author spotlight, family, illustration

Author Spotlight: Christopher Denise

While born in Massachusetts, Christopher Denise actually grew up in Ireland. However, he would return to the States and eventually attend (you guessed it) the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD). At RISD, he honed his illustrative and design skills, working on textbooks and newspapers by providing illustrations. His debut book was The Fool of the World and The Flying Ship, an adaptation of a Russian fairytale. The book was greeted with effusive praise and hailed as a “stunning debut.” It won’t surprise anyone who sees his work to know Denise works in animation. His designs are a perfect fit for that venue.

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author spotlight, illustration, nature, read-aloud

Author Spotlight: Chuck Groenink

Chuck Groenink grew up in The Netherlands. Like all Dutch children, he experienced one of the best childhoods in the Western world, a time spent exploring & playing & learning through experience. Books and drawing were, of course, a big part of his life. Groenink graduated from the Artez Institute in Kampen, east of Amsterdam. He moved to the United States in 2010 and now resides in Portland, Oregon. He lives there with his wife, dog, cats, and chickens.

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african, author spotlight, black lives, community

Author Spotlight – Oge Mora

Oge Mora may remind you of the work of Ezra Jack Keats with her collage illustration style, which is a beautiful comparison. Keats was revolutionary in pushing for the inclusion of Black children in picture books even though he was a white man. His work has influenced multiple generations of picture book author-illustrators, Mora included. Mora grew up in Columbus, Ohio but now resides in Providence, Rhode Island, after attending the Rhode Island School of Design. RISD has been an incubator for some of the best people working in children’s literature today. They must certainly be doing something right at that school. As you look over these titles, you’ll quickly see that Mora’s interests lie in making books about people coming together and growing.

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african, author spotlight, black history, black lives

Author Spotlight – Leah Henderson

Leah Henderson has always loved to travel. Her family made many trips when she was a child, which continued into adulthood. Home was Andover, Massachusetts, where she also cultivated a love of reading. When Leah couldn’t physically go somewhere, books could take her there. As she grew, the young woman noticed how little some books she read resembled the world she knew and herself. There were so many people that got overlooked in the media that Leah decided to write about them. Today she lives in Washington, D.C., and teaches in the graduate writing program at Spalding University. Leah also has spent many years mentoring & volunteering in Mali, where her family has their roots. In her books, the author consistently highlights what it is to be a Black person worldwide over many periods.

Daddy Speaks Love (Nancy Paulsen Books)
Written by Leah Henderson
Illustrated by E.B. Lewis

For ages: 4-8
The ripples caused in the wake of the murder of George Floyd are still being felt today. There was a palpable and justified anger at the time has, which has cooled slightly but still simmers. The problem of the murder of Black people at the hands of police hasn’t stopped, and the fight certainly needs to continue. Leah Henderson was inspired by the words of Gianna, George’s daughter, who was only six at the time of his murder. We have an unnamed Black child talking about their father and their joy in spending time with him. The lyrical text focuses on the refrain of “Daddy speaks love.” The book holds a sense of momentum that builds to a beautiful spread of a child beneath a mural of the late Floyd with the words declaring “Black Lives Matter” and that we will change this world for the better. Relevant, beautiful words should not be hidden from children by white folks who fear the truth. 

A Day for Rememberin’ (Harry N. Abrams)
Written by Leah Henderson
Illustrated by Floyd Cooper

For ages: 6-9
Telling the origins of today’s Memorial Day, we go back to when Black Americans celebrated Decoration Day. A community of formerly enslaved people in 1865 faces a future with opportunities they never dreamed would be possible. Eli wants to go to work with his dad, but he’s still a child, and they tell him school is what he needs to do. One day, he gets to skip school, go with his father, and help as the adults prepare a special event to memorialize Black soldiers killed in the American Civil War. There’s a lot of work to do, and then a parade with songs, sermons, and flowers laid on simple graves. The legendary late Floyd Cooper illustrated this book, a perfect pairing between her and Henderson—another reminder of how fantastic his painted illustrations were.

One Shadow on the Wall (Atheneum Books for Young Readers)
Written by Leah Henderson

For ages: 8-12
This middle-grade novel tells the story of Mor, an 11-year-old Senegalese child. The child’s father had died, leaving Mor and his two younger sisters as orphans. Mor’s father comes to him in a dream encouraging him to do everything he can to keep the family together. There are dangers in this place, including a gang of men intent on doing harm & taking what they want. Eventually, Mor learns his best friend has joined this gang and wonders if he should too. They don’t seem to ever go without. Henderson presents Senegal with so much life and detail that it makes you feel like you are there. So often, African countries are ignored in Western children’s literature that it’s a refreshing surprise to read about one. This is slower than some middle-grade readers might be used to. Still, its message of determination and loving one’s family is a universal sentiment everyone can connect with.

author spotlight, black history, black lives, family, illustration

Author Spotlight: Floyd Cooper

Damn cancer. On Friday, July 16, 2021, it took children’s author-illustrator Floyd Cooper from us. What remains is a body of work that will be carried on into the future. He wrote stories about Black children living ordinary lives but found immense beauty in their perspectives & observations. Cooper was born in Tulsa, Oklahoma, in 1965 and started making art at three. Using a piece of gypsum, he etched “little shapes onto the side of my Dad’s house.” His parents’ divorce turned his life into chaos, causing Cooper to attend 11 different elementary schools in Tulsa over his early years. He credits his teachers for keeping him focused, and he earned an art scholarship to the University of Oklahoma. Adult life began with work in the greeting card & advertising industries doing illustrations. In 1988, Cooper landed his first children’s picture book Grandpa’s Face. About his style, Cooper said, “I tend to focus on the humanity of my subjects, the details of expression that add a certain reality to the work. Real faces = real art. That’s the goal anyway.” Cooper’s grandfather survived the Tulsa Massacre of 1921 and, over his life, shared these experiences with his grandson. Cooper would go on to illustrate a book about the event titled Unspeakable, ensuring we do not forget the evils of racism. The influence of his grandfather can be seen throughout his work, often a character popping up to guide a child.

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author spotlight, black history, black lives, social-emotional

Author Spotlight: Vanessa Brantley-Newton

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 Snowy Day once did for her.

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author spotlight, illustration, social-emotional

Author Spotlight: Shaun Tan

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.

author spotlight, family, folktales, illustration, weather

Author Spotlight – John Rocco

John Rocco is yet another talented graduate from the prestigious Rhode Island School of Design. He took his degree and made good with it as an acclaimed international art director for Dreamworks and then Disney. At one point in his career, he designed attractions at Epcot Center. In addition, Rocco painted the covers for the Percy Jackson series and illustrated some companion reference books. The cinematic aspects of Rocco’s art come through strongly in his picture books, giving them a sense of scale that few children’s books possess. 

Wolf! Wolf! (Hyperion Books CH)
Written & Illustrated by John Rocco

For ages: 3-7
The Boy Who Cried Wolf is recontextualized in this fantastic remixed fable with illustrations to match. Told from the perspective of an elderly wolf who is too old to chase down his prey, the animal watches the tricky sheepherder from afar. The boy goes about pranking his fellow villagers. The wolf wishes to have one of those sheep for his dinner. The paintings here set the story in Japan through the characters’ environments and clothing. Our cranky old wolf wears a beautiful silk kimono and holds an umbrella to shade him from the sun. Rocco showcases his strong sense of scope by letting the environment dominate scenes and allowing his characters to be small against them in specific moments. Overall, this is a beautiful new spin on an old classic that showcases Rocco’s strengths as a storyteller through words and illustration.

Hurricane (Little, Brown Books for Young Readers)
Written & Illustrated by John Rocco

For ages: 4-8
Rocco has authored a series of picture books about weather phenomena. They combine facts with a narrative about a child’s experience of said event. The young protagonist’s favorite place in his community is a dock where he fishes. As the hurricane draws closer, he becomes scared that it will be destroyed and gone forever. Rocco’s illustrations detail the power & fury of the storm and the path of destruction it leaves. The important part is after the storm, as the young boy watches his diverse community work together to rebuild and restore their town. The boy participates in rebuilding his dock. The front endpapers include a splendidly illustrated diagram of the interior of a hurricane which helps children understand what precisely this dangerous storm is made of.

How To Send a Hug  (Little, Brown Books for Young Readers)
Written & Illustrated by Hayley Rocco and John Rocco

For ages: 4-8
Rocco worked alongside his wife, Hayley, to produce this fresh off-the-press story of how we communicate. Computers and phones are not providing the emotional release Artie needs. He wants something physical to show his Grandma how much he loves her. So Artie decides to write a letter and send it off into the world. The illustrations show a series of magical transports where the normally mundane aspects of the postal system are imbued with magic. An envelope is a unique jacket for the letter, and the mail carrier is a “Hug Delivery Specialist.” We’re treated to the trademark pencil & watercolor style that makes Rocco’s books visually pop off the page. A great read as a reminder in a digital age that we can still reach out with a letter.

author spotlight, humor, illustration, social-emotional

Author Spotlight: Samantha Berger

Samantha Berger is one of those people who exudes a beautiful shining light of joy. You can see it in her photos, hear it in her interviews, but most importantly, read it in her picture books. Berger’s career has seen her writing copy for Nickelodeon promos and cartoons, penning comic books & commercials, and even working as a voice-over artist. She has an infectious enthusiasm that can be seen in how excited children get reading her books. You can’t help but feel happy when you come to those final pages and want to start again. Berger’s advice for young writers is to embrace it as a form of play and play daily. Spend a lot of time daydreaming and writing down your ideas. Before you know it, you’ll have your own story to share with the world.

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author spotlight, humor, illustration

Author Spotlight – Melanie Watt

Melanie Watt is a French-Canadian who has loved art and being silly since she was a child. One of her earliest cartoon obsessions was the Garfield comic strip which she drew many times over. She obtained a Bachelor of Arts in graphic design from the University of Quebec – Montreal. In 1999, Watts discovered children’s book writing while taking a design class about illustration. She created Leon, a chameleon character, and wrote a story to go with her drawings. By 2001, Leon the Chameleon was published and became her first book. From there, Watts would create Scaredy Squirrel, her most consistent character who has appeared in six books & counting.

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