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.

Sam, the Most Scaredy-Cat Kid in the World


Written and Illustrated by Mo Willems

Hyperion Books for Children, 2017

Sam was the most scaredy-cat kid in the whole world.

The plot in a nutshell: An easily frightened boy makes a new friend.

Sam is afraid of lots of things, but his friend Leonardo (who is a monster) is not one of them. One day, he meets a girl named Kerry and her monster friend, Frankenthaler. He is terrified, but surprisingly, it’s the girl and not the monster that scares him (and she’s just as scared of Sam). The monsters think about it and then leave the two kids to sort it out on their own. Sam and Kerry discover they have lots in common, such as fear of spiders and love of ice cream. They also learn the opinions they have that are different, such as Sam’s love for tuna fish sandwiches and Kerry’s enjoyment of loud music. Leonardo and Frankenthaler return to see how it’s going and instead of two scared kids, they find two good friends and the four of them play together.

More than a decade later, author/illustrator Mo Willems brings back the characters of Leonardo and Sam from Leonardo the Terrible Monster and this time, we’re focusing more on Sam. We get to see that he has a lot of common childhood fears, yet he is friends with a monster, which is a good reminder that fear is a very individual thing. I love that Leonardo and Frankenthaler (what a great name!) leave the two scared kids alone to sort out their issues. Sometimes, monsters (and well-meaning adults) only get in the way and it’s good for kids to learn problem solving skills of their own.

Things in common

I’d go see that movie, though.

The book itself is extra tall and thin, with large print that takes up the majority of the space on many pages. The illustrations are presented without backgrounds, so that you can focus on the characters and what they are doing and saying. As with most of his books, Mr. Willems has included some funny moments in here, too, such as the familiar pigeon popping out of a jack-in-the-box toy and the two monsters returning with cups of takeout coffee (which just seems funny for monsters to do). This is a worthy sequel to an already great book.

And what did we learn? What I take away from this book is that every stranger has the potential to be your next best friend.

Yay, You!


Written and Illustrated by Sandra Boynton

Simon & Schuster, 2013

Yay, you!

You did it! You’re done!

You made it! You’re through!

The plot in a nutshell:  A celebration of a milestone and a look to the future.

The book starts with a picture of a bear on top of a mountain, celebrating a recent achievement. Then the question of ‘what next?’ is posed and his smile slips a little. It’s suggested that the best plan is to examine all the choices and come up with a plan that works for you. It goes on to examine the different paths you can take and the ways you can get there. You’re urged to be introspective and think about your honest preferences in where you live, what you do and who you surround yourself with. There’s a reminder that it’s a good idea to stop and appreciate the small things once in a while and an encouraging ending that whatever you do will be wonderful, because it’s you doing it.

Bookshelf favorite Sandra Boynton gives us a lot of wisdom wrapped up in easy to read rhymes and her traditional whimsical animal drawings. It would be almost impossible to review this book and not draw a comparison to the Dr. Seuss classic, Oh, the Places You’ll Go. They’re both great gifts for recent graduates or for anyone who may find themselves at one of life’s crossroads. In fact, the book even comes with a ‘Congratulations!’ gift tag on the opening page, with a space to write who the gift is to and from.  Although it may be geared toward adults, the rhymes and illustrations are still perfect for kids and it’s never too early to instill the message to make life choices based on your true judgement.


This office setup does not look like a good ergonomic situation.

It would be easy for a book like this to feel trite, but Ms. Boynton never lets that happen. She applies her offbeat sense of humor and comical style to both the pictures and the text, and suggests that every possible path can be a good one, as long as it works for you. There’s no judgement, for instance, in the comparison between the person who is climbing a mountain and the one who is simply reading about mountains (while enjoying delicious chocolate).  Having been a fan of hers for well over half my life, it was a particular thrill to meet her at Inspiration Day.

And what did we learn?  What I take away from this book is that when making plans for the rest of your life, it’s important to look at what you really want and go with your heart.

The Bear Who Wasn’t There


Written and Illustrated by LeUyen Pham

Roaring Brook Press, 2016

This is the story of the Bear who wasn’t there.

The plot in a nutshell: A bear fails to show up for his own book.

Duck takes center stage right away, pointing out that bears cannot be trusted and offering to tell a duck story instead. Other animals pop in, helping the reader look for the bear (over the protests of the duck). A note leads us to a door where we might find the bear, but instead, it’s the door to a bathroom. While the duck continues to try to distract us, we continue to look for the bear and the author joins the search along the way, sure she drew a bear in here somewhere. Just when we think we’ve found him, it turns to be the duck in a bear costume so the bear really isn’t there. (Or is he?)

Bird Pyramid

I admire that turtle’s ability to balance a totally lopsided pyramid.

Author/illustrator LeUyen Pham seems to be having a wonderful time in this book, knocking down that fourth wall and making the reader an integral part of the story. As I’ve said before, it’s not easy to do that well but she makes it seem effortless. Nothing about it ever feels forced and the humor builds perfectly. Despite being an antagonist character, Duck is thoroughly likeable and you come away from the book kind of interested in hearing his story and I’ll be keeping my eyes out for a potential future book starring Duck.

The illustrations match the book’s humor, with minimal backgrounds and comically drawn animals. On the book’s jacket, Ms. Pham states that she has created over 70 books and none of them featured bears, which I’m assuming may have been an inspiration for this silly story. I love the version of herself that she’s included in the book. At the Inspiration Day event this past weekend, she was drawing portraits of fans in their books. This was the book that I had signed and she drew me smiling at Duck as he’s yelling, “Buy duck books!” If Ms. Pham has anything to do with them, you can count me in on that, Duck.

And what did we learn? What I take away from this book is that sometimes looking for something can be a very entertaining part of your relationship with it.