a new puppy or a kitten, so it’s likely to strike a chord with pet owners as well as train aficionados alike.


Even dressed up, your train is probably not welcome at the school dance.

John Rocco’s illustrations are done in graphite, with digital coloring, and they beautifully convey all the details of different types of trains and the environments where you find them. Again, the comic twist of showing these giant machines in backyard pools or leaving mud tracks in the kitchen, just as though they were domesticated, really takes it up a notch. There’s a great note to the reader in the back of the book, pointing out the things in the book that should not be tried at home and should only be done by ‘fully trained illustrated characters.’ It’s a lot of fun.

And what did we learn? What I take away from this book is that all pets, even the strange ones, need care, affection and love to keep them happy and healthy.

How to Hide a Lion


Written and Illustrated by Helen Stephens

Henry Holt and Company, 2012

One hot day, a lion strolled into town to buy a hat.

When the townspeople see the lion, they are afraid. They come after him and he runs away, finding a place to hide in a backyard playhouse. The house’s owner, a girl called Iris, is not scared of lions, so she tells him he’s too big for the play house and invites him in. They stay very quiet so her parents won’t find out he’s there and she combs out his mane and takes care of his injured paw. They struggle finding a safe place for him to hide in the house and one day, when he’s behind the sofa, her father mentions the lion that was loose in town. When Iris suggests he might be kind, her mother says all lions are mean. Iris comforts the worried lion and reads him a story. Her mother walks in and screams, causing him to run out of the house and find a hiding place in the city, pretending to be a stone lion. He stays perfectly still until he witnesses a robbery and then he leaps into action, foiling the robbers and saving the day. Everyone gathers to thank him and when they ask what he wants as a reward, he asks for a hat, which is why he came there in the first place.


Yeah, that hat really works.

Author/illustrator Helen Stephens presents two very likeable characters in this story and it’s very easy to draw parallels between the lion in this story and anyone who is feared or outcast simple due to who they are and what people believe about them. Iris shows readers that the important first step is simply not being afraid and taking the time to get to know the unknown before making up your mind. The illustrations are reminiscent of the picture books of my childhood and have a lovely and gentle vintage quality to them, especially in the use of color and movement. There’s a lot to be said for the ending, too, in which the lion’s request is simply to get the hat that he came for in the beginning, showing that the experience, while harrowing for him, hadn’t significantly altered him in any negative ways or made him too full of himself when everyone jumped on the pro-lion bandwagon. There’s a lot to like about this book.

And what did we learn? What I take away from this book is that there’s always more to someone than what you imagine from your first impression.

How to Make a Night


Written by Linda Ashman, Illustrated by Tricia Tusa

HarperCollins, 2004

Bike blew a tire.

It’s one of those days where everything has gone wrong and everyone is feeling crummy. One girl decides to clean everything up and turn things around. She climbs a tree and mops all the clouds from the sky, then throws a rope up to bring the sun down so she can tuck it away for the evening. Then she peels the blue away from the sky, dyes it black, splatters it with gold painted stars and puts it back in place. She makes a moon from a yellow rock and throws it high into the sky. She calls the crickets and owls to sing and stirs up the wind to get the trees swaying. Then she goes back into her house, cleans her room, washes her face and eats supper with her family. After that, it’s time for a bath, pajamas and goodnight kisses from Mom and Dad, so she can get a good night’s sleep before getting up early to take down the moon and put the sun back up.

Author Linda Ashman gets right to the heart of those really hectic days when it seems like something bad has happened to just about everyone and everything is in disarray. Sometimes, as we see in the book, it only takes one person to start making an effort to make things better. In real life, it’s usually a parent who takes on the task but I like that it’s a child in this book, showing kids that they have some agency in the family’s condition. The story is written in a jazzy rhyme scheme that’s fun to read.


Golf Ball is my favorite planet.

The imagery here is very fanciful, but it works, and even when kids know they can’t really pull down the sun, they will know they can contribute to making things better. Tricia Tusa’s illustrations are as chaotic as this family’s day, with a mix of traditional artwork and photo collage. Some of the photographic images are a little odd, but they fit the offbeat whimsy of the story. The family pictured here is very diverse and at the end of the book, when you see things calmed down, they appear very happy and close. It’s an unusual book, but I really liked it.

And what did we learn?  What I take away from this book is that anyone can take the initiative to make things better for those around them.