It’s been nearly a year since I posted a blog. There’s really no excuse for such a long absence. But there are many reasons: sending my oldest off to college; work on the editing committee for Rise: An Anthology of Change by Northern Colorado Writers; my sister’s wedding; the death of an uncle and then of my father—and related out of state travel; a serious car accident; a job search; and well, life. After all of that, I had planned a very different blog post for my return. But that was before we lived under the shadow of the coronavirus pandemic.
Life under near-quarantine has turned our lives upside down and changed our world. Many people work from home. Schools are in remote learning mode. Home offices and classrooms exist at kitchen tables and in bedrooms, living rooms, even closets. Weddings, vacations, major personal and professional events, graduations, and even the Olympics have been canceled or postponed. Millions have lost their jobs. Worst of all, naturally, are over two million cases of coronavirus and nearly two hundred thousand deaths. Sadly, we have seen great human suffering, with more to come.
Doctors, nurses, and other healthcare workers are real-life heroes. Grocery store employees have gained respect and gratitude, since they are on the front lines in an essential role. There is an appreciation for those who work to keep things running so more people can stay home and healthy. There is a new awareness of the challenges that teachers face, at least among parents who are now supervising various levels of homeschool.
Pre-pandemic, I was always busy. Just busy. In many ways, I think many people used busy—consciously or unconsciously—as filler, or as a hiding place for not making time for real life, family, friends, self-reflection, and so on. Busy allowed me an excuse for not being more productive in my writing. I compared myself to other writers and guilt and self-doubt crept in. At the Northern Colorado SCBWI connect meeting in January, the speaker, Teresa Funke, began with the thought that art matters but sometimes other things matter a little bit more. I realized that other things had a higher priority this past year, although I did continue some level of writing. So I planned to write my blog about allowing ourselves the grace to focus on what’s needed in our lives, even when it takes us away from writing-related activities.
In light of our current reality, why worry about writing or picture books? It’s not like there’s a picture book about pandemics. Does writing matter in the big picture? Can it provide assistance and comfort in this crisis? But perhaps that’s why it is important. We don’t know how our book will impact someone else; maybe someone needs my book. Not just picture books. But all books, especially the ones that lift us up, make us smile, and give us hope. And not just books—artwork, movies, a beautiful day, spring flowers, or creative ways to connect to friends and family from a distance—anything that brings joy. Amid the troubling news of each day, there are also accounts of sacrifice and goodness. And there are the funny stories that make us laugh. Classes, meetings, and even BBC interviews are at risk of being interrupted by unexpected children, pets, or other commotion.
Now more than ever it’s important to allow ourselves to focus on what we need. That might be writing, or it could be playing with our kids/spouse/pets, starting that long-delayed project, baking, gardening, cleaning the house, going for a walk, reading a book, calling a friend. We also need the grace to realize that if our co-workers, bosses, clients, or friends see us in our home environment—our natural habitat that’s sometimes less than perfect— it will be all right and we should extend that understanding to them. Right now, everyone is trying to make things work as best they can.
At my house, my husband and I cleared off the desk in our bedroom and attacked its army of dust bunnies so that he can have an office. My older kids work at the desks in their rooms. My 6th-grader commandeered my husband’s good work chair and two tray tables in the family room. I use her room (unicorns and all) for daytime Zoom meetings, but otherwise the kitchen table is my office (interruptions and all). With everyone at home, it’s important to have our own space. Do we get snippy with each other? Sometimes. But we can also linger over dinner or play a game. We spend more time together and look forward to our weekly take-out from a local restaurant. I had the rare opportunity to play in the snow with all three of my kids after an Easter snowstorm. Of course, it’s easy for me to see the good: we have the blessings of family, health, home, a steady income, food, and stability.
My hope is that we as a human family will see the good things that are present in these unprecedented and difficult times, and that we will come out stronger on the other side. My hope is that we will work together, help those who are less fortunate, and see each other as fellow humans seeking peace and hope. Because right now, we need to give each other— and ourselves— an abundance of kindness and grace.
This is not a picture book review. It’s May and my oldest graduates from high school in less than two weeks, so life is too crazy to focus on a real review. Instead let’s talk about life. Sometimes we dread getting back to “real life” after a vacation. Or feel we don’t have a life when we-are-so-busy-we-can-barely-take-a-breath. But life happens on vacation, during those moments when we do (and don’t) catch our breaths, and especially, in the cracks and crevices of a busy existence. Life happens in every moment of every day, and if we pay attention, we’ll see it. But it’s a fleeting thing, and slides by in those sleep deprived moments of parenthood, in the blur of kids’ activities, in our own work, in traffic.
My kids are growing up fast. Next fall will mark a momentous time in our lives as we transition to our daughter going off to college. It’s been a challenging year as we prepare for that change: college applications, the wait for acceptances and financial aid, the inevitable emotional roller-coaster of senior year. My daughter’s activities have kept her as busy as always, but there is a different sense to them as we pass “the last of” each event. I’m proud of the person she is becoming, but I’m not quite ready to let go. Where did that time go? The fierce 2-year-old independence that led to massive temper tantrums now shows itself in wanting to be fiercely self-sufficient. Both ages vacillate between wanting to “do it myself” and needing support and security from Mom and Dad. Both are normal developmental stages. But did I fully enjoy that time of her growing up? Did I spend enough time? Have I taught her enough to allow her to spread her wings and fly? I can only hope I did my best. Sometimes we get lost in exhaustion, in worries, in running kids around, in doing laundry and making dinner, in all of our tasks and responsibilities. But life happens in those times. I can’t wish away those challenging stages, because it wishes away the beautiful moments that also happen. Because I was her Girl Scout leader, I taught her to bake, and I went on field trips and volunteered in school and with activities. It’s as important to remember when we are successful as it is to recognize when we can do better.
Sometimes I compare myself to young mamas who seem like they have it much more together than I did when my kids were little. But they don’t have the same kids, the same life situation, the same background, and they will make their own mistakes. Perhaps my younger kids will offer me a chance to do better. Still, some worries are the same: do I spend enough time? Do I guide them in the best way I can? But I have different successes and failures with them, because they are not their sister.
In general, I would advise parents of young kids to try to enjoy every difficult and beautiful moment of these times. You’ll often be sleep deprived, stressed, cleaning up diapers or vomit or messes, worried about challenges in your children’s lives, working to make ends meet, running around like a maniac to get one kid to soccer and another to piano lessons, volunteering in the classroom, helping with fundraisers for school or scouts or sports, and on and on. As parents, we do the best we can. Enjoy life in those little nooks and crannies. Kids grow up when we aren’t looking and before we are ready. I’m trying to be thankful for a messy house and a frenetic schedule. There’s a lot more life to be lived with my kids while they are kids.
Author: Mary Ann Hoberman
Illustrator: Marla Frazee
Published: 1997, Voyager Books, Harcourt, Inc.; Singapore
Age range: 3-6
This book was recommended to me after a conversation about my picky eaters. Upon finding it in the bookstore, I was immediately charmed by its text and pictures. It quickly became a favorite in our house.
Not so long ago, they say
A mother lived—just like today.
Mrs. Peters was her name;
Her little boy was named the same.
Now Peter was a perfect son in every way—except for one.
Mrs. Peters has a problem. Each of her children has a particular food preference. With every new baby, Mrs. Peters’ workload increases as she attempts to keep up with the special meal requests. Finally, the seven children plot to make a special birthday breakfast for their exhausted mother. Their attempts do not work out according to plan. The result—a cake—fixes the family’s problem by creating a meal that everyone will eat.
The Seven Silly Eaters is an excellent marriage of text and illustrations. The rhyme and rhythm are spot-on. Rhyme can be very difficult to accomplish without sounding forced; this book delivers a successful example of it. The text is both fun and descriptive. It moves the story along in a wonderful way.
The illustrations in this book are among my favorites of any picture book. The personality of each child, as well as the parents, shines through in the pictures. Marla Frazee captures the daily life of a large and busy family in exceptional detail. Laundry, dishes, Mrs. Peters’ cello, the antics of the pets, both the friendship and squabbles of siblings, and the clutter—it’s all there. What’s more, the feelings and moods of each character come through loud and clear on each page. Children could spend several minutes studying each page for the clever complements that the pictures bring to the story.
The Seven Silly Eaters would be treasured in the picture book collection of any family. Girls, boys, parents, caregivers, picky eaters and not—all could find something to enjoy. While it unfortunately did not inspire my own picky eaters to expand their dietary horizons, this story could provide a starting point for a discussion about eating a wider variety of foods.
Author: Denise Vega
Illustrator: Zachariah OHora
Published: 2017, Alfred A. Knopf, an imprint of Random House Children's Books
Age range: 3-7
Denise Vega won the 2018 Crystal Kite Award for If your Monster won’t go to Bed, and spoke at the fall conference for Rocky Mountain Chapter of SCBWI. She has also presented at other conferences that I have attended. Denise is a lovely person, and very encouraging to other writers. So I wanted to support her in buying her book. Plus, who could resist this story?
Time for bed!
Who hates those words more than anything?
That’s right. Your monster.
But we all know what happens when a monster doesn’t get enough sleep: massive monster tantrums, refusing to join the Sneak-Up-and-Scare-Your-Sister game, and falling asleep in his slug mush.
This book offers helpful suggestions for what to do if your monster won’t go to bed. Your parents won’t be able to help. The narrator runs through various things not to do in putting a monster to bed, such as avoiding the Monster Stomp and counting sheep. Then she offers step-by-step instructions of what you can do. These steps include making a glass of oozy bug juice, taking an ice-cold bath, and singing Shock-a-Bye Monster “in the key of screech.” She cautions that you should be careful at getting too good at putting monsters to bed, or other people might ask for help with their monsters.
The text of this book is a lot of fun. The narrator speaks directly to the reader, which most children find very appealing. Almost every page captures the imagination in some fun scenario or awesome description, like “sour, green, dirty-underwear-smelling milk.” It has great read-aloud appeal. Creativity oozes from the pages in the options the narrator offers in what does and does not work to put a monster to bed. The language will charm kids and parents alike.
I also love the illustrations. Bright colors and straightforward pictures accompany the text. The monster is clearly a monster, but looks more friendly than scary. His ears—or maybe tufts of hair—match the little girl’s pigtails. The art is imaginative and engaging, but not overdone.
If your Monster won’t go to Bed is a delightful, inventive romp. Who knows, it could even help your own little monsters go to bed. But be careful: it might have the same effect on kids as the Monster Stomp has on monsters.
Author/Illustrator: Jessie Sima
Published: 2017, Scholastic Inc. by arrangement with Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers
Age range: 4-8
Kid#3 loves unicorns and all related animals, real or imagined. Two of my stories feature unicorns as a central element. As you might guess, there is a connection between the two. With that in mind, I am often drawn to books with unicorns and associated creatures. At a recent school book fair, I purchased Not Quite Narwhal. Technically, I bought it for Kid#3 but since she’s in 5th grade, it was really for me.
Kelp was born deep in the ocean.
He knew early on that he was different from the other narwhals.
His tusk wasn’t as long as everyone else’s, he had different tastes in food, and he wasn’t a very good swimmer.
When I first saw this book, I thought it might be a good comparison (or possibly competition) book to one of my stories. It is not quite either one. Kelp is a unicorn who lives in the ocean with narwhals. He is different from the others, but since his friends don’t mind, neither does he. One day he is swept away and discovers unicorns. In fact, he learns that he is a unicorn. He has fun with these new friends, but misses the narwhals. Kelp is conflicted: should he stay with the narwhals or return to the unicorns? In the end, Kelp finds a middle ground and a way to live with both sets of friends at the edge of the ocean.
More than anything else, the cover first prompted me to pick up Not Quite Narwhal, which features a smiling Kelp swimming in the ocean with some happy little fish. I love the bright pastel colors. The illustrations help to make this a cheerful and upbeat book. They are not overdone. They add fun details: Kelp wears a diver’s helmet throughout the story and in one illustration is shown with water wings.
There are many factors that influence the beauty of this story. First of all, Kelp’s narwhal friends recognize his differences and love him anyway. Kelp knows the differences too, but he is happy with himself. When he discovers the unicorns, he enjoys finding creatures like him who show him the joys of being a unicorn. Kelp’s conflict comes when he has to choose between his lifelong friends and those on the land who are like him. Kelp’s solution allows him to have the best of both worlds and to join all of his friends together on the edge of the ocean.
The text is straightforward without being wordy. There aren’t a lot of “sparkly” words, but that is by no means a deficit, and the vocabulary is at an appropriate level for the target audience. It has simplicity without being simplistic and shows that good storytelling does not require fancy words or phrases.
This is a book about celebrating who we are and recognizing from where we come. It is a book about finding a compromise—even compromise with ourselves—and bringing together those who are different from each other but also similar. It is not so much a unicorn book, but rather a book about finding out how we fit into our world. Children will be drawn to the whimsical illustrations, the straightforward text, and the fun and upbeat story. Unicorns and narwhals provide an added bonus of popular appeal.
Author: Karma Wilson
Illustrator: Jane Chapman
Published: 2005, Margaret K. McElderry Books-Simon & Schuster, New York
Age range: 2-6
This is one of my favorite Christmas stories. But let’s face it: I’m a sucker for a good story, and also for anything Christmas. By the time Kid#3 was born, however, we already owned many of the best-loved ones, so I searched for new Christmas books to add to our collection.
In a big house lived a wee mouse named Mortimer.
He dwelled in a dark hole under the stairs.
Nobody ever noticed little Mortimer. And Mortimer liked it that way.
But he didn’t like his hole. “Too cold. Too cramped. Too creepy,” squeaked Mortimer.
Each day Mortimer creeps about the house to find crumbs. But one day he spies a Christmas tree, as well as a little house that is just his size. He discovers tiny people—statues—that he moves out so he can move in and sleep on the cozy bed of hay. Every day the statues are replaced, and every day Mortimer lugs them back out. One day the people are around the tree, so he hides and listens to the man tell the Christmas story. He realizes that the baby statue is Jesus, and puts him back in the manger. As Mortimer climbs down the tree to return to his cramped and creepy hole, he says a prayer for a new home. And then he spies a gingerbread house.
I have always enjoyed Karma Wilson’s and Jane Chapman’s work, ever since Bear Snores On was published and I bought it for Kid#1. In fact, that’s the reason I picked up this story in the first place. It did not disappoint. In addition, finding Christmas books that include the religious aspects of the holiday has always been important to me.
The language is simple yet satisfying. Repetition in the text occurs in just the right places. Mortimer is happy to find a home in the little house, and is frustrated when the children continually move the statues back into it. The statues don’t leave any room for him, so each time, he drags them out again. After he hears the Christmas story, he realizes that the baby statue is Jesus. Despite that fact that he will lose his home, Mortimer makes room for baby Jesus in the manger—and in his heart. The story comes to a satisfying end when Mortimer’s simple prayer is answered and he finds a new home in the gingerbread house.
Jane Chapman’s sweet illustrations add so much to this story. Mortimer’s hole is indeed dark, and also filled with spiders, bugs, and bits of trash. The pictures give a realistic representation of a home with children: toys scattered on the floor, a stack of newspapers on the coffee table, the little girl on the floor painting a reindeer. I love the Christmas tree, and the detail of the ornaments—some drawn to look like children’s hand-made creations.
Mortimer’s Christmas Manger would be a good holiday addition for most families, especially those who would like a new take on keeping the religious part of Christmas. Wilson and Chapman have worked their magic again to create another fantastic picture book.
Here are some of my family’s favorites.
Christmas in the Manger, written by Nola Buck and illustrated by Felicia Bond
Who is Coming to our House? written by Joseph Slate and illustrated by Ashley Wolff
Santa Mouse, written by Michael Brown and illustrated by Elfrieda De Witt
The Legend of Old Befana: An Italian Christmas Story, by Tomie DePaola
Clement Clarke Moore’s The Night before Christmas pop-up book, by Robert Sabuda
Advent Storybook: 24 Stories to Share before Christmas, written by Antonie Schneider and illustrated by
How the Grinch Stole Christmas, by Dr. Seuss
The Polar Express, by Chris Van Allsburg
Chapter Book and Middle Grade
Junie B., First Grader: Jingle Bells, Batman Smells! (P.S. So Does May), by Barbara Park
The Great Christmas Kidnapping Caper, by Jean Van Leeuwen, pictures by Steven Kellogg
Author/Illustrators: Kate and Jim McMullan
Published: 2002, HarperCollins Children’s Books; New York, New York
Age range: 4-8
While Kid#1 had an easy time picking a favorite picture book for me to review, my son was not so forthcoming. I got a teenage boy “I don’t know.” Looking back to his favorites, many included vehicles, space, or various nonfiction topics. Star Wars came a little later. A picture book I remember reading often is I Stink.
Who am I? I’ve got lights. Ten wide tires. No A.C., not me.
I’ve got doubles: steering wheels, gas pedals, brakes. I am totally dual-op.
Know what I do at night while you’re asleep?
This book is just plain fun to read. The garbage truck explains what it has: hopper, pistons, crusher blade, and the like. It describes what it does: “Eat your trash, that’s what” in great detail with excellent sounds and actions. It gives its recipe for alphabet soup, garbage style. This garbage truck has some serious attitude.
It’s been several years since Kid#2 was small enough to listen to me read I Stink! I’d forgotten how much I liked it. It’s another book that I could easily read again and again.
What makes I Stink! so engaging? First, the short, staccato sentences keep the story fast-paced and action-packed. The voice of the garbage truck comes through as loud and clear as the sounds it makes. In addition, the language is lively, descriptive, and rhythmic. Onomatopoeia is sprinkled liberally throughout the text—squeal, roar, burp, beep, plop! The descriptions are definitely kid-friendly: “Gimme some gas. Rev me to the max. Engine? Roar!” Written another way—the driver gave it some gas and revved the engine—would not have the same zip. The alphabet soup recipe has brilliant gross-out charm—from apple cores to moldy meatballs to zipped-up ziti with zucchini. Plus what kid doesn’t love a stinky noisy garbage truck? It’s got universal appeal that nearly every child can recognize. I like that the text does not stop at trash collection, but also shows the truck dumping its load onto the trash barge and heading back to the garage after a busy night. Another awesome aspect of I Stink! are the illustrations. The garbage truck’s attitude is evident in its grinning grimacing face. These are no touchy-feely, tender drawings. They are bold and brash to match the text. The colors are both muted and bright—no pastels here! The varied fonts, text sizes, and appearance of the words on the page also enhance the story and the illustrations. The pictures do what pictures should: enhance and expand the story.
I Stink! belongs in the library of any child who loves the garbage truck. The colors, words, and overall style will especially appeal to kids who like active books about trucks. It’s a terrific read-aloud book that both kids and parents can appreciate for its exciting language and pictures.
Author: Russell Hoban
Illustrator: Garth Williams
Published: 1960, HarperCollins Children’s Books
Age range: 4-8
At the library these days, I’m the one with a stack of picture books. My kids are growing up and have moved on to middle grade and young adult books. But they’ll read anything that’s lying around the house, even picture books, and they still have their favorites. With so many beautiful, funny, sweet, and clever picture books, I couldn’t decide which one to highlight first. So I put it to my kids. Over the next several months I’ll make sure to include their favorites.
My 17-year-old is my greatest book lover. She loved all of the Frances stories, but Bedtime for Frances is her favorite.
The big hand of the clock is at 12.
The little hand is at 7.
It is seven o’clock.
It is bedtime for Frances.
Frances is a little badger who has captivated the hearts of readers since the 1960s. In this story, it is time for Frances to go to bed. She comes up with all kinds of excuses to delay bedtime. She needs a glass of milk, hugs, and her teddy bear and doll. She worries about tigers and giants, cracks in the ceiling and blowing curtains. Finally, the risk of a spanking makes Frances think twice about asking Father to see what is bumping and thumping on her window. In the end she checks herself and finds only a moth. And so Frances goes to sleep.
What makes Bedtime for Frances such a beloved classic? First, there’s the resonance. What child hasn’t found numerous ways to delay going to bed? Kids can see themselves in Frances. Parents can identify with Mother and Father. Bedtime struggles are a timeless and universal issue. Second, Frances just has a certain charm. Her little song about the alphabet is fun and so very like a child. Her imagination about what she “sees” in her room is entertaining. In addition, short simple sentences, along with straightforward repetition in some parts, give the story a pleasant rhythm. This is one of those picture books that works well for read aloud but also for beginning readers. The words are simple enough for young readers to tackle without much trouble, but with a level that is high enough to be a challenge. Finally, the illustrations are simple in a beautiful way. They show the affectionate relationship between Frances and her parents, her fears, and her delay tactics.
I’d like to add a note about the spanking that Frances risks. Some modern readers may object to this element. It’s important to remember that this book was written in 1960, when parenting norms were not the same as they are today. Kids may not even notice; I know mine did not. The mention of a spanking offers a teachable moment to explain that some parents do things differently, as well as the fact that parenting tactics have changed. Personally, I appreciate books that allow me to explain diverse or outdated perspectives. Father and Mother Badger were incredibly patient with Frances, far more so than I was with my kids. Father does not directly threaten a spanking, but Frances infers it after his explanation of how everyone has a job. This “threat” is the impetus for her to stop hedging on bedtime by putting her needless fears to rest on her own.
Many people who loved Frances as a child now read Bedtime for Frances to their children and grandchildren. I expect to read it to my own grandchildren someday. It is a charming book in so many ways, and one that I never minded reading over again.
Hello, and welcome to my blog! Starting in October, watch for a post on the 15th of each month, when I’ll feature a different children’s book—usually a picture book. These choices will highlight the celebration of childhood, appreciation of the magic in a child’s world, helpful tips for parents tucked into a story, or beautiful writing for kids. Occasionally I might add an extra post with random thoughts about parenting or kids or writing.
Writing for children is different than writing for adults and teens. Children’s authors must be especially aware of word choice, sentence structure, and age-appropriate topics. In picture books, every word counts. Rhyme isn’t necessary, but rhythm is a must. The words must flow easily when read aloud. Memorable phrases and fun twists are important too. Illustrations complement the text, and illustrators often add unexpected aspects to the story through pictures.
To a child listening to or reading a book, the story is the only thing that matters. A talented children’s author can capture the magic of childhood. A creative children’s author can invent strange and wonderful worlds to capture the imaginations of young readers. A capable children’s author can relate to the joys, wonder, worries, and struggles of children, and interweave those things with the story and characters. A skilled children’s author writes stories that both kids and parents want to read over and over again.
These are some ideas I hope to explore. Stay tuned for the start of this adventure. I welcome suggestions for books to include.