A coyote in the moonlight.Wild predators thrill kids. Have you ever checked out the library shelves about lions, tigers, and alligators? Usually there are scant pickings. But how often do we think about the predators that live among us? Coyote Moon is a beautiful exploration of urban wildlife.

The book is organized around spare sentences using vivid language to describe what Coyote does. Almost every spread starts with two words describing Coyote’s actions, “Coyote trots…Coyote sniffs…Coyote looks.” This would be a great book to use in a discussion of verbs or as a mentor text for kids struggling to use vivid language.

If you love the picture book as an art form, this is also a great book to examine. It uses page turns brilliantly to build suspense and then satisfy it.

Bagram Ibatoulline’s art is beautiful. Since coyotes are nocturnal, most of the book’s art is done in a Rembrandt-esque dark palette. I was especially impressed with the shifts in perspective from page to page. Sometimes we’re underground, sometimes we’re looking at Coyote from above, sometimes we’re looking at Coyote as if we were the prey he was attacking.

I was lucky enough to win my copy in a KidLit Frenzy giveaway (thanks so much!) but this is definitely a title I would consider purchasing. In fact, it may be going on my list of titles to give as gifts this Christmas.

Coyote Moon, by Maria Gianferrari and Bagram Ibatoulline. Roaring Brook Press: 2016.

Children around a globe.

 

 

I participate each week in the Nonfiction Picture Book Challenge at KidLit Frenzy.

Cover of book with portrait of Jane Addams in front of Hull HouseGrowing up, I visited my grandparents on the farm every summer, and every day after our huge noon dinner (not lunch), when Gram finally rested, I would sit by myself in the  quiet, dim living room and read Childcraft. My favorite volume was the one about real people. I read about Jenny Lind and Robert Fulton and…Jane Addams. So I was thrilled to see a picture book biography of my childhood hero but worried that it wouldn’t be nearly so inspirational as that long-ago Childcraft article.

I needn’t have worried. Jane Addams’ life was inspirational, and Tanya Stone’s retelling captures Addams’ determination to make a difference in real lives. We see Addams’ privileged childhood but also see events that haunted her, glimpses she got of another, grimmer world than the one she lived in. We follow her as a young adult as she takes concrete steps to find a way to change that uglier world into a more hopeful, beautiful one. We see her win others to her cause and see examples of how Addams’ work started to change lives.

Stone uses picture book craft to keep us turning pages. The very first page ends with a question.

In 1889, a wealthy young woman named Jane Addams moved into a lovely, elegant house in Chicago, Illinois. But instead of moving into a lovely, elegant neighborhood, she picked a house that was smack in the middle of one of the filthiest, poorest parts of town. Why would a wealthy young woman do this when she could have lived anywhere?

How can you help but turn the page to learn the answer?

I’m excited to have a book to share with children whom I think will love Jane Addams just as much as I did back in Gram’s farmhouse.

Official trailer for the book. Link to Hull House Museum.

The House that Jane Built: A Story about Jane Addams by Tanya Lee Stone, illustrated by Kathryn Brown. (Henry Holt: 2015).

Cover of book Trapped! A Whale's Rescue“The huge humpback whale dips and dives. Her sleek black sides shimmering, she spyhops, lobtails, flashes her flukes.” Robert Burleigh’s vivid language drew me into his book. Quickly, his beautiful descriptions of everyday life in the sea shift into a suspense filled drama. The humpback whale becomes entangled with fishing nets. Can she survive?

We see humans acting humanely but without denying the wildness of the humpback in the dramatic ending to this book.

I eagerly turned page after page of this book. The page breaks come at moments of highest suspense and the language is rich but economical. This book would be a great mentor text for effective picture book page turns, for how to build suspense, and for how to use vivid words in descriptions.

This story is based on news articles of an actual event. The back matter gives more information about that original event, about the limits of whale rescue, and about humpbacks.

This is a great read with beautiful paintings by Wendell Minor. And it’s tragically timely, too. This news report appeared six months after the book was published, but it could have been the source of the book.

Trapped! A Whale’s Rescue, by Robert Burleigh, illustrated by Wendell Minor. Charlesbridge: 2015.

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.

Tillie

This wonderful book could be a primer on ways to make a picture book glow.

On the first page I already start to fall in love with the breezy, funny narrative voice:

In the old days, most girls came to America with a dream, but all Tillie Anderson had was a needle. so she got herself a job in a tailor’s shop and waited for a dream to come and find her. One day it rolled right by her window.

The story of this early female bicycle racer unfolds with rollicking, unexpected word choice:

Tillie dreamed of the speedy, scorchy, racy kind of riding

and with page turns that brilliantly build suspense:

Tillie had found that riding in dresses and skirts meant spilling, not speeding, falling, not flying. So…[page turn] Tillie used her noodle and her needle to make something entirely different from what was sold in the ladies’ shop where she worked.

I cheered for Tillie all the way through to the funny surprise ending, amazed and happy that such a remarkable woman really lived.

Tillie the Terrible Swede: How One Woman, A Sewing Needle, and a Bicycle Changed History, by Sue Stauffacher, illustrated by Sarah McMenemy. Knopf: 2011.

Sagan  I’m sometimes surprised by the topics that pop up in nonfiction picture books. Carl Sagan seems to me more like newspaper material than history book fodder, but to an audience of four to eight year olds, he’s just as much The Past as are George Washington and Julius Caesar. After all, he died years and years before they were born, clear back in 1996.

This playful biography uses surprising turns of language and the charming refrain, “Wowie!” to capture Sagan’s zest for explaining astrophysics to a lay audience. The book starts with  Sagan’s childhood fascinations and moves on to his college studies and then his professional career.

I loved the way the book used page turns to surprise and delight. In the first example, the child Sagan is testing the limits of his imagination:

His favorite character, John Carter could stand with his arms outstretched and wish himself to Mars…[page turn] But nothing happened.

Later, the page turn manages to encapsulate years and years of adult work:

He studied life and space and became…[page turn]…Dr. Carl Sagan.

The illustrations are cartoony and fun (and require you at one point to turn the book on its side and open a gatefold). The back matter tells about how the author got interested in the topic and gives a great “Notes” section where the sources for the book’s contents are given page by page. Wowie!

Star Stuff: Carl Sagan and the Mysteries of the Cosmos by Stephanie Roth Sisson. Roaring Brook Press: 2014.

Anna and Solomon     I firmly believe that every family has a story that its children need to know, and I love nonfiction picture books that grow from those stories. This delightful book came about when the New Yorker artist, Harry Bliss, finally convinced his mother-in-law to put her family story on paper. It is a beautiful collaboration.

The story itself, as with so many family stories, is simple and not heavy-handed: Solomon moves from Russia (to escape pogroms) and works to bring his wife to the New World, too. But Anna feels an obligation to her extended family and over and over sends other family members in her place. We feel Solomon’s deep love and longing for his wife, and his wife’s strong sense of loving duty. The story ends in a beautiful celebration of family.

Snyder uses page turns brilliantly over and over to build up suspense: will it be Anna getting off the ship this time?

I also admire the adroitness with which the  historical context was handled:

Shortly after Anna and Solomon’s marriage, a calamity befell the Jews of Vitebsk. The ruler of the land, called the Czar, sent his soldiers on horses to the streets where the Jews lived. The soldiers entered their homes, broke their windows and furniture, stole their brass candlesticks, and destroyed their holy books. Solomon decided that he no longer wanted to live in a place where his people were persecuted and harm might come to Anna.

In four sentences, Snyder explains what a pogrom is, shows us how wrenching it is, and makes it clear why Anna later in the book will feel obligated to help rescue her extended family members. This is historical scaffolding at its best.

It’s a heart-warming story and may inspire you to call up your grandma so you can hear the story of your family, too.

Anna & Solomon, by Elaine Snyder, illustrated by Harry Bliss.  Farrar Straus Giroux: 2014.

 

 

“There was a time when jolly old England was not so jolly. Children worked in factories. Queen Victoria frowned. Everything was grim. Everything was dark—except…in the make-believe kingdom of Topsy-Turvydom.”

Gilbert and Sullivan’s hilarious operas can just seem strange if you don’t understand the class-bound, rule-conscious Victorian world they came from. In The Fabulous Feud of Gilbert & Sullivan, Jonah Winter depicts that Victorian world and celebrates the unabashed silliness of Gilbert & Sullivan while telling the story of how The Mikado came to be written. Although the focus is on The Mikado, this book is a great introduction to any Gilbert & Sullivan show–our kids loved reading it before we saw HMS Pinafore..

Reading about Gilbert and Sullivan’s fight also might prompt discussion about friendship and the hard feelings that can come between friends.

I miss some of the research features that are becoming more common in non-fiction picture books. The dialogue in the book is apparently invented, but there is no acknowledgment or discussion of that craft choice. I also wished there had been a bibliography so I could see where Winter found the story.

Richard Egielski’s pictures are the perfect accompaniment to Winter’s rollicking text.

The Fabulous Feud of Gilbert and Sullivan by Jonah Winter, illustrated by Richard Egielski. Arthur A. Levine: 2009.