Sunday, December 22, 2019

🎄10 Last Minute Picture Book Gift Suggestions 🕎

My young readers and I were going through some of the books we've read and loved this year, many of which have been included in previous picture book roundups. The books I'm including in this roundup have all been read and loved and we all agreed they would make great gifts for your young readers (and so would any of the books included in a roundup).

The Shortest Day by Susan Cooper,
illustrated by Carson Ellis
Candlewick Press, 2019, 32 pages
The poem "The Shortest Day" was originally written in 1977 for The Christmas Revels, performed every year to celebrate the Winter Solstice and welcoming in the Yule season. Now, this iconic poem has been put into book form and what a book it is! Beginning with a two page wordless spread of bright sun in the sky, and shadowy figures, a page turn reveals a sinking sun, and people gathering wood. More page turns begin "So the shortest day came/ and the year died,/And everywhere down the centuries/ of the snow-white world/ Came people singing, dancing,/ To drive the dark away." The subtle but powerful, truly atmospheric gouache illustrations harmonizing with the words of the poem brings the readers from what appears to be the early days of pagan rituals (reminding me of Stonehenge) to modern day celebrations of caroling, feasting, giving thanks and spending time with dear friends, and a sincere hope for peace. "The Shortest Day" has always been a favorite poem of mine, and one I used often in school, and this book only makes it better thanks to the illustrations. And because of it, there are two new items on my bucket list, 1- to go to Stonehenge for Winter Solstice, and 2- to go to Massachusetts for The Christmas Revels. For now, I'll just have to be happy sharing this book with my young readers.

Small in the City
written and illustrated by Sydney Smith
Neal Porter Books, 2019, 40 pages
Follow along on a cold winter day as a young boy rides a streetcar into the center of a city, disembarks, and begins walking through the streets.  Dwarfed by the tall buildings and traffic on all sides, the child begins "I know what it's like to be small in the city." Continuing through the streets, at first it feels as though the child is speaking about himself, and that perhaps it is about his own experience, but as the story progresses, readers realizes that he is thinking about his lost cat. His suggestions of how the cat could find safe spaces, under a mulberry bush or up a walnut tree, ways to avoid dangerous spots, biting dogs, dark alleys, or warm up in from of a dryer vent until it can find its way home are a reflection of his hope for the survival of his missing kitty. As the story progresses, so does the falling snow until at last it is quite heavy and the young child returns home, knowing that ultimately the cat will be all right. This is a very emotionally charged story, especially if you have ever had to search for a missing loved pet (I have, 2 of my 5 readers have, too). The text is rather spare, confined to the narrator's thoughts, but much of the story is told wordlessly in a series of small graphic frames, all of which seem to stress the child's being alone in such a big, busy city, and the aloneness the missing cat may be experiencing. The illustrations, done in ink, watercolor and "a bit of gouache" are beautiful, poignant, and yes, even heartbreaking, but ultimately also hopeful.    

Stormy: A Story About Finding a Forever Home
written and illustrated by Guojing
Schwartz & Wade, 2019, 34 pages
This wordless picture book begins with a series of frames showing a small dog with curly red fur sleeping under a bench in a park when a woman comes along and notices it. She leaves, but the next day she returns, this time offering a ball in the hope of luring the dog over to her, but it still keeps its distance. Returning again, the little dog begins to warm up to her and one day follows her as she goes home. From her window, she notices the puppy sitting in front of her building, but when it being to rain, the dog leaves to find shelter, hiding in a cardboard box by a garbage pail. Noticing the dog gone, the woman runs out to the park bench to look for him. Disappointed, she returns home, drenched after her umbrella breaks in the wind, when she notices the ball she had given the dog lying in the street, and then finds the dog in the box. Naturally, she brings the dog home, dries it off, and feeds it, gives it some cuddling, and the two head to bed, with the dog on a pillow at the foot of the woman's bed. My young readers loved this story, probably because of the heartwarming ending. But they had fun narrating the story based on the illustrations, and this scruffy little puppy had a different name every time we read this book. The back of the dust jacket says this is "a story about patience, kindness, and trust" and this generated some interesting conversations about how these qualities played out in the story and how they can be important in real life. I love the endpapers - in the front, there is the bench, a tree next to it, and the dog under the bench sleeping under a very overcast sky; at the back is the same scene but without the dog and with a blue sky. And isn't Stormy just a perfect name for this sweet little stray who finds a forever home.       

Odd Dog Out
written and illustrated by Rob Biddulph
HarperCollins, 2019, 32 pages
On a busy city street, dachshunds are busy going about their day - some in business suits, others driving in cars, still more in stripped jersey's playing soccer. Turn the page and there are more dachshunds involved in more activities. What's the most noticeable thing about them? Members of each group look exactly alike. And then there is one who's different: "Someone on this/ busy street/ is dancing to a/ different beat." Dressed in colorful stripes, matching hat, and headphone she not only stands out, she also feels lonely and left out. So, she sets off looking for a place to belong. And finds Doggywood, where everyone looks just like her. Well, almost everyone: "Somebody this/ afternoon/ is whistling a/ different tune." But this is a dog who loves being different, and so should our Odd Dog, he tells her. Suddenly she realizes "That dog is right/ It's plain to see/ there's nothing wrong/ with being me." Odd Dog immediately heads home and is welcomed back with open arms - it seems she was missed in her absence. And best of all, they are all dancing to a different beat now. too. Teaching kids to have the courage to be who they are isn't an easy task in the face of some much pressure to conform. This is a book that tackles this problem head on even while distancing the issue by using dogs instead of kids and all done in catchy light verse, that harmonize perfectly with the brightly humorous illustrations. My kids love this book and we've read it many times over this last week. I suspect we'll be reading it many more times.

Fry Bread: A Native American Family Story
by Kevin Noble Maillard, illustrated by Juana Martinez-Neal
Roaring Brook Press, 2019, 42 pages
Fry bread is the story of family, friends, and food - specifically fry bread, a Native American tradition and a culinary delight. Told in short, simple free verse, the book begins with a group of diverse kids gathering around the kitchen table where their Nana is starting to prepare some fry bread. Each two page spread begins with the words "Fry Bread is..." describing not just the ingredients but also the shape, the sound, the color. But fry bread is also time spent with family and friends, and importantly, it is history, a new post-colonial bread created with what was made available: "Fry bread is history/ The long walk, the stolen land/ Strangers in our own world/ With unknown food/ We made new recipes/ From what we had." Maillard has written a modern story for today's Native Americans that stresses the importance of community, strength, and survival and all centered on a bread that is shared by indigenous people across the country: "Fry bread is us/ We are still here/ Elder and young/ Friend and neighbor/ We strengthen each other/ To learn, change, and survive." Maillard has included a family recipe for making fry bread, which sounds delicious, and an Author's Note that goes into more depth about fry bread and it's place in the lives of Native Americans. None of my young readers have ever had fry bread, but they could still relate to its importance because of traditional favorite foods in their own families. 

Roly Poly by Mem Fox,
illustrated by Jane Dyer
Beach Lane Books, 2019, 40 pages
Roly Poly is an only child and he thinks that is just fine. Everything - his parents, his bed, his favorite walrus tooth - are all his and his alone. Until one morning when Roly Poly wakes up to a little stranger in his bed. It's his new little brother and Roly Poly isn't very happy about it, telling his mom: "But I never asked for a little brother and I don't want one now." Monty keeps trying to play with Roly Poly, who just walks away or pretends he isn't there, repeating what he told his mom. When Monty takes his favorite walrus tooth, and then the fish Roly Poly has just caught, he's had enough and tells Monty to get lost just as the ice beneath his little brother begins to crack and drift away. Pretending not to hear Monty's cries for help, Roly Poly finally gives in, diving into the icy water and swimming out to the ice floe to save his little brother. From then on. Roly Poly and Monty "...lived happily ever after. Well...mostly." Told in spare text, Mem Fox has really captured the feelings and common reaction of an only child getting a younger sibling and suddenly having to share everything. It's really a simple enough story, with lots of white space for young readers to muse on their own experience of getting a new sibling. The illustrations are simply charming. The polar bear family is made of felted wool, and place in scenes giving the story a real 3-D feeling. Did my young readers like Roly Poly's story? Well, yes, but most of them are not first borns, so they related more to Monty and had their own stories to tell about being the Monty in their family (for the record, I'm a Monty, too). 

Sulwe by Lupita Nyong'o,
illustrated by Vashti Harrison
Simon & Schuster BFUR, 2019, 48 pages
Colorism isn't usually an issue you would expect to see in a picture book, but actress Lupita Nyong'o does just has done just that and has done it well. "Sulwe was born the color of midnight" in a family of lighter skin parents and sister. While everyone at school plays with her sister, five-year-old Sulwe hides by herself to avoid being made fun of. She tries all kinds of things in the hope of lightening her skin, even praying, but no matter what she tries, nothing works. Then, Sulwe, whose name means star, is visited one night by a shooting star that takes her on a journey, and as they go, the star tells her the story of sisters Night and Day, who loved each other very much. Everyone else loved Day but Night, not so much, so Night decided to leave. Now, it was Day all the time and people loved it, until they began to miss Night. It turned out people needed Night as much as they needed Day. Sulwe faces the next day with a completely different attitude: "There would be no hiding anymore. She belonged out in the world! Dark and beautiful, bright and strong!" If you read the Author's Note, you'll learn that this story came out of the Nyong'o's personal experience of being treated the way Sulwe is in the story, as are so many kids are in their own lives. Nyong'o doesn't skirt the issue of colorism and low self-esteem nor does she try to sugar coat them, recognizing the importance of addressing them head on for the very young. Vashti Harrison's artwork is particularly beautiful and completely compliments the text. 

The Many Colors of Harpreet Singh
by Supriya Kelkar, illustrated by Alea Marley
Sterling Children's Books, 2019, 28 pages
Harpreet Singh, a young Sikh, loves colors and uses them to express his feelings. In fact, he has a color for everything: yellow for when he feels sunny, pink for celebrating, red for a boost of courage. And he takes special care of his colorful patkas (the head covering worn by Sikh boys). But when his parents announce that the family will be moving, all the bright, happy colors go out of Harpreet's life, replaced by blue when he feels nervous, gray when he feels sad, and white when he feels shy and doesn't want to be seen. Harpreet wears white all the time in his new school, where he sits alone, not making any friends. His parents try to convince him to wear his old favorite colors, but Harpreet wants none of it. One day, however, when he finds a lost hat, and returns it to a girl in his class, it looks like the beginning of a new colorful, fun friendship. This is an interesting story. How often do you find a picture book with a character who is Sikh. Not wanting to move away from what is familiar and comfortable, though, is a common problem for kids, but when cultural and religious differences come into play, it makes the move that much harder for them. The text is brief and straightforward, but it is in Marley's colorful illustrations that readers will notice Harpreet's challenges - the odd looks he gets  because of his lunch of chapati and dal her, the difficulty at spelling his name on class party invitations. Be sure to read the back matter which includes A Note From Simran Jeet Singh, a scholar of Sikhism, on the importance of Sikh men covering their heads as part of their religion.

Mr. Posey's New Glasses by Ted Kooser,
illustrated by Daniel Duncan
Candlewick Press, 2019, 40 pages
Most people have routines and their lives begin to take on the feeling of sameness. That's OK, but sometimes people need to look at their lives through new eyes. That's the premise of this book, but as one of my young readers pointed out it's also about friends. It begins when Mr. Posey wakes up one morning and decides his dull, boring life needs a new pair of glasses. And so he invites his young friend and neighbor Andy along on a trip to the Cheer Up Thrift Shop to see if they can find a pair of glasses through which Mr. Posey can get a different perspective of his world. After rejecting pair after pair, Mr. Posey puts his old glasses on, just as Andy asks him if he could buy him a wheel. But when Mr. Posey can't see what Andy has, his friend tells him to clean his glasses, and voila! clean glasses are just the thing needed to make Mr. Posey's life less dull and boring. They buy the wheel instead of glasses, and have lots of fun with it on their way home. I liked this story on so many levels. First there's the intergenerational aspect and the way Andy and elderly Mr. Posey get along so well. Then there's the fact that Mr. Posey is white and Andy appears to be African American and it's just a fact of who they are. And third, I liked the idea that we all have the power within ourselves to look at life differently. The digitally created illustrations are fun and very expressive, especially when the two friends are trying on glasses.

written and illustrated by Mark Teague
Beach Lane Books, 2019, 40 pages
Mama bird has been bringing juicy worms to her fledgling long enough and now it's time for her baby bird to learn to fly and find his own worms. After a bit of a temper tantrum, the little bird gives flying a try but falls to the ground. Mama bird is determined her chick will learn to fly, while baby adamantly refuses to give flying another chance and instead comes up with all kinds of ideas that will get him airborne without his having to do any work. It's clear that mama isn't buying any of those ideas. Next, she tells him that when autumn comes, they need to fly south to Florida, and again baby comes up with ideas to get him there without flying. Mama warns him about hungry dogs and cats who might find a baby bird a fun toy or a tasty treat, but it's the threat of an owl that finally gets him out of the nest and flapping his wings. Next thing baby bird knows, he's finally airborne on his own and can fly. There is finally peace in the nest, and Mama and baby are happily together again. This is a wordless picture book that uses pictures in the speech bubbles in place of words and it works beautifully. My kids each took a turn telling the story using just the illustrations and had so much fun doing it. The message is clear, and the acrylic illustrations are just lovely. This is a book my young readers want to return to again and again.

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