A mix of titles currently on my shelves.

Wednesday, October 25, 2023

The Invisible Elephant

Thanks to the blog World Kid Lit and their #WorldKidLitMonth each September, I discovered a wonderful new chapter book, The Invisible Elephant, written by Anna Anisimova, illustrated by Yulia Sidneva, and translated from the Russian by Ruth Ahmedzai Kemp.

Little girl holding onto her invisible elephant balloon.

I love many things about this book. To name a few:

  • The way its art is beautifully integrated with the text, with illustrations on every spread and indeed, in some form, on every page.
  • Its muted colors, selective palette, and design that appears simplistic at first glance but is in fact highly thoughtful, creative, and supportive of the story.
  • The short, one-to-two page chapters, consistently expressed in the young girl’s voice.
  • The narrative arc as the story develops over four sections, each portraying the main character’s growing understanding of the world around her.

Most of all, I love the little girl and the family who nurtures her. Gradually we learn that for her, seeing is touching. In the title story, “The Invisible Elephant,” she says: “But I really want to see this elephant. Where is it? I’ve never felt one before.”

Girl and invisible Elephant jumping rope in her apartment.

Throughout the stories, the verb “see” is used in the same way a sighted person would, except her seeing involves using her other senses. How does this work? One example is when Mama describes the color choices for a new coat they are buying; red is equated to tomatoes; green to apples. Our girl chooses “…the apple coat! Because apples make a lovely crunch when you bite them, and tomatoes are squashy and squelchy.”

The illustrations are playful and energetic, like the main character herself. As in the art, where the use of white space allows the viewer’s imagination to enter more fully into the experience, this girl’s lack of visual definition stimulates an imagination rich in ideas, connections, and perceptions. And humor. 

The second story, “Speedy,” features Grandpa coming to live with them — and Grandpa has three legs! The third being his walking stick, which they name “Speedy” and use to devise numerous games, often involving sound. When something unexpected happens, our girl decides she, too, needs a walking stick and begins to learn how to use it.

Grandpa and girl walking. Grandpa runs his walking stick along a fence to make music.

In the third story, “The Music of My Woodpecker,” the girl begins to learn about reading. At the library she discovers tactile books and is introduced to Braille. She calls her stylus for punching Braille dots “Woodpecker.” At first she resists learning what the “bubbles” mean — after all, it’s much easier to just listen and be read to — but when her friend Pasha is intrigued by this “secret code,” she begins to enjoy a new way to communicate.

Girl and her stylus, Woodpecker, pecking out Braille dots.

The fourth story, “Whale Seeks a Friend,” involves not just an imaginary friend, Whale, but a real one she meets while sledding. When she bumps up against a baffling (to her) negative stereotype, her father marvelously turns the experience into an affirming one.

Throughout the book, the reader is gently nudged to check their own assumptions — not overtly, but through entering into this lovely child’s imagination and life, with all its joys, challenges, and richness.

Girl and Papa drinking tea and talking at the sledding hill.

Published by Yonder, an imprint of Restless Books, New York, 2023.

Wednesday, March 22, 2023

One Amazing Book!

Every so often, I get really excited about a new book. Working Boats: An Inside Look at Ten Amazing Watercraft by Tom Crestodina is one I keep returning to with delight. From its eye-catching cover, to it’s meticulously crafted drawings, informative content, and end papers illustrating more than 20 knots and hitches, this 56-page book is a treasure.

Cover of the picture book Working Boats: An Inside Look at Ten Amazing Watercraft, shows a cross-section of NOAA Research vessel

Published in 2022 by Little Bigfoot, the book features ten types of boats: salmon troller, tugboat, salmon seiner, king crabber, Coast Guard cutter, halibut schooner, fireboat, Bristol Bay gill netter, NOAA (National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration) research ship, and double-ended ferry.

Two-page, cross-section illustration of a Fireboat in action

Crestodina really does give the reader “an inside look.” Each boat is first illustrated with a cross-section of the boat at work — most are double-page spreads — followed by schematic drawings that show every deck on board.

 Additional sections are devoted to working boats and their people, safety gear, and engines and propulsion. And there’s more! One to four more pages of spot illustrations and text blocks expand on topics specific to each boat. The section on Coast Guard cutters, for example, includes visual and textual information on jet boats, rescue at sea, types of cutters, survival suits, radar, and navigation aids.

While the amount of visual and written information is aimed at youth ages 6-10, the clarity and detail of both drawings and text will intrigue almost anyone old enough to hold a book. Normally complex subjects, such as engines and propulsion, are explained succinctly and clearly.

Drawings showing how a diesel engine works

Crestodina incorporates a wide range of sea-related topics, such as resource conservation, the history of Seattle’s Duwamish fireboat, methods used by NOAA research ships to map the ocean, how different types of fishing boats operate, and tips on reading nautical charts, to name just a few.

Crestodina’s attention to detail extends to the people working on his boats; they reflect reality by including women and people of color. Overall design of the book is thoughtful and engaging, beginning with its large format, effective use of white space, creative end papers, and inclusion of a table of contents and glossary.

It’s a book I’ll keep in my personal collection, as well as recommend and purchase for others.


Tuesday, January 31, 2023

Congratulations to Michaela Goade! She’s just been awarded the Caldecott Honor Award for her picture book Berry Song, which she both wrote and illustrated. Published in 2022 by Little, Brown, the book is a luscious feast of storytelling centered around a grandmother and her granddaughter picking wild berries. It celebrates the bounty of nature, the cultural and spiritual connections between people and their environment, and the continuity of Tlingit teachings about that relationship.

Cover of Berry Song by Michaela Goade.

Not surprisingly, given Goade’s skills as an illustrator, the pictures are gorgeous, as lush, dreamy, and detailed as the rainforests of Southeast Alaska, where she grew up and lives.
In 2021 Goade received the Caldecott Medal for her work in the book We Are Water Protectors, written by Carol Lindstrom, thus becoming the first Alaska Native and indigenous artist to win the prestigious award.

Grandmother and granddaughter picking berries.

The text, too, is lovely. Rhythmic, with rich words, deliberate pacing, and concise phrasing, it subtly conveys an overall pattern and themes that reflect the values of the Tlingit Nation, of which she is a member. Gratitude and interconnectedness permeate the book; a recognition that we humans are not just part of nature, but live in a deeply reciprocal relationship with our environment. As Goade states in a two-page Note from the Author, “Berries hold great symbolic and spiritual significance. They connect us to land, community, and culture. They remind us of home.”

Granddaughter speaking: As the land is part of us...

Though the main text is in English, a few Tlingit words are smoothly tucked into the narrative, such as gunalchéesh (thank you). Tlingit names for berries appear in an illustration, in the author’s note alongside photos of berries and, more extensively in both Tlingit and English, in the endpapers, which are beautifully illustrated with a variety of berries.

Berries, illustrated, with Tlingit and English names.

Goade’s work melds artistry with deep roots to landscape and culture that are life-affirming and heartening. Berry Song is a gift to readers. Gunalshéesh! Thank you for your work, Michaela Goade, and congratulations!

Monday, September 12, 2022

The Little Bush Plane That Can

In the time-honored picture book tradition of “little engines that can,” Alaskan author Brooke Hartman’s The Littlest Airplane takes readers on a “small but mighty” challenge with a twist: rescuing stranded hikers in the northern wilderness.

Cover of The Littlest Airplane by Brooke Hartman, illustrated by John Joseph. Published by Alaska Northwest Books/West Margin Press, 2022.


Hartman’s story in rhythmic, rhyming verse begins on a runway. First the mighty turboprop airplane displays its virtues, “sturdy and quick.” Next comes the cargo plane, “brawny and long,”



Cargo plane, ready to roll.



followed by the jet plane, “her engines a-blast.” Finally we see the little bush plane off to the side, wondering, “I’m not strong. I’m not speedy. What good can I do?”



Cargo plane, turboprop, and jet plane are bigger and faster than the little bush plane.


Well of course the little bush plane can — and does — do good. When the other planes fail to reach a pair of hikers caught in a snow storm, precisely because they are too big and too fast to land in a small clearing, the Littlest Airplane comes to the rescue.



The little bush plane perseveres through the storm.


If the outcome is predictable to adults, it is nonetheless wholeheartedly satisfying, especially to little readers who are routinely told they aren’t big enough to do things.


What distinguishes this story, in addition to the setting, is the information intriguing to young minds interested in “things that go.” Take for instance this description of the little bush plane’s landing approach: “His strut-mounted wings gave him excellent sight./His speed? Not too fast. His propeller? Just right.” Illustrations by John Joseph capture the personalities of the planes while adhering to mechanical details, as well as conveying the feelings of speed and motion. 

Turboprop has big propellers to power through weather.


Endpapers extend the story by setting the wilderness scene with just a hint of the drama to come, and at the end, returning quietly to wilderness. Final pages include an illustrated guide to “Parts of a Bush Plane,” as well as a note with further information about bush planes.

I can't resist adding that my two-year-old grandson loves this book. He insists that we return repeatedly to the pages that feature all four airplanes so he can compare and identify them. He enjoys trying out interesting terms like “turboprop” and “propeller” and "cargo plane." Discussions of wing placement and wheels have given rise to explanations of landing on the ground with wheels and on water with floats. He now searches airplanes overhead for evidence of wheels vrs. pontoons. Perhaps the Littlest Airplane will venture onto the water next? I know one little boy who would be thrilled!

Thursday, April 28, 2022

Listening to The Wind and the Trees

The Wind and the Trees by Canadian author/illustrator Todd Stewart is a deceptively simple story that conveys fundamental knowledge about the cycles of life and the interconnectedness of trees and their environment in a pitch-perfect synthesis of art and text.

The Wind and the Trees, written and illustrated by Todd Steward.
Published by Owl Kids Books in English in 2021.
Originally published as Quand le vent soufflé in 2019.

In 180 words (yes, I counted them!) Stewart tells the story of these relationships. In the beginning, one tree is mature and the other is a new seedling. By the end, much has changed, largely portrayed through an unspoken storyline provided by the illustrations.


The shape of clouds, movement of birds, bending of boughs, and slant of precipitation all express the impact of that invisible force, the wind. Vibrant, changing color palettes in double-page spreads add energy to the sparse conversation between the two trees, enlivening what might otherwise be a static story. 

Up here, the wind always blows, day and night, year after year.

Stewart’s restraint with words allows the illustrations to fully engage readers, while also leaving space to imagine and absorb. The tall trim size and orientation perfectly suit the topic.

So how do you feel about the wind?/I embrace it. Like this!

By the end, the reader is left feeling not only the poignancy of the life cycle for trees but for ourselves, too. In words, art, and design it is a beautiful story, beautifully told.

Thursday, January 6, 2022

Who Lives Near a Glacier?

Glaciers are in the news, primarily because many are melting as a consequence of climate change. Susi Gregg Fowler, the author of a new picture book, Who Lives Near a Glacier: Alaska Animals in the Wild, and her husband, artist Jim Fowler, have teamed up to approach the topic of glaciers from a different viewpoint: that of the animals who live around or on glaciers.

Cover of picture book, Who Lives Near a Glacier? Mountain goats resting.

The text is unusual, too. The author, who has written nine previous books for children, is also a poet. She applies those skills to present information about creatures ranging from moose to ice worms using a variety of poetic forms, voices, and devices suited to their subjects. Take “Voles”, which begins:

“Eek! Squeak!

Scurry. Streak.

From lakeside up

to mountain peak.


Or “Wolves”:

“I’m a creature of myth

and mystery.The stories folks tell?

They’d scare even me.

Of course I’m wild.

I’m meant to be.”

The Fowlers are long-time residents of Juneau, in Southeast Alaska, an area abounding with glaciers and wildlife. Familiarity with their subjects shines through both the text and the illustrations, which integrate well with the poems. Rich, saturated colors and brush strokes convey a sense of movement and energy. The illustrations accurately portray animals and landscape while also expressing a feeling of expansiveness, just a little bit dreamlike.

Whale breaching

In addition to the information embedded within the poems, a brief note about each animal includes a few additional facts, a format that should attract the young naturalist looking for information, the young reader who loves words, and the young wordsmith who enjoys trying their hand at poetry. A double-page spread at the end, “How Are Glaciers Formed?”, offers insight into four types of glaciers and how they change over time.

Moose feeding

As a former school librarian, I can imagine using this book with students in several ways. First, simply as an enjoyable reading experience, either out loud or for personal pleasure. The book also offers an enticing opportunity to teach poetry through wildlife, and conversely, wildlife (and glaciers and ecology) through poetry. Either way, Who Lives Near a Glacier?, is an informative springboard to exploring the world outdoors, as well as the language we use to describe it.

My only regret is that the book is currently available only in paperback. Perhaps the publishers will consider a hardcover edition for the school and library market.

Who Lives Near a Glacier? Alaska Animals in the Wild, written by Susi Gregg Fowler, illustrated by Jim Fowler. Published 2022 by Little Bigfoot, an imprint of Sasquatch Books.

Tuesday, October 19, 2021

Everyone Dies Famous in a Small Town

Fairbanks writer Bonnie-Sue Hitchcock’s collection of short stories for young adults, Everyone Dies Famous in a Small Town, portrays the struggles her teen characters face and how their interactions with others — family, friends, strangers — help them develop new awareness and resilience. Published last spring by Wendy Lamb Books/Random House, the stories are set during the 1990s in small towns in Colorado, Wyoming, Montana, Washington, and Alaska.

Hitchcock’s writing captures not only the physical details of these rural landscapes but the emotional tenor of daily life for teens. Typically, her characters and their lives are messy, a bit muddled, sometimes hilarious, and sometimes anguished. Both the girls and guys in these stories have a lot of heart, and ultimately, strength.

Issues range from grief over the loss of a parent, disappearance of a sibling, healing from sexual abuse, being gay in a conservative rural community, dealing with pressures to conform, sibling relationships, addiction, and more. Hitchcock handles these tough topics in gentle ways, by which I mean that descriptions are not graphic but focus on the emotional impact of trauma. Though difficult problems are addressed, Hitchcock’s characters portray the power of individuals and community to help themselves and each other heal.

One of my favorite stories — there are several — is "Basketball Town." Anyone who has lived in a small, rural community knows how important competitive sports can be. Hitchcock upends the usual focus on males in sport stories by writing about two girls, cousins who cope in their own ways with the intense expectations of others.

A pleasure of this collection is the interconnectedness that runs throughout the stories. Numerous characters appear more than once. Several locations are repeated. Likewise, a few plot elements reoccur — wildfire, an abusing priest, a renegade radio personality.

Readers expecting to have all these pieces tied up into a single narrative, as in Hitchcock’s earlier novel for young adults, The Smell of Other People’s Houses, may be disappointed. However, if taken for what it is, a gathering of stories about rural teens dealing with life, those seemingly random or loose relationships underscore one of Hitchcock’s major themes: that we humans are connected more than we realize — and how we treat each other makes a difference. That's a theme that feels more vital than ever right now.