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.

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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afro-caribbean, folktales, middle grade, scary

Middle Grade Must-Read: The Jumbies

The Jumbies (Algonquin Young Readers)
Written by Tracey Baptiste

If you are like me, you might have never heard of a jumbie before. A jumbie is a mythological spirit or demon in the folklore of Caribbean countries like Trinidad & Tobago or Jamaica. They are the centerpiece of the first book in a middle-grade fantasy series that brings a unique mythos to young readers. Corrine Le Mer is an 11-year-old girl who lives with her widower father. She sells oranges in the market to make extra money and seems to have an almost supernatural green thumb. One day, a couple of troublemaking boys tie her late mother’s necklace to a wild animal. Corrine chases after it to retrieve the heirloom. A jumbie takes notice of her and follows the girl out of the jungle. Eventually, we learn the jumbie is directly related to Corrine, and the little girl’s mother never revealed something about herself while she lived.

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culture, folktales, mexican, social studies

Author Spotlight – Duncan Tonatiuh

Duncan Tonatiuh was born in Mexico City in 1984 to an American father and a Mexican mother. Duncan’s family moved to the States when he was a teenager, and he finished high school in Massachusetts. Growing up, Duncan was drawn to the vibrant art of comic books and anime. This inspired him to make his own comics and prompted his exploration of art. In high school, he took up painting and claims his most significant influences to be Vincent Van Gogh and Austrian expressionist Egon Schiele. In college, Duncan began studying Mixtec art, the painting style found in indigenous Mexican art of the Oaxaca and Puebla peoples. This art style is the core influence in the children’s books Duncan writes & illustrates. It’s his way of reviving an old art form in a contemporary context that tells relevant stories to children.

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book list, folktales, humor

Book List: Remixed Fairy Tales

Cinderella and the Furry Slippers (Tundra Books)
Written by Davide Cali
Illustrated by Raphaelle Barbanegre

For ages: 3-7
Things start how you might expect. Cinderella is a put upon young woman, made to do endless chores at the hands of her stepmother and stepsisters. So when the prince’s ball is announced, Cinderella phones a fairy godmother she finds advertised in a magazine. Unfortunately, what she gets delivered is not as promised, including the titular furry slippers. But Cindy has to work with what she’s got. It turns out the ball isn’t all it was cracked up to be, and Prince Charming has severe bad breath. The lesson here is an empowering one, to not rely on the fantasies young girls are inundated with but be you, be who you want to be, and not be shaped and influenced by outside forces.

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culture, folktales

Book List: American Folktales

Jackrabbit McCabe and the Electric Telegraph (Schwartz & Wade)
Written by Lucy Margaret Rozier
Illustrated by Leo Espinosa

For ages: 4-8
Jackrabbit McCabe is the fastest person in Windy Flats and has become a town icon. One of his essential tasks in the community is delivering messages quickly and across long distances. Unfortunately, that is endangered when the new-fangled electric telegraph comes to town. The illustrations here are top-notch, resembling retro Disney animation from the 1950s. They are partnered with a story that touches on the ever-present fear in modern life of workers losing their jobs because of expanding technology. It also introduces children to the beginnings of what would become the telecom industry. It could provide a great start to an Industrial Revolution unit.

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book list, culture, folktales, indigenous, social studies

Book List: Indigenous Stories

The Water Protectors (Roaring Brook Press)
Written by Carole Lindstrom
Illustrated by Michaela Goade

For ages: 3-7
Indigenous people have long been protectors of the natural world against industrial expansion. Recently, the Dakota Pipeline was the focus of years of protests by native groups trying to keep their water sources free of contamination. The young unnamed narrator tells us how “water was the first medicine,” the origin of life in all communities. She tells of a prophecy about a black snake who would come to poison the land, and this turns out to be a pipeline pumping oil. The imagery here is gorgeous, rich with metaphor, and incredibly evocative. Throughout the text, the idea of community responsibility and ancestry is emphasized. Students will walk away realizing they are part of a continuum that goes back generations, so they need to think about how they leave this world for the generations to come.

We Are Grateful: Otsalihelgia (Charlesbridge)
Written by Traci Sorrell
Illustrated by Frane Lessac

For ages: 3-7
In Cherokee, the phrase “Otsalihelgia” means “we are grateful,” It is a sentiment shown towards each day of life and the passing of time. Author Traci Sorrell was raised in the Cherokee Nation and presents a story about the seasons that also showcases how modern Cherokee life continues many of the traditions of their ancestors. Through a folk art style provided by Frane Lessac, we watch Cherokee people participate in contemporary life: dad’s staying at home to raise kids, a relative in the military deployed. This is intermixed with seasonal rites of passage & traditions like planting strawberries, playing stickball, and holding special community meals. The text also includes a glossary for the Cherokee words used, which helps expand the learning that can be done with this great book. 

Bowwow Powwow (Minnesota Historical Society Press)
Written by Brenda J. Child/Translated to Ojibwe by Gordon Jourdain
Illustrated by Jonathan Thunder

For ages: 3-7
Windy Girl loves many things: Her dog Itchy Boy, her Uncle, and the annual Powwow. She rides around in Uncle’s truck listening to him tell stories about his youth on the reservation. When they arrive, Windy Girl begins to imagine what this big event would be like if the dogs ran it. She imagines the animals running the food stalls, wearing ornate costumes, and engaging in tribal dances. Author Brenda Child has worked with Gordon Jourdain to translate the entire book into Ojibwe, so students get a chance to not just learn about the customs of this particular people but also see their language side by side with English. 

First Laugh: Welcome Baby! (Charlesbridge)
Written by Rose AnnTahe and Nancy Bo Flood
Illustrated by Jonathan Nelson

For ages: 3-7
First Laugh introduces readers from outside Navajo traditions to a unique cultural experience. For a Navajo family, their baby’s first laugh is a celebratory moment. The book follows a family as they anticipate this moment. Baby yawns and cries but hasn’t laughed yet. The family is shown living in a contemporary urban space with both parents working while Grandmother attends to the baby. Older siblings help take care as we see a beautiful depiction of an intergenerational household. The family also retreats to a rural area where Baby is bound upon a cradleboard as the parents attend to chores around the land. First Laugh reminds us of the beauty in everyday acts, showing how even a baby’s laugh is something to cherish. Unfortunately, author Rose AnnTahe passed away before her debut book was published. Still, she’s left behind a reminder of what we can learn from indigenous people. Celebrate every moment of life as time passes way too quickly.

Hiawatha and the Peacemaker  (Harry N. Abrams)
Written by Robbie Robertson
Illustrated by David Shannon

For ages: 4-8
Award-winning musician Robbie Robertson tells a story close to his First Nations heritage. Hiawatha’s family is killed by an enemy tribe while hunting. This sends the man into a place of despair until the mysterious Peacemaker arrives to offer him hope. This Native wise man guides Hiawatha in forming the Iroquois Confederacy and working through his grief & anger. David Shannon makes many appearances on this list, providing colorful, dynamic illustrations for this beautiful story. The founding of this united tribal group would prove to have significant ramifications, working as a blueprint for America’s founding fathers when they penned the Constitution. One of the most engaging texts I’ve worked on with students.

The Rough-Faced Girl (Puffin Books)
Written by Rafe Martin
Illustrated by David Shannon

For ages: 4-8
From the Algonquin people comes this variation on the Cinderella fairy tale. On the shores of Lake Ontario lives an invisible man. All the women in the region wanted to marry him. He was supposedly very handsome, rich, and powerful. The only way to marry him, though, is to prove to his ever-present sister that you have seen him. Woman after woman fails to prove it until the strange rough-faced girl comes to visit. The art here by David Shannon will shock those familiar with his cartoon-ier work; it’s incredibly effective and dark at some points. It’s also a Cinderella story in the most fundamental concept and is its own very engaging tale. Students will be left with a powerful message about the difference between honesty over dishonesty.

Encounter (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Books for Young Readers)
Written by Jane Yolen
Illustrated by David Shannon

For ages: 6-9
The story of Christopher Columbus and his arrival in the New World has seen a lot of clarification in the last few decades. Legendary author Jane Yolen delivers an emotionally moving story of Columbus’s arrival told from the perspective of an indigenous child. The narrator sees both the beauty and the horror of what is happening to their home in some truly effective illustrations courtesy of David Shannon. Yolen has composed a story that is age-appropriate for primary students while not softening the blow of the harm done by the famous explorer. Encounter is a story both children & adults need to hear, and it’s an essential part of reckoning with our past to make a better future.