Summary: In this companion to Green and Blue, Laura Vaccaro Seeger creates the story of a lost fox told with the color red: “Dark red/light red/lost red/bright red” takes the fox from traveling through a forest to sleeping in a field to getting caught in the headlights of a blue pickup at a railroad crossing. Die-cut pages give a glimpse of the red on the next page, as the fox discovers more man-made barriers. Rusty nails cut its paws, a chain link fence and brick wall block its path, and finally a raw steak lures it into a trap. A neighbor girl finds the trap and frees the fox, who finds its way back to its family. “Just red” shows an adult fox and a kit happily nuzzling one another. Includes an author’s note. 40 pages; ages 4-8.
Pros: Caldecott honoree Laura Seeger works her magic again, perfectly portraying a range of strong emotions through color, illustrations, and a few words. Be sure to read the author’s note which links the human characters in all three of her books, and places this book in the context of our political times. A Caldecott consideration for sure.
Summary: A subway train that is part of the Seoul network (one of the longest in the world) tells the story of its travels. At each stop, a new person gets on and tells a bit about their life. There’s a grandmother taking fish to cook for her daughter and granddaughter, a shoemaker who can tell about people’s lives from studying their shoes, an overwhelmed high school student, an unemployed 29-year-old man, and more. As each one boards, the narration switches to their voice, and a two-page spread gives us a bit of their story. The voice of the subway closes the book: ‘The unique lives of strangers you might never meet again are all around you, every time you take the train.” 52 pages; grades 1-5.
Pros: At first glance, this might look like a book for someone who likes trains, and it is that, but it’s also an invitation to slow down and notice the people all around you and to contemplate what kind of life each one of them might be living. The watercolor portraits are beautiful renditions of the different people, and the poetic language could be used as a mentor text for narrative writing. I was kind of blown away by all that’s contained in this one picture book.
Cons: The narrative structure of this book is different from most, with six pages of text before the title page and so many different voices, that it might be difficult for younger kids to understand all that is going on without some extra help.
Summary: Before 9/11, the Callery pear tree stood, mostly unnoticed, in the shadow of the Twin Towers. “One September day, the perfect blue sky exploded,” and the tree was buried in the rubble. Workers noticed a green sprout growing out of it, and the tree was taken to a nursery where it gradually came back to life and flourished for the next ten years. Eventually, it was transplanted back to the 9/11 Memorial, where people now stop and marvel at the tree, now known as the Survivor Tree, the last living thing pulled from the wreckage of the World Trade Center. Includes additional information about the tree, an author’s note, an artist’s note, and a photo. 48 pages; grades K-5.
Pros: This beautiful book tells the story of the Survivor Tree in sparse, poetic language, with watercolor illustrations by Caldecott honoree Aaron Becker. The same tale is told from the tree’s perspective in another 2021 book, This Very Tree. I’d be hard-pressed to choose one over the other; both offer stories and illustrations that will engage younger readers with enough back matter to make them excellent resources for older kids.
Cons: I wish this book had been released prior to August 31 so I could have reviewed it in time for the twentieth anniversary of 9/11.
Summary: Alaina wakes up feeling excited about the day ahead. The second graders are putting on a play, and she, a kindergartener, gets to deliver the last line, “Thank you for coming. Goodbye.” She reviews her line with her mother as they walk to school, then goes over it in her head throughout the day. Finally, it’s time for the big production. Alaina watches in the wings, getting caught up in the different emotions that the actors portray. When it’s time for her line, she is too excited to stay on script, and instead improvises: “Wasn’t that great? Wasn’t it stupendous? What about those jokes, and the yelling, and the crying, and the dancing, and…?” The teacher cuts her short by closing the curtain, but Alaina sticks her head out for her final, “Thank you for coming. Goodbye!” 32 pages; ages 4-8.
Pros: Eloise Greenfield, who died this year at the age of 92, once said she wanted her books “to enable Black children to realize how beautiful and smart they are”. She realizes that vision in this posthumously published story about Alaina. The story and the gorgeous illustrations capture the excitement of the theater, and Alaina’s delight in the production is infectious. This would make a great introduction to read before attending a play.
Cons: Seems like someone could have thought of a slightly catchier title.
Summary: “Child, you are awake! Breathe in, then breathe out, hermosa creatura. You are alive! You are a bright star inside our hearts.” A fawn travels through a desert landscape with its mother. When it discovers the destruction of the beautiful cacti and a wall blocking its way, the mother is comforting, encouraging her fawn to speak up with a “No!”. The fawn imagines a beautiful healed world, which includes human children: “You are a bright star inside our hearts.” Includes a note from the author giving eleven reasons she wrote this book, which include a wish to show the environment of the borderlands, and its destruction from building fences and walls; also, a list of source materials. 40 pages; ages 4-8.
Pros: I’m putting this on my list of books to watch for Caldecott and/or Belpré recognition. The illustrations are amazing, Spanish and English are effortlessly woven together in the text, and the back matter adds extra depth.
Cons: It took me a few readings to fully understand what was going on in the story. That may be the book–there’s definitely more than meets the eye–or possibly my brain.
Summary: If you’ve ever seen the rainbow-covered Boston Gas tanks or recall the 1985 USPS Love stamp (also with a rainbow), you’ve seen the work of Corita Kent. Corita grew up in a large family where she loved art and using her imagination. As a young woman, she surprised her family and friends by becoming a nun. She also became a teacher, and used her gifts of art and imagination to liven up her classroom. Eventually, she joined the art faculty of Immaculate Heart College, where she continued to develop her own art. Her somewhat unconventional approach to life and work put her increasingly at odds with her supervisors in the church, and at age 50, she left her life as a nun. She spent the next 18 years pursuing art and fun (she coined the word “plork” to describe the combination of play and work) before her death in 1986. Includes a chronology of Corita’s life, notes from the author and illustrator, and vibrant endpapers with a photo of Corita and some of her art. 80 pages; grades 1-5.
Pros: “Plork” may be my new favorite word, and the text and illustrations really capture the spirit that Corita Kent brought to all aspects of her life. Readers of all ages will be inspired by this vibrant woman’s life; this made me want to seek out more of her art and books.
Cons: I was a little put off by the length of this book, and procrastinated reading it, thinking it would take a while. Once I started, though, I flew through it, so don’t let the 80 pages be a deterrent to reading it yourself or to others.
Summary: Scott Joplin grew up in a musical family in Texarkana, Arkansas. His parents encouraged his talents by buying him a piano, not an easy feat for the impoverished family, and got him lessons when his mother offered to clean the music teacher’s house. When Scott was old enough, though, his father told him he should get a job on the railroad, one of the only opportunities for a young African American man to find steady work. But the pull of music was too great, and Scott started playing in saloons, gradually working his way up to more respectable establishments and a chance to go to college. His love of a new form of music, ragtime, led to his most famous composition, “The Maple Leaf Rag”. Its success allowed him to leave saloons forever and focus on composing, creating “an American music like the country itself–a patchwork of sounds and colors.” Includes a lengthy author’s note with additional information, a bibliography, and a recommended listening list. 56 pages; grades 1-5.
Pros: There’s a folksy feel to both the voice and the illustrations of this picture book biography that draws the reader in immediately. Although not a lot is known about Scott Joplin, the author does an amazing job of piecing together his story, and the author’s note and bibliography make this an excellent research resource.
Summary: “A house. Where is the door? What color is it? Where is the window? What shape is it?” Each page asks questions about different concepts like shapes, colors, time of day, size, and weather, inviting readers to look carefully at the pictures and find the answers to the questions. Near the end, a doll family arrives, complete with cat and dog. The house is now called something else…a home. 32 pages; ages 3-6.
Pros: I found myself immediately imagining reading this to my preschool classes and having them take turns answering the questions. Like many of Kevin Henkes’ recent books, this one has both simple texts and illustrations, but will undoubtedly become a favorite that will be read over and over again.
Cons: Okay, is it just me, or does the cover of this book look like a Tomie dePaola illustration? For some reason, I saw a picture of the cover a few months ago, and got the idea in my head that it was a Tomie dePaola homage. I was, of course, completely wrong.
Summary: “Five Little Pumpkins” gets a slightly scarier reworking, starting with ten spooky pumpkins, and moving on from nine black cats down to two skinny scarecrows. They all get together for a big Halloween party until one full moon sends everyone off to bed. A little girl in a clown costume witnesses the whole thing, finishing off her evening asleep, her trick-or-treat candy scattered around her bed. Don’t miss the patchwork-inspired endpapers and the rhyme and illustration on the title page. Includes an author’s note telling about his childhood inspirations for his artwork. 40 pages; ages 4-8.
Pros: This rhyme is perfect for preschoolers, and the macabre illustrations provide just the right amount of spookiness for Halloween.
Cons: So many new Halloween picture books to read aloud this year, children are going to be begging me to stop.
Summary: Victoria Franken and her (dog) assistant Igor love to create slime. After finding a recipe online, they expand their repertoire, always taking careful notes on what works (rainbow cloud slime, intergalactic space slime) and what doesn’t (shark tooth slime, firework slime). One stormy night, Victoria has a brainstorm, and she and Igor rush to the attic to mix it up. When it’s zapped by lightning, the green slime comes to life! Victoria and Igor rush through the house, pursued by the slime which seems to be wielding a pointy object at her. It turns out to be…her pencil, which she forgot in her haste, as well as her notebook. Victoria remembers then to write down her recipe, aided by Igor and Goop, who becomes another faithful assistant. Includes three slime recipes. 40 pages; ages 4-8.
Pros: I don’t know if it was the horror of 2020 that inspired all these Halloween-themed books, but come October 31, we should all be set for story hour. Here’s another one that’s more fun than scare, featuring a girl scientist who follows the scientific method to a T. If you’re willing to deal with large quantities of glue and glitter, you’ll even have a makerspace activity to go with it.
Cons: Firework slime looked like fun; I’m not sure why it was considered a failure.