Picture book of the day: those ever-changing moods (and colors) in The Happy Book

The Happy Book and other feelings, illustrated and written by Andy Rash, published by Viking (an imprint of Penguin), ISBN: 978-0451471253, ARC reviewed, to be released: February 19,2019.

I have enjoyed Andy Rash’s previous books, but nothing prepared me for the exuberant tour de force that is his latest, The Happy Book and other feelings. With the same wit and visual inventiveness of another effective look at emotions, Pixar’s modern animated classic Inside Out, Rash examines the ever-changing landscape of feelings and moods. Don’t let the inviting, bright, jubilant cover deceive you; this book ends up being a wild roller coaster ride. The clever illustrator/author covers a lot of ground here as he serves up a book within a book within a book within a book within a book, changing up the color palette with each twist and each shift in mood. And along the way he delights with shameless (the best kind) puns and wacky whimsy.

Things start off just grand when we meet a peppy boy scout who calls himself “one happy camper” and roasts marshmallows (uh, show more caution with that flaming treat there little fella). A clam (as in “happy as a clam”) joins him (and I instantly fell for the book because, well, it co-stars an overjoyed clam). The day is so over-the-top happy that not one but five suns shine in a peaceful sky as birds, daisies, and butterflies appear. The color yellow dominates. A flip of the page shows the scout dancing while the clam wearing sunglasses joyfully sips lemonade. But things quickly go wrong when the lad eats the ENTIRE Friendship Cake, leaving clam, now bearing a chef’s hat, quite distressed. The clam heads through a door into a, flip of the page, THE SAD BOOK. Suddenly the look of the book changes. We go from bright yellows to somber dark blues. Rash does a great job with body language and facial expressions. Who knew a clam could ever look so forlorn and miserable, finding company with a sad Trombone who says “Bwah-bwah” (a touch that made me love Rash’s creation even more).

And so it goes. Clam’s sadness makes the Scout angry so he enters the red-hot THE ANGRY BOOK (with his pal the Wet Hen) and this scary rift in their friendship causes Clam to hesitantly wander into the sickly creepy greens of THE SCARED BOOK. All ends happily when Scout and Clam come to terms with their evolving emotions in climactic THE FEELINGS BOOK with its wide array of colors. It’s great that the characters from the previous chapters all appear. I also love how Rash changes the endpapers: all sunny and happy at the start, and now a mix of moods at the end.

The year is young, but The Happy Book and other feelings is a real standout. I cannot wait to use it in storytime.


Picture book of the day: digging the surreal detail-packed awesomeness of Vamos! Let’s Go to the Market!

¡Vamos! Let’s Go to the Market!, illustrated and written by Raúl the Third, colors by Elaine Bay, published by VERSIFY, an imprint of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, ISBN: 978-1328557261, ARC reviewed, release date: April 2, 2019.

I love Raúl the Third’s work. His drawings for Cathy Camper’s supercool (and wonderfully weird) Lowriders in Space graphic novels pop with a retro underground comic look and sensibility, while still feeling fresh, contemporary, and new. He happily brings this aesthetic to his first picture book, the delightful ¡Vamos! Let’s Go to the Market!, an explosion of surreal detail-packed joy that feels like a Mexico-based cross between Richard Scarry and R. Crumb. This blast of bilingual (Spanish-English) awesomeness crackles with strange yet never alienating illustrations (beautifully colored by Elaine Bay) that invite further investigation and revisits.

Woken up by a rooster (decked out in clothes–I dig his belt buckle) who crows the book’s title on the title page,  lovable Little Lobo heads to the Mercado in the city to deliver supplies to various shops and customers. Raúl sprinkles the text with Spanish words, providing asterisks in the English text that lead to translations, a glossary at the back, and other ways to help readers learning Spanish. The story uses the list of supplies as an effective narrative device, guiding the reader from one shop to the next. When Little Lobo arrives in town, wow, what sights we see. Raúl fills the streets and shops with witty, inventive, hilarious details (one of my favorites is the Buñuel cinema, named in honor of the great bad boy filmmaker) that dazzle but surprisingly never overwhelm the eye. Animals dance, ride skateboards, breathe fire, float through the air with animated bliss when smelling delicious churros, paint, make epic masks, wrestle, and so on. I also love the plot twist (involving a beloved wrestler) that brings the story to a satisfying close.

2019 has just started but this will easily make my year-end best of list.



Picture books of the day: Owls Are Good at Keeping Secrets and H Is for Haiku are inventive alphabet books

H Is for Haiku: A Treasury of Haiku from A to Z, illustrated by Sawsan Chalabi, written by Sydell Rosenberg, published by Penny Candy Books, ISBN:  978-0998799971. ARC reviewed. (2018)

Owls Are Good at Keeping Secrets: An Unusual Alphabet, illustrated by Jacob Grant, written by Sara O’Leary, published by Random House, ISBN: 978-1524713317. (2018)


These two books have fun shaking up the world of alphabet books with clever wordplay and dynamic illustrations. Both tickle the funny bone and delight with their whimsical observations.

H Is for Haiku begins with an introductory note from poet Sydell Rosenberg’s daughter Amy Losak that tells how her late mother wrote these haiku to celebrate the “small moments” in life that are still special even if they otherwise go unnoticed. Many haiku writers, Losak claims, do not always adhere to the 5/7/5 syllable count, but instead focus on little incidents. Rosenberg’s bite-sized gems have a playful quality to them as they hop with joy through the alphabet. And colorful bold fonts accentuate this bouncy playfulness. Take the page that reads “Car buried in snow-/On back seat, a wide-eyed doll/Ready for a jaunt.” The “C” is in an eye-catching red, the rest of the first line in orange, the next line is black, and the final line back to red. Then the next haiku reads “Drops of rain clanking/Into an old water can/Left outside to rust.” Each bubble-like word appears in a black drop of rain; the D is orange, the rest of the letters in the first line white, the next line the letters are aqua blue, and then we return to orange in the third line. Illustrator Sawsan Chalabi creates marvelous colorful art that accompanies each work with imagery swirling, dancing across the page, making each small moment truly special indeed. Wonderful.

Wow, Owls Are Good at Keeping Secrets is a blast. Coming out late in the year 2018, in December, this one almost sneaked past me. I see a lot of picture books starring animals in any given season. Owls beats to the sound of its own drummer with author Sara O’Leary coming up with surprising, snappy, unexpected observations about a wide array of critters. She writes, for example, that “Narwhals can be perfectly happy all alone” and that “Raccoons are always the first to arrive for a party.” Did you know that dragons cry at happy endings and that toads are terrific at tongue-twisters? Well, they are according to O’Leary. Illustrator Jacob Grant takes each of these sometimes goofy, sometimes sweet ideas and runs with them. His warmly comical images enchant and delight. Look at the dancing jellyfish or those wolves refusing to smile for the camera. My favorite might be “Unicorns believe in themselves.” Grant renders a lovely drawing of a little unicorn standing on a green ladder to put the final touches on a giant sand unicorn on the beach. What a delight. An added plus in an alphabet book: each page clearly puts the upper case and lower case versions of each letter. A big hooray for this fantastic book!


My favorite 20 novels, graphic novels, and longer non-fiction of 2018 (alphabetical by title)

I usually stick to picture book reviews on this blog. And recently I posted my favorite 30 picture books of 2018. But I also read a lot of great looooooonger books in 2018. Novels. Graphic novels. Works on non-fiction. Longer picture books that feel like novellas. So I thought I would give a special shout out to 20 I absolutely loved. So behold some short capsules (a few sentences each) about long books, capsules written with enthusiasm and a “you gotta read this” vibe, presented alphabetically by title.


The Assassination of Brangwain Spurge, illustrated by Eugene Yelchin, written by M.T. Anderson, published by Candlewick, ISBN: 978-0763698225.

What is the truth? This fantastical, intriguingly idiosyncratic tale about a rather worldweary elfin historian catapulted into enemy territory (land of the goblins) to deliver a peace offering works as, among many other things, a fiercely funny fantasy tale and as a rather sobering anti-war allegory. Readers soon discover that M.T. Anderson’s brilliantly composed words (seen from one POV) are at odds with Eugene Yelchin’s strikingly grotesque illustrations (seen from another). What’s real? What’s propaganda? This epic cooks, soaring from one witty chapter to the next.

Be Prepared, illustrated and written by Vera Brosgol, published by First Second, ISBN: 978-1626724457.

I love 2017 Caldecott honoree Vera Brosgol’s way of drawing facial expressions and body language. So fluid, so funny. This wickedly funny graphic autobiographical novel introduces middle grade readers to a girl who experiences one horrible stay at a U.S.-based Russian summer camp. Offering  captivating humor of discomfiture, Brosgol excels at making middle grade angst amusing.

The Button War, written by Avi, published by Candlewick, ISBN: 978-0763690533.

A bunch of boys play an increasingly dangerous game of collecting buttons from soldiers’ outfits in this taut World War I novel set in a small Russian-occupied Polish village. At the height of his storytelling powers, Avi doesn’t waste a single word here. Advertised as a middle school book (and kids who like historical fiction will find a lot to engage them), but adult fans of books like Lord of the Flies, Catch-22, or Slaughterhouse Five might also appreciate Avi’s “war is not only hell but insane” message.

Dear Sister, illustrated by Joe Bluhm, written by Alison McGhee, published by Atheneum/Caitlyn Dlouhy Books, ISBN: 978-1481451420.

Siblings will relate to this heavily illustrated and moving story that spans seven years in the life of a boy (11 at the start) who finds his younger sister incredibly annoying. He writes letter after letter to her, complaining about her antics, but then grows fond of her as the years pass. McGhee’s emotionally direct prose crackles, and Bluhm’s charming illustrations tickle the funny bone. Their work seems effortless, and the book never feels saccharine.

Front Desk, written by Kelly Yang, published by Arthur A. Levine, 978-1338157796.

This absorbing semiautobiographical middle novel stars a resourceful girl named Mia whose hard-working Chinese immigrant parents end up running a motel run by an unscrupulous owner who exploits them. This instantly likable protagonist hooks the reader with her dreams of being a writer, and also her commendable sense of fairness and social justice. Yang writes from the heart (without being overly syrupy) and tells a story about a kid being in a situation I have never encountered in any children’s book. Funny, fascinating, endearing.


The Girl Who Drew Butterflies: How Maria Merian’s Art Changed Science, written by Joyce Sidman, published by HMH Books for Young Readers, ISBN: 978-0544717138.

Wow, just look at this book’s striking design. Joyce Sidman’s rich, poetic prose sings with joy and wonder as she delivers this beautifully researched account of 17th century German scientist Maria Merian who studied insects and flowers. Packed with full-color illustrations (many from the time), this eye-catching wonder helps the reader (child and adult) understand what an impact this groundbreaking woman made. I learned a lot from this book. It’s clear, concise, and at times breathtaking.

The Jamie Drake Equation, written by Christopher Edge, published by Delacorte, ISBN: 978-1524713614.

The best science fiction convinces you that a situation is truly happening, even when the situation is completely outlandish. Christopher Edge has the reader urgently flipping pages and gasping for air as an astronaut’s son fears for his father’s life after a mishap. Meanwhile, the boy starts receiving strange signals on his phone. Edge takes us on a cosmic time-warping dimension-hopping journey, and does so with remarkable wit and heart.

The Journey of Little Charlie, written by Christopher Paul Curtis, published by Scholastic, ISBN: 978-0545156660.

Yet another powerful book from Newbery/Coretta Scott King Author winner Christopher Paul Curtis, who gives the reader a down and out kid named Charlie squirming under the thumb of the year’s most horrifying villain. Set in the 19th century, Curtis’ historical novel breathlessly balances poignant drama with outright horror as Charlie heads to Canada with the brute to capture former slaves now living free. Readers might find the heavy dialect imposing at first, but once Curtis’ raw story grabs them they will be hooked.

Marcus Vega Doesn’t Speak Spanish, written by Pablo Cartaya, published by Viking, ISBN: 978-1101997260.

2018 had many great books about family and connection, and Marcus Vega easily deserves to be considered one of the year’s best. This story about the rather imposing (due to height and size) Marcus starts off with a bang when Marcus gets into some trouble. Then when he travels to Puerto Rico (Cartaya in an author’s note says he wrote this before the devastating hurricane) to spend time with his family, the book becomes quiet and reflective with Marcus finding himself as person and discovering his place in the world. A gem of a coming of age story.

Marley Dias Gets It Done (And So Can You), written by Marley Dias, published by Scholastic, ISBN: 978-1338136890.

2018 had a lot of inspirational books informing kids how they can be activists, and Marley Dias, she of the supercool and successful #1000blackgirlbooks campaign, has written a truly informative one. This vibrant book works as a sound advice book about fighting for causes you believe in, covering a lot of topics in a concise, kid-friendly manner. She also has great advice for the publishing industry: books starring children of color should have their faces featured prominently on the books’ covers. She’s awesome; so is her book.

Memphis, Martin, and the Mountaintop, illustrated by R. Gregory Christie, written by Alice Faye Duncan, published by Calkins Creek, ISBN: 978-1629797182.

This riveting fictionalized picture book probably should have been on my picture book list, but for some reason it seems more at home on this list of longer works. It feels like a rich, rewarding novella. Alice Faye Duncan does a beautiful job placing a 9-year-old girl named Lorraine Jackson at the chaotic center of the 1968 sanitation worker’s strike and discussing Martin Luther King, Jr.’s role in fighting for the workers’ rights. Meanwhile, the great R. Gregory Christie creates distinct illustrations that skillfully evoke the turbulence of these significant events. A powerhouse.

Merci Suárez Changes Gears, written by Meg Medina, published by Candlewick, ISBN: 978-0763690496.

Some books grab you the moment you start reading them, and I certainly had that experience with this touching, funny, and heartfelt middle grade novel. Meg Medina expertly juggles many aspects of sixth grader Merci’s life: struggles with her beloved grandfather who is beginning to show signs of dementia, coping with a bully who makes life miserable for her, her dreams of getting a cool bike (hard when the family’s money situation is rough), and being forced to be a boy’s Sunshine Buddy. Instantly lovable, this book has a memorable heroine who bounces from one captivating circumstance to the next.


The Miscalculations of Lightning Girl, written by Stacy McAnulty, published by Random House, ISBN: 978-1524767570.

This might be favorite 2018 title to book talk to middle schoolers looking for a smart, snappy read. The premise immediately hooks them as I quickly describe it: girl gets hit by lightning, becomes a math genius as a result, and wants to keep her gift top secret from her classmates. Luckily for the reader, McAnulty backs this intriguing premise up with memorable characters, compelling twists, and relatable emotions. It’s a blast.

My Life in the Middle, written by Lila Quintero Weaver, published by Candlewick, ISBN: 978-0763692315.

Based on Weaver’s own experiences, this evocative historical novel, set in 1970 Alabama, chronicles several fraught months in the life of a sixth grade Argentinian immigrant named Lu. She sits in the middle row of her newly integrated classroom between the black and white students. Lu emerges as an emphatic, humane first person narrator who loves to run and hopes to find her way during troubled times.


Power Forward, written by Hena Khan, illustrated by Sally Wern Compert, and published by Salaam Reads/Simon & Schuster, ISBN: 978-1534411999.

This early chapter book kicks off a fast-paced new series called On Point and stars a boy named Zayd who loves hitting the court more than playing violin (he wants to make his loving Pakastani-American parents happy though). This page turner mixes humor and heart with the basketball action, and creates a likable protagonist in Zayd. Readers care about his situation and will want to read future installments to see what happens next.

The Prince and the Dressmaker, illustrated and written by Jen Wang, published by First Second, ISBN: 978-1626723634.

Exquisite illustrations accentuate the charm of this lovely graphic novel (set in 19th century Paris) about gender and identity. A young seamstress named Frances starts designing clothes for Prince Sebastian who asks her to create dresses so Sebastian can take the city by storm dressed as fashion sensation Lady Crystallia. Dazzling and cinematic, with images that flow with graceful finesse across the page.

Rebound, written by Kwame Alexander, published by HMH Books for Young Readers, ISBN: 978-0544868137.

Kwame Alexander serves up a free verse prequel to his Newbery winning The Crossover. Crackling with energy as Alexander’s poems explode on the page, this heartfelt novel whisks the readers back to the ’80s to show Chuck Bell, the father of the twins in The Crossover, deal with change on and off the court. As much as I love The Crossover, I think I like this moving story even more. It’s a real 3 pointer.

The Season of Styx Malone, written by Kekla Magoon, published by Wendy Lamb Books, ISBN: 978-1524715953.

Ah, the wondrous dangers of boyhood and outside play, depicted here with thoughtful grace by Kekla Magoon. This haunting slow burn of a novel introduces readers to two brothers who befriend the supercool Styx. This coming of age story casts a spell from its very first page and haunts the reader. I read this back in the late summer and still haven’t been able to shake it from my head.

Spooked! How a Radio Broadcast and The War of the Worlds Sparked the 1938 Invasion of America, written by Gail Jarrow, published by Calkins Creek, ISBN: 978-1629797762.

This exceptional work of non-fiction transports the reader back to 1938 when Orson Welles (currently in film news because of the recent Netflix release of his restored lost film The Other Side of the Wind) and his Mercury radio crew convinced listeners that evil outer space beings landed on Earth and started attacking everyone. This beautifully researched work walks the reader through all that transpired, and the effect feels immersive and visceral.

Sweep: The Story of a Girl and Her Monster, written by Jonathan Auxier, published by Abrams, ISBN: 978-1419731402.

Oh, how I love this magical and extremely moving tale set in Victorian England. My favorite books offer a strong sense of place, and Auxier does not disappoint in this department. I feel as if I’m in those dangerous chimneys with 11-year-old Nan Sparrow, a chimney sweep of great talent. Sweep takes a fantastical turn when Nan meets and befriends a golem made of ash and coal. By the end of the book I became surprised by how verklempt Sweep had made me. This is fantasy writing at its very strongest, its most potent. It feels like a new modern classic.