Review by Amanda Smith
Often, in order to help preschoolers make sense of their world, adults organize things into perfectly logical groups. As children grow and learn, they discover the lines between these groups are blurred, and sometimes well-defined groups become barriers. Xander Panda learns a similar lesson when he wants to throw a bear affair, but discovers his friend, Koala, is not a bear. XANDER'S PANDA PARTY (Clarion Books; 2013) is a fun rhyming picture book about inclusivity and what happens when we expand our borders.
Written by Newbery medalist Linda Sue Park and illustrated by Matt Phelan, XANDER'S PANDA PARTY is an attention grabbing read-aloud pleasure. The text dances off the tongue with a happy rhythm and playful rhyme. Flawless, whimsical internal and end rhyme make this book titillating to read, and provide enough silly-factor to satisfy young readers (and listeners).
The humorous, ink and watercolor illustrations further enhance the read. Each animal is illustrated with considered character: Show-off black bear, shy grizzly, an adorable polar bear pair, a cuddly baby penguin, a tower of turtles that will melt your heart, and of course, Xander himself with bucket loads of personality. Young readers will take pleasure at each page turn when they are introduced to new animals, and Xander’s growing party conundrum.
Xander’s Panda Party is a perfect choice for story time and is definitely one of those books adults won’t mind to read again, and again, and one more time please.
Linda Sue Park’s rhyme is exquisite! XANDER'S PANDA PARTY is a great example of rhyme that flows naturally and is in no way forced to tell the story. The story is paramount, and because the text is not set like a traditional rhyming text with lines and stanzas, sentences flow easily. The lyrical elements surprise a reader at first read and continues to delight throughout the reading experience. As a mentor text the biggest take away here is the fabulous internal rhyme that is in no way predictable, but smart and subtle.
~ Amanda Smith
Twelve-year-old Charlie’s life is filled with normal twelve-year-old stuff: friends, school, science fairs, Irish dancing, and missing her a sister who went off to college. When we first meet Charlie, her biggest problem is having too little money to buy the Irish dancing solo dress of her dreams. An opportunity to ice-fish, and sell her catch to the local tavern, offers Charlie a way to save for her perfect solo dress. However, her very first catch is a wishing fish. Soon she realizes the fish is not a figment of her imagination, but really grants her wishes (although not exactly as she would have liked it too). She hooks the fish again and again to manipulate things she cannot control by herself. Through a devastating family crisis, Charlie learns that some things cannot be controlled, not even by a wishing fish.
In THE SEVENTH WISH Kate Messner masterfully weaves fantasy elements into realistic fiction. The silliness of the fish, and the hilarious outcomes of Charlie’s wishes form a striking paradox with the true conflict in the story: Charlie’s inability to control her sister’s choices or addiction. THE WISHING FISH is rich in imagery. Charlie ‘s dependency on the wishing is parallel to Abby’s dependency on drugs. The more Charlie goes out on the ice, the less she fears it, so even when there are clear warning signs, she ignores them, trusting that she will be fine. The ice becomes a false security, similar to Abby’s addiction.
THE SEVENTH WISH is an important and timely novel. In an age appropriate manner, Kate deals with the emotional turmoil drug addiction causes in families. Even though it deals with a heavy subject, it is an enjoyable read with relatable, multi-faceted characters, which makes it a perfect conversation starter. I will definitely be sharing this book with my kids.
THE SEVENTH WISH contains numerous swoon-worthy sentences delivered at just the right time. However, Kate Messner’s brilliance is most noticeable in the tight first chapter of this novel. Off the bat, Kate establishes a solid relationship between Charlie and Abby, and by page 6 we can already see the change in Abby and the resulting cracks in their relationship. Seamlessly throughout this chapter the reader is introduced to Charlie’s family and friends; conflict is established; magic is referenced; and a major theme is set up in a friend's warning, “Wish all you want. Wishing doesn’t make a thing so.” For writers, the first chapter of THE SEVENTH WISH serves as an excellent mentor text.
For a behind the scenes look at THE SEVENTH WISH, click here to read our interview with Kate Messner.
Review by Amanda Smith
Bridget loves to draw and paint, but her most important art staple is her black beret, exactly like Cezanne or Picasso wore. When a wisp of wind whisks Bridget’s beret off her head, over the fence and out of sight, Bridget is convinced that she is no longer able to draw. Bridget is is stuck in artist’s block, until her little sister asks her to make a sign for their lemonade stand. Since it’s not technically drawing, Bridget agrees, and finds her way back to her art.
BRIDGET'S BERET by Tom Lichtenheld (Henry Holt and Company, 2010) is a rich and layered text. On the surface there is the straight forward story of Bridget losing her beret and her art mojo along with it. Puns and smart interactions between text and illustration add a deeper layer to the story.
The illustrations also reference multiple famous artists and works of art in humorous ways, which add more depth and make this text a fun read-aloud for the art classroom. Tom Lichtenheld adds another layer by breaking the fourth wall with a bunny character and Bridget who both speak directly to the reader. The book also contains a side bar and back matter inspiring readers to take the next step and create something themselves.
It is this last layer that makes this book an instigator. As in, it starts stuff. When I read it with my son, we poured over the back matter. I reminded him of multiple times during the last week when he said, “I want to draw something, but I don’t know what.” He flipped to the “What the heck is artist’s block?” page and said, “I want to do one of these” and we made some awesome scribble drawings. My favorite part of Bridget's Beret was that it inspired us to create together.
The subliminal message of Bridget’s Beret resonates well with writers. Everything we need to create our art is already inside us, just like Bridget’s ability to create was already inside her, and not dependent on an object or a gimmick. Her actions were what brought out her ability to create. When she started drawing the sign, it unlocked her ability to draw. Similarly, the only way for us as writers to unlock our ability to write, is by writing. Thanks Bridget (and Tom).
So this happened last week: I was tucking my youngest in with a story, when my middle schooler came into the bedroom, saw the book we were reading and exclaimed, “That book is so good!” He looked at me with puppy-dog eyes, so naturally we scooted up and made room for him. Shoulder to shoulder the three of us read, giggled, repeated the chorus, and laughed at the unexpected.
RAGWEED’S FARM DOG HANDBOOK(LEARN FROM THE BEST!) by Anne Vittur Kennedy (2015; Candlewick Press) is everything a picture book is supposed to be. Ragweed is a quirky, long-snouted, googly-eyed farm dog with an overbite and an over-eager desire for biscuits. Ragweed gives directions on how to be a farm dog in this instruction manual gone awry. Using dog logic, this mischievous mutt breaks all his own rules and even reveals his alliance with the fox!
Ragweed’s rules are superbly written from a dog’s point of view, which adds to the hilarity. Lines such as “Mud is lovely. It smells like worms and toes and earwax,” or “But you will throw up a biscuit, and you can eat that one again,” makes it impossible to read this book with a straight face.
Enjoyable and entertaining for both children and adults, RAGWEED’S FARM DOG HANDBOOK(LEARN FROM THE BEST!) has a conversational style that makes it a perfect read-aloud book. It has supreme re-readability. A pattern is set up early in the book, and then, through Ragweed’s quirky character, the predictability of the pattern is broken down. However, the author retains the repeating chorus, “That’s their job. That’s not your job”, which kids love to read along.
RAGWEED’S FARM DOG HANDBOOK(LEARN FROM THE BEST!) is an excellent mentor text for point of view and voice. Even though Ragweed provides information for children such as chickens lay eggs and sheep grown curly hair, the information is always given from a dog’s point of view. This makes the information fresh and funny. As humans are concerned, Ragweed is an unreliable narrator, but his voice is spot-on and consistently that of a very honest dog.
Ragweed’s authenticity will, at times, gross readers out and his practicality will make them howl with laughter. He is such a lovable character, though, that we will forgive him everything and reward him with a biscuit!
~by Amanda Smith
I THOUGHT THIS WAS A BEAR BOOK, by Tara Lazar (Aladdin/ S&S, 2015) is a fractured fairy tale in which Prince Zilch, an alien from Planet Zero, tumbles from his own book into the story of Goldilocks and the Three Bears. Prince Zilch is in a hurry to return to his book, and the grown-up bears are all too eager to help him along so they can get on with their blueberry picking (“We really cannot eat porridge again.”) Hilarious onomatopoeic solutions ensue, with increasingly disastrous but side-splitting results. Finally, it is Baby Bear who comes up with an unexpected solution while the adults are snoozing.
Benji Davies’ colorful illustrations are dynamic. From the pink smoke puff swirl on the title page, to the whooshing catapult, to Mama Bear hanging from a tree branch the illustrations provide movement that makes this picture book feel like a cinematic experience. Each page is brimming with snigger-inducing details and the bears’ facial expressions are a hoot.
Add to the illustrations Tara’s comedic style, smart word play and party on your tongue vocabulary and you and your kids are in for an uproarious story time.
In this book, Ms. Lazar plays with a lot of different techniques. She breaks the fourth wall early on, which makes the ending believable. She calls on her readership to participate, making the book interactive. However, for me the most successful technique is the use of speech bubbles as I THOUGHT THIS WAS A BEAR BOOK is completely written in dialogue. This makes for wonderful read-together moments.
Sometimes I shy away from these types of books for read-aloud as it is harder for kids to follow who is speaking. Not so with this book. Ms. Lazar has written each character’s dialogue so distinct from the others they sound completely different even if you don’t add funny voices. Prince Zilch is all about urgency and exclamation points! Mama Bear is honey sweet, though a bit dense, Goldilocks is pure snark and Baby Bear… Baby Bear is a little voice with big ideas who just wants to be heard. And that is something with which all Ms. Lazar’s young readers can identify.
Click here to read our interview with Tara Lazar.
~by Amanda Smith
In LITTLE RED WRITING by Joan Holub (2013, Chronicle Books), a little red pencil tries to stay on the precarious path of storytelling, but gets side tracked into numerous adventures until she ends up in Principal Granny’s office. But my, Principal Granny has quite a growly voice, a long, tangly tail and big sharp teeth! Whatever happened to Principal Granny and will Red complete her journey on the story path in time to read her story to her classmates?
Along her journey, Red and the readers are playfully introduced to story structure, vivid verbs and other parts of speech, and their effect on storytelling. The colorful, brilliant illustrations by Melissa Sweet add punch to each of the parts of speech. The leaves in the descriptive forest are covered in adjectives and the glue drops emphasize the conjunctions in a run on sentence. Different fonts, bright pages, and at times a comic book-style lay out make each page-turn a surprise. Every page is a party for the eyes!
Joan Holub uses humor, playfulness and tongue-in-cheek puns to teach concepts that children might think of as dry and lifeless. This book is a complete and fun adventure that can be appreciated purely as an entertaining read-aloud story, but it offers an extra layer that makes it a boon for language arts teachers.
This fractured fairy tale filled my storyteller soul with warm fuzzies and made my grammar teacher heart pump chocolates. Kids will love it for the vivid art and frolicking adventure.
Joan’s newest picture book, THE KNIGHTS BEFORE CHRISTMAS will be on shelves September 2015.
- by Amanda Smith
True confession: I am a mama of boys. Hence, very few pink, “girly”, sparkly books make it home in our library bag. But I could not leave I Had a Favorite Dress on the library shelf. The little girl in me was totally wooed by the self assured girl in the the spring blossom, salmon pink dress on the cover; the candy wrapper pink end pages; and the fabulous multi-media illustrations by Julia Denos.
The main character in I Had a Favorite Dress is a spunky, active girl. She outgrows her “favoritest dress ever” and her creative Mama turns her dress into a series of new, ever shrinking articles of clothing and accessories. However, when her puppy chews Mama’s last creation into the “tiniest scraps of fabric” she’s ever seen, she comes up with her own creative solution to wear her “favoritest dress every day of every season of every year”.
I love how uplifting this book is. The main character is never pouty, but always ready for a new solution. My son loved following the transformation of the dress and the creativity that oozes out of this book captured his imagination. The internal rhyme, colorful illustrations and “Snip,Snip, Sew, Sew” chorus throughout makes this a happy, read- aloud book.
I Had a Favorite Dress has a tight foundational structure. Ashburn uses days of the week as well as seasons to lead the reader through the story.
It is also a beautiful example of the importance of “show, don’t tell”. The main character’s solution to her problem is never put into words. Boni Ashburn allowed her illustrator to tell the high point of the story in pictures. And Julia Denos does this masterfully with a collage of a collage. Individually the text and the illustrations carry the same message of creativity. Combined, they make each page call out “Go make something!”
I love it when a picture book touches something inside me. I have learned to embrace the tears and sniffles while reading these kinds of books to my children. And to push through, even if my voice is quivering. Even if I am feeling embarrassed. Why? Because I believe it is good for my kids to see me affected by a story. Reading teaches empathy, and we can certainly do with some more of that in this world.
One such a picture book is A Boy and a Jaguar by Alan Rabinowitz. Alan cannot talk to people, because of his severe stutter. He can however, talk to animals. He makes a promise to the jaguar in the zoo that, when he finds his voice, he will speak up for the animals. And he does just that. In this autobiographical picture book Dr.Rabinowitz tells the story of his work in jaguar conservation. He also tells the story of boy Alan and his struggles as a stutterer. It is a moving story of brokenness and healing.
Cátia Chien’s colorful illustrations seamlessly transport us from the Great Smokey Mountains to Belize, from city to jungle and face to face with a genial jaguar. Through the illustrations the book progresses from a sad, somber and lonely mood to one of hope, light, companionship and healing. The last two illustrations fill me with such peace; I just want to linger on those pages.
A Boy and a Jaguar is an endearing, uplifting picture book that illustrates truths about purpose, promises, compassion, and finding one’s own voice.
A Boy and a Jaguar is a BIG story. It includes messages about conservation, bullying, misunderstanding and isolation. Yet, it is told with such economy of words. It is written by someone who understands the value of words, and so these ones were carefully chosen. This book is a wonderful mentor text for effective and efficient word use.
"Believe it or not, as simple as this children's book was — all my other books are hundreds of pages ... it was hard to write because I didn't want to write it as an adult telling the story of my childhood. I wanted to go back inside and pull that child back out which has always been in there. But that child is a broken child, or at least a child who thought he was broken. And that was painful. I remember crying as I wrote this book. It's even painful now reading my own story because I never wished any young person to go through anything like that, that much pain." ~ Alan Rabinowitz
More on Dr. Alan Rabinowitz
To hear Dr. Alan talk about his childhood and writing this book on NPR, click here .
To watch a video of Dr. Alan talk about his work in conservation and this book, click here.
Our favorite mentor texts to guide your writing and revisions.