Through #PBCritiquefest, (www.pbspotlight.com) hosted by PBSpotlight and Brian Gehrlein, I’ve discovered the charming picture book Applesauce Day by Lisa Amstutz. Lisa is also an agent at Storm Literary Agency. She’s generously donating a critique in connection with #PBCritiquefest. Applesauce Day is a heart-warming reminder of the sense of belonging children gain from participating in a family culinary tradition. Told from the perspective of a city child, Applesauce Day shares the details of the experience: the twist and pull motion for picking an apple; the blurp, blurp sound coming from the simmering sauce; and the feel of the scratches on the well-worn pot that’s embraced on the cozy ride home. Dreams of future Applesauce Days add reassurance as the story closes.
Sometimes the best outcome of going shopping—for a gift or for myself—is remembering that all I need to do is return home and look on my shelf or in my closet. And there I’ll find a fitting gift or garment that’s a better choice than what the store has to offer.
I had that same thought when I read about a new children’s picture book on the topic of rocks. Memories of an old favorite, If You Find a Rock by Peggy Chastain, with photographs by Barbara Hirsch Lember and published by Harcourt, Inc. 20 years ago, spurred me to search out a copy, and I was charmed all over again.
The photo illustrations are magical. They vary in perspective and include a view of a boy in mid-leap between crossing rocks in a rushing stream; a worry rock for rubbing troubles away held in hands observed at close range behind a child’s back; and a pensive girl kicking a walking rock as she makes her way home in the fading daylight.
The text engages the senses and evokes a calming aura. The author chooses words that are plain but precise—a skipping rock can “trip across the surface, making a chain of spreading rings.” When you sit on a resting rock, “you feel the cool moss squush beneath you.” When you turn over a hiding rock, “in the cool, dark underside live all kinds of things that creep and crawl and hide out of sight.”
A listing of all the kinds of rocks that have been considered, and the description of a memory rock that “reminds you of a place, or a feeling, or someone important” make for a satisfying ending.
A revision of this book for children today would include more variation in the cultures of the children featured in the photographs. Everything else is perfection.
Reading to my resident 4-year-old was a pandemic pleasure, and Raccoon on His Own by Jim Arnosky stayed at the top of our stack. A curious little animal (a third sibling, wouldn’t you know!) finds himself alone in a floating canoe. Anxious moments abound and dangers must be dodged. The parent is on guard more faithfully than the little one realizes. All’s well that ends well. My little human could easily relate.
Is the book nonfiction? Some might say so. After hearing about a similar but more recently published title, Coyote Moon, I found myself wondering whether Jim Arnosky could have witnessed the adventure in Raccoon on His Own and skillfully described it? Did he attribute any knowledge or feelings to the little raccoon that would tip the scales toward the category of fiction?
Checking back, I found just two bits that Arnosky couldn’t have known for sure—first, that a chill ran down the little raccoon’s spine; and second, that the little raccoon was afraid to jump into the dark water. A hidden camera could have caught all the other details—but they more likely came from the author’s lively imagination and thorough understanding of the habitat.
Thanks, Jim Arnosky, for allowing children—and those of us lucky enough to read to them— to experience an everyday drama of animals living in relation to each other in the bayou. Coyote Moon has its strengths, but a story from an animal mom’s point of view doesn’t have the same appeal as one seen through the eyes of an offspring. And I’ll take the happy reunion of the raccoons over the gory feast of the coyotes any day.
In Yogi: The Life, Loves, and Language of Baseball Legend Yogi Berra, author Barb Rosenstock, in her signature style, uses a fabulous inventory of verbs: haul, outline, drag, beg, jeer, hoot, calm. But the verb that crops up on ten of the pages, beginning with the first one, is LOVE. By the last page, the reader can’t help but LOVE Yogi, and envy anyone who was fortunate enough to have known such a warm, humble, and funny guy. His amazing achievements in baseball seem just an added bonus.
Sometimes LOVE is what Yogi wasn’t getting—from coaches, from harshly teasing players and fans, from his hometown team. Yogi “still loved, loved, loved baseball. But would baseball ever love him back?” How could a reader not pull for him when the author asks a question like that? And in the end, we are gratified to learn that “the whole world, inside baseball and out, loved his fearless heart, his fierce drive, and his famous words. Always.”
To master the Next Generation Life Science Standards, young students must develop an understanding of how plants and animals use their external parts to help them survive and thrive. But wait! Have first graders noticed that animals don’t all have the same coverings? And if they know that snakes and armadillos don’t have fur, can they name the coverings they do have?
With the almost wordless No Dogs Allowed, Linda Ashman has given her readers an intriguing way to think about those coverings. The sign at the restaurant says that no dogs are allowed, but what happens if other animals arrive? The sign can’t fit a long list of animals, so the waiter who is trying to exclude them must use categories: first, no one with fur, then scales, and so on. Readers begin to predict what’s ahead by using the illustrations – a literacy standard in the Common Core. The gems of detail in the illustrations pull the reader back to the beginning to explore and enjoy again and again.
On Ms. Ashman’s website, she describes her inspiration for this book and the underlying theme of acceptance, always important to keep in mind.
In Katherine Selbert’s War Dogs, Winston Churchill and his poodle Rufus are wonderfully compatible, and so are the author-illustrator’s words and pictures. This glimpse into Churchill’s life during World War II is a great example of how much of a story can be omitted from the text and carried by a combination of the pictures and skillfully placed tip-offs. Nowhere in War Dogs does the text say that Rufus is a poodle, or even a dog. It doesn’t need to. The illustrations reveal his size, color, and breed. He sniffs, his ear twitches, he begs Mrs. Churchill for treats, he holds Winston’s hat in his teeth.
Selbert’s words do double duty to inform the reader that the prime minister and Rufus are alike in many ways. Winston sets his shoulders like a tenacious bulldog when he addresses the House of Commons, he works doggedly with his advisers on the invasion plans, and he bundles into a woolly coat. The ending reveals that Churchill was known as the British Bulldog. The final two-page spread satisfies by closing the loop, echoing the book’s title: “They rest in the country at last, two war dogs.”
“Do you know of a Book of the Month Club for preschoolers?” a young mom, who also happens to be my daughter, asked me last summer. I jumped at the chance to provide that service, and Hands Can became my selection for September.
Photos of diverse kindergarten-aged children, intent on discoveries and overflowing with love, serve as illustrations for the rhyming, rollicking text. It’s a book that lends itself perfectly to being read and recited with motions. There are seeds to be planted, clay to be molded, trucks to be fixed, and finger paint to be mixed.
Hands Can is an instant language lesson, perfect for toddlers and or for a greater age range of children acquiring English as a second language. Is it a just a coincidence that the title features two great examples of the short a sound, so important in early reading lessons? Whether lucky or clever, it works!
When I investigated more titles by Cheryl Willis Hudson, I found that she and I have a slight connection. She co-authored Bright Eyes, Brown Skin with Bernette Ford, a gracious author/editor/book packager who spoke at the Highlights Foundation Workshop I attended a few years back. Both women have worked for over 20 years to provide schools and parents with more books featuring African American children, a worthy precedent to today’s We Need Diverse Books campaign.
When reprint time comes around, I do have a suggestion for Hands Can publisher Candlewick Press. Honor the author’s mission by choosing some African American children for the cover. The illustration from the “Hands can say, ‘I love you’” page would be just perfect.