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The Wonderful Things You Will Be

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Written and Illustrated by Emily Winfield Martin

Random House, 2015

When I look at you
And you look at me,
I wonder what wonderful
Things you will be.

The plot in a nutshell: A parents thinks about their child’s future.

A mother walks hand in hand with her daughter and wonders what life has in store for her. A father holds his young child and thinks of how special he is. The parents note that their child is kind and smart and that there has never been a child exactly like theirs. Perhaps their child will bravely save the day or make music that no one else has ever made. Maybe they will write a new story or grow plants or flowers. Their child may fly or be a caregiver for people or animals. Or they might just be kind and smart and brave, with a heart that will continue to grow as they grow. The possibilities are limitless, as their child will explore all the world has to offer and the parents will love their child, no matter who or what they grow into.

Author/illustrator Emily Winfield Martin has created a beautiful book that taps into an experience that every parent has had, in those moments when you look at your child and try to imagine what their future holds. It’s easy to look at every preference, skill and behavior as an indicator, but it’s pretty rare that you can predict much from those things. The important thing, as Ms. Winfield Martin points out, is that your child feels supported and loved, so that they are encouraged to follow their hearts and reach their full potential. I think that’s the underlying message in this book to both kids and parents and it’s beautifully expressed here.

Band

The Missing Teeth are tearing up the charts, y’all.

The artwork is beautiful, with a vintage vibe that I adore. I want to buy a copy of this book just for the purpose of making paper dolls from these children, as that’s what immediately springs to mind when I look at them. (I was not surprised to see that Ms. Winfield Martin has published a book of paper dolls and other paper crafts.) Near the end of the book, there’s a double page fold-out showing a line of children in costumes, living out their dreams. There is a lovely diversity in all the families represented, so you can expect to see children of different races, genders and even ages, as some pictures depict older children (which I love). My kids are all adults and I still look at them sometimes with wonder and imagine what awaits them in the future.

And what did we learn? What I take away from this book is that every child’s future is brighter with a parent who loves, supports and encourages them.

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Don’t Blink

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Written and Illustrated by Tom Booth

Feiwel and Friends, 2017

Are you ready?

The plot in a nutshell: A girl starts a staring contest.

A girl is sitting in the middle of a field and staring out from the page toward the reader. A bird flies up and asks what she’s doing. When she explains that she’s having a staring contest, the bird wants to join, so she tells him not to blink. A fox joins in and then an alligator, a monkey and several other animals come into view and join the contest. Soon, all their eyes are getting tired. Finally, they can’t take it anymore and they all blink. They try to figure out who won and the little girl announces that the reader actually won. All the animals head off in different directions. Then a turtle asks the girl what she’s doing and the two of them stare out at the reader, starting it over again.

There are so many things that I liked about this book. I’m a fan of books that break the fourth wall and interact directly with the reader and this one goes so far as to engage the reader in competition! What makes that work so well is that author/illustrator Tom Booth makes this a friendly competition, as we can always tell from the open and friendly expression on the main character’s face. The inclusion of lots of different animals is also great, reminding us how much more fun things can be when we let others play with us. It’s pretty comical, too, as there are some fun interactions between the animals and the big buildup of the turtle coming in very slowly from the right page. It’s a simple story, because nothing really happens other than the staring contest, but does its simplicity make it a once-only read? I don’t think so, but I think it largely depends on the reader and how they respond to the book’s visual humor and approach to the game.

Contest

The gorilla is not entirely sure about this.

The artwork in this book is outstanding, with wonderful color and texture in the characters and backgrounds. Mr. Booth explains his artistic process on the acknowledgements page, stating that he first sketches the pictures (using ink, graphite, charcoal or gouache) and then scans them so he can finish them in Photoshop. I love the illustrations, especially the facial expressions of all the animals as they join in and as they all struggle to keep their eyes open. There’s almost a sense of relief when they finally blink. At the end, when all the animals leave, they are leaving with different experiences. One is hungry, one is sleepy and one wants to go start another contest with other friends. I love that, too, because it shows all the different responses people can have to a situation. All around, I recommend this one, with its fun story and beautiful art.

And what did we learn? What I take away from this book is that just about any game is more fun with more people.

Sophie’s Squash

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Written by Pat Zietlow Miller, illustrated by Anne Wilsdorf

Schwartz & Wade Books, 2013

One bright fall day, Sophie chose a squash at the farmers’ market.

The plot in a nutshell: A girl becomes friends with a squash.

Sophie’s parents are planning to eat the squash, but Sophie wants to play with it instead. She draws a face on it, wraps it in a blanket and rocks it to sleep. The squash, which Sophie names Bernice, goes everywhere with her and at night, Sophie tucks her lovingly into bed. Her mother points out that Bernice is actually a squash and will start to rot if not eaten. Sophie covers Bernice’s ears. Her father suggests playing with something else, but Sophie isn’t satisfied with any other toy. When the squash develops brown splotches, Sophie calls them freckles. As time goes on, Bernice starts to seem softer. They visit the farmers’ market and Sophie asks how to keep a squash fresh. He tells her it takes fresh air, clean dirt and a little love, so Sophie tucks Bernice into a nice patch of dirt near her home. In the morning, the ground is covered with snow. Her father brings her a goldfish to take the place of Bernice and while they’re snowed in, Sophie learns to like the fish, which she names Ace. When the snow melts, Sophie rushes outside and sees a small green sprout poking above ground and she recognizes it as belonging to Bernice. She brings Ace out to the yard so they can all have lunch together as the plant grows. One day, she notices two new squashes on the plant, lovingly takes them in her arms and names them Bonnie and Baxter.

This was the debut picture book from author Pat Zietlow Miller and she has since followed it with several more, including a sequel to this one, called Sophie’s Squash Goes to School. It’s an immensely likeable story with great characters and a plot that is comical, but still really sweet. I love the way that Sophie’s parents treat her attachment to Bernice. While they clearly have some concerns over Bernice’s perishable nature, they try to help her understand the situation rather than just trying to force her to give it up. I also really like the fact that Sophie welcomed Ace into her life, even though he wasn’t everything that Bernice was. It never hurts to be reminded that we don’t have any limit on friends.

Other squash

Bernice is visiting family.

Illustrator Anne Wilsdorf uses watercolor, ink and China ink to bring us into Sophie’s world, conveying so much about her emotions in facial expressions and body language. A great example is when her mother suggests cooking Bernice with some marshmallows and Sophie’s shocked face and protective stance is both funny and sweet. You may notice that Sophie’s cat is often busy with his own thing, which is cute. This was a really enjoyable book that serves as a great reminder that kids take the things they value very seriously and being sensitive and respectful of this devotion will help them build strong friendships and a creative imagination.

And what did we learn? What I take away from this book is that taking care of your friends, even when it means you have to be apart for a while, is the best way to be a good friend yourself.

Islandborn

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Written by Junot Díaz, illustrated by Leo Espinosa

Dial Books for Young Readers, 2018

Every kid in Lola’s school was from somewhere else.

The plot in a nutshell: A girl learns about her homeland through the memories of others.

Her classmates are from far away cities and deserts and jungles and Lola herself is from the Island. Her teacher, Miss Obi, asks the class to draw pictures of the countries they are from and most the kids excitedly started talking about what they will draw. But Lola hasn’t seen the Island since she was a baby and she doesn’t remember it at all. Miss Obi suggests she talk to people who do remember it and Lola decides to draw from their memories. She talks with her older cousin on the way home from school and stops at several places along the way to talk to neighbors and friends. She learns about bats as big as blankets, music and dancing everywhere, coconuts and mangoes and the colors and diversity of the Island. Some, though, seem to have unhappy memories and her building superintendent, Mr. Mir, tells her about a giant monster that uprooted families and did terrible things to the Island. He tells her that heroes stood up to the monster and defeated it. She returns home and draws so many pictures that she fills a book. When she gets to school, Miss Obi hangs everyone’s pictures on the wall, as windows to their first homes. Then everyone gathers around and Lola opens her book to share the Island with them, as it is a part of her now.

Pulitzer Prize-winning author Junot Díaz has been a published author for twenty years, but this is his first picture book for children. As a Dominican American who came to this country when he was a little boy, this seems to be a very personal story for him. And there are a lot of complex layers at work here. Lola’s family comes from the Dominican Republic and the ‘monster’ that people remember in this story is dictator Rafael Trujillo, whose rule over the country was marked by cruelty, discrimination and murder. Reading this book prompted me to learn more about Trujillo, as well as the Dominican people and their history. It was fascinating stuff and, as always, I appreciated having my curiosity piqued enough to do the research and find out more.

Beach poetry

How gorgeous are these colors?

The digital artwork, from Leo Espinosa, was created with Photoshop and mixed media and the pictures show a beautiful and colorful world, which Lola imagines as everyone shares their memories with her. When she learns of the monster, she imagines a giant bat attacking the island from the sea. When the book was originally published, this bat was black and people took issue with a book depicting an evil monster character as black. In subsequent releases, the bat has been changed to a shade of green. I love the moment when Lola sees Mr. Mir the next day. She refers to him as a Slayer of Monsters and he calls her a Daughter of Heroes, giving her even more reason to feel connected to the island’s history. The story makes you search your heart for the places that are a part of you and reminds you how much we can learn from talking to others about their experiences and memories.

And what did we learn? What I take away from this book is that your heritage is a part of who you are, even if you have no personal memories of it.

Cinnamon

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Written by Neil Gaiman, illustrated by Divya Srinivasan

HarperCollins, 2017

Cinnamon was a princess, a long time ago, in a small hot country, where everything was old.

The plot in a nutshell: A wordless princess learns to speak.

Princess Cinnamon has pearls for eyes and although they are beautiful, she cannot see. She also doesn’t speak. Her parents, the Rajah and Rani, offer a great reward (including a parrot, a mango grove and a portrait of the Rani’s great aunt) for anyone who can get their daughter to talk. People come from the mountains on one side and the jungle on the other to try to get her to speak and they all admire the rewards they would receive, but none of them are successful. One day, a tiger comes to the palace and surprises everyone by speaking. He tells them he is a man-eater and that he will teach Cinnamon to speak. The tiger is shown to a room in the palace and Cinnamon’s parents nervously bring her to him (as her great aunt loudly objects and predicts the worst). He holds her hand and then, saying the word ‘pain,’ he pokes it with one sharp claw, drawing blood. Next he says ‘fear’, and then roars fiercely, starting quietly and getting louder, until the princess is trembling in fright. Then he says ‘love’ and gently licks the blood from her hand and kisses her face. She repeats the word and the tiger grins.

The next morning, Cinnamon and the tiger return to the throne room and when they ask her if she can speak, she nods. Her great aunt disbelieves and the Rajah tries to quiet her. Then Cinnamon tells them that she thinks she was always able to speak. Her great aunt suggests that the tiger is throwing his voice and the Rajah, frustrated, asks if anyone can make her be quiet. The tiger silences her by eating her. Then Cinnamon tells them she had nothing to say before, but now that the tiger has told her of the jungle, she wants to go with him. Her father refuses at first, but Cinnamon points out that it’s no easy task to refuse a tiger. The promised rewards are given to the people of their city and the tiger leaves for the jungle with Cinnamon on his back.

Author Neil Gaiman originally wrote this story in 1995, as part of an audio collection and this is the first time it’s been in print. He was inspired by a carousel sculpture of a girl riding a tiger. In keeping with his customary style, the plot manages to be both darkly comical and wistfully sad and the story is artfully and poetically told. I was left with lots of questions and I thought about them for a long while. I wondered about the motivations of the tiger and the relationship between Cinnamon and her parents. When a short story’s characters are compelling enough to make you want to dive deeper into them, that story’s done its job getting you hooked.

Full Moon

I love the body language in this picture.

The artwork, from illustrator Divya Srinivasan, is every bit as lush and exotic as its setting, with gorgeous colors and detail. The changes in Cinnamon’s appearance are subtle, but after her night with the tiger, she appears to have a deeper understanding of the world. The image above is my favorite, because of the casual comfort between the two characters. Requiring Cinnamon to feel pain and fear may be a little intense for very young readers (as may the aunt’s fate), but it’s also a good way to open discussion about how they’re both an unavoidable part of life that helps us appreciate the good stuff more. I really liked this beautiful book and my time spent pondering it afterwards.

And what did we learn? What I take away from this book is that once you have started to experience new things, it’s hard to be content without seeking out more.

And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street

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Written and Illustrated by Dr. Seuss

Random House, 1937

When I leave home to walk to school,
Dad always says to me,
“Marco, keep your eyelids up
And see what you can see.”

The plot in a nutshell: A boy embellishes the things he sees on his walk home

Marco doesn’t really see anything interesting on his walk home, except for a horse and wagon on Mulberry Street. So he comes up with the idea to make his story more interesting by telling his father the horse was a zebra and that the cart was a chariot. Then he thinks a reindeer would be even better than a zebra. And he changes the chariot to a sleigh. All the way home, he keeps adding to his story and making it more and more grand and outrageous, with loads of people, animals and vehicles in a giant parade. When he gets home, his father asks him to tell him what he saw and he tells him he saw a plain horse and wagon.

This is the book that started it all. Ted Geisel (aka Dr. Seuss) was in his early 30’s and returning from Europe on an ocean liner when he began coming up with rhymes that matched the rhythm of the ship’s engine. His wife suggested that he write a children’s book using the rhymes and he did, although he struggled to find a publisher willing to take a chance on it. It was rejected many times (the specific number of rejections varies from source to source, but it seems to be somewhere between 23 and 40) but eventually he bumped into an old friend who had just taken a position with a publishing house and he agreed to publish it. It was immensely well received and became the first of many books that cemented him as a household name. In 1978, the book was revised to update an insensitive image and description of a Chinese man with chopsticks. There are objections, too, to a particular verse that suggests boys are smarter than girls, but so far no changes have been made in response to that.

Parade

I’m just too worried about that guy on the airplane’s wing.

The book’s central theme is imagination, with Marco dreaming up a far more impressive scenario than the one that’s actually there. But there are a number of ways to interpret the ending. Some (including me) believe it’s a reminder that fantasy is cool, but it shouldn’t get in the way of being honest. But others believe that Marco’s red face as he speaks to his father at the end indicates that he feels somewhat ashamed of everything he imagined and that his father disapproves of his flights of fancy. Dr. Seuss was clearly a proponent of imagination and thinking outside the box and this story advocates for seeing beyond what’s actually there.

And what did we learn? What I take away from this book is that it’s important to tell the truth, but that doesn’t mean you can’t let your imagination run away with you now and then.

Spoon

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Written by Amy Krouse Rosenthal, illustrated by Scott Magoon

Disney Hyperion, 2009

This is Spoon.

The plot in a nutshell: A spoon envies his friends’ abilities.

Spoon lives with his parents and he has a lot of extended family. He has a very proper Aunt Silver that he sees on Sundays. His favorite bedtime story is about his great grandmother who ran away with a dish. But something is bothering him. His friend Knife gets to do things he doesn’t get to do, like cut things and spread butter and jelly. And Fork gets to go lots of places that Spoon never gets to go. Not to mention Chopsticks, who are cool because they’re exotic. But what he doesn’t realize is that his friends are all saying similar things about him. Knife is jealous because people can get silly with Spoon, but they have to be serious with Knife. And Fork wishes she could measure things, like Spoon does. Spoon can also do things all by himself, which Chopsticks can never do. As she’s tucking him into bed, Spoon’s mom tells him all the wonderful things he gets to do, like diving into a bowl of ice cream or relaxing in a warm cup of tea. Thinking about this, he is so happy that he can’t sleep. So his parents invite him to come snuggle with them.

Once again, bookshelf favorite Amy Krouse Rosenthal shows her perfect balance of warmth and whimsy, with a fantastic lesson along the way. There are so many great little touches in the story, such as the fact that he only sees his Aunt Silver on Sundays, a day that traditionally included the fancy tableware. His self-doubt here is very relatable, especially in a competitive world where kids’ friends may be involved in ‘cooler’ activities or have better skills at sports. You know his mom is going to bolster him up and that’s great, but what makes this so reassuring is seeing that his friends are in the same boat, doubting themselves and envying Spoon. It’s meaningful for kids to see that their friends often have the same feelings.

Family

That’s a very fancy moustache, sir.

The illustrations, from Scott Magoon, are delightfully minimal, which is perfect for this story, since the focus is on the characters and what they’re feeling. There are lots of great details in the pictures, too, such as the spork in one of the family pictures, standing awkwardly to the side as though he’s not sure he belongs with them or the chopsticks dancing a tango among a plate of sushi. As you may imagine, too, when Spoon snuggles with his parents in their bed, they take the position that is such a great part of being a spoon that we humans have adopted it, too. They are quite literally spooning. A sequel, entitled Chopsticks, came out in 2012. This is highly recommended for any kids (or adults, let’s face it) who may need a self-esteem boost.

And what did we learn? What I take away from this book is that when you watch your friends being amazing, remember that they are looking back at your amazingness, too.