Vanessa Brantley-Newton was born in Newark, New Jersey. She learned early on to celebrate being Black and living in a diverse community. One of her earliest reading memories is picking up Ezra Jack Keats’s Snowy Day. Brantley-Newton has said that it was the first time she saw herself in a children’s book, which had been Keats’s goal in making his protagonist Black. That began a life-long love of art, particularly picture book illustration. Although, like many artists before her, Brantley-Newton didn’t go straight to kids’ books and studied fashion at The Fashion Institute of Technology. Later, at the School of the Visual Arts, she took up children’s book illustration, which is now her job. Now she lives in Charlotte, North Carolina, with her husband & daughter, regularly collaborating with writers on books that continue what the Snow Day once did for her.Continue reading “Author Spotlight: Vanessa Brantley-Newton”
Anansi and the Golden Pot (DK Children)
Written by Taiye Selasi
Illustrated by Tinuke Fagborun
For ages: 3-5
This remarkable retelling of an Anansi story centers on a little boy named after the fabled spider trickster. Anansi, the boy, travels with his family on a plane to Ghana, where the family’s relatives live. While staying at his nana’s seaside home, Anansi meets the actual spider, who gives him a golden pot. This magical pot will fill itself with whatever the boy desires most. However, there’s a catch; he must share the pot with the people he loves the most. This is a fantastic introduction to the stories of Anansi, one of the most well-known African folklore characters. I went in expecting just another simple retelling but placing this in the present day does a lot to freshen up some retold tales.
Continue reading “Book List: Africa”
The Littlest Yak (Simon & Schuster Children’s)
Written by Lu Fraser
Illustrated by Kate Hindley
For ages: 4-8
No matter the period, it seems like children always feel a sense of inadequacy from being so much smaller than the world they are born into. Some kids are just itching to grow up because they feel left behind, unable to do all the things the big kids do. Gertie feels just the same, the smallest yak among a herd of very big ones. She sees the other yaks with their “hugest of hooves and humongous horns” and yearns for the same. Gertie’s mother tries to convince her to cherish these times of being a kid but Gertie just won’t have it.
Swim Team (HarperAlley)
Written & Illustrated by Johnnie Christmas
For ages: 8-12
The story of how white supremacy erased beautiful cities has been shielded from white people’s view for at least a generation or two since it happened. Only in the last year have I learned that many cities across the country used to have public swimming facilities and even public amusement parks with rides. Where did these places go? When segregation was finally ruled unconstitutional, and these places were opened up to Black families, only then did the municipal leaders decide to shutter and demolish them. Now, most American suburbs and small towns have an absence of places for young people to play safely. I know the small Southern town I come from has nothing for the youth and plenty of drug problems caused by this cancerous boredom. How foolish that some white people should be filled with so much hate that they would torpedo their own children’s & grandchildren’s enjoyment of public spaces.
One Day a Dot: The Story of You, The Universe, and Everything (First Second)
Written by Ian Lendler
Illustrated by Shelli Paroline & Braden Lamb
For ages: 4-8
Trying to communicate the vast scope of the universe and the evolution of life on Earth are incredibly unwieldy topics to teach young children. However, One Day a Dot has managed to present accurate scientific information in a highly digestible manner for our kids. The text refers to early objects in the universe and the first primitive life forms as dots. Eventually, these dots become conscious, and little bits of life thrive on sunlight. Over time the dots stop being dots and take on more complex structures, becoming bacteria, fish, dinosaurs, mammals, and human beings.
You rarely see picture books that work for little children but become much more powerful the older you get. Shaun Tan writes and illustrates those very types of books that feel like modern classics. Tan finds ways to talk about profoundly difficult & complex ideas in a manner that a child will understand. Born in the port city of Fremantle, Western Australia, Tan was drawn to art & storytelling from an early age. Around age eleven, he developed a deep interest in the Twilight Zone and the books of Ray Bradbury, both of which are apparent as influences in his work today. A brief dalliance with the idea of being a chemist in high school eventually became Tan shifting from academics at university to focusing on his art. The result is an incredibly distinct art style that combines traditional linework with collage elements. Reading and viewing Tan’s work expands your consciousness about what a picture book can do & say. If you are unfamiliar with his work, please check it out and think about what children in your life would click with these unique & moving texts.
The Lost Thing (Lothian Children’s Books)
Written & Illustrated by Shaun Tan
For ages: 4-8
Tan made his debut as an author with this picture book which delivers a fairly standard plot made into something extraordinary through his art. A little boy finds a lost creature on the beach and tries to find the owner. He asks his parents if he can keep it. That is met with a no. So, our protagonist assumes he will have to hand the creature over to the authorities and hope for the best. However, the best place for this creature is discovered in the end. The images stand out because this lost thing is a towering hermit crab-like animal. Instead of a shell, it has nested inside a massive red teapot-like structure. Tan presents the city setting of the story as drab & gray. The creature is often the most colorful thing on the page. These visual cues are part of the story’s theme, an observation that the most beautiful/strange people & things have a difficult time finding a place in this world. Still, there is always somewhere that will embrace them with open arms.
The Red Tree (Hodder Children’s Books)
Written & Illustrated by Shaun Tan
For ages: 4-8
In recent years, more picture books have been published addressing the complexities of human emotions, especially how children feel them. The Red Tree is enigmatic and requires the reader to engage with the text and think about what is happening. A little girl wakes up one morning and immediately shares how little she looks forward to the day. The world is colored by her mood, which is drab & bleak. Strange things abound: a fish floats over her head and spiders rain from the sky inside her bedroom. She wanders around a confusing world that often isn’t what it appears to be at first glance. Finally, she comes home, still feeling down. But something is different in her bedroom now; a bright gorgeous red-leafed tree sprouts and changes her mood. This is the only time we see her smile. I adore that Tan refuses to be so evident as to spell out what is going on in this story. I can guarantee the students who need to hear this one will get it, though. Tan can show depression in a form that, sadly, too many children relate to, but they need to see & hear they aren’t alone. Other people sometimes feel the same things, so there is a community to find that can provide support.
Cicada (Arthur A. Levine Books)
Written & Illustrated by Shaun Tan
For ages: 9-12
Cicada is one of my favorite picture books of all time. That age range might come as a surprise. Still, this book will be most impactful with slightly older students as it works with some of the heaviest themes they are likely to encounter. Cicada is an office drone but also an insect. He wears a little suit and toils away in his cubicle for a company whose purpose we never quite understand. We see the world from his perspective, meaning people’s faces are obscured because they are tall. Cicada is a strong worker but is regularly bullied and marginalized in the workplace. His speech is exceptionally primitive, often missing direct/indirect objects and using incorrect subject-verb agreement. There is a rhythm to it that would make a read-aloud a pretty powerful thing. Despite feeling so sad for most of its length, Tan has a clever twist at the end that changes how we view Cicada’s perspective. What it does is mirror our own lives back on us: how we often marginalize people that are different & how adults accept such awful work/living conditions without protest. Cicada is a fantastic piece of literature & a vital meditation on examining our lives.
Wordy Birdy (Dragonfly Books)
Written by Tammi Sauer
Illustrated by Dave Mottram
For ages: 3-6
Some picture books feel like they work for children but are best appreciated by adults. Wordy Birdy may remind some childcare workers & educators of many of their students. First thing in the morning, she talks and continues until the book ends. Her friends’ reactions (Squirrel, Rabbit, Raccoon) will provide the most chuckles for adults with slight annoyance but accept that this is who Wordy Birdy is. It doesn’t help that the talkative bird likes to embellish her stories with unrealistic details. As much as she may get on their nerves sometimes, this trio is there to help when Birdy gets herself into some potential danger. A great book that acknowledges that silence is golden & friendship is essential.
Theo TheSaurus: The Dinosaur Who Loved Big Words (Viking Books for Young Readers)
Written by Shelli R. Johannes
Illustrated by Mike Moran
For ages: 4-8
Theo is a TheSaurus, a dinosaur type known for their rich vocabulary. On his first day of school, he can’t help but refer to the snacks as “crudités,” lunch as a “midday repast,” and hide-and-seek as “a game of conceal and search.” Theo is aware that the words he uses are considered fancy and not ordinary, making him feel insecure. He worries that his classmates don’t like him, and it seems that Theo’s fear will be realized on his hatching day when none of his classmates show up for the party. Theo’s parents embrace him in a big, reminding their verbose child that he is an incredible little dinosaur. Then the doorbell rings, and his classmates are simply tardy. This book hits the social-emotional elements educators are always on the lookout for and will build vocabulary & spark your students’ desire to enrich their own.
A Walk in the Words (Nancy Paulsen Books)
Written & Illustrated by Hudson Talbot
For ages: 4-8
If you are an educator, you have seen students aware of their reading struggles. Unfortunately, many of these students internalize these challenges as personal faults and become either hostile to learning or develop deep feelings of inadequacy. Author Hudson Talbot turns his childhood struggle with reading into the story of a little boy navigating a scary forest where trees are adorned with complicated sentences and vocabulary. Talbot’s greatest strength is the way his illustrations work so beautifully as metaphors for his struggles and growth. The book was very similar to older morality stories like The Pilgrim’s Progress, where the metaphors are pretty obvious, but that’s needed for the intended audience. Talbot also includes a Slow Readers Hall of Fame in the end pages to remind struggling students some of our most brilliant minds faced the same difficulties as kids.
16 Words: William Carlos Williams and “The Red Wheelbarrow” (Schwartz & Wade)
Written by Lisa Rogers
Illustrated by Chuck Groenink
For ages: 4-8
Poetry is one art form that capitalism has been unable to sink its hooks into. As a result, it remains one of the purest forms of human expression. It is often overlooked for flashier, faster mediums. Lisa Rogers adores the writing of William Carlos Williams, and she can convey that to her readers through this history lesson/exploration of an incredibly famous poem. The poem comes as the finale, while Rogers details Williams’ life as a family doctor in the suburbs of northern New Jersey in the 1920s. Rogers also introduces Williams’ neighbor, Thaddeus Marshall, who grew a vegetable garden that Williams could spy from his window. The poet notices how Marshall’s vegetables help feed many people in their community, which starts a poem percolating in his mind. Our students are deprived of the magic of poetry, especially in elementary grades, where they need to experience how wordplay is a crucial piece of our creative development. If you are looking for a great introduction to a poetry unit, I don’t think you could do better than this picture book.
The Word Pirates (Neal Porter Books)
Written by Susan Cooper
Illustrated by Steven Kellogg
For ages: 4-8
The pirates that sail under the command of Captain Rottingbones hunger for one thing only, words. They have trained Bumblebirds that swoop down and steal from the best writers and books available to feast on. Some prefer aperitifs of words like “pop.” Other buccaneers desire to eat on big, filling words like “antidisestablishmentarianism.” Eventually, they do battle with a Word Wizard in New Zealand who doesn’t leave them adrift but teaches the scallywags how to make their own words rather than rely on stealing them. Steven Kellog is a tried & true legend in picture books. His illustrations feel familiar and perfectly suited for this silly story. Susan Cooper pens a tale that will undoubtedly entertain students. A great follow-up activity would be to have students design a filling meal with their favorite words to serve.
Digging For Words: José Alberto Gutiérrez and the Library He Built ( Schwartz & Wade)
Written by Angela Burke Kunkel
Illustrated by Paola Escobar
For ages: 4-8
You have likely never heard of José Alberto Gutiérrez, but neither had I. He was a garbage collector living and working in Bogota, Colombia, who started to notice people throwing books in the trash. Jose began collecting the books he found, which became the driving force in his daily life, building his collection. The first book that connects with him is Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina. Once his collection was large enough, Jose realized he wanted to share these beautiful texts with his community. So, in his working-class neighborhood, he builds a library named Paradise and gets to watch his neighbors get transported to the same worlds Jose experienced when he read the books. Paola Escobar’s illustrations do an extraordinary job of visualizing the experience of getting lost in a good book, feeling ensconced in a world different yet familiar to your own. I also love a book that highlights blue-collar/working-class people as also being intellectual, something I think is overlooked in extremely anti-intellectual cultures like the United States.
Noah Webster and His Words (Clarion Books)
Written by Jerri Chase Ferris
Illustrated by Vincent X. Kirsch
For ages: 6-9
Few people in history loved words as much as Noah Webster, so much that he developed the second most popular book to ever sell in the Western world, Webster’s Dictionary. From an early age, he was pretty clever, entering Yale at 15. Through this text, we learn he imagined a “second Declaration of Independence,” which would create a consistent spelling system for English in the United States. In the wake of the Revolutionary War, it was not uncommon to find some words with six or more spellings based on region or just the individual’s background. This could have easily been a dry, boring book. Still, it is Vincent Kirsch’s cartoonish illustrations & his creative choice of how to frame the words & pictures that elevate this into an entertaining read. Webster isn’t presented as a flawless saint; at one point, Kirsch inflates his head like a balloon on a page that talks about the scholar’s often pompous confidence. Because this is a book about dictionaries, many big words are used, and explanations on how to use & read these lexicons are provided. This is a fantastic example of how biographies for elementary students should be written.
Will’s Words: How William Shakespeare Changed the Way You Talk (Charlesbridge)
Written by Jane Sutcliffe
Illustrated by John Shelley
For ages: 7-10
Children should be introduced to Shakespeare earlier in their education than in high school. Will’s Words is a book that can be that window into a world of art that shaped Western civilization. Author Jane Sutcliffe pulls a little meta-writing out and talks about how in writing a book about Shakespeare, you suddenly learn how many of our everyday words and phrases were invented/curated by him in his plays. “Too much of a good thing,” “household chores,” and “eyeball” are just some of the many examples of terms the playwright was the first to coin in his stories. Sutcliffe also includes the history of The Globe Theater and briefly touches on the many plays Shakespeare wrote and performed there. So if you are searching for an accessible text for upper elementary students to begin what will hopefully be a lifelong love of the Bard, Will’s Words might do the trick.
My Brother is Away (Random House Studio)
Written by Sara Greenwood
Illustrated by Luisa Uribe
For ages: 4-8
Seven percent of all U.S. children have a parent in prison, amounting to 2.7 million kids. When you add in siblings, extended family, and family friends, that number grows ever higher. The American carceral system is structured & operated in a frigid, unfeeling way. It is not so concerned with rehabilitation as it is with keeping facilities full so private operators can scoop up large armfuls of government money. As an educator, you can show a feeling of warmth & compassion for students who have loved ones in prison through how you approach the subject. A fantastic first start is My Brother is Away.
A little girl narrates this story, sharing that her older brother is far away, which makes her sad. She gazes into his empty bedroom, remembers their fun times, and tries to pretend he’s still around. She has a strong bond with this older sibling, and his absence is felt powerfully. Eventually, she takes a long journey until she arrives at a gray, stony block building surrounded by fences. In the visiting room, the narrator is reunited with her brother, who wears a telltale jumpsuit. They hug, and she is so joyful that they get to spend even a little time together.
The brother’s crime in this book is never detailed and isn’t important. Instead, the book aims to show empathy for children who have lost a loved one to this system. Maybe he needs to be incarcerated; perhaps he has been convicted and sentenced unfairly. That doesn’t matter. What does is that we understand that the brother is an essential person in the narrator’s life, a figure that helped her grow in many ways. The author ends the book with a beautiful note, a reminder, “If someone you love is in prison, I want you to know you aren’t alone, either.”
- If a student has a loved one incarcerated, have them journal about their feelings and share if they choose to. If a student doesn’t know anyone who is jailed, have them journal about what they imagine how that must feel.
- Have students pretend they are a friend of the narrator. Write about what they would do to make sure their friend was supported.
- Create a schoolwide support group for children who have loved ones in jail. This could involve making little care packages or writing notes that let these children know they are loved. This would be done with the consent of parents/guardians and the student themselves if they are comfortable sharing this information with their peers.
The Eyebrows of Doom (Tiger Tales)
Written by Steve Smallman
Illustrated by Miguel Ordóñez
For ages: 4-8
Absurdity is one of the effective forms of comedy to present a child with. They can identify elements that don’t adhere to the norms of everyday life and quickly notice the humor as a result. My favorite times reading aloud to children have been with a silly book. A reader who isn’t afraid to embrace goofiness and apply it to their reading style will have an audience of captivated children. It’s the same reason people have flocked to great storytellers for generations; humor & enthusiasm are contagious feelings that can be transferred via stories.
The Eyebrows of Doom starts us off with a silly premise. Bear is sweeping up his abode one day and a pair of slugs, covered in the accumulated dust, proclaim they are the titular Eyebrows of Doom. The visual joke is that when they slap themselves above Bear’s eyes, he suddenly looks evil due to their menacing tilt down towards his nose. Unfortunately, these Eyebrows also cause the bearer to do mean things, pulling pranks and causing mischief. They hop from animal to animal, leaving a trail of destruction wherever they go. At one point, the Eyebrows attach themselves to Seagull, who goes about bombing beach-going humans with his poop. The book even concludes with a tease that the specter of the eyebrows may not be gone completely. Do I smell a sequel?
Frequently, we are recommended books that have a big Lesson or Allegory to teach the children. Shouldn’t picture books exist to moralize the youth? Well, there are undoubtedly many that do that. Still, we seem to lose the sense that reading is a pleasurable experience. Few things are more delightful than laughter and joy. If a book can provide that, it is a good book….in my book. Books like The Eyebrows of Doom are perfect brain-break books; they can give a moment of relief for students who have been working hard, be it on daily work or those ridiculous & unnecessary standardized tests. Your students are hard workers, and they deserve a laugh & a break. The Eyebrows of Doom is that sort of read.
- Draw yourself with the eyebrows and what prank they would make you pull.
- Extend the drawing by writing a story about what happens when the Eyebrows find you.
- Create a warning poster for the community about the Eyebrows, including signs that the Eyebrows might be in your area.
What About Will? (G.P. Putnam’s Sons Books for Young Readers)
Written by Ellen Hopkins
In 2021, the United States saw a 35% increase in opioid deaths. Over 100,000 people died during those 12 months from overdoses. Data from the CDC appears to show a decline from March 2022 onward, which is good news. However, the numbers are still too high, and the victims are often children, particularly teenagers. If you are an educator, then the chances you have at least one student affected by this health epidemic are relatively high. Younger siblings and relatives watch someone they admire succumb to addiction and not receive the help & understanding needed to overcome it. Author Ellen Hopkins tackles this by penning a very intimate story for middle graders in a rather unexpected format.Continue reading “Middle Grade Must-Reads: What About Will?”
The Crayon Man: The True Story of the Invention of Crayola Crayons (Clarion Books)
Written by Natasha Biebow
Illustrated by Steven Salerno
For ages: 6-9
There’s little chance your students haven’t used crayons as they’ve grown up, and there’s a solid chance they used Crayola brand crayons. This book gives children a history lesson on how those waxy coloring sticks came about. Author Natasha Biebow introduces readers to Edward Binney, a businessman & inventor who ran a company that sold carbon black. Carbon black was a newly developed pigment that could be used in printing inks, polish, and street lamps. Binney created a black wax crayon which became popular to write on paper packages for shipping. Alice, his wife, was a former schoolteacher and said she could see children enjoying multicolored wax crayons to use in their art. Through trial and error, Binney eventually strikes upon a formulation that works. His wife came up with the name “Craie Ola,” meaning “oily chalk.”
The structure of The Crayon Man is exactly what I was looking for as an elementary school teacher. It has all the facts & information necessary but also uses features like bolding keywords, text boxes with supplemental historical context that can be read after the initial reading to provide more understanding, and illustrations that both express the character’s emotions while being detailed enough to present a world more than a hundred years old to our students. There will be readers who linger on pages like the sooty carbon black factory or the scene as Binney and his workers grind materials to make the rainbow of pigments needed for their crayons. I am a big advocate of children understanding where everyday materials in their lives come from. It helps them understand the labor involved in manufacturing and appreciate objects because many people spend their time developing and producing these things.
Not to toot my own horn, but I have a differentiated close-read packet on this subject over at my TPT store, which would make a great addition to reading this book in the classroom.
What’s Up Pup: How Our Furry Friends Communicate and What They Are Saying (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux (BYR))
Written by Kersten Hamilton
Illustrated by Lili Chin
For ages: 4-8
When I was a little child, I was so afraid of dogs. I shouldn’t have been, but my parents did not do an excellent job introducing me to dogs and modeling how to act with them. It wasn’t until we got two dogs of our own when I was ten that my confidence with the animals began to grow. It wouldn’t be until I was a full-grown adult and my wife and I got our dogs that I truly began to understand what beautiful, loving creatures they are. The key to this was learning how to read a dog’s body language & barks, their only means of communicating with us humans. These are easy things to misinterpret, and we can’t just use our understanding of people to decode dogs.
What’s Up Pup is an excellent primer for young children to observe a dog to understand its feelings. Through her rhyming text, author Kersten Hamilton lets us know that when you interact with a dog, you should primarily pay attention to its noises and tail. These two indicators will often let you know the animal’s mood and how you should approach them. This is aided by the beautiful illustrations of Lili Chin, who provides a variety of breeds and can perfectly capture the movements of dogs. I particularly love a two-page spread where the sentence “Next, pretty purebreds, mixed, or mutts must wuffle-whiff fur and snuffle-sniff butts” accompanied by over half a dozen dogs in a park sniffing each other’s rear ends. It’s a behavior our students have seen, and the book helps provide context as to why this is happening. A list of behaviors and what they mean to go even deeper with interested readers is included at the end. I recommend this book to alleviate children’s anxieties about interacting with a dog. They will walk away more interested in spending time with a dog and building their confidence with the animals.