Rickshaw Girl

Rickshaw-GirlThere is something undeniably magical about the intersection of children’s literature and live theater. We’ve seen it with the Royal Shakespeare Company’s spectacular musical adaptation of Roald Dahl’s masterpiece, Matilda.  And now, Bay Area theater goers will strike gold again with an upcoming production of Rickshaw Girl, based on the beautiful book of the same name by Matali Perkins. Oakland’s own Bay Area Children’s Theatre (BACT) opens its theatrical debut of Rickshaw Girl on April 2nd and audiences are sure to fall under Perkin’s literary spell.

Rickshaw Girl tells the story of Naima, a ten-year-old girl living in Bangladesh. Born to impoverished roots, Naima’s gifts include not only a spectacular talent for painting traditional alpanas, but a palpable kindness, which manifests as a yearning to help her family financially. Her father is a rickshaw driver and, when Naima disguises herself as a boy and takes the rickshaw out for a spin, calamity awaits in the form of a wrecked and scraped vehicle. Determined to find a solution, Naima embarks on a journey of both artistic and emotional trials which, ultimately, teach us as readers a lesson in perseverance, creativity and love. This easy-to-read chapter book would be a valuable addition to any bookshelf.

Perkins creates such a memorable character in Naima, that it’s easy to see why this book would translate beautifully on stage. Parents would be foolish to not find a copy of this book as soon as possible, read it together with their children and then treat themselves to a night at the theater.

Out of My Mind, or Best Book of the Summer

9781416971719_p0_v1_s260x420Even though my two boys are getting older, I still love reading out loud to them and, miraculously, they still let me. I’ve read the entire Harry Potter series, almost every Percy Jackson and a smattering of old favorites like Mrs. Piggle Wiggle and Superfudge. But it wasn’t until one particular book came along that it became less about wanting to read to them and needing to read to them. I draw the distinction because this book, one of the most beautiful, heartbreaking books to come out in recent history, must be read by every family. It is necessary and gorgeous and devastating and I cannot recommend it highly enough. This book is Out of my Mind by award-winning author Sharon Draper. And I encourage you to run out right now and purchase it for your entire family.

Draper is no stranger to excellent, groundbreaking children’s books. She is a two-time Coretta Scott King award winner and a favorite of mine. And while all of her books are truly exceptional, this book captures something truly unique in the voice of Melody, its main character. Melody is ten years old and a fifth grader at Spaulding Street Elementary School. She has the thoughts and feelings of a brilliant young girl and yet cannot speak or walk due to her cerebral palsy. Trapped within the confines of her own body, Melody’s poetic spirit is unknown to most people around her, particularly the other students in her school. And her academic prowess (she is gifted beyond her years) is invisible to the teachers at her school. Melody longs to make herself heard and understood and when she acquires a speech board (much like Stephen Hawking) the thoughts that have been heretofore trapped inside of her are finally heard. But all is not easy for her even with the gift of speech. There are still teachers who underestimate her skills, fellow students who taunt and tease. But despite it all, Melody rises to the surface, intent upon becoming visible to the world around her.

This is a story of perseverance, pain and triumph and one of the best, most beautifully written portrayals of a child with disabilities that I have ever read. It is as beautiful as Wonder (please read that too, if you haven’t already) but has its own angle, its own way of telling Melody’s story that has the reader laughing one minute and crying the next. This is a book that every child should read or be read for it speaks to a common kindness and a need for every child and adult to see the best in one another, no matter the ability or disability. Please make this book part of your summer reading list – it is a book that could very well teach your child to be a little kinder, a little more sensitive and a little more able to look beyond the surface and see the beauty underneath.

The Hundred Dresses

In 1944, Eleanor Estes and Louis Slobodkin joined together to create an extraordinary book. The Hundred Dresses is one of those rare children’s books that stays with you, long after you have turned the last page. Granted, it is a difficult book, dealing with the topic of bullying, but the beauty and poetic sensitivity of this book have made it a classic for these last 67 years. The Hundred Dresses tells the tale of Wanda Petronski, a poor Polish-American girl, who is teased at school for her accent, her shabby clothes and her hard-to-pronounce last name. Wanda bears the brunt of her bullying with poise and grace. That is, until, one of the girls in her class makes fun of her faded blue dress which she seems to wear to school every day. Wanda, in a moment of defiance and brilliance, tells the other girls that this is just one of a hundred dresses that she has at home. And she describes her dresses, and their beautiful fabrics, their vivid colors with such detail and such imagination that the other girls, knowing it has to be a lie, begin to bully her all the more ruthlessly – asking her daily about her hundred dresses back home. When Wanda’s family decides to leave the town and move to another school due to the torment their child is experiencing, one little girl experiences the guilt and shame associated with her role in this decision. And when she, and the others, actually come to see Wanda’s hundred dresses with their own eyes, the outcome is touching, tragic, and ultimately beautiful. This book has stayed with me all of these years not only for its rich, abundant prose and gorgeous illustrations, but for the universal themes of ridicule and its outcomes. This is an important book – and one that all parents should share at some point with their children. To teach them that everyone, no matter their color, class or accent has a hundred beautiful dresses of their own just waiting to be seen.

The Best Children’s Books for Summer 2021

Summer is almost here….lazy days at the pool, homemade Popsicles lining the freezer and wonderfully long days just waiting to be filled with amazing books! There is just no better time to dive into a new book than summer, when the hammock calls from the backyard for you to spend the day with a fabulous story. From Wookies to Wonder, Shakespeare to steam trains, this list of the best children’s books for summer is an eclectic collection sure to tickle the fancy of your little ones. Age ranges are indicated for each book but are by no means a required reading age, but rather a general idea of which books are for younger or older children. Many of the books listed for four and five-year-olds, for example, would be enjoyed by two-year-olds as well. I’ve loved reading each of these amazing books – and eagerly await your feedback on them! And I’d love your suggestions for fun summer reading too! Now, go park yourself in that hammock, sip an ice-cold lemonade and lose yourself in one of these wonderful books!

BabyLit Board Books

Written by Jennifer Adams

Illustrated by Alison Oliver

Age range: 1-3 years

babylitFor many years, my son attended a Shakespeare Camp in which he and his fellow campers spent two weeks in literature heaven. Improv, movement, Shakespearean history…why, oh, why can’t adults go to summer camp too? I’d give anything to spend two weeks learning my son’s lines from The Merry Wives of Windsor (he made a smashing Doctor Caius, by the way…) At any rate, inspired by this Bard Bonanza, I went to my favorite local bookstore on the lookout for a children’s biography of Shakespeare. I found that (a lovely member of the “Who Was…” series by Celeste Davidson Mannis) and then I found what may be the most glorious gift to children’s literature in quite some time. Are you ready for this? Author Jennifer Adams and artist Alison Oliver have teamed up to create BabyLit Board Books. Yes, now you can find not onlyRomeo and Juliet for your little anglophile-in-training, but Pride and Prejudice, Jane Eyre, and Sherlock Holmes (sadly, minus Benedict Cumberbatch…). Not only are Oliver’s illustrations just the most adorable things you’ve ever seen, but the way Adams has turned the concept of two jilted lovers and the dashing Mr. Darcy into counting primers for children is nothing short of miraculous. Some purists may scoff at the “dumbing down” of great literature for children, but I give a hearty “huzzah” to the concept of introducing great literature at an early age. Will babies truly understand the difference between Capulets and Montagues? No. But isn’t it fun to try?


Written and Illustrated by Patrick McDonnell

Age range: 1 and up

Me-JaneA few years ago, I had the great fortune of meeting Jane Goodall with a number of my history students. It was, for all intents and purposes, the realization of a life-long dream of meeting this remarkable woman and giving her a hug for being truly one of the most inspirational and selfless individuals in world history. Every year, I include Jane in my Time Travelers History Classes as a featured “world changer” and, every time, I use Patrick McDonnell’s gorgeous book to really bring Jane to life for my students. “Jane had a stuffed toy chimpanzee named Jubilee.” So begins Patrick McDonnell’s lovely story of Dr. Jane Goodall, the woman who single-handedly and lovingly changed the way we interact with animals.  Readers might recognize McDonnell as the creator of the syndicated comic strip MUTTS and as the author of the award-winning picture book Art. He is also a strong animal welfare advocate and has channeled his love for all things fanged or furry in this beautiful book.  The elegant text (“With the wind in her hair, she read and reread the books about Tarzan of the Apes, in which another girl, also named Jane, lived in the jungles of Africa”) married with McDonnell’s inimitable drawings, make for a magical journey into the mind and heart of Goodall. With her stuffed chimpanzee by her side, Jane marvels at the wonders of nature and dreams of someday visiting Africa to see the real life versions of her beloved toy. This dream, of meeting and interacting with these exotic and endearing creatures, comes true for Jane  – and readers will be left yearning to learn more about this wonderful woman. I’ll be teaching my world history students about Jane Goodall in the coming weeks and I’m so thrilled to be able to use this book as a springboard for her lovely contributions to the world. Complete with photographs of Jane as a child and an amazing cartoon drawn by the primatologist herself, Me…Jane is a wonderful introduction to not only true life stories, but to a future built of understanding, philanthropy and wonder.

Press Here

Written and Illustrated by Herve Tullet

Age Range: 2 and up

press hereI was recently browsing around at my favorite local children’s bookstore and overheard a woman and her little girl arguing over a book. The mom was trying to talk the (rather, shall we say, difficult) child into buying a Margaret Wise Brown book (God bless her) and the little girl sat right down in the middle of the aisle and said–and I quote–“I don’t want a book. A book doesn’t do anything.” After reviving myself with smelling salts, I thought about how perhaps there are more little girls and boys around the world (horrors!) who might feel this way and it made me awfully sad. Because books do the most amazing things without actually doing anything at all. You know that. I know that. And luckily, I think all of my readers’ children know that.  But for those children out there who keep waiting for their books to talk in funny voices or play music or run around the house like literary robots, I hope that one day they find that one book that teaches them that the words on the page bring to life more than any game, any toy, any electronic doo-dad they could imagine. Amazingly, as I returned to that same bookstore this week I came across one of the most wonderful books to come along in some time – and it, quite ironically and whimsically, fits into this little soapbox speech of mine. Herve Tullet’s Press Here reminds children and adults alike that the magic of the word and the picture is truly that….magic. Acting as an interactive narrator, Tullet’s book asks the reader to follow the instructions throughout the book. “Press here and turn the page” it says and, lo and behold, that small touch has created something new on the following page. This is a wonderfully imaginative, wry and stunning book that, if nothing else, will remind us of the sheer brilliance of children’s books and the amazing powers of our own minds and fingers.


Written by Kelly DiPucchio

Illustrated by Christian Robinson

Age range: 4-8

gastonWho doesn’t love a book about a little switcheroo? Well, take your favorite switcheroo story and multiply it by one hundred and you’ll start to get close to the brilliance of Kelly DiPucchio and Christian Robinson’s delightful Gaston. Gaston is an adorable little bulldog, stout and a tad on the clumsy side, among a family of prim and proper poodles.  Meanwhile, across town, a little poodle named Antoinette doesn’t quite match her own family of brawny bulldogs. When the two families encounter each other one day, it’s clear that there’s been some sort of mix-up and the decision is made to send Gaston home with his fellow bulldogs, and Antoinette with the gaggle of poodles. But despite all looking the same, Gaston and Antoinette just cannot seem to fit in with their new families and long for their true homes.  As the book states, “That looked right… it just didn’t feel right.” And it’s not long before Gaston and Antoinette are reunited with their real families, and a lovely lesson is learned in true belonging. I’ll admit, there are a few gender stereotypes in the book that set my teeth a bit on edge, but I fear that’s probably just more my issue than anyone else’s. However, one cannot deny the charm and endearing message within this book, particularly with Christian Robinson’s absolutely fabulous illustrations. There are many built-in sound effects in the book which will also make it a real hoot to read aloud to your children! All in all, a fun, whimsical little book with a nice message and the cutest little French bulldog you’ve ever seen.

Steam Train, Dream Train

Written and illustrated by Sherri Duskey Rinker and Tom Lichtenheld

Age range: 4-6 years

steam-train-dream-trainThere is just something about trains and children. Both of my boys were avid train aficionados in their younger years and absolutely devoured any book that even remotely mentioned locomotives. Freight Train by Donald Crews, Two Little Trains by Margaret Wise Brown and I Love Trains by Philemon Sturges and Shari Halpern being three of their all-time favorites. Now you put trains and TOYS together, and you’ve got the makings of an instant success! I only wish my boys were a bit younger so they could truly immerse themselves once again in the world of train fiction, particularly with the publication of Sherri Duskey Rinker and Tom Lichtenheld’s Steam Train, Dream Train. This lovely little book, by the same power team behind Goodnight, Goodnight, Construction Site (another must-have!), has all the same rhythmic appeal of Brown’s classic, Goodnight Moon, with the added appeal of circus animals, toys, ice cream sundaes and even dinosaurs! Hidden within the delightful rhyming text, train vocabulary words are written in bold for an extra benefit of educating your children on the various parts of a train. This is a beautiful book, perfect for bedtime, and ideal not only for the overtly obsessed train lovers, but for engineers in training and the ones who love them.

I Want my Hat Back

Written and illustrated by Jon Klassen

Age range: 4-8 years

Perhaps I am just a sucker for bemused looking animals, but Jon Klassen’s book I Want My Hat Back is one of my new all-time favorites. I mean, seriously. Just look at that bear’s face. It’s irresistibly droll.  The book offers a simple story, really. No bells and whistles here. But for anyone with a slightly bent sense of humor and a great appreciation for clever writing, this is the book for you. Simply told, bear’s hat is missing. And he’s not too thrilled with the situation. Using the age-old repetitive trope of such classics as The Gingerbread Manand The Little Red Hen, the creatures of the forest encounter the peeved bear one by one, offering little-to-no guidance on his chapeau search. That is, until a graceful deer triggers a faint memory in the bear’s fuzzy brain. And with that, the true mystery of the hat takes off on little furry feet. And don’t even ask me what happens to the bunny. I’m not telling. You’ll just have to immediately go out and buy this adorably naughty book and find out for yourself.

Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle

Written by Betty MacDonald

Illustrated by Hilary Knight

Age range: 8-12 years

mrs_piggle_wiggleI’m feeling a bit sentimental today…and, as such, I’m bringing back an old favorite – Mrs. Piggle Wiggle by Betty McDonald. Ooooo how I loved this series as a child. Mrs. Piggle Wiggle lives in an upside down house and smells like cookies and, thankfully for parents everywhere, has wonderful cures for every possible childhood lament. And we’re not talking about chickenpox or measles, here. We’re talking about cures for things like talking back and not picking up toys and selfishness. My favorite of Mrs. Piggle Wiggle’s infamous cures is for the girl who won’t take a bath. And the dirt just keeps accumulating on this beastly little child. So, Mrs. Piggle Wiggle instructs her parents to plant turnip seeds in the dirt on her face and watch them grow. They do just that and, surprise!, a bath is quickly accomplished. Young readers will delight in the whimsical and magical words of MacDonald and illustrations from Hilary Knight of Eloise fame. And parents will love that someone finally has a cure for not wanting to go to bed.


Written by R.J. Palacio

Age Range: 8-12 years

Wonder-by-R.J.-PalacioNow, this book is not new. It’s been around for a while now, but I’m continually shocked to hear that there are actually people in the world who have not had the great pleasure of reading R. J. Palacio’s life-changing book. More and more you see young readers and adults immersed in the same books and I am always impressed when a writer can span multiple audiences, particularly when it comes to ages. Kathryn Erskine’s mockingbird is another of these books that speaks to any age – a brilliant, lovely piece which I hope you read as well. Wonder tells the story of young August Pullman, a ten-year old boy born with a severe facial deformity.  Homeschooled until this story takes place, Auggie has been protected by his lovable parents and sister with a fierceness and loyalty that any parent would exhibit in such a situation. Now, in an attempt to bring him out into the world and mainstream his education (both academically and socially), Auggie will take on new challenges as a 5th grader at an elite private school in his neighborhood. What unfolds is a story so universal in its pain and joy that every child and adult can relate. Auggie’s challenges, his ups and downs are, indeed, magnified by the extreme physicality of his differentiation, but the heart with which Palacio tells his story, makes Auggie an everyman…everyboy. Friends come and go, cafeteria seats are saved, then not saved, then pulled out from under him, until ultimately, kindness wins. This is an important book. One that every child and parent should read, even together as a means of opening up necessary discussions about interaction with one another. And in an era of bullying and teasing and taunting the likes of which we have not seen before, Auggie’s story is not only a beautiful example of the resilience of the human spirit, it is a reminder that there is always kindness in the world. It may take a while a find it, but it’s there, waiting with wonder.

What’s Happening to Me?

Written by Peter Mayle

Illustrated by Arthur Robins

Age range: 9 and up

518ZW4mpY1L._SX258_BO1,204,203,200_Recently, our elementary school’s 5th graders had to endure the long-anticipated “Puberty Talk.” A milestone which, at least according to my son, “everyone’s gotta live through at some point.” My elementary school had the talk in 6th grade and I’ll never forget when my friend Larry Love (yes, that was his name) burst from the boys’ classroom yelling, “We just learned about peninsulas and Virginians!”  Long before that fateful talk, though, in 1975, Peter Mayle (yes, of A Year in Provence fame) and Arthur Robins published a book that would forever change my life. Their brilliantly informative and remarkably unembarrassing teenage tome, What is Happening to Me: A Guide to Puberty, would prove to be my personal roadmap through acne (why yes, it does appear on your back!), periods (why yes, they do happen on ski trips!) and bras (why, yes, the woman in the bra department will quickly become your worst nightmare!). Written for both boys and girls, Mayle and Robins’ book gently and factually describes every injustice known to plague teenagers – handling each question, no matter how humiliating, with common sense, and no hint of ridicule or judgment. Robins’ illustrations bring a sense of humor to the topics and make the reader feel a lot more comfortable reading about unexpected hairs than you’d ever imagine. I poured over this book as puberty beckoned and found comfort in not being the only person on the face of the earth to experience the new feelings, emotions and struggles of that time. For any parent working through the first signs of adolescence with their children this summer, this book is as powerful now as it was then to a little girl in her pegged jeans who just needed to know that everything was going to be alright.

The Star Wars Craft Book

Written by Bonnie Burton

Age range: Fans of all ages!

Bonnie Burton may have just cemented her place in the Zeigler Hall of Fame for her latest contribution to all things Wookie, The Star Wars Craft Book. Are you kidding me? Just when I thought we couldn’t possible devote any more time to General Grievous, Count Dooku and Jabba the Hutt, here comes an entire book of crafty items you and your children can make this summer as an homage to your love of Lucas.  Chewbacca Sock Puppets to cuddle! Ewok Fleece Hats to keep your ears warm!  Wookiee Bird Houses for your backyard! And, my personal favorite, Hanukkah “Droidels” for the holiday season! Even if your kids aren’t exactly the most crafty kids on the block, the sheer humor behind each and every one of these crafts will keep you laughing all the way to Michael’s craft store. Not only is this book perfect for any child with a penchant for Plo Koon, but it’s the most fabulous gift ever for those hidden adult Star Wars fans who just might come out of the woodwork for the prospect of an R2-D2 crocheted beanie.

The Frank Show, or Grandpa Has a What?!?

the frank showThere’s just so much to love about this book, I’m not quite sure where to start.  To begin with, I have a sweet spot in my heart for men named Frank (my father’s name) and truly believe it is one of the best names to utilize in children’s literature. Seriously. You can’t go wrong with Frank.  Second of all, I have a wee bit of a crush on the writer/illustrator, David MacKintosh.  As a London-based illustrator, graphic designer and just all-around clever gent, Mr. MacKintosh’s illustrations absolutely tickle me pink. I adore his previous children’s book, Marshall Armstrong is New to our School (you should definitely look for it if you’ve missed it) and am completely gaga for his typography. Yes, ladies and gentlemen, I just admitted to loving someone’s typography. Word nerd alert! But you’ve got to see it to see what I mean. Visit his website at http://www.DavidMackintosh.co.uk and you’ll get it.

But I digress. Mr. MacKintosh’s new book, The Frank Show is every bit as delightful and heartwarming as any classic children’s book I’ve read. With a twist of irreverence, wit and dark humor perfect for your avid young readers. The premise is this: it’s Show and Tell time at school and, as teachers often do, the students are tasked with sharing information about a member of their family. And, as this specific theme often entails, everybody else seems to have much more interesting relatives than the dear grandson of Frank. Grandpa Frank doesn’t like much. Especially new things. New music? Pah. New inventions? Bah. So how in the world will our little hero be able to wow his fellow classmates with a curmudgeonly old fogey who teems with Scroogisms? You’d be surprised. For when Grandpa Frank unveils his secret history, the doors of generational wisdom and love are thrown open wide for us all to enjoy. This is an endearing, lovely, utterly amazing book that just further establishes Mr. MacKintosh’s deserved place among the best children’s book writers of our time.

Why We Broke Up, or Remembering the Onion Shirt

why_we_broke_upWhen I heard that Daniel Handler, of Lemony Snicket fame, had written a young adult novel with a romantic bent, I’ll admit I was intrigued. My children adore the Series of Unfortunate Events books and I love, love, love listening to any and all interviews with him, particularly his Fresh Air interview from 2004. Daniel Handler is one of those rare authors and people who isn’t at all ashamed of his intellect. Of his predisposition to odd references and awkward jokes. He is like one of those kids in high school who (like me) could quote the entire script of Monty Python and the Holy Grail and not think that was odd at all. In fact, he (like I) probably wore it as a badge of honor. His books are filled with references to little-known books and long-forgotten movies, as if the entire book were colored in sepia like a beautiful vintage photograph. And he’s hilarious. One of my favorite all-time tidbits from his book When Did you See Her Last (part of his All the Wrong Questions series) is when he introduces the name of the local grocery store and it is, wait for it, Partial Foods. Handler has a gift for this…for trundling along in his mysterious, occasionally rambling way, and then inserting a little treasure like Partial Foods into the text to really emphasize his quirky awesomeness.

But a young adult romance? About breaking up? I guess I could somewhat picture it, given some of the more sentimental moments and themes in Unfortunate Events, but I had to find out for myself if he could pull it off. And pull it off in a book told from the point of view of a teenage girl. Enter Why We Broke Up. And enter my amazement.

What could read as a schmaltzy, overdone, we-broke-up-and-I’m-crying-while-listening-to-The-Cure tome, surprises with its sweetness. Its realness. Its ability to quickly undo the reader with a lyrical and almost scientific analysis of the aftermath of a break-up. In the book, the main character Min writes a lengthy letter to Ed, her now ex-boyfriend, using artifacts from their relationship to tell the tale. She has delivered a box filled with these items (as many of us have done) on his doorstep and is now cataloging them for us in great detail. I will say that one of my favorite things about this book is Maire Kalman and her gorgeous illustrations which are strewn throughout the book like little gifts.  From a toy truck rescued from the beach, to a movie ticket stub, to two caps from bottles of Scarpia’s Bitter Ale, these relics from their relationship tell a tale that is both heartbreakingly familiar and entirely new. It’s an old story of teenage love, but one that is infused with a new freshness.

On the negative side, for the parents out there, there is some language in the book. The F word. The S word. And one of the biggest bones to pick I have with the book is that Handler allows Min’s ex-boyfriend to throw around the other F word as a derogatory reference to homosexuality. I hate that about the book and honestly don’t think it was necessary to go there. Perhaps Handler’s proving a point, by characterizing Ed in a way that the reader will be suspicious of from the get go, but I just can’t read the careless tossing of that word into a book as anything other than disrespectful and tasteless. It is a point of contention between Min and Ed, but I think there might have been better ways to set up that dynamic that this.

And sometimes the wordiness is a bit much. Handler can run away with himself (a trait I have found in his other books as well), but if you’re willing to just keep reading you’ll find some of the most beautiful nuggets. Moments like “The days were all day every day, get a grade, take a note, put something on, put somebody down, cut open a frog and see if it’s like this picture of a frog cut open. But at night, the nights were you, finally on the phone with you. Ed, my happy thing, the best part.” Handler gets it. He gets the pain of a break-up, particularly as an adolescent and his Min, in her poetic and self-deprecating way, manages to make even this almost 40 year old, feel that pain again.

We’ve all been broken up with and we’ve probably all been the breaker as well. And, while neither side is particularly delicious, being on the receiving end of the end is nothing I would want to live through again. It’s long diary entries and being told my shirt smelled like onions so I might as well just leave now. (True story.) And only someone as talented as Daniel Handler could take me there again, and can show young people just at the introduction of such events, how it is done and how beautifully it can be handled.

In the end it’s worth reading. It’s an honest account of a very intelligent girl who is grieving something that may not have been altogether beautiful in the first place. But that hindsight, as we all know, doesn’t come until much later. And even then, perhaps some of us wouldn’t necessarily change a thing.

A Splash of Red, or The Best Art Book Around

13642600I have an amazing, clever, wonderful friend who often sends me books. Not just ordinary books. Gorgeous, beautiful, life-altering books. This is the sort of friend that everyone should be lucky enough to have and I adore her to pieces. One of the books she sent me recently was the most surprising, delightful book I had seen in some time. A Splash of Red: The Life and Art of Horace Pippin by Jen Bryant and illustrated by Melissa Sweet (swoon swoon swoon) is honestly, in my humble opinion, one of, if not THE, best art books around. For those of you who aren’t familiar with Mr. Pippin, he was and remains an absolute American treasure. An artist known best for his simple and stunning paintings of American life, Mr. Pippin has quickly become one of my favorite artists. I taught my Museum Masters students about him last week and they were fascinated by this man who overcame huge obstacles in his life and yet still stayed true to his artistic soul. Wounded severely while fighting in the trenches in World War I, Mr. Pippin lost almost all mobility in his right hand – his “drawing” hand. And for many years, he figured his days of creating artwork were over. That is, until he took his right hand in his left and taught himself to paint, holding one hand in the other. Bryant’s words and Sweet’s gorgeous drawings bring this humble and extraordinary man to life for children and adults. Interspersed through the book are quotes from Mr. Pippin himself. Quotes like “If a man knows nothing but hard times, he will paint them, for her must be true to himself” and (my students’ favorite) “Pictures just come to my mind and I tell my heart to go ahead.”  This is an inspiring, at times heartbreaking, groundbreaking book that should belong on the shelves of every child and adult the world over. Please take a moment and get to know Horace Pippin through the eyes of Bryant and Sweet. They have done him proud.

On a Beam of Light, or The Genius Without Socks

Use Grammarly’s plagiarism checker because something borrowed turns the original author into something blue. Sponsored Message

 beam-of-light-feature-600x442Our elementary school librarian is wonderful for many reasons, not the least of which is her immaculate taste in books. So, when I was looking for a children’s book about Albert Einstein to read to my history students, I went directly to her. And, like always, she never ceases to amaze me. This time, her treasured eye turned me onto Jennifer Berne’s lovely 2013 book, On a Beam of Light: A Story of Albert Einstein. I must admit, what first caught my eye was the name of the illustrator, Vladimir Radunksy, who is one of my all-time favorites. (If you’re not familiar with the wonder of Radunsky, please take a peek at An Edward Lear Alphabet and I Love You Dude – two of his best illustrated works.) So, you have a fabulous illustrator, an equally fabulous author (Jennifer Berne of Manfish: A Story of Jacques Cousteau fame), and a fascinating subject…Add it all together and you’ve got an equation more brilliant than e=mc2. The book details Einstein’s childhood, as a quiet, rather introverted, yet deeply intellectual child who, for years, didn’t say a word. Legend has it his first words were “This soup is too hot!” And when asked by his parents why he didn’t speak before then, he responded, “Everything was fine until now.” With a wonderful attention to quiet details, like his favorite compass and his distaste for socks, On a Beam of Light captures the brilliance of this man while simultaneously making him accessible to a new generation of fans. And it doesn’t pander to children. It doesn’t dumb down the story of this man. Rather, it holds itself up to the standard that Albert himself might demand. And our children are better for it. For to read a special book like this is a gift all itself.

The Best Halloween Books for Little Boys and Ghouls

The neighborhood children are buzzing with excitement over costumes. Pumpkins are making their way onto the front porches of houses. And bright orange and black M&Ms are moving into the four basic food groups.

It’s Halloween time again and what better way to kick off this spooktacular holiday than with a fun assortment of the best and most beloved Halloween books for children. From smelly feet to Norwegian grandmothers, this list will bring a devilish grin to your little boys and ghouls.

The Hallo-Wiener
Written and illustrated by Dav Pilkey
Ages: 4-8
I apologize in advance for recommending a book that has within its title a word that will invariably cause incessant repetition by your children. Or perhaps that’s just my children. Nevertheless, “The Hallo-Wiener”, by Dav Pilkey (of “Captain Underpants” fame), certainly belongs on any list of great Halloween books. Oscar is a dachshund who is “half-a-dog tall and one-and-a-half dogs long” and is regularly teased by the other dogs. But nothing causes more ridicule than his mother’s decision to dress him for Halloween with a bun complete with mustard. Poor little Oscar – what shall he do? Come to the rescue, of course, as the little readers will find. A tale of inner strength and the best sausage puns you’ve read…


Trick or Treat, Smell my Feet
Written and illustrated by Lisa Desimini
Ages: 4-8
Growing up, we used to sing “Trick or treat, smell my feet, dance around the toilet seat” and the image of boogie-ing around the potty was always a show-stopper for me. Now, thank Heavens, we have Lisa Desimini’s “Trick or Treat, Smell my Feet” to entertain us just as hilariously. This is the tale of twin witches, Delia and Ophelia, who take it upon themselves (as all true witches do) to ruin Halloween for the sweet neighborhood kids. So, they concoct a spell using, you guessed it, stinky socks. All does not run smoothly for these identical hags, and your kids will adore the result. I do…almost as much as lambada-ing around the john.



The Best Halloween Ever
Written by Barbara Robinson
Ages: 9-12
Hooray for the Herdmans! Barbara Robinson’s “The Best Halloween Ever” may, in fact, be the funniest book on the market. The author of “The Best Christmas Pageant Ever”, among others, has a lightning-quick wit and a tenderness towards her characters that is unparalleled. Reading this out loud to my boys is an act in self-control since her lines are so funny and heartwarming you want to laugh and cry at the same time. I adore adore adore this book and can’t recommend it highly enough. Somehow the horrible Herdmans always save the day – and we, as readers, root for them despite our better judgment. Don’t miss the audio recording of this book, read by Elaine Stritch. Hers is the only voice I could imagine for this. Sheer perfection.


The Witches
Written by Roald Dahl
Illustrated by Quentin Blake
Ages: 9-12
While it may not be a Halloween book, per se, no spooky book list should neglect “The Witches” – one of my (and my sons) all-time favorites. Not only do we get to meet a cigar-smoking Norwegian grandmother, but we encounter ladies with itchy scalps, quite a few references to dog poo (and really, who could resist that!?!) and several reasons for your children not to bathe regularly. The coupling of Roald Dahl and longtime illustrator Quentin Blake is a marriage made in heaven for any book, but for this one in particular. Don’t miss Lynn Redgrave’s reading of “The Witches” on the audio book, and, if you’re feeling particularly witchy, check out the movie starring Angelica Huston. It’s nowhere near as spectacular as the book (few movies are), but entertaining nonetheless.


The Vanishing Pumpkin
Written by Tony Johnston
Illustrated by Tomie daPaola
Ages: 4-8
Where else can you find a 700-year-old woman, an 800-year-old man, a rapscallion, a ghoul and a varmint? Not to mention characters who say things like “Great snakes!” (which, let’s face it, everyone should say now and then…). Look no further than “The Vanishing Pumpkin” by Tony Johnston, illustrated by, none other than, Tomie DePaola. My sons wait all year long to check this book out of the library each October and now my older son loves to read it to his little brother with all the silly voices he can muster. What starts with a missing pumpkin and a hearty desire for pumpkin pie quickly becomes a veritable parade of Halloween misfits and a seriously old wizard. Don’t miss this wonderful Halloween book. (Or I might just have to say “Great snakes!”)


Written and illustrated by Robert Bright
Ages: 4-8
No Halloween book list would be complete without “Georgie” by Robert Bright. Written in 1944, Georgie features not only the gentle little ghost from the title, but the wonderfully spooky illustrations by Bright himself. Georgie lives with the Whittakers and provides them with a little ghostly routine of a creaky floorboard and a squeaky parlor door. But when Mr. Whittaker decides to fix these, where does that leave Georgie, who really doesn’t want to scare a soul? This vintage Halloween tale has been delighting parents and children for more than 60 years and should take its rightful place on the bookshelves for 100 more.


Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark
Retold by Alvin Schwartz
Drawings by Stephen Gammell
Ages: 9-12

Disclaimer: I am 37 years old and the stories in the book still scare me. Hence, this book recommendation is for older aged children or at least children who are braver than I. This was THE book for slumber parties growing up. I vividly remember sitting at my friend Damara’s house, with flashlights on and spooky music in the background, and her mother, all dressed up as a witch, reading “High Beams” from the story collection, “Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark.” Do you remember high beams? The urban myth of the woman driving home and the car behind her keeps putting on its high beams? I shudder now just thinking of it. This story continues to force me to look in the backseat of my car when I get in. And who could forget “May I Carry Your Basket?” and “The Big Toe.” Ack!  This is the ultimate scary story collection and I dare you to read it and not feel that chill up your spine.

Today’s Pick: Martin’s Big Words

Martins big wordsFor anyone looking for a children’s book that honors the life of Martin Luther King, Jr. in a way that is both approachable to children while still maintaining the reverence necessary to truly capture his life, please read “Martin’s Big Words: The Life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.”  Author Doreen Rappaport has made a name for herself as a go-to writer for biographies and non-fictional books for children and this, her gorgeous, poetic and sometimes heartbreaking profile of Dr. King, is the best of its kind. Rappaport has a gift for bringing children the facts they need to know, no matter how difficult they may be, in a way that keeps them reading and engaged and wanting more. Match that with Bryan Collier’s stunning illustrations, and you have the best of both worlds. “Martin’s Big Words” captures the essence of Dr. King and will help inquisitive children understand the big picture of his life and legacy.