A Notes from the Windowsill annotated bibliography by Wendy E. Betts. Copyright 2005, 2006
A note to our readers: We guarantee that absolutely no payment is accepted from any bookstore, publisher, author or any other agency, for inclusion of a review in Notes from the Windowsill or for any special notice given to any book.
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Dancing Feet written and illustrated by Charlotte Agell. Gulliver, 1994 (0-15-200444-0) $13.95
With a rhyming text so infectiously rhythmic it almost sings, Dancing Feet is a joyous look at what makes people, people. Agell’s striking, fluid pictures show us people from cultures all over the world–different clothes, different hair, different skin–while her verses remind us that despite our many differences, we all have some things in common: feet that walk and dance, arms that hold and hug. There’s not an ounce of preachiness, just a vibrant statement of a beautiful truth. * (2-6)
In My Heart written and illustrated by Molly Bang. Little, Brown, 2006 (0-316-79617-4) $15.99
This exuberant story of parental love uses vivid images to show that when a mom is away from her child, he is still there in her heart–cozily tucked away inside her chest! As she goes to her job as a vet, her young son eats his breakfast and changes his clothes in that ample heart-shaped space. Bang’s illustrations play merrily with sizes, proportions and especially with decorated initials, showing the mom, dad, child and family cat all gloomily separated by a giant W that beings the sentence, “When we’re apart I miss you”; at the end of the book, descriptions of bedtime routines start with a toothpaste A and a watery L. How the family was formed is never menioned in this story, but the dark-skinned child with two blonde, Anglo parents clearly did not arrive by the standard route; the pictures showing the child snuggled inside the mother’s heart have an implicit message that you can carry someone in your heart without ever having carried them in your body. (3-6)
The House from Morning to Night written and illustrated by Daniele Bour. 1978; Kane/Miller, 1985; 1998 (0-916291-85-5) $7.95 pb
Anyone as fascinated by the minutia of dollhouses as I am will love this unusual French book, which, like a dollhouse, removes a wall to show what’s inside a four-story, multiple household house at different times of day. At 6 a.m. we see almost everyone is still asleep, except for a mother starting breakfast and a baker making bread in the boulangerie on the first floor. As the day goes on, the clothes hanging in the attic come down and new ones go up, people come and shop, the baker naps while his wife tends the store, and people use the bathrooms. Precise, folk-art style paintings emphasize the resemblance to a dollhouse, but the book is also an introduction to a way of life rarely seen in American picture books, which still tend to show one family in one house as the standard way of being. A guide on the back helps readers figure out who everyone in the house is. (2-10)
How You Were Born by Joanna Cole. Illustrated by Margaret Miller. 1984; Mulberry, 1994 (0-688-12061-X) $4.95 pb
“It is natural for children to ask ‘why?’ Just as they are curious about how a telephone works or what snow is made of, children also wonder where they came from and how they were born.” And with a little thought and preparation, parents can answer this natural question in a natural way, giving children simple, truthful answers that will not only help prevent misunderstandings that may upset them, but will also reassure them that it’s okay to want to know.
This book is an excellent tool for achieving that goal. Its clear, understandable text describes the basics, from fertilization to birth, concentrating on the aspects that will be of most interest to children–the stages of growth inside the uterus–and avoiding euphemisms without getting confusingly technical. Colored drawings illustrate aspects that would be unclear in photographs–like the sperm and egg cells joining–but most of the book is illustrated with beautiful photos. An unborn baby sucking its thumb will fascinate children, while pictures of different families lovingly preparing for a new baby and helping in a birth are tender and reassuring. (The birth pictures are a lot cleaner than pictures of a real birth would be, presumably because it might be frightening.)
One of the nicest things about How You Were Born is that it is very inclusive. Births happen at a hospital, childbirth center or home, assisted by a doctor or midwife; milk comes from a bottle or breast. Not everyone’s experience can be covered, of course, nor is that necessary–in the introduction, Cole talks about reading the book to her own child and comparing her cesarean birth to what’s described in it, stressing that the important parts of birth–the happy expectations and love–are the same. In describing more than one option for childbirth in this book, Cole avoids setting up a rigid scenario in children’s minds, making it possible for most parents to adapt the book to their situation. The helpful introduction also gives suggestions for adapting it to a child’s different needs at different ages. One thing left out of the book is how the sperm and ovum get together: according to Cole, the youngest children aren’t usually interested in knowing, but parents should still think about how they want to answer that question. A bibliography of suggestions for further reading may be helpful.
Overall, this is a superb book, as enjoyable as it is useful. Sharing it with your children can help make answering “why?” a delightful adventure rather than an embarrassing chore. * (4-8)
My Working Mom by Peter Glassman. Illustrated by Tedd Arnold. Morrow, 1994 (0-688-12259-0) $15.00
“It isn’t easy having a working mom” says a little girl, and you can certainly understand why. Her mom is always flying off to meetings–literally!–or making weird dinners that look like fillet of dragon. This working mom is a bona-fide witch and when she’s had a bad day at work–watch out! But she also makes out-of-this world–also literally–birthday cakes and is a big hit on Career Day. All in all, the little girl decides, “…if I had to choose, I’d keep my mom just the way she is.”
With goofy, richly comic pictures that do justice to the absurd premise, this is a book that will have both children and adults in stitches. The contrast between the ordinary, matter-of-fact text and the outrageous illustrations is utterly hysterical, as we see the mom diligently at work, dropping flies into her big cauldron, or dashing off to a meeting followed by bats and toads. Numerous funny little details make rereading a pleasure, as does the genuine affection that shines through the story. * (3 & up)
Greetings from Sandy Beach written and illustrated by Bob Graham. Kane/Miller, 1992 (0-916291-40-5) $12.95
A little girl’s vacation with her family gets unexpectedly interesting when a schoolbus full of kids and a motorcycle gang called The Disciples of Death show up at the campsite. At first the family is nervous around the strangers–especially the Disciples–but soon everyone is relaxing and enjoying themselves, playing with ice-cream stick boats and writing Gerald’s name in the sand–with Gerald. Told and illustrated with a charmingly low-key humor, this story captures the leisurely passage of time and the neighborly comradeship of a successful camping trip, while subtly conveying a gentle message about tolerance and acceptance. A friendly, quietly joyous book.
“Let’s Get a Pup!” Said Kate written and illustrated by Bob Graham. Candlewick, 2001 (0-7636-1452-1)
Thousands of parents have taken this book to their hearts for its depiction of a mom with a tattoo and a nose ring, but there is plenty more to appreciate in this story about a family choosing a pet. The end of Kate’s bed is lonely since Tiger the cat died last winter, so Kate bounces into her mom and dad’s bed, yelling “Let’s get a pup!” The family finds lots of dogs who need homes at the Rescue Center: “big dogs, small dogs, sniffers and sleepers,” and they finally see… Dave, a perfect brand-new pup.
Then, on their way out with Dave, they see Rosy. Rosy is old and gray and radiates Good Intention, and the family wishes she could find a home with a nice comfy floor or couch or bed to lie on. But when they go home with Dave, despite him being everything a pup should be, neither Kate nor her mom nor her dad can get any sleep that night…
Warm and generous, this is a lovely family story. Graham’s simple lines once again create loveable characters who live in a world usually ignored by picture books; the cheerfully messy house is filled with pictures and photographs, a rock magazine lies open on the floor, and the family dress in jeans and offbeat t-shirts. It’s a world many readers are grateful to finally see acknowledged–especially in such a delightful way. (3-8)
Oscar’s Half Birthday written and illustrated by Bob Graham. Candlewick, 2005 (0-7636-2699-6) $16.99
Graham continues his series of everyday stories that celebrate diversity and real family values. In this book, a city family–a young white dad and black mom, both wearing braids, and their little girl and baby–travel to the closest “country” they can manage, the park. Down a graffiti-covered elevator, under a graffiti-covered bridge they travel, listening to seagulls, a train going by and “the drone of distant traffic.” At the park, everyone is enchanted by the six-month-old Oscar, and soon every picnicer in the park is singing “Happy Bithday to You.” Graham’s light pen & ink and watercolor pictures give gentle charm to the characters and complement the comfortably happy mood. (3-6)
Sweet Baby Coming by Eloise Greenfield; The Baby by Monica Greenfield. Illustrated by Jan Spivey Gilchrist. HarperFestival, 1994 (0-694-00578-9) $4.95 ea.
This extremely appealing series offers a gentle, reassuring look at what it’s like to have a new baby in the house, both before and after it’s born. In Sweet Baby Coming, a mother helps soothe her daughter’s worries about becoming a sister by encouraging her to bond with the unborn baby. The Baby shows what to expect from the newcomer, including eating, crying, yawning and more eating. The illustrations, both featuring black mothers and children, are delicately lovely, showing tender interactions between them; the daughter listening to her mother’s stomach and the baby nursing are particularly charming. Both the text and illustrations are rather sophisticated for board books, appropriate to share with toddlers, although they may be too subtle for babies. *
This Land is Your Land words and music by Woody Guthrie. Illustrated by Kathy Jakobsen. Little, Brown, 1998 (0-316-39215-4) $15.95; 2002 (0-316-06564-1) $19.95 book and CD
“This Land is Your Land” has certainly been illustrated before, but perhaps never as honestly or as movingly as here. A tribute to Woody Guthrie, as well as an illustration of his most popular song, this book does justice to his work as a social activist by including the more sombre and usually censored lyrics (“As they stood there hungry, I stood there asking/Is this land made for you and me?”), as well as images of America that include homeless people and CIO strikers. But like most of the song itself, the mood of the book is generally upbeat, showing that America is a wonderful land that can get even better, if people care enough.
Woody himself is our guide through the verses of the song, walking that ribbon of highway, seeing that endless skyway, in delicate, precise folk-art style paintings. For the many choruses, Jakobsen shows a multitude of American images, from a placid Iowa cornfield to a jewel-like Mardi Gras float; the lavishly designed pages also include framed quotes from Woody and verses of his other songs. Many events from his life are included: one of the most memorable is a scene of Woody playing his guitar, depicted accurately with its slogan, “this machine kills fascists.” If there’s a flaw in the book, it’s that images from the past and present are mixed indiscriminately, making it difficult for us to know if we’re seeing an image as Woody saw it or as it exists today. Dates would have been helpful.
This is a book that will captivate adults interested in folk music, who can enjoy playing spot the folk legend in its pages; an especially satisfying spread shows Woody and many of the folk artists he sang with (Leadbelly, Phil Ochs, Odetta, etc.), while underneath a tribute concert to him includes John Wesley Harding, Country Joe McDonald and Bruce Springsteen. (Both, of course, include Arlo Guthrie and Pete Seeger.) Young readers may not have the same appreciation for this historical reference, but can certainly enjoy the wealth of images and the thoughtfulness the words and illustrations engender.
This edition comes with a CD of nine of Guthrie’s best loved children’s songs, including “Bling-Blang” and “Riding in My Car, ” sung by Guthrie and his son Arlo Guthrie; I think the older recordings by Guthrie have been overdubbed, in order to give a more consistent sound to the CD.
It’s a Baby’s World written and illustrated by Amanda Haley. Little, Brown, 2001 (0-316-34596-2) $12.95
This cheerful book word book concentrates on the familiar sites of a baby or toddler’s life. Each two page spread in pen &ink and watercolor shows items and scenes from a part of the day, from waking up, to lunch time, to going to bed. Lots of different ways of doing things are shown: some babies sit in high chairs, others at the table; some splash in the sink, others in the big tub. Different kinds of families are shown too, though they tend to look pretty much alike, with big round heads and beaming half-circle smiles. It’s nice to see a baby waking up in bed with mommy and daddy, as well as a hugely smiling baby standing up in his crib, but I wish the book showed a baby breastfeeding, not just one having a bottle. (10 months-2)
All the Colors of the Earth written and illustrated by Sheila Hamanaka. Morrow, 1994 (0-688-11131-9) $15.00; Mulberry, 1999 (0-688-17062-5) $4.95 pb
A richly loving and exuberantly joyous celebration, All the Colors of the Earth reveals the beauty and magic to be found in every child. A lyrical, evocative text joins perfectly with imaginative illustrations, creating wondrous, strong, and beautiful visual metaphors for the many colors of human skin. For love, as it reminds us, “comes in cinnamon, walnut, and wheat, love is amber and ivory and ginger and sweet.” Each illustration is uniquely appealing: light glows in the faces of an interracial couple tenderly holding their baby, two little girls leap into the air as they run, vibrant with life and freedom. Unlike some well-meaning but ponderous stories, the simplicity and vigor of both text and pictures make this book’s message seem as natural as sunshine. * (4-8)
Lilly’s Purple Plastic Purse written and illustrated by Kevin Henkes. Greenwillow, 1996 (0-688-12897-1) $15.00
Few picture book characters are as wonderfully human as Henkes’ mouse-girl Lilly, last seen as a disgusted older sister in Julius, the Baby of the World . Now Lilly is starting school, and absolutely loving it–the pointy pencils, the squeaky chalk, the way her boots go clickety-clickety-clack down the hallways. Most of all, Lilly loves her teacher, Mr. Slinger. Perfectly realized by Henkes, Mr. Slinger is the epitome of everyone’s favorite, hip teacher, from his “artistic shirts” to his Birkenstocks, and Lilly is the epitome of infatuated student who always raises her hand, stays after school to clap erasers and wants to be a teacher when she grows up. But when Lilly disrupts the class by showing off her new musical purse and Mr. Slinger takes it away, she impulsively seeks revenge, drawing a picture of “Big Fat Mean Mr. Stealing Teacher!” Soon Lilly is overcome with remorse–but can she make things right again?
As in Henkes’ other books featuring mice-children, Lilly’s Purple Plastic Purse derives most of its humor from the honesty of its depiction of childhood emotions, positive and negative. Lilly is nothing if not self-expressive, and both text and illustrations do full justice to her dynamic personality. In one marvelously drawn series of scenes, Lilly finds the kind note Mr. Slinger put in her purse before returning it; as she reads it, her tail stands straight up, the musical notes coming from the purse become jangled, and she grows smaller and smaller. Later, when Lilly decides to punish herself by sitting in “the uncooperative chair,” we see her mood inevitably change from self-sacrifice to self-pity to fretful boredom. Readers of all ages will recognize a little of themselves in Lilly, empathize with both her ebullience and her misery and rejoice in the happy ending. * (4-8)
The Seven Silly Eaters by Mary Ann Hoberman. Illustrated by Marla Frazee. Browndeer/Harcourt Brace, 1997 (0-15-200096-8) $15.00; 2000 (0-15-202440-9) $6.00 pb
Mrs. Peters and her husband love lots of kids… but as their family grows, so do her problems. Because every single one of the seven young Peters is an absolutely impossibly picky eater: Peter only likes warm milk, Lucy will only drink pink lemonade (homemade), Mac will only eat oatmeal–and if it has a single lump, he dumps it on the cat! Mrs. Peters is wearing herself to a frazzle cooking for them all. Then one day, all seven of the Peters children try to make their mom a birthday surprise of all the foods they love best–and the result is a wonderful dish that solves all their eating problems. This gleefully silly rhyming story is a delight for picky eaters and easy eaters alike, the only moral being that the whole family learns to help make their meals, and leave Mrs. Peters some time to play her cello. Crisp pen & ink and watercolor illustrations show a casual, comfortable-looking family in a home that reflects the realities of living with seven kids, with toys scattered around, laundry that sometimes piles up and bathroom doors that aren’t always closed; the children’s room, completely filled by two beds, two cribs, bunk beds and a loft, is a particularly funny touch. (4-8)
Boundless Grace by Mary Hoffman. Illustrated by Caroline Binch. Dial, 1995 (0-8037-1715-6) $14.99
It’s been four years since readers were first introduced to the wonderful Amazing Grace, and this longer, more serious sequel finds Grace a little older and her life a little more complicated. Grace still loves stories, but now she’s starting to wonder why her family–her, Ma, Nana and Paw-Paw the cat–isn’t like any of the families she reads about. “Our family’s not right,” she tells Nana, “We need a father and a brother and a dog.” “Families are what you make them,” says Nana, but Grace is still confused. Then her father sends sends tickets for her to visit him in Africa, and Grace is afraid she won’t fit in with his second family: his new wife and children “make a storybook family without me. I’m one girl too many.” But as she spends time with her new family, tells stories to her brother and sister and has fun choosing the cloth for her first African dress, Grace discovers the truth of Nana’s words.
Radiantly illustrated, Grace once again comes to life as a very real and very appealing girl. The new characters and details of African life are also carefully and lovingly depicted. Although it doesn’t express the same joyously imaginative spirit as Amazing Grace, Boundless Grace is a warm, thoroughly wholesome story in its own right.
Sunday Week by Dinah Johnson. Illustrated by Tyrone Geter. Henry Holt, 1999 (0-8050-4911-8) $15.95
A singing text and rich pastel illustrations guide readers through the week as it’s lived in a devout black community. Monday, the whole neighborhood has the blues; the grown-ups don’t want to go to work and the children don’t want to go to school. Things start to look up Tuesday when the double Dutch champions practice, “stepping quick, stepping high/as the rest of the world passes by.” Wednesday is choir practice at Lovely Hill Baptist Church. But Sunday is the most special day: “the church bells/make it sound like/heaven is right here.” Johnson’s lyrical text conveys the pleasures and small excitements of a happy routine, from the first Sunday prayer to the last slice of pie. For some, this will be a revelatory introduction to an unfamiliar way of life; for others, an affirmation of the richness of their world. (4-8)
Trevor’s Story by Bethany Kandel. Photographed by Carol Halebian. Lerner, 1997 (0-8225-2583-6)
An honest and likeable, albeit occasionally implausible, narrative voice offers a firsthand look at what it’s like to grow up biracial. Trevor, whose ancestors include slaves on one side and grandparents who were married under a picture of Hitler on the other, certainly has an interesting story to tell, and he voices his feelings straightforwardly: “The hard thing about being biracial is that you may get teased and you may be asked to choose between being black and being white. I don’t want to choose.” Well designed photographs of Trevor with his family emphasize the ways they are similar to all families, as well as the ways they are unique. (8-12)
Nina Bonita by Ana Maria Machado. Illustrated by Rosana Fara. Kane/Miller, 1996 (0-916291-63-4) $9.95
Nina Bonita is a beautiful little Brazilian girl, with eyes “like two shiny black olives” and skin as dark and glossy as “a panther in the rain.” Her neighbor, a white rabbit with pink ears, thinks that Nina Bonita is the loveliest person he’s ever seen and longs to have a daughter just like her–but when he asks Nina for the secret that makes her skin so dark and pretty, Nina makes a few wild guesses, with some pretty silly results for the rabbit, who tries spilling ink on himself, drinking coffee, and eating blackberries until he can barely move. Finally Nina’s mother decides to set things straight, telling the rabbit that Nina looks just like her grandmother. With that in mind, the white rabbit finds a lovely black rabbit to marry and soon has a delightful family of every color and shade.
Originally published in Brazil, Nina Bonita brings a carefree simplicity to the subjects of skin color and multi-racial families that few American books can match. It may in fact seem overly simplistic to an American audience, but I found it rather relaxing to see the volatile issues treated so matter-of-factly, like a glimpse of an ideal world. The illustrations amply justify the rabbit’s viewpoint, showing an exquisitely beautiful girl with a cloud of smoky hair, whose dark skin glows richly amid the pastel background showing life in Brazil.
Everywhere Babies by Susan Meyers. Illustrated by Marla Frazee. Red Wagon, 2004 (0-15-205315-8) $6.95 board
This wonderfully happy celebration of babies, from birth to a first birthday, is sure to bring a smile to a a parent’s face. A spirited rhyming text describes the many things babies do, every day, everywhere: get fed, get carried, play games and most importantly be loved, “for trying to hard, for travelling so far, for being so wonderful… just as they are.” (This last shows a birthday baby blissfully smearing cake all over herself.) Pen & ink and watercolor illustrations show a pleasingly diverse group of babies, all with their own personalities; my favorite picture shows second-by-second action of one new toddler wobbling forward, falling down and pulling himself up to start all over again. The family groups are diverse too, including racially mixed families, some same-sex couples and a breastfeeding mom conked in a rocking chair. How delightful to find a book that presents diversity in such an attractive and enjoyable form. * (6 months-3)
The White Swan Express by Jean Davies Okimoto and Elaine M. Aoki. Illustrated by Meilo So. Clarion, 2002 (0-618-16453-7) $16.00
On one side of the world, four Chinese baby girls are snuggling, burping, smiling and yawning in their orphanage cribs. Meanwhile, in four different cities in the North America, four very different families, including a lesbian couple and a single woman, awake to the same wonderful realization: that this is the day they will travel to China to meet their new daughters.
This joyfully touching story describes the international adoption process in terms that are meaningful to both children and adults, showing the immense amount of preparation made–“diapers and baby carriers, knitted hats and blankets… bibs and baby food, and booties and warm sweaters”–as well as the hopes and fears of the people who will soon be new parents. So’s watercolor illustrations have an appropriately Chinese feel, while giving the families distinctly Western personalities. (4 & up)
Welcome With Love by Jenni Overend. Illustrated by Julie Vivas. Kane/Miller, 2000 (0-916291-96-0) $15.95
Vivas, who so beautifully drew the very pregnant Mary in The Nativity, here shows a pregnant woman in labor and birth. Little kid Jack describes how the family prepares for the birth of Mum’s new baby: big sisters Bea and Janie make a giant bed by the fire, Anna the midwife spreads her equipment out, and Jack helps Mum put out the baby clothes, “socks tiny enough to fit on my thumb.”
Words and pictures both capture the physical intensity of birth, as Mum labors hard, the head finally appears, and the baby is born. At the end of the long night, Jack cuddles in with Dad and tells the baby goodnight, on his first night in the world.
This is a lovely, authentic telling of a home birth, with warm, muted pictures that are not exactly realistic, but very real in their expressions and body language. In that same vein, Vivas leaves out some of the scarier, gorier aspects of birth–the newborn is exceptionally clean–but you’re left feeling that she’s left in everything that really matters, especially the exquisite sight of the new mother on her knees, tenderly clasping the baby who is still attached to her by the placenta. (5 & up)
The Mommy Book; The Daddy Book written and illustrated by Todd Parr. Little, Brown, 2002 (0-316-60827-0; 0-316-60799-1) $14.95 each
As you might expect from the author of It’s Okay to Be Different, these cheerful picture books show all different kinds of mommies and daddies: “Some mommies have short hair, some mommies have big hair.” “Some daddies wear suits, some daddies wear two different socks.” (How nice to see my son’s daddy immortalized!) The things all mommies and daddies have in common? They like to watch you sleep, they love to kiss and hug you, and they want you to be who you are! Not exactly multicultural, these childlike, super-bright, and boldly-outlined illustrations show people of all different colors; I think the purple kid with the yellow and red spiked hair, at the end of The Daddy Book, is my favorite. (1-4)
The Family Book written and illustrated by Todd Parr. Little, Brown, 2003 (0-316-73896-4) $15.95
This follow-up to The Mommy Book and The Daddy Book is slightly more serious in tone and messages, reminding us that not only do all families like to hug each other, but that “all families are sad when they lose someone they love.” But no Parr book could be too serious, not when it’s filled to brim with brightly colored illustrations. Parr has extra fun this time by showing both human and animal families: naturally, the big family is made up of rabbits, and a family in which everyone eats different things is a dog, a cat and a rabbit. There’s also a mixed-race stepfamily, a multicolored group of two mom/two dad families, and families as small as one dad with a baby. I was especially tickled by the hilarious illustration of “some families look alike,” which shows a woman with purple hair and big blue glasses with two identical purple-haired, big-blue-glasses-wearing little girls. (2-6)
My Really Cool Baby Book written and illustrated by Todd Parr. Little, Brown, 2001 (0-316-60365-1) $14.95
A deliberate departure from the dreamily sentimental world of most baby books, this book is meant for the baby too–when it’s a bit older. Boldly outlined and brightly colored board book-style pictures surround fill-in boxes that let parents keep track of whether a baby was born in a hospital, at home, in an elevator or even on another planet; another page commemorates special occasions like first smile, first tooth and first burp. Less traditional families will also appreciate a page for adoption info and a page for family members that includes stepfamily. The humor and simplicity of this book will encourage parents to keep it filled and someday delight its original subject.
Twas the Night Before Thanksgiving written and illustrated by Dav Pilkey. Orchard, 1990 (0-531-05905-7); Scholastic, 2004 (0-439-66937-5) $5.99 pb
Thanksgiving, with its intense focus on “traditional” food, is one of the more complicated holidays for vegetarian and vegan families, but this story can add a bit of fun to a turkey-free dinner. Using the familiar strains of Clement Moore’s “A Visit from Saint Nicholas,” Pilkey spins a comic yet tenderhearted tale of eight children on a field trip to a turkey farm, who are horrified to discover that their new feathered friends are fated to be eaten. But the children are the ones who wind up stuffed, as each sneaks away a turkey inside his coat. That Thanksgiving, the turkeys are guests and “They feasted on veggies/With jelly and toast, And everyone was thankful/(The turkeys the most!).” Exuberant illustrations bring the outlandish story to life. (4-8)
I Smell Honey; Pretty Brown Face by Andrea Pinkney. illustrated by Brian Pinkney. Harcourt Brace/Red Wagon, 1997 (0-15-200640-0; 0-15-200643-5) $4.95
These related books warmly celebrate African-American heritage and family life. In I Smell Honey, a mother and daughter prepare a traditional feast of catfish, red beans, collard greens and sweet potato pie; “I help mama make our meal,” the daughter proudly proclaims, though mama actually does most of the work. In Pretty Brown Face, a father helps his son discover the special qualities of his face, like his eyes, “opening wide,” his nose, “sitting there proud,” and his hair, “curly and soft.” A mylar mirror accompanies the ending, telling readers: “That pretty brown face is special as can be. That face in the mirror belongs to me!”–a fun ending, although it rather unfortunately implies that only black children will be looking at this book. Scratchboard pictures in soft hues focus on the affectionate and happy faces of the family. (2 & up)
Shake Shake Shake by Andrea Pinkney. Illustrated by Brian Pinkney. Red Wagon/Harcourt Brace, 1997 (0-15-200632-X) $4.95
Featuring the family from I Smell Honey and Pretty Brown Face this is a welcome change from the almost uniformly whitebread world of board books. An appropriately rhythmical, repetitive text describes the family playing with a shekere, a beaded African instrument which is a bit like a tambourine: “Roll it in your hands, feel it shake, shake, shake. Tap it with your fingers, hear it shake, shake, shake.” Cheerful, brightly colored illustrations bring a little humor to the book, as the older girl and her little brother trade their differently sized shekeres back and forth. (6 months-2 years)
Yo! Yes? written and illustrated by Chris Raschka. Orchard, 1993; 1998 (0-531-07108-1) $6.95 pb
A story that could take chapters to tell is summed up in pictures plus 34 words in this engaging Caldecott honor book. “Yo!” says a black kid wearing unlaced high-tops and a cooler-than-cool expression. A primly dressed white kid nervously replies, “Yes?”. That’s the start of a conversation which never gets beyond one or two word sentences, but which effortlessly reveals the two boys to each other and to us: as the second one confides his loneliness, the first drops his affectations, until they are equally joyous friends together. Offbeat watercolor and charcoal illustrations forsake background to concentrate on the facial expressions and posture of the boys, showing the myriad emotions–uncertainty, shame, sympathy, wondering–the boys go through on their journey to friendship. The undercurrents of race and culture clash are especially well done, as we see each boy afraid he won’t be accepted by the other. Seldom have race relations been explored with such grace and panache. * (3 & up)
Dumpling Soup by Jama Kim Rattigan. Illustrated by Lillian Hsu-Flanders. Little, Brown, 1993 (0-316-73445-4) $15.95
It isn’t hard to see why this appealing story won a contest called “New Voices, New World”–not only is it fresh, enjoyable, and unselfconscious, but it demonstrates both the importance of family traditions and the happy, comfortable way in which different ethnic traditions can be blended in a caring family.
It’s New Year’s Eve and everyone in Marisa’s family comes to Grandma’s house to celebrate. Marisa lives on Oahu: most of her family is Korean, but some are Japanese, Chinese, Hawaiian or haole (white). Her Grandma calls it “chop suey”–all mixed up, but with “more spice.” The Yang family celebration is always fun, but this year is special for Marisa, because she is seven –old enough to help make dumplings for the soup they eat at midnight. “If we eat first thing on New Year’s Day, we won’t go hungry for the rest of the year,” Marisa’s father reminds her. To her dismay, Marisa’s dumplings, or mandoo, come out funny-looking, and Marisa wonders if anyone will want to eat them. But when midnight comes, after a day of fun and celebration, everyone declares Marisa’s mandoo to be delicious.
The warmth and comfort of belonging to a large extended family comes through wonderfully in Dumpling Soup, assisted by the gentle, cozy watercolor illustrations of the many Yangs. This satisfying story has universal appeal. * (5-10)
Big Momma Makes the World by Phyllis Root. Illustrated by Helen Oxenbury. Candlewick,2003 (0-7636-1132-8) $16.99
In a startlingly different, yet thoroughly winning retelling of Genesis, Big Momma, a giant of a woman with a can-do attitude and a baby on her hip, rolls up her sleeves and creates the universe: “‘Light,’ said Big Momma. And you better believe there was light.” Having created the world and everything in it, Big Momma decides to take some time off to rest, but you better believe she is still up there, looking down every now and then to warn us that we “better straighten up down there.” Oxenbury’s illustrations, which begin with shades of blue and progressively add more colors as Big Momma continues to create, effectively combine the mystical with the mundane, particularly in images of a gloriously alive Big Momma and her baby bursting into the light together, and a beautiful mass of people of all ages, shapes and colors crawling and stretching out of the mud.
Lots of Dads by Shelley Rotner and Sheila M. Kelly. Photographed by Shelley Rotner. Dial, 1997 (0-8037-2086-6) $12.99
The companion to Lots of Moms (see below) once again celebrates the bond between parent and child with vibrant and joyful photographs. We see all kinds of dads–white dads and black dads, dads with grey hair and dads with pony-tails–all cherishing and enjoying their children. A simple text describes generally what dads are like, noting that “they help you when need it, and they like to play with you,” but also honestly admitting that “Sometimes they’re busy, or say ‘Not now!'” Like Lots of Moms, this book is especially appealing for its depiction of more diverse lifestyles than we often see in picture books; it’s nice to see dads in blue jeans as well as in business suits. And the attractive, affectionate photographs, showing dads and kids actively playing and working together, are a delight. * (2-5)
Lots of Moms by Shelley Rotner and Sheila M. Kelly. Photographs by Shelley Rotner. Dial, 1996 (0-8037-1891-8) $12.99
Books about “my great mom” are commonplace, but few are as clearsighted and genuinely appreciative as this one. Eschewing both the still prevalent stereotype of the passive mom in the apron and the newer “supermom,” this book shows moms as ordinary beings who love, teach and play with their children, but are also sometimes busy, tired or away. Radiant photographs show loving moms with their kids: white moms, black moms, pregnant moms, fat moms, moms in blue jeans, and moms with multiracial families. We also see moms busy working, which can mean teaching a class, using a computer, driving a truck or hanging clothes on a line. And we see that sometimes moms take naps or leave their kids with a sitter–but “they always come back.” Many modern American mothers will appreciate this uncommonly accurate reflection of their reality, but this isn’t a book that will make grown-ups go “awww” but leave children cold: the text is understanding and reassuring, and the bright, colorful photographs–often set against attractive natural backgrounds–are a pleasure to look at again and again. * (2 & up)
A Teeny Tiny Baby written and illustrated by Amy Schwartz. Orchard, 1994 (0-531-06818-8); Roaring Brook, 2006 (1-59643-193-8) $12.95
“I’m a teeny tiny baby…and I know how to get anything I want” says the young narrator of this amusing journey into the world of an infant. Describing the neverending day to day chores of taking care of a baby from the baby’s point of view, this is a wry but affectionate portrait of the effect these egotistical, demanding, yet nonetheless loveable creatures have on their families–showing both the tiring aspects and the incredible sense of wonder that comes from watching these new beings discover the world. Without aiming for total realism, Schwartz has created a book that will help both child and adult readers understand what babies need–and why they require so much time and effort. I love the illustrations of the baby’s family, which capture the mix of adoration and weariness seen in new parents. The scenes of the mother using endless nursing time to read or talk on the phone and the dad carrying three sacks of groceries along with the baby in a sling will also evoke some reminiscent chuckles. Perhaps best of all, the long-haired mom and bearded dad–drawn in simple lines similar to John Burningham’s work–look like the ordinary young parents I know, instead of throw-backs to the fifties; slings, breastfeeding and cosleeping are other themes that modern parents will appreciate. Roaring Brook has reissued this book in a smaller, appropriately baby-friendly format, with stiff, sturdy pages. (2-6)
On Mother’s Lap by Ann Herbert Scott. Illustrated by Glo Coalson. McGraw-Hill, 1972; Clarion, 1992 (0-395-62976-4) $6.95 pb
As Michael happily rocks with his mother, he brings his doll, his toy boat and even their puppy to join them. But when his little sister wakes up and starts to cry, Michael doesn’t want to share anymore. “There isn’t room,” he says. But somehow his mother squeezes them all in, because “It’s a funny thing… but there is always room on Mother’s lap.”
A tender message of family love is depicted here through an Inuit family, and the poverty clearly evident in their surroundings only deepens the impression of warmth and caring. There are two versions of this book, both with the same text and illustrator; they are very similar, but the more current version has more attractive and expressive drawings. (2-5)
Night Shift Daddy by Eileen Spinelli. Illustrated by Melissa Iwai. Hyperion, 2000 (0-7868-0495-5) $14.99
A little girl’s daddy works the night shift; while she sleeps, he sweeps. But still, they have plenty of special time together: a loving ritual for her bedtime, and then in the morning, the same loving ritual in reverse for his. Told in easy rhyme, this is an unusually playful take on working-class family life, offering just a hint of the harder side of the situation: “He doesn’t know I watch him go/into the cold, the dark, the snow–down to the bus stop, bundled up,/holding his thermal coffee cup.” Paintings in deep, rich colors add layers to the story: the little girl is mostly big round eyes, a button nose and a smile, but the father’s face is given more depth and detail, allowing empathetic readers a glimpse into his weariness and the loneliness of his job. But most children will simply enjoy this book for its affectionate tone and the highly satisfying turnabout of the bedtime ritual, in which the daughter gets to put the daddy to bed. (2-6)
Doesn’t Fall Off His Horse written and illustrated by Virginia A. Stroud. Dial, 1994 (0-8037-1634-6) $14.99
With lyrical prose and brilliantly colored illustrations, Cherokee artist Stroud tells the true story of how her adoptive Kiowa grandfather earned his warrior name. “When you’re young, you sometimes do things that are not so smart,” little Saygee’s great-grandfather tells her–and he and his friends may not have been smart to sneak into the Comanche camp and steal their horses. But catching your enemy off-guard and dishonoring him–“a very serious and dangerous game” called Coup–is one way to become a hero. And so the young boys make their dangerous night journey over the prairies of Oklahoma, a journey that will cost Saygee’s grandfather part of his neck to a Comanche bullet, but earn him the name “Doesn’t Fall Off His Horse.”
This exciting book is well matched by its dazzling illustrations, which capture the tense atmosphere of the story with simple, stylized shapes, reminiscent of cave paintings. Elaborate designs in jewel-toned colors add beauty and complexity to the stark outlines of the pictures, making them both exotic and accessible.
Red is a Dragon by Roseanne Thong. Illustrated by Grace Lin. Chronicle, 2001 (0-8118-3177-9) $13.95
In easy rhyme, a little girl describes the colors of various things she sees in her daily life: “Yellow are raincoats and bright rubber boots/Yellow is a taxi that honks and toots.” What makes this book stand out from so many similar color books is that the little girl is Chinese-American, and her daily life includes some things that aren’t so familiar to many readers: “Green is a bracelet made of jade/Green is the purse my auntie made. Pink are an opera singers eyes/And a silk fan that hides her surprise.” The sharply outlined illustration, with their intricate designs, reflect the way East & West traditions combine comfortably in the little girl’s life: the characters sometimes wear beautifully embroidered traditional garb, but they also have ordinary yellow raincoats and boots for rainy days. A glossary at the end describes some of the lesser known items. (3-8)
Round is a Mooncake by Roseanne Thong. Illustrated by Grace Lin. Chronicle, 2000 0-8118-2676-7) $14.95
This book of shapes follows the same pattern as Red is a Dragon (see above.) Many objects, some familiar to most readers, some specific to Chinese-American life, are used to describe shapes: “Round are the rice bowls in our house/Round are the eyes of my curious mouse.” Lin uses plenty of shapes in her illustrations, for readers to enjoy finding. A glossary is also included. (3-8)
Hello, Lulu written and illustrated by Caroline Uff. Walker, 1999 (0-8027-8712-6); (0-8027-892805) $5.95 board
Toddlers love this short and sweet book about Lulu, her family, her pets and her favorite snacks. Pastel crayon illustrations give brightly colored backgrounds to the pages, and softness and warmth to the varying skin tones of Lulu’s diverse family. (1-3)
The Teddy Bears’ Picnic illustrated by Bruce Whatley. HarperCollins, 1996 (0-06-027302-X) $14.95 book and tape; HarperTrophy, 2000 (0-06-443655-1) $5.95 pb only
Even without the Jerry Garcia/David Grisman tape that came with the hardcover edition of this book, this is a delectable, slightly offbeat interpretation of the popular, slightly offbeat song. Whatley does his best to show “every bear that ever there was,” including all kinds of soft, cuddly looking teddies–even a few wearing vests, beads and tie-dyed clothes, and a strangely familiar, chubby, guitar-playing bear that will bring tears to a few adult eyes. My favorite bear, however, may be the malevolent looking one that peers off the page to remind us “It’s lovely down in the woods today/But safer to stay at home”–the song is always more fun when it’s a little creepy. (3 & up)
Te Amo, Bebe, Little One by Lisa Wheeler. Illustrated by Maribel Suarez. Little, Brown, $15.95 (0-316-61410-6) $15.95
A young Hispanic mother and her new baby go through his first year together, sharing good times in every season. And always, the mother sings her baby’s special song: “I love you once, I love you twice. I love you more than beans and rice. I love you more than stars or sun. Te amo, bebe, little one.” With its smattering of Spanish words and a Southwestern setting, his book feels a bit like multiculturalism-lite, but that doesn’t make it any less appealing. The rhyming text uses a very readable rhythm, and the light watercolor illustrations are easy on the eye. A favorite with our family. (1-3)
“More More More,” Said the Baby written and illustrated by Vera B. Williams. Greenwillow, 1990 (0-688-09173-3); 1996 (0-688-14736-4) $4.95 pb; 1997 (0-688-15634-7) $6.95
Now available in board book format: This Caldecott Honor winner is a love of a book, a joyous, multiracial celebration of babies and their grownups. Three little babies are exuberantly loved by their relatives, who “catch them up and bring them up close” to swing them around, kiss their eyes and nibble their toes. William’s illustrations capture the awkward, loveable grace of toddlers and the energetic adoration they inspire, in bright, bold paintings that have the vigor and spontaneity of fingerpaints; vivid multicolored frames and rainbow lettering add even more color and life to the pictures. But the text is even better, a rhythmic, colloquial lyric that is just the right combination of repetition and freshness. * (2-6)
Something Beautiful by Sharon Dennis Wyeth. Illustrated by Chris K. Soentpiet. Doubleday, 1998 (0-385-32239-9) $16.95; Dragonfly, 2002 (0-440-41210-2) $6.99 pb
Looking through her window, a little girl sees a brick wall, trash and broken bottles. On her front door, she sees the word “die.” Walking to school she passes a woman sleeping on the sidewalk. “Mommy said that everyone should have something beautiful in their life. Where is my something beautiful?” she wonders.
And so the girl searches through her neighborhood for something beautiful, something that, “when you have it, your heart is happy.” And she finds many things that are someone’s something beautiful: the delicious fish sandwiches from Miss Delphine’s Diner, Mr. Lee’s gorgeous array of fruits, Georgina’s happy dance on the sidewalk, old Mr. Sims’ smooth stone, carried for years in his pocket, and the infectious laugh of Aunt Carolyn’s baby. When the little girl gets home, she picks up the trash around her stoop and scrubs the word “die” off her door, planning for the day when she can make her world even more beautiful. And when her mother comes home from work, she learns that she too is someone’s “something beautiful.”
Something Beautiful is an excellent example of the best kind of “realistic” picture books, one in which realism doesn’t equal despair. Just as the little girl’s ugly and scary neighborhood is shown to also have a warm and positive side, Something Beautiful sympathetically affirms the truth about the soul-crushing effects of living amid ugliness while also celebrating the efforts each person can make to make a difference. It’s a combination of empathy and encouragement that inspires and heartens. The illustrations are somewhat less successful than the text: ironically, their bright glossiness makes everything, even piles of trash, look tidy and attractive. Their strong point is the expressiveness of faces, from the little girl’s depression as she gazes out onto ugliness, to the luminous joy she discovers in the people living around her.