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Deborah Underwood Does it Again with Reading Beauty

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I remember being wowed when I read Interstellar Cinderella by Deborah Underwood and illustrated by Meg Hunt (Chronicle Books, 2015). Often rhyme in picture books reads choppily, but reading Interstellar Cinderella aloud was a breeze from the first try. Then of course there was all the cleverness in adapting the story to a futuristic space setting, and showcasing Cinderella as a girl who knows what she wants and where she’s going – no prince charming necessary. It’s an empowering tale for girls.

The dynamic team has done it again with Reading Beauty (Chronicle Books, 2019) in which a princess named Lex is most content – as is the whole planetoid – when reading a book. But as we soon learn, she too was cursed by a fairy at birth, doomed to get a paper cut at age 15 and fall into a deep sleep; a spell only broken by the kiss of a prince. Well, Lex is having nothing of that scenario, and sets about to break the curse on her own. In the process, she discovers a secret burden her curse-making fairy foe has been carrying all these years, and sets about making everything end well. Especially when it comes to being able to read. I love it. Reading Beauty is so much fun to read aloud. It’s clever too and I hope it gets many reluctant readers to pick up a book and discover its magic.

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Rain, Rain, Rain Forest

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A rich story, fascinating facts and the colorful collages of Steve Jenkins all work together to make Rain, Rain, Rain Forest by Brenda Z. Guiberson (Henry Holt and Company, 2004) a magical read. In it we follow a few days in a rainforest seeing what the animals do to find food and water along with their relationship with the plants around them. For example, poison dart frogs that make sure their tadpoles are in the water pools of bromeliads. The cast of characters are not introduced on a page and then forgotten in a typical nonfiction style. We see them again and again as the day unfolds, especially the sloth. I learned a lot about sloths – each individual a slow-motion ecosystem in a bundle.

I love too the rich vocabulary and sense of story used to tell all these fascinating facts. I’ve had two manuscript critiques in recent years that distressed me when the editor said that I shouldn’t use a particular word because the reader wouldn’t understand it. Isn’t this the point of reading? Not, of course to face a text in which little is understood, but instead to be in the grips of a good story and come across a new word. Oh! What does that mean? And the best word building can come when the reader is reading with a special adult. This is why picture books should not dumb down content or vocabulary. They are meant to be shared and explored.

In one manuscript I used the word trawl and the editor wrote, “I’m not sure kids would be familiar with this word.” In another, the word male was given the same sort of comment. I ignored these comments in my revisions. I have confidence that children can handle these words.

Guiberson also has this confidence in children. Rain, Rain, Rain Forest is full of delightful words like thrums, deluge, crevice, digests, porous, squabble, trickles, bask, debris – nearly every page has a rich and likely unfamiliar word. They add to the imagery and the story; they make the book narrative nonfiction rather than a dry telling of facts.

Rain, Rain, Rain Forest begins with rain and a sloth. It ends with a rainstorm and the sloth. In between is a wonderful story that leaves us with a vivid sense of life in a rainforest

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A New Take on a Favorite Subject

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Who doesn’t love a dinosaur book? I used to know the names of many kinds of dinosaurs when my children were young and fascinated by these large extinct animals. In Dinosaur Feathers by Dennis Nolan (Neal Porter Books, 2019) the reader is treated to an amazing array of dinosaur species beautifully illustrated. The rhyming text is no small feat once Nolan gets to the actual dinosaur names, after giving some general background information. The design layout reminds me of a timeline, which is fitting when we talk about geologic ages and dinosaurs, and it is especially fitting for what happens after the dinosaurs died. For that’s not the end of the book!

Dinosaur Feathers, as you might guess from the title, goes on to show the rise of birds and portrays them in the same design layout as the dinosaurs. I really get the sense of moving through time, as if I’m seeing evolution happen, though I know the evolution did not happen in such a linear fashion. Even still, I like the effect. And for any young reader who is sad that dinosaurs are extinct, this book helps them find solace and hopefully joy in the myriad of feathered dinosaur relations all around us.

Dinosaur Feathers goes beyond most books about dinosaurs. It is a tribute to our fascination about them, and it helps us celebrate the dinosaurs that fly among us today.

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Queen of Physics: A Portrayal of Courage and Perseverance

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Wu Chien Shiung was a woman of many firsts yet, until now I’d not heard of her. Thanks to Teresa Robeson, author of Queen of Physics: How Wu Chien Shiung Helped Unlock the Secrets of the Atom (illustrated by Rebecca Huang and published by Sterling Children’s Books, 2019) I now know this courageous, curious and driven woman. I hope this book travels far and wide so that the world knows about her too.

Chien Shiung’s name means ‘courageous hero,’ a name bestowed by her also courageous parents who were opening a school for girls at a time when girls were not expected or encouraged to go to school. Chien Shiung rose to the challenge of her namesake over and over in her incredible life.

There is a lot to pack into this book. Robeson does a wonderful job fitting it all in and making it flow well. She tracks Chien Shiung’s life from birth to the prime of her career as the Queen of Physics. We see how strong Chien Shiung’s character is from an early age. Robeson gives us physics details of this woman’s work and career in an approachable manner, and yet throughout there is still a lyrical quality to the prose that helps cement just how determined Chien Shiung was, and makes for delightful reading at the same time. Huang’s illustrations augment the prose as we watch Chien Shiung grow up, resolute in all she did, yet still just like us with desires and regrets – a sure way to connect young readers and empower them to be brave in their lives.

Queen of Physics is a book that will engage both audiences for which picture book authors have to target – children and adults. It has something for everyone whether one’s interest is history, women’s rights, science or biographies, or just a delightful story of courage.

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How Do YOU Dance?

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My daughter is the Artistic Director of a local dance studio and she uses picture books in her young creative movement classes. So when I saw How Do You Dance? By Thyra Heder (Abrams Books for Young Readers, 2019), I borrowed if for her. I’m glad I read it before passing it on. It’s great!

Heder delightfully illustrated seemingly countless ways to move, but the main character is reticent. He repeatedly asserts that he does not dance. Not even silly names for moves can move this kid: not the jiggle, the scribble, the scoot or the toodle. The dancing antics get crazier as the narrator tries to get this boy to show us how he dances. We are left hanging until the last page. I was pleasantly surprised – not suspecting how it would end. And nope, I am not telling you. You’ll have to read the book.

How Do You Move? is fun and silly. I dare you to not want to jump up and start moving after you read it. I’m pretty sure my daughter will want to read this one with her class!

If you like this book, I also recommend The Bear Report by Thyra Heder, and my accompanying lesson plan.

 

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Sea Bear

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Sea Bear: A Journey for Survival by Lindsay Moore (Greenwillow Books, 2019) is a story of the polar bear’s life cycle – a life cycle full of patience and waiting – told from the perspective of a female polar bear. It is not however, anthropomorphic. Rather, the text is lovely and lyrical and paced in a manner that parallels the slow pace of a polar bear’s life.

The subtitle – a journey for survival – made me expect a discussion of climate change’s effect on melting sea ice and therefore the problems less sea ice presents to polar bears. Instead, the journey for survival and the waiting for sea ice after a long summer is already, and always has been, a yearly concern. The discussion of climate change happens in the back matter, and the effect is sobering. To know that polar bears already struggle to find food in normal summers with thin ice, makes it heartbreaking to realize what this means when ice remains thin or melts completely for longer stretches of time, which is already happening.

This book is a lovely way to present polar bear information. It also makes a great starting point to have a discussion about climate change. Other animals in the polar bear’s world are explored in the back matter. It would be wonderful to research them as an extension to a discussion on the effects of a warming planet on artic life.

Lindsay writes that she “wanted to give polar bears a voice and tell the story of their remarkable relationship with the ocean and with sea ice.” I think she has succeeded magnificently.

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Lion and Mouse Revisited

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I loved Aesop’s Fables when I was a child. I still have my copy gifted to me by my neighbors in 1973. To my young and impressionable mind, the fables were lessons I took to heart. Of course picture books these days are not supposed to spell out any lessons for us. No moral platitudes allowed. Lion and Mouse by Jairo Buitrago and illustrated by Rafael Yockteng (Groundwood Books, 2019) not only tells us a story based on The Lion and the Mouse by Aesop, it goes beyond Aesop’s story without ever preaching a lesson to us. It’s quite lovely.

The first half of the book is indeed a retelling of the original. But after the mouse rescues the lion from a hunter’s trap, the story takes on a freshness all its own. There’s even a page where the mouse and the lion have an exchange that practically mocks the original lesson – no act of kindness, no matter how small, is ever wasted. This application of the original story sort of implies that there will be a return favor; hence one’s kindness is not wasted. Lion does act kind to mouse after mouse rescues him, but not because he’s keeping tabs. And here is where the second half of the story is new and delightful. I won’t give away any more so it’s sweet and fresh to you too. Lion and Mouse is a story we all need to emulate.