Blog Posts

Two Stellar Stories: The Fire of Stars

Words do double duty in Kirsten Larson’s The Fire of Stars. Larson’s words not only tell the story of the early years in the life of Cecilia Payne, they also keep the reader mindful of the field of astronomy where Cecilia made her mark.

When Cecilia moves to London her SPHERE feels smaller and her school is a BLACK HOLE without math and science. Then a science teacher appears in her ORBIT with encouragement. When Cecilia later studies physics, she is the only woman in a GALAXY of men, but around 1925, she makes a STELLAR discovery—that stars are mostly hydrogen and helium.

The story of star formation parallels the story of Payne’s formation as a scientist, and a fuller explanation of that process is provided in the back matter, along with additional insights regarding Cecilia’s discovery, and a timeline of her life and accomplishments.

Illustrator Katherine Roy masterfully reflects Cecilia’s emotions and experiences, and also creates scientific depictions of star formation, displaying an ability to stretch into widely differing content. The dust jacket combines a scientific image with a whimsical figurative one. Note to Chronicle: Using that illustration for the book’s cover would have been a gift to its readers.

Sidelines and Sidebars


Written by Brad Herzog/ Illustrated by Mark Braught

Scrimmage, spiral, offense, interception: those words would cause many first-grader readers to stumble—or maybe even fumble! But try putting T is for Touchdown in the hands of 6-year-old football fans who’ve learned about the sport from chatting with grown-up fans like Dad, Mom, Gramps, or Aunty Kate. You’ll be cheering as the young readers streak down the field—sorry—through the text! The benefit children gain from conversations with the grown-ups in their lives, especially about topics that have captured their interest, is tough to underestimate. Reading is about making meaning out of all those letters on the page, and it’s a lot easier if you “speak the language” of the topic.

It’s also hard to underestimate the appeal of sidebars for supplying additional content for a young reader’s adult companion. Not every adult has the patience to allow time for a developing reader to sound out words and re-read sentences as their meaning dawns. But it sure does help to have fun facts to peruse right there on the same page.

The main text for each letter in this gorgeously illustrated book is a clever and pithy four-line poem. Here’s the poem for letter N:

No college team has ever had

As much success and fame

As football’s famous fighting N—

noble Notre Dame.

And for Gramps or Aunty Kate, the sidebar details Notre Dame’s national championships and Heisman trophy winners and goes on to other football topics beginning with N—NFL and NICKNAMES of famous players like Elroy “Crazy Legs” Hirsch.

This book sails through the goalpost for sure!

Two Wheels and Two Tales

I could never choose just one of the picture book biographies of Italian cyclist Gino Bartali over the other, since the authors of both these outstanding books have given me the generous gift of their time and attention to critique my work.

And to be fair to Bartali himself—someone so courageous deserves to be the subject of at least two books. He could have chosen to be remembered as a two-time Tour de France champion, with championships an amazing 10 years apart. His first happened in 1938 when he was 24 years old, and his second came in 1948, when he was 34, an advanced age for a world-class cyclist.

It’s what happened between those two championships that demonstrated Bartali’s courage and grit. By delivering documents hidden in the hollow places of his bicycle to evade Nazi soldiers, Bartali helped 800 Jewish people and 50 English soldiers. He never even talked about it after the war was over. He never thought of himself as a hero. 

A quote from Bartali appears as a prologue to Hoffman’s The Brave Cyclist. “If you’re good at a sport, they attach the medals to your shirts and then they shine in some museum. That which is earned by doing good deeds is attached to the soul and shines elsewhere.” The back cover of Hoyt’s Bartali’s Bicycle has a more succinct version: “Some medals are pinned to your soul, not your jacket.”

Both books are masterfully illustrated by Italian artists. Iacopo Bruno chose stylistic close-up illustrations in bold colors in a vertical orientation for Bartali’s Bicycle. Chiara Fedele’s illustrations for The Brave Cyclist are more muted and realistic and fill horizontal spreads.

The Brave Cyclist shows us Bartali as a youth, in a struggle to win the Tour de France, and all the way through winning his second Tour de France. Bartali’s Bicycle focuses closely on the war years.

Kudos to both authors for shining a light on a deserving subject!


“In leafy calm,

in gentle arms,

a gorilla’s life began.”

So begins the lyrical narrative of Ivan the gorilla’s remarkable true story. Katherine Applegate followed up her 2013 Newbery Award-winning novel, The One and Only Ivan, with this nonfiction picture book about the events that inspired the novel.

She relates some of the facts—Ivan was a western lowland gorilla born in central Africa—in a straightforward style. But with her spare lyricism, she leaves room for the illustrator, G. Brian Karas, to supply essential components of the story. 

From Karas’s illustrations, readers learn:

·       the “gentle arms” in the opening belong to Ivan’s mother gorilla; 

·      Ivan and another baby gorilla are unloaded in America in a truck yard for a shopping mall owner who “ordered and paid for them like a couple of pizzas;” 

·      fully-grown Ivan in his shopping mall cage sees human families, and feels the lack of his own “family to protect;” 

· and the gentle hands Ivan feels in the end of the story belong to a female zoologist.

Applegate engages the reader’s senses. When Ivan is a baby in Africa, we hear the “hoots and grunts and chest-beats” of his father and the poachers’ loud guns. When Ivan is ready to join the gorilla habitat in Zoo Atlanta, we feel the gleaming sunlight, smell the jungle scents, and hear the people’s cheers and the clicking of cameras.

This real-life fairy tale—where early misfortune is reversed for a happily-ever-after ending—is one to treasure.

In This Book…

In front of me sit three copies of In the Fiddle Is a Song: A Lift-the-Flap Book of Hidden Potential by author-illustrator, Durga Bernhard. It’s my go-to gift these days. What child doesn’t delight in revealing a surprise by lifting a flap, adding a tactile experience to the aural and visual? Flaps give rise to pauses, to predictions, to slowing down, to savoring. 

In this gem of a book, every inch of the spreads is covered by colorful paintings, treating the reader to joyful sights—a swing hanging from an autumn tree, a butterfly unfolding its wings, a freshly cut loaf of warm bread. The 97 words sit directly on the lovely colors, no white space needed. 

The word count might seem slight, but the number of different words is even slighter. Every left hand page begins with “In the” and the text hiding under every flap begins with “waiting to.” A pattern to follow is a gift, allowing children to “read” like their grown-ups do, and to engage in lovely language.

This book is out of print—a tragedy! If a reissue isn’t possible, perhaps its poetic lines could be printed on a double spread in an anthology, surrounded by the best of its images—except they’re all the best.

To see the potential in the world, in both nature and human endeavor, helps us live with energy and optimism, a meaningful message for both little listeners and their caregivers.

Applesauce Day

Through #PBCritiquefest, ( 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.

If You’re Looking for a Book About Rocks…

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.

Of Raccoons and Re-readings

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.

For the Love of Yogi

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.

There’s no mistaking which one is Yogi.

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.”