animals, illustration, social-emotional, spotlight

Spotlight: The Littlest Yak/Carnivores

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. 

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animals, family, humor, social-emotional

Spotlight: My Brother Is Away/The Eyebrows of Doom

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.”


  1. 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.
  2. Have students pretend they are a friend of the narrator. Write about what they would do to make sure their friend was supported.
  3. 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.


  1. Draw yourself with the eyebrows and what prank they would make you pull.
  2. Extend the drawing by writing a story about what happens when the Eyebrows find you.
  3. Create a warning poster for the community about the Eyebrows, including signs that the Eyebrows might be in your area.
animals, art, history, nonfiction corner

Nonfiction Corner: The Crayon Man/What’s Up Pup

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.

animals, black lives, fantasy, save the planet

Spotlight: Oona & Fish

Oona: The Brave Little Mermaid (Katherine Tegen Books)
Written by Kelly DiPucchio
Illustrated by Raissa Figueroa

For ages: 4-8
Oona is a young Black mermaid who adores the treasures she finds at the bottom of the ocean. To the people above, these are items tossed overboard or lost in a shipwreck. But Oona and her otter Otto love treasure hunting and curating these objects. There’s one object, though, that is proving too hard to get. Deep in the ocean is a jeweled crown wedged into a rift. Try as she might, Oona can’t unstick it. An accident causes Oona to forget about the crown for a time, she pursues other things, but none of them give her that feeling of joy she used to have. But then she remembers and knows how to finally get her crown.

This is a gorgeously illustrated book. Raissa Figueroa gives us a beautiful Oona with her enormous Afro and striped tail. I see people excited about the new Disney live-action Little Mermaid, but Oona will remain my favorite. You may think picture books cannot deliver layered, nuanced characters, but Oona proves us wrong. She is one of the most delightful protagonists I’ve read about in years. She teaches the reader that persistence is the key and that valuing yourself is paramount.


1. We all deserve a beautiful crown, just like Oona. Have your students draw or (if they are up to the challenge) construct their crown. If they can use repurposed materials, that’s even better!

2. Have students write about something they own that was repurposed. This could be a hand-me-down, something bought at a yard sale or thrift shop, or a thing they found. Have them explain why this object means so much to them and how they care for it.

3. I want to know what happens next! Having students write the next story for Oona would be great fun. Take them through brainstorming as a group, listing out future adventures the character could have. Then back to their desks to get those beautiful ideas onto paper so they can share them later!

Fish (DK Children)
Written & Illustrated by Brendan Kearney

For ages: 4-8
Finn is a fisherman, and he loves his job. He and his dog Skip will get up before the rest of his village has woken up and row themselves out into the ocean, casting his line and waiting for the first bite. But today, things are different. Nothing is biting anymore, and all Finn brings up is trash. He and Skip go home without anything to eat, and Finn is confused. Finally, Finn realizes the fish will return once the trash is dealt with. So he finds a creative way to use this discarded material to help his community. 

This is an excellent early book introducing ideas about protecting children’s environment. The illustrations are bright and colorful. The story is written in a way that will engage all kids and keep them interested as Finn & Skip solve a big problem that hurts their ability to feed themselves. The trash is detailed, and you can see how much work has been put into this book by author Brendan Kearney. With every day that passes, the environmental collapse of our planet becomes more urgent, and we’re currently headed to the point of no return (if we haven’t passed it already). Our children need to know the truth of what our ancestors and we have done to this world if we ever hope to repair the harm.


1. A good writing activity would be to have students journal about ways to keep the ocean clean once the trash is removed. What are practices they could be employing in their lives every day to help with that?

2. Have a class project where students work together to repurpose classroom trash. Don’t toss the paper away; store it. Do the same with broken pencils, water bottles (washed out, of course), and other things that might get tossed. Then have groups of students go through this refuse in the second of the year to make something functional or just beautiful. 

3. One of the best things you can do after reading a book like this is to start and continue a regular program at your school for community clean-ups. The goal isn’t to fix every problem but to get people involved. When we organize, we can change things, and we need people organized to fix what’s happening to our planet.

animals, humor, middle grade

Middle Grade Must-Read: Skunk and Badger

Skunk and Badger (Algonquin Young Readers)
Written by Amy Timberlake
Illustrated by Jon Klassen

I was immediately struck by how unexpectedly unusual and pleasant this book was from the first page. Author Amy Timberlake is tapping into that same creative vein that has given us books like Beatrix Potter’s bibliography, Frog & Toad, The Wind in the Willows, The Odd Couple, and the Wallace & Gromit movies. It’s a world of animals that behave strikingly like people, all the same, with little daily struggles, annoyances, and triumphs. As an adult, I felt very connected to this book and would be fascinated to know how a child would process it. There is no big epic story, just the interactions between these two roommates. It’s a cozy world that I felt compelled to crawl inside and hang out for a while. It’s also a genuinely hilarious book, with humor coming from the characters’ responses to each other and silly anxieties over tackling simple problems.

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animals, book list, folktales, humor, illustration

Book List: Magical Creatures

Vlad the Rad (Random House Books for Young Readers)
Written & Illustrated by Brigette Barrager

For ages: 4-8
All Vlad wants to do is skateboard and think about skateboarding. That doesn’t sound so terrible, but he has no friends who are into the sport and his teacher, Miss Fussbucket, gets upset that he’s ignoring his scaring lessons. The poor little vampire is buried under an avalanche of threats and detention. Life doesn’t feel so great for Vlad. But then, a fateful field trip to the natural history museum happens. Vlad spies a dinosaur skeleton with a perfect curve on its spine and tail. Could this be the moment he shines? This fun book about loving something no one else seems to is illustrated in a wonderfully spooky style. Lots of blacks, greens, and purples highlight Vlad’s cool tricks.

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animals, family, nature

Book List: Going On a Camping Trip

The Camping Trip (Candlewick)
Written & Illustrated by Jennifer K. Mann

For ages: 3-7
Ernestine has never been camping but is excited beyond description about it. Aunt Jackie arrives and takes the girl and her cousin out into the wilderness. We follow them on the car ride as they keep themselves amused and then when they help setting up the camping spot. Ernestine is met with some surprises though. When she goes swimming in the lake only to find there are fish there, very much unlike the pool at the YMCA. Ernestine deals with homesickness and some discomfort but finds camping is actually more fun than she imagined. Some s’mores and a star lit night help cap off the first of what will be many camping trips.

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animals, culture, family, social-emotional

Spotlight – A Perfect Wonderful Day With Friends/Brand New Bubbe

A Perfect Wonderful Day With Friends (Gecko Press)
Written & Illustrated by Philip Waechter

For ages: 4-8
Raccoon decides he wants to bake an apple cake to cure his boredom. However, there are no eggs in the house. Fox owns chickens, so maybe she will help him out. When Raccoon arrives at Fox’s home, he finds she has a leaky roof that needs repairs. The two head to Badger’s house, hoping he has a ladder. Well, Badger is having difficulty with a crossword puzzle. Fox thinks Bear might solve it, and the trio heads to visit him. They stop for a delicious blackberry picnic and find Bear isn’t home when they reach their destination. Crow is circling overhead and guides them to Bear, who is fishing along the river. Unfortunately, he’s not having luck catching anything. So, the friends jump into the water for a refreshing swim. 

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animals, book list, humor, social-emotional

Book List: Elephants!

This list is dedicated to my lovely wife, Ariana, who loves elephants.

A Parade of Elephants (Greenwillow Books)
Written & Illustrated by Kevin Henkes

For ages: 2-5
This is a perfect read for your preschooler. It uses its elephants to practice counting to five, colors, and position. The elephants are counted out (“Look! / Elephants! // One, / two, / three, / four, / five.” ) with a simple chart that shows their line growing one at a time. The parade goes up and down hills, through a tunnel, under the canopy of trees in the jungle, and many other places. At the end is a magical surprise, as the elephants blow stars into the sky from their trunks before settling down to sleep for the night. The illustrations here are simple & easy for a very young child to understand. I can easily see this becoming a child’s favorite bedtime read and a great way to practice those starting skills.

When Your Elephant Has the Sniffles (Little Simon)
Written by Susanna Leonard Hill
Illustrated by Daniel Wiseman

For ages: 2-5
A little girl must help her pet elephant with his sniffles. First, she puts the pachyderm to bed and cleans up all the dust in case he’s allergic. Next, she brings him a toy and then goes about her business. However, the elephant gets bored quickly, and it becomes her full-time job to ensure he’s resting. This is part of the When Your series, where children are put in the parents’ position working with an animal that won’t cooperate. The book intends to help children develop empathy and understanding of why their parents ask them to do certain things, especially related to health & hygiene. It’s a great mix of humor and compassion that I think all kids will enjoy reading.

Elmer  (HarperCollins)
Written & Illustrated by David McKee

For ages: 4-8
Elmer is a patchwork elephant, his skin covered in square patches of all colors. This makes him stand out from the herd, and Elmer doesn’t like that. He’s never met a patchwork elephant before and wants to look like everyone else. A mysterious fruit ends up being the “cure” for Elmer, but it doesn’t go the way he expects. This is a great story about learning to love yourself and finding a community that will love you for who you are. I think it also helps students to see different perspectives. While we may think Elmer looks fantastic at a cursory glance, that is not what is happening inside his head. It will take reassurance from the people who love Elmer to help him accept himself. 

Stand Back Said the Elephant I’m Going to Sneeze (Lothrop, Lee & Shepard Books)
Written by Patricia Thomas
Illustrated by Wallace Tripp

For ages: 4-8
The Elephant makes a loud proclamation to the creatures of the savannah that he’s about to sneeze. They all begin bracing for impact, knowing that an elephant sneeze can do a lot of damage. The readers will hear from the animals about what they fear will happen. The cheetahs are worried their spots will be blown off, for example. The text is told in a simple rhyming format, making it a great piece to teach rhyme and poetry to your lower elementary students. This is one of those books that makes for an excellent read-aloud for those teachers that are natural performers. You won’t just want to read; you’ll want to stand up and shout, acting out the animals’ reactions and the surprise (a mouse) that comes to help the elephant.

Poe Won’t Go (Little, Brown Books for Young Readers)
Written by Kelly DiPucchio
Illustrated by Zachariah OHora

For ages: 4-8
A pink elephant named Poe sits in the middle of town and won’t budge. The citizens of Prickly Valley are ticked off that the one road in their village is blocked. Cars begin forming a pile-up, honking and yelling at Poe to move. He gets cited by a police officer. A marching band tries to scare him away. The mayor forms committees to investigate the problem. However, one little girl comes upon the answer: Ask him why he won’t move. This is a ridiculous book, and the elephant’s answer is the silliest part. OHora’s acrylic and pencil illustrations are a delightful addition that adds to the cartoonish nature of the situation. I love picture books that serve as vehicles for silly jokes, letting most of the text be the set-up with the last page as the punchline. That is precisely what is going on here.

Zola’s Elephant (Clarion Books)
Written by Randall de Seve
Illustrated by Pamela Zagarenski

For ages: 4-8
Zola moves into a new house, and the narrator, the little girl living next door, is afraid to introduce herself. The narrator imagines Zola owning an elephant and having so much fun with her pet. Why would she want to be friends with the narrator? The book cuts to Zola’s perspective, and we find that she is pretty lonely, surrounded by unpacked boxes and wishing she had a friend. The narrator, on the other hand, keeps building greater & greater fantasies of Zola and her elephant’s adventures until reality brings her back to the ground. The story is very well paced with expressionist-style paintings from Pamela Zagarenski. The top-notch art here has many pages that would make beautiful framed art pieces.

Tabitha and Fritz Trade Places (Two Lions)
Written by Katie Frawley
Illustrated by Laurie Stansfield

For ages: 4-8
Tabitha, a house cat, and Fritz, a jungle elephant, meet over the website LairBnB where they agree to trade houses for a while. They have come to find their respective homes boring, and they think the other animal lives somewhere exciting. Told through emails, Tabitha & Fritz ask questions about parts of the other’s habitat they don’t quite understand. I was reminded of Amelia Bedelia and her habitual misunderstanding of simple things that were just unfamiliar to her. Eventually, these two find their new home isn’t quite as exciting as anticipated, and they begin to yearn for their old place. I loved that this story is told in a non-traditional format, a great way to model different types of writing for our students. This would make an excellent starter for students writing back and forth in pairs as characters of their invention.

animals, humor, social-emotional, spotlight

Spotlight: Pigs Dancing Jigs/The Station Cat

Pigs Dancing Jigs (Lawley Enterprises LLC)
Written by Maxine Rose Schur
Illustrated by Robin DeWitt & Patricia DeWitt-Grush

For ages: 3-7
Yet another alphabet book. Why do you need this one? Well, I think it stands out because of the illustrations. I was immediately taken back to the 1970s/80s/90s work of Steven Kellog (The Day Jimmy’s Boa Ate the Wash). This is the same style of detailed pencil work and watercolors. The accompanying rhymes are wonderfully silly, and the art completely matches them. I also think this will push readers further with some higher-level vocabulary thrown in. I remember that “sculpting” is used in one sentence, and the illustration provides plenty of context clues to help students determine the meaning. 

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