Picture Book Reading Challenge: December 2016

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The Junkyard Wonders by Patricia Polacco
This is the story of a young girl, and then of her tribe, in Mrs. Peterson’s class. It is a class that has been dubbed the Junkyard by the rest of the school. An assortment of students who, for one reason or another, approach learning and social situations differently. And Mrs. Peterson challenges them to find who they are meant to be. Polacco, writing from her own experience, does not gloss over the harsh realities of being in a special class. But her emphasis on friendship and community and potential and creativity and perseverance walk students through the heart-rending situations and to the other side, much as Mrs. Peterson helps her class navigate the emotional ups and downs of a school year. A beautiful and powerful story. 

Tree of Cranes by Allen Say
The story in Tree of Cranes unfolds slowly and beautifully. Readers meet a little boy in the midst of an act of disobedience. The tension escalates as he returns home certain that his Mama will know what he did. But his Mama’s actions and words are unusual. The little boy attributes them to her knowing what he did and being upset by it. Only after she brings in a tree from the outside does she start to explain and readers begin to understand that this is a Christmas story. A lovely telling of a mother sharing her childhood Christmas with her young son – a childhood in a different country. And a beautifully subtle tribute to reconciliation and transformation.

‘Twas Nochebuena: A Christmas Story in English and Spanish by Roseanne Greenfield Thong
Modeled on the well-known “‘Twas the Night Before Christmas,” this story takes readers through a Latino Christmas celebration. Flavored with Spanish words, this tale of tradition, treats, and family is a salute to the bonds that are common among cultures as well as the joyful distinctions that make us unique. Walking door-to-door seeking shelter and hitting open a piñata are among the traditions included. Feliz Navidad!

Fartiste by Kathleen Krull and Paul Brewer
I mean, it’s a book about a kid who figured out how to fart with gusto. From a kid’s perspective, what’s not to love? In these pages children and parents meet Joseph Pujol, a boy who discovers his unusual ability to control the muscles of his intestines. With persistence and practice he creates all manner of display and performance with his toots. The rhyming text and vivid pictures pair perfectly with an amusing topic. This mostly true story will have children giggling (and probably trying to fart their own tunes) and parents groaning. Whether you empathize more with the Moulin Rouge patrons trying to be dignified during the performance but completely losing control or with the enthusiastic audiences he found in his children, this book is quite a story for anyone. 

Old Thunder and Miss Raney by Sharon Darrow
If you’re tracking with the children’s writing crowd at all you will know that word length recommendations for picture books fall in the 500-word range. If you have children with an attention span slightly longer than a fly on a twitchy finger then this book is a good one. Miss Raney, bless her heart, just wants to win first prize in something – anything – at the county fair. This year she is determined it will be her biscuits. Obstacles arise. She and her scrawny horse Old Thunder persevere. With the help of a tornado they make a second batch of biscuits and make it to the fair in time. Miss Raney just wants the distinction of being a winner. The biscuits might be the ticket…but not for the reasons she has planned.

When Stravinsky Met Nijinsky by Lauren Stringer
What happens when a dancer and a composer cook up a plan to perform something new? Well, some people like it and some people don’t. Some people leave the performance feeling inspired and some riot. Birthing modern music and modern dance was not easy. The Rite of Spring was a disastrous success, loved and hated to such an extent that fistfights broke out in the aisles and the streets. What a gem of a story! The two men, successful in their respective arts, met and decided they wanted to do something different. And they did. This is a story not only reminding children of the value of creativity, inspiration, and expression but of the grit and work and sometimes strong response that accompanies these areas. 

Molly, by Golly! The Legend of Molly Williams, America’s First Female Firefighter by Dianne Ochiltree
Molly Williams was a cook for the firefighters of Fire Company No. 11 in New York City. When the flu takes out most of the men and a blizzard obstructs movement, Molly jumps to join the small assortment of volunteers left to put out a house fire. She pulls and pumps and sprays and passes buckets for hours. In the end, the family is safe and Molly has earned the respect of the firefighters. They cheer her courage by making her a company volunteer. In the author’s notes at the end of the book Ochiltree notes that Molly kept her honorary nickname for the rest of her life: Volunteer No. 11. A heroic story with interesting details of firefighting before modern equipment. 

The Doorbell Rang by Pat Hutchins
What is to be done when Ma makes fresh cookies? Eat them, of course. They almost smell like Grandma’s, too, so they must be delicious. But each time the doorbell rings a set of children enter and the number of cookies available for each child diminishes as they share. At last each child has one cookie. The doorbell rings again. Should they eat their one cookie? Should they answer the door? Oh the dilemma! These poor children. They open the door and in walks Grandma with a tray of fresh cookies. Plenty for everyone and more. A fun story for talking about sharing. A good reminder that, even when especially difficult, people and sharing are more important.

The Forgiveness Garden by Lauren Thompson
When a stone is thrown across the river and strikes a girl in an ongoing battle of sides, anger is left to simmer. But Sama, the injured girl, wonders at the hard lines of her face and her scowl. And Karune, the boy who threw the rock, wonders briefly just how brave it was to launch rocks at the other villagers. When the time for revenge comes Sama courageously tosses her rock aside and calls for the creation of a garden. When the garden grows she challenges others to sit with her to figure out what to do next and answer questions that naturally arise from years of feuding and fighting and violence. In a likewise courageous gesture, Karune joins her. A synopsis does little credit to the compelling storytelling by Lauren Thompson in creating characters who are believably angry, conflicted, curious, and frustrated all while planting seeds of hope through Sama’s decision to forgo revenge. The illustrations in shades of vibrant and dark colors compliment the emotions as well. A story well-suited for conversations around peace, conflict, war, reconciliation, and courage. A story that ends with a simple question to push thoughtful discussion forward: “What do you think they said?”

Everybody Cooks Rice by Norah Dooley
Carrie has been charged with finding her younger brother Anthony and bringing him home for dinner. Apparently this is not her first time on such an errand and she knows if he’s not playing then he’s visiting the neighbors to taste their dinner. So begins a journey through her neighborhood stopping at houses along the way, looking for Anthony, and tasting and smelling the other lovely meals. Readers are taken through a culinary tour of rice from Puerto Rico, Vietnam, India, China, and Haiti. She comes full circle to find that Anthony has beaten her back to the house for their Italian dinner with rice. After so much sampling, Carrie is not hungry even though it smells delicious. Her brother, on the other hand, is ready for more. He learned that “everybody cooks rice.” A great way to introduce various customs, cultures, immigrant stories, and socio-economic realities while maintaining a familiar storyline – at least familiar for any older children with siblings. Plus! Recipes at the back!

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