Friends Who Fly

A Fairy Friend – Sue Fliess and Claire Keane, Henry Holt and Company, 2016


If you love someone a lot, you have to let her leave. If that someone is a fairy, you have a little bit more flexibility, because she may fly back to you. This sweet and fanciful book explains how the process of giving fairies their freedom works.


Author Sue Fliess and Illustrator Claire Keane have created perfectly matched text and pictures in this description of a girl’s fascination with fairies and their miniature world.  They may be related to Tinkerbell, but somewhat distantly. There is even a bit of the commercial White Rock Girl, but modestly dressed.  They are active and energetic, as is the little girl who loves them.  She begins her fairy-finding excursion pairing a wispy dress with hiking boots and a backpack; these are the type of inventive and funny details that set Keane’s fairies apart from the typical little winged creatures.  In Fliess’ rhymes, they are always on the move, as they “Skip through flowers,/Zip through trees,/Hum and buzz among the bees.”  Quoting individual lines does not do the text justice because, cumulatively, they add up to convincing picture of a mutually positive friendship.  The girl builds them houses of twigs and flowers, cooks flower-petal stew, and even flies with them over a dizzying image of houses lit up at night.


If you are not yourself fairy-obsessed, or if you do not know any children who are, this book might give you a glimpse into an unknown world. If you have children who like to construct fairy homes complete with furniture, Keane’s two page spread of a particularly appealing one will fill you with recognition. “Mossy rooftop, pebble path,/Mushroom cap to take her bath,” are only some of the features of this ideal dwelling. One fairy bounces off a thistle bed while another slides down an English cottage roof.  The most interesting aspect of this scene is the large and heavy hammer lying next to the structure, and the little girl in the background hanging nutshell swings to a tree.  It’s clear that fairy houses don’t build themselves.  They are the result of dedication and skill.

Finally, readers have to learn that fairies are meant to be free and that trapping them in habitats, no matter how comfortable, will not work.  They fly away, each carrying a small suitcase.  Finally, however, if you are “thoughtful, kind, and true,” you may expect your fairy to return.  I know what you are thinking; if only life were like that!  In defense of realism in books about fairies, as if that were necessary, it is not clear if they are back for good, or if they will come and go like unanticipated gifts. A Fairy Friend beautifully validates this hope for children who are fans of fairies, as well as for adults attached to impermanent things.


I Love You in the Morning, and in the Afternoon

Sharon, Lois & Bram’s Skinnamarink – Sharon Hampson, Lois Lillienstein and Bram Morrison, with Randi Hampson and Qin Leng, Tundra Books, 2019


Children’s illustrated books that interpret well-known songs are generally assured of an audience.  It may be the parents who are eager to share with their children the rousing lyrics of Woody Guthrie’s This Land is Your Land  or Bob Dylan’s Forever Young. It may be a classic lullaby, such as Marla Frazee’s faithful but funny version of Hush, Little Baby. There is the underrated Sesame Street Golden Book of The Monster’s on the Bus, for both kids and parents who have exhausted the possibilities of the original song.


Now there is a wonderful addition to this genre, an absolutely lovely and enactment in antic pictures by Qin Leng of Sharon, Lois, and Bram’s most popular song. If you have never had the joyful experience of watching or listening to this Canadian trio of kid folk performers, this book is a good place to start.  If you are already a fan, this unselfconsciously antic exploration of a song about unconditional love will not disappoint.


As Sharon and Bram, (Lois passed away in 2015), characterize their years of experience performing and listening, this is a song to be sung “loudly and proudly,” and, one might add for this book, naturally and constantly.  Leng’s pictures are delicately colored and fluid scenes. Lines from the song accompany each image, encouraging readers to narrate the book by singing.


Her scenes are also messy, in the very best sense of the word. There are a smiling mom and dad working as a team to bathe two lively kids.  One child is in the tub gesturing the song; the other is drying off with her mother while the father rushes through the door with some nicely folded pajamas.  Overturned bottles, puddles of water, and even a mouse doing a high dive from a shelf illustrate the sort of everyday activities that indicate love in the understated style of both the song’s lyrics and Leng’s art.


Of course, grumpy children deserve love, too. A compassionate dad brings a tray of milk and cookies to an angry little boy fuming in a supply closet. (insert image) A huge bear, small duck, and smaller fox, who peacefully coexist in the universe of this book, lean over the stairs watching expectantly, read for the family hug to remedy matters.


Every picture unobtrusively celebrates diversity, with people of different races, ages, and abilities, living and learning together. One image makes this more explicit, as a teacher, looking as enthusiastic as her students, gathers them around a huge globe.  Its size makes it more of a symbol than an actual teaching tool; one of the most engaging aspects of Leng’s illustrations is this melding of reality and fantasy.  Animals wear clothes and mice plant flags. Some kids reach out to touch their homelands, while others remain seated, behind desks or on top of them. (One bookish child with oversized glasses remains fixated on a large book rather than sharing everyone else’s fascination with the globe.)


A city street captioned, “Be sure to sing this love song with everyone around,” gives Leng the opportunity to create an entire miniaturized environment. Readers can peek in windows to see animals and humans enjoying snacks in a restaurant and watch musicians perform, while, outside, a hedgehog steadies his bicycle for a ride. Children typically love to find these small details.  They will also appreciate the humor of a duck crossing guard helping a mom with her ducklings. Parents may see an affectionate homage to Robert McCloskey’s picture book classic, Make Way for Ducklings.


It’s hard to see how anyone could fail to appreciate this dynamic reimagining of Skinnamarink. Sharon, Lois, and Bram’s long career, dedicated to bringing music into the lives of families, has found the perfect book to express love and gratitude for their work.




Every Doll Wins

The Best-Loved Doll – Rebecca Caudill and Elliott Gilbert, Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1962


The dolls in this book are competing for a party invitation.  Their owner, Betsy, can only bring one doll to her friend’s party, and, what’s worse, it is a winner-take-all competition.  At this party, given by a mother who wants a lot of structured activity, awards will be given in specific categories: oldest, best dressed, and multitasker, (“doll who can do the most things.”). As often happens in doll books (for example here and here), the characters are relatively helpless when their human friend is not playing with them.  They can communicate with one another, and needless to say, they are pretty anxious about this event. Parties can have messy food and frightening dogs. Yet they also relieve boredom and prove in public, as in the Toy Story small movies, that Betsy needs them.

Rebecca Caudill (1899-1985) was the author of several popular novels about life in Harlan County, Kentucky set in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.  They were both nostalgic and detailed, a bit like the Little House books, although less nuanced and literary.  The Best-Loved Doll is a picture book, illustrated by Elliot Gilbert with black and white line drawings and touches of violet.  The children themselves, as well as the mother at the high-stakes party, look somewhat like dollhouse figures: small and delicate, with simple features.


From the beginning of the story it’s pretty clear that the big winner isn’t going to be the centenarian doll, who looks adult but, rather sadly, lives in a cradle.  Nor will the doll whose obtrusive wind-up key allows her to operate a sewing machine; she looks impressively busy, but maybe also oppressed, as she hunches over her work.  Betsy is the kind of child who is confident in her own feelings, and she brings Jennifer, a worn-out veteran repaired with adhesive tape. “With the smile on her face that never went away, she looked like the happiest doll in the world.”


There is a wonderful picture of the party, in which twelve dollpartylittle girls don’t walk in two straight lines, but rather sit around a long table eating cupcakes and twirling miniature paper parasols.  The mother, Mrs. Anderson, looks calm and easygoing, her elbows on the table, which I had thought was a sign of bad manners.  The dolls have their own table with a little less activity.) Mrs. Anderson is compassionate and flexible, as evidenced by her informal posture. She has awarded the promised prizes, but, at the last minute, added one “For something important…Something I didn’t think of before.”  Jennifer receives a gold paper medal, testifying to her best quality, which is much more important than an elaborate wardrobe or the status of an antique.  You would think the other dolls might hate her, but she re-gifts the party favors to her fellow dolls and decides to share the medal with them.  Who needs a medal, anyway, when your weakest and most tattered attributes turn out to make you the best at something?

Tortellini Tango, Dumpling Dance

Frankie’s Favorite Food – Kelsey Garrity-Riley, Tundra Books, 2019

frankie cover

It’s hard to see how kids could not like a book about dressing up as their favorite food.  It’s easy to see how adults might view such a project as pandering to children’s love of doughnuts and popcorn.  But wait, Frankie, the hero of this inventive tale, also loves sushi, falafel, and sardines, as least as characters in his school’s play. Not only that, but he dreams of orchestrating a production starring such imaginative combinations as “nachos with spring rolls and marzipan on top. In this inventive story by author and illustrator Kelsey Garrity-Riley, a child whose refusal to pick favorites results in an extravagant theatrical tribute to the joys of both food and musical theater, as well as of being a generalist.

pineapple hat

Frankie is the kid who doesn’t want to be part of the melting pot, or mixed salad, or whatever culinary metaphor for individuality within diversity you choose.  His teacher, Ms. Mellon, whose grey dress, grey hair, but bright red glasses signal that she is a little predictable but open to change, proposes a school play in which each student dresses as her favorite food.  While everyone else is dressing as pretzels or trying on pineapple hats, Frankie stands alone to the side.  He isn’t a rebel, but he just won’t be forced into choosing between chowder and guacamole.  He sends a validating message to any child who has been told that loyalty to just one snack, or activity, or future career, is essential to success.  Ms. Mellon finds the perfect solution, allowing everyone to stick to his conviction that either avocados or cupcakes are the best, while putting Frankie in charge of the “Foodstravaganza” as costume manager.



As you might expect, a spectacle this demanding has some dicey spots, from a burrito boy rolling off the stage to some awkward moments with preschoolers playing rice and beans, but Frankie’s enthusiasm and brilliant multitasking make everything go smoothly.  There are plenty of food puns for adults, including “GOUDA job, guys,” and “it’s a PITA that song wasn’t longer.” My experience is that kids are often interested in simple explanations of why their parents are laughing at, for example, a reference to “the FALAFEL of the Opera.” Even if they don’t yet share our enthusiasm, they may be intrigued at what grownups find funny.  Don’t underestimate them, or just enjoy the motto of the French Revolution applied to a chorus of fruits.

fruit chorus

Frankie’s Favorite Food is unpretentious fun from curtain raiser to curtain call.  This is true whether you would choose to wear a jar of pesto or sing in the Snack Pack trio.  Maybe you don’t even need to decide.


Keep Relatively Calm, and Carry On

Whistling in the Dark – Shirley Hughes, Candlewick Press, 2017


There are some English language authors better known on one side of the pond than the other.  One of these is Shirley Hughes, born in North West England in 1927.  The author of more than fifty books, Hughes is best known for stories for young readers, which she both writes and illustrates.  Her culturally and generationally diverse world of mums and dads caring for young children is appealing and realistic, even comforting.  Hughes’s series about the siblings Alfie and Annie Rose , and her enchanting rhymes and pictures of everyday life in other books for the youngest readers, have won her many awards in her native Great Britain.  Only two years ago, this talented octogenarian decided to try something new, and wrote two middle grade novels set during World War II.

Whistling in the Dark describes the challenges facing Joan, a fourteen -year-old girl growing up, as Hughes herself did, near Liverpool during the years when German bombers threatened the lives and security of her community, as well as that of all the Allied nations.  The value of this compelling story is immeasurable, both for its historical setting and for its examination of an adolescent’s resilience under intense pressures.  The book is dedicated to “those brave men who served in the British Merchant Navy during the Second World War,” a large number of whom lost their lives when the Germans sunk ships that were bringing crucial supplies of food, armaments, and other necessities to their country.


In the novel, Joan’s father had been killed before the War, when the ship on which he served caught fire.  Joan’s loss, therefore, is a sort of warning of the catastrophic losses which would affect many more families in the coming months and years.  After his death, Joan’s mum had temporarily become “too ill with sadness to manage,” while Joan herself gradually began to remember her father as a distant image, one which she compares to the British painter J.M.W. Turner’s famous painting of a burning ship.

I found it dissonant to read Joan’s admission that “If she was being really honest, she didn’t miss Dad so much now,” not because I found the idea to be implausible, but because the rest of the book does not support her claim.  Continue reading “Keep Relatively Calm, and Carry On”

Family Is Everywhere

Some Places More Than Others – Renée Watson, Bloomsbury Children’s Books, 2019


Amara Baker is an African-American middle school student growing up in Beaverton, Oregon, in a community unlike the one her father, Charles, knew at her age, when he lived in Harlem, New York City.  Amara’s parents are expecting a long-wanted second child, leading Amara to question if and how her role in the family will change.  But overall, her life is good. Her parents are protective and loving, even if her mother, a designer, seems disappointed sometimes that Amara feels more uncomfortable in her fashionable dresses than in her sneaker collection from Nike, where her father is an executive.

There is no crisis looming in her life, until her teacher, Mr. Rosen, assigns the Suitcase Project.  Asked to interview family members and to determine which special objects and experiences she will choose to represent in her suitcase, Amara needs to confront her father’s estrangement from his own father, Amara’s only living grandparent.  A trip to Harlem to spend time with him and with her extended family becomes an unanticipated opportunity to learn about her own past, as well as the past of her people.

Renée Watson’s narrative skills are expert and subtle.  Amara’s story could easily have become one of dramatic clashes between angry relatives, or singular moments of realization that African-American history is full of previously unknown riches.  Instead, the Harlem trip is full of illuminating moments, when Amara takes in the cultural landmarks which she has missed in Oregon, but which were always a part of her through her parents’ strength and pride.  Whether embarrassing her cousins by taking photos of the Apollo Theater or touring the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture with her enthusiastic Grandpa Earl, Amara is thoughtfully filling her mind and her heart, as well as her suitcase, with inspiration from the past.  Standing on the famed mosaic tribute to poet Langston Hughes, Amara notes that “I don’t take my phone out to capture this.  I just want to stand here, just want to be.”


Not everything in the past is an unambiguous source of pride.  There is the bitterness and anger between Amara’s father and grandfather, and the tensions with her cousins, whose own father is absent but who share a deep bond with the grandfather which had been unavailable to Amara. During the trip, Amara tests some limits of independence, and her father reflects on his own authority as a parent.  In one scene at his mother’s grave, Amara’s father recites an original poem which is Watson’s implicit dialogue with Hughes’s “Mother to Son.”  In a book filled with profoundly moving moments of recognition about the ties between parents and children, this one stood out for its emotional impact.

Some Places More Than Others is an unusual chronicle of a child’s journey towards understanding of her family and her own place within it. Some books do this more than others; this is one you will want to put in your suitcase.

“I would like to be a bird looking down/ then everything would be so clear

The Collected Works of Gretchen Oyster – Cary Fagan, Tundra Books, 2019


Art and poetry are potentially a lifeline to everyone, and certainly for an introspective and confused kid whose family is shaken by the worst kind of tragedy that could befall them.  In The Collected Works Gretchen Oyster, that kid is middle-school student Hartley Staples, and the tragedy is that his older brother Jackson has left home and may never return.  The lifeline which falls at his feet is a series of mysterious postcards, miniature works of art and poetry left around his small town by an unknown creator.

Award-winning author Cary Fagan (author of the picture book, What Are You Doing, Benny) has dropped his novel, like the powerful visual statements which Hartley finds, right into our paths, and his new book (due out September 17, 2019) demands the same kind of attention and offers the same rewards.

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Hartley is sad and sardonic, full of careful observations on life in his small town, where the tiny library is so inadequate that he terms it “The Place Where Books Go to Die.”  It is outside of this budget-less institution in a repurposed mobile home that Hartley finds the first in a series of small poetry and image collages which turn out to be a kind of message in a bottle from someone as committed to making sense of a senseless universe as is Hartley himself.  From that moment on, Hartley begins to carefully assemble a collection of these idiosyncratic cards.  Collecting them becomes both a purposeful mission and a distraction from the rest of his life, especially from a home where his loving parents are desperately trying to maintain their own sanity, and to offer Hartley and his younger brother some of the stability that has obviously disappeared from their lives.

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What is outstanding about this middle-grade novel, which will certainly be meaningful to teen readers and adults as well?  For one thing, Fagan completely avoids the kind of exaggerated misery which is central to so many books for and about teens.  Hartley himself alludes to these, as he searches in the library for “something that wasn’t about a kid whose mother was dying or father was dying or girlfriend was dying or whose mother, father, or girlfriend hadn’t been turned into a zombie” Yet the irony beyond Hartley’s dismissal of this genre is that his own parents have experienced a possible death and that they go about their ostensibly normal daily lives in a kind of zombie existence of barely suppressed grief. It’s not that kids’ lives can’t be terrible, Fagan is telling us, it’s the way that they translate that terror into meaning that matters, and which readers will recognize in his story.

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The artist who signs her work “G.O.” is also struggling with family issues, with bullying, and, like Hartley, with constructing her own narrative to make sense of her life.  Her work is not random; she explains her process in a way which is evidence of the refreshing way in which Fagan respects his readers’ intellectual curiosity.  Her work is “kind of like what the Dada artists did back in Europe after World War I…But she wasn’t trying to imitate the Dada artists or anyone else. She wanted to find her own way.”

Having read The Collected Works of Gretchen Oyster, I can only compare the connection which I experienced, and which I would have also experienced as a young person, with the one I feel reading the best classic novels for children or adults.  One need not have shared Hartley’s specific anxieties or Gretchen’s poetic vision in order to share their need to impose structure on an unsteady universe.  Everything will not be so clear, even for a bird looking down, but at least there will be a picture to construct and, at best, to share.

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A Family is Not DNA

Love, Penelope – Joanne Rocklin and Lucy Knisley, Amulet Books, 2018


Exploring one’s heritage has become something of a national pastime, simplified by the intriguing and expensive project of ordering DNA results from companies that promise to fill in the blanks about anyone’s hereditary background.  In Love, Penelope, Joanne Rocklin offers a much more nuanced and sensitive view of what constitutes family lineage through the moving and funny story of Penelope Bach, a ten-year-old girl in Oakland, California, struggling with the challenges of a school project. Asked by her teacher to research her family history, Penelope learns a great deal about her biological mom, Becky, and her mom’s domestic partner, Sammy, a woman who is as caring and strong a parent as Penelope’s original mother. Even more importantly, she learns lessons about honesty, commitment to family, and negotiating the hazards of friendship.

There are many qualities to love about this novel.  It is convincing.  Nobody is perfect.  Parents make mistakes.  Close friendships have painful moments.  Penelope is optimistic, but also introspective.  Since her deceased father was an orphan, she has no information about his family, and her knowledge of her mother’s family also turns out to be incomplete. However, she is extremely close to her adoptive mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother. Through them, she feels deeply connected to Sammy’s Ohlone Indian heritage. Is she lying to her teacher, Mr. Chen, as she plans to present the results of her in-depth research about the family ties which are not biological, but emotional ones?

 Love, Penelope is ambitious, as Rocklin expertly integrates several other threads into her narrative.  There is Penelope’s obsession with her favorite basketball team, the Golden State Warriors. There is her growing awareness of racism, and her strong conviction in marriage equality, which she hopes will become a reality for the wonderful parents currently joined in a “marriage of the heart.” Then there is the new baby which her family is expecting; throughout the book, Penelope addresses him/her as “You” in a series of journal entries.


Lucy Knisley’s black and white drawings of this growing but still unknown being support the text, as do her sketches of other elements of the story, from Mr. Chen’s funny ties, to a ham bouncing like a basketball, to the Penelope’s image of herself as a spider, spinning a web of lies.  The book’s backmatter includes detailed lists of resources about Native American history, same-sex parenting, and, of course, basketball.

In writing this book, Rocklin was not dissuaded by suggestions that authors should choose only subjects that literally align with their own identities. Penelope and her family are complex human beings facing challenges and finding their own strengths.  Her story is a story for all of us.

Family, Art, and Chocolate

Grandpa Cacao – Elizabeth Zunon, Bloomsbury Children’s Books, 2019

cacao cover

The chocolate metaphor richness of Grandpa Cacao is so striking that it would be difficult to avoid in any description of Elizabeth Zunon’s new book.  The richness refers to the content and themes: family, heritage, culinary traditions, agriculture.  The artistic complexity of the book is also gorgeously rich.

In a detailed “Author’s Note,” Zunon explains how she has chosen to use oil paint, watercolor paper, and collage to create the main narrative background, combining these media with pale silk screen outlines in the images of her grandfather at work on his African farm.  The sophistication of this multidimensional technique is, again, extremely rich.  Grandpa Cacao is also an informational book about the cacao cultivation, and the book’s backmatter gives further information about the history, technology, and ethical issues of chocolate production, along with a recipe for Chocolate Celebration Cake.  There is so much here to capture young readers’ attention that the book will surely inspire many conversations each of its ingredients.

Grandpa Cacao inside

The core of the story is a conversation between a girl and her father about the grandfather she has never known.  Her father’s narration of his own father’s life as a cacao farmer is both dramatic and matter-of-fact, as he explains to this daughter the difficulties of planting and harvesting a successful crop.  He emphasizes the communal cooperation necessary to the process, and ties its outcome to crucial economic gains: “We used our money to buy food, school supplies, uniforms, books, and fabric to have our special occasion clothes made.”  As the girl listens, she draws parallels to her own life and feels connected to her grandfather, as she and her father carefully bake a chocolate cake together.  The silk-screen images of life in Africa form a visual sequence of her father’s story and her own involvement in listening to it.

The ending of the book has a mythic element of reunion. Readers who have grandparents from other parts of the world, whether or not they have never seen them or benefit by a close relationship, will empathize with the family strength of Zunon’s story.  Whether or not you love chocolate, Grandpa Cacao is a recipe for learning and empathy.

Juggling Demands on Your First Day of School

Your First Day of Circus School Tara Lazar and Melissa Crowton, Tundra Books, 2019


Ladies and gentlemen, and children of all ages! Step right up to Your First Day of Circus School. This madcap map of a first day at school will reassure an apprehensive child, not through patient explanations that school will be great, but by offering an inventive metaphor for just how great it will be. In fact, it will be the greatest show on earth. Don’t worry; no animals were harmed in the making of this book!


The little boy in the story is awoken by his older brother blaring into a megaphone, and he is propelled out of bed with a look of terror on his face. Why should he want to leave his room, an inviting setting for imaginative play, as proven by all the fun toys and scattered items surrounding him?  A circus playset in the lower right corner leads to the next page, where he begins to warm to the idea of school, even if he is still a bit confused about what it will entail.  That’s what controlling big brothers are for; his shows him that “you’ll/find your way/around,” and gives him practical advice: “Don’t let the kids in the/ HIGHER GRADES /run you over.” Many of the lines are combined with visual puns; the kids in the higher grades are elevated on stilts, and “The cafeteria/can be a real ZOO” is accompanied by an assortment of animals and children eating, socializing, and performing daredevil feats in the lunchroom.


Some of the puns, as well as the clichés and aphorisms updated with visual interpretations, may be unfamiliar to kids.  Like many of the best children’s books, this one operates on more than one level.  Adults know that their kids will have “a lot to/JUGGLE/on your first day,” while young readers will instantly acquire that expression by seeing an image of their peers happily juggling small objects.  “HIGH EXPECTATIONS” can be attained by climbing a ladder.  Instead of a mundane school bus, the time worn joke about the endless number of clowns fitted into a tiny car, becomes a cheerful allusion to a community of excited kids ready for school.


Does the book raise expectations that will be contradicted by real school, where you can’t actually sit backwards on your desk while wearing a cape, and where the tall kid in front of you isn’t an elephant? Only the most literal-minded child, or caregiver, will fail to recognize that imagination and reality can coexist in young minds, especially when thinking about and working through new situations.  Your teacher, even if she is not named “Miss Stupendous,” does want you to enjoy learning.  Your fellow students are also hesitant on the first day.  Your first day of school should indeed by “awesome,” even without the cannon blast conclusion pictured here.

Kids will love this book. Parents, look for the picture of the poodle writing on a typewriter.