Monthly Archives: February 2016

Marvelous New Picture Book Monday: Won Ton





As a resolute dog lover, there aren’t many books written about cats that I enjoy. However, the originality and authenticity of author Lee Wardlaw and illustrator Eugene Yelchin’s Won Ton: A Cat Tale Told in Haiku will win over dog lovers even more devout than me. Won Ton is the heartwarming story of a cat named Won Ton adjusting to his adoptive family. Won Ton tells the story in haiku form, revealing the temperamental but loving thoughts that are typical of any cat. My favorite haiku is, “Eavesdropping, I hear: ‘My cat.’ Great rats! Don’t you know yet that you’re My Boy?” It perfectly captures Won Ton’s pride and belief that he is the dominant being in their relationship.

Not only is Won Ton’s haiku format unique for a children’s story – so is the fact that it’s written from the point of view of a cat. Won Ton reveals cats’ thought processes for many common actions their owners may not understand. For example, he explains that he scratched the couch instead of his actual scratching post because it was closer. Also, we learn that he prefers sleeping on his owner’s socks to his bed because they smell like his owner. The briefness of the haikus is a good fit for children’s short attention span, and each poem still manages to be funny and heartwarming, showing the dichotomy of Won Ton’s rebellious yet caring nature.


The illustrations are less unique than the format and narrative, but they are still integrated well with the story. They consist of varied and bright watercolors, and they convey Won Ton’s actions as he yawns, leaps, explores, and even scratches his owner’s toes and kneads his stomach. Many extend to full-page spreads that are beautifully designed and flow well with the text. They expand upon the meaning of certain haikus, such as one image that shows that a particularly angry haiku is in response to another cat coming into Won Ton’s yard.

Won Ton’s simple storyline may be better suited for younger elementary grades; however, older elementary students would enjoy the format and would especially enjoy counting the number of syllables for each haiku and even creating their own haikus about their family pet afterward. The story serves as a reminder of the loving relationship between owner and pet, and it provides children with some possible reasons behind their own pet’s behavior.

-Grace Hill

Free (as a fox) Friday


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As an almost-adult, my experience with children’s literature has become fairly predictable: pick up a book, finish it in two hours (three max), and move on to the next one. At the most, it takes me two sittings to get to the final chapter. Pax, however, is not a normal children’s book. I recognized this when I started crying on the third page, and then again when I called my mother at the end of the first chapter, still in tears.

Written by Sarah Pennypacker and illustrated by Caldecott-winning Jon Klassen, Pax tells the story of a fox and his boy separated by war and their journey to find each other. Peter (the boy) is sent to live with his grandfather with the instructions, “You stay out of the way…He’s not used to having a kid around” while his dad joins the army. He must send his fox (Pax) away because his grandfather “can’t have that fox underfoot. He doesn’t move as fast as he used to.” Also Peter’s mom is dead. Oh, and Pax was found abandoned in a den with his three dead littermates. Had enough? This is all revealed in the first 30 pages.

If it is not already clear, the usual guidelines for reading children’s literature do not apply to this book; it must be digested slowly and with care for risk of the heart exploding with emotion. The point of view of the story alternates by chapter. The reader sees the action unfold through Pax’s eyes as well as through the eyes of Peter, and accompanies both characters as they learn about themselves and their world. The book is recommended for ages 10-14, but readers of all ages will recognize the “anxiety snake” that tightens around Peter’s chest when he thinks of Pax, or the yearning that Pax feels for home after spending the night in the wilderness.

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All of this is not to say that the book is an unreadable thicket of sadness and depression. On the contrary, it is full of happy memories, love, and humor. An author’s note in the beginning reads, “Fox communication is a complex system of vocalization, gesture, scent, and expression. The ‘dialogue’ in italics in Pax’s chapters attempts to translate their eloquent language.” It is unclear what Pennypacker means until the reader watches as Pax encounters two of his own kind. A vixen stands with her ears and tail erect, meaning “I hunt here,” while her little brother meets Pax announcing, “FriendlyPlay!” The foxes are not talking in the usual sense; rather Pennypacker is interpreting their body movements and sounds. This serves to add to the wonder that permeates the entire book.

Along with Pennypacker’s eloquent prose and breathtaking descriptions, Picture.jpgKlassen’s illustrations add to the book’s mystique. Drawn beautifully in black and white with the same texture found in his other books, his drawings elaborate on the timelessness and any-town-feel found in Pennypacker’s writing. The book cover is breathtaking, and enough to draw any animal-lover’s attention.

While I myself have not yet read past the first 50 pages (my mom said to take it easy,) I already know that the reviews for Pax hold true. Katherine Applegate, author of The One and Only Ivan, writes, “Searingly honest and heartbreakingly lovely, Pax is, quite simply, a masterpiece.” Kirkus Reviews calls it “moving and poetic,” and The New York Times Book Review states, “Pax the book is like Pax the fox: half wild and wholly beautiful.” As a children’s literature lover and amateur critic, I have no hesitation in telling readers to keep an eye on Pax when the 2017 Newbery awards start being discussed. Hopefully I’ll have finished it by then.

Allia Calkins (2016)

Free[zing]Fridays: Snowflake Bentley by Jacqueline Briggs Martin and Illustrated by Mary Azarian


Having loved the softly falling snowflakes that covered campus in a beautiful white blanket, and understanding the excitement of thousands of Nashville school children when schools were unexpectedly cancelled, I was excited while perusing the bookshelves, to find a book that had both the word Snowflake in its title and a Caldecott Medal on its cover. Snowflake Bentley might 739e0fee-04a1-49fb-b389-c340571f9e51be just the book to read the next time it snows.

Awarded the Caldecott Medal in 1999, the book is a biography of Wilson Bentley told in the third person narrative. Born in 1865 on a farm in Vermont, Wilson loved nature, but his “happiest days were snowstorm days.” In this book which is set in a bygone era and with illustrations that capture a more simple time, Wilson’s fascination with snow, snowflakes and ultimately photography is revealed. Home schooled till the age of 14, the reader joins Wilson as he pursues his passion of discovering the intricate patterns of snowflakeDoc Feb 25, 2016, 5-32 PM (1)s. At first he looked at snowflakes through a microscope and tried to draw them, but later Wilson used a special camera with a microscope that he had received for his 17th birthday, to photograph the snowflakes. In a few short years Wilson developed the tools he needed to uncover his dream and began to photograph the beauty in each individual snowflake. Wilson’s fascination lasted his entire life and he was recognized “as the world’s expert on snow.” He discovered how snowflakes are formed, each perfectly symmetrical, each one of a kind, wrote books, sold his photographs of snowflakes to colleges and universities for further study, had his photographs published in magazines, shared them with neighbors at outdoor slide shows and lectured on the topic.

Briggs Martin’s text allows the reader to either hear the big story, or find out even more from the additional information included in the black encased sidebars alongside each page, while Azarian’s woodcutDoc Feb 25, 2016, 5-36 PMs capture Wilson’s life and passion. These woodcut prints painted with water colors, create an image of rural life that allow the reader to witness the beauty that surrounded Wilson. Each illustration is independent from the text, allowing Azarian to provide the reader her own adaptation of Wilson’s story. The last page of the book has three actual images of snowflakes that Wilson photographed.

Hopefully spring will come soon, but in case we see more snow, this is an interesting book to share with students about the man who revealed to the world that no two snowflakes are the same. Wilsons ability to dream big even when so many laughed at his interests, is a reminder to all curious students that with commitment, perseverance and dedication, the impossible may be achievable.

– Michelle Sandler


Traditional Thursdays: Willy Bear


willyWritten in 1976, Willy Bear is a book with the timeless theme of a young child overcoming the anxieties of the first day of school. The main character, a young boy, reveals his worries through projecting them onto his teddy bear, Willy, the night before the first day of school starts. The close relationship between the boy and Willy are relatable to many young children, who are probably growing up with a stuffed animal that they treasure as a dear friend, too.

The entire text of this book is the boy’s monologue as he addresses Willy. The book opens with “Good-night, Willy”, showing a sense of reassurance that the boy is prepared to go to bed. However, he ends up repeating this same line 4 more times after various instances in which he cannot fall asleep and pretends to be taking care of Willy who is also conveniently having some insomnia.  Though there are no adults present in this story, the boy’s monologue to Willy sounds like what an adult would tell a child before the first day of school, such as how nice school is and how grown up you are to be going to school. At surface level, the boy appears to be comforting Willy, but in reality, through reassuring Willy, the boy also calms his own fears about going to school.


The illustrations in this book have very fine outlines in black ink that are colored with primarily pastel colors. The drawings are quite detailed in some aspects with the texture of window frames, stripes on pillows, and teeth of zippers. However, there are also many surfaces with just solid colors or drawings where the fingers and toes of the boy are not distinctly drawn, providing an interesting balance between detailed and simplistic illustrations. The use of wall color effectively shows the passage of time with a light green shade at dusk, a darker blue tint at night, and a bright yellow hue in the morning.

Overall, Willy Bear would be the perfect choice to help calm a young child who is scared of the first day of school. This book could be read the night before as a bedtime story or even during the morning of that day, as an encouragement before leaving to start a new adventure at school.


-Susan Hu

Winner Wednesday: Underground: Find the Light to Freedom


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In accordance with Black History Month, presenting a previous winner of the Coretta Scott King award seemed appropriate. The Coretta Scott King award is awarded to a particular children’s book that features an African American author and illustrator that creatively and accurately depict aspects of African American culture. In 2012, the illustrator award was given to Shane W. Evans for the incredible artistry presented in Underground: Finding the Light to Freedom.

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Slavery is a very important part of African American history and this story presents one of the most empowering tales that stemmed from this era, a slave’s brave and dangerous quest for freedom. Upon viewing this book, you will not have to wonder long about why the illustrations were so loved. And because the story is told through short sentences, the reader is left to deduce the majority of the story through the pictures.

The pictures are sketch-like with background elements that are visible, but not detailed. This actually enhances the story because it allows us as readers to focus on what Evans focuses on in her drawings-the emotional expressions on the characters’ faces.

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And though this is a children’s books, the author and illustrator do not attempt to mask neither the real danger that these runaway slaves faced nor the enormous amount of fear that these runaway slaves felt as they made their escape.

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Reading this book will take readers through a slave’s journey to freedom and allow them to experience an essential component of African American history.

-Sedrissia Veal

Winner Wednesday: Just in Case: A Trickster Tale and Alphabet Book


Just in Case coverEach year, the Pura Belpré award is given to the Latin@ author and illustrator “whose work best portrays, affirms, and celebrates the Latino cultural experience in an outstanding work of literature for children and youth.” In 2009, Yuyi Morales’ Just In Case not only won for its illustrations, but was also an honor book for narrative—an impressive achievement for an alphabet book.

The success of Just in Case is due to the fact that it goes beyond simply listing items that start with eacnew doc 1_1h letter. It tells the story of Señor Calavera, a skeleton whose name means “Mr. Skull” in Spanish, as he prepares for his friend Grandma Beetle’s birthday. He is on his way to the party when he comes across Zelmiro the Ghost, who reminds him to bring Grandma Beetle a present. Worried about finding the perfect gift, Señor Calavera collects something for each letter of the Spanish alphabet. After gathering more and more gifts “just in case” he hasn’t yet found what Grandma Beetle will love the most, a heartwarming twist teaches him that the best gift of all is being with those you love.

Each gift is named in Spanish first, and followed by the word in English. There is also a short description of what Grandma Beetle might use the item for and why Señor Calavera wants to give it to her. These range from sweet (un moño, a bow to tie her hair) to silly (bigotes, a mustache because she had none.)

Although the two main characters are a skeleton9781596433298.IN03 and a ghost, this is not a creepy Halloween story. Señor Calavera has a colorfully painted face in the style of Day of the Dead sugar skulls, and Zelmiro the Ghost is a kind (though transparent)
old man drawn in a rounded and friendly style. The richly colored backgrounds make the story bright and happy, and the pictures show Señor Calavera and Zelmiro playing with the gifts as they collect them.

Just in Case
is a funny, whimsical and beautifully illustrated tale that serves as a great introduction to Spanish words for English-speaking children or as a fun read for those who are already bilingual. Señor Calavera’s sugar-skull face could also be used as a starting point to teach kids about Day of the Dead and Mexican traditions.

-Marianna Sharp

Trendy Tuesdays: American Born Chinese


abccoverGene Luen Yang’s graphic novel American Born Chinese had me completely and totally enthralled from page one, and I finished it in one sitting. The book initially caught my attention because of the bright colors and the title’s promise of a diverse cast, but the book delivered much more than I had initially expected – using a race-related sense of isolation to convey the broader concern of how one fits into school and his or her identity at all. 





The book has a transportive quality that took me from my bed to the realm of the Chinese gods, goddesses and spirits, and then to a high school with only three Asian students. I empathized with the frustration of the proud Monkey King at his snubbing by the rest of the gods, as well as the nerves of Jin Wang in approaching his crush, and the horror of Danny as his cousin Chin-Kee flaunted every stereotype made of Chinese people.

The three seemingly independent characters (the Monkey King, Jin Wang, and Chin-Kee) have their lines woven together in an unexpectedly novel way, leaving the reader in awe of Yang’s creativity, and the seemingly simple message of just be yourself comes through loud and clear.



And while book’s almost exclusively male cast and very active graphic novel format does invite a more masculine crowd of readers, the themes of isolation and self-worth could appeal to anyone who has struggled with acceptance or anxiety – particularly middle and high schoolers.

-Julia McCorvey