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, 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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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.
family, middle grade

Middle Grade Must-Reads: What About Will?

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.

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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.

black lives, community, culture, family, fantasy, holiday, illustration

Book List: Christmas Tales

Tacky’s Christmas (Scholastic)
Written by Helen Lester
Illustrated by Lynn Munsinger

For ages: 3-7
Christmas time in Icy Land can be daunting as this is when the hunters arrive. Tacky isn’t going to let them ruin the holiday season, and he gets his penguin friends to decorate and celebrate. Tacky dresses up like Santa while his buddies dawn elf ears and hats. But then, a trio of beasts shows up with an evil gleam in their eye. Oh no! No worries. They think they have met the real Santa and his elves and a Christmas miracle occurs. This is a fun tale of Christmas time and how it can soften even the hardest hearts. The illustrations from Lynn Munsinger are the perfect accompaniment to this festive tale.

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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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author spotlight, family, illustration

Author Spotlight: Stephen Gammell

Something about Stephen Gammell’s illustrations always pulls me in. Of course, you’ll likely know him as the person behind the ghoulish drawings from the Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark series. Those nightmarish art pieces are the perfect companion to the folktales being retold there. Unfortunately, they have removed Gammell’s work for less intense illustrations in recent editions. Still, I think that is the wrong move. Gammell is a fantastic artist; those pictures help set the right unsettling mood.

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animals, family, social-emotional

Book List: The Family Pets

Pet Show! (Puffin Books)
Written & Illustrated by Ezra Jack Keats

For ages: 2-5
Ezra Jack Keats was a transformative force in children’s literature, choosing to make his protagonist Black children as he saw they had limited representation in the medium. Most people know A Very Snowy Day, but Pet Show! is also a great book. Archie wants to enter a pet show but can’t find his cat anywhere. He comes to the pet show with a seemingly empty jar and says it contains a germ, which is an animal. An older woman shows up with a cat she found in her neighborhood, which just happens to be Archie’s. This is a fantastic story about thinking outside the box and learning how to talk to people before you make assumptions. 

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