Picture books of the day: the deeply personal Fry Bread and The Thing About Bees inform, educate, and inspire

Fry Bread: A Native American Family Tradition, illustrated by Juana Martinez-Neal, written by Kevin Noble Maillard, published by Roaring Brook, ISBN: 978-1626727465. ARC reviewed, to be released: October 22, 2019.

The Thing About Bees, illustrated and written by Shabazz Larkin, published by Readers to Eaters, ISBN: 978-0998047799.

Some of the very best current picture books artistically educate readers about important topics. And Fry Bread: A Native American Tradition and The Thing About Bees emerge as the two of the year’s best in terms of using poetic language and inventive art to present facts about their topics. Both books are extremely personal. The historical and cultural significance of a food that means so many different things to so many different people. The very real notion that we need bees in order to survive. Readers, young and old, walk away with a deeper understanding of their respective topics while reading them.

Fry Bread starts off as a seemingly simple and direct look at how the food is made. Writer Kevin Noble Maillard (a member of the Seminole Nation, Mekusukey band) serves up a bouncy text as each double page spread zeroes in on a specific aspect of fry bread: its ingredients, its shape, the sound it makes when cooking, its color, and so on. Then as the book progresses Maillard starts showing how fry bread unites people at “Supper or dinner/Powwows and festivals.” He powerfully describes fry bread’s historical significance (“The long walk, the stolen land/Strangers in our own world/With unknown food/We made new recipes/From what we had”). What takes this book to an even higher level is the extensive backmatter. Maillard goes through every spread and discusses a wide variety of topics, from how he personally makes fry bread to the number of federally recognized (573 at the time of the book’s printing) and state-recognized (67) Native American tribes in the United States (and over 600 in Canada). Seriously, I learned an incredible amount from this book, and a humble capsule like this one cannot do justice to what Maillard offers. I urge you to read it for yourself. Meanwhile, illustrator Juana Martinez-Neal, who received a well-deserved Pura Belpré Illustrator Award for La Princesa and the Pea and an applause-worthy Caldecott Honor for the great Alma and How She Got Her Name, delights with her playful art. She is one of the most unique picture book artists working today–her round figures look like no one else’s. And here, in a book that reminds readers that Native people have “an enormous range of hair textures and skin colors,” Martinez-Neal stresses diversity and differences when rendering the adults and children who appear. Maillard praises her work in the backmatter. And for good reason: it’s absolutely beautiful.

In The Thing About Bees, illustrator/author Shabazz Larkin admits that he has a fear of bees, and that he does not want to pass this anxiety along to his young sons. So with bee populations on the decline, he creates a work designed to teach all of us about the good and, most importantly, necessary things that bees do. The pollination process leads to the much of the food we eat, and take for granted. Without bees, Larkin warns, “There’d be no more smoothies with mango./There’d be no more strawberries for shortcakes” and so on. By putting this in the simplest and most child-friendly and rational way possible, Larkin makes his case brilliantly. We need these “little buzzers” to survive. Halfway through, Larkin does something absolutely wonderful. He starts addressing his very own children who “buzz in the bushes/ and buzz in my ear,” playfully saying that they scare him just as the bees do. But then he reminds them how much he loves them, returning to the foods mentioned before to add even more pep to the text: “You’re my sweet cherry./The apple pie of my eye./You’re my cucumber pickle./My bumble bee in the sky.” Larkin sees his little ones as the future, and as a parent, you can tell he’s concerned about a future without bees. I absolutely love the art he creates for this book. According to the illustrator’s note, Larkin took a bunch of choreographed and posed photographs of him and his family to create the illustrations. And the result is both deeply personal (and yet universally appealing) and visually innovative. The backmatter includes a helpful look at bees and wasps, how not to get stung, with a guide from the kindest (bumble bee) to the kinda mean (yellow jacket) bees. Buzz worthy.


Quick takes: 16 more picture books I think are supermegaawesome

2019 has been seriously an embarrassment of riches when it comes to noteworthy picture books. I have so many to write about, and wish I had even more time to write about all the 2019 titles I enjoy. Here is a quick rundown of 16 books that deserve special mention for being awesome and personal faves.

Adopting a Dinosaur, illustrated by Ana Sanfelippo, written by Jose Carlos Andrés, published by nubeOCHO, ISBN: 9788417123635.

For those who don’t mind a little wildness during their storytimes, this rollicking romp introduces a girl who desperately wants a pet. Every day she changes her mind about which kind though: on Monday it’s a dog, on Tuesday it’s a cat, Wednesday a turtle. Her parents deny her requests. After she unexpectedly ends up with a dinosaur egg that quickly hatches, all heck breaks loose. The delightful retro illustrations please. And kids love laughing at the outrageous quality of the story.

Along the Tapajós, illustrated and written by Fernando Vilela, translated by Daniel Hahn, published by Amazon Crossing Kids, ISBN: 978-1542008686.

Oh, I adore the woodcut illustrations in this evocative account set in Brazil. When rainy season comes, two kids and other people in their village move to higher elevation. We follow them on their trek. The scenes with the downpour are vividly rendered as the stylized figures pack up their belongings and travel to safety. The book exudes the warmth of community as the residents look out for each other. Drama about a missing turtle adds a layer of tension to the tale. Beautiful and unforgettable.

At the Stroke of Goodnight, illustrated and written by Clay Rice, published by Familius, ISBN: 9781641701440.

Soothing, shadowy art and a lulling text combine to create a expertly conceived bedtime offering. As a writer, Rice creates a sensory experience–emphasizing quiet nocturnal sounds (a drip in the sink, for example) that mesmerize. Then the book takes a surreal turn when the narrator asks if the baby, who should be sleeping, is out riding a colt or driving a tractor. Everything leads to a peaceful and poignant tableau that will make sleepy eyes droop and subsequent dreams sweet.


The Boring Book, illustrated and written by Shinsuke Yoshitake, published by Chronicle, ISBN: 978-1452174563.

This celebration of being absolutely bored out of your wits actually ends up being one of the most eventful, silliest titles of the year. A child cannot believe how absolutely bored they are, and starts imagining scenarios that would end this state: being stuffed into a big donut? Trying out different ways in which to sit? Yoshitake fills the pages with hilarious random thoughts about boredom: is a pill bug every bored? How about a straw wrapper? The round, amusing illustrations amuse throughout. This is a book that takes a funny idea and runs with it: throwing surprises the reader’s way at every turn.


The Clever Tailor, illustrated by Nayantara Surendranath, written by Srividhya Venkat, published by Karadi Tales, ISBN: 978-8193388907.

An exuberant folktale from India is quite reminiscent of Joseph Had a Little Overcoat with its tale of well-loved fabric being reused to create to newer, smaller outfits. The text crackles with energy, and the illustrations bounce with sheer colorful joy as a beloved tailor turns his worn-out saafa into an odhni for his wife. After her odhni becomes worn-out, he turns it into a kurta for his son. And so on. The vibrant, witty art pops off the page as the outfits take on different forms.

The Crayon Man: The True Story of the Invention of Crayola Crayons, illustrated by Steven Salerno, written by Natascha Biebow, published by HMH Books for Young Readers, ISBN: 978-1328866844. 

Most children (and adults) have had fun using Crayola crayons and that’s why this appropriately colorful picture book biography will engage and intrigue young readers. Biebow serves up a zippy look at the life of Edwin Binney who worked hard and experimented until he, with help from his wife and others, worked hard to create the crayons we all love today. Salerno’s detailed, eye-pleasing art does a great job capturing Binney’s struggles and triumphs. Color is very important in a book like this–and a wide array of colors fill the pages. The excellent backmatter follows the process of how crayons are made today. Picture book non-fiction at its best.


I Got Next, illustrated and written by Daria Peoples-Riley, published by Greenwillow, ISBN: 9780062657770.

Packed with indelible images, this rousing title shows a boy (wearing a #1 jersey) practicing his basketball skills. His shadow takes on a life of its own, cheering him on, urging him to put on his game face and practice his moves. Will the kid gather enough courage to others in shooting hoops? Peoples-Riley creates an inspirational title that tells young people to not give up, while adding commentary about gentrification that gives the book a potent and personal POV.

I Want a Dog, illustrated and written by Jon Agee, published by Dial, ISBN: 978-0525555469, ARC reviewed, to be released: September 24, 2019. 

I consider Jon Agee one of the finest comedic illustrators working today, and I Want a Dog continues his winning streak. This could be used in a playfully deranged storytime with Adopting a Dinosaur above, as a child walks into an animal shelter and asks for a pooch. Surprisingly the facility is out of dogs, so the ever-helpful worker offers the girl a wide variety of creatures to take home: an anteater, a python, and a goldfish that might not, uh, be playing dead (oops). Agee is a master of comic timing and the page turn. He keeps the amusing twists coming before reaching a conclusion that both satisfies and prompts giggles.

Let’s Scare Bear, illustrated and written by Yuko Katakawa, published by Holiday House, ISBN: 978-0823439539.

Based on a classical rakgo story called “Manju Kowai,” this hilarious trickster tale stars a bunch of animals trying to figure out ways to frighten the titular character. Turns out though the joke is them (but I won’t spoil how). Katakawa’s animal characters are a lively bunch with fun facial expressions and amusing body language. Her bubbly text is perfect for storytimes, not wasting a single word as she follows the tale through its many enjoyable plot points. The book’s tall dimensions deftly convey the bear’s largish features–he truly becomes a larger than life character. Readers will most likely become curious about tasting some sweet manju themselves.


Maybe Tomorrow?, illustrated by Ana Ramírez González, written by Charlotte Agell, published by Scholastic, ISBN: 978-1338214888.

Well, this is one moving gem about grief. Like last year’s sympathetic The Rabbit Listened by Cori Doerrfeld, Agell’s text respects the feelings of the reader. It reminds people that it’s okay to feel sad about missing someone you love–and it’s okay to move at your own pace when sorting out emotions. Also the book tells friends how to help during times when others feel blue. Ana Ramírez González’s tender, warm art introduces two instantly lovable characters (a grieving hippo, an understanding crocodile), and an effective way to symbolize the grief (a block attached to the hippo). A sweet hug of a book.


Not Quite Snow White, illustrated by Ebony Glenn, written by Ashley Franklin, published by Harper, ISBN: 978-0062798602.

Although ultimately upbeat and hopeful, Franklin’s book touches on a topic that sadly keeps occurring in today’s pop culture: performers of color being told they shouldn’t be playing certain roles. In that regard, this is one of the timeliest and most topical of 2019’s picture books. Illustrator Glenn captures the effervescent spirit of blossoming triple threat Tameika who has triumphed in past stage productions. However, when she eyes the role of Snow White, her peers say she’s too “chubby” and “tall” and “brown” to play the part. Watching her become depressed breaks the reader’s heart. But thankfully she triumphs. This book, like its heroine, has the “right stuff.”

Paws + Edward, illustrated by Mari Kanstad Johnsen, written by Espen Dekko, published by Kids Can Press, ISBN: 978-1525301353.

Okay, have a box of tissues near you as you read this. Not since Laura Vaccaro Seeger’s blue has there been such an emotionally overwhelming tale of a child and their aging pup. During the book’s very first moments, author Dekko takes the reader right into Paws’ dreams which have him chasing rabbits. When he’s awake though, he doesn’t feel like doing much of anything…but knows he must keep his boy company. Oh, just look at the way Johnsen draws Paws: a big ole gentle bear of a dog with drooping eyes and such a sweet face. The book of course takes a devastating turn towards the end. But it all ends on a moving note that reminds readers that loved ones never leave you when you dream.

Rocket Says Look Up!, illustrated by Dapo Adeola, written by Nathan Bryon, published by Random House, ISBN: 978-1984894427.

Our library’s summer learning theme revolved around outer space, and so every new book (and there were a lot of them) about astronomy, space travel and/or stargazing became welcome and useful additions. This vibrant title about a future astronaut named Rocket who loves reciting space facts and studying the skies emerges as one of the most enjoyable. It also works as a cautionary tale about what happens when people don’t look up from their devices: Rocket’s older brother cannot stop staring at his phone and ends up in funny predicaments (splashed by a car going through a puddle) and almost missing out on the celestial wonders around him. A terrific sibling book, too.

Spencer’s New Pet, illustrated and written by Jessie Sima, published by Simon & Schuster, ISBN: 978-1534418776.

I dig surprise endings. And wow does Jessie Sima serve up a doozy of a twist. Don’t worry: I won’t fill this humble capsule with spoilers. Let me just say…I gasped at how wonderfully weird this book gets. First off, the premise is beyond odd (and in a great way). Spencer has a pet balloon animal. The mostly wordless book has the look and feel of an old silent comedy short with title cards and some grainy footage. It’s mostly in black and white with the red balloon animal providing the sole dash of color. This is a graceful touch that makes the slapstick action easy to follow as Spencer chases the pet (always in danger thanks to sharp pointy objects) through the perilous crowd. The reader cannot wait to see what Sima does next from spread to spread. And again: that ending. Okay, whoa.

Stormy: A Story About Finding a Forever Home, illustrated and written by Guojing, published by Schwarz & Wade, ISBN: 9781524771768.

Chinese artist Guojing earned well-deserved raves for the gorgeous wordless graphic novel The Only Child a few years ago. The moody, breathtaking Stormy works as an impressive follow-up that almost stops the heart with its dramatic action. The story, done with comic book/graphic novel style panels, revolves around a woman who spots a stray dog in a park. When a storm comes, she finds herself haunted and fearing for the canine’s safety. She leaves her home and goes out to save it. Guojing nails the art of depicitng canine body language–this is some of the most realistic dog behavior I have seen in a picture book. And oh those pencil and watercolor illustrations that have a 3-dimensional effect–masterful on every level.

You Are Home: An Ode to National Parks, illustrated and written by Evan Turk, published by Atheneum Books for Young Readers, ISBN: 978-1534432826.

Master illustrator Evan Turk is quite simply one of today’s most inventive and unique picture book illustrators. For his tribute of national parks, he uses pastels and black paper to great effect, presenting amazing views of a variety of U.S. national parks. Each double page spread captures nature in all its wondrous glory–showing bison in a wintry Yellowstone moment or the pronghorn munching on grass in the Great Sand Dunes (one pronghorn looks at the reader). Some images include people enjoying the sights; I love the fireflies lighting up the face of a child at night. Turk’s poetic text completes an already successful title, with the recurring line “you are home” inviting audience participation. What a breathtaking wonder this book is.

Picture book of the day: if I gave out awards to characters in picture books…a look at How Do You Dance? and others

How Do You Dance?, illustrated and written by Thyra Heder, published by ABRAMS, ISBN: 978-1419734182.

I admit it. I’m an awards junkie. I love following book awards, TV awards, movie awards, music awards, theater awards. I find it fun comparing my choices to those made by committees and organizations and voting groups. And part of the fun is griping about decisions I don’t agree with: “wait!!! There’s giving it to so and so for THAAAAAT when they should have given it to so and so for something I consider a kazillion times better? Why, I never!” (I don’t really take things THAT seriously. It’s all for fun.)

Something I have thought about doing is to start giving out my own special annual awards to characters I love in picture books. Categories like Favorite All-Around Lead Character. Funniest Character. Most Moving Character. Best Picture Book Ensemble Cast. And even Best Character in a Supporting Role. Or Best Character Who Makes a Cameo Appearance. And in 2019 there are so many great characters whom I could nominate for these special awards. Everyone from very impatient caterpillars to kings of kindergartens, from the mother and daughter experiencing a turbulent day in Saturday to the father and daughter enjoying a motorcycle ride in My Papi Has a Motorcycle.

Thyra Heder’s effervescent tour de force How Do You Dance? could win in two categories: Best Picture Book Ensemble Cast and Best Cameo. Heder introduces a wide variety of characters who express themselves through dance in a multitude of ways. Her fluid pencil and watercolor illustrations masterfully show several people flopping, bopping, and hopping across the page. And wow, what a dynamic dancing troupe they are, matching the energy of her energetic text. They even try new moves such as “The Zip” and “The Scribble” and dance at all times. After breakfast? Why not? Connecting the action is a kid who doesn’t necessarily want to dance. Well, not in front of others. When that child is alone though, watch out! A cyclone of movement!

Almost stealing the show is a front runner for Best Cameo: a janitor named Rick. Wow, Rick has the moves! He bops while he mops. Rick is up there with that super-cool librarian in My Papi Has a Motorcyle, the flying pig in ¡Vamos! Let’s Go to the Market!, and the sad trombone in The Happy Book. GO RICK!!!

How Do You Dance? is a boisterous addition to music-themed storytimes. One that deserves a standing O.