February was a great month for international reads and biographies! It was not, however, a good month for blog-post brevity. Be warned: this one ain’t short. I’ll try to do better next time. Maybe. I get so excited about these things.
Without further ado, here are my ten favorite picture books for February 2016 (in no particular order).
That is NOT a Good Idea! by Mo Willems – A classic duel between the cunning and menacing Fox and the gullible Goose. With each step further on their promenade, the Goose’s chicks peep more and more earnestly, “That is Really, Really, Really, NOT a good idea!” And it really wasn’t. Bless his heart, that poor Fox didn’t see the Goose coming. But really, with all those mouths to feed she does need to be resourceful. A great surprise ending. I ad-libbed a bit to make sure my girls understood what was being set-up: “Looks like that Fox is trying to trick the Goose. Oh no! Sounds like he wants to eat her. Those chicks sure are worried, aren’t they?” And it worked! They were anxious for the resolution after assuming the poor Goose was a goner. Then we laughed and read it again. And again and again and again. Such a fun book.
Each Kindness by Jacqueline Woodson – After finishing Jacqueline Woodson’s memoir in verse, brown girl dreaming, I went searching for her other books. I read a few of them, but this is the one that got me. It’s the story of a small classroom of children. When a visibly poorer girl, Maya, joins the class the others, including the narrator, increasingly ignore and ridicule her. The narrator notices when one day Maya is not at school. The same day her teacher gives a lesson about kindness and how one kind deed can extend outwards. The lesson has such an impact that the child resolves to be kind to Maya. Except that Maya never returns.
Picture books don’t often tug at my heartstrings. Call me a robot, but it takes a lot for me to really pause and think “Wow. that was a powerful book.” This one hit that mark for me. The story is simple. It’s something we can all relate to – and children will relate to soon enough. I think what makes it work is that the Maya does not return. The protagonist doesn’t have the chance to put her plan in motion and is instead left with a rock in her hand and her conscience that does not settle. And that’s as it should be. I understand that the children’s book market isn’t looking for heavy-handed, message-laden texts. Parents aren’t buying them. But not everything in life is lollipops and wagon wheels. Opening ways to have meaningful discussions is a power in and of itself for books – particularly at this stage when reading together is necessary. This book is a good place to have one – a serious one – about kindness to others.
Rhyme Time Valentine by Nancy Poydar – What a fun story about a girl, Ruby, who loves Valentine’s Day. She likes to rhyme and wear red and celebrate the day in every way. She had her Valentines, written with original rhymes, ready two weeks ahead of her class. She wears all red on her way to school – except that her coat is blue so she opens it up even though it is snowing (everybody who has a five-year-old who would do something like this raise your hand!). But then the wind whisks her Valentine’s away – and with them, her Valentine spirit. She is upset. She tries to make Valentines with the leftover paper but orange looks like pumpkins, green looks like leaves, and purple looks like plums (this page/section was my favorite part). In the end, she finds another way to share the day and in the process recovers her enthusiasm. The wind brings back her rhymes, as well. Fun story and a light-hearted Valentine’s day book.
Who Says Women Can’t Be Doctors? by Tanya Lee Stone – Really? Biographies for kids? Darn tootin’! This one is nearly perfect. It is the story of Elizabeth Blackwell – the first female doctor. The collaboration between the text and illustrations is spot on. The bright, colorful, quirky drawings are not distracting but they engage in such a way that children are drawn to the scenes while the text winds in and around. Stone picks intriguing details about Elizabeth Blackwell’s childhood to emphasize her character and personality. Then, Blackwell’s oppositions are well documented and the theme of persevering even when no one else supports you is front and center. Blackwell was smart enough and graduated first in her class. The only minor letdown was the ending. It just didn’t have the punch and pizzaz that followed throughout the rest of the book. It was the right idea for an ending, just perhaps not as clearly written as I might have hoped. Still- definitely one of my favorites and one that I’m adding to my own personal library as soon as I can!
Miss Moore Thought Otherwise by Jan Pinborough – Another biography! This one was a surprise. It’s a book about the woman who pioneered library space for children. As her story progresses the author highlights the existing ideas of the times (kids can’t be responsible for books) but counters them with “Miss Moore thought otherwise.” At the beginning readers are introduced to a girl naturally choosing things that weren’t considered ladylike: playing outside, reading books, not being married at 19, and studying to be a lawyer. We learn then about some tragedies beyond Miss Moore’s control that slowed her trajectory.
[Digression: One might wonder why even include those details – why not just start at the part where she moves to New York City to be a librarian? Yet, it seems to me there is elegant value in reminding children that not every challenge in life is set up as an “us vs. them” or “you vs. the world” situation. Those certainly are compelling stories – and we can admire those who have confronted such experiences – but sometimes life happens and it is not something we are fighting through or over but a season of life that seems to be a roadblock initially but actually puts us in the right place at the right time for a path we never imagined.]
The vision that Miss Moore champions – space just for children in the library – accelerated her career, opened books and reading and imagination and community to children, and became so ingrained in our psyche that it’s hard to fathom a public library without something for children. Heck, it’s the reason I go to our library so often. Miss Moore was a compassionate visionary and a thoughtful creative. I loved her story, and this telling of it.
Miracle Man by John Hendrix – When I discovered this book last year, I jotted down the title and a note to “purchase in February 2016” (when it released). February 2016 arrived, and I bought it. I was not disappointed. I would love to tell you that I bought it for the narrative, but Hendrix’s skill as an illustrator is what drew me to it. Words are part of the pictures. The intersection and interpretation of both are powerful. Hendrix selects a few of the stories from Jesus’ life to illustrate and connect with his final “miracle man” feat. This is probably my favorite Christian picture book. His portrayal of Jesus through the lens of “miracle man” is artistic, thought-provoking, and enlightening. It will capture the imagination of children and the admiration of adults.
First Come the Zebra by Lynne Barasch – This story takes place in Kenya, and the conflict studies part of me loved it – even with only a rudimentary knowledge of the dynamics of the Kenyan socio-political climate. Even better, the picture-book-fan in me loved it. The themes of taking only what is necessary and coexisting peacefully are introduced by the cycle of animals that roam through the grasslands to feed. Then the story begins about an evolving friendship between two boys. Abaani is a Massai boy and his job is to take the family cattle to graze. On his way to pastureland one day, he passes a new stall selling fruit. Haki is Kikuyu. Both boys know nothing about the other except for what they have heard adults discuss. So they toss insults. An event at the stall briefly unifies the boys and shows they can work together. The days continue and a friendly relationship evolves over time.
The story is approachable for kids of all ages. Children will understand the name-calling, they will grasp the immediate need at the stall and will be glad to see the boys’ heroics, and they will appreciate the tentative steps towards friendship and the subsequent relationship that develops. Adults would probably benefit from reading this book as well and considering the broader implications for community.
My Mother’s Sari by Sandhya Rao – I don’t usually gravitate towards books with spare writing – regardless of the illustrations. I picked this one out of an aisle in the library just out of curiosity. Sari’s are the epitome of mysterious and beautiful dress for me. I think the are stunning. I gravitate towards their colors and sparkles. I am intimidated by their folds and drapes. This book takes all of that and instantly connected me with the mothers of these children.
The sari is a hiding place, a long train, something to climb, something to slide down, and – this is where it solidified my motherly connection – something on which to wipe a runny nose. It can be a blanket or a hammock, but all in all the child in this book loves her mother’s sari because of how it makes her dream. Ah! I loved this book – what a surprise find!
(Bonus: The inside covers have directions for how to wrap a sari. Now to find a piece of fabric long enough for my 6’0″ frame and do it without inadvertently choking myself.)
Noodle Magic by Roseanne Greenfield Thong – Grandpa is in charge of making the noodles. And he can do just about anything with his noodles. His granddaughter dreams up new challenges for Grandpa Tu’s noodles: can he make a jump rope? Can he catch a cloud with a noodle? Yep and yep. Everyone marvels at Grandpa’s abilities. They assume he will be preparing noodles for the emperor’s upcoming birthday. But Grandpa turns the responsibility over to his granddaughter, Mei. She doubts herself, she wants the magic, she tries to bribe the Moon Goddess for some. But Grandpa and the Moon Goddess insist that it must come from Mei. Can she do it? Will the emperor have noodles for his birthday?
Now, if this is the process for making noodles, count me out for doing it myself, but count me in for watching someone do it. The illustrations are fantastic. The long noodles are stretched and spun and there’s even a tug-of-war scene between Mei and the Moon Goddess. In the end, Mei’s approach builds on the legacy her Grandfather has created but is unique and distinct – as is the outcome. Fun read! A great book too if you have noodle-lovers in your family.
The Seven Silly Eaters by Mary Ann Hoberman – This one is for children who eat food and moms who make it. This is the story of one mom feeding seven children with seven distinct expectations for their food. At first, it is no problem. One child who likes his milk “just so” is not hard to accommodate. Even when a couple others arrive on the scene with food preferences, the courageous mother Mrs. Peters, attends to their needs. As you might imagine, seven children who continue in their unique demands get to be a bit much. Mrs. Peters is visibly frazzled.
Then: it’s her birthday. And her children, bless their hearts, try to make all their favorite foods for their mom for her birthday. Except, when they get in the kitchen they realize they have no idea how to do it. Hilarity and calamity meet to produce one giant food made from all their favorite foods smashed together. I’m not sure if the mom is more excited about her thoughtful children or the fact that now she can make this one thing and everyone will be happy.
Fun rhymes and illustrations with a healthy dose of reality will keep everyone entertained until the end.
If you’ve made it this far – congratulations. This blog post has been double the high-end limit for a picture book text. And you’ve made it to the end.
Still – always – taking recommendations of favorite picture books in the comments. Thanks for those of you who have responded – I have been reading them even if they don’t make my list – my local library is going to soon start a reserved shelf just for me at this rate! #readerprobs #sorrynotsorry