Life has been busy at the Schreibenfreude house: I’m a coach for my school’s Speech & Debate team which has recently wrapped up a very successful season, winning awards at States and qualifying two students for Nationals, my kids (and the ones I teach) have been busy with school projects, and if that weren’t enough, we’re currently looking to get a dog– which has taken up a good bit of research time that’s normally spent researching my writing! On the bright side, this is school vacation week here in Maine, and that means more time for writing and reading picture books! Let’s go!
Title: Grandma’s Purse
Author/illustrator: Vanessa Brantley-Newton
Publisher/Date: Knopf Books for Young Readers, January 9, 2018
The “gist”: Visits from Grandma Mimi are the best, especially because of her purse which contains anything you can imagine! Not “magical” exactly, but certainly evoking a magic connection between grandma and granddaughter!
My favorite part: I loved that Grandma Mimi gives the girl her own purse to carry on the tradition!
My response as a reader: While my maternal grandmother died before I was old enough to remember her, my “Grammy Dot” was very special and always had little “starlight mints” in her purse (and in a glass dish on her side table). I suspect most readers have similar stories to tell which makes this very relatable.
My “take-away” as a writer: I love pointing out books that “break the rules”– many agents don’t like “quiet books,” or books without clear “stakes” for the main character, for example. This book breaks both those rules: none of the characters go anywhere, have any conflict, or even learn any real lessons except how wonderful it is to be family. Nevertheless, it’s charming and reading it to a small child would likely result in conversations about their own experiences or family stories. That makes it gold.
Title: Mary Had a Little Lab
Author: Sue Fliess
Illustrator: Petros Bouloubasis
Publisher/Date: Albert Whitman & Co., March 1, 2018
The “gist”: Mary is a scientist without many friends who decides to create her own sheep. What ensues is a little bit of hilarity and some great logical consequences.
My favorite part: I won’t give away the ending except to say that the cliché of the scientist who doesn’t have any friends gets cleared up nicely.
My response as a reader: This isn’t just a “look at the clever girl doing science” story. It’s about science and logic, but also about making friends and having crazy adventures. It’s also rhyming, but not in a rigid, sing-song way– strictly fun!
My “take-away” as a writer: I love fairy tale/nursery rhyme retellings! In fact, I have my very own version of “Mary had a little lamb” just waiting to get discovered by an agent or publisher (shameless plug). It’s great to see how various authors take the kernel of a familiar tale and spin it in new ways– and in this case, I love the “girls in science” spin so much I am only the teensiest bit jealous!
Title: After the Fall
Author/illustrator: Dan Santat
Publisher/Date: Roaring Brook Press, Oct. 3,2017
The “gist”: All the King’s Horses and all the King’s Men couldn’t put Humpty Dumpty together again– at least not entirely. He was better– but a trauma like that does something to you. In his case, Humpty was now very afraid of heights.
My favorite part: The illustration on the pages where Humpty looks at the cereal boxes in the grocery store is such a beautiful encapsulation of what depression and anxiety can do to your life — he wants to eat the colorful “Rainbow Brites” cereal on the top shelf but is limited to eating “Bo-rings.” The quote on that page tears at my heart: “I was so scared that it kept me from enjoying some of my favorite things.” I have never been quite in that place, but I feel like the author has captured that emotion perfectly.
My response as a reader: I love this book so much– even after just one reading, it’s probably one of my top five favorites on the past year and that’s saying something. To be fair, it might be slightly more relatable for adults because of the emotional content and the fact that most little ones just don’t read nursery rhymes so much any more, but that’s no reason not to snatch it up this very minute and test that theory. It really is lovely. In fact, I can completely see it as a PIXAR short– the author does write for Disney, so I think he really needs to get on that…Mr. Santat, are you listening?
My “take-away” as a writer: I think every time I write a crop of reviews, I end up lamenting my lack of artistic talent– the text in this book is perfectly done, but the story can be told entirely through the illustrations (see PIXAR comment above!) Still, in the end this is another amazing retelling and it sparks me to find inspiration in some of my other favorites. (Georgie Porgie vs. the MeToo movement, anyone? j/k)
Title: Bunny’s Staycation
Author/illustrator: Lori Richmond
Publisher/Date: Scholastic Press, January 30, 2018
The “gist”: Mama is off on a business trip for the week, leaving bunny heartbroken until Daddy suggests they can make their own fun while she is gone.
My favorite part: I love the work-at-home dad in this book. He does a great job coming through with creative ideas to entertain Bunny even though (as often happens), Bunny seems fixated on having Mama back.
My response as a reader: I can definitely imagine little readers being inspired by Bunny and wanting to re-create some of her “staycation” locales such as the jungle or camping trip!
My “take-away” as a writer: A lot of work is done through the illustrations here– another example of the “luxury” author-illustrators have of presenting their WHOLE idea to an agent/publisher. If I’d written this, I’d either have had too many illustrators notes (bad idea), or put in “too many words” that might later get taken out (such as “Bunny tried flushing Mama’s suitcase down the toilet.”) Leaving room and freedom for illustrators is rough!
Title: Idea Jar
Author: Adam Lehrhaupt
Illustrator: Deb Pilutti
Publisher/Date: Simon & Schuster/Paula Wiseman Books, February 6, 2018
The “gist”: Teacher has a special jar with slips of paper containing ideas which can inspire everyone to write amazing stories.
My favorite part: I love how the “viking” kept inserting himself into the story!
My response as a reader: I know I already AM a writer, but reading this, I feel like even if I weren’t, I would want to sit down and combine ideas and write. Adam Lehrhaupt did a great job in showing the reader lots of different possibilities, but never truly gives us the whole story. What adventures DO the space robot and the viking get into? We have to figure that out ourselves!
My “take-away” as a writer: As I may have mentioned in past posts, I take part every year in Tara Lazar’s “Storystorm,” a challenge to write down one story idea every day for the month of January. When the story ideas are hard to come by, I often look around for random interesting words and combine them until I come up with something fun. This book reminded me of that writing process and I love how Lehrhaupt was able to essentially write a picture book about the process of being inspired to write– this will surely be on the shelf for ELA classes in classrooms across the country!!