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.

tractorWe moved from a big city to a tiny country town three years ago (nearest WalMart 30 minutes away–Target is an unthinkable two hours away!). One of my favorite seasonal activities is watching with wonder the agricultural vehicles working in the fields and lumbering down our village’s roads. So Nathan Clement’s book, Big Tractor is written especially for me and every observant, machine-obsessed pre-schooler.

The book follows a farmer through the seasons of the year, talking to his tractor, as his fellow farmers years ago might have chatted with their draft horses. “Wake up, Ol’ Partner! It’s springtime! Time to hitch up the plow. Time to turn up the soil.” We see the farmer attach many different pieces of machinery to his tractor and use it to do all sorts of farming chores. At the end, there’s even a surprise use of the tractor that will make you smile, before the farmer announces, “We’re done, Ol’ Partner. It’s wintertime.”

The text is spare but vivid–this would be a good mentor text to talk about choosing active verbs–and the digital illustrations are sleek and modern.

Ever wonder how digital illustration happens? Nathan Clement demonstrates in this video.

Big Tractor by Nathan Clement. Boyds Mills Press: 2015.


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.

Ben Franklin  This book is based on a passage in a letter (helpfully included in the book’s back matter) where Franklin describes his youthful invention of a swimming aid: swim fins and flippers! Using that single paragraph as her starting point, Barb Rosenstock imagines the process young Ben Franklin–or anyone–would follow to invent something new.

The book is a buoyant read. Every page is filled with “s” alliteration in lists of verbs telling what Franklin did to develop his invention:

speculated…stared…sprinted away

sketched…snapped up…shaped…sanded…strung on…strapped on

sprinted…stood…stripped off…strapped…stuck…spread…stomped…splashed in…sunk

And this is just the beginning of the “s” lists! Many of the verbs are helpfully highlighted, which would make this book a dream to teach in a lesson on alliteration.

Ben’s invention doesn’t really work that well. In fact, you could say it was a belly flop. But Rosenstock’s text leaves us with a shiver of giddiness rather than a feeling of defeat.

It’s a fun story about the process of invention, the scientific method, and one of America’s founding father. What’s not to like?

Ben Franklin’s Big Splash: The Mostly True Story of His First Invention by Barb Rosenstock, illustrated by S.D. Schindler. Calkins Creek: 2014

This brilliantly written book explores the differences and similarities between Thomas Jefferson and John Adams and how they helped shape their cooperation in making a new nation. The book starts with a strong opening:

The true story of how one gentleman–short and stout–and another–tall and lean–formed a surprising alliance, committed treason, and helped launch a new nation.

Kerley uses that lively narrative voice through the book. She chooses strong, interesting words that make the text leap to life:

He lunged, parried, and skewered the policies of King George and his government.

Her quotations, deftly woven in, make the two men spring to life:

“You should do it,” Tom told him. “Oh! No,” John exclaimed. Any declaration he wrote would be severely criticized, for some delegates, he conceded, found him “obnoxious.”

I felt weepy by the end of the back matter, stunned with gratitude for the foolish and human but visionary men who built the United States.

Those Rebels, John and Tom, by Barbara Kerley, illustrated by Edwin Fotheringham. Scholastic: 2012.

This book, about a landmark moment in jazz history, is written with a jazz-inspired narrative voice, playing with literary convention–there’s no end punctuation in the entire book–and dabbling with different poetic devices, like rhyme, alliteration, and onomatopoeia, without ever committing to one. The story’s told with staccato phrases in shotgun bursts. Ransome uses rich and vivid words. She describes sound “rippling and rumbling” and describes the experience of watching a performance:

Fast fingering

Drums thumping

Trumpets trumping

The back matter is longer than the text itself, which I always love when a book has intrigued me like this one did. I’m anxious to get more of the story and can usually find it in the back matter. Here, Ransome tells us “More about Benny Goodman and Teddy Wilson,” provides a time line, and gives a “Who’s Who in Jazz.”

Benny Goodman and Teddy Wilson: Taking the Stage as the First Black and White Jazz Band in History, by Lesa Cline-Ransome, illustrated by James E. Ransome. Holiday House: 2014.

This is an inspiring story with haunting art. It tells of three slaves who escape to the shelter of a Union fort during the Civil War and what follows their brave action. Van Hecke’s language is spare and evocative. She even leaves out articles to distill the language . We get unadorned image:

May moon gleams bright as Colonel’s buttons. Three slip out unseen.

She tells the whole story in just 668 well-chosen, carefully-placed words.

Under the Freedom Tree by  Susan Van Hecke, illustrated by London Ladd. Charlesbridge: 2014.

This moving autobiography tells the story, in first person present tense, of a boy who stutters but can speak fluently to animals. We live with him through the despair and loneliness of school and then find, with him, the joy of researching jaguars in the wild. We see his passion to protect the jaguar from poachers overcome his disability. “I have a voice now to speak for animals.”

And we get that whole story in 789 carefully-chosen words. This book proves the idea that conciseness gives writing power.

A Boy and a Jaguar, by Alan Rabinowitz, illustrated by CáTia Chien. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt: 2014.


Joe DiMaggio’s hitting streak is an amazing story in itself, but Rosenstock puts the streak in its historical context. We see how DiMaggio struggled to achieve the record and how his brilliant success gave hope to a nation facing a world war. Rosenstock sets the stage deftly on the first page where she talks about the first hit in DiMaggio’s streak:

It wasn’t news. Instead, the headlines in 1941 shouted about the war spreading like a fever through Europe.

She keeps her focus on DiMaggio, but with a few words here and there, we’re reminded of that war threatening in the distance.

Rosenstock’s verbs quiver with life: “whip,” “scuff,” “roar,” “soak,” “surge,” “yell,” “grab,” “rub,” “pound,” “trot,” “dance.” Her narrative voice is muscular and nimble. It’s a fun book to read aloud.

The back matter is satisfyingly hefty. She writes more than 500 words about what happened next, gives us memorable quotes and statistics, as well as providing quote attributions and explaining the sources of the newspaper headlines shown in the illustrations.

I admire Rosenstock’s ability to shape real life into a compelling, vivid story. She’s on her own streak with with creating great nonfiction picture books.

Here’s the one minute trailer, which focuses on the mystery aspect of the book: can DiMaggio break the streak without his beloved bat?

The Streak: How Joe DiMaggio Became America’s Hero by Barb Rosenstock, illustrated by Terry Widener. Calkins Creek: 2014.