Wednesday, April 7, 2021

Shelf Awareness--The Tree in Me

PB Review: The Tree in Me

The Tree in Me by Corinna Luyken (Dial Books, 56p., ages 4-8, 9780593112595)

Corinna Luyken (My Heart; illustrator of Nothing in Common) uses lyrical language and luminous illustrations to create a splendid picture book in which she likens a child's internal landscape to the parts of a tree, successfully conveying the interconnectedness of humans to nature--and to other human beings, as well.

The first-person narrator describes "the tree in me" as many things: it is delicious flavors ("part apple,/ part orange-pear-almond-plum,/ part yummm!"); it is the coalescence of its components ("seed and blossom, bark and stump,/ branch and trunk/ and crown"); and it can even be defined by its visitors ("bird-squirrel-worm/ and bee"). This tree has "roots that go deep.../ down to where other roots reach up toward their own trunk-branch-crown/ and sky too." The narrator, by virtue of recognizing "the tree in me," is able to "see/ that there is also a tree.../ you!" A variety of races and ethnic backgrounds are represented in the exuberant children who populate this idyllic setting.

Luyken's spare text uses double-page spreads and page turns to great effect, and her art gracefully ties the extended metaphor to the child narrator. Dazzling gouache, pencil and ink illustrations adorn the pages in earth tones and exuberant pinks, yellows and blues, and prominent textures add movement and complexity to the inviting art. The Tree in Me is a gem of a picture book that shares the inspiration Luyken finds in "love, nature, and the web of relationship that connects us all." --Lynn Becker, blogger and host of Book Talk, a monthly online discussion of children's books for SCBWI.

Discover: In comparing a child with a tree, this heartfelt picture book harmoniously conveys the interconnectedness of humans and nature.

Friday, April 2, 2021

April's Book of the Month--See the Cat: Three Stories About a Dog

April’s Book of the Month is SEE THE CAT: THREE STORIES ABOUT A DOG, written by David LaRochelle and illustrated by Mike Wohnoutka. It’s the winner of the 2021 Geisel Award for most distinguished beginning reader, and I can see why. This is a hilarious collection of three stories that feature a dog and the narrator, or “book” itself, in conversation—and it’s a rather antagonistic conversation, at that.

The first story is called See the Cat, and begins, appropriately, “See the cat.” So, of course, the righteous canine speaks up: “I am not a cat. I am a dog.” The book, unperturbed, adds more and more absurdities to its description: “See the blue cat/in a green dress/named Baby Cakes…” (The dog’s name is Max.) I won’t give it away, but it works beautifully. Kids will be in stitches.

The second story is called See the Snake. “Here we go again,” says the Dog. This time, the dog is onto the power of the book/narrator, and takes things into his own hands.

The third story—finally—is See the Dog. The dog is very happy until the narrator wants him to “run and jump and spin and fly,” when all the dog really wants is to take a nap. The book threatens to send in a hippo and the dog threatens…well, read it and see!

This is a terrific book—it’s meta and clever and it’s got great kid humor. SEE THE CAT is going on my shelf as an example of how good an easy reader can be!


Monday, March 22, 2021

Shelf Awareness--Down Comes the Night

YA Review: Down Comes the Night

Down Comes the Night by Allison Saft (Wednesday Books, 400p., ages 12-up, 9781250623638)

Allison Saft's deftly plotted YA debut is an icy, atmospheric blend of gothic horror, fantasy and romance.

Wren Southerland knows she's the best healer in the Queen's Guard. Long ago, Wren, considered Queen Isabel's "worthless" illegitimate niece, was dismissed to a cloister where she was raised and trained by the Order of the Maiden. Now in the service of the queen, Wren repeatedly makes "foolhardy... emotional" decisions to heal all people, no matter which side they took in the barely contained war that has been waged for centuries between Wren's country, Danu, and its neighbor, Vesria. Wren had hoped her skills with medicine and magic would save her from "the queen's impatience," but learns she is to be banished to the coal mines instead. An unusual invitation offers her a chance for redemption, though: if she'll journey to the estate of Lord Lowry to heal his servant Henry, Lowry will "bolster Danu's military." Wren is certain that acting as liaison will allow her to regain the queen's good graces. But a dire warning on the ride to Lowry's estate only barely describes the atrocities Wren has waiting for her. And the irresistible Henry, it turns out, is none other than Danu's most feared enemy.

Both Wren and Henry's goals are realistic and understandable, as each grapples with the burden of outside expectations. Slowly, they discover that they may stay true to their principles as they each struggle to save their kingdoms. Saft's lush, atmospheric prose and delightfully menacing settings--combined with an artfully creepy villain with a penchant for the unspeakable--make Down Comes the Night the perfect read for a long, cold winter evening. --Lynn Becker, blogger and host of Book Talk, a monthly online discussion of children's books for SCBWI.

Discover: Forbidden romance and political intrigue make this a thrilling YA gothic fantasy.

Saturday, March 13, 2021

March Recommendations


A VOW SO BOLD AND DEADLY, marks the conclusion of Brigid Kemmerer’s Cursebreaker trilogy. Beginning with A CURSE SO DARK AND LONELY, a practically perfect retelling of Beauty and the Beast, the second and third installments are also well worth the time. In this final volume, Grey tries to win over the soldiers of Syhl Shallow—just as he has their queen—before the allotted two months are up and they march to attack Emberfall. Meanwhile, back at Ironrose Castle, Rhen is at odds with Harper and endlessly tortured by sorcerer Lilith. He’s also losing the trust of his own people, and a peaceful outcome with Grey seems less and less possible. (YA)

In DOWN COMES THE NIGHT, by Allison Saft, Wren knows she’s the best healer in Queen Isabel’s Guard but, even so, Isabel considers her a “worthless” illegitimate niece. When an unusual invitation offers Wren a chance for redemption—and a way to avoid the coal mines—she jumps on it. Wren travels to the estate of Lord Lowry to heal his servant Henry, only to find Henry is a notorious enemy of Queen and country. Forbidden love combines with political intrigue in this darkly gothic fantasy featuring a disgraced healer and a wartime murderer. The perfect book for a cold winter’s night. (YA)


THIS POEM IS A NEST, by Irene Latham, with art by Johanna Wright, is rather stunning in its creative approach to poetry. Beginning with one poem, called “Nest,” Latham goes on to write 161 “nestlings,” smaller “found” poems which reuse words within the larger original. The digital drawings with ink washes provide a nice touch. This book is endlessly fascinating! (MG, YA)

Picture Books:

Likewise, MEL FELL, by Corey Tabor, is one of the more creative approaches to picture books. Readers will immediately know something is up when they see that the book opens sideways. The story follows little kingfisher Mel, who decides it’s time to fly. When her sister asked if she’s scared, Mel answers, “Yes… but I won’t let that stop me.” Down Mel plummets, passing other animals who try to help her, until *SPLASH* she lands in the water—and readers will have to turn the book upside down (which is sideways the other way!) to follow Mel’s triumphant return to the nest. The charming illustrations are pencil, colored pencil, and acrylic paint finished digitally.

DON’T HUG DOUG (He Doesn’t Like It), written by Carrie Finison, illustrated by Daniel Wiseman, uses a clever text and inventive digital illustrations to explain why, even though Doug likes you, hugs just aren’t his thing. And maybe you should ask before you hug best friend Finn and Grandma McGinn and an identical twin—and Doug’s potbellied pig (who loves hugs but is “a little scared of strangers.” For a book that’s mostly telling readers what not to do, it’s surprisingly fun!

I’LL MEET YOU IN YOUR DREAMS, by Jessica Young, illustrated by Rafael L√≥pez, is a gorgeous, soothing, rhythmic, rhyming bedtime story reminiscent of Margaret Wise Brown’s The Runaway Bunny. You’ll want to read aloud this ode to the everlasting nature of parental love.


Monday, March 8, 2021

Shelf Awareness--Hello Earth!: Poems to Our Planet

PB Review: Hello Earth!: Poems to Our Planet

Hello Earth!: Poems to Our Planet by Joyce Sidman, illus. by Miren Asiain Lora (Eerdmans Books for Young Readers, 68p., ages 5-9, 9780802855282)

Newbery Honoree Joyce Sidman (Dark Emperor and Other Poems of the Night; Round) teams up with Miren Asiain Lora (illustrator, The Mermaid Atlas) for this heartfelt poetry collection featuring the voices of Earth's children--"the human ones"--as they speak directly to the planet.

Melding scientific research with poetry, Sidman's words encourage readers to think philosophically. In "Floating," she questions how humans can be "climbing trees, walking paths,/ staring up at constellations" while also out "in deepest space." Of the relationship with moon and sun, Sidman asks Earth what it's like to feel "one so close,/ a silver sister. One so far,/ a burning star." Sidman takes readers beneath the ocean, home to "creatures whose bodies/ breathe water/ instead of air," and into "Noisy" cities, where "digging/ and building /and shouting/ and grabbing/ and rushing around" keep people from remembering to be happy with what we've been given. Sidman crafts her poems to speak eloquently to "our ship/ through light/ and darkness."

Lora's graceful watercolor and acrylic art employs fine details on expansive backgrounds to evoke wonder in concepts both concrete and abstract. Her tiny humans and animals actively interact with their surroundings, adding depth and giving readers plenty of details to pore over. Topics--including the physical attributes of Earth, forces that act upon it and the human impact on the planet--are further fleshed out in extensive back matter, including a section on "ways kids can help." This is an inspiring collection, and one likely to encourage further study. --Lynn Becker, blogger and host of Book Talk, a monthly online discussion of children's books for SCBWI.

Discover: Heartfelt science-based poems and paintings for young readers celebrate planet Earth.

Tuesday, March 2, 2021

March's Book of the Month--We Are Water Protectors

March’s Book of the Month is the 2021 Caldecott winner, WE ARE WATER PROTECTORS, written by Carole Lindstrom, and illustrated by Michaela Goade.

“Water is sacred,” a young protagonist’s Nokomis (Grandmother) tells her. So, when the black snake comes, whose “venom burns the land” and “courses through the water,” the girl knows she must rally her people. They will “stand for the water” and for all those who “cannot fight for themselves,” indeed, for the very Earth itself, and they must vanquish the black snake.

This is a story of stories passed down, of people who, acting as stewards of land and water, fight to protect a legacy that belongs to us all. The fluid text feels like a rolling, swirling river and begs to be read aloud. The illustrations, are fluid, too, with images swooping across the pages, images that both exalt and ground the poetic text. I don’t see a citation for the materials used, but they look to be water colors, or a digital simulation of such. Blues and greens, oranges, reds, and earth tones dominate the strong, yet gentle, artwork. Back matter explains both the author’s and the illustrator’s personal connections to the story.

WE ARE WATER PROTECTORS is a book which calls young people to action. To stand against destructive forces. Like the heroes in this inspiring book who give the “black snake…the fight of its life,” WE ARE WATER PROTECTORS may also inspire readers to take action against any “black snakes” they, too, encounter.


Monday, February 22, 2021

Guest Post: Sherry Shahan

I’m happy to share with you this guest post from Sherry Shahan on how she came to write her YA novel, Purple Daze: A Far Out Trip, 1965. Sherry is an author and fellow member of the Central/Coastal California region of the SCBWI. --Lynn

Guest Post: How Unearthing a Shoe Box of Letters Inspired a Novel in Verse

by Sherry Shahan

    My novel in verse Purple Daze: A Far Out Trip, 1965 was inspired when I found an old shoebox in my closet. Inside were letters from a friend who had served in Vietnam during the 1960s. I remember sitting on the floor and rereading the gut-wrenching accounts of his time in that living hell. I still can’t believe I’d kept his letters more than 50 years.

    A short time later, I began writing character sketches about other high school friends. Once I began scribbling, memories slammed me twenty-four-seven. I let myself tap into the emotions triggered by that crazy time—from happiness (our wild antics) to rage (over a senseless war) and sorrow (teen angst). It was like being in a constant flashback.

Since my friend’s letters inspired the novel, I decided to use that form of expression for his character. I experimented with other styles for other characters—notes, journal entries, free verse and traditional poetry. I wanted the story’s emotional layer to be as true to life as possible, although I never considered portraying events as they really happened.

    Experimenting with a nontraditional form definitely had its challenges. Each of the six viewpoint characters required his or her own story arc, yet I had to weave the individual stories smoothly into the whole.

    I suddenly became aware of ‘white space’ and its role in shaping emotional context. In certain instances, white space reflected the power of a thought or idea in a way that solid text could not.

    This piece is only four lines:

Love is like sticking
your car keys in a pocket with
your sunglasses and thinking
your glasses won’t get scratched

    In later drafts, I added descriptive entries about historical events in 1965, such as the Pentagon’s authorization of Napalm, the assassination of Malcolm X, and the FBI’s all-out war to discredit Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. These pieces are juxtaposed against musical references: rock concerts and the true story behind Arlo Guthrie's song “Alice's Restaurant.”

    Ultimately, though, I wanted Purple Daze to be a story about six high school friends and their sometimes crazy, often troublesome, and ultimately dramatic lives. To me, verse mirrors the pulse of adolescent life. Condensed metaphoric language on a single page is an apt reflection of their dramatic, tightly-packed world.

Sherry Shahan lives in a laid-back beach town in California where she grows carrot tops in ice cube trays for pesto. She’s best known for middle-grade adventure novels featuring teen girls:
Frozen Stiff, Iceland, and Death Mountain. Her articles and short stories have appeared in national and international magazines, such as Highlights for Children, High Five, Cricket, Cobblestone, Aquila, and Caterpillar. She holds an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts and taught a creative writing course for UCLA Extension for 10 years.