I 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.
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Our 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.
For 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.
I had heard wonderful things about Julie Sternberg’s book Like Pickle Juice on a Cookie and, let’s face it, any book with the word “pickle” in the title has got to be good. So I made a bee-line for the Storyteller bookstore in Lafayette. Like many other books I’ve loved, I was initially drawn to the cover art (by Matthew Cordell) – with its simple illustration of a little girl writing a letter. What I could never have imagined is how utterly sweet and touching the book inside would be. Sternberg has created, in this 128 page book, an unforgettable character in Eleanor as she suffers through the loss of her beloved babysitter Bibi. When Bibi moves to Florida to be with her father, Eleanor struggles through various stages of grief and ultimately learns to accept and love her new babysitter who will never truly replace Bibi, but just might be able to forge new pathways of friendship with this darling little girl. Written in a simple, almost poetic way, Like Pickle Juice on a Cookie speaks beautifully to the emotions of a child who has suffered a loss and will certainly serve that magical literary purpose that books so rarely do: making a child feel better and smile through tears.
Never before have the mysteries of the Universe seemed so appealing than after reading Stephen and Lucy Hawking’s latest book, George and the Big Bang. Beautifully and engagingly written, this newest offering in the series is an exciting adventure that strikes all the rights chords for young readers. It’s jam-packed with fun, heart-racing capers, villains, a lonely pig and, believe it or not, lessons from the world’s most famous physicist. If you’ve ever read Stephen Hawking’s theoretical work, you’ll know how difficult it can be, at times, to wrap your head around. What’s utterly brilliant about this series is that Stephen, in partnership with his delightful daugher, Lucy, has taken his most highfalutin concepts and broken them down into understandable and downright appealing ways. As a university freshman, A Brief History of Time was required reading for all incoming students. Thus, I spent my summer slogging through his dense prose and, at times, mind-boggling theories. For a literary soul with nary a minute of experience with physics, his book was like reading an Ancient Sanskrit text without the aid of a translation. I recognized the brilliance, respected the man behind the ideas, but couldn’t quite decode the complexities of his imagination. With this children’s book series by Hawking and his daughter, it’s as if I’ve been given a second chance at understanding the Universe. In this particular book, George and his best friend, Annie, (isn’t it wonderful to see boy/girl friendships in children’s books?) are back at their intergalactic adventures courtesy of a super computer named Cosmos. Using portals offered by Cosmos, George and Annie begin this tale in a rather unexpected way: trying to find a new home for George’s pet pig. What ensues is a conspiracy of the most clandestine and sinister kind that involves Annie’s brilliant father, Eric, and his experiment to find the source of the Universe. Children will love the fast-pace, the space and time travel and will most likely be asking for a Cosmos of their own for their next birthday.
In an interview, Hawking himself said that he hoped that the readers of this series would be open to reading his other, more complex, works when they grow up! I think he and Lucy have and will accomplish that (and might even inspire a few adults to follow suit!)
Over the holiday break, I made a point of reading a few books (children’s and otherwise) that have long been on my to-do list. These included You Know When the Men are Gone (Siobhan Fallon’s utterly remarkable and heartbreaking collection of short stories centered around the military wives of Fort Hood) and Mrs. Dalloway (which I read every year just to be inspired). Also on that list was R.J. Palacio’s debut novel for young adults, Wonder. I’d seen this book on a number of “Best of 2012” lists for both children and adults and am always impressed when a writer can span the two audiences. Kathryn Erskine’s mockingbird is another of these books that speaks to any age – a brilliant, lovely piece which I hope to review soon. 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.
First, a brief disclaimer. This is not a “holiday” book, per se. No tinsel or holly or jolly gentleman. But it is just one of those amazingly charming books with snow in it, so I’m willing to include it in my holiday books round-up. I hope you’ll forgive me. It’s just too adorable to pass up. And penguins are festive! They’re jolly, right? For anyone who loved Antoinette Portis’ “Not a Box” and “Not a Stick” (trust me…you’ll LOVE them), her tale of a penguin named Edna cannot be missed. First of all, kudos to any author who names a penguin Edna. Sheer perfection. In Portis’ tale, Edna wants more from her life than just the white snow and the occasional waddle. What she finds is a research station and an orange glove. Sounds simple? It is….simply wonderful. Portis’ poetic and minimalistic text, dry sense of humor and graphic novel-like illustrations make this book a favorite of mine and one I heartily recommend to you this holiday season and every day after it.
Raymond Briggs’ The Snowman was a staple in my home growing up. Not only did I linger over his stunning illustrations, but my mother would always play the soundtrack of the book for me on our little tape player. What distinguishes Briggs’ tale from other holiday books is the fact that he so compellingly and beautifully weaves the story of the little boy and the snowman without words. Told only in pictures, The Snowman is as clever and engaging a read as any word-ridden book and will delight readers young and old. In the book, a little boy builds a snowman. Then, that night, after a fitful sleep, the boy goes outside to find that his snowman has come to life. But this is no Hallmark card remake of Frosty the Snowman. This is better. It is lovely and heartbreaking and, without one word, entirely literary. If you’ve never read this book, please look for it at your local library or bookstore. It is one of the most wonderful books in the world.
So, you want to give the all-time classic Christmas tale to someone this Christmas. Well, it’s certainly easy to become overwhelmed by the sheer number of them on the market. Personally, I don’t think anyone can have too many copies of Clement Moore’s ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas. (I, myself, have about six and each one is a favorite.) But, in my opinion, if you are searching for the most beautiful of them all, look no further than Mary Engelbreit’s version. The quintessential colored pencil artist, Engelbreit has created the most gorgeous Christmas Eve tale yet – and her illustrations are the perfect match for Moore’s timeless verse. This books makes for not only a wonderful Christmas Eve read-aloud tradition, but would make a gorgeous gift to anyone you love. It’s a big, beautiful book filled with timeless delights and inimitable illustrations. A true Christmas treasure.
Mr. Willowby’s Christmas Tree is enormous. Much too enormous for even for his mansion of a house. Not too keen on the idea of a leaning tree, Mr. Willowby calls upon his butler, Baxter, to trim just a little off the top. Baxter, ever the resourceful assistant, decides that this little tip of the tree would be perfect as a Christmas tree for the upstairs maid. But she, too, must trim a bit off the top to fit in her room, so she gives that tip to the gardener. And so on and so forth, until just about everyone in the entire household (including the mice) has been given the gift of the perfect Christmas tree. This delightful book will keep your children laughing as Robert Barry’s rhyming verse tells this fun and whimsical tale.