Saturday, May 23, 2015

The Adventures of Beekle The Unimaginary Friend by Dan Santat

The Adventures of Beekle The Unimaginary Friend by Dan Santat
Little, Brown, and Company

Rating: 5 stars

The Caldecott (and Newbery) awards were announced when we were on vacation back in early February. I checked my phone like crazy to see which books (and their authors and illustrators) won... I'm not the only one who does this, right?!

In case you are more laid-back in your approach to children's literature, I'll fill you in: Here's the winter. Right here. Beekle. And it was a shocker! No one saw it coming. The experts thought Draw! or The Farmer and the Clown or Bad Bye, Good Bye or Three Bears in a Boat. But Beekle? It was a surprise win.

But it's worthy for sure. It took me some months to get my hands on it, because I often think that Caldecott winners have gorgeous art, but their appeal to kids is limited, or the story is just so-so. This year, that's not the case.

Here, they lived and played,
eagerly waiting to be imagined by a real child.
Beekle is an imaginary friend (if you see the title, he and his human believe he's unimaginary, or real) who lives in the imaginary world where imaginary friends live before their humans imagine them and unite with them. While all the other monsters and funny-looking whatevers get beamed up and zipped over to the real world, Beekle remains.

Until he decides to do something about all the waiting and waiting. He "did the unimaginable" and sailed to the real world. (You'll love how dull and drab the real world is compared to the amazingly colorful and exciting unimaginary world. I love, and my kids love, how Beekle is confused why "no kids were eating cake"--just grown-ups. Ha!)

Beekle looks and looks for his friend and climbs up a beautiful big tree to get a better view, but...still can't find the friend. Suddenly, below, a girl starts waving at him. They found each other!

The girl and imaginary friend are two peas in a pod. They laugh at the same jokes no one else gets, they made each other feel confident and comfortable. The book ends with: "Together, they did the unimaginable."
He climbed to the top of the tree and looked out,
wishing and hoping his friend would come.

Isn't the unimaginable possible with the support of one really great friend? I think so.

At the very least, add "Must check out Beekle immediately" to your long end-of-the-year to do list. Or just buy it for your kids or for the next birthday your kid attends. You might end up tucking it away because you just can't part the sweet, bold Beekle.

P.S. This book is SO similar to another recently released book, Marilyn's Monster, that I can't get over it. (Marilyn and her monster also find each other in a tree!) This is such a fun example of how two people could have the same idea, pursue it, and get it published around the same time--it has happened more than once. But if you've read both please comment so I don't feel like I'm the only one on earth chuckling at the coincidence!

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Last Stop on Market Street by Matt De La Peña

Last Stop on Market Street by Matt De La Peña, illustrated by Christian Robinson
G.P. Putnam's Sons

Rating: 5 stars

Just a few minutes ago I was driving along and had to stop because two big ol' white geese were crossing the road. I stopped and watched them waddle past slowly, not caring how long it took them to get to the other side of the road. These two geese serve as some sort of proof that my kids don't know what it's like to grow up in a city, have a bus be their main (and perhaps only) form of transportation, or experience walking through a constant flow of humanity. The city life is just not my kids' experience.

But I want them to know that there are other experiences out there. I want them to step in other kids' shoes and see what other types of lives are like.

Thanks to Matt De La Peña's latest (and perhaps greatest) book Last Stop on Market Street, my kids can do just that. They can see what city life is like, and what a thoughtful, others-before-me day is like--all in one book.

A young boy named C.J. walks out onto the street, free from an hour of church, yet not yet totally free--this boy is not done with his Sunday routine. C.J. and his grandmother board a bus--Mr. Dennis' bus.  We're not sure where they're going just yet, but the ride gets off to a good start when Mr. Dennis pulls a coin from behind C.J.'s ear.

A scene you don't see often in picture books...
As all kids do, C.J. complains a bit about having to go on this errand when his friends are off playing. But, his grandmother reminds him, his friends "won't know the people he knows. And I'm sorry about that." As he looks around the bus, he sees a great sampling of our great, diverse nation. C.J. sees a tattooed man (he gets no mention, but I like that he exists, in this picture book, with all his tattoos). He talks with a blind man, who says you don't have to have eyes to see.

When C.J. envies two teenagers' iPod, his grandmother points out he's got the real, live version in a guitar-holding passenger across the aisle. She suggests he request a song, and the musician strikes up a diddy just for C.J. The performance earns the coin Mr. Dennis pulled from his ear.

Finally, they arrive to the last stop on Market Street: a soup kitchen.

"Why's it always so dirty here?" C.J. asks.

"Sometimes, when you're surrounded by dirt, C.J., you're a better witness for what is beautiful," his grandmother wisely and patiently replies.

The two greet the men and women at the soup kitchen and take their places to serve them.

I'd like my kids to walk in C.J.'s shoes in more ways than one. As a former volunteer with the Missionaries of Charity and the Peace Corps, I look forward to the days when my kids will take their places to serve others.

Friday, May 8, 2015

You Can Do It, Bert! by Ole Könnecke

You Can Do It, Bert! by Ole Könnecke
Gecko Press

Rating: 5 stars

"They" (those already-published, know-everything children's literature gurus) tell us yet-to-be-published writer wanna-bes to write books that have a definite beginning, middle, and satisfying ending. One that should surprise the reader. With as few words as possible (preferably no more than 500 words). Possibly with a lesson, but not a heavily delivered one. Oh--and make it funny, too.

Sigh. A tall order, for sure.

Yet Ole Könnecke delivers such a perfect, simple little story with such simple, delightful illustrations that I'm left in awe. I'm tempted to just throw in the towel right now! Or be inspired. (I choose the latter.)

Bert is a little bird whose big day is arrived. We see him at the end of a twig. He's trying to muster the courage to jump. He's well prepared, "mentally and physically." (I love that.)

Bert is well prepared, mentally and physically.
We're with him! Trying to help urge him along as he runs then screeches to a stop. He must eat a banana first. Then he'll be ready.

And he is. So he does.

We see him in mid-air. No wings flapping. Looking distressed. Saying "help" in what I'm sure is a pip-squeak of a voice.


And then... Splash! He's actually jumping in water! With three other feathered friends!

You tricked us, Ole Könnecke, in the most delightful way. Bravo!

Marilyn's Monster by Michelle Knudsen

Marilyn's Monster by Michelle Knudsen, illustrated by Matt Phelan
Candlewick Press

Rating: 5 stars

There's always a New Thing in kids' lives (and in the social parts of parenting, too, don't you think?). What's it in your child's world: An iPad? A specific brand of shoes? Certain socks? I'm willing to go out on a limb to say there is something that everyone wants, but only some people have in most schools in this country.

In Marilyn's school, that thing is monsters.

Everyone's got one. Whether it's big and scary, tiny and cuddly, toothy and happy, or stylish and snappy. Everyone's got one, that is, except Marilyn. And the thing is, you can't just go buy your monster at a store or find it in the forest. It finds you. So Marilyn's got to be patient while her monster finds her. Or so everyone tells her.
Timmy's monster chose him right in the middle of a history test.

But it's hard to be patient when Franklin's monster surprises him in the library! And Lenny's monster creeps out to scare away the bullies chasing him. Or Rebecca's monster comes along on his own bike while she rides her!

Everyone's got one or is getting one. Except Marilyn. She feels stung by what she doesn't have. Every breath has a tinge of jealousy. Everyone tells her, "Be patient!" and "It'll happen when it's supposed to!" and "Just sit tight and wait."

She does all that. And then gets tired of waiting nicely like she's supposed to. She pulls on her hiking boots, packs two sandwiches, and goes out to search for her monster. Hours into the hike, her patience gone and her anger mounting, she shouts, "WHERE ARE YOU???!"

And she hears a tiny voice: "Here."

And then, very softly, she heard a voice say, "Here."
(Enlarge the picture. Look up in the tree, on the right.)
Her monster is up high, stuck in a tree. Her monster's long, lovely wings got tangled up in the branches. She climbs up, goes out on a limb, and rescues it. They share sandwiches in the tree, then her monster flies her back home, where she reports to her family that she and her monster "found each other."

Her big brother is annoyed--it's "not supposed to work that way." She looks at him, her face softens, and she thinks "there were a lot of different ways that things could work."

I love this book. I love the realistic sting of envy in the beginning, the process of waiting she goes through, and the go-get-'em pluck that Marilyn displays by the end when she's too impatient to wait any longer. I just love it all. Michelle Knudsen has written many books over the years, but this is my favorite. By far.

Friday, May 1, 2015

Naked! by Michael Ian Black

Naked! by Michael Ian Black, illustrated by Debbie Ridpath Ohi

Simon & Schuster

Rating: 4 stars

There's really nothing better than running through the house naked. For my kids--KIDS...not the whole family! Truly, streaking is not part of my husband's and my nightly constitution. Promise. But if you want to put a little frosting on that cake of a naked activity, it's yelling out like a crazy person "Naked!" Which you will most certainly do after reading this wonderfully silly book.

The narrator in this book is delighted to run through his house naked. And we readers were delighted to see how illustrator Debbie Ridpath Ohi cleverly disguised the boy bits we'd prefer not see. Like my boys, the boy in the book loves to run through the house after his bath sans clothes. Through the hall, in his room, down the stairs, with his mom running after him with a towel and the dad protecting the baby from her brother's nakedness.
Look at me, everybody! I'm caped!

Then, the boy does more things and dreams of doing more things:
Eating a cookie totally and complete NAKED!
I could go to school NAKED!
Play on the playground NAKED!
Do the hokey pokey NAKED!

Then our silly hero puts on a cape, and the illustrations get even better.

But then he gets cold. And then he becomes exhausted. And then he is...asleep.

He does put pajamas on during the post-cape, pre-sleeping moments!

Fun, fun book that is guaranteed to make your post-bathtime a little rowdier and a little gigglier.

Monday, April 27, 2015

Extraordinary Warren: A Super Chicken (PIX series) by Sarah Dillard

Extraordinary Warren: A Super Chicken (PIX series) by Sarah Dillard

Rating: 4 stars

Picture book + easy reader + graphic novel + chapter book = Extraordinary Warren 

Did that make any sense to you? Let me add a little text: This book is a fun blend of four different genres. There are big pictures from traditional picture books, long yet easy-ish text from easy readers, comic book-style graphics from graphic novels, and multiple chapters from beginner chapter books.

This is a new-ish format that publishers say is perfect for struggling readers who need easier material but want to have a chapter book in their hands like their reading-on-level classmates. While I believe that to be true, it's also really good for those of us with kids at home who read on different levels. Kiefer, who turns four in less than two weeks, checks out chapter books like his big brother and sister. I don't discourage it--any book in his lap is a good one, and I like how he makes his own choices--but this is one book from one series that has so many pictures that he can figure out what's going on without reading a whole lot. And once he does start reading, it'll be even better.

The PIX series--perfect for third kids everywhere! Okay, and some kids for whom reading isn't at the top of their list of things to do.

But enough about the genre of the book. Let me get to the actual book itself:

Meet Warren. Warren is a chick tired of pecking and peeping all the time. He's meant for bigger things! He desires more in life! He wants to stand out from all the ordinary chicks!

Enter Millard. Millard is a rat tired of eating junk. He's meant for bigger feasts! He desires more scrumptious morsels! He wants to dine on the fanciest of things!

The story, as you might have predicted, revolves around the funny dance between Warren, who wants to be special, and Millard, who wants him to think he's special--his special dinner. There are plenty of puns and opportunities to giggle during the six short chapters. Of course the good guy wins, and Warren ends up realizing his own superhero-ness when he saves all of his ordinary friends from the rat who wants to eat them all.

It's a fine book sure to entertain both boys and girls. More important, it is sure to inspire a little more confidence in those kids who want to read so badly--including third kids like Kiefer. And if you like Extraordinary Warren, there are more in the PIX series--Extraordinary Warren Saves the Day is already out, and I've heard there's a book about a big-toothed beaver coming next year...

P.S. Author Sara Dillard has a fantastic story hour (or rainy day) kit to download HERE.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Me First by Max Kornell

Me First by Max Kornell
Nancy Paulsen Books

Rating: 5 stars

There is something pretty great about this book. Max Kornell manages to write and illustrate this story right at the intersection of Funny and Insightful. And he manages to right my perspective on my kids' bickering--which I appreciate because it's been off lately due to the normal mix of stomach bug grossness, shared space closeness, too much sleepiness, too much in-car-ness, too little outdoorness.

In this great new book by a great, new-ish author, two siblings argue about who is first--who is going first in a game, who got there first, who should do something first. Sound familiar? Right. The afternoon hike and picnic is full of "Me first!" and "Me first!" and still more "Me first!" Their parents are pretty calm about the whole thing--one day I'll be that calm--and when the two kids want to go home a different way, the parents allow them, as long as they go together.

On the new way home, they go through a few rounds of "Me first!s" that backfire--Martha tries a new berry first and has to spit it out because it's gross. Hal wants to go through an old fallen log but comes back out quickly after realizing it's filled with millions of cobwebs.

Hmm. Maybe this "Me first!" thing has its downsides.

But they don't learn this. Not yet, anyway, until Martha wants to cross a stream on a fallen log--"Me first!" she insists. The log breaks, she falls down in the water and is shaken up. Hal sweetly helps her up, and they walk back home together, arm in arm.

Sobered by the fall, a wave of politeness washes over them: Hal to Martha when they got to the front door: "You had quite a tumble back there. You go ahead." Martha to Hal when it was time to wash up before dinner: "You wash up first. You're the one that got covered in cobwebs."

These sweet manners continue through dinner. And after dinner Dad comments on how polite they are being towards each other. Mom quips, "Yes, but I noticed it first."

Chuckle, chuckle...!

Monday, April 20, 2015

Uni the Unicorn by Amy Krouse Rosenthal

Uni the Unicorn by Amy Krouse Rosenthal, illustrated by Brigette Barrager
Random House Kids

Rating: 4 stars

Uni the Unicorn looks exactly like little girls want unicorns to look like: silky white with sparkles in her coat, impossibly pink mane and tail, dainty golden hooves, dazzling gems for eyes, swirly white horn that can mend any hurt. Uni the Unicorn also acts like little girls want unicorns to act: noble, regal, happy, and steadfast in her belief in the impossible.

This time, the impossible is a clever twist on little girls believing in unicorns: unlike all the other unicorns in the field, Uni the Unicorn believes in little girls. Her parents shake their horny heads at her, and encourage her to rethink her beliefs and spend her time more wisely. But Uni believes that somewhere there is a strong, smart, wonderful girl waiting to play with her.

Uni imagines all the wonderful things she’ll do with this little girl once she finds her: run fast through the meadow, spin and twirl in the sunlight, explore their world, and help forest creatures in need, and sometimes they’d sit quietly and talk about important things. And of course they would slide down rainbows together (of course!).

Uni believes. In a way only little kids really can.

What Uni doesn’t know—but readers soon do know—is that she is right. There is a little girl who is also teased by her friends for believing in something magical. This little girl believes in unicorns. She believes there is a strong, smart, wonderful unicorn waiting to play with her.

Each is waiting and hoping for the other, waiting for the chance to be friends.

Should your child get swept away by the magic in this tale, there are activities about Uni. These items and more are available at And even a song:

Anything by Amy Krouse Rosenthal is clever and funny, sweet and smart—she writes the types of books that you want in your child’s lap. The humor in them is so very intelligent: her clever lines make the reader think just a bit more, work just a bit more to understand and smile at the humor. We are fans of her in our house. There’s not a lot of Rosenthal’s wittiness in this book (besides the obvious and clever twist of unicorns believing in little girls), but there is a wonderful lesson in believing in that which you believe in, and maybe just maybe you’ll meet someone who holds the same belief as you. And maybe just maybe you’ll get to call that person Friend. Fingers crossed!

This review originally appeared in the Washington Family Magazine (right about HERE).

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Nana in the City by Lauren Castillo

Nana in the City by Lauren Castillo
Clarion Books

Rating: 5 stars

I'm always curious who wins the Caldecott and I like to get in on the prediction excitement with my kids. But while I love good illustrations and am glad there's an award for it, sometimes the story in a Caldecott winner falls short.

But that's not the case with this recent Caldecott honor book. Nana in the City has both: great story and incredible illustrations.

A young boy goes to visit his nana who--you've probably guessed--lives in the city. Specifically, New York City. The boy seems to have the expectation many of us do about grandmothers: they should be in a quiet place, taking care of kids, looking after the grandfather in the picture. Even I agree this stereotype is comforting (though flawed)...

But this boy's Nana is different.

"For you to wear on our walk today," she said.
"You'll see that the city is not scary at all."
When her grandson expresses his concern that "a city isn't a place for a nana," she smiles. She agrees that the city is loud and busy--but thinks it is more extraordinary than dangerous. She doesn't discredit his opinion, but she invites him to go along with her the following day to see the city through her eyes. During a night full of new sounds and not much sleep for her grandson, Nana sits and knits (that's grandmotherly, right?) and watches over him.

Before they set out on their adventure, Nana gives the boy what she's been knitting: a red cape. It makes him feel brave!

With few words and gorgeous illustrations, Castillo shows the boy and the reader the good sides of being loud (a funky breakdancer performing in the street), being busy (a bustling picnic area in the park), and being extraordinary (downtown Broadway area, with bright lights all around).

When it's time for the boy to leave, he agrees: A city is the perfect place for his Nana. And for him to visit. He gives the cape to Nana, so she'll be brave after he leaves.

I can't begin to tell you how talented Lauren Castillo is, but click HERE for a little glimpse of Amazing--there are some of the sketches for Nana in the City, how she uses salt to add depth to a picture, and a five-second video of her flipping through her sketchbook. In my next life, I'd like cool and quirky, warm and sweet characters to come from my fingertips, too...

If this book doesn't leave you with a warm and fuzzy feeling, I'm not sure what will!

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Ivan: The Remarkable True Story of the Shopping Mall Gorilla by Katherine Applegate

Ivan: The Remarkable True Story of the Shopping Mall Gorilla by Katherine Applegate
Clarion Books

Rating: 5 stars

In case you haven't heard, there's this book that has been on the New York Times Bestseller list for 108 weeks called The One and Only Ivan. Ivan is a gorilla who spends his time drumming his fingers and watching passers by at a shopping mall, where he's been sitting in a very small cage for a very long time. The story is fiction but it's based on a true story. There was a real gorilla Ivan who was purchased and plucked from a jungle and placed in...a shopping mall in Washington State.

This picture book, Ivan: The Remarkable True Story of the Shopping Mall Gorilla, is the nonfiction account of Ivan's life.

Brace yourself, because it's not always a fun life to read about. But Applegate, who also wrote The One and Only Ivan, does a great job of unfolding his sad story in digestible bits, and the entire story illustrates one of my favorite maxims: "It all turns out okay. If it's not okay, it's not the end." And Ivan's life does turn out okay in the end. (It's a picture book--it's got to have a happy ending. What a relief!)
He'd grown into a silverback gorilla.
In the jungle, he would have been ready to protect his family.
But he had no family to protect.

Ivan starts his life in the jungle, born to a band of gorillas. He plays with, listens to, and closely observes other gorillas...he learns everything from them. And then one day, he is caught by poachers. He and another little gorilla baby are thrown into a dark crate and shipped to Tacoma, Washington.

Once there, they are treated as exotic baby-pets--everyone thinks these small animals are cute and interesting. But one gorilla baby dies and only Ivan is left. When Ivan grows out of the cute, small phase, his new owner doesn't know what to do with him. Soon, he is placed in a cage in the mall with a TV and an old tire and little else.

He spends twenty-seven years away from other gorillas, in that small cage. (Heart-breaking!)

Finally, after protests and petitions, Ivan is sent to Zoo Atlanta. After helping him adjust to his new environments, Ivan is released into a new band of gorillas. He lives there, happily it seems, until he finally dies at age 50 in 2012--and one year later, The One and Only Ivan won the Newbery.

So why read this book to your child? Is the lesson here simply "animals should stay in the wild" or "poachers should be stopped?" Sure, those lessons are great ones for kids to learn; the jobs in that field are certainly noble ones.

But I think there's a deeper message here about reinventing yourself, or starting a new chapter in life--it's so obvious that Ivan's life was sad and small, but then it changes. He starts a new chapter, and his life becomes big and full. Because a bunch of people cared, took the time, made the effort to help him get to a better place. Maybe some kids (and the grown-ups reading this book to them) can relate. Maybe some kids (and those grown-ups) have felt small or been in dark places, but because they took the time to care about themselves or others made the effort to help, maybe they're in a better place now. Maybe they're in the process of starting a brand new chapter in their lives. Maybe Ivan's story strikes a chord in them and gives them hope.

The One and Only Ivan is "on deck" as Lorelei says for us to read together next--I'll let you know how it goes. (We're reading Wonder now.) She was open to reading it last year, but after reading this picture book, she's very curious and eager to start. That makes two of us.

Monday, April 13, 2015

This is Sadie by Sara O'Leary

This is Sadie by Sara O'Leary, illustrated by Julie Morstead
Tundra Books

Rating: 4 stars

Meet Sadie.

Sadie isn’t your typical little girl. She isn’t even your typical little-girl-with-a-big-imagination. In fact, the reader has a hard time figuring out who Sadie is, exactly, because she is so many things. She’s into so many things. She does so many things.

When we first meet Sadie, we see the literal Sadie: a girl with wispy-straight hair inside a simple, old cardboard box. But “no,” Sadie tells us. “I’m on an enormous boat, crossing a wide, wide sea.”

And so we readers of This is Sadie (released in May 2015) begin to get a glimpse of the first side of this unique character Sadie, the one whose head is filled with an imagination almost as vivid and brilliant as illustrator Julie Morstad can create. She imagines she is sailing at sea, lives under the water as a mermaid, has wings that help her fly over her neighborhood. Sadie’s not one to be pinned down by any one description—we need many of these amazing snapshots of her to understand who she is

What I love most about her is that she creates imaginary worlds for herself as either a boy or a girl—no need to follow any gender rules here. I love that Sadie provides for little girl readers the chance to also be the hero in a fairy tale world and a boy raised by wolves.

The book has no plot; its main goal, it seems to me, is to invite young readers (especially girls) to step outside their normal real-life and imagine themselves as something different. Maybe something bigger, maybe something smaller. Maybe someone more playful or more adventurous than they really are. And by trying on these different roles or personalities, maybe your little girl will discover that’s there is more than meets the eye to herself. 

The book ends as it begins—with that big cardboard box. This time Sadie is in a homemade tent, with crafts all around her and books stacked up to read—no iPad or TV or parental direction needed for this girl!  And the big box symbolizes all the possibilities. On the first page that big box was a boat. On the last, it is a snail shell, and Sadie is snoozing away under it, perhaps dreaming of her next adventure.

This is a gorgeous book—Julie Morstad is an extraordinary artist. I’m not sure if young readers will appreciate the details that make each page worthy of serious pause and attention, but they’ll grasp the feel of the picture immediately. The words are fine (a teensy bit random, I think—without a plot I feel a little lost), but the pictures will pull in readers and help them feel a part of something much bigger than their little world.

And maybe, just maybe, the switch on their imagination will be clicked on and their afternoons will be spent as a mermaid, as a flying girl, as a sailor at see, as a knight in shining armor.