Picture book of the day: music is everywhere and life is a song in Rock ‘N’ Roll Soul

Rock ‘N’ Roll Soul, illustrated by Matthew Cordell, written by Susan Verde, published by Abrams, ISBN: 978-1419728495.

I can so relate to the girl at the center at Rock ‘N’ Roll Soul, a bopping and poppy tribute to the joys of music. Ever since I was a little tyke, I loved listening to all kinds of music: my grandparents’ big band music, my sister’s ’70s singer/songwriter albums, and my parents’ mix of rock and light AM crooners. I became a music geek, listening to the top 40, but then also tuning into what my friends were listening to, rebelling with punk and new wave but also making my peers’ eyebrows go up when I admitted I liked ABBA, Donna Summer, and ELO (I lived in a town that grooved on FM and arena rawk–and I like that, too).

The girl who stars in Rock ‘N’Roll Soul hears music everywhere and in everything. She has the music inside her. She loves to dance and sing in front of a crowd (okay, I’m shy about doing that, unless it’s during storytime). And not just rock ‘n’ roll. She loves hip-hop and classical, blues and jazz, she’s Bob Dylan before and after he goes electric, and she’s Jimi Hendrix, too. The book does have a story arc. We see her getting ready for a school talent show where she rocks out in front of an adoring crowd with only one instrument: herself. The enthusiasm in the book engages and is contagious. The ever-positive Susan Verde, who writes about the joys of museums in The Museum and the beauty of yoga and mindfulness in I Am Yoga and I Am Peace respectively, fills the book with lively language that gets the feet moving. The “I’ve Got a Rock ‘n’ Roll Soul” refrain throughout encourages kids to shout those words (this is a must for storytimes).

Meanwhile, 2018 Caldecott medalist Matthew Cordell (Wolf in the Snow) does a smashing job (as usual) with his glorious illustrations. His pen and ink and watercolor drawings capture a child in constant motion, but with great clarity and in a manner that pleases the eye. The girl dances and floats across the pages, striking seriously awesome poses that show she means business when it comes to loving music. I love the hand-drawn lettering on the “zoing oing toing” of her one string guitar and “tock pock tock” seen when she bangs a wooden spoon on a bowl. And some of the best moments show us her dreams (her face is in color while the rest of the daydream is in black and white) of playing being a DJ in front of huge speakers or being a conductor in front of an orchestra and choir.

When I met Susan Verde recently she said that she hadn’t met Matthew Cordell yet (this was a day before they were about to meet and go on a brief tour of schools together). That’s an interesting phenomenon in the kidlit world. Picture book authors often don’t meet their illustrators. But with Rock ‘N’ Roll Soul, the harmonious blending of text and art is so perfect, you would swear they were in the same room together collaborating. This is a must for storytimes, and a great book to hand off to people (and there are a lot of them) who want great picture books about the universal joys of loving music.

Picture book of the day: celebrating imaginative play in the gender rules-defying Teddy’s Favorite Toy

Teddy’s Favorite Toy, illustrated by Madeline Valentine, written by Christian Trimmer, published by Atheneum Books for Young Readers, ISBN: 978-1481480802.

This book has been out since February 2018, and although I reviewed it for my library’s blog, I recently realized that oops, I haven’t talked about it here. It’s clearly one of the best of the year, a funny celebration of imaginative play that also defies conservative notions of gender, the kinds of toys boys play with (and does so in the most nonchalant, least preachy way possible . Written with succinct grace by Christian Trimmer, Teddy’s Favorite Toy tells of a  very expressive boy who loves all kinds of toys, including his supercool truck that he can sit on, a hula hoop, a rocket, a puzzle, and others. Illustrator Madeline Valentine’s warm and amusing illustrations, rendered in gouache and pencils and then composed digitally, do a splendiferous job conveying Teddy’s happiness interacting with each toy. However, the reader learns that Bren-Da, Warrior Queen of Pacifica, a bead-wearing red-headed doll, has shot to the top of his list of favorites. And why not? She’s the perfect guest at tea parties, can do a killer flying crane spinning split kick, and can pull off a wide variety of looks (she especially rocks when wearing a space helmet while riding a dinosaur). Valentine captures what makes Bren-Da so special, all the while slipping in very funny details (love that dress that’s a bag filled with pretzels as well as the pretzel barrette in her hair).

The action kicks into gear when Teddy accidentally snaps Bren-Da’s leg off during a particularly epic battle fighting a troll, dinosaurs, and a wrestler. On the next page you cannot help but laugh while feeling empathy for the distressed lad as he tries to repair her. He wraps her up with bandages before he races off to school. And along comes Mom in cleaning mode. When I read this to groups the kids start audibly gasping and saying “nooooo” when they start realizing what comes next.

The very best picture books offer surprises. And Teddy’s Favorite Toy saves its most rollicking passage for its final third. Yes, Mom accidentally throws out Bren-Da. Teddy comes home and flips out. In a great touch, Valentine uses bubbles to show Mom (who we find out works as an illustrator, in a sweet in-joke) remembering bringing the bandaged toy to a waiting garbage truck. Suddenly Mom goes into Superhero Mode with her apron serving as a cape! And she starts emulating Bren-Da’s wild moves as she swings from trees, bouncing on a kid’s soccer ball, and riding precariously on a bicycle to catch up with the garbage truck. “Yas, Queen!” Teddy exclaims as characters in the background cheer and do a celebratory dance. All ends well as we see Teddy and Mom battling with dolls: Teddy with Bren-Da (now a one-legged warrior), Mom with the male wrestler.

This delightful book wows storytime crowds with its twists and turns, and its sense of playfulness. A happy ending beautifully delivered.


Picture book of the day: the colorful joys of Mommy’s Khimar

Mommy’s Khimar, illustrated by Ebony Glenn, written by Jamilah Thompkins-Bigelow, published by Salaam Reads (an imprint of Simon & Schuster), ISBN: 978-1534400597.

“A khimar is a flowing scarf my mommy wears,” the young girl narrator says at the very start of this vibrant, colorful book that radiates joy and pride. The instantly lovable child reveals that her mother has many khimars of different colors. Some have stripes, others have polka dots, some have tassels, and others beads. She loves all of them (although the yellow one is her favorite). Many of the best 2018 picture books pop with child-like wonder and enthusiasm, and Mommy’s Khimar emerges as the happiest of them all thanks to Thompkins-Bigelow’s warm, energetic prose (perfect for storytimes) and Glenn’s effervescent digital illustrations. The drawings in this charmer flow across the page, with the girl’s body language and expressions inviting readers to share her sense of fun. The girl waves a khimar above her head, wraps herself with another (turning herself into a queen with a golden train). The illustrations do a fabulous job complementing the text, as shown on one slightly surreal spread that shows the girl seeing herself as a mama bird protecting her baby brother. The khimar resembles wings and the child and younger sibling are seen cuddling in a nest. And of course young readers will love the moment when she becomes a khimar-clad superhero running across the page. Thompkins-Bigelow also adds the sense of smell to the story, with the girl smelling the coconut oil from Mommy’s hair and the cocoa butter on Mommy’s skin on the khimar. It’s a vivid experience.

So many recent picture books about self-esteem mostly consist of lists. “My life is cool for this reason and that reason and this reason…”. And they can be wonderful books (like Princess Truly in I Am Truly). However, Mommy’s Khimar goes even deeper. We learn about the girl’s family and her community. We learn that not of all her family members are Muslim when a Christian grandmother appears, arms open wide to embrace her grandchild. We see all the important women (and her dad too!) in her life, how they are shaping her. And the book, with its cozy ending and the girl dreaming sweet dreams of khimar-aided flight, also makes good bedtime reading. A thorough delight, and one of 2018’s biggest charmers.

Picture book of the day: an old folktale gets a new and personal twist with Never Satisfied

blogneversatisfiedNever Satisfied: The Story of the Stonecutter, illustrated and told by Dave Horowitz, published by Nancy Paulsen Books (an imprint of Penguin), ISBN: 978-0399548468, ARC reviewed, to be released: July 17, 2018.

On surface level, Never Satisfied is a hoot, a fun retelling of the old Chinese folktale “The Stonecutter.” And yet we learn in a preface that this funny tale starring a goofy stonecutter frog who longs for a different life is actually a very personal book for Dave Horowitz. That he left the world of creating picture books to become a medic. He longed for a new life. Horowitz writes that an “older, wiser medic” who learned of his experience relayed the story to him and voila, Horowitz saw himself as the stonecutter and came out of picture book retirement to deliver this fantastic book.

And I’m so glad he did. Written in crisp, clear, succinct language, his retelling zips along with captivating energy. Packed with clever details, his amusing illustrations (made from construction paper, charcoal, and colored pencils) pop off the page. His weary stone-cutting frog, named Stanley, emerges as a most expressive character, especially when we see him wiping his face and saying “Oy!” to convey what a difficult job he has. When Stanley sees a businessman, he starts coveting that life, and poof! magically he becomes a businessman. But when he looks at and sees a parade for a king (love the king lion), he covets that role, and ta da! he becomes a king. Stanley’s aspirations grow more and more absurd (he becomes the sun! a cloud! the wind!). The final twist feels a bit like “rock, paper, scissors” with the implication being that he will more than likely go back to being a stone-cutter again.

Throughout, Horowitz’s colorful and storytime-friendly drawings prompt giggles. And the message of the book about being content with what you have comes through loud and clear without being preachy. Welcome back, Dave! Hope this isn’t your swansong. This is one satisfying delight.