Cover of Becoming Bach shows a young Bach holding a batonNonfiction can’t be in first person unless it’s an autobiography. But historical fiction can use a first person speaker. In Becoming Bach Tom Leonard uses a first person speaker–Bach himself!–to explore the emotional roots of the world’s most beloved music. The events depicted in the story are all historically accurate, but Leonard uses his imagination to explore what Bach’s emotional reactions to those events might have been.

I’ve always thought of Bach’s music as being logical and carefully ordered–the Baroque rule-keeping as comapred to the Romantic era’s emotional abandon. So for me it was a paradigm shift to think of the music of Bach as being intensely personal and evocative. But this book convinced me that I’ve been missing an important layer in his work.

The art in the book shows musical notes moving and shifting, turning into vivid colors, floating and twisting in the air, and creating entire castles. It’s one of my favorite-ever picture book depictions of art. The afterword lets you in on the secret that one of the people painted in the book is actually the author/illustrator!

Two spreads are oriented vertically instead of horizontally, so that you have to turn the book to read it. The turns are used strategically at key emotional moments in the book. It would be fun to ask a class why they think the artist makes you turn the book at those specific points.

Open this book and enjoy the art of music!

Becoming Bach by Tom Leonard. Neal Porter Books: 2017.

Children with book around a globe

I participate every Wednesday in the Nonfiction Picture Book Challenge at Kid Lit Frenzy.

Cover of Giant Squid shows 2 tentacles and one eye of a squid underwaterIn Giant Squid, Candace Fleming explores how understanding parts of the whole can lead to understanding the whole. In her beautifully-written and elegantly-constructed book, she  shows us parts of the mysterious giant squid, and describes how scientists use tiny clues to piece together more and more information about this fascinating deep-water creature. At the end of the book, we get a brief glimpse in the illustrations of the whole creature, but then it disappears.

The back matter–which is written in the same narrative voice as the main text, only slightly more focused on explanation, talks about how scientists have found their clues–squid beaks in whale bellies, tentacles washed ashore.

The book itself breaks the rules of books. The text starts on the first page, where you’d usually expect publication information. There are a full 2 1/2 spreads of text before you hit the title page. You end up much like the scientists–trying to use the clues in the first pages to figure out what the topic of the book is. The art is beautiful and mysterious. Eric Rohmann has used a dark palette–the feel of the paintings reminded me very much of the dark palette in Coyote Moon.

This is a lyrical, fascinating book about a sea creature but also about the process of gathering knowledge. It’s no surprise that it won a Sibert Honor Award this month.

Giant Squid by Candace Fleming, illustrated by Eric Rohmann. Neal Porter Books: 2016.


Children with book around a globe

I participate every Wednesday in the Nonfiction Picture Book Challenge.



waterThis poem, a lyrical exploration of different phases of water, is a pleasure to read aloud. Paul uses vivid words and unexpected rhymes to help us think about all the different ways water can appear in our environment–far beyond that simple elementary school worksheet with lake, cloud, and rain.

One of the most fun things about reading this book aloud is the drama that Paul has built into her poetic form. She describes one form in which water appears and then adds, “unless…” Each time “unless” appears, we get the built-in drama and suspense of a page turn, and the new page reveals to us a new form water can take.

Water is Water, by Miranda Paul, illustrated by Jason Chin. Neal Porter Books: 2015.






This astonishing book is in the same tradition as Viva Frida: a biography less concerned with biographical fact than with conveying the heart of the painter’s art. The book is three sentences long. The first sentence–in the subjunctive!–starts, “If you were a boy named Henri Matisse who lived in a dreary town in northern France where the skies were gray…” and continues for fifteen spreads, showing how Matisse’s mother suffuses his life with color. The art is beautiful and, of course, respectfully evocative of Matisse. I wanted to look and look and look.

This book is a persuasive meditation on the power of Matisse’s art but also a lovely tribute to motherhood. I hope it’s the great Mother’s Day title of the year!

The Iridescence of Birds: A Book about Henri Matisse by Patricia MacLachlan, illustrated by Hadley Hooper. Neal Porter Press  (Roaring Brook): 2014.