Review by Kelly Carey
Name calling is never advised unless the moniker assigned is a sweet term of adorable endearment. In Mary Lee Donovan’s Let Me Call You Sweetheart: A Confectionery of Affection, illustrated by Brizida Magro (Greenwillow Books, 2022) each page is filled with delicious slurp-worthy nicknames shared in English, Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, French and Kadazan Dusun. It is not hard to imagine the giggles and smirks traded between a reader and listener as the often silly but devotedly loving names are listed in rhythmic, rhyming text illustrated with round-faced characters in charming scenes. Like conversation hearts traded on Valentine's Day, each flip of the page offers up a new way to let a little someone know how special they are to you.
Take a list of any like-themed words, in Donovan’s case she has chosen terms of endearment, add rhythm and beat, and you have a joyful picture book that begs to be reread. The finished book may seem simple, but on closer study the careful beat created by the writer’s hand is behind every sentence and rhyming couplet. Without that tapping cadence the words might be a mere list, but Donovan has arranged them to take full advantage of a joyful sing-song melody that claps along as the story is read. The addition of beat elevates the words and brings magic.
Pull out your rhyming text and consider whether it offers a foot tapping beat. Like a heartbeat keeping your story alive, make sure your text, like Donovan’s, has a healthy dose of cardio.
Review by Kelly Carey
With Nordic phrases and a herd of expressive yaks, author Lu Fraser and illustrator Kate Hindley deliver a wonderful rhyming story in The Littlest Yak (Peachtree, 2020). While the theme of someone small wanting to be big is universal, Fraser injects fresh humor into the story using a plucky yak named Gertie and a snowy mountain setting. Gertie concocts a “growing-up plan” that includes eating veggies, exercise, and reading books (“because grown-ups have big things to think and to know”). When her plan doesn’t work and a tear from a frustrated Gertie plops “from her cheek to the snow” readers will sympathize with the sad little yak. Sadness will turn to cheers when a rescue mission is perfect for the grippy little Gertie. She'll learn she's just the right size and readers will agree that The Littlest Yak is just the right book to convey an age-old message in a unique way.
Universal childhood themes make books relatable, but how do you choose a topic that has been written about before and make it special? Fraser does not shy away from selecting the common topic of a small character wishing to be big, but what pops her book out of the its-been-done-before pile is the choice of a distinctive main character, an unusual setting, humorous word choices, and a rollicking rhyme.
Fraser introduces readers to a yak (just that word alone is reading fun!) named Gertie who she describes as having “the curliest, whirliest wool on her back” and “splendidly grippy” hooves. By injecting fun and whimsy and heart into her main character both in the descriptive words she uses and the silly actions she assigns to her main character, Fraser elevates her story from universal to distinct. Going the extra mile, Fraser employs a rhyme that gives her story a melodic quality. The final dose of magic comes courtesy of Hindley’s charming illustrations. If you have a manuscript that centers on a well-worn topic, use The Littlest Yak as a mentor text to guide you in finding its singular spark.
Looking for that perfect something-to-read to wrap up your holiday gift shopping? Throughout 2023, 24 Carrot Writing has shared our favorite books in our Book Picks section. Browse this round-up of 2023 Book Picks, as well as some of our Book Pick authors' personal favorites. Stack them high under the tree and delight in the bright smiles and cozy reading parties that will follow!
Debora Underwood's Book Pick
In DEAR STRAY (Penguin Random House, 2023), by Kirsten Hubbard, illustrated by Susan Gal, a prickly girl and a spiky, scratchy cat bond in a realistic and heartwarming way. I love the perfectly imperfect characters—at one point the girl says, “I don’t scratch (anymore), even though sometimes I want to”—and the way their relationship evolves; even though they’re both prickly, we’re on their side from page one. Kirsten Hubbard uses epistolary format in a really interesting way, and Susan Gal’s illustrations are utter perfection.
WALTER HAD A BEST FRIEND (Beach Lane Books, 2022), by Deborah Underwood and illustrator Sergio Ruzzier is an important SEL book showing that friendship can change and sometimes end. But slowly, quietly…it will be okay. Read the full Book Pick here.
Nancy Tupper Ling's Book Pick
Ever read a picture book where you learn as much as the child? FOOD FOR THE FUTURE by Mia Wenjen, illustrated by Robert Sae-Heng (Barefoot Books, 2023) is that book! Here, you’ll take a fascinating look into all kinds of sustainable farming options, from ancient methods of preserving food, like salt farms, to newer possibilities, like rooftop gardens on landmarks. Certainly, young readers are encouraged to think beyond the “norm,” and into the future.
For writers, Wenjen provides a wonderful lesson in rhyming couplets. Different types of farming are described in short poems, which makes the facts easy to remember. By leaving the heavier details for the back matter, the author demonstrates how some of the best non-fiction for young readers combines science and poetry.
ONE PERFECT PLAN: THE BIBLE'S BIG STORY IN TINY POEMS (WaterBrook, 2023), written by Nancy Tupper-Ling and illustrated by Alina Chau features stories from the Bible, written in easy-to-understand “tiny poems," laced with affirming messages of love and hope. Read the full Book Pick here.
Dianne White's Book Pick
IN THE NIGHT GARDEN by Carin Berger (Neal Porter Books, 2023) evening arrives, inviting readers into a garden on a nighttime stroll of discovery. As the dark unfolds, gorgeous spreads of luminous blues and greens, orange-reds, and creamy shades of white pull the reader, accompanied by a cat, into a magical nighttime place where crickets sing, streams murmur, and owls soar. Illustrated by hand with cut paper collage from “found ephemera and scraps of paper,” IN THE NIGHT GARDEN is a stunning book and a soothing read before bedtime.
For writers, there is much to see, hear, and encounter IN THE NIGHT GARDEN. There, fireflies look like “fallen stars,” bats “swoop and glide in the bluing sky,” and moonflowers “unfurl and release their intoxicating perfume.” Rich in sensory details, strong verbs, and imagery, Carin Berger’s prose is a magic of its own.
In DARK ON LIGHT by Dianne White, illustrated by Felicita Sala (Beach Lane Books, 2022), the reader follows a trio of children heading out at dusk to search for their lost pup, frolicking and investigating nighttime wonders along the way. Read the full book pick here.
Megan Litwin's Book Pick
SOMETIMES IT'S NICE TO BE ALONE (Neal Porter Books, 2023) is a masterful book – not surprising, given that author Amy Hest and illustrator Philip Stead are both masters at their trade! In this book, an independent narrator declares (over and over) that “sometimes it’s nice to be alone.” Readers are treated to joyful images of her riding her bike, spinning in leaves, and making footprints in the sand. But…what if a friend comes along? With each page turn, a new and surprising friend shows up, and our narrator takes it all in stride. Because with a friend, you can make TWO rows of footprints! Imagine that.
This book is remarkable in its simplicity and directness. The repetitive pattern Hest sets up is conversational, personal, and almost mesmerizing. It’s like she is speaking directly to you. And she is! Look carefully to notice how she expertly threads the words “you” and “your” throughout. Simple words used to great effect.
DIRT AND BUGSY: BUG CATCHERS by Megan Litwin, illustrated by Shuana Lynn Panczyszyn (Penguin Young Readers, 2023) is an entertaining Level 2 book for progressing readers. Dirt and Bugsy are friends and bug catchers. They dig, lift, and sift to find all kinds of creepies and crawlies, but when it starts to rain, Dirt and Bugsy are concerned for their new bug friends. Also, make sure to grab DIRT AND BUGSY: BEETLE MANIA that hatched in June 2023. Read the full book pick here.
Other 24 Carrot Writing 2023 Book Picks
In HUNGRY CROCODILE (Tundra, 2022) written by debut author Eija Sumner and illustrated by John Martz, Crocodile, is hungry and visits various places such as the farmer’s market, grocery store, and even the community garden. Unfortunately, Crocodile’s efforts turn out to be fruitless and he quickly goes from hungry to hangry. Read the full Book Pick here.
In A WORK IN PROGRESS (Aladdin, 2023), Jarrett Lerner introduces the reader to Will Chambers, a middle school boy who struggles with self-acceptance and negative body-image. Written as Will’s personal notebook, this groundbreaking illustrated novel-in verse takes the reader deep into Will’s emotional pain and physical battle with eating disorders. Read the full Book Pick here.
LEO + LEA (Scholastic Press, 2022), written by Monice Wesolowska and illustrated by Kenard Pak tells the story of Leo, who is intrigued by numbers. He soon meets Lea who adores patterns and includes them in her artwork. Both art and text are inspired by the Fibonacci sequence. Read the full Book Pick here.
Review by Amanda Smith
One author –
pen crafting inspiring scenes
One illustrator –
brushes brimming with colorful dreams
One picture book –
overflowing with heroes and queens.
One Perfect Plan: The Bible’s Big Story in Tiny Poems (WaterBrook), written by Nancy Tupper Ling and illustrated by Alina Chau makes the essence of the Bible accessible to young readers in a colorful and engaging way. Each spread features two or more stories from the Bible, written in easy-to-understand language. Nancy’s “tiny poems” are laced with affirming messages of love and hope. Repetition and a catchy refrain invite young listeners to “read” along.
Alina Chau’s soft illustrations unfurl and flow in vivid watercolors across the pages, perfectly complimenting Tupper Ling's lyrical writing. Rife with symbolism and layered details, young readers will love pouring over the pages – perhaps while their adults tell them the more complete stories summed up in the poems. (Scriptural references are listed underneath each poem.)
Whether one reads this book in one sitting, or use it as a jumping off point for deeper study, One Perfect Plan: The Bible’s Big Story in Tiny Poems imprints the message of God’s love on the readers’ hearts.
WaterBrook also created a five-day devotional with YouVersion that readers could use alongside the book to dive deeper into the stories. You can access that here.
In One Perfect Plan Nancy Tupper Ling condenses a document of over 1,200 pages into a 435-word picture book keeping the overall theme intact, and ensuring each poem and each page drives towards the main message. Bravo, Nancy!
Whether you are writing a biographical picture book, or something based on a big historical event, or if you want to make other lengthy historical texts accessible to young readers, One Perfect Plan serves as an excellent mentor text for tight language, laser-like focus, and a kid-friendly approach.
Learn more about Nancy 's books www.nancytupperling.com/ and visit Alina Chau's dreamy gallery to learn more about her artwork and other books.
Review by Annie Cronin Romano
Some children love the magic of words and books. Others are fascinated by different interests, such as music, dance, animals, or sports. In LEO + LEA, Wesolowska tells the story of a young child, Leo, who is intrigued by numbers. When the chaos and noise of the schoolyard overwhelm him, Leo seeks out a quieter spot to focus on his love of numbers. He is soon joined by his new classmate, Lea, and discovers that he is not alone in his unique interest, for Lea adores patterns and includes them in her artwork. Together they share their intersecting fascination with numbers and patterns with their teacher and classmates and embrace their new friendship.
Monica Wesolowska’s debut picture book LEO +LEA (Scholastic Press, 2022) employs sparse, lyrical text, and cleverly uses the Fibonacci sequence as the numbers in the story as she depicts Leo’s blooming interest in math. (And no, I didn’t pick up on that fact on my own—thank goodness for the author’s note!) The illustrations by Kenard Pak are equally evocative and expressive, using subtly increasing intensity in the colors as the story progresses (also inspired by Fibonacci’s sequence as pointed out in the artist’s note). The author and illustrator meld the interaction of text and art seamlessly, allowing each to contribute uniquely to the unfolding of the story’s events. The subtle themes of individuality, friendship, and celebrating all interests comes through clearly yet gently. A delight to read aloud, LEO + LEA is a story that you’ll want to count among your picture book collection. This treasure is also an excellent social-emotional selection for the classroom. (Fiction picture book for ages 4-8)
Monica Wesolowska’s debut picture book (she has written for adults) is a strong example of sparse, balanced, and well-paced writing that takes a unique approach to conveying the importance of recognizing and embracing the interests of all.
Review by Megan Litwin
DARK ON LIGHT by Dianne White and illustrated by Felicita Sala (Beach Lane Books, 2022) is everything that makes the picture book such a unique and nourishing book form. Precise language that both surprises and delights? Check. Beautiful art that also adds an important visual layer? Check. Perfect rhythm and pacing that make the entire reading experience an irresistible journey? Check.
From the very first pages, the reader is pulled in with White’s gentle, poetic voice. “Gentle the evening. Sweeping the skies. Dark the shadows as twilight arrives. Rose the horizon, gleaming and bright. Twilight and evening and dark on light.” As we watch a trio of children head out at dusk to search for their lost pup (frolicking and investigating nighttime wonders along the way), that phrasing continues in an inviting and tantalizing way. The pages practically turn themselves, it all feels so magical and other-worldly. By the end, when everyone is back home and all is well, the reader feels tucked into that snug, dark attic too, ready to sleep beneath that glowing moon. “Quiet the room. Soothing the chime. Dark the house that waits in time.” Don’t wait to check out this dreamy book!
If you lean toward the lyrical, as I often do myself, DARK ON LIGHT is a phenomenal mentor text (along with this author-illustrator team’s previous book, GREEN ON GREEN). On the first read, you’ll be pulled in by the mesmerizing language. Lean in and enjoy it. But on that second or third (or fourth) reading, notice how it is done. Notice the care White took with choosing her words, the unexpected way she structured them, and which ones she purposefully chose to repeat. There is nothing done by chance here. This is an example of a poet doing what poets do – finding the exact right words, and then finding the right way to string them together. Not easy work, of course, but seeing the effect of this work done well should be an inspiration for us all to keep at it!
To learn more about author Dianne White visit https://diannewrites.com/ or find her on social media @diannewrites.
To learn more about illustrator Felicita Sala visit https://www.felicitasala.com/.
Click here to purchase Dark on Light.
Reviewed by Amanda Smith
In A Work in Progress (Aladdin, May 2023), Jarrett Lerner introduces the reader to Will Chambers, a middle school boy who struggles with self-acceptance and negative body-image. A cruel classmate’s ruthless words, slung at Will back in fourth grade, were “tattooed on [his] brain” and set Will on a path of self-loathing and social withdrawal. He slinks in hallways, hides in oversized clothes, and becomes his “own bully” doing “the job better than anyone else possibly could.” Written as Will’s personal notebook, this groundbreaking illustrated novel-in verse takes the reader deep into Will’s emotional pain and physical battle with eating disorders.
The fact that this seldom told story, about body dysmorphia in boys, is presented in a format appealing to its intended audience makes this book a trailblazer. Sparse text, emotion-laden doodles, and swaths of negative space on the pages make this an accessible, though not light, choice for young readers.
However, even children who do not combat negative body-image will find themselves somewhere in the pages of this highly relatable novel that addresses among other teen-tensions, the feeling of not being enough, changing friendships, hiding-in-plain-sight, anger, and shame. Like Will, every teen yearns to be truly seen, to be understood, and to have confidence. Along with Will, all young readers can discover that it is okay to be A Work in Progress.
In his guest blog, Jarrett digs into the challenges keeping writing tight while creating a novel that looks like a fun notebook, with squiggles and doodles, exclamation points and creative typography. (You can find the blog here.)
A Work in Progress shines as a mentor text for diction. Although this book is a departure from Jarret Lerner’s usual humorous style, his language use still honors the age of the narrator, despite the heaviness of the topic. For example, about the inciting incident, Will uses the following metaphor:
“You’ve stepped through
and now the thing
You step through
and then the door
Jarrett’s word-choice for the things Will notices, in his internal rants, and even in the figures of speech Will uses, emulates the way Lerner’s readers experience and talk about their world. Read your writing out loud. Do your word-choice and phrasing reflect your readers’ world?
Visit Jarrett’s website to learn more about his story and books.
Review by Kristi Mahoney
Walter Had a Best Friend (Beach Lane Books, October 2022), by author Deborah Underwood and illustrator Sergio Ruzzier is a story of friendship that sometimes drifts apart.
Walter and Xavier are best friends who do everything together. Until slowly, quietly, they’re not. As Xavier spends more time with new friend Penelope, Walter is left with a big hole in his heart where Xavier used to be. It’s not until a sunny day beckons Walter to get up and back out into the world, that he finds just the thing to make his heart full again. Ruzzier’s scenes set in soft pastels perfectly complement the story, capturing the weight of moments where emotions are heavy but words are purposely spare.
Walter Had a Best Friend is an important SEL book showing that friendship can change and sometimes end. But slowly, quietly…it will be okay.
There are a number of ways we can use Underwood’s techniques as a mentor text for our own writing.
To truly capture the power of this story, Underwood demonstrates extremely effective pacing. Using a restraint with words, the author opts for sparse, well-chosen text as well as a few repetitive words/phrases that are packed with emotion to make a big impact. Her pacing encourages the reader to slow down and process the story as it unfolds: the fading friendship, the aftermath, and ultimately…the hope that lies ahead.
Underwood’s sparse text is a reminder of the power that can be infused into picture books if authors leave room for the illustrator. Within this book, there are spreads that only feature one or two words. But these words combined with the emotional art carry more weight than a whole paragraph of explanation.
Although this story is packed with heart, it’s a different kind that’s not prevalent in picture books —at times more raw and relatable than warm and fuzzy. Yet it ends with the important nugget every picture book needs —a ray of hope. There is a saying that you don’t always remember what someone says, but you’ll always remember how they made you feel. Long after reading Walter Had a Best Friend, I remember the feeling it evoked. I remember —the heart. Isn’t that what we all strive for as writers?
~Reviewed by Amanda Smith
Dirt and Bugsy are friends and bug catchers. They dig, lift, and sift to find all kinds of creepies and crawlies, but when it starts to rain, Dirt and Bugsy are concerned for their new bug friends. They come up with a marvelous plan to keep the bugs dry.
Dirt and Bugsy: Bug Catchers by Megan Litwin, illustrated by Shuana Lynn Panczyszyn (Penguin Young Readers, February 2023) is an entertaining Level 2 book for progressing readers. Its conversational tone, action packed pages, and engaging story-line will get new readers’ brains buzzing. The bright color palette, detailed bug illustrations, and kids’ joyful expressions add to a fun reading experience that will ignite a love for bugs and books (and more bug-books!)! And the bug-catcher tips in the back are sure to lure readers outside for their own arthropod adventures.
Lower elementary teachers will want to snatch up Dirt and Bugsy: Bug Catchers for their classrooms, and keep their nets at hand for Dirt and Bugsy: Beetle Mania that will hatch in June!
Megan’s experience as a former teacher and reading specialist is evident on every page of Bug Catchers. If your work-in-progress is an early reader, study Bug Catchers for rhyming refrains with similar sounds that make decoding easy and familiar for young readers. Megan employs the repetition of words and sounds in close proximity, as well as alliteration and assonance in the text, making this fun adventure accessible, even to reluctant readers. The text swarms with playfulness, humor, and a fun pun at the end. Megan certainly knows how to capture young readers “again, and again, and again…” and a close study of her work can help bring the same success to your manuscript.
To learn more about Megan Litwin, her books, events and workshops, visit https://www.meganlitwinbooks.com/about. You can see more of Shauna Lynn’s cheerful art here: https://shaunalynn.com/
Review by Kristi Mahoney
You don’t have to look further than the title to see the problem in this hilarious story, Crocodile Hungry (Tundra, 2022) written by debut author Eija Sumner and illustrated by John Martz. Main character, Crocodile, is hungry and sets out to find something to eat, visiting various places such as the farmer’s market, grocery store, and even the community garden. Unfortunately, Crocodile’s efforts turn out to be fruitless and he quickly goes from hungry to hangry. It’s not until the prefect solution lands right in front of Crocodile that he finally knows exactly what to eat. Martz’s art is the perfect complement to Sumner’s words, adding layers of humor and hilarious details that may just make Crocodile Hungry your next favorite read aloud.
I brought Crocodile Hungry to one of our 24 Carrot Writing meetings where, amongst other things, we discuss picture books from a writer’s perspective. It was an instant crowd pleaser. Yes, it contains a lot of elements that denotes good writing:
A clear goal? Check.
Satisfying page turns? Check.
Humor and Heart? This one is a hard one to pull off, especially in a book that’s streamlined at around 150 words. But check, check.
Yet there were two additional things that made Crocodile Hungry go from fun to fantastic: voice and the unexpected.
The voice Eija Sumner chose for the main character is not only unique and kid friendly but endearing and delightfully witty. There’s something to be said for writing in a way that leads or directs the reader how to read (or perform) the book. The voice more than begs to be read aloud- it instructs how to read Crocodile’s voice. And that makes this a fantastic mentor text for writers as well as a hilarious read-aloud.
The unexpected nature of this story is one of the main reasons it’s so successful. We might expect that if a crocodile is hungry, he’d go hunting in his natural habitat. But, instead, Sumner takes us to very un-crocodile-like places that happen to be very kid friendly and relatable. But Sumner doesn’t stop there. The unexpected continues to unfold with every page turn until the very last laugh. I don’t want to give anything away, but let’s just say that in terms of smart writing and a satisfying ending, Sumner serves up a banquet of delight.
Crocodile Hungry will leave readers guessing with every page turn and giggling (big crocodile tears) until the very last page.
Our favorite mentor texts to guide your writing and revisions.