Once Upon a Book by Grace Lin and Kate Messner

Published by Little, Brown Books for Young Readers

Summary:  “I wish I were someplace that wasn’t so frozen and gray!” grumbles Alice on a cold winter’s day.  An open book catches her eye, telling the story of a warm, colorful morning.  “That sounds like our home,” say the birds in the story, and Alice finds herself in a steamy jungle.  When it starts to rain, a pair of camels invite her into the desert.  From there, the book takes her under the ocean and on a flight across the sky and up to the moon.  The moon is lonely, though, so Alice wishes herself back home again, just in time for dinner with her family.  40 pages; ages 4-8.

Pros:  Beautiful illustrations depict the various places Alice visits, with a repeating text that celebrates the journeys books can take readers on.

Cons:  Considering the talented creators and the three starred reviews, I was expecting some slightly more imaginative storytelling.

Cut! How Lotte Reiniger and a Pair of Scissors Revolutionized Animation by C. E. Winters, illustrated by Matt Schu

Published by Greenwillow Books

Summary:  Who created the first full-length animated film, inventing the multiplane camera and storyboarding in the process?  If you answered Walt Disney, it’s time for you to pick up this book and learn about Lotte Reiniger, a German artist who developed a love of shadow puppetry as a child and became renowned for her creations.  After studying filmmaking and stop-motion animation with director Paul Wegener, she started making short animated films but didn’t think any audience would be interested in a feature-length one.  A friend convinced her to try, though, and she spent the next three years creating The Adventures of Prince Achmed. When it was finally completed in 1926, she had trouble finding a theater that would show it, but it eventually became a big success.  Lotte went on to make approximately sixty films, including one in a basement during the bombing of Berlin before she emigrated to England.  Includes a timeline, a list of sources, and an author’s note with additional information about Lotte.  40 pages; grades 1-5.

Pros:  Don’t forget, March is Women’s History Month, and this would make a fascinating read-aloud, maybe shown with the Prince Achmed trailer.  The story is well-told, and the illustrations capture the feel of Lotte’s work with film and silhouettes.

Cons:  The thought of making a film like this makes me want to lose my mind.  Lotte must have had incredible patience.

Worm and Caterpillar Are Friends by Kaz Windness

Published by Simon Spotlight

Summary:  Worm and Caterpillar are best friends share many similarities but also have some differences.  Worm is nervous when Caterpillar begins to change even more, eventually falling silent inside of a chrysalis.  When Caterpillar finally wakes up, he’s afraid that if he emerges, Worm will no longer like him.  Finally, Caterpillar reveals himself in his new incarnation as Butterfly.  At first Worm thinks he is a scary bird and hides deep underground, but eventually the two reclaim their best friendship.  Includes directions for drawing Worm and Butterfly.  64 pages; ages 4-7.

Pros:  A fun early reader, with a comic format that includes just a sentence or two of text on each page. The message is positive about keeping friends even when one or both parties go through some changes. There’s a nice introduction to reading comics before the main story begins.

Cons:  Early reader comics about two animal friends seem to be a bit of a glut on the market these days.

Watch Out for the Lion! by Brooke Hartman, illustrated by Anna Süßbauer

Published by Page Street Kids

Summary:  On the first page, readers are shown a labeled diagram of a lion–tail, ears, snout, fangs, and claw–so that they’ll know what to look for and avoid danger.  On the next page, watch out, it’s a lion’s tail!  Or is it?  Another page turn reveals the tail actually belongs to a giraffe.  And so it goes, with different body parts revealed to be a sloth, a hamster, and a walrus.  When a lion finally comes along, it turns out to be a cute baby cub.  But there really was a lion, so stay on your toes!  You never know what may be lurking around the corner.  32 pages; ages 3-8.

Pros:  Any story that is this interactive is a win in my book, and I can’t wait to read it to kindergarteners sometime in the near future.

Cons:  I wish there had been a few more animals included. It was over too quickly.

Just Jerry: How Drawing Shaped My Life by Jerry Pinkney

Published by Little, Brown Books for Young Readers

Summary:  Award-winning illustrator Jerry Pinkney was working on this memoir at the time of his death in 2021.  He writes of his childhood, growing up in the Germantown section of Philadelphia in the 1940’s and 1950’s, surrounded by a chaotic but loving family and neighborhood.  Due to dyslexia (the book is written in a font created for those with dyslexia), he struggled in school, but always found solace in sketching and art.  His memories of home, school, and summers at the Jersey shore describe the racism he and his family had to deal with but also the support he got from his family, friends, and members of the community. Thanks to hard work and a little luck, he finds his way to beginning an art career by the end of the book. The epilogue describes how his early life led to his success as an illustrator. 160 pages; grades 3-7.

Pros:  Jerry Pinkney has created a wonderful memoir, showing what it was like to grow up in a loving family that also struggled with racism; with an undiagnosed learning disability; and with a passion and talent for art.  He emphasizes the positives in his childhood without shying away from some of the difficulties.

Cons:  Because Jerry died before this was completed, the illustrations are his rough sketches.  I enjoyed them but couldn’t help feeling wistful about what might have been.

The Many Fortunes of Maya by Nicole D. Collier

Published by Versify

Summary:  Maya’s chosen to play soccer over the flute, following in her beloved father’s footsteps.  Daddy is her number one fan, so it’s all the more devastating when he and Mama announce that they’re separating for the summer.  Summer is filled with soccer camp, friends, and days at the new pool, where Maya learns about her mother’s past as a championship swimmer.  A more secret part of her summer days is the time she spends in her closet quietly playing her flute, which she can’t bring herself to admit that she misses.  Watching her mother reclaim the joy she once knew in the pool makes Maya question what brings her that joy and leads her to make a decision about which path to follow in the upcoming school year. The title comes from a wheel Maya has made in her room with fortune cookie fortunes; by the end of the story, she has learned that she makes her own fortunes.  240 pages; grades 3-6.

Pros:  A great choice for elementary students. Kids will relate to Maya and her issues around friends, family, and figuring out who she really is.  

Cons:  The resolution of the friendship story felt a little rushed.

The Green Piano: How Little Me Found Music by Roberta Flack and Tonya Bolden, illustrated by Hayden Goodman

Published by Anne Schwartz Books

Summary:  Roberta Flack’s family didn’t have a lot of money, but they had plenty of love–for each other and for music.  From the time she was three, Roberta played the piano at church, and she started lessons at the age of six.  Her most fervent wish was to have a piano of her own, and her father was able to grant that wish when he found an old piano in a junkyard.  He hauled it home, cleaned it, tuned it, and painted it green.  She practiced for hours, dreaming of a life of a musician, a dream that is shown coming true on the last page.  Includes a timeline of Flack’s career highlights and an author’s note describing her training as a classical musician, which led to her career as a pop singer.  40 pages; grades K-4.

Pros:  A great story to share with early elementary kids, because so much of it is focused on Roberta’s early life.  I love the message of the author’s note, summarized in the last line: “Find your own ‘green piano’ and practice relentlessly until you find your voice, and a way to put that beautiful music into the world.”

Cons:  Kids may need an introduction to Roberta Flack’s music.

Nell Plants a Tree by Anne Wynter, illustrated by Daniel Miyares

Published by Balzer + Bray

Summary:  Before children climbed the giant pecan tree, Nell planted a seed.  Before they ran races to the base of the tree, Nell watered a sprout and made sure it had sun.  Before grandchildren helped their grandmother Nell bake goodies with pecans from the tree, Nell dug a hole and planted her sapling.  Over the years, that sapling became a tree, putting down roots and spreading its branches as Nell grew up, too, and created a family in the house next to the tree.  At sunset, that family eats at a long table beneath the spreading branches of the giant pecan tree.  Includes notes from the author and illustrator.  40 pages; ages 4-8.

Pros:  A celebration of trees and families, and the long-term commitment needed to see both of them flourish, with beautiful illustrations that help tell the story.  I love the final spread with its gorgeous sunset colors and the tree sheltering the family.

Cons:  It looked like Nell had at least three kids, but only one made it back for the dinner under the tree.

You Gotta Meet Mr. Pierce! The Storied Life of Folk Artist Elijah Pierce by Chiquita Mullins Lee and Carmella Van Vleet, illustrated by Jennifer Mack-Watkins

Published by Kokila

Summary:  In this fictionalized story about real-life artist Elijah Pierce, a boy and his dad enter Mr. Pierce’s barbershop.  The shop is full of wood carvings, and Mr. Pierce is happy to share stories about his life and art.  The boy has some new colored pencils and is trying to get an idea for a picture.  Mr. Pierce tells him how his art often came from stories, whether they were from his own life, the Bible, or something someone told him.  After the haircut and the stories are finished, Mr. Pierce gives the boy a carved elephant.  “I think I know what I want to draw…” he says as he and his dad leave the shop.  The final page shows a father and son (I think the father is the boy who is now grown up) about to enter a museum with an exhibit of Elijah Pierce’s work.  Just like the dad at the beginning of the story, the man tells his son, “You gotta meet Mr. Pierce!”  Includes a timeline of Elijah Pierce’s honors, additional information about the exhibit at the Corcoran Gallery in Washington, D.C., places to see Elijah’s work, and notes from the author and illustrator with additional information about Elijah Pierce, the book, and the illustrations.  40 pages; grades 1-5.

Pros:  A charming story about a little-known artist who will get some well-deserved recognition with this book.  The fictional format is engaging, and the folk-art inspired illustrations are the perfect complement.

Cons:  I found the ending a little confusing, as I couldn’t figure out what the boy had decided to draw, and I wasn’t sure who was pictured on the last page. 

My library disaster

Last weekend, New England experienced an arctic chill, with wind chills diving down to nearly 40 below. Predictably, pipes froze and burst, and one of the casualties was my school’s library. Water rained down from a broken sprinkler system pipe, soaking two areas of the library and resulting in the destruction of thousands of books.

I work in an urban school with high poverty rates that was without a library for many years. Thanks to a principal who thinks a school library is important, I was hired as a librarian back in 2020 and given a very generous book budget. The kids love coming to the library, and it’s been exciting to give them so many choices of books to check out.

Two of the areas that were hardest hit by the flood were the early readers and early chapter books, two of the most popular collections. Fortunately, many of the books were checked out, but everything that was in the library that day had to be thrown out. These are books that new readers can use to practice their skills, and they’re used by kids at every grade level.

I”ve started two Donors Choose projects to raise funds to replace some of the lost books. This will be a big help in getting the library up and running again. Right now, I am traveling to classrooms with a cart of books, but I hope to reopen the library as soon as possible. If you would like to contribute to either of my projects, you can check out the early reader one here (the books in the photo are the ones that were destroyed) and the chapter book one here. Thank you for considering this!