Just what are the pros and cons of being a frog? They’re not what I thought – having just written a book about a boy who wants to be a sea otter – I thought I’d stumbled on another book about animal adaptations. However, The pros and pons of being a frog by Sue deGennaro (A Paula Wiseman Book, Simon &Schuster Books for Young Readers, 2016) is not about animal adaptations at all. It’s about negotiating a new friendship. Everything about this book charmed me: the art, the quirky characters and the message. I’ve already reread it three times.
The cover shows the backs of the (only) characters looking into the book cover, which immediately drew me in. What do they see? By opening the cover, we jump right into their lives with a simple opening line: “Camille and I are quite different.” Sue deGennaro doesn’t need to set the scene to keep us interested; we’re already hooked. What follows is a delightful portrayal of two quirky (and lovable) kids, each a bit shy, developing a friendship, and what they do when an event escalates into a conflict. There’s magic in how the art fills the page and the characters take main stage all the time. I could easily recall being a young child with my own quirks, with my own hopes of finding a friend who’d accept me as I was.
We are coached as picture book authors to leave space for the illustrator as we choose our words. As both author and illustrator, deGennaro creates a beautiful dance between text and illustrations that tell a story for all ages. However, she does even more. I recall a notion not yet articulated to me while studying picture book craft and expressed by Harold Underdown in a workshop I attended in Syracuse, NY last year. He said, “While leaving room for the illustrator, we must also leave room for the reader.” As a teacher, I know that each reader comes to the text with his or her own prior knowledge and therefore gets something different out of it. Harold’s statement shows the role of the writer (and illustrator) in developing a story that allows for reader experience beyond mere interpretation of the text. The pros and cons of being a frog is a beautiful manifestation of these three contributors to a story – writer, illustrator and reader – coming together. I’m off to read it again!
People enjoy making connections in life. Such connections can actually create relationships and make stronger memories. This phenomenon happens with books too. Teachers show young readers about connections they might make with text to help them stay focused and to garner interest in the text: text-to-self, text-to-text, and text-to-world. Just as meeting someone from our hometown is more likely to result in a friendship (or at least a good remembered story) than meeting ‘just anybody,’ so does relating to a book one discovers often make it a favorite.
So I was delighted to immediately connect with A Brave Bear by Sean Taylor and illustrated by Emily Hughes (Candlewick Press, 2016). It only took three words on the end papers before the story even began: EVERYTHING WAS HOT. Those words summed up my summer, especially August moving into September, when I was expecting some cooler days. I even described the air last week as dead. There was no breeze, no hint of rain, our grass is dead and lots of vegetation is senescing earlier than usual. I completely understood how the two bear characters in this book felt. I had to turn the page.
What follows is a delightful story on many accounts. The dialogue between father bear and his son show a loving relationship. I am often frustrated with the current trend in picture books to show the main character as strong and able to solve their problem on their own. This trend is sometimes referred to as kill the parents. While showing kids they can meet their challenges is important, this concept is in contrast to how we try to teach kids to work in teams and to ask for help and guidance. So I like when a mentor is available to the strong main character and A Brave Bear portrays a beautiful guiding balance between parent and child that is nurturing.
The illustrations capture the mood and pull the reader into the pair’s quest to cool off. I found myself relating at times to the parent and other times to the child, a rare feeling while reading a picture book. Finally, the last line is perfect. It’s a statement of hope, not just about the weather, but also about life’s challenges. I won’t tell the ending. I hope you’ll check out this beautiful book, and share it with your special young reader.
Hee Jun likes his ordinary life. But that all changes when his father takes a new job in the United States. All of a sudden Hee Jun is extraordinary, and miserable. In A Piece of Home by Jeri Watts and illustrated by Hyewon Yum (Candlewick Press, 2016,) the reader is treated to a bittersweet story of loss and new beginnings. Watts uses beautiful and often lyrical language to help us see what it is like to be different in a new place. And if the reader is a child like Hee Jun, A Piece of Home is a perfect text-to-reader connection, bringing hope that soon a bit of ordinary will return. Yum’s illustrations are bright and cheery with wonderful facial expressions adding to the real sense of connections that are made while reading this book.
A Piece of Home is a must read book for families looking to instill empathy in their children about how hard it is to immigrate to a new place. The message transfers easily to many different immigrant experiences. When we reach out and make real life connections with diverse people, all our lives can share a bit of the extraordinary, while relishing the ordinary in which we find comfort.