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Praline Lady

I don’t have a big sweet tooth. I almost always gravitate toward a salty snack rather than a sweet one. The chocolate bars that state they contain 2.5 servings can last me for at least 8. However, there are two sweet treats that I lose willpower with – Polish cows (see illustration below) and pralines. So, it was fun and informative to read Praline Lady by Kirstie Myvett and Illustrated by Kamekp Madrere (Pelican Publishing 2020).

Praline Lady is a look into the life of a woman who sells pralines in New Orleans in the nineteenth century. Free women of color were able to earn a living selling goods such as flowers, fruits and pralines in the French Quarter. The author’s note states that it was possible for enslaved women to earn their freedom by selling pralines or other homemade goods. It was refreshing to read a snippet of little-known history – of female entrepreneurship.

Myvett’s text and Madrere’s watercolor illustrations marry well to show readers a hard-working woman in the midst of a bustling city. There are new words to learn, which are defined on the back matter page. It’s a sweet story (pun intended) that introduces young readers to a culture and time period that might be unfamiliar to them. I firmly believe exposure to other cultures and travel are two activities that help to create kind and tolerant adult citizens. Reading books together is such an easy and lovely way to start.

Young readers might have some questions about the history – there is a paragraph in the back explaining briefly about Praline Ladies – and I love when books can start conversations. Of course, one question that might be asked is where to get pralines now or how to make them. In case that question is asked, I’ve included a link to a recipe. It also gives a brief nod to praline’s original French version that included almonds and hazelnuts. I am so glad for the New Orleans adaptation of pecans!

I hope you enjoy Praline Lady as much as I have, whether you’ve a sweet tooth or a sweet spot for good books.

Polish Cows as I always called them, were a favorite treat in my Christmas stocking. I hate to admit it, but as a child I could eat a whole pound in a day. Now they are an even rarer treat that my sister can get me in Pittsburgh. I am proud to say I can make the pound last a month. On a trip to Poland a few years ago, I searched every grocery we passed and never found them. Good for my waistline; sad for my sense of nostalgia.

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A Cover Reveal!

Hello! I hope this post finds you easing into the new year with hope and good health. I don’t have a book review this time because I’ve not been to the library for a month between holiday happenings (all at home of course) and final formatting of my newest book! I am happy to announce the release of another narrative nonfiction picture book, Oyster Matters: A Keystone Species Story.

When I first left teaching to pursue writing, I had no idea I’d ever self-publish a book. It seemed too daunting. But so much of life is daunting until you try, and now I find myself with four self-published books and one traditionally published book, which I might add was just as daunting a process. Am I destined to only self-publish? I don’t know. I plan to keep trying both paths and to keep learning the craft. I wonder where I’ll be in this journey in another eight years, but I’m in no hurry to get there.

Oyster Matters: A Keystone Species Story is the third book I’ve created that looks at ecological connections. It traces the abundance, decimation and restoration of oyster populations due to overharvesting by humans. As with the other Matters books, it uses the familiar phrase But that’s not all, which guides young readers to realize ways in which life cycles, food chains, and actions we take are all connected.* Each book presents a different ecological concept making them useful for parents and teachers alike to expose young readers to our amazing and complex world. This one has the most back matter of the three, adding even more depth and content. The main difference with this third book is that it is not illustrated by the very talented Betty Gatewood. I loved working with Betty for the first two Matters books and we are good friends. However, I felt the need to learn how to illustrate myself in case I do end up mainly or exclusively on the self-published path. And because I have always wanted to learn to draw and paint.

The Hidden Life in Steams, which came out a year ago, was illustrated by me, but from photos that were digitally altered. Oyster Matters has my watercolor paintings with a wet-on-wet process and is compiled digitally. My goal is to vastly improve my painting skills for future books – and I recently started an online class that is moving me forward.

I have been touched in so many ways by the support of my readers since Milkweed Matters and Oliver’s Otter Phase first hit the shelves and by the encouragement before and in-between books. If you choose to check out Oyster Matters, I would love to hear what you or your child thinks, and I love to write back to readers who write to me. Thank you in advance and best wishes for a peaceful and healthy year.

You can purchase a copy here.

If you’re local and would like a signed copy, please email me at connors.halcyon@gmail.com

*This letter was received by Betty and is a beautiful testiment to why I write.

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Owl Moon

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You don’t need a Pa or a Grandpa who is an expert at owling to enjoy Owl Moon by Jane Yolen and illustrated by John Schoenherr (Philomel Books, 1987). It’s a lyrical and engaging story of a girl getting to join her father for the first time, to look for owls, on a bright winter night. I heard Jane Yolen speak at the SCBWI Summer Spectacular virtual conference. She said she was a poet first, and that is how she thinks of her picture books, as poems, because they need to be short and they need to be lyrical enough that the reader comes back to it over and over.

Owl Moon is indeed a lyrical read. It’s is also a sensory journey. I feel the anticipation of the main character, I feel the excitement, the cold nipping at her nose and toes and I feel like I am walking with them in the cold. Perhaps it is because I have experienced that magical feeling of anticipation and of also walking after a snowfall or during a crisp moonlit night. But I think most readers will also be transported.

Owl Moon has me planning a late winter walk – as soon as we get a good snowfall – and even if we don’t. I want to be that child full of expectation and honor (old enough to get to go) feeling totally alive in the wild night. Until then, I can return to Owl Moon over and over and be transported in my mind.

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Children Matter

Any avid reader or writer of books for young children would have to be living under a rock to not know about and understand #we need diverse books and the current (and necessary) movement to decolonize our bookshelves, our assumptions, our minds. There are many picture books geared at empowering BIPOC children – letting them know they matter. I wanted to showcase two recent ones that are well done, contain similar messages, both start with a definition of matter, yet focus the narrative differently.

All Because You Matter by Tami Charles and Illustrated by Caldecott Honor Winner Bryan Collier (Orchard Books, 2020) is a beautiful love poem from a black mother to her child. Written in a way that speaks to any black child, it inspires hope and confidence. I think it would be best for 7-10-year-olds because it does refer to hearing and worrying about racism on the news or in a classroom, which a younger child may not understand. Then again, unfortunately, they may. The illustrations are powerful and evocative and match the strong and lyrical message of every child’s importance.

You Matter by Christian Robinson – a writer and also Caldecott Honor illustrator (atheneum books, 2020) takes a broader look at why at any one time a reader might struggle with whether they matter. For example, if you feel too small, or overlooked, or others are too busy to help or you are always last. No matter what, you matter.  The acrylic and collage illustrations are characteristic of Robinson’s style and often invite pondering. This book is perhaps able to appeal more easily to the youngest picture book readers.

I believe both books should be shared with all kinds of readers, young and old, BIPOC and white because a world full of confident, empowered children grow up to be adults that matter to their families and communities and to a future that is equitable to all. I hope you’ll help spread them and their messages around.

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A Garden in Your Belly

I get ideas for picture books all the time. Or, more accurately I want to write about a certain idea, but have no idea how to orchestrate it. Since our world is full of parallel ideas, I often come across someone who has figured it out before me and often too, better than I could have imagined. Such is the case with A Garden in Your Belly: Meet the Microbes in Your Gut by Masha D’Yans (Millbrook Press, 2020).

A Garden in Your Belly doesn’t shy away from science terms like microbes, microscopic, microbial, etc. as it shouldn’t, but the books is accessible to the very young because of the adorable and animated images of microbes combined with relatable references to rivers, gardens, pollution and good food. It gives young readers a general background of what these microbes are that live in our gut, but more importantly explains how we can take care of them. This book is a great way to introduce the importance of healthy eating to children, but I suspect there will be some great concepts for adults to learn too. Especially, in the equally delightful back matter.

I read I Contain Multitudes: The Microbes within Us and a Grander View of Life by Ed Yong several years ago and I was fascinated.  If such science fascinates you too, or you just want your young reader to eat their peas, then The Garden in Your Belly is a delightful mix of whimsy and facts sure to please.

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The Boy and the Gorilla

Grief and loss are a part of life, but we often have trouble talking about it. I have two manuscripts I have written that deal with death – one with an animal character couched in the science of life cycles (a common theme of mine) and one with human characters who have a special bond. I have written these because I wish our culture talked more openly about death, and I will be thrilled if they ever get picked up by a publisher. Until then, I revise, submit, repeat.

I was delighted to find The Boy and the Gorilla by Jackie Azúa Kramer and illustrated by Cindy Derby Candlewick Press, 2020).  The boy in the story has just lost his mom and sorts his feelings out by talking to a large, but not at all scary gorilla. The imaginary gorilla is a twist on the elephant in the room, but also a solution as the gorilla allows the boy to process his thoughts and questions about death. I have no idea why Kramer and Derby chose a gorilla, but Derby’s beautiful illustrations succeed in casting him as kind, patient and wise. He gently guides the boy toward sharing his grief with his father.  I cannot get through the book without tearing up – it happens on the page where the gorilla holds the father and son together. I love too that there is no mention of a heaven, making this book accessible to all readers – to help all readers with the process of continuing to live in the here and now while terribly missing someone.

The Boy and the Gorilla is a beautiful tribute to love and loss, to the living and the dead, and should be read and discussed not only when someone dies, but before.

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111 Trees

111 Trees: How One Village Celebrated the Birth of Every Girl by Rina Singh and Marianne Ferrer (Kids Can Press, 2020) is the true story of Shyam Sundar Paliwal and how he convinced his village to plant trees transforming it from a desert state (due to industrial deforestation) to a forest full of food and water, animals and life. I thought from the title that over time 111 trees were planted, imagining a very small village and a tree planted for every girl. Of course, 111 trees cannot make a forest and my initial thought was naïve. Sundar planted not one, but 111 trees for EVERY girl born in his village. However, these trees are just part of the picture.

Sundar became an eco-feminist because of his ideas that girls should be welcomed and honored as much as boys when they are born and throughout their lives. He set up a sort of contract with the villagers that ensured monies for education for girls and very importantly, that they could not be married until they were 18. “The family and the entire community also had to ensure that the 111 trees remained healthy and grew along with the girl.” I am just awed by this story and the conviction of one man to make such monumental changes. Sundar has transformed individual girl’s lives, his community’s values and culture, the financial stability of his community and the landscape. It all started because of the love of his family and the love of trees.

111 Trees: How One Village Celebrated the Birth of Every Girl is the most inspiring book I have read in a long time. The connections that occurred because of the trees and the commitment to girls have rippled out to other Indian communities. You can read more about Sundar here, but I hope that you will share 111 Trees with the special young readers in your life. And maybe even plant some trees too.

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Evelyn Del Ray is Moving Away

I had the pleasure of hearing a keynote address by Meg Medina back in October via zoom (sigh) and the Mid-Atlantic SCBWI conference. Meg is delightful to listen to – down-to-earth and able to share with writers without any hint of superiority despite her successes.  And so, while I have a small audience of readers, I wanted to review her newest picture book as a small way of saying thank you – and of course, I only review picture books I like.

Evelyn Del Ray is Moving Away illustrated by Sonia Sánchez (Candlewick 2020) zooms in to take a detailed look at the day when Daniela’s best friend Evelyn is moving. A day just like any other day, except for the end. In between we get to see how Evelyn and Daniela play, allowing for readers to compare how they play with their best friend, see how others play, see children of color playing – all important for broadening their worldview. Of course, the book is also perfect for helping a child who has to move away or has a best friend moving away. The last page offers a glimpse of an older Daniela who still holds a special place in her heart for Evelyn, her first best friend.

Evelyn Del Ray is Moving Away takes a sad event and turns it around. Yes, having a friend move away is still a sad event, but this book, by focusing on the strength of their relationship reminds us that sadness need not dictate our days and that we can carry our friends with us always.

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Found.

I have always struggled with graphic novels and wordless picture books. I need words. It’s the same with music; if I can’t add/hear/know the words there is little interest for me to keep listening. I have not tried to figure out why this is so with me; it just is. But I have tried to read graphic novels over the years and have enjoyed some. Still, I don’t gravitate toward them.

I was struck by the cover of Found. By Jeff Newman and Larry Day (Simon & Schuster, 2018). I love the pen and ink with limited color palette and leafed through it. Oh no, no words! But I brought it home and am glad I found Found.

Found. is a sweet story of a girl whose dog is missing. Her sadness is clear without any words. Then, she finds a stray dog and they fall in love with each other. Their happiness is obvious in the full-color spread showing their antics. Again, no words necessary. I will not divulge what happens, only to say the book is full of loss also, making it a bittersweet and beautiful book. I think too, because there are no words, I have found myself rereading it to glean details I might have missed – a lesson I should do more with many picture books.

Found. is one of those picture books I would put on a list titled Magical. I hope it brings a little magic to you too.

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Stolen Words

A little over a year ago, back when we could safely travel, I got to tag-along with my husband to a conference in Phoenix. While there, I visited the Heard Museum and encountered their long-running Boarding School Exhibit. It was a painful experience. I found myself sobbing quietly as I read the quotes mixed with the images. There are things humans think and do that I will never comprehend. So, when a cover image of Stolen Words by Melanie Florence and illustrated by Gabrielle Grimard (Second Story Press, 2017) popped into my Instagram feed one day, I knew I needed a copy.

Stolen Words is the story of a young girl who asks her Grandpa how to say grandfather in Cree. When she discovers he doesn’t know, she learns the story of how his culture, words and very soul were taken by the actions of white teachers when he had to attend a “school away from home.” There is so much love conveyed in the colorful illustrations of granddaughter and grandfather. And so much pain conveyed in the gray tones of the school scenes. I can’t read it without tearing up. But the girl brings home a language book of Cree from school and together she and Grandpa start to bring back his words.

At the end of the book there is annotated dictionary of the six Cree words used in the story and also a link to a detailed guide for the book. Stolen Words is a powerful reminder of the importance of our culture and our history to our sense of being, of wholeness. I hope this book will be read and shared with all ages as a painful reminder of such atrocities that should never be repeated.