Girl in a ballet pose.Years ago my sister gave me a picture book by someone she had  met at a social function. It had one of the best titles ever, Baxter, the Pig who Wanted to be Kosher. The book is hilarious. So I was excited when I saw another book by the same author, Laurel Snyder.

I love this book just as much as Baxter–no, probably more–but it couldn’t be more different in tone. This haunting, lyrical biography of ballerina Anna Pavlova is a dream to read aloud. It opens with her first time to see a ballet: “Her feet wake up! Her skin prickles. there is a song, suddenly, inside her.” We follow her as she tries to enter a ballet school, is rejected, and finally succeeds, becoming a world-famous ballerina.

I was fascinated at how much of the story Snyder conveys elliptically, without actually telling us what’s going on. We figure it out from the rhythm of the words, from the punctuation, and from the art. So when Anna Pavlova is rejected from ballet school (a fact you can confirm if you dip into Snyder’s excellent back matter), we read only: “At last Mama nods, and out of her house Anna goes, into the world of people. Tall people.” The illustration shows Anna entering a building where we see ballet students, in silhouette, practicing. On the next page, we see Anna leaving the building, head bowed, while the students continue to practice. The words say, “And oh? Oh.” The economy of language staggers. But the story is never lost.

I love the lyricism and rhythm of the language in the book. While Anna is waiting to get into ballet school, we see her dancing as she hangs up laundry, and the writing explains, “Anna stretches, bides her time. Shirt, shirt, laundry. Shirt, shirt laundry.

The book lingers over Anna Pavlova’s death–three full spreads are devoted to her deathbed–but the effect is not macabre. Instead, it’s gentle and celebratory. Much like a velvet curtain swishing closed.

The art, by Julie Morstad, is simple but sophisticated, based on a palette of black and white and red or pink. The endpapers are some of my favorite from the entire year.

This is a book to read, curled up next to a child you love, while the snow falls outside your window.

A video clip of Anna Pavlova dancing.

Swan: The Life and Dance of Anna Pavlova, by Laurel Snyder, illustrated by Julie Morstad. (Chronicle: 2015)

I’m happy to join Alyson Beecher of KidLit Frenzy in her 2016 Nonfiction Picture Book Challenge!




Cover of book How to Read a Story by Kate MessnerThe Common Core introduces informational and explanatory writing to children as young as kindergarten. How do you explain how to books to kindergarteners? Most of the titles on the shelves of the library are going to be more technical or involved than is appropriate for such young readers.

Here’s the solution! This charming “how to” book is likely to become a staple mentor text for those very young elementary school classes and will probably make its way into older classrooms as well. I would have loved to have had this book as a reference in fourth grade before I wrote that essay on how to make a sandwich!

In the book, Kate Messner walks the reader through the ten steps to reading a book. Her writing is clear and straightforward–as you’d expect from an explanatory text–but within her numbered list, we get tantalizing, whimsical hints about another story, the book being read, about a princess, a dragon, and a robot. The technical, even dry process of explanation is lightened by the whimsy. Perhaps someday soon an enterprising fourth grader will write an essay called, “How to Write a Story,” and give us the whole story.

Mark Siegel’s illustrations add a light, fun, cartoony touch.

This website has a great story on how one class used this book. Don’t miss the wonderful kids’ illustrations in Part 3!

How to Read a Story, by Kate Messner, illustrated by Mark Siegel. Chronicle Books: 2015

CorneliusSometimes everyday people are the true heroes of history. Here’s a book that celebrates one of those heroes.

Cornelius Washington was a New Orleans trash collector. After Hurricane Katrina, despite the devastation and discouragement, he stayed in his job. Trash collectors like Cornelius were vital to making it possible for others, people from New Orleans and all around the country, to clear out the debris left in the wake of the storm and start a new life.

Phil Bildner makes Cornelius into a folk hero–one who piled bags into “perfect pyramids” and who danced in the streets while he picked up trash–who inspires everyone to work together. The language is infectiously bouncy, full of alliteration (“The barbers, bead twirlers and beignet bakers bounded behind the one-man parade” of  Cornelius) and onomatopoeia (“Hootie Hoo!”) and fun to read aloud.

The back matter carefully draws a line between the invention that is in the story and the nonfiction basis of that invention:

…while Cornelius was certainly a showman, he may not have twirled lids like tops or clapped them like cymbals. He had signals and calls, but they weren’t the exact ones described here. The garbage bags he threw into his hopper probably didn’t land in perfect pyramids….And though he was celebrated and beloved in his neighborhoods, he was not called Marvelous Cornelius.

But he deserves to be.

This book reminded me of the beauty of a life well-lived and of the power we have as individuals to lift others, even when the problems we face are enormous.

Marvelous Cornelius: Hurricane  Katrina and the Spirit of New Orleans, by Phil Bildner, illustrated by John Parra. Chronicle Books: 2015.


This is not your everyday counting book! No 1-2-3 or babyish illustrations here. Instead, Lola Schaefer attacks the idea of averages for middle grade readers. The mathematics are sophisticated but she keeps the text simple and clear. Brevity and consistency are the heart of the book. Every spread has a sentence in exactly the same format:

In one lifetime, this [animal] will [verb] [number] [item].

For example:

In one lifetime, this alpaca will grow 20 different fleeces.

The consistency of the text and the consistently increasing numbers provide all the structure this book needs.

Extensive back matter not only gives more detail about each featured animal but also walks the reader through the author’s calculations. Other sections explain mathematical averages and challenge the reader to solve math problems.

A great book for anyone who thinks he’s outgrown counting books!

Lifetime: The Amazing Numbers in Animal Lives by Lola M. Schaefer, illustrated by Christopher Silas Neal. Chronicle Books: 2013.