July 10 – Teddy Bears’ Picnic Day

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About the Holiday

The classic picture book The Teddy Bears’ Picnic, written by Jimmy Kennedy and illustrated by Michael Hague has inspired kids for more than two decades to pack a basket of treats, grab their favorite teddy bear, and find a sunny or shady spot to enjoy a picnic. Today’s holiday reminds kids and their families of this simple summer pleasure and encourages them to celebrate with a teddy bear picnic of their own. Today’s book—a sweet, updated take on the original—as well as the  accompanying activity kit will spark ideas for fun, friendship, kindness and a picnic any time of the year.

I received a copy of Teddy Bear of the Year from Tundra Books for review consideration. All opinions are my own.

Teddy Bear of the Year

Written by Vikki VanSickle | Illustrated by Sydney Hanson

 

Ollie loved his job as Amena’s teddy bear. During the week his shift ran from three in the afternoon to after breakfast the next day. “On weekends and in the summer he was on call twenty-four hours a day.” Every day, Ollie looked forward to the moment when Amena came home and told him all about her adventures. “At night, when he snuggled in next to Amena, he would think about her stories and smile.”

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Image copyright Sydney Hanson, 2020, text copyright Vikki VanSickle, 2020. Courtesy of Tundra Books.

One night as Amena slept, Ollie saw a “shining silver sailboat” outside her window. The captain (Snuggles, aka The Snug) called to him and told him he was there to bring Ollie to the Teddy Bear’s Picnic. The picnic, Snuggles explained, was put on each summer by the Teddy Bears’ Association “to celebrate the year in teddy-care.” Ollie was excited but wondered about how Amena might feel if she woke up and he wasn’t there.

The Snug told him that for her time would stand still until Ollie returned. With one more cuddle for Amena, Ollie stepped aboard the sailboat. The Snug was impressed by Ollie’s knowledge of his “ABCs: Always Be Cuddling.” Soon, they arrived in the woods, where strings of lights glowed and a stage was set up. When they got closer, “Ollie saw teddies of all shapes and sizes.”

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Image copyright Sydney Hanson, 2020, text copyright Vikki VanSickle, 2020. Courtesy of Tundra Books.

Ollie met some of Snuggles’ friends, ate delicious sweets, played games, and even sang “bearaoke.” At last, Pinkie, the president of the Teddy Bears’ Association, took to the stage to begin the awards ceremony. Boo Bear won a star for comforting her boy through a long hospital stay. Fang received a star for accompanying “his girl, Tina, on her first sleepover party.” And Snuggles was given a star for his years of service to a family of six children and his many adventures.

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Image copyright Sydney Hanson, 2020, text copyright Vikki VanSickle, 2020. Courtesy of Tundra Books.

As Pinkie pinned stars on each of the teddy bears, Ollie “tried to think of a single thing that he had done that deserved a star, but nothing came to mind.” He felt that “he was just an ordinary bear.” But then he hear Pinkie announcing the Teddy Bear of the Year Award and…his name! Ollie couldn’t believe it. “‘I haven’t done anything special at all!’” he said.

But then Pinkie showed him how he’d helped Amena when she fell off her bike and “turned a bad day into a good day” by using the ABCs of teddy-care. The ability to do this is very special Pinkie told him. “‘Even the smallest actions—a cuddle, a kind word, a hug—have great impact’” and help their children feel strong. Pinkie pinned the star on Ollie’s chest and then all the teddy bears celebrated. When the picnic ended, The Snug sailed Ollie home. As Ollie snuggled in next to Amena, he whispered to her all about his adventures, and Amena smiled.

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Image copyright Sydney Hanson, 2020, text copyright Vikki VanSickle, 2020. Courtesy of Tundra Books.

Vikki VanSickle’s well-conceived teddy bear world will captivate readers with its sweet combination of magic and reality. Details such as Ollie’s shift schedule and his excitement to hear Amena’s stories when she got home hit just the right note, mirroring both a young child’s imagination and their experience, especially if they have siblings. VanSickle’s message about the importance of kindness and providing comfort is woven naturally into the storyline, increasing its impact and allowing readers to see that simple acts of friendship are just as valuable, and often more so, than large, dramatic acts. Her Teddy Bear Picnic is sprinkled with humor and the kind of fun that makes it a party any child would love to attend.

Sydney Hanson’s illustrations are as soft and fuzzy as Ollie and as warmly glowing as a comforting nightlight. As Amena and Ollie snuggle side by side, the wispy bedroom curtains sway gently then frame the magical sailboat that arrives to take Ollie to the Teddy Bear’s Association picnic. From afar, the get-together in the woods twinkles with shimmering light. As Ollie and readers get closer, they meet a wide variety of teddy bears, from a pirate bear to a lavender koala riding a lavender-and-brown horse to teeny-tiny bears in a rainbow of colors. Kids will recognize the picnic activities from birthday parties and school events, and as all of the teddies gather around the stage, their anticipation for the awards will grow just as Ollie’s do. As readers watch scenes from Amena’s bad day along with Ollie, they see a specific example of how friendship can make anyone feel better.  

Cuddly and endearing, Teddy Bear of the Year will be a favorite for snuggly bedtimes with little ones (and their teddies, of course). The book would be an often-asked-for addition to home, school, and public library bookshelves.

Ages 3 – 7

Tundra Books, 2020 | ISBN 978-0735263925

Discover more about Vikki VanSickle and her books on her website.

A Chat with Vikki VanSickle

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Welcome back, Vikki! The last time we chatted your mythical and funny If I Had a
Gryphon had just been released. Since then If I Had a Gryphon has been named as a Best Book for Children and won multiple other honors, has been released as a paperback and a board book, and has even been recorded as a rap by some creative students. You’ve also published a award-winning middle grade novel, The Winnowing. Can you catch readers up on these successes and what else you’ve been doing?

Isn’t it bananas how much can happen in four years? I’ve been very fortunate, as you kindly pointed out, to receive such accolades for my books. A highlight was certainly winning the Red Maple Award for The Winnowing at the 2018 Festival of Trees. There’s nothing like bursting into tears in front of your peers and a few hundred readers! I’ve also had a lot of smaller, personal moments with readers who have shared their own artwork or story ideas with me, which I consider a great privilege. In addition to writing and presenting to kids, I am the director of marketing and publicity for the young readers program at Penguin Random House Canada, which means I get to work on amazing kids’ books all day, every day.

Teddy Bear of the Year is super sweet and a great reminder that kind acts are recognized and appreciated. What inspired you to write this story?

Small acts of kindness has always been a big theme for me and it shows up in a lot of my work. In my first novel, Words That Start With B, I wanted to address the idea of bravery with a lower-case b—meaning actions that might not appear typically brave or even noteworthy but made all the difference in the world to someone. This idea has manifested in many ways in all of my work. I am less interested in narratives about saving the world at large, and more interested in what little things we can do every day to change the lives of people around us.

When you’re a kid, so many goals seem huge and out of reach to you. Especially in an increasingly loud and bombastic society it’s easy to feel small or helpless or insignificant. But every major feat consists of a series of smaller actions and decisions and it’s the smaller, everyday things that can change a person’s entire outlook.

Ollie and the other teddy bears in your book reminded me of my own childhood teddy bear, Brownie, who is still with me even after much fur loss and a long-ago surgery to remove the music box that made him a little less cuddly than I wanted. Is there an Ollie in your life? Can you tell readers a little about this special friend?celebrate-picture-books-picture-book-review-Vikki-VanSickle-and-Teddy-Bear-Gang

Vikki and her Teddy Bear Gang

I had a number of cherished stuffed animals that held major roles in my imaginary play and nighttime rituals. I was constantly worried that one would feel ignored or less loved, and therefore took great pains to treat them equally, including rotating which stuffed animal I slept with each night. But one toy did stand out above the rest, and that was a stuffed rabbit named Bunny. I’ve had Bunny as long as I can remember. He’s in pretty rough shape, but currently lives a quiet life of retirement in my closet.

Sydney Hanson’s soft illustrations are so dreamy and I love how all the different teddy bears mirror different kids and what they like. What was your reaction when you first saw her sweet interpretation of your story? Do you have a favorite spread?

I was so thrilled with Sydney’s sweet, fuzzy illustrations. A bedtime story is only as cozy as the art, and I think she really nailed it. I really enjoy the group scenes, especially the spread when Ollie arrives at the picnic for the first time and gets a glimpse of the snacks table. I love how all of the bears, even the unnamed ones, have their own personalities and storylines you can follow throughout the book.

Two of my favorite parts of your story are the Teddy Bear ABCs—which is inspirational for everyone, especially on National Hugging Day—and the idea of Teddy Bear Magic.  What ideas about friendship would you like young readers to take away from your story?

I love that those things resonated with you! The working title of the book was Teddy Bear Magic, which Ollie and the reader first associate with the magic of the flying sailboat and the stoppage of time, but eventually come to realize that the bigger magic is how kindness, comfort, and support can transform someone’s experience. I hope readers recognize that by being kind you have the magical ability to transform someone’s day.

The ABCs of Teddy Care—aka “Always Be Cuddling”—is a reference to the phrase “Always Be Closing,” a business philosophy made famous by the movie (and play) Glengarry Glen Ross. I modeled the Teddy Bear’s Picnic depicted in the book on contemporary office parties, and I got a kick out of taking such a cold corporate mantra and turning it into something warm and fuzzy.

I always enjoy watching your appearances on Your Morning, the Canadian breakfast-time show. You’re such a natural on camera and a fantastic advocate for children’s books. Can you talk about the segments you do and how you became involved with them? Where can people see past segments and when is your next one?

Thanks so much! I’m very much enjoying it. I read a lot and curating lists is something I have always loved doing. It must be my bookselling roots! I had visited CTV Your Morning as an author and chatted with the book producer about themed segments for major book-buying moments, such as back to school, summer reading, and the holidays. The first few segments were popular and so we’ve continued to find other themes—such as building your baby’s library and kids’ books that address mental health and wellness, which aired on January 20th of this year—that would resonate with their audience outside those traditional moments. You can find past clips at theloop.ca, and I also post them on my own website at www.vikkivansickle.com.

From the long events and presentations list on your website, I can tell you love meeting your readers! Do you have an anecdote from any event that you’d like to share?

I really love meeting readers! It’s important for me to stay connected to the audience, especially since I no longer work in a bookstore and I have less “kid contact.” One of my favorite anecdotes happened at an IF I HAD A GRYPHON event with second grade students. I noticed one boy in the front frowning the whole time—which was unusual, not to mention disconcerting— and when it came time for questions his arm shot up and he asked, “Do you know how many species of dragon there are?” I told him that no, I did not know, and he broke into a smile and responded, “Nobody knows. That was a trick question.” I realized he had spent the whole presentation waiting to ask me that question, wondering if I would trip up or give him false information. You can never lie to kids—they smell it a mile away—and it’s important to treat every question seriously. If you don’t respect your audience, why should they respect you?

Before you go, I’m sure readers would love to know how they can hold their own Teddy Bear Picnics.

Tundra also created an amazing downloadable Teddy Bear of the Year event kit so anyone can hold a similar event. You can find that kit below.

Teddy Bears’ Picnic Day Activity

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Teddy Bear of the Year Activity Kit

 

You can hold your own Teddy Bear Picnic with this fun activity kit that includes a puzzle, a coloring sheet, a headband, and even a Teddy Bear of the Year certificate for your special friend. You’ll also find ideas for hosting your own Teddy Bear Service Awards!

Teddy Bear of the Year Activity Kit

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You can find Teddy Bear of the Year at these booksellers

Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Books-a-Million

To support your local independent bookstore, order from

Bookshop | IndieBound

Picture Book Review

June 17 – It’s National Camping Month

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About the Holiday

For some, camping is the best way to spend a vacation. This month’s holiday celebrates that love of adventure and encourages people to spend some time in the great outdoors. Of course, there’s giddy excitement for kids in just setting up a tent in the backyard too, so camping close to home this year can be just as fun as pitching a tent in a national park. There’s just one requirement wherever you camp – don’t forget the marshmallows!

Tundra Books sent me a copy of Now? Not Yet! for review consideration. All opinions are my own. 

Now? Not Yet!

By Gina Perry

 

Geared up for camping, Moe and Peanut head down the path that leads into the woods. They’re still within sight of home (only a few steps away, in fact) when Peanut asks, “‘Can we go swimming now?’” But Moe, with his stout walking stick wants to hike a bit first and answers, “‘Not yet.’” Turn the page and Peanut has spied a glimpse of blue water. Now must be the time for swimming, but Moe has his binoculars trained on an owl, so “‘not yet.’”

When they stop for a snack, Peanut unpacks his swim fins, beach ball, floating ring, and bunny toy on the way to finding his apple and banana, while Moe neatly nibbles trail mix from a baggie. A little farther on, Peanut’s so antsy to swim that he’s doing handstands in his swim fins, but the time’s not right now either because Moe thinks they’re lost.

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Image copyright Gina Perry, 2019, courtesy of Tundra Books.

Poor Peanut, he falls and comes up covered in pinecones and prickly pine needles, which unfortunately get transferred to Moe. Phew! They’ve found their campsite by the lake, and Peanut begs on his knees to go swimming. “‘Now?’ said Peanut. ‘Not yet,’ said Moe. ‘It’s time to make camp.’” This camp-making is kind of fun, Peanut thinks as he hangs the tent poles between two trees and plays limbo, uses a tent pole to draw a picture of Moe in the dirt, and then toddles on tent-pole stilts. Certainly the campsite must be ready by now. Why can’t they just go swimming? Moe says they “need to set up the tent.”

Peanut is starting to lose his patience, and Moe is starting to lose his patience plus he’s being attacked by mosquitoes. There’s just so much to do before swimming. The backpacks need unpacking, the campfire needs to be built, and… “‘where are the tent poles?’” Peanut has a breakdown—“Now! Now! Now!” And Moe has a breakdown—“NOT YET!”

Moe walks off to cool down while Peanut looks around the toy-strewn campsite sadly. He knows what he has to do. He sets up the tent, hangs up the towels and sets out the teapot and mugs, gathers firewood, and misses Moe. But Moe isn’t far away. He peeks over the tent and stealthily puts on Peanut’s swim mask. “NOW!” he announces while running and leaping into the lake. Peanut cannonballs in after him. They play and splash and finally dry off. Warm and cozy in their PJs next to a crackling fire, they happily eat beans from a can. The sky grows dark and Peanut figures it’s time for bed. But “‘Not yet,’” Moe says. They have one s’more thing to do.

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Image copyright Gina Perry, 2019, courtesy of Tundra Books.

In their second story, Moe and Peanut are heading out on an adventure, and like many kids, Peanut is focused on one thing, and one thing only, about the trip—swimming. Meanwhile, Moe is the keeper of all things practical and logistical. As we all know from our own kids or memories, a minute can feel like an hour, an hour like several, and a day like for…ev…er. Gina Perry taps into that feeling with verve and humor drawing out the trip to the campsite with such adult preoccupations as bird watching, map watching, splinter pulling, and the rigors of actually setting up camp. And it’s not that Peanut means to be a bother, he’s just brimming with excitement for fun, fun, fun!

Perry moves these two forces along at a brisk pace with her well-timed traded choruses of “Now?” and “Not yet.” When the clash comes in a two-page spread where each loses their cool in nearly mirror images, both kids and adults will laugh at the truth of it all. As Moe walks off and Peanut takes up the work of setting up camp, adults will understand that their kids are watching, learning, and empathetic, and kids will feel empowered to take control of their feelings and help out. The final pages showing Moe and Peanut swimming and enjoying the campfire offer reconciliation and that fun, fun, fun, Peanut (and Moe) were looking for.

Perry’s art is always bright and inviting and full of clever details. Kids will love Peanut’s antics, toy-laden backpack, and talent with tent poles, while adults will sympathize with Moe who suffers the slings and arrows of mosquitoes, sunburn, and passed-off splinters. The front endpaper depicts Moe and Peanut’s hike from home, through the woods, and to the campsite; the back endpaper portrays Peanut’s drawing of the same hike.

A funny, sweet-natured story that adults and kids will love to share, Now? Not Yet! is an endearing summer read and a must to join Too Much? Not Enough! on home, classroom, and library bookshelves.

Ages 3 – 7

Tundra Books, 2019 | ISBN 978-1101919521

To learn more about Gina Perry, her books, and her art, visit her website.

Meet Gina Perry

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I’m so thrilled to be chatting with Gina Perry about her inspirations for Moe and Peanut, this duo’s inclusion in Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library, her early work in the scrapbooking market, and so much more!

Both Moe and Peanut are so sweet-natured. They just have different priorities sometimes. What or who inspired these characters and their particular adventures at home (Too Much! Not Enough!) and while camping (Now? Not Yet!)?

I think that is a lovely way to sum up Moe and Peanut. Their base personalities formed long ago from a lot of playing in my sketchbook. Moe is rooted in myself and other adults who do love play, but in a structured way. Peanut is rooted in all the little energetic kids I knew before having my own children, particularly my niece and nephew.  Their specific adventures are definitely inspired by my own kids. Indoor messes on rainy days, bubble faces, block towers—I had plenty of inspiration for that while raising my son and daughter. And I dedicated NOW? NOT YET! to Piper because of her super-charged love of play and swimming.

Are you a Moe, a Peanut or a little of both? In what way?

I am far more like Moe because I don’t leave home without the map, enjoy looking at birds, and also get a red face when dealing with mosquitos and stress. But the Peanut side of me also loves lakes and drawing in the dirt. I think because I was the youngest and my sisters were four and eight years older, I really remember feeling like a pesky little sister when I was the age of my readers.

In Now? Not Yet! Moe and Peanut go camping. Do you like camping? If so, are you a glamper or a traditional camper? What’s your favorite part of camping?

Camping confession: I have never slept outside! I found bear droppings in our backyard last month so I’m not sure I’ll check the box on backyard camping anytime soon, either. I do love going for day hikes and fondly remember lots of family vacations at rustic cabins on lakes in New Hampshire and Maine. I’ve definitely experienced all parts of Peanut and Moe’s adventure—note how we end the story before bedtime! My favorite part when I’m on a hike is spotting animals. I’m still waiting to see a moose in real life, but I snuck one in the book as an homage to a childhood dream.

Your artistic style is so distinctive—I immediately recognize an illustration as yours before I see your name on it. Can you talk a little about how you developed your style? What changes did Peanut and Moe go through as you worked on Too Much! Not Enough!?

That is a lovely compliment – thank you! I’ve been through lots of experimenting with my illustration style. I think always being willing to try new approaches and following lots of other illustrators and artists has helped me land where I am now. I really enjoy creating very simple but distinct characters and then letting the colors take over. The basic character design for Peanut and Moe was pretty solid early on (and many years before they were published!) but I do appreciate that I had time and confidence to try some bolder color choices that I think made their story shine.

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My editor smartly suggested that we up the level of mess from my dummy. The addition of all those block, glitter, and car elements really improved the book, and the narrow color palette made it still feel friendly even at its messiest. In their first book, I wanted to maintain a cheerful, bold color palette despite the rainy day. In their second book I worried how I would continue that color story in the outdoors. I chose to keep their environment in bright, but natural colors and played up that first color palette in their gear and clothing. I loved designing their evening attire!

This year Too Much! Not Enough! was selected for Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library. Can you tell readers about this program and how your book was chosen? What does it mean for Moe and Peanut?

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Moe and Peanut do the dishes in Too Much? Not Enough!

I am so thrilled that TOO MUCH! was chosen for this amazing book gifting program that delivers a new book each month for a child from birth to school age. Imagination Library now has programs across the US, UK, Canada, Australia, and Ireland and has mailed over 120 million books at no cost to families. Their Blue Ribbon Committees review and select titles based on their themes and concepts and aligned to one of five age groups. The website does an amazing job describing the program and how books are chosen and I hope all new or expecting parents look into this opportunity for their child. It means that this year, Peanut and Moe will be heading to thousands of young children (2-3 years of age) across Canada. Having so many new readers meet Moe and Peanut is exciting!

Before you concentrated on writing and illustrating books for children, you worked in animation and as an art director for the scrapbooking market. I’ve always wondered how some patterns of paper come to be. What is the process behind creating scrapbook paper and how certain subjects, colors, and designs are chosen.

When I started at that first scrapbooking company they were transitioning from a stencil-based business. The scrapbooking market was booming back then and it was a great opportunity for me to learn a totally new area and get experience as an illustrator. There was a lot of trial and error in figuring out how to make appealing and usable patterns that could be mixed and matched. We tracked fashion and illustration trends by going to trade shows and even shopping trips. Some collections were fashion based, others revolved around the events you would put in a scrapbook – birthdays, weddings, holidays, etc. It was a collaborative process involving designers, art directors, and the sales teams. My favorite job was finding new illustrators to work with, giving them a brief, then seeing the magic they sent back.

I saw on your blog that this year you participated in World Read Aloud Day by having Skype calls with students in New York, Connecticut, Texas, Florida, and Ukraine! That’s a lot of kids to reach! They must be thrilled! Can you talk a little about what you like about Skype calls, what you do during the calls, and how the kids react?

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A class listens to Gina Perry on World Read Aloud Day.

World Read Aloud Day is amazing. I encourage all authors to participate. I spend so much time working alone (especially in the winter!), that it’s a real gift to open up Skype and connect to a classroom full of enthusiastic readers. It’s usually a 20-minute call and most authors follow this formula: read one of your books, take questions from students, then share a few favorite books by other authors. But the variation is in the kids! How do they react to my book and what interesting questions do they have? Kids are so creative and often think of things I haven’t or share personal connections to a character or even to my story about being an illustrator and author.

What’s up next for you?

I have been squirreling away on some fun new projects that I can’t say too much about at the moment. I will say that one book was very much inspired by my school visits and drawing with kids. Another is inspired by welcoming a new puppy into our home this year.

What’s your favorite holiday and why?

I don’t know how you can compete with Halloween. The candy, creative costumes, spooky decorations, all-are-welcome and low-pressure vibe really make it a winner. And did I mention candy?

Thanks, Gina for joining me today! Happy Book Birthday to Moe and Peanut and Now? Not Yet! I wish you all the best with this series and all of your books and can’t wait to see what comes next!

You can connect with Gina Perry on

Her website | Facebook | Instagram | PinterestTwitter

National Camping Month Activity

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A Fun In-Home Campfire

 

Kids and their friends and family can enjoy the cozy fun of a campfire in their own family room with this craft that’s easy to make from recycled materials. While the supplies might make the campfire artificial, kids will love it if the marshmallows are the real thing!

Supplies

  • Three or four paper or cardboard tubes
  • Cylindrical bread crumbs or oatmeal container
  • Tissue paper in red, orange, and yellow
  • Brown craft paint
  • Brown marker
  • Brown construction paper or white paper
  • Strong glue or hot glue gun
  • Chopsticks (one for each person)
  • Marshmallows

CPB - campfire craft container

Directions

To Make the Logs

  1. Cover the ends of the tubes with circles of brown construction paper or white paper and glue into place
  2. Paint the tubes and the ends if needed, let dry
  3. Paint the sides of the cylindrical container with the brown paint, let dry
  4. With the marker draw tree rings on the ends of the tubes. Decorate the sides with wavy lines, adding a few knot holes and swirls.

To Make the Fire

  1. Cut 9 squares from the tissue paper (3 in each color, about 8 to 6-inch square)
  2. Layer the colors and gather them together at one tip. Fold over and hold them together with a rubber band.
  3. To Assemble the Campfire
  4. Stack the tube logs
  5. Put the tissue paper fire in the middle of the logs

To “Roast” Marshmallows

  1. Stick marshmallows on chopsticks for “roasting” and eating!

You can keep your logs and fire in the cylindrical log until the next time!

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You can find Now? Not Yet! at these booksellers

Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Books-a-Million

To support your local independent bookstore, order from

Bookshop | IndieBound

Picture Book Review

June 2 – It’s National Family Month and Interview with Illustrator Petra Brown

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About the Holiday

The weeks between Mother’s Day in May and Father’s Day in June have been designated as National Family Month. This time gives us the opportunity to honor everything that makes a group of people a family. Shared experiences and memories—and especially love—create that unique feeling in the heart that defines family. This spring’s stay-at-home orders have given most people an opportunity to get to know their family members in a whole new way. To celebrate today’s holiday, share a word, a hug, or even a special note to let your kids know how much you love them.

I received a copy of Daddy Loves You from Sleeping Bear Press for review consideration. All opinions of the book are my own. 

Daddy Loves You

Written by Helen Foster James | Illustrated by Petra Brown

 

A daddy rabbit, cradling his bunny in his paws, gazes lovingly into his little one’s eyes and says, “You are your daddy’s sunshine. / I’ll love you every day.” He promises that he will always be by his bunny’s side, teaching, protecting, and playing with them. They take a walk, and as the curious bunny points out things along the way, Daddy names them all.

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Image copyright Petra Brown, 2020, text copyright Helen Foster James. Courtesy of Sleeping Bear Press.

Daddy and his little one spin and twirl, hold hopping contests, and fall in a heap giggling and laughing. Next it’s on to a special swing-making project where they “build and fix together” then have fun as Daddy pushes his “lovey-bug” on the ivy-covered swing. Daddy makes his child a cape of leaves and flies his eager bunny through the air as he reveals some advice—and an admission felt by all parents: “Do your best. Be bold and kind. / Be all you want to be. / You’ll be a superhero / …especially to me.”

Night falls and the two snuggle up as Daddy tells a story to his adoring child. Then nestling his baby into a soft, straw bed, he gives a kiss and says goodnight with the assurance that “you are my little angel, / and, moonbeam…I love you.”

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Image copyright Petra Brown, 2020, text copyright Helen Foster James. Courtesy of Sleeping Bear Press.

The unique relationship that fathers have with their children is tenderly shared in the newest addition to this lovely and loving series of family member relationship books. Helen Foster James’ lyrical language—sprinkled with endearments—is part lullaby, part hug, and completely charming as a father takes his little one by the paw and reveals the depth of his feelings. Little ones will love snuggling up with their dad to spend some one-on-one time reveling in memories and promises of fun spent together.

A highlight of this series is Petra Brown’s glowing illustrations of the natural world this family of rabbits calls home. Here, the rabbits wake to a pastel dawn shining on a springtime green and yellow field, where butterflies flit among tall grasses and puffs of dandelions. The adoring looks shared by Daddy and his bunny portray a love as new and glorious as the day itself. Adorable images of this proud father teaching, protecting, and exploring with his child, are enchanting and give adults and kids an opportunity to share more than a few “remember when we did…?” or “remember when we went…?” moments of their own. The sweet ending is one that little ones will want to hear—and do—again and again.

A perfect pick for Father’s Day or as a new dad gift, Daddy Loves You will be a heartwarming favorite for any child.

Ages 3 – 5

Sleeping Bear Press, 2020 | ISBN 978-1534110595

To learn more about Petra Brown, her books, and her art, visit her website

Meet Petra Brown

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Petra Brown has been a children’s book illustrator since 2006 when her first picture bookIf Big Can…I Can, was shortlisted for the Booktrust Early Years Awards for Best Emerging Illustrator. Since then she has been illustrating for a range of publishers in the United Kingdom and abroad. Petra comments, “I love drawing animals with human expressions. I find it such fun creating, for example, a thoughtful fox, a happy hippo, a shy sheep, or a caring bear! The other thing I like is creating landscapes, places where my characters can run about and have adventures. Living in a magnificent place like Snowdonia helps a great deal.” Petra lives with her partner in Wales.

I’m so thrilled to have the opportunity to talk with Petra Brown today about her early love of children’s illustration, her photography in and around her hometown of Snowdonia, Wales, and a ghost-filled house…. Jakki’s boys, Steve and Jack, also had a couple of questions for Petra.

Steve would like to know: Do you have a pet rabbit? 

Hi Steve! I don’t have a rabbit. I once lived with seven cats, but that’s another story. I always say hello to the rabbits that live in the wild near our house, but they never stop for a chat. I think they’re a little shy.

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Jack was wondering: We like to work outside with our dad. What do you like to do with your dad?

Hello Jack! My dad is very, very old and he likes to sit in his chair and read and doze.  But when I was very young my dad made a model railway in our garden and he let me help sometimes… that was fun.

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Illustration from The Hyde Park Squirrels series written by Nick Croydon.

Daddy Loves You is part of a series of sweet books about family love. I love reviewing these books. Can you talk a little about how these books came to be and how you approach the illustrations?

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The first book in the ‘Loves You!’ series was ‘Grandma Loves You!’ written by Helen Foster James. Sleeping Bear Press offered me the illustration project back in 2013… and so it began!  Five love-packed books were born! The cast list so far: Grandma, Grandpa, Mommy, Daddy and Auntie. Rabbits galore! I’m not sure who came up with the bunny idea, but it worked. There’s another book starring two members of the same rabbit family: Grandma’s Christmas Wish.

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The Rabbit family is semi-wild… no clothes, they live in burrows without furniture, but they can make things. Grandpa made Little Bunny a kite using leaves, twigs and grasses. Daddy made a swing, using ivy vines. Auntie makes herself a daisy-chain crown and collects seashells to decorate Little Bunny’s bed. And in ‘Grandma’s Christmas Wish’ Granny has a Christmas tree, complete with decorations in her burrow. I like the idea that they use the natural things around them to have fun.

There are lots of side characters in the books too. A jolly mole pops up in a few of the books and smiles avuncularly at the rabbits’ antics. There’s also a recurring hedgehog.

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There are never any rabbits in the title pages, instead there’s always an assortment of other little wild critters, all eagerly checking out the name of the book to see who’s up next.

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The endpapers are always decorated with things from the rabbits’ world. My favourite endpaper is the one in Auntie’s book. She’s a lop-eared rabbit who lives near the sea and so the endpapers in her book show a rock pool and rabbit footprints in the shell-littered sand.

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The ‘Love You Series’ are all ‘Keepsake Editions’—each book has a frontispiece designed for a gift inscription and date, and at the back there is a space for a personalised “Special Letter to My Favorite Bunny” and a space for a photograph. These pages are decorated with little creatures, flowers, leaves, berries, and various pretty things from the rabbits’ environment. I always have huge fun creating the rabbits’ environment with all its little details.

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You say that even as a child you were fascinated by the illustrations in books and copied them. Who were your favorite illustrators and how did they influence you?

The first book I actually chose to read for myself was Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. There was something about Tenniel’s illustrations that really intrigued me. I tried to copy them over and over. I guess the idea of my illustrating books was born from this. One of my favourite books was The Children’s Treasury of Literature in Colour published by Hamlyn in 1966. It was jam-packed full with the work of fabulous illustrators! Favourites were Robert J Lee, Gordon Laite, Richard Scarry, J P Miller, William Dugan, Adrienne Segur, Lilian Obligado, Grace Dalles Clarke, Hilary Knight, W T Mars, and The Provensens.

My other favourite book to lose myself in was The Illustrated Treasury of Children’s Literature published by Grosset and Dunlap 1955. That was also crammed full of tasty illustrations! There were many books filled with inspiring illustrations that I studied again and again. The list of illustrators that inspire me is very, very long. I feel both excited and frustrated by their brilliance.

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Did you always want to work as an illustrator for children’s books? Would you talk a bit about your journey to publication?

From quite an early age there was never any doubt in my mind that illustrating was what I wanted to do. At school the careers advisor advised me to think about an alternative career, just in case the whole artsy thing crashed and burned. But I folded my arms and told him, “There is no plan B!” Looking back, that guy was right, really. It took me a long time to fulfill my dreams. I had to work in a shop for years, whilst attempting to lure a publisher to take interest in my work.

In 2005 I had almost given up hope of ever being published. Sick of sending off portfolios and collecting rejection letters, I took courage and joined the internet, (ah, the days of dial-up!). I made myself a website showcasing my art and I sent out an introduction/invitation to view my work in the form of an email to absolutely every children’s book publisher on the planet… hundreds! I say hundreds, I’m not sure how many, but it was a very long list. Out of all those emails sent, I received back just two interested publishers, one was Gomer, a welsh publisher, and the other was Meadowside. At that time Meadowside’s art director was the wonderful Mark Mills, who went on to found his agency ‘Plum Pudding’ and I’m really proud to say that I was among the first plums in that fabulous punnet! At the grand age of 40, my life as an illustrator began!

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Illustration from If Big Can, I Can, written by Beth Shoshan, published by Meadowside Children’s Books June, 2006. Shortlisted for The Book Trust Early Years Award for Best Emerging Illustrator.

I added up how many books I’ve done since then and it shocked me! It’s fifty two! Amongst all those books there is a very special one for me… the one that I wrote myself: When the Wind Blew published by Sleeping Bear Press in 2017. It’s always been my deepest wish to actually write and illustrate a book. Thank you, Sleeping Bear Press!

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Illustration from When the Wind Blew.

Your portfolio is full of adorable animals and scenes that can’t help but make a person smile. Two of my favorites are an illustration of a pig getting a shave and one of a crocodile getting his teeth brushed. Your style is very distinctive, with gorgeous colors, lush, detailed backgrounds, and characters who are so expressive. How did you develop your style? What mediums do you work in?

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Barber, barber, shave a pig! Artwork for a greeting card made conventionally.

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Illustration from Bwch. Drawing made on the iPad in Procreate and colouring in Photoshop on my PC.

All my work up until the end of 2013 was done conventionally, usually colour pencils, watercolour paints on thick watercolour paper. But after that date everything I did was made solely in Photoshop. But on my latest project I’m working slightly differently. I’m drawing in detail onto paper, scanning that image, keeping it on a separate layer set to ‘multiply’ and working the colour underneath, with a few tweaks on a top layer.

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Piece from my latest project.

I use Derwent studio pencils when drawing conventionally. I start off with a ‘French Grey 70’ to work out the rough shape, and then work over the top with the darker ‘Chocolate 66’. Just lately I’ve been working on Daler – Rowney Smooth-Heavyweight paper, it has just enough tooth for happy pencil-work, but smooth enough to scan cleanly. Once I’ve finished the sketch I scan it into the computer to work the colour up in Photoshop. I absolutely love making Photoshop brushes, and often I spend hours fiddling about making the perfect brush for the finish that I want.

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Drawing made with a Derwent studio pencil.

You live in Snowdonia, Wales which, with its mountains and beaches, is as pretty and magical as its name. Can you describe one or two of your favorite places and why you love them?

My partner Iain and I love to explore the hidden places in our area, the quiet mysterious places where most people never go. Landscapes woven with tales from the Mabinogion. The lonely hills marked with abandoned quarries, dripping damp mines; remote ruined homesteads… cold hearths, empty barns, and rusted relics. ​Haunted, lichen coated, and weather worn. They are the places I love. I always take my camera with me and try to capture that special atmosphere that fills my cup.

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The picture above shows Llwyn-y-betws. The sort of house you might find in a welsh village, or perhaps at the end of a bumpy farm track. A house of fair proportions, a two up, two down. But Llwyn-y-betws sits in the middle of a moorland hill, with no road running to it or near it. It’s as if one night it had decided it’d had enough of man and his noisy roads and had, like Baba Yaga’s house, stood  up on two strong legs and marched itself up into the hills to sit quietly amongst the reeds and the sheep and slowly rot away.

Perhaps the fabulous view of the Nantlle ridge reflected in it’s windows gave the house a sense of deep satisfaction. It could settle here. It had brought Hawthorn Tree with it, they had been friends forever, and they would murmur to each other in low voices of their past life in the village and how this was what they had always dreamed of for their retirement together and wasn’t it fine!

You can see some of my photos on my photography website ‘Hinterlands’.

I can’t let you get away without asking about the house you moved into when you were ten. I’m sure most kids would be envious that you got to live with “ghosts and draughts” as you say in your bio.

Ooo, that house! Never before or since have I felt so spooked! It was a large, granite block-built hospital for the local quarry. It had a mouldy, damp, creepy morgue, where you could still make out the marks on the wall from the old slate shelves where they stored the bodies. There was the grey ghost of an old man who used to care for the hospital grounds. You could hear his wheelbarrow squeak on cold, dark early mornings. The ghostly nurse who would stand over you, should you fall asleep in the east wing. And the ghostly footsteps echoing across the wooden floorboards in the abandoned cottage in the hospital grounds. Bumps and knocks and shivery feelings… it was thrilling but… I’m so glad we moved!

What’s up next for you?

I’m currently working on a picture book written by the ‘Loves You’ series author, Helen Foster James, to be published by Sleeping Bear Press. No rabbits, this time it’s squirrels.

Also, I’ve recently signed a contract with Sleeping Bear Press to work on another book that I’ve written myself, and I’m so excited for that!

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Illustration from my latest project.

You can connect with Petra Brown on

Her website | PinterestTumblr | YouTube

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You can find Daddy Loves You at these booksellers

Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Books-a-Million

To support your local independent bookstore

Bookshop | IndieBound

 

May 19 – It’s National Pet Month and Interview with Sarah Kurpiel

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About the Holiday

Pets give us unconditional love, provide companionship, and add entertainment and fun to our lives. This month is set aside to focus on our pets. To celebrate spend extra time with your furry friend, make sure they have everything they need to stay healthy, and give them a little extra treat now and then. This year, our pets may be feeling stressed from stay-at-home restrictions. To help, try to keep your pet’s routines as normal as possible. Dogs may benefit from extra walks––just like Maple in today’s story!

I received a copy of Lone Wolf from Greenwillow Books for review consideration. All opinions are my own. 

Lone Wolf

By Sarah Kurpiel

 

Maple, a Siberian husky, loved living with the Parkers. He loved playing tug-of-war with Jax, reading with Avery, extra treats from Mom, and especially long walks with everyone. “But on her walks, people would say… ‘Dude, that dog looks like a wolf.’” Some little kids clung to their mom’s leg when they saw her, some older people asked if maybe she wasn’t just a little bit wolf, and even babies shouted “‘WOLF! WOLF! WOLF!’”

The Parkers tried to explain the differences between Maple and a wolf, but eventually, “even Maple had her doubts.” After all, when she compared herself to other dogs, she saw that so many had floppy ears or lots of fluff or handsome spots. She wasn’t like them at all. Plus, she was good at digging, howling, and hunting just like a wolf.

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Copyright Sarah Kurpiel, 2020, courtesy of Greenwillow Books.

She began to think that she belonged in the wild, and one day when the gate was left open, she bounded out into the woods. But here the ground was hard, not soft like the Parker’s garden; squirrels were faster and harder to catch than Avery’s shoes; and sticks were pretty boring without Jax. Being a wolf was not as much fun as it seemed. As nighttime came and the sky darkened, Maple decided to head home.

On the way, she saw a flashlight and behind it familiar faces. Someone was looking for her. It was the Parkers—her pack! Now when people call Maple a wolf, she doesn’t have doubts. She knows just who she is and exactly where she belongs.

Sarah Kurpiel’s multilayered story about a husky who is often mistaken for a wolf will delight dog and pet lovers as it gently introduces the ideas of identity, self-doubt, and self-discovery. Her charming storytelling provides an excellent opportunity for adults and kids to discuss these important topics of individual growth with the backdrop of a supportive family. Children, familiar with being peppered by questions about what they’re doing and who they want to be (as opposed to who they are) as well as by comparisons to others, will relate to Maple. Maple’s exploration of what she considers her wolf-like abilities is humorous and models a positive self-analysis that is honest and non-judgmental while also embracing one’s unique qualities.

Kurpiel’s lovely color palette and rounded shapes are fresh and welcoming while her use of directional lines allows readers to dash along with Maple from one enchanting detail to another. Her use of various perspectives puts kids in Maple’s point of view while providing depth to this enthusiastic pup’s experience. Maple is adorable, and his wondering nature is clearly visible in his expressive face. Kurpiel’s images of family love begin on the copyright page with sweet framed family pictures, many of which include Maple. Avery, who is shown using a power wheelchair, is a welcome portrayal of a child with a disability. The final snapshot of the Parker family and Maple snuggling together is heartwarming and reminds readers that individual attributes are what make each person so special.

Touching and uplifting, Lone Wolf will charm children and adults anew with every reading. The book would make a favorite addition to home, school, and public library collections.

Ages 4 – 8

Greenwillow Books, 2020 | ISBN 978-0062943828

Discover more about Sarah Kurpiel and her art on her website.

You can download a Lone Wolf Activity Kit from HarperCollins here.

Meet Sarah Kurpiel

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Sarah Kurpiel is a librarian and artist inspired by nature and animals. She grew up in the Midwest with a Siberian husky named Mikayla. Consequently, most of her childhood was spent removing dog fur from her clothes. Lone Wolf is her first book. Sarah Kurpiel lives with her family (which includes her wonderfully goofy dog, Roxie) in Downers Grove, Illinois.

I was really excited to have a chance to talk with Sarah Kurpiel about her debut picture book, how it came to be, her illustration work, and more! Jack and Steve, who are also dog lovers, are back with lots of questions for Sarah too.

After reading––and loving––Lone Wolf, they wondered:

Do you have a dog?

Yes! My family has a dog named Roxie. We adopted her from a local animal shelter. We think she’s part Border Collie and part Retriever. She loves herding us around and rolling in the grass.

We have a miniature poodle. What breed of dog is your favorite?

Miniature Poodles are adorable! My favorite breed of dog is giant by comparison: the Borzoi. Borzois look a bit like extra-large, extra-furry greyhounds.

 Have you ever seen or heard a wolf?

I’ve never seen or heard a wolf in the wild, but I have seen Mexican Gray Wolves in a zoo. The Mexican Gray Wolf is one of the most endangered wolf subspecies in the world. Thankfully, there are recovery programs working to change that.

We’ve been taking our dog on lots of walks (just like the Parker family!) during this quarantine. What have you’ve been doing to keep busy?

I’ve been hanging out with my family and our pets, reading, catching up on Star Trek, and drawing lots and lots of cats for my next picture book.

Hi Sarah! Jack and Steve had so many terrific questions! Maple, the star of Lone Wolf, really connects with readers on so many levels. Through your story you introduce a wonderful way for kids and adults to talk about identity and belonging. This issue is really important, especially as children are developing their self-confidence and self-esteem. What was the spark for this story? What do you hope readers will take away from your book?

The main character in Lone Wolf, Maple, is inspired by my childhood dog, Mikayla, a Siberian husky who had loads of personality. As anyone with a husky would probably attest, huskies often get compared to wolves. My dog was no exception. When translating this idea into a picture book, I asked myself, “What would a dog think about people comparing her to a wolf again and again?” I found I could relate to her feelings of self-doubt, as I think many people can. Lone Wolf is a cute, funny story, but like you mentioned, identity and belonging are at its heart. I hope readers will take away self-confidence to stay true to themselves despite assumptions others might make about them.

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Lone Wolf is your debut picture book. Can you take readers on the book’s journey from idea to being published? Have you always wanted to illustrate and write children’s books?

When I was a kid, I loved to draw, but I don’t remember dreaming about becoming an illustrator. I don’t think I even knew it was a job! Throughout my life, drawing has always been a relaxing hobby. Years ago, I made a few comic strips about my family’s husky just for fun. Then, in 2018, while brainstorming picture book ideas, I reflected back on those comic strips. The one about wolf comparisons had potential for layers, but it wasn’t a story. So, over the course of a few weeks, I built out the idea, created a dummy, and sent it off to the agents who were considering representing me (and who later became my co-agents).

They sent me a few rounds of feedback, which pushed me to develop the story further. The point-of-view moved from first-person to third-person and the story arc evolved. I revised on and off for about three months. Then the story went out on submission, and I (very happily!) accepted Greenwillow’s publication offer. In the weeks that followed, I revised the dummy based on the editor’s helpful feedback before getting the go-ahead to start the final art. I learned a lot during this process that I expect will help me navigate future projects.

Just as you do, the little girl in this story uses a wheelchair. Can you discuss what it means to disabled children to see themselves in the books they read? Can you discuss the impact that having disabled characters in books for all ages has on society as a whole?

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I’m glad you noticed this connection! When I was 11, I was diagnosed with Muscular Dystrophy, and by 18, I had transitioned to a power wheelchair. The character Avery in Lone Wolf also uses a power wheelchair. She isn’t the main character. She’s just a girl who’s part of a family that has an awesome dog. Her presence is only notable because we don’t usually see kids in power wheelchairs in picture books. In fact, I can’t think of a single fiction picture book that includes a kid who uses a power wheelchair. I’m not saying there aren’t any out there, but if there are, I haven’t come across them yet. Kids who use manual wheelchairs are represented more often, but they’re still few and far between. And despite good intentions, some representations of disability are problematic. I think it’s important for kids with mobility disabilities to see themselves in happy stories where they are neither problems to solve nor sources of inspiration. For society as a whole, it helps normalize disability.

I love your illustration style that often mixes lovely rounded shapes with equally lovely lines, as a self-taught illustrator how did you develop your style?

I learned to draw when I was younger by sketching everything around me and from books I checked out from my public library. In 2016, I started drawing digitally. It opened up so many new possibilities. I started drawing every day, following illustrators on Instagram, thinking consciously about what made me like one illustrator’s work more than another, and taking part in a few fun, informal art challenges on Instagram. In 2017, one such challenge (a Harry Potter 20th Anniversary challenge, to be precise!) led me to draw a hippogriff. I tried some digital brushes I hadn’t used before and very desaturated colors. In that moment, I had never liked something I drew as much as that simple, imperfect hippogriff. It felt right. So I continued in that direction, drawing animals using digital dry media brushes, desaturated colors, flowy shapes, weathered edges, and sketchy, wobbly lines until, after a while, it was my style—and still is, at least for now!

As I looked at the portfolio of your art, I was moved by how uplifting the scenes are. In so many of them, the animals are looking into the sky or tenderly interacting with another animal or a person. Can you talk a little about the themes of your art and the colors you choose? What about nature inspires you the most?

It’s true! I love drawing animals looking up at the sky. It’s my go-to subject these days! Like many people, I’m drawn to the vastness of nature: the night sky, the ocean, mountains, wide open fields. A few years ago, I visited the Grand Canyon and was not prepared for how awe-inspiring it was. The vastness of nature stirs up all kinds of emotions and memories, and also a sense of interconnectedness. I like placing people and animals in those environments. For those drawings, I tend to use quiet, desaturated colors, which I’m naturally drawn to. But there’s this other side to me that’s enamored with cute, funny, whimsical characters. Lately, I’ve been trying to use vibrant colors when I draw them. So I feel like there’s these two separate sides to my work. I like both, so do both.

When you’re not drawing or writing, you can also be found working as a librarian. What are your favorite parts of your job? How exciting will it be to see your own book on the shelf and share it with patrons?

I’m an academic librarian focused in digital services, so what I enjoy most is simplifying processes and improving access (which might sound pretty dull!). My first library job was a cataloger, so I was weirdly excited to see Lone Wolf’s Library of Congress MARC record and my Cutter number at the end of the call number for the first time. It’ll be gratifying to see my book on library shelves one day when the pandemic subsides. I’ll probably pull out my phone and snap a picture!

What are you most looking forward to in sharing your book with readers? Although you’re just getting started, what has been the best part of becoming a published children’s author?

I’d love to show kids how to draw the main character, Maple, themselves. When I was in 2nd grade, my teacher demonstrated on the chalkboard a simple way to draw a face. I still remember exactly how she did it. After that, I became obsessed with drawing stylized faces and that never really went away for me. I’d love to spark a little creativity like my teacher did for me.

So far, the best part of becoming a published author/illustrator is feeling empowered to talk more openly about my interests. Few people outside of my immediate family knew I draw. It’s also been wonderful to make connections with people I never would have met otherwise.

What’s up next for you?

My next picture book will be about another popular pet: cats! I’m busily working on the final art right now.

Thanks, Sarah, for sharing so much about your life and work! I wish you all the best with Lone Wolf and can’t wait to see your next book.

You can connect with Sarah Kurpiel on

Her website | Instagram | Twitter

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You can find Lone Wolf at these booksellers

Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Books-a-Million

To support your local independent bookstore, order from

Anderson’s Bookshop (Sarah’s local indie) | Bookshop | IndieBound

Picture Book Review

 

 

May 12 – It’s Gifts from the Garden Month

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About the Holiday

If you’re into gardening then you know what a joy it is to harvest your vegetables and fruit or cut a beautiful bouquet of flowers. But gardens provide so many more gifts than these. Digging the dirt, planting the seeds, and even keeping the weeds at bay can be a mindful, relaxing experience as well as good exercise. Watching plants sprout and grow gives an appreciation for the wonder of nature. And a garden beautifies the view whether it’s a large plot or a window box. So, celebrate this month by enjoying all the gifts of your garden.

I received a copy of Badger’s Perfect Garden from Sleeping Bear Press for review consideration. All opinions are my own. 

Badger’s Perfect Garden

Written by Marsha Diane Arnold | Illustrated by Ramona Kaulitzki

 

On a spring morning, Red Squirrel watched as Badger brought out all of his jars of the seeds he had collected and kept safe all winter. He was planning on planting a perfect garden. Red Squirrel noticed that all the seeds looked different. Badger explained that they were “‘all kinds. Green and brown. Flat and round, Bumpy and smooth. Whirly-curly and straight as my whiskers.’”

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Image copyright Ramona Kaulitzki, 2019, text copyright Marsha Diane Arnold, 2019. Courtesy of Sleeping Bear Press.

Red Squirrel wanted to help plant them. As Badger carefully studied his garden plan, Weasel showed up with his rake and Dormouse gathered string. Everyone helped Badger weed and rake his garden plot until it was smooth. Then they set up stakes on each side and ran string between them to make perfect rows. After that Weasel poked holes in the dirt for the seeds. Badger directed where each seed should go so that each type stayed together. That evening the friends had a party with muffins and mulberry juice, and Badger “imagined the plants that would grow in perfect rows in his perfect garden.”

The next morning, just in time, it began to rain. But the next day the rain turned heavy, and the day after that it became a deluge. Badger ran out into the storm to try to save his garden, but the strings collapsed and the soil washed away. Badger sniffled as he thought of his ruined garden. His friends tried to cheer him up by telling him they’d help gather new seeds in the summer, but Badger despaired of not having his perfect garden this year.

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Image copyright Ramona Kaulitzki, 2019, text copyright Marsha Diane Arnold, 2019. Courtesy of Sleeping Bear Press.

To ward off the sadness, Badger kept busy reading, cleaning, exercising, and sleeping. One summer day, he heard a knock on his door. It was Red Squirrel, Weasel, and Dormouse. They grabbed Badger’s hand and pulled him outside to a glorious field of wildflowers. Badger gazed at it in wonder. “‘Those can’t be my seeds,’ said Badger, rubbing his eyes. They’re all mixed up.’” But they were! The wild garden  was a “jumble-tumble of shapes and sizes. They made him feel jumbly and tumbly, too.” Badger thought it was “the most perfect garden of all,” and the friends raced into it for a perfect summer celebration.

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Image copyright Ramona Kaulitzki, 2019, text copyright Marsha Diane Arnold, 2019. Courtesy of Sleeping Bear Press.

Marsha Diane Arnold fills Badger’s Perfect Garden with sprightly, lyrical language that makes the story a delight to read. Little gardeners will relish the descriptions of Badger’s seeds and enjoy the precision of planting day. As the rains come, kids will empathize with Badger’s disappointment, knowing how it feels when plans don’t work out quite right. But the riotous results will spark their own happy, “jumbly-tumbly” excitement for Badger, his friends, and even their own endeavors. in the beauty of the wild, carefree, mixed-up garden can see the joy that can be found in new experiences outside one’s comfort zone.

Ramona Kaulitzki’s charming illustrations are a perfect mix of the whimsical and the realistic and will captivate readers. With soft colors and flowing textures, Kaulitzki depicts early spring with its light green grasses and mellow, cloud-filled skies. When stormy days come, the sky turns purple and rain whips through Badger’s garden, leaving things topsy-turvy and Badger’s plans uprooted. Late summer brings a series of show-stopping two-page spreads, where flowers of all kinds and colors mix with vegetable plants to attract bees and butterflies and, of course, provide the perfect spot for a summer party.

Beautiful through and through, Badger’s Perfect Garden plants the seeds of gentle encouragement, heartening friendship, and cheerful celebration. The book would be a favorite addition to home, classroom, and public library collections.

Ages 5 – 8

Sleeping Bear Press, 2019 | ISBN 978-1534110007

Discover more about Marsha Diane Arnold and her books on her website.

To learn more about Ramona Kaulitzki, her books, and her art, visit her website.

Q & A with Marsha Diane Arnold

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Called a “born storyteller” by the media, Marsha Diane Arnold’s award-winning picture books have sold over one million copies and been called, “whimsical,” “inspiring,” and “uplifting.” Marsha was raised on a Kansas farm, lived most of her life in Sonoma County, California, a place Luther Burbank called “the chosen spot of all this earth as far as Nature is concerned,” and now lives with her husband, near her family, in Alva, Florida. Nothing makes her happier than standing in her backyard in the midst of dragonflies, listening to cardinals sing.

I’m so glad to be chatting with you, Marsha, about her newest book, Badger’s Perfect Garden! This story seems to have a close personal connection for you. Can you talk a little bit about what inspired you to write this book?

Having a father who was a farmer and gardener and a mother who was a perfectionist, must have had something to do with it! I grew up surrounded by nature, animals, and gardens. Growing up with so many animals around me, I talked with them all the time and I felt they talked back, so anthropomorphism comes easily to me. Illustrations of animal characters are so often enchanting, drawing young children into a book. They can create a strong emotional connection for children to learn from and remember.

Can you tell me more about what it was like growing up on a farm? What kind of farming did your family do?

My father was most proud of being a dairy farmer, but he, his father before him, and his five brothers also grew wheat and corn. I often stayed with my grandmother during the day; I loved being on the farm. Grandmother had to feed 8 children, Grandpa Henry, and herself, so she had a huge vegetable garden and did home canning. But her heart was with her flower gardens. There was spirea, yards and yards of bearded iris, a line of lilacs from the house to the outhouse, petunias, Bachelor buttons, hollyhocks, and more. Badger and Grandmother would have been fast friends.

As a child, what was your favorite part of farming or the farm? What do you appreciate more now as an adult?

I most loved being around the farm animals, although I was a bit frightened of those protective hens when I had to collect the eggs, and I enjoyed helping my father with the calves. One of our neighbors had a pet raccoon that I have fond memories of “hanging out” with, often in my friend’s tree house. (Remember, it was a long time ago and there were no wild animal rehabilitation centers near us.)

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Marsha having fun with her dog.

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Marsha hanging out with a calf on her family’s farm.

I think I always appreciated the freedom of big spaces and gardens to play in and trees and barns (don’t tell) to climb on, but now I realize even more how very lucky I was.

Have you continued the family farming tradition?

I had a spectacular garden in Sonoma County, California. Mostly I grew flowers and a small plot of fruit trees. My favorite part of creating the gardens was designing them, using the land as my canvas. I collected over 50 heirloom roses, selecting plants for their fragrance and color. I loved the stories that came with them, like, “This one was collected from an old farm house in Windsor.” I had over 30 sweet pea varieties. There’s nothing better than a home filled with the fragrance of sweet peas. Most of my fruits were “antique” varieties. There was a Spitzenburg, reputed to have been Thomas Jefferson’s favorite apple, and a Calville Blanc, traced back to 1598 France. The fruit from my trees was unique and absolutely delicious. The stories behind them were delicious too.

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Roses from Marsha’s flower garden.

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A beautiful bouquet of sweet peas.

How have your experiences with nature influenced your writing for children?

When a child grows up surrounded by nature, he or she grows to understand it and respect it. I learned to see the small things in nature, like my father before me. His neighbors said he knew the name of every wildflower or “weed” in the county. When you pay attention to something in that way, you come to love it and it becomes part of you. So, nature is what I write about, from my first book Heart of a Tiger, about a small kitten who had a dream to give himself a name like that of the Magnificent Bengal Tiger, to Galápagos Girl, about the unique animals of the Galápagos Islands, to the jumble tumble beauty of Badger’s Perfect Garden.

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Image copyright Ramona Kaulitzki, 2019, text copyright Marsha Diane Arnold, 2019. Courtesy of Sleeping Bear Press.

What is your favorite wildflower and why?

Wild rose! At our California home, there was a wild rose growing in our gully. Every spring I would walk down the hill to see if it was still blooming. When I was diagnosed with breast cancer, I looked carefully for it each year, telling myself that if it was still in bloom, in the shade of our oak forest, alone and straggly, I would still be well. I’m sure it’s blooming still.

Thank you for sharing so much about your passion for nature and what joy living fully within it can bring. I wish you all the best with Badger’s Perfect Garden and all of your wonderful books!

You can connect with Marsha Diane Arnold on

Her website | Facebook | Twitter | Instagram

Spring Equinox Activity

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Plant a Flower Garden Game

 

With this fun game you and your family and friends can grow gardens inside! Roll the dice to see whose garden will fully blossom first!

Supplies

Directions

Object: The object of the game is for each player to fill their garden or garden rows with flowers. Depending on the ages of the players, the game can be adjusted to fill all of the rows, some or all rows, or just one.           

  1. Print one Game Board for each player
  2. Print one or more sets of Flower Playing Cards for each player, depending on how  (for sturdier playing items, print on card stock)
  3. Cut the flowers into their individual playing cards
  4. Print one Flower Playing Die and assemble it (for a sturdier die, print on card stock)
  5. Color the “dirt” on the Garden Plot with the crayon (optional)
  6. Choose a player to go first
  7. The player rolls the die and then “plants” the flower rolled in a row on the game board
  8. Play moves to the person on the right
  9. Players continue rolling the die and “planting” flowers until each of the number of determined rows have been filled with flowers or one row has been filled with all six flowers.
  10. The first person to “grow” all of their flowers wins!

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You can find Badger’s Perfect Garden at these booksellers

Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Books-a-Million | Sleeping Bear Press

Support your local independent bookstore with these book sellers

Bookshop | IndieBound 

Picture Book Review

 

May 11 – National Eat What You Want Day

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About the Holiday

Feel like your diet is out the window what with staying home or ordering take out? Has good nutrition taken a hit because ingredients are at a premium? Don’t stress! Today’s holiday gives you permission to eat that doughnut or cupcake or pizza or whatever you want without feeling guilty. Besides, sometimes indulging a little jumpstarts your metabolism and provides motivation for the long haul. Lately, I’ve been craving French fries, so in honor of that, I’m celebrating two best spuds that are fry-tfully good sports.

Chip and Curly, The Great Potato Race

Written by Cathy Breisacher | Illustrated by Joshua Heinsz

 

Spud City was about to hold its annual festival, and everyone was excited. Chip was practicing for the sack race. This year “he was determined to win the first-place prize: a Golden Bushel Award.” But a new spud in town—Curly—had a “spring in his step” and seemed to be real competition. Even though the other potatoes cheered him on, Chip was nervous.

On the day of the festival, the race route was lined with spectators. The couch potatoes lounged near the path while “the French Fries stood with their Tater Tots.” Even the sweet potato cheerleaders were waving pompoms and shouting. Just before the race began, Curly took a place next to Chip at the starting line.

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Image copyright Joshua Heinsz, 2019, text copyright Cathy Breisacher, 2019. Courtesy of Sleeping Bear Press.

When the whistle blew, Chip took off. He was in the lead until he heard someone behind him. “‘Look out!’ the BBQ Chips shouted. ‘Here comes a hot potato!’” Chip raced on, but then Curly bounced in front of him and even though Chip gave it his all, he couldn’t catch up. A moment later, though, Curly tripped and fell, leaving the path—and the race—wide open for Chip.

Chip hopped past Curly and was in clear sight of the finish line when he realized “he felt rotten.” He glanced back and “hashed it over in his mind.” He decided the only right thing to do was to go back. He offered Curly a hand up, and together they bounded down the route and past the other racers. But Curly was too quick for Chip, and he broke through the tape first. “In an instant, Chip’s dreams of winning were mashed.” 

Chip was just about to leave when Curly asked him to be his partner in the relay race. Curly thought they made a great team. They practiced until they found their groove. Everything was looking good until a new team showed up….

celebrate-picture-books-picture-book-review-chip-and-curly-practicing

Image copyright Joshua Heinsz, 2019, text copyright Cathy Breisacher, 2019. Courtesy of Sleeping Bear Press.

Kids will devour Cathy Breisacher’s pun-filled romp that takes them to Spud City’s annual festival, where Chip and Curly face off to win a Golden Bushel Award in the sack race. While Chip pulls out to an early lead, Curly bounces back and threatens Chip’s years-long dream to win. A misstep by Curly gives Chip the opportunity to achieve his goal, but in his decision, Breisacher shows readers true sportsmanship and integrity. Curly also displays the qualities of a gracious winner, and as the two work together to perfect their relay skills, a friendship sprouts. The final scene offers a funny “oh, no!” moment while also reminding readers that winning can be fleeting, but friendship and staying true to oneself endure.

Joshua Heinsz populates Spud City with a wide array of taters—from tots to waffle fries, sweet potatoes to twice-bakeds, French fries to home fries, and more. Heinsz adds plenty of visual humor to the mix with clever street sign and shop names, and the couch potatoes are, ingeniously, those impossible-to-peel curved ones that lurk in many a 5-pound bag. Kids will love picking out their favorite kind of potato, and the expressive spuds will have readers captivated from the very first page.

For rollicking story times that also offer opportunities to discuss the nature of competition and friendship, Chip and Curly, The Great Potato Race is one to add to your home, classroom, or library shelf.

Ages 5 – 8

Sleeping Bear Press, 2019 | ISBN 978-1585364084

Learn more about Cathy Breisacher and her books on her website.

To learn more about Joshua Heinsz, his books, and his art on his website.

A Chat with Cathy Breisacher

011CB

It’s so great to be talking with you again! This must be a really exciting—and busy!—time for you, so I’m thrilled to have you stop by!

You’ve mentioned that the inspiration for this story was a local potato festival. Can you describe that event a bit and tell what sparked the idea for Chip and Curly?

Every year, on the last Saturday in September, a town not far from where I live holds a Potato Fest.  The county where it is located is the second-largest supplier of potatoes in the state. People come from all around and a good portion of the downtown area is closed off for the event. There are tons and tons of vendors selling a variety of crafts, and the food vendors whip up all kinds of potato treats: sweet potato fries, potato candy, baked potatoes, pierogi, potato soup, French fries, potato bread, etc. There is live music as well as games for the kids. I love the fall season, and this is a great kick-off to the fall. I try to attend every year. So, in 2016 when I wrote this story, I thought about the potato festival and all of the kinds of potatoes that are sold at the event.  The names CHIP AND CURLY came to me and the idea for the story just flowed from there.

Of course, I have to ask—what’s your favorite kind of potato? Do you have a favorite recipe? Would you like to share it?

 I love twice baked potatoes. They are probably my favorite. But, there really isn’t a potato I don’t like. I also love perogies and sweet potato fries. Oh my goodness…it’s hard to choose just one. 

I’ll share a recipe for Cheesy Hash Brown potatoes that are gobbled up at many family events. They are so easy to make.

CHEESY HASH BROWN POTATOES

26 oz. Bag of frozen shredded hash brown potatoes (thawed)
2 cups Sharp cheddar cheese (shredded)
16 ounces sour cream
1 (10 1/2 ounce) can cream of mushroom soup
1 ½ sticks butter
3 cups Crushed corn flakes
1 teaspoon garlic salt and pepper to taste

Thaw the hash browns.  Melt 1 stick of butter and mix it with the hash browns.  Pour into 9 x13 pan.  Mix the sour cream, soup and cheese in a bowl. Spread over the potatoes. Melt ½ stick of butter and mix it with the crushed corn flakes.  Sprinkle over the potatoes. Bake at 350 degrees for an hour.

Being competitive can take so many forms. Do you consider yourself competitive? If so, in what way?

Yes, I’m definitely competitive. I always want to put 110% into things that I do. If there is a challenge of some sort, I am in it to win it. J In the past couple of years, I’ve been intrigued with Escape Rooms and trying to solve all of the clues before the time runs out. Recently, I heard of an Escape Room that no one has “broke out of” yet.  I want to be the first! J

Chip and Curly is loaded with puns and really clever word play! The story must have been a blast, but also challenging to write. Can you talk a little about how you put it all together?

Chip and Curly was definitely a fun story to write. I just pulled out my first version of this story, and it has so few puns in it. I didn’t initially write this story to be punny.  But, as I was doing my first set of revisions, a pun popped in my head.  More puns came to me as I continued to revise. It wasn’t long before I knew this had to be a story that centered on potato puns. I scoured the Internet to find words associated with potatoes. I must have looked at every list that exists online. The tricky part was to include those words and phrases that fit nicely with the story. I didn’t want to include something just to include it if the word or phrase really didn’t flow with the storyline. My amazing editor, Sarah Rockett, had excellent suggestions for tweaking the story a bit more after she acquired it. And I was delighted with the fun, playful, colorful art provided by the illustrator, Joshua Heinsz.

After practicing for a year to win a Golden Bushel Award for the sack race, Chip makes a surprising decision part way through the race. What would you like kids to take away from the story?

This is the crucial part of the story. I want kids to know that competing can be a lot of fun. And it can feel good to win at something, too. However, practicing good sportsmanship is important and helps build character. When we show respect toward our opponents, we can still have fun and compete, but it helps us to keep our focus on what’s most important—treating one another the way we want to be treated.

Since CaveKid Birthday was released in March, what’s been the best part of being a published author? The most surprising? As a librarian, how does it feel to see your own book on your library’s shelf?

Gosh, there is so much I am enjoying about being a published author. I love meeting new people (kids and adults) at book events and talking with them about stories. It has also been a treat to see friends and family who I haven’t seen for a while. Being a school librarian, I get an extra treat when kids ask to check out my book. That has truly meant the world to me. When my students tell me they love my books, my heart just completely melts.

During our first interview for CaveKid Birthday how did I miss that you’re from Hollidaysburg, Pennsylvania? Does the town live up to its celebratory name? Do you have a favorite town celebration or spot to write or visit?

Hmmm…very good question. The town where I live is a true community. People really get behind and support the schools, sports teams, agencies, fundraising events, etc. So I guess you can say that the people who live in Hollidaysburg celebrate one another’s aspirations and accomplishments. I am proud to live in this town. I do have a few favorite spots that I like to visit. There are a couple of parks that are so beautiful and serene. They are a great place to spend timejyeither alone or with family and friends. As for a favorite town celebration, I would have to say the Winterfest Light-Up Night that is held at the end of November each year. There are festivities in the downtown area and everything is decorated for Christmas. Local restaurants hold soup samplings and people vote on their favorite. Santa arrives and a giant tree is lit up that evening. There are ice carvings, too. It’s such a fun night and everyone is in the holiday spirit.

Thanks, Cathy! I can’t wait to try those delish-sounding potatoes! I know you’ll have lots of fun with Chip and Curly, and I wish you all the best with all of your books!

You can connect with Cathy Breisacher on

Her website | Facebook | Twitter

National Eat What You Want Day Activity

celebrate-picture-books-picture-book-review-appealing-potatoes-game-cards

Appealing Potatoes Game

 

If you love potatoes, you can never get enough! Race to fill your plate with all six kinds of potatoes in this fun game!

Supplies

Directions

  1. Print a game board and set of game cards for each player.
  2. Choose a player to go first.
  3. Taking turns, each player rolls the paper die and places a game card matching the rolled potato to their plate
  4. Or: If using a regular playing die, use the corresponding number and kind of potato listed below
  5. The first player to add all six kinds of potatoes to their plate is the winner.

Corresponding Numbers and Potatoes:

  1. Mashed Potatoes
  2. French Fries
  3. Potato Chips
  4. Baked Potato
  5. Twice-baked Potato
  6. Sweet Potato Fries

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You can find Chip and Curly, the Great Potato Race at these booksellers

Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Books-a-Million | Bookshop | IndieBound

Picture Book Review

 

May 1 – May Day and Interview with Author Denise Brennan-Nelson

celebrate-picture-books-picture-book-review-mae-the-mayfly-cover

About the Holiday

May Day has for centuries celebrated the coming of spring. In ancient calendars May 1 heralded the first day of summer. Often celebrated with flowers and dancing, May Day has ushered in many traditions, such as dancing around a Maypole and May Day baskets, which are cone-shaped baskets filled with flowers. A May Day basket is usually given in secret as the giver hangs it on a friend’s doorknob and then rings the doorbell and runs away. (Which sounds like a perfect way to celebrate the holiday in these days of social distancing.) Whether nature is blooming in full or just starting to bud where you live, May Day offers the promise of brighter days ahead. Today’s book—and its adorable character Mae—shows us how to celebrate that feeling every day.

I received a copy of Mae the Mayfly from Sleeping Bear Press for review consideration. All opinions of the book are my own.

Mae the Mayfly

Written by Denise Brennan-Nelson | Illustrated by Florence Weiser

 

“Near the bank of the river one warm spring day / a new life began, and her name was Mae.” Before her mama said goodbye, she hugged her daughter and told her that she had her “whole life—a day, perhaps more” to explore her world. As Mae flitted along the river, a large, hungry trout waited for just the right moment to lure her in. It smiled deceitfully and beckoned to her, and, even though her inner voice told her not to, Mae flew down closer to take a look.

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Image by Florence Weiser, 2020, text copyright Denise Brennan-Nelson, 2020. Courtesy of Sleeping Bear Press.

That’s when the trout leapt from the water to snatch Mae from the air. But she darted and dodged and got away. Shaking with fear, Mae found a hole in a hollow tree and flew in. “I’ll stay here forever! I’m not coming out!” she told herself.  But once her heart stopped beating so loud, she heard a happy tweet and peeked out of the tree. She saw a mother robin feeding her chicks and a spider web glittered in the sun. “The mist on the river was a fine, pink cloak. / A bullfrog bellowed his morning croak.” 

Mae remembered what her Mama had said and “launched herself from the dark, hollow place.” She followed the river, where she saw flowers and birds, a deer and a bear and one “stubby toad.” Then, she came to a clearing where she found “a singing, dancing jamboree… a wild mayfly jubilee! / Joining in, Mae danced with glee!”

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Image by Florence Weiser, 2020, text copyright Denise Brennan-Nelson, 2020. Courtesy of Sleeping Bear Press.

As morning turned to afternoon, Mae was floating on the breeze when she heard a call for help. She went in search of who it was and found Trout lying motionless and barely breathing. Fearful that he might leap at her again, she carefully went closer to inspect. “But Trout was weak, no flip or flail. / Tangled line had caught his tail.” Then Mae noticed something else—his shimmering “rainbow stripes in every hue, silver, pink, and shades of blue.” And in his eyes she saw his fear and realized that she and Trout were alike.

Mae went to work to try to free him. The knot was tight, but Mae worked patiently until the line slipped free and Trout swam away with the current. Mae hoped that he would be okay. Just then she saw a flash as Trout returned and with a flip of his tail said, “Thank you.” As nighttime settled over the river and the moon rose high, Mae settled on a cattail leaf. She listened to the bullfrogs and watched the fireflies glow. “The stars came out early for  sweet, little Mae. / She counted each one… then called it a day.”

Back matter includes a message about mindfulness, an exercise to try and facts about mayflies.

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Image by Florence Weiser, 2020, text copyright Denise Brennan-Nelson, 2020. Courtesy of Sleeping Bear Press.

Soaring and uplifting, Denise Brennan-Nelson’s unique story reminds children and adults alike to live each day to the fullest and reveals where the treasures that make life so fulfilling can be found. The short lifespan of a mayfly gives Brennan-Nelson a perfect canvas for compressing the lessons of a lifetime into one day, and her superlative storytelling incorporates parental love, fear, appreciation for our surroundings, courage, selflessness, and friendship. Her language is triumphant, carried breezily on rhyming couplets that are a joy to read aloud. The pitch-perfect ending may bring a tear to the eye but spur readers to find the beauty in every day.

Through Florence Weiser’s lovely textured illustrations, readers can almost feel the breeze ruffling the tall grasses, the spray of river water, and the warmth of the sun as they follow Mae on her adventure. Mae is a cutie with lacy wings and a sweet, expressive face. A powerful image of empathy comes in a close-up, two-page spread in which Mae, looking into Trout’s frightened eye, sees her own reflection. Whereas up to now Mae has been an observer of life, she now becomes an active participant by helping a fellow creature. Working in perfect tandem with Brennan-Nelson’s text, Weiser’s pages take readers on a journey of growth and discovery they’ll take to heart. Calming shades of green dotted with subtle pinks, purples blues, and browns reflect Mae’s mindful approach to life, making this a delightful book to share for quiet story times.

Beautiful and resonant, Mae the Mayfly is highly recommended and would be an often-asked-for addition to home, school, and public library collections.

Ages 5 – 8

Sleeping Bear Press, 2020 | ISBN 978-1534110519

Discover more about Denise Brennan-Nelson and her books on her website.

To learn more about Florence Weiser, her books, and her art, visit her website.

Meet Denise Brennan-Nelson

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Denise Brennan-Nelson has written a number of books for children, including Tallulah: Mermaid of the Great Lakes, Leopold the Lion, Someday Is Not a Day of the Week, My Momma Likes to Say, Santa’s Secret, and the popular Willow series. As a national speaker, Denise encourages adults and children to tap into their imaginations to create richer, fuller lives. She travels the country, sharing her reading and writing enthusiasm with schoolchildren and teachers. Denise lives in Howell, Michigan with her husband, Bob. She strives to spend each day teaching and learning with a creative spirit. Find out more about Denise at www.denisebrennannelson.com.

Today, I’m really thrilled to be talking with Denise Brennan-Nelson about her inspiring story, her journey in writing it, and how we can all appreciate the life around us. My blog partner Jakki’s sons, Jack and Steve, also loves Mae the Mayfly and had a few questions of their own. 

Jack wonders: What inspired you to write about a mayfly? 

The inspiration to write about a mayfly came when I discovered that they live, on an average, only one day. I started digging and discovered that while mayflies have many interesting qualities, it was their life cycle that reeled me in and set the basis for the story: a mayfly begins as an egg, then hatches into a nymph. It then lives as a nymph for one to three years before emerging from the water as an adult. Once they have molted––the only insect known to molt twice!––they only have about a day to live. ONE DAY? How do you live your entire life in ONE day? Where would you go? What would you do? I had so many questions. And so, the journey began!

Steve would like to know: Where is your favorite place to go and enjoy nature?

Our backyard has many trees and a few paths to meander on. One of those paths leads to a playhouse that my husband built years ago for our children, Rebecca and Rachel. I love to sit on the steps and take it all in––especially the forever-changing trees and the way the light filters through them. It’s quiet and I watch the birds and the chipmunks, squirrels, and occasionally deer show up. It’s far enough away from our house that I can forget about my “to-do” list and relax.

There are also a couple of parks nearby that have trails and lakes and offer a beautiful place to enjoy nature.

Jack and Steve asked if you spent a lot of time at a pond while creating the story.

No, I didn’t spend a lot of time at a pond, but I did a lot of research to help me visualize the setting.

In early drafts, I pictured Mae’s life beginning on a pond but as the story emerged it turned into a river. Unlike a pond, a river “flows.” It seemed to fit with the ebb and flow of Mae’s life.

The river became integral to the story; Mae’s life began there, she experiences a harrowing ordeal with Trout, which causes her to flee the river out of fear, but ultimately, Mae returns “home” to the river and completes her life. (This was in keeping with a mayfly’s lifecycle.)  

Hi Denise! I love your answers to Jack and Steve’s questions! What an amazing character a mayfly makes. You’ve published many, many books for kids. What inspired you to become a children’s writer? What’s the best part about your job?

I had been happily writing for myself – journals and poetry mostly – when inspiration came knocking at my door in the form of a documented study about bumblebees. According to scientists, bumblebees are not “equipped” to fly. Aeronautically, their wings are too small for their bodies. Upon hearing that, I was compelled to write what was in my head and my heart. I wanted to answer the questions I had: What would happen if bumblebees found out about their small wings? Would fear and doubt stop them from doing what they love to do? Once it was written, I felt I had written something that I wanted to share with others. Four years and many rejection letters later, my first book, Buzzy the Bumblebee was published.

The best part about my job is creating something – taking an idea and turning it into something new that entertains and inspires children and adults. I also love the freedom to work when and where I want to, often in my pajamas in the wee hours of the morning.

Mae the Mayfly is a gorgeous, poignant reminder for both kids and adults to look around and appreciate the beauty all around us. Not only the mayfly, but all of the sights that Mae sees are ephemeral parts of nature. How did you choose each of these?

I felt they had to be simple, yet remarkable acts of nature that would draw Mae out from the hollow of a tree. You know that awe-inspiring feeling you get when you discover a bird’s nest or a spider’s web? That was the basis for the sights and sounds Mae encountered.

I also drew from a trip to Yellowstone where the vivid images of rivers, flowers, bear cubs, and other magnificent acts of nature are forever embedded in my mind.

The rhymes of Mae the Mayfly are as light as she is, and your rhythm is as jaunty as a mayfly’s flight. Could you describe your journey in writing this story?

After learning of a mayfly’s short lifespan, the mulling-over period ensued. A lot of thinking and dialogue in my head takes place before taking pen to paper. Often, I share my initial thoughts with family and friends which helps the pieces come together.

I did more research, too. I watched a video showing how some mayfly nymphs resist the pull to come to the surface when it is time to shed their outer covering and expose their wings. After spending years at the bottom of the dark river, why would they resist? I wondered. Why would they want to stay at the bottom of the river when they could break through the surface into the light, and fly––if only for a day?

Ah, fear.

It was starting to come together – I would write about a mayfly and how beautiful and meaningful one day could be, if she can overcome her fears.

Initially, the story was written in prose and then I wrote it in verse. At one point, I even wrote a funny version for my kids about Mae being stubborn and not listening to her mama. That version didn’t end well for Mae, because, well, she didn’t listen to her mama! My kids got a kick out of it.

Before she was Mae, she was Martha. From Martha to Marvin. Then I changed it to May. And then May became Mae.

My first submission was declined. So, I gave it a rest. The idea was there but I needed to start over. I believed in this story with my whole being and I wasn’t giving up. In June 2018, I resubmitted it and in August I learned that Sleeping Bear Press wanted to move forward with it. I signed the contract in September and it was released in March of 2020 amid a pandemic. It wasn’t the launch I envisioned, but the story is about appreciating the simple things and living life to the fullest. It is also about empathy, fear, and gratitude. Perhaps the timing was just right.

Florence Weiser’s illustrations are adorable while truly highlighting the beauty of what Mae sees. Do you have a favorite spread? Why do you love it?

I love the cover and the end sheets, and the illustration of Mama saying good-bye to Mae tugs at my heart. But my favorite is the spread where Mae encounters Trout tangled in fishing line and Mae sees herself – literally and figuratively – in Trout’s eyes. Mae is confronted with a difficult decision between fear, or courage and compassion. This was a pivotal part of the story and Florence did a remarkable job capturing the emotion of both Mae and Trout.

You encourage people to be aware of and open to inspiration and those small moments in life that make them the best version of themselves they can be. How can kids and adults practice this kind of mindfulness while at home during this time of self-isolating and social distancing?

In a robust and enthusiastic voice my dad often proclaims, “This is living!” He says it with such conviction that you might think he won the lottery. On the contrary, he says it to express his delight over life’s simple/small pleasures; a sunset, eating a fresh-picked tomato from the vine, watching the birds, the daffodils sprouting, a delectable meal, a rainstorm . . .

I am by no means an expert on mindfulness, but I have learned a few things that help me enjoy life a little bit more:

  • Be aware/pay attention – the list of things to delight over is endless when we notice what is going on around us
  • Make room for quiet time and stillness every day
  • Focus on one thing at a time and do it with intention and purpose
  • Write down 3-5 things daily that you are grateful for. Do it as a family with a “family journal” or get a notebook for every member and make it a nightly ritual

Lately I’ve been asking people, “What do you like most about the shelter-in-place order that we are being asked to follow?” Over and over, I’ve heard, “It feels good to slow down . . . less hectic . . .” I hope we emerge from this unique experience with the realization that life is not a race, it’s a gift.

What’s up next for you?

My publisher is currently reviewing two stories that I have submitted. Fingers crossed that they accept both of them!

What inspires you each time you start a new story?

When I have an idea that interests me I feel invigorated and purposeful. What can I do with it? Where will it take me? What can I learn from it?

In Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott writes, “If you are writing the clearest, truest words you can find and doing the best you can to understand and communicate, this will shine on paper like its only little lighthouse.”

Each time I begin a story I am hopeful that what I write “will shine on paper like its own little lighthouse.”

Thanks so much, Denise! This has been such a wonderful talk! I wish you all the best with Mae, the Mayfly and can’t wait to see more from you in the future.

You can connect with Denise Brennan-Nelson on 

Her website | Facebook | Twitter

May Day Activity

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Mae the Mayfly Mindfulness Activity

 

Like Mae, you can calm your mind and be present in the moment as you enjoy your surroundings. Use this printable activity to get into that peaceful state of mind. Just look at the picture inside the star and follow the breathing directions as you trace each arm. You can download it from the Sleeping Bear Press Website under Teachers Guides here:

Mae the Mayfly Mindfulness Activity

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You can find Mae the Mayfly at these booksellers

Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Books-a-Million | IndieBound | Sleeping Bear Press

Picture Book Review