Review by Kristi Mahoney
In Twinkle, Twinkle, Winter Night (September 20, 2022, Clarion books), debut author, Megan Litwin and illustrator Nneka Myers take readers on an exquisite journey through a magnificent winter wonderland. Using the beloved nursery rhyme, this story presents a winter romp that explores all the diverse ways animals and people experience and celebrate the winter months. Every page is a new discovery of light —from serene, snow-draped landscapes sprinkled with woodland creatures, to family-fun on a shimmery pond, to a bustling town come alive with the many celebrations of the season. Nneka Myer’s beautiful illustrations add another layer to this story, creating a world filled with whimsical characters, joyous details, and scenes that glow with every turn of the page.
Twinkle, Twinkle, Winter Night is a beautiful book about finding joy in the details, seeing light in the darkness, and discovering all of the many wonders of the season. The exploration of winter activities makes it an ideal classroom companion, while the snuggle-in mood of the book equally lends it to bedtime reading. So, grab a steaming cup of cocoa, pile it high with marshmallows, and drink in this cozy winter wonderland. Twinkle, Twinkle, Winter Night is sure to shine bright throughout the entire season and for years to come.
With a fresh twist on the familiar classic of Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star, Megan ensures that every rhyme sings and every word sparkles. Why say “stars” when you can say, the “sky sparkles like a chandelier”? Simple candles illuminate when they become “windows wink with eyes of gold.” Megan shows us that well-chosen words are magical, transforming a manuscript into a work of art. Megan’s tale also includes a diverse mix of events, honoring many different observances to warm the hearts of readers from various backgrounds.
Below is a summary of ways you could use Twinkle, Twinkle, Winter Night, as a mentor text for your own manuscript:
To learn more about Megan, visit https://www.meganlitwinbooks.com/
Browse Nneka's fabulous portfolio at https://www.nnekamyers.com/
Click here for vendor links.
Review by Megan Litwin
The first page of SOMETHING GOOD (LBYR, 2021) written by Marcy Campbell, illustrated by Corinna Luyken, starts like this:
“The day the custodian found the bad-something on the bathroom wall…”
With those words, Campbell drops us right into this beautiful, powerful story – and into the tangle of feelings and questions that circle through an entire school community. As readers, we never find out exactly what was written on the wall. But the students do (as kids always do) - and everything changes. In the aftermath we see varied emotions, as children and adults process those emotions in different ways. Ultimately, the community finds a way to move forward and toward healing as they create “something good” together.
There is so much to love about this book – from Campbell’s sensitive and careful approach to difficult subject matter to Luyken’s signature color-forward approach. Huge double-spreads on each page swirl with colors that evoke emotion. Everything feels immediate – the writing, the feelings, the faces.
Much like ADRIAN SIMCOX DOES NOT HAVE A HORSE, another layered title by this same dream team, SOMETHING GOOD is a timeless picture book that can help build better humans. And that is something VERY good.
Marcy Campbell is a strong writer, and she makes two conscious and powerful decisions here that make readers feel connected from the start.
First, even though there is a singular narrator, that narrator (a girl) is a collective voice for the school. She uses encompassing plural pronouns like “we” and “us” and focuses on the things that are happening to and with the group. Consequently, the story becomes everyone’s story; everyone in the book – and everyone reading it, too.
Second, note Campbell’s straightforward prose. There is no extra imagery or description just to be pretty – the beauty is in the direct language that allows WHAT is happening to take center stage. It leaves room for readers to feel all the things they need to feel. A lesson in “less is always more.”
Use SOMETHING GOOD to consider the nouns you assign your manuscript's narrator and the power that gives your narrator and your story. Finally, be brave and follow the example of SOMETHING GOOD- cut the flowery language in your prose to allow the beauty of an underlying message to shine.
Review by Annie Cronin Romano
When writers are seeking mentor texts that depict subtle ways to convey a message, the standouts can be challenging to find. There are picture books galore with themes of kindness, understanding, and acceptance, but far fewer that convey those themes with a light touch that permits young readers to experience the sentiment as it's developed rather that have it stated to them. Two recent standouts in the area of nuanced, subtle storytelling are Blanca Gómez's DRESS-UP DAY (Abrams, 2022) and Mac Barnett's JOHN'S TURN (Candlewick 2022).
In DRESS-UP DAY, a young girl is distressed to have missed her opportunity to dress up as a bunny for her class' dress-up day because she's out sick. She decides to wear her bunny outfit to school the next day (What could go wrong?) only to find the stares and snickers of her classmates crush her excitement about her costumed appearance. When a fellow classmate shows up wearing his carrot costume, caring not a smidge if the others in the class approve or not, the two enjoy a day of imaginative play. And their peers? They decide maybe costumes and pretend play might be fine any day one chooses and shouldn't have to be relegated to an assigned date. This change of heart is shown (never told) when the other children come to school the next day with dress-up gear of their own.
With smart, sparse text and evocative illustrations that make the characters' emotions dance off the page, Gómez conveys a message of acceptance and kindness without once stating or summarizing the theme of her story. The actions and illustrations do the heavy lifting but leave the interpretation to the reader.
In JOHN'S TURN, it's a young boy's turn to demonstrate his talent during the school's "Sharing Gifts" time. While a few children comment on the unfamiliar music playing before John takes the stage and question what he's about to do, John musters up the courage to perform his ballet routine in front of his school with confidence and pride. The audience of children, after watching the feat of John's impressive dancing, applaud him for his impressive talent.
In JOHN'S TURN, Barnett never once mentions that ballet is often considered by many to be a female pursuit, nor does he state that the children may be dubious of John's choice of interest. Rather, he lets the children's reactions--from a few snickers to intrigued silence to impressed applause--show how John's talent and passion for ballet breaks down the boundaries of conventional--though outdated--gender norms. Barnett's simple yet strong text--along with expressive illustrations by Kate Berube--gives the reader the space to experience the emotional power of the story without once pointing out the message.
Both DRESS-UP DAY and JOHN'S TURN are consummate examples of picture book texts that address themes of acceptance and kindness in a most subtle manner.
Review by Kelly Carey
If you have ever been a substitute teacher and had to contend with a constant barrage of “that’s not the way we do it”, this lovable and laughable picture book is for you! The Creature of Habit (Random House Studio, 2021), by Jennifer E. Smith and illustrated by Leo Espinosa, tells the story of an island dwelling creature who loves his routine. He does everything the exact same way every day. When a surprise newcomer arrives the Creature of Habit shows him the daily schedule, but the newcomer breaks with the plan. The result is fun, silly, and charming for the reader but “absolute madness” for the Creature of Habit. With colorful and fanciful illustrations filled with pineapples and seashells this story is a tropical reminder that mixing things up every once in a while, can be amazing.
If you are looking for a humorous comp title featuring a bit of wordplay, The Creature of Habit would be a fabulous choice. But don’t miss the opportunity to study Smith’s use of varied sentence structure. This is a great mentor text to examine the way long vs short, and serious vs silly sentences can move plot, create tension, drive pacing, and enhance readability. Smith also stays fully focused on her kid audience as she moves her characters through hysterical antics and keeps the mood light using pineapples, bananas, and fish. The result is a kid friendly story filled with giggly moments hiding a deeper message about breaking out of a routine and trying something new. Perhaps reading The Creature of Habit will help you find something new in your manuscripts.
Learn more about Jennifer E. Smith here. And explore Leo Espinosa's portfolio here.
Review by Kristi Mahoney
You may think balloons and cake are just for birthdays, but Sometimes Cake (Candlewick, January 2022), written by Edwina Wyatt and illustrated by Tamsin Ainslie, proves that when it comes to celebrations, thinking out-of-the-box is encouraged.
When Audrey meets Lion, he is celebrating something different every day. Whether it’s Tuesdays, coconuts, or the color orange, Lion believes every day holds a reason to celebrate. And Audrey is in for all of it. Better yet, she even adds her own personal flair. But when Lion announces it’s just “an ordinary day”, Audrey must discover if ordinary days are worth celebrating and, if so, --how? Packed with heart and a pinch of humor, I found myself eating up this sweet story about friendship, collaboration, and finding joy in everyday things.
As writers, we love words. I personally have struggled with paring down my stories until landing at a place where every word counts. Cutting words is easy. But cutting words while still maintaining the heart, humor, a strong plot, and a successful arc is something else. Edwina Wyatt has managed to find the winning recipe in Sometimes Cake, by combining two lovable characters, kid-friendly dialogue, and perfectly pared-down prose. You might call Ainslie’s art the icing on this Sometimes Cake with illustrations that are soft, timeless, and filled with adorable details that will have you wanting to read this story on each and every ordinary day.
To learn more about Edwina Wyatt visit her website here. To learn more about illustrator Tamsin Ainslie visit his website here.
Review by Kristi Mahoney
Amidst heaps of picture book friendship stories, I’m Sticking With You, (Henry Holt and Company, 2020), written by Smriti Prasadam-Halls and illustrated by Steve Small, may be one you’ll want to hoard away with you for winter.
In it, Bear vows to be there for and do everything with his best friend, Squirrel. But when Bear’s enthusiastic devotion wreaks havoc on his buddy’s things and space, Squirrel decides their friendship may becoming a little… over-bearing. The two continue to seesaw between the ups and downs of friendship in a quest to determine if, through thick and thin, real friends will stick together. Packed with heart and sprinkled with humor, this celebration of friendship will be adored by readers of all ages.
If you’re looking for a mentor text on first person rhyme and/or dual narrator transitions, I’m Sticking With You, is worth checking out. Prasadam-Halls’ first person rhyme flows seamlessly as the reader is introduced to the character’s thoughts and feelings: first Bear’s, then Squirrel’s, then both together. The author brilliantly transitions these segments with well-timed pauses to the story’s rhythmic meter and perfect comedic timing during the height of emotion. She also does an excellent job of leaving room for the illustrator to provide important clues and Small’s illustrations accompany the story in the best way possible. Simplistic backgrounds allow ample opportunity for clever details, body language, and these endearing characters’ unmistakable expressions to take center stage. Like Bear and Squirrel’s friendship, I’m Sticking With You, is definitely a keeper.
To learn more about Smriti visit her website here or find her on Twitter @SmritiPH. To learn more about illustrator Steve Small visit his website here.
Review by Kristi Mahoney
If you’re looking for a fresh new seasonal book that is both informative and funny, look no further than The Leaf Thief, written by Alice Hemming and illustrated by Nicola Slater (Sourcebooks Jabberwocky, August 2021). When Squirrel discovers his beloved leaves are disappearing from his tree, he goes on a panic-stricken quest to find the thief. Worse yet, all of his forest friends suddenly seem suspect. It’s not until teaming up with his friend Bird that he discovers the real culprit might be right under his nose. The Leaf Thief, is a hilarious book about the fall season, adapting to change, and the anxiety that may come with it. Nicola Slater’s illustrations bring these captivating characters to life with vibrant, detailed, art that is pure gold amongst an autumn landscape.
With dozens of books under her belt, Alice Hemming isn’t a novice when it comes to writing and it shows. With distinct voice, punchy comedic timing, and perfect page turns, The Leaf Thief is an ideal mentor text if you need help infusing your manuscript with humor and making sure it offers irresistible page turns. This book may become a seasonal treasure for readers, and a go-to mentor text for writers. Hemming’s humorous twist ending and information packed back matter makes it a fantastic laugh-while-you-learn book.
To learn more about Alice visit her on Twitter at @AliceHemming1. And to find out more about illustrator Nicola Slater visit @Nicolaslater.
Review by Megan Litwin
You Are a Reader!/You Are a Writer! by April Jones Prince and illustrated by Christine Davenier (Margaret Ferguson Books, 2021) is a book for readers and writers everywhere. Its “two-books-in-one” design cleverly shows that readers are writers and writers are readers, and the acts of reading and writing are all around. From recipes to signs, from thank you cards to songs, there are so many ways to be a reader or writer. With a bouncy beat and lively illustrations showcasing all sorts of creative endeavors, there is an infectious joy to this book. And as a former teacher who was deeply engaged in the joyful work of growing young readers and writers, this book spoke to me like an encouraging classroom mantra. You CAN. You WILL. You already ARE…
Writers of all ages would do well to read Prince’s pages on being a writer. To begin, she notes the importance of looking and listening well, no matter what you’re doing. “You’re a writer everywhere” is a beautiful (and empowering) statement. She devotes a whole page to her signature “juicy words.” And on that pesky topic of writer’s block, she has a few tricks up her sleeve.
Yes…whether a beginning or seasoned writer (or reader), there will be stumbles. But this book makes every writer-reader feel like they have the power to fly.
Find out more about April at www.apriljonesprince.com/ and browse Christine's beautiful art at www.christinedavenier.com/
~Review by Amanda Smith
Deep in the Swamp, written by Donna M. Bateman and illustrated by Caldecott-Honors winner Brian Lies (Charlesbridge, 2007), is a charming book young readers will love to hear over and over again. This rewrite of the children’s counting rhyme “Over the Meadow” introduces different animals of the Okefenokee Swamp. The familiar sing-song rhythm and rhyme are perfect vehicles for presenting lesser-known animals and plants, and names of animal babies to children. These elements combine to make this book much more than a counting rhyme. Deep in the Swamp contains illustrated, alphabetized backmatter providing interesting, bite-sized facts for those curious about the fauna, flora, and geography in the rhymes.
Brian Lies’ ability to combine friendly, relatable animal faces and realistic nature illustrations brings warmth and character to this concept book. The illustrations teem with environmental details that will keep young eyes engaged for multiple readings.
Deep in the Swamp is an excellent mentor text for interesting word choice. Bateman uses words and word-combinations that are delicious to read out loud. It is clear that she paid close attention to where she placed concentrations of sounds, internal rhyme, and long and short sounds. For example, in her rhyme about nine rat snakes, the snakes “climbed up a pine where the bamboo vines twine.” She also uses vivid, active verbs throughout. The sounds of the words play as important a role as content and illustrations in making this book a sensory experience.
To learn more about Brian Lies, visit www.brianlies.com
Guest review by Kristi Mahoney
In Bear’s Bicycle, written by Laura Renauld and illustrated by Jennie Poh (Beaming Books, 2021) we are reunited with the lovable cast of characters first introduced by this author/illustrator combo in Porcupine’s Pie (Beaming Books, 2018). In this follow-up book, Bear wants to learn to ride his bike for the upcoming Summer Scoot. After multiple trips to the library to find a how-to guide, Bear discovers that doing everything by the book doesn’t always work out. Bear’s Bicycle is an endearing story about practice, perseverance, and the importance of friendship. Add in Jennie Poh’s whimsical illustrations and you have a book that will leave you feeling as warm and fuzzy as bear himself.
Laura Renauld’s writing style is delightfully consistent with her original story in this series. It’s filled with things that I personally love in a book and appreciate as a writer: orderly lists, fun-to-say onomatopoeia, distinct voice, and bonus back matter that will delight anyone teetering on whether or not to take on a two-wheeler.
And if you happen to fall in love with this woodland cast as fast as I did, you won’t have to wait long to see more of them. Cruise on over and pencil in the release date of the third book in this series, Squirrel’s Sweater (Beaming Books, anticipated September 21st, 2021).
To learn more about Laura visit here.
Our favorite mentor texts to guide your writing and revisions.