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.

City Shapes

City Shapes

Written by Diana Murray, Illustrated by Bryan Collier

Little, Brown and Company, 2016

A pigeon takes flight through the bright cityscape,

Exploring the scenery…SHAPE after SHAPE.

The plot in a nutshell: A city is comprised of lots of different shapes.

A pigeon flies around the city and as she flies, she notices the similarity of shapes in all of the buildings, cars and elements she sees. Trucks, carts and boxes are square, while skyscrapers, benches and scarves are rectangles. Sails in the harbor and flags on banners are triangles and circles can be found in taxi tires and manhole covers. Kites are diamonds in the sky that are replaced with stars when the sun goes down. But the very best shape is the circle of her nest, because that’s the shape of home.


I don’t know that these triangle are actually gleaming. 

This was the debut of author Diana Murray, who drew inspiration from her walks around New York City. I love the idea of using urban environments as a basis for a book about shapes, since there is usually a lot of geometric variety in architecture and nature in big city landscapes. The book’s text is present in rhyming couplets that flow in a very easy and comfortable way, sometimes starting on one page and finishing on the next, which gives kids the opportunity to guess what shape is coming next.

Illustrator Bryan Collier uses watercolor and collage to really make these images pop and they are vibrant with color and life. Mr. Collier used his daughter as the model for the main character of the book, who is our guide through the city, and she has a wonderful presence and cheerful energy on each page. The pictures present lots of visual imagery and it’s worth the effort to examine each picture for all the shapes to be found in it. I enjoyed meeting Mr. Collier at the Inspiration Day event and hearing him talk about the inspiration that drew him to use collage as a regular medium.

And what did we learn? What I take away from this book is that there are lots of different shapes out there and they all come together to make the world around us.

The Sunday Outing


Written by Gloria Jean Pinkney, Illustrated by Jerry Pinkney

Dial Books for Young Readers, 1994

“Mama, what time is it?” called Ernestine from the front stoop.

The plot in a nutshell: A girl dreams of taking a train trip.

Ernestine and her Aunt Odessa go the North Philadelphia Station to watch the train coming through on its way to North Carolina. Ernestine was born in North Carolina and her relatives there have invited her for a visit, but her parents can’t afford a ticket because they’re saving to buy a house. Her aunt tells her that perhaps she could give something up to help pay for the ticket. That night, while her aunt and mama are looking through a catalog for new school clothes, Ernestine tells her that she doesn’t need new clothes this year and that they can put that money toward a train ticket. Mama and Daddy tell her they’ll discuss it and let her know in the morning. They realize they can give up some things, too, and the next morning, they start making plans for her travel. Mama loans Ernestine her wedding satchel and tells her how the conductor will make sure she gets off at the right stop. When the day comes, she’s nervous and excited and settles in as the train begins its journey.

Carpet Bag

Can’t you just feel how important this satchel is to both of them?

Author Gloria Jean Pinkney introduced Ernestine and her family in 1992’s Back Home, which actually tells the story of her trip to North Carolina and her visit with her family. This book serves as a prequel that lends more depth to that story by giving some insight into how difficult it was for the family to make that trip happen and how special it was for Ernestine. Ms. Pinkney was born in the Lumberton, the city where Ernestine’s family lives, which makes the story feel more autobiographical and personal. In addition, the text has a wonderful authentic tone that helps you feel that you know these characters and firmly puts you in their timeframe.

The illustrations are done by the author’s husband, Jerry Pinkney, who has become a big favorite of mine. His artwork here was done with pencil, colored pencils and watercolor, using color separation to create the halftones that give the pictures an ethereal almost dreamlike quality, while still appearing realistic and incredibly detailed. The use of patterns in fabrics and home décor transports you into their Philadelphia home. Mr. Pinkney was wonderful to talk to at the Inspiration Day event. I had the chance to discuss my opinions on censorship with him and he underscored the importance of using books as springboards for discussion, learning and growth.

And what did we learn? What I take away from this book is that dreams are nice, but it’s even better when you can take action to make them reality.

Grandpa Gazillion’s Number Yard


Written and Illustrated by Laurie Keller

Henry Holt and Company, 2005

I’m Grandpa Gazillion and she’s Hildegarde.

Welcome, dear friends, to my ol’ number yard.

The plot in a nutshell: A rhyming list of alternative uses for numbers.

Grandpa Gazillion runs a business selling numbers and, as he points out, they’re not just used for counting anymore. In rhyming couplets, he counts from one to twenty and shows all the different ways that you can use the physical representations of each number. For example, a 1 can be used as a trapeze and a 13 can be used (with the addition of some string) as a parachute. He ends with a reminder to always keep your numbers with you, because a smart kid like you can probably think of lots of uses for them.


Who knew that 14 was so seaworthy?

If you like your counting books a little on the wild side and full of silliness, author/illustrator Laurie Keller has the book for you. Everything about this book is wild, frenetic and fun, starting from the acknowledgement page, where a thank you note is written to be sung to the tune of ‘Y.M.C.A’ by the Village People. We are introduced to Grandpa Gazillion and his yard rat, Hilde, and as they take us on a tour of these numbers, the background illustrations, in acrylic paint, are filled with jokes, word balloons and items for your little one to count. You’ll really want to take your time with this one so you can notice everything. It’s full of comical ideas and new ways to look at the shapes and physicality of numbers. Although I didn’t get the opportunity to speak to Ms. Keller in person at the Inspiration Day event, it was clear from the panel discussion that the quirky humor seen in her books is a big part of who she is.


And what did we learn? What I take away from this book is that creativity can lead to some pretty funny ideas.


Alexander, Who’s Not (Do you hear me? I mean it!) Going to Move


Written by Judith Viorst, Illustrated by Robin Preiss Glasser (in the style of Ray Cruz)

Atheneum Books for Young Readers, 1995

They can’t make me pack my baseball mitt or my I LOVE DINOSAURS sweatshirt or my cowboy boots.

The plot in a nutshell:  A boy resists moving away.

Alexander’s whole family is packing up to move to a new home, but he insists that he is not moving. The family is having to relocate due to his father’s new job and he learns that there are neighbors near their new house that are the same ages as his brothers, but no one that’s his age. He thinks about how he could never replace his best friend or his soccer team. His parents tell him he’ll make new friends and get used to his new town, but he still insists that he’s not going anywhere. He thinks about who he could live with and still stay in his own hometown. He goes to visit all the special places that mean something to him and says goodbye to all his friends and neighbors, although he is convinced he will find a way to stay. He considers hiding when the time comes for them to leave. His parents tell him some good things about moving and gradually he warms up to the idea, but he while he’s finally packing up to move, he thinks to himself that once they move there, they will need to stay, because he is definitely never moving again.

This is the third book in Judith Viorst’s Alexander series, although these characters do show up in other books by the author. She is taking the age old advice to write about what you know, as these characters are based on (and named after) her own three sons. Although this is the third in the series, it was published almost 20 years after the second and there would be another 19 years before she would write the fourth book. I loved the original book because of its genuine voice and the way it managed to be both funny and heartwarming. This book is no different, echoing the sentiments of thousands of kids who have been uprooted from homes and neighborhoods they loved. You feel for poor Alexander, even while you know that, just as his parents predict, everything is going to be fine in their new home.


Even your not-so-great memories of a place can be precious when you’re faced with the prospect of leaving it forever.

The original illustrator of the first two books, Ray Cruz, passed away in 1988 and a note in the front of the book acknowledges his work on the first two books and his contributions to the development of art for this one, although he was unable to complete it. Instead, the artwork was done by Robin Preiss Glasser, mimicking Mr. Cruz’s artistic style. I have practically no skill at drawing and my level of admiration for an artist skyrockets when I see them draw in someone else’s style, which just seems like it would be so difficult to do. The illustrations here are in black and write line drawings and while they do perfectly capture the same characters from the original books, Ms. Preiss Glasser’s wonderful style and use of detail in the line work comes through, especially in the drawing of Alexander’s imagined life with a neighboring family of all girls. We loved speaking with her during the Inspiration Day event and hearing her speak about her inspirations for the Fancy Nancy series.

And what did we learn?  What I take away from this book is that change is difficult and postponing the inevitable can sometimes just make it harder.