Category Archives: Picture Book Spotlight

This Year’s Daddy-Books

Every Christmas (birthdays, too) Scott gives each child one special
picture book. Yes, our older girls are well past picture-book age by
now—except that you’re never past picture-book age, not really.
I’m certainly not. And this is a treasured family tradition; it’s
always great fun to see what gems he comes up with.

His picks for Christmas, 2008:

: an oldie but one of the best. Caps for Sale by Esphyr Slobodkina.
Our dog-eared paperback copy was recently destroyed in that little bit
of flooding we had on my birthday. Scott replaced it with a hardcover,
because Rilla is ripe for that time-honored, giggle-inducing refrain of
“You monkeys you, you give me back my caps!”

: a newish Boynton book called Fifteen Animals! (Most of which are named Bob.) A perfect choice for our little guy, who loves rhythm, repitition, and all things Boyton.

: Knuffle Bunny: A Cautionary Tale by the fabulous Mo Willems.
This would have been a fine choice for any of our brood, but Scott
singled it out for our belly-laughing Bean, and belly-laugh she did. We
all loved the Caldicott honor-winning combination of black-and-white
photo backgrounds and whimsical Willems art, and poor little Trixie’s
desperate attempts to communicate the disappearance of her beloved
bunny to her father are utterly priceless. A slam-dunk, daddy dear.

: A Visitor for Bear by Bonny Becker, illustrated by Kady MacDonald Denton.
This was one of the Cybils nominees, and when I read the library copy,
I knew it was a keeper. Sweet, funny story about a rather curmudgeonly
bear who, despite his best efforts, finds himself playing host to a
persistent and amiable mouse. I showed it to Scott, who instantly
pegged it as a perfect Rose book. Endearing art, charming story.

: Diary of a Fly by Doreen Cronin and Harry Bliss. Various children have been given its companion books, Diary of a Worm and Diary of a Spider,
in years past. I believe Scott said he chose this one for Jane because
of the line about the young fly being relieved to discover that he’s
not the only kid at school who likes regurgitated food. (Cue satisfying
shriek from thirteen-year-old.)

Of course our Christmas book bounty didn’t end with the Daddy-books, but the rest of the treasures must wait for another post.

(A note about the links here: I stopped including Amazon links in
my posts a long while back, for various angsty reasons of my own.
However, a recent Kidlitosphere discussion alerted me to the copyright
question involved with using book cover images from Amazon and
linking to that site, so in this post I have returned to my old
practice of including the Amazon link. Since I have an affiliate
account, any purchases made from a clickthrough here will earn me a
small referral fee. Wanted to be very up-front with that info! In years
past, such referrals helped pay for the maintenance of this site. For
that, I thank you!)

Picture Book Spotlight: Jumpy Jack & Googily

Jumpy Jack and Googily by Meg Rosoff and Sophie Blackall. Henry Holt & Co.

What a charmer this picture book is. Scores very high on the
giggle-meter with my gang. Jumpy Jack is a snail of the most nervous
sort. As lovably neurotic anthropomorphizations go, Jack’s right up
there with Piglet, friend of Pooh. Fortunately, Jumpy Jack has his best
friend Googily to put his mind to rest when the monster-worries creep
in. Jack fears monsters are lurking at every turn—monsters with big
round eyes and sharp teeth and lolling tongues and possibly even creepy
bowler hats. Googily—he’s the amiable fellow in blue you see there—is a
little puzzled by Jack’s boogieman complex, but he’s always happy to
help soothe his pal’s fears by taking a peek into the corners Jack’s
sure are hiding fearsome monsters.

In the end, we find that Googily has a fear of his own—and
apparently with better reason than Jumpy Jack! The surprise ending
elicited belly laughs from my seven- and two-year-olds.

I really love this sweet and simple picture book. It’s fresh and
funny, and the art is enchanting, and the text holds up well to
numerous re-readings, which is a quality I very much watch for in a
young picture book. If I’m going to have to read it aloud five times a
day, it’s got to be readable.

But beyond that, I appreciate the way the plot plays with the idea
that people can create monsters in their minds, terrifying specters
composed of stereotypes, while being oblivious to the fact that the
generalizations they are throwing around so carelessly might very well
include real people they know and love.

Books We’ve Read: Grace for President

Gracepresident Grace for President by Kelly DiPucchio, illustrated by LeUyen Pham. Hyperion.

We pulled this from our Cybils
to-be-read stack yesterday because of the title, and I wish I’d read it
a little sooner so I could have shared it with you in time for you to
hit the library before Election Day. Grace for President is an
appealing story about young Grace’s presidential race—in which votes
are counted Electoral College-style. The book offers a simple and
easy-to-understand look at the Electoral College in action.

The race begins when Grace learns, to her astonishment, that there
has never been a "girl president." Her classmates snicker when she
declares that she shall be the first, but her teacher takes her
seriously and suggests a campaign for class president. Two classes,
actually: her opponent is a charismatic boy from the room next door.

Their campaign is lively and, paralleling real life, somewhat
all-consuming for a time. As voting day approaches, it becomes clear
that the boys have an edge on the electoral map, and Grace’s rival,
Thomas, seems assured of victory…but could it be that the young man
representing Wyoming is a swing state?

All three of my big girls enjoyed the book—Jane and Rose for its
look at how the Electoral College works, Beanie for the fun story and
the charming art, especially the surprise addition to Mount Rushmore at
the end.

Everything I Need to Know in Life I Learned from Cookies

Cookies: Bite-Size Life Lessons by Amy Krouse Rosenthal, illustrated by Jane Dyer.

Credit for discovering this scrumptious morsel of a book goes to my pal Lisa, who read it, loved it, and knew my kids and I would eat it up. And right she was. This charming picture book is an exploration of virtues (and a few vices) as demonstrated by one’s relationship to cookies.

"TRUSTWORTHY means, If you ask me to hold your cookie until you come back, when you come back, I will still be holding your cookie."

"COMPASSIONATE means, Don’t worry, it’s okay, you can have part of my cookie."

"ENVY means, I can’t stop looking at your cookie out of the corner of my eye—it looks so much better than my cookie. Boy, I wish it were mine and not yours."

"LOYAL means that even though the new person has a much bigger cookie, I’m sticking by you and your little cookies because you’re my very best friend."

Sweet, simple, and nourishing: this is the perfect recipe for a picture book. There is much food for discussion here. Really it’s quite an ingenious concept: Beanie, my resident six-year-old, was captivated by this illustration of qualities worth cultivating. We have often talked about ‘cultivating the virtues,’ and I think Cookies made the abstract concepts crystal clear. It also made us hungry. If you’ve given up sweets for Lent, you might want to save this one for the Easter basket.

Oh My Goodness!

I’m so excited! I just learned from Fuse #8 that the most beloved picture book of my childhood has been reissued—and the icing on this cake? The new illustrations are by George Booth. So! Excited!

The book: Never Tease a Weasel by Jean Conder Soule. Did you hear that, father of mine? The very one, the book we quoted a dozen times a day when my sisters and I were tiny. I remember standing in my grandma’s kitchen chanting, "Never tease a weasel, Daddy! Not even once or twice…" (The Daddy part was a bit of preschooler editorializing.)

I have hunted for this book to no avail on Abebooks and other bookfinder sources. And now, finally, FINALLY, someone at Random House has gotten smart and brought it back.  Who was the brilliant editor, I wonder? I shall have to investigate and send flowers or something. I am that thrilled.

And getting George Booth to do the art! GENIUS! George is a New Yorker cartoonist, but far more important, he was the illustrator of April Halprin Wayland’s It’s Not My Turn to Look for Grandma—which Bonny Glen regulars might recognize as another one of my favorite picture books ever. Nobody, nobody, does whimsy-with-an-edge like George Booth. He was the perfect choice, an inspired choice, for Never Tease a Weasel, and Fuse#8 seems to agree.

Another illustrator might have gone the ootsy-cutesy route and
sacchrined this puppy up by the end. Not Booth. The final image is
heartwarming without ever becoming too overtly adorable. It’s nice.
That’s what Booth brings to the book. The rhymes are exceedingly clever
at times, but it’s the illustrator that has to compliment the action in
just the right way. For example, the rabbit in the riding habit, then,
hops along in his picture, losing various accouterments as he goes
“plop ploppity plop plop.” Booth gets how to do "awkward". If the
thought of a possum in an Easter Sunday hat is silly then Booth knows
how to make such an image doubly so. Plus, he never makes the mistake
of having these ridiculous combinations make any sense. So the goat in
a coat “with a collar trimmed in mink”, looks simultaneously goatish
AND pissed off. The mule in swimming trunks (blinders still on) leaps
from the diving board in pretty much the most peculiar position
possible. And even as these various critters do their thing, they’re
enticing enough to hold a squirmy child’s attention for long periods of

I was an editorial staffer at Random House Children’s when Mr. Booth was finishing up the art for Not My Turn to Look for Grandma. As I recall, he had been working on that book for a long, long time, and in the end he began coming into the RH offices to work: his idea, I believe, to get himself past the final hurdles. I was a young coffee-fetcher perched in a cubicle at the end of a long corridor, and I loved to see Mr. Booth amble down the hall in his quiet, courteous, gentle-giant way. I don’t believe we ever spoke, unless perhaps he asked once or twice if my boss, his editor, was in her office. Usually my boss was the one who went in search of him, peeking into the room down the hall and around the corner where George had set up camp. Inevitably I would hear her peal of laughter ringing down the corridor within seconds of her arrival in George’s office. He cracked her up, every time.

When the finished boards for each page would mosey past my desk, I too would dissolve into helpless giggles: George Booth’s art is quietly, deliciously killing. That sneaky old porcupine in the Grandma book! The dirty old dogs! Grandma herself, the hillbilly queen, with her knobby bun and toothless smirk, toes upspread as she slides down a haystack: children’s book art doesn’t get better than this.

And now, and now! This perfect marriage! I cannot WAIT to get my hands on a copy. Thank you, Betsy, for the heads-up!

Hanna and Me

Around this time of year I begin to get lots of inquiries about my little picture book, Hanna’s Christmas. Since you can’t even find a copy on Amazon this year, I thought I’d better post about it.  It was published in 2001 as a joint effort by HarperFestival (an imprint of HarperCollins) and Hanna Andersson, the clothing retailer. (I used my married name, Peterson, not my pen name, Wiley.) The Hanna folks carried it in their catalog for a season or two, but the print run was small and it was not expected to live much longer than that.

I was commissioned to write the book as a work-for-hire, which means there’s no royalty—the writer gets a flat fee and that’s that, no matter how well the book sells. Most books involving licensed characters or merchandise tie-ins are work-for-hire projects. I don’t do work-for-hire anymore, but it was a good way to hone my craft when I was young and hungry. It was also a good way to pay scary medical bills when we were self-employed and under-insured.

I’m fond of the Hanna book, although it was a bear to write. Like every other work-for-hire I’ve done, there were too many editors involved, each of them contradicting the others. There was a Harper senior editor, a Harper junior editor, the Harper merch director, and an editor who worked for the packager (a kind of middleman publishing company that put together the deal between Harper and Hanna Andersson). I was hired by the Harper folks to write "a picture book about a little Swedish girl named Hanna who moves to America and is homesick, and it’s Christmas. Oh, and also we’d like there to be a tomten in it."

They already had sketches of Hanna and the tomten—adorably and whimsically drawn by artist Melissa Iwai. From there it was all up to me, sort of. I came up with the storyline, which had to be approved by all the aforementioned folks plus someone at Hanna Andersson itself. Then I wrote a draft, which got bumped back and forth a zillion times as every editor weighed in with contradictory remarks.

Like this. In the first draft, I described the tomten’s hat as "red as a rowanberry." One of the editors bounced it back with a strikethrough.

"Change to ‘his hat was bright red,’ " read the note in the margin. "American readers won’t know what rowanberries are."

Sigh. I argued that "bright red" was flat and boring. Okay, I wasn’t that blunt, but that was the gist. I pointed out that we’d be better off cutting the whole sentence, since the artwork would clearly show that the tomten’s hat was red anyway.

Nope, said the editor, go with "his hat was bright red." So I did, growling at the screen. That’s just dumb writing. When you’re reading a book to your kids, you don’t want to get stuck dragging through pedestrian sentences like "his hat was bright red." Bleh.

And then the next person up the line—the merch director, whom I’d worked with before and who happens to be a first-rate editor—read the manuscript. She sent it back with her comments. There was a note by "his hat was bright red."

"Flat. Can you punch up?"


I changed it to "red as a hollyberry" and that’s the line that made it into the book. I still think rowanberry was better.

But I digress. Anyway, I loved the story and am really very fond of my slightly grumpy Hanna and her even grumpier tomten friend. I was quite pleased that I got to work in the St. Lucia feast day tradition, since that was already such a happy tradition in our little family. I got a kick out of having Hanna and the tomten make a construction paper crown, because that was what I had done for Jane the December before. I loved the artwork—I have never met or even spoken to Melissa Iwai, but I thought her work was gorgeous. (I keep meaning to check out her other books. Looks like she has a lot of them! Her website is cool, too, especially the process section.)

In the end, I was really happy with the book and was a little bummed it was a merch tie-in, because of course that put it in a different category of book and I knew it would never be reviewed by the critics. To my surprise, it did get a nice little review in School Library Journal, but still, it was a merch property, not intended for a long and dignified life on library shelves. After all, the characters are all wearing Hanna Andersson clothing. Even the endpapers are Hanna prints. (We actually have a baby outfit in the same pattern.) Is it a book or a commercial?

That’s the trouble with work-for-hire, and that’s why I’m glad I don’t have to take on that kind of project anymore.

But in the end, I’m glad I took on the Hanna project. I liked the challenge of trying to tell an engaging and well-crafted story within the confines placed upon me by the various bosses. There’s a certain satisfaction in trying to make art out of something so commercial.

Originally, Harper had asked me to write a sequel, but that book got
killed somewhere between the second and third draft. Apparently sales
of Hanna’s Christmas were less than impressive.

So last year I was amused to discover that the book had taken on a new life in the resale market. People were actually hunting for it, trying to land a copy. This year it seems there are no copies on the market at all. I guess everyone who bought it last year decided to hold on to it, which is nice to think about.

Over the years, I gave away almost all of my author comps. The book really is going to disappear for good soon, save for a few scattered copies on people’s Christmas shelves. So to the very nice folks who have written me in recent weeks, asking if I know where you can find copies, I’m afraid I have to tell you I’m unable to help you out. But I deeply appreciate your interest!

Picture Book Spotlight: Please Say Please

Pleasesayplease_1 Please Say Please: Penguin’s Guide to Manners by Margery Cuyler.

This charming picture book was one of last week’s library discoveries, and Beanie likes it so much she just about has it memorized. Penguin has invited a small menagerie of friends to dinner, and let’s just say their manners leave something to be desired. But they’re amiable creatures, willing to improve.

"When a hippo sits down for dinner, she should put her napkin on her head. HOW PRETTY! Is that right?"

This is a great approach to teaching manners—presenting extremely silly behaviors and asking if they’re appropriate. Beanie belly-laughed over the animals’ hijinks and delighted in shouting "Noooo!" every time the narrator asked, "Is that right?"

"No, that’s wrong," the book continues. "When a hippo sits down for dinner, she should lay her napkin on her lap. THAT’S BETTER!"

Likewise, we learn that a lion shouldn’t say "Ew, I hate cauliflower" without a taste, a pig shouldn’t wipe his muddy hooves on the tablecloth, and a giraffe shouldn’t burp on purpose, no matter how tasty her serving of leaves.

The art is fun and lively, and the colorful text interjections ("Splat!" "Sticky-poo!") were a fun opportunity for my emerging reader to practice sounding out.

Picture Book Spotlight: How Do I Love You?

006001200501_aa_scmzzzzzzz_v51207944_How Do I Love You? by Leslie Kimmelman, pictures by Lisa McCue.

“How do I love you, little one? Let me count the ways…” says the mama alligator. (Or maybe it’s the daddy; who can tell with alligators?) And she begins to name all the ways she adores her young’un, much to my own young’un’s delight.

“Twelve, I’ll love you when you’re grown; thirteen, I love you small,” I read. “Read that part again, Mommy,” Beanie begs. She caught me in the midst of my Tasmanian-devil impersonation as I was whirling through the house trying to get it ready to go on the market (which it now officially is, gulp) and asked me to read this book to her, and when we snuggled up together on the couch with the smell of Windex still lingering in the air, the look on her face was like the end of a Mastercard commercial. Putting your house on the market on the spur of the moment: Hours of labor. Reading to your kid even though the realtor is about to walk in the door and the house ISN’T READY YET: Priceless.

“Read that part again!”

She loves those lines, about how the mama will love her little one when she’s grown and loves her when she’s small. At the end of the book she turns back to that page and asks me to read it “two more times.” The art makes her giggle: now the baby alligator is grinning at its reflection in funhouse mirrors. And the breadth of the mama’s assertions of love seem infinitely satisfying to this five-year-old lass.

It’s a simple book, and a sweet one. The art is lively and fun, whimsically painted in a palette of greens and blues—cool colors that manage to convey deep warmth. This parent and child adore one another, and that’s what my little girl wants to hear.

“Fourteen fifteen sixteen
each silly dance you do,
or spin you spin, or grin you grin
when you try something new.”

Eventually the alligator pair runs out of fingers and toes to count off, and the mama says that “when it comes to loving you, well, twenty’s not enough.” The little alligator is glowing with glee by this point, and Beanie’s face mirrors that emotion.

“Go back to twelve,” she says, snuggling in a little closer.

The Windex will just have to wait.

Only Opal

069811564301_aa_scmzzzzzzz_Only Opal: The Diary of a Young Girl, adapted by Jane Boulton, illustrated by Barbara Cooney.

I put this book on hold at the library after reading a review of it—somewhere. I couldn’t remember where. After I read it to my girls, I had to Google Blogsearch it because I needed to know a) who to thank for steering me toward it and b) if other homeschoolers were writing about the thing that pierced my heart about this book.

When the blogsearch landed on Karen Edmisten I thought: Well, of COURSE.

This heartbreakingly beautiful picture book is based on the diary of a young girl named Opal Whitely, a turn-of-the-century child whose parents died and left her to be bounced from one lumber camp to the next in the care of cold and uncaring foster parents. Opal’s surviving record of her very early days—she was only five or six when she kept this diary—is a stunning portrait of a tender, hopeful spirit clinging to every tiny shred of beauty to be found in a grim world. A dark-eyed mouse lives in her pocket; a tall, straight-backed tree offers her strength and support. Opal has no one to love her, so she pours out her own love upon the calf in the field, even though her kind attentions earn her harsh words from the nameless woman who houses her (and works her half to death).

That the foster mother is nameless is telling: Opal is overflowing with names for the creatures she loves. As Karen Edmisten writes,

“Opal finds solace and beauty in nature and in the books her parents left her. From these books, she discovers names for her friends: her pet mouse becomes Felix Mendelssohn, her calf is Elizabeth Barrett Browning and her favorite tree is christened Michael Raphael.”

And that’s the thing that so moved me—and frightened me, in a way—about this book. Did little Opal encountered the composer, the poet, and the archangels on her own in the books her parents left behind, or were their names already familiar to her because she had learned them at her mama’s knee? I can imagine the young mother in the lumber camp, reciting poetry to her tiny daughter; a father humming snatches of a Mendelssohn melody he caught in a drawing room somewhere far away.

Am I just projecting? Is it that I read poetry—some of the very same poems, no doubt—to my own children, and their father the classical music buff plays them symphonies (very loudly) and waxes enthusiastic about the talents of certain composers? Does Only Opal pierce my heart because my children have learned about St. Michael and St. Raphael at my knee, and seeing this delicate child left abandoned to callous strangers reminds me that we are none of us guaranteed the chance to nurture our little ones all the way to adulthood? Suppose (I don’t like to suppose it) something were to happen, and Scott and I were gone. Have we planted enough fruit-bearing seeds in the children’s hearts to nourish them through whatever trials life might hold for them?

I came away from Only Opal feeling profoundly grateful for the time we have had thus far, and for the freedom we have had to make the most of that time. Thankful for the books that have shaped our days together: the many, many mornings we have spent curled up over a volume of poetry and the evenings when I had to shout “Pass the salt” over the crescendo of a Shostakovich symphony. I cannot imagine a scenario in which my children had no one to love them but a ragged little field mouse, but surely there will be times of distress or loss in their lives sooner or later. I cannot protect them from that. What I can do, what I must do, is bequeath to them a store of treasures—the fine music, the fine words, the fine and glorious tenets of our faith—that will sustain them through the unknowns that lie ahead.

Monday in the Park with George

081094811701_aa240_sclzzzzzzz_Seurat and La Grande Jatte: Connecting the Dots by Robert Burleigh. Scott picked this up at the library and Beanie has been glued to it ever since. (When not standing nose-to-the-plastic in front of our butterfly house of horrors.) It’s a picture book about the famous Georges Seurat painting, A Sunday on La Grande Jatte, 1884 (best known to people of my generation as the painting that so affected Cameron in the best high school movie ever).

“What do we notice first?” Burleigh asks, serving as our tour guide as we get up close and personal with the painting. He shares with us the history of La Grande Jatte and, in an engaging I-Spy-inspired manner, helps us notice every tiny detail. “How many of the following people, animals, and objects can you find?” Monkey on leash, check. Woman knitting, check. Beanie will pore over the pages for half an hour at a stretch. She knows this painting intimately now, and she will never forget it. Burleigh takes us beyond the painting into discussions of pointillism and Impressionism, of Seurat’s work process, of the use of color and light in art: discussions my older girls and I found fascinating. But for my five-year-old, the attraction of this book is in finding the treasures in the dots.