Monday, December 15, 2014

The Baby Tree by Sophie Blackall

The Baby Tree by Sophie Blackall

Rating: 5 stars

It's an age-old question most parents dread: Where do babies come from?

Sophie Blackall takes a stab at answering this question, taking the load off our parental shoulders for a bit. This beautiful book is on many (most?) of the year-end "best book" lists, and there's a reason why: it's a sweet story with an important message, told with sweet words and incredible illustrations.

Here's the story (and a few illustrations to give you an idea of how great they are):

At breakfast, a little boy's parents break the news to him: there's a baby on the way! He's going to be a big brother. As he quietly eats his oatmeal while the hubbub of the morning swirls around him, he only has one thought: Where are we going to get the baby?

Teenage neighbor Olive answers his question as they walk to school: "You plant a seed, and it grows into a Baby Tree."

Hmm. He's not sure about that. He still wonders, so he takes his question to school.

Mrs. McClure the art teacher replies: "From the hospital."

Okay...he can picture a hospital, because his Grandpa had stuff removed (gall stones) there. But he's still unsure, so...

He asks Grandpa, who tells him: "A stork brings your baby in the night and leaves it in a bundle on your doorstep."

Everyone was right. Except for Grandpa.

Maybe the mailman can clear things up: "Babies come from eggs."

At the end of this long, confusing day, the boy asks his mom and dad where babies come from. The simple, succinct answer includes: "They begin with a seed from their dad...which gets planted in an egg inside their mom...the baby grows in there for nine months...until it runs out of room...and it's ready to be born."

So everyone was a little bit right. Except for Grandpa and that stork thing.

There's more information in the back about where babies come from, with recommendations on how to answer the question based on the age of your child. The information also includes twins and adoption and c-sections in very brief but still-honest ways.

This is a great book for many reasons: it's wonderful to look at, great to read aloud, and a fantastic teaching tool. What more can you expect from a book? (Please don't tell her, but we are giving this to Lorelei's teacher--she has a toddler at home and is expecting her second baby in January!)

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Draw! by Raúl Colón

Draw! by Raúl Colón

Rating: 5 stars

Last month the New York Times published their annual list (and I'm a lover of all lists, especially when they are lists of books, not to-dos) of Best Illustrated Books for 2014. Click HERE to access this great list. But watch out! Raúl Colón's gorgeous book Draw! is the first one, and when I looked at the illustration from it I knew I needed to see all of it. So don't expect to just look. Expect to buy. At least one. (I already owned Shackleton's Journey, or else I would have purchased that, too.)


Raúl Colón suffered from severe asthma as a child. Frequently, he'd find himself locked up indoors--for days on end--in order to hide from the pollen that made breathing difficult. But he endured those many hours on those many days away from the world by escaping into books and his own drawing (and sometimes comic books he wrote and illustrated himself). This wordless picture book is inspired by the hours he spent as a child trapped in his room but free in his imagination...

In Draw!, a boy is sitting on his bed, absorbed in a book about Africa. He puts the book aside and grabs his sketchbook, and draws himself walking, walking, walking into the book. (This transporting-into-a-book is something my kids talk about all the time. Are they alone? Do your kids do this?) The boy walks and walks until he sees an elephant. Gladly, it is a friendly elephant that poses for him and then gives him a ride rather than charges him.

The elephant becomes his guide as he walks around the grasslands, meeting and drawing giraffes, lions, gorillas, water buffalo, and a rhino that is the least friendly of the bunch (check out the cover, above left). His eyes and heart soak up the experience and he draws and draws and draws all these animals...until suddenly he is transported back to his original world, where he is presenting his animal artwork to his class.

The wordless story is fine. But the illustrations! They are inspirational works of art, each one.

I loved reading more about Raúl Colón and his technique in an interview on the fabulous School Library Journal blog. Here's what he has to say about how he draws each and every illustration in this book, and his others:

Usually I use colored pencil over watercolor wash. In this case, with the African images, I bought Pantone color papers, and I went straight onto the paper with Prismacolor pencils. The paper has a nice grain to it. If you’re going to use color pencils, it’s good to use a grain paper. 
I found the etching instrument by accident—something [a former] boss purchased when I worked at a  TV station in Fort Lauderdale, FL. It’s like a giant flat coin with prongs sticking out. First I sketch onto the paper. The boy’s pants may look brown, but there are actually layers of greens, purples, and blues, which make the colors appear much more vivid. (I learned this from the Impressionists, who put colors next to each other to enhance images.) After I know where everything goes, I start etching with this instrument—wherever I think I need movement or volume.
We're fans of this author/illustrator for sure. I'm embarrassed that this is the first time I've mentioned him on this blog! If you're curious about his work, definitely check out more books by him. (Roberto Clemente: Pride of the Pittsburgh Pirates is my personal favorite.)

Dirty Rotten Pirates by Moira Butterfield

Dirty Rotten Pirates: A Revolting Guide to Pirates and Their World by Moira Butterfield, illustrated by Mauro Mazzara

Rating: 4 stars

This review was first published on the Washington FAMILY Magazine website:

Be forewarned: After reading this book, your kids might call each other “matey” and threaten to make you walk the plank if you feed them spinach and broccoli. Then again, you might cook them fish- and onion-filled salmagundi for dinner if they don’t mend the ship’s sails or ropes…

Dirty Rotten Pirates: A Truly Revolting Guide to Pirates and Their World is not for the faint of heart. The illustrations alone might give a child (or grown up!) the shivers. There are illustrations—and text to go along with—of a pirate looking up in fright at a “doctor” about to saw off his injured limb and another deceased pirate left to hang in the gallows for years after he took his last breath. Gruesome for sure, though what else would you expect from a book about pirates? These chaps were not known for their high-quality manners and impeccable oral hygiene! 

Therefore, it is appropriate that the target age range for this book is slightly older than the normal picture book range. The publisher recommends this book for 8 to 11 year olds. 

That said, Dirty Rotten Pirates delivers on its promise to teach your child about dirty, rotten pirates in a pretty revolting way. Each chapter showcases a different aspect of piracy, and each page is jam-packed with information about the history and life of pirates. I found myself spending the time to read all the facts, fascinated by the band of brothers that existed on each ship. This book, especially because of those gruesome illustrations mentioned above, is highly entertaining. 

To read the rest of the review, please click HERE.

Monday, December 1, 2014

Elephant and Piggie: Waiting is Not Easy! by Mo Willems

Elephant and Piggie: Waiting is Not Easy! by Mo Willems

Rating: 5 stars

We've loved Elephant and Piggie for a long, long time. I've written about them a few times before (most recently HERE and before that HERE). They are the best easy reader series that exists, and if you are working on reading with your kiddo, you need to check out every single one of them from the library. Really, you do.

But this book. Waiting Is Not Easy. This one take the cake.

This is the best!  The best book in a fantastic series! Do you REALIZE what this means?! This is one spectacular book!

Perhaps I've read it so many times that I am now beginning to talk like Gerald and Piggie? There could be worse things.

SO! The book!

Piggie has something to show Gerald. But he has to wait for it. And Gerald has a waiting problem. I know a waiting problem when I see one because I have serious waiting problems, too. Gerald and I (and my kids, like most kids) have serious deficiencies when it comes to patience. It's really a bummer that Target doesn't sell patience, really. It'd be so handy to have an extra six-pack of patience sitting around...

ANYWAY! The book!

So Gerald does his best to wait--which Piggie insists he must do, he has no choice, the surprise is not ready yet--and finally he does wait until the final few pages of the book, when the reader turns the page and together with Gerald we gasp in appreciation.

Gerald learns he has to wait some more.
(I do the same thing.)
It's a starry, starry night in Gerald and Piggie's world, and they both look up at it, in awe. They are both dumbstruck at the view.

And Gerald says, simply and quietly: "That was worth waiting for."

What a great book to put in the hands of our children! Geesh, what a great book to put in the hands of our friends and partners and siblings, too! In this world of now-now-NOW, where we want what we want yesterday, not months or years from now, it is even more important to teach kids that waiting is difficult and worthwhile.

Some things are worth waiting for.

Isn't that true?

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

I See Me! A Day in the Life of a Princess

I See Me! A Day in the Life of a Princess

Rating: 3.5 stars

I have several I See Me! books for my own children on our crowded bookshelves here in our home. My daughter received a customized My Very Own Name when she was born from family friends. It wasn’t one we read to her often until she realized that it was in fact, about her very own name, and then she chose it frequently for bedtime and anytime readings.

When our two boys came along, we purchased for them a book from the next iteration of I See Me! books, My Very Own Pirate Tale. This book is better than my daughter’s because it is, in fact, more of a story. A fearless pirate captain is needed, and a treasure map (of sorts) spells out the new pirate’s name (in other words, your child’s name). Both boys went through phases of loving the book. This book as well as My Very Own Name are still available through

I liked these books a lot, but they are just okay compared to the next iteration of I See Me! books which are just fantastic! In these books, the child’s name is not the only thing that is customized. Nope, it’s 2014, of course, and these books have photographs of your child of choice inside the actual pages of the book. The photographs aren’t slipped in (I’ve seen that before)—they are part of the illustration, part of the page. It’s one thing for a child to hear their names out loud by a grown-up; it’s entirely another (wonderful) thing for a child to see their own face jump out from the page. I See Me! was kind enough to have three books made for Washington FAMILY Magazine to hold, flip through, and review in order to tell you, parents everywhere, that these are fine, worth-the-money products.
And that’s what I am here to tell you: Girls everywhere will go crazy over Princess: A Day In the Life of a Princess books. 

When you order this book from, you provide your child’s name, gender, hair color, birthday, city, and skin color. Uploading a photograph is actually optional and of the three books reviewed for Washington FAMILY Magazine, this is the book that needs the photo the least. It is used twice: on the dedication page (for maximum effect—what a hook for a child to see their face on the first page!) and in a frame on page four with their name along the frame. The cartoon princess in the book is made in their likeness.

The story is a little tale of a girl who dreams about becoming a princess and then, POOF!, she actually wakes up as a crown-wearing royal. She has a breakfast (cupcakes and fruit!) and strolls around her castle, visits her horses, trots through the garden, and ends up having a tea party. There are details of your girl of choice sprinkled in the words: her birthstone, her birthday and the city where she lives.

To read the rest of the review, please click HERE.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Big Bear's Big Boat by Eve Bunting

Big Bear's Big Boat by Eve Bunting, illustrated by Nancy Carpenter

Rating: 5 stars

Sometimes, books end up in our giant library bag just for me.

I know, I know--they are picture books and they're found in the CHILDREN'S section, and they are meant for younger eyes and younger hearts than mine. But I'm a firm believer that children's books (from picture books to young adult novels) are good at any age, so I read them, unashamed, even when my kids aren't around.

So this book. Big Bear's Big Boat.

Big Bear's too big for his small boat. Kindly, he gives it to Little Bear because it's just Little Bear's size. Now, he sets off to build up another boat for himself. "I want it to be just like my little boat, but bigger," he tells his mom.

So he saws and he hammers and he measures and he builds until he's got his new big boat. Just like the old boat, but bigger. He smiles with satisfaction as he sits in his newly-finished boat.

This his friends get a look at it.

"It needs a big mast!" suggests Beaver. "It needs a top deck!" says Otter. "It needs a cabin!" screeches Blue Heron. Big Bear considers these suggestions and then adds a big mast, a top deck, and a cabin.

The he steps back, looks at his big boat. "What an ugly boat I've made. The mast leans over, the deck slants, and the cabin is higgledy-piggedly."

He goes to his friends. He doesn't want to hurt their feelings. He thanks them for their help but says he realizes he doesn't like the boat when it has all of their suggestions on it. "This boat is not my dream. A bear should never let go of his own dream." His friends nod in agreement, support his (very right in my own opinion) opinion, and watch as Big Bear takes down the mast that leans over, the higgedly-piggedly cabin, and the slanted deck.
And he was happy.

He pushes the boat into Blueberry Lake and rows it all around, fishes from it, relaxes in it, and watches the night sky from it.

And he is happy.

Right now, I'm trying so, so very hard to become a children's book author. I am putting my manuscripts out there in the big, opinion-filled world and people who supposedly know a whole lot more than me are telling me what they think of them. It's humbling for sure, though it's what I expected, and after each round of feedback I wonder: Is this my vision? Do I agree with their feedback? I need to learn from Big Bear, who has a big skill in his back fur-pocket: He can say no, thank you, that's not my dream. And then, he follows his own voice or heart or vision.

What a great lesson--for me, for my kids, for you, for all of us.

Monday, November 17, 2014

I See Me! M is for Me

I See Me! M is for Me
Rating: 5 stars

Do you know how kids go through phases where they are obsessed with one certain thing? For example, my six-year old son can't get enough baseball--he'll read anything baseball-related, from picture books to the sports section of the New York Times. My seven-year old daughter has a "crafternoon" when she comes home from school most days, and often raids my recycling (I prohibit the dirty, messy stuff) to get new materials.

The youngest in our bunch is currently obsessed with the alphabet. Three and a half-year old Kiefer walks around proudly and loudly just spelling out his name "K-I-E-F-E-R!" He is learning how to write his name--he needs a little help sometimes with that pesky curve on the R. But he happily and seriously works on that R as if his life depends on it. Anytime he sees letters--from license plates to posters, t-shirts to the "SUNSHINE" coffee mug from which I'm sipping right now--he traces them in the air with his finger as his eye focuses on the letter.

He's going to love it!
When he sees this M is for Me book that I recently ordered from, he is going to go bananas! The cover alone will stop him in his tracks: K is for KIEFER it reads, loud and proud. That’s not the only thing personalized in this book. When he opens the cover, he’ll see himself smiling back at him. There’s no mirror involved; instead, I See Me! placed a photograph I sent to them of Kiefer on the page, complete with a short note: 
“Kiefer, This special book is filled with words that describe my hopes for you. Together we’ll read this book to learn the alphabet and all about you!”

Just like any alphabet book, there’s a word for each letter of the alphabet. But unlike any other alphabet book I’ve seen, these words are positive attributes that we all hope our children possess. Here are a few to give you an idea: 
A is for Active 
B is for Brave 
C is for Caring 
D is for Determined 
E is for Extraordinary 
F is for Friendly

To read the rest of the review, please click HERE to go to Washington FAMILY Magazine's book review section.

Friday, November 14, 2014

I See Me! Farm Friends

I See Me! Farm Friends

This review was first published at Washington Family Magazine. Click HERE for the link to that original review.

I have several I See Me! books for my very own children on our crowded bookshelves here in our home. My daughter received a customized My Very Own Name when she was born from family friends. It wasn't one we read to her often until she realized that it was, in fact, about HER with her very own name, and then she chose it frequently for bedtime and anytime readings.

When our two boys came along, we purchased for them a book from the next iteration of I See Me! books, My Very Own Pirate Tale. This book, methinks, is better than my daughter's because it is, in fact, a story. A fearless captain is needed, and a treasure map (of sorts) spells out the new pirate's name (in other words, your child's name). Both boys went through phrases of loving the book. This book as well as My Very Own Name are still available through

These books are okay. They are just okay compared to the next generation of I See Me! books, which are FANTASTIC!

In these books, the child's name is not the only thing that is customized. Nope, it's 2014, of course, and these books have photographs of your child of choice inside the actual pages of the book. The photographs aren't slipped in (I've seen that before)--they are part of the illustration, part of the page. It's one thing for a child to hear their names out loud by a grown-up; it's entirely another (wonderful) thing for a child to see their own face jump out from the page.

I See Me! was ind enough to have three books made for this lucky Washington FAMILY Magazine reviewer--so I could hold, flip through, and review these books in order to tell you, parents, everywhere, if these are fine, worth-the-money products. And that's what I am here to tell you: they are fine, worth-the-money products! Children everywhere are sure to give the My Farm Friends personalized book a raucous standing ovation.

When you order this book from, you provide your child's name, gender, hair color, birthday, and skin color. Uploading a photograph is actually optional but I assure you: you should! Because when your child receives this book in his or her lap, the first thing she'll see is her face on the cover, instead of the farmer's face. Her body will be illustrated cuteness, but her face will be her own. The title will no longer be vague; it will be Griffin's Farm Friends or Ella's Farm Friends.

The story is, in itself, an engaging children's story, complete with rhyme and animal sounds all around. And as your child turns the pages, the farmer on each page will be your child. The gender of the farmer on the page will be what you've instructed. And the face? The image you provided to I See Me! Your child will be delighted to see her own face on every single page. For sure.

The downside of this book: It's expensive. Most board books cost $8 to $12; Farm Friends costs $29.95. This book isn't a necessary part of your child's book collection. As a lover of books, I think there are plenty more that need to be there before this one. So, is it worth it? If you can do it, I think it is. Can you request the book from a grandparent or other special family friend? At this young age, kids get intrigued by books because of gimmicks such as lift-the-flaps, surfaces they can touch, mirrors, and even photographs of themselves. These gimmicks work to create interest in books and start kids thinking: books are cool!

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Doug Unplugs at the Farm by Dan Yacarrino

Doug Unplugs at the Farm by Dan Yacarrino

Rating: 5 stars

Review for Washington Family Magazine:

Meet Doug. He’s a robot. He’s a young robot whose parents want him to be the smartest robot ever. His robot mom and robot dad accomplish this by plugging in Doug for lengthy downloads full of facts and figures.

We first met Doug in Doug Unplugged, published in 2013. In this book, Doug’s parents plug him in to learn about the city before they head off to work. Doug is happy to learn a bunch of facts about the city, but a pigeon on the windowsill makes him feel something he doesn’t often feel—curiosity—and when he reaches for the pigeon, he unplugs himself. And suddenly, he’s free to explore and experience the city in a more meaningful way.

In Doug Unplugs on the Farm, Doug and his parents drive to visit his grandbots in the country. As they are still interested in Doug being the very smartest robot, his mom-bot and dad-bot plug him in to learn about the farms he’s driving past. He learns some neat facts (that my three kids liked, too):

• Cows need to be milked every day.

• Sheep tend to follow each other.

• A baby pig is called a piglet.

• Horses can pull plows.

His downloading is interrupted when a whole flock of sheep runs across the road, causing his dad-bot to veer into a ditch and for the whole family to become unplugged!

To find out what happened and read the rest of the review of this fantastic book, click HERE.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Ninja Boy Goes to School by N.D. Wilson

Ninja Boy Goes to School by N.D. Wilson, illustrated by J.J. Harrison

Rating: 4 stars

Review for Washington Family Magazine:

How fitting that my kids and I read Ninja Boy Goes to School the day before school started. I anticipated the story to be a this-is-how-you-are-brave-at-school message, which was a tale my kindergarten-starting son Ben might especially appreciate.

I must admit I was a little surprised by the story that actually unfolded!

N.D. Wilson introduces how to be a ninja--a job that's not just for anybody. A ninja must be silent, nimble, strong, graceful. He brings levity to this serious topic with parenthetical comments that are cute and funny. J.J. Harrison keeps the talk of ninja on the appropriate kid level with bright illustrations that are a great balance of serious ninja and silly kid.

Ninja Boy—we don’t ever know his name—goes to school by bus, but instead of sitting in the seat, he suction cups himself to the roof of the bus, something my kids howled at. Other kids on this page laugh at Ninja Boy too, but he is too committed to being a ninja to notice or care. 

And this is where the story takes an unexpected turn...

To read the rest of the review (and find out what happens! What a cliff-hanger, I know!), click HERE.

Mama Built A Little Nest by Jennifer Ward

Mama Built A Little Nest by Jennifer Ward, illustrated by Steve Jenkins

Rating: 5 stars

If you've got a nature-loving kid somewhere near you, this book needs to be in his or her hands. We were all blown away by how many facts we learned from a book that appeared to be a simple rhyme with gorgeous illustrations.

Ward gives us a gift of a book jam-packed with great information about a bunch of different birds--from the more well-known emperor penguin and falcons to more unique birds such as the weaverbird (the yellow bird pictured on the cover), falcon, grebe, and shorebird.

This is a grow-with-me book, or a book for a household like ours--with one strong, curious reader; one emerging, interested reader; and one bird-loving, letter-finder. On each two-page spread is a succinct, one-stanza rhyme about the bird illustrated on the page. There are also several sentences about the bird written in a smaller, different font for readers like Lorelei to read on her own or for me to read to Ben (he can read most of the words in the actual poem himself).

Mama built a little nest / inside a sturdy trunk.
She used her beak to tap-tap-tap / the perfect place to bunk.
Each page not only shows the reader what the bird looks like, but what the nest is like. The diversity of each bird--from what it looks like to how it makes its nest--impressed me greatly and was fun to point out to my kids. The birds and their neat nests grabbed my kids' attention and set off their imaginations.

Here are some of my favorite facts about the birds and their nests in this book:

  • A hummingbird makes the smallest cup-shaped nest out of spiderwebs so the nest will stretch as the chicks grow.
  • The male cactus wren makes many dome-shaped nests to attract a female. If impressed, the female will choose one and then continue to add to its structure.
  • Grebes create a floating nest on the water and anchor it to water plants.
  • The swiftlet makes an edible nest (!!) using tube-shaped saliva, which hardens in the air. Swiftlet nests are used in bird's nest soup, a Chinese delicacy.

My kids love this type of bird feeder!

This is a wonderful, one-of-a-kind book that pairs nicely with the kind of bird feeder we have attached to our HERE for link to purchase.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Little Women Christmas by Heather Vogel Frederick

Little Women Christmas by Heather Vogel Frederick, illustrated by Bagram Ibatoulline

Rating: 5 stars

In May 2007, I held my daughter Lorelei for the first time. My first day as a mother was an idyllic bubble of joy—Lorelei nursed confidently, I capably soothed her cries, and the nurses were a short call away should I have any questions about the many things I didn’t know how to do.
On Lorelei’s second day in this world, my father came to visit. He came, of course, to say hello to Lorelei, to welcome her into this world and our family, to congratulate my husband and me. He sat holding his granddaughter, singing Ranger jodies into her tiny ears. He also came to say good-bye. He deployed for Iraq the next day.
It’s hard for me to imagine how my heart held these two giant, opposing emotions. My blissful hours with Lorelei had an undercurrent of fear as my father bunkered into and worked from the Green Zone. I endured six months of this, of letter writing and baby bathing, of worrying and cooing.