dory fantasmagory cover imageDory Fantasmagory, written and illustrated by Abby Hanlon
published in 2014 by Dial Books for Young Readers

Dory is a pint-sized girl with an epic, double-dip, tip-toppy imagination.

In fact, Dory’s imagination is so exuberant, so jam-full of imaginary friends, that her make-believe spills over like Niagara Falls into the real world of older siblings, parents, and doctor’s appointments. This drives her family completely berserk!dory fantasmagory illustration abby hanlon

Caroming off the walls, spinning into inexplicable frenzies, conversing with the mysterious Mary whom no one else can see, Dory exasperates her sister and brother once too often. The two of them concoct a plan to stop her in her tracks — they invent Mrs. Gobble Gracker, a horrid sort of person with gobs of sharp teeth who steals baby girls. So…you’d better stop acting like a baby then, is their solemn advice.

This completely backfires.

dory fantasmagory illustration2 abby hanlonDory launches into an all-out battle of wits with Mrs. Gobble Gracker, which includes turning herself into a dog. The problem is: Dory’s imagination has no Off Button. Where will this all end?!dory fantasmagory illustration3 abby hanlon

I love this hilarious story! The bewilderment and out-of-controlness and sheer exhaustion of living with this little firecracker sparkles off the pages. Dory narrates the story vividly, manically tugging us into her wild perspectives. Abby Hanlon has illustrated this with a generous helping of funny, childish drawings representing Dory’s reality.

It’s a smashing early-chapter book for Frog & Toad graduates, with plenty of illustration to break up this fantasmagorical text, or a hoot of a read-aloud for ages 4-7. 

emma and the blue genie cover imageEmma and the Blue Genie, by Cornelia Funke, translated by Oliver Latsch, illustrated by Kerstin Meyer
first American edition 2014 by Random House; published in Germany in 2002

Emma lives with her four brothers in a house beside the sea. She loves the ocean, especially the sound of the surf hissing over the sand, although it terrifies her brothers.

Brothers are strange. During the day they fight and scuffle, and at night their fear of the dark won’t let emma and the blue genie illustration3 kerstin meyer 001them sleep. Nearly every night one of Emma’s brothers crawled into her bed to hide from sea monsters and octopuses, only to immediately start snoring so noisily that she couldn’t hear the rush of the sea anymore.

So, Emma picks up a comfy cushion and trundles down to the beach to enjoy solitude, salty breezes and the shine of the moon. Her courage is bolstered by the companionship of her little dog, Tristan, whose legs are “as short as bratwursts” and whose tail “looked like a twirly noodle” but who is equipped with “lots of pointy teeth in his mouth.

emma and the blue genie illustration2 kerstin meyer 001A bottle bobbing in the waves catches Emma’s eye and upon uncorking it she encounters its resident blue genie. Unfortunately this genie is a skimpy fellow whose size has been whittled by an evil fellow named Sahim. Sahim has stolen his nose ring, and with it all his magical powers are gone, including the power to grant wishes — quite a disappointment, don’t you agree?

Of course Emma offers to help him recover this ring and his magnificence, so off they go on a magic carpet to the palace of the caliph of Barakash and a thrilling, dangerous struggle with the most dastardly yellow genie of all.

Palm trees and golden flamingos, seriously-scary scorpions and honeyed dates waft our way in this clever, original Ali Baba-esque tale from the acclaimed author of the Inkheart trilogy. Funke’s emma and the blue genie illustration kerstin meyerwriting is delectable, rich in detail and colorful characters, with a lively pace, a sizzle of tension, and plenty of good humor to keep it friendly.

Kerstin Meyer’s watercolor illustrations charm us with vivid personalities, exotic Arabian locales, and one faithful dog. The heavily-illustrated pages are exceedingly tantalizing!

It’s a thoroughly enjoyable story that would be a super read-aloud for ages 5 or 6 and up (mind the scorpions and spiders), or an excellent short-chapter book — 90 heavily illustrated pages — for a stout reader.

vanilla ice cream bob graham cover imageVanilla Ice Cream, written and illustrated by Bob Graham
published in 2014 by Candlewick Press

What do a curious sparrow in hot, spicy, India and a small child in sunny Australia have to do with one another?

With the flutter of a wing, one seemingly-inconsequential bird sets in motion a remarkable chain of events resulting in serendipity for little Edie Irvine.

A truck-driver orders a plate of samosa, a rice bag splits, a crane lifts, an ocean liner churns through stormy seas. What of it? A set of doting grandparents take little Edie on an outing, a dog lunges at a small bird pecking at crumbs. Minor incidents?

vanilla ice cream interior bob graham from blaine dot org

Clacketing along like a domino run, though, all of these chance occurances add up to something sweet falling right into place for young Edie. Ahhhh.

I may be looking in all the wrong places, but this book has not had nearly the coverage I’d like to see in the year-end, best-of lists. It’s hands-down one of my 2014 favorites.

 Describing Bob Graham’s work feels like loading a ballerina down with pack boots because his craftsmanship is so elegant, you just need to experience it. Ideas mesmerize without heaviness. Text is so unobtrusive, I often have to check back to see if the book was wordless. His warm, soft watercolors narrate the story brilliantly. I love the sun-baked earth of India, the lush rice paddies, the rosy dawn, the tenderness of Edie’s grandpa, the sequential frames that breeze along and finally, in tantalizing slow motion, bring us to our delicious conclusion.

Pure genius. Please don’t miss this book, for ages 3 and up.

sam and dave dig a hole cover imageSam & Dave Dig a Hole, by Mac Barnett, illustrated by Jon Klassen
published in 2014 by Candlewick Press

Sam and Dave are two friends with garden spades on a mission. The plan: dig a hole in their backyard until they find “something spectacular.”

What might you find, excavating in your backyard? Pirate treasure? Antiquities? China — I mean, capital-C China?!

These boys (and their trusty dog) are very determined diggers. They quarry deep into the earth, make enormous tunnels bending this way and that, sam and dave dig a hole illustration jon klassenbecome ever grimier and grubbier, pause to fuel up with chocolate milk and animal cookies, but…nothing spectacular do they find. They do, however, survive a mind-bending tumble through the bottom of their pit…spinning through air…and landing in a most enigmatic location. That’s pretty spectacular.

I am determined not to give away the Very Funny and Ironic element which is the centerpiece of this story and is revealed completely in Jon Klassen’s pictures. The combination of stoic, deadpan text and outrageous, almost slapstick, visual humor, will make young children shriek in comic consternation! And here’s a tip: Look very carefully at their final destination before you jump to conclusions.

Probably many of you have already seen this much-talked-about title by this team-on-a-roll, Barnett and Klassen. It’s a blast, for ages 5 and up.

fog island cover imageFog Island, written and illustrated by Tomi Ungerer
published in the U.S. in 2013 by Phaidon Press

On a windswept headland in Ireland, Finn and Cara help look after the family sheep, ramble along the rocky shoreline , and huddle near the peat stove in their cozy stone cottage.

The two of them also love the trim boat built by their father, given to them with a stern warning to keep clear of Fog Island. “It’s a doomed and evil place,” Father says. It seems no one who has ventured there has ever returned.

One day, though, strong currents pull the children beyond the bay. Thick fogfog island illustration tomi ungerer envelops them, and when they pull up on an unknown shore they reckon they’ve landed on that forbidden isle. A mountainous stairway leads up into forboding cliffs. Finn and Cara daringly climb, and climb, and climb…and make a most unexpected discovery! Almost unbelievable!

Adventure, tension, and mystery abound in this fantastical tale by master storyteller Tomi Ungerer. His striking illustrations create a rich atmosphere of brooding wildness, damp fog, stony outcroppings, tempestuous seas…and eccentric other worlds. I am smitten by his stocky Irish figures and palette of deep blacks and chill blues.  This is a captivating story for ages 4 and up. 

sebastian and the balloon cover imageSebastian and the Balloon, written and illustrated by Philip C. Stead
published in 2014 by Roaring Brook Press

Sebastian is a boy feeling quite limited by his blah surroundings. Anne Shirley might say the view from his house left him no scope for imagination. So, he decides to go on an adventure.

In two shakes, he’s pulled together all the essentials, built himself a keen hot air balloon out of “Grandma’s afghans and patchwork quilts” and untethered himself, soaring to new places.

It really is a most extraordinary journey. Sebastian encounters quite a baker’s assortment of new friends and ticklish troubles. With the help of a sebastian and the balloon illustration philip steadfew  pickle sandwiches here and there and thanks to his brilliant packing, he solves each quandary heroically. Such a zesty time he is having! And when one adventure feels complete, he has only to hop in that balloon and float off to another.

Philip Stead has dipped into the imaginative mind of a child wondrously, here. This is a daydream come true, a Willy Wonka ticket to Neverland that fills the sails of readers’ own flights of fancy. It’s a jolly adventure; for some perhaps it’s also a needed window of possibility. Stead’s artwork in pastels, oils, and pressed charcoal is characteristically curious and approachable — there’s such a welcoming quality to it. Shaggy, crayon-bright, joyous. Great read for ages 3 and up.

the gian seed cover imageThe Giant Seed, a wordless book by Arthur Geisert
published in the U.S. in 2012 by Enchanted Lion Books
(originally published in France, 2010)

A quaint, Lilliputian village of pigs inhabits a peaceful island. They are a happy bunch. One day, a giant dandelion seed drifts in courtesy of it’s downy parachute. The pigs gladly receive it, plant it, and tenderly care for it, which results in a healthy outcropping of mammoth dandelions.

And just in time! For a volcano on the island roars to live, spewing lava on the giant seed illustration arthur geiserttheir community. Time to evacuate! Those dandelion parachutes will be just the thing to carry these pigs out of danger, winging them along to a new homeland.

Arthur Geisert has been in my blog a number of times. His wordless picture books are outstanding, so just go ahead and search every title of his if you’re unfamiliar with his work. This one offers fascinating, detailed peeks at this piggly world in ink and watercolor. You’ll recognize these same characters in other stories of his as well. Share it with kids from 3-years-old on up. 

poetry friday

All In a Word
by Aileen Fisher


T for time to be together,
turkey, talk, and tangy weather.

H for harvest stored away,
home, and hearth, and holiday.

A for autumn’s frosty art,
and abundance in the heart.

N for neighbors, and November,
nice things, new things to remember.

K for kitchen, kettles’ croon,
kith and kin expected soon.

S for sizzles, sights, and sounds,
and something special that abounds.

That spells THANKS — for joy in living
and a jolly good Thanksgiving.


(This poem is part of a charming, old-fashioned collection  selected by Lee Bennett Hopkins in the book Merrily Comes Our Harvest In: Poems for Thanksgving, illustrated by Ben Shecter, published in 1978 by Harcourt Brace Jovanovich)

born and bred in the great depression cover imageBorn and Bred in the Great Depression, by Jonah Winter, illustrated by Kimberly Bulcken Root
published in 2011 by Schwartz & Wade Books

East Texas, 1930s. A little boy grows up amidst a large family in a tiny house, beds cram full of kids, kerosene lanterns aglow, privy out back.

That little boy is author Jonah Winter’s father, and this poetic book tells the story of his childhood during the Great Depression.

Grandfather Winter was a steady soul who relentlessly looked for jobs in lumberyards and railways in order to feed his family. Granny was just as resolute, harvesting food from her garden, milking the cow, scrubbing clothes for ten on her washboard, with grace left over to dole out fried chicken to hoboes who’d drifted far from home.

born and bred in the great depression illustration2 root

Despite the hard, lean years, this childhood held good memories  — trips to the icehouse in the Model T, a game of chess, the sound of father strumming the banjo, the sight of him faithfully reading in the quiet evenings.

Winter’s family stories leave him with a sense of “a whole country of people tough as Grandpa and Granny Winter, not giving up” and a picture of his father, content with simple things.

born and bred in the great depression illustration root

I love this story, partly because it echoes my own parents’ experiences in the Depression — stalwart families who sacrificed for one another and were genuinely happy in spite of scarcity. It’s written in free verse, richly detailed, accessible to children as young as 5, and an especially appropriate story for Thanksgiving season, I think.

Soft, appealing watercolors in denim blues and weathered-wood browns depict a loving family, the wide horizons of Texas, and a spare household. Somehow I have missed Root’s work before this but I am on a mission now to track down her other illustration work! End pages filled with old Winter-family photos are the cherry on top.

once upon an alphabet cover image jeffers

Once Upon an Alphabet: Short Stories for All the Letters, written and illustrated by Oliver Jeffers
published in 2014 by Philomel Books

once-upon-an-alphabet-interior oliver jeffers

In keeping with the nature of this book, an anacrostic will do to intoduce it to you.

Once Upon an Alphabet is…

An alphabet book with a tiny-tiny story for every letter of the alphabet,
Bound to please both boys and girls,
Cartwheeling with curious characters, such as
Danger Delilah and
Edmund the Astronaut (who has a…
Fear of heights.)
Given that Oliver Jeffers wrote it, you can be certain it is
Highly creative,
Imaginative, with
Jaunty illustrations that
Knit together the look and tone of these diverse tales
Marmalade on toast. That is to say..
Outstandingly Offbeat,
Peculiarly pleasing, and
Quite Quirky, this new book with its
Really-bright cantaloupe cover is
Stuffed with stories –
Twenty-six of them, to be exact.
Up to you whether you
Vroom through them all at once or
Winkle around here and there. It’s
X-tra fun to backtrack through these
Yarns and spot characters popping up repeatedly, all the way from A to…

The jelly door is probably my favorite letter. You will have to see it to believe it.

The jelly door is probably my favorite letter. You will have to see it to believe it.

Okay. That was unusual. But this is an unusual book. These are really-really-really teeny stories — some

You will find yourself cheering and consoling this cute cup in the cupboard.

You will find yourself cheering and consoling this cute cup in the cupboard.

just a limerick-long — yet they manage to tell a tale. Your imaginations and funny bones will be tickled by the nonsensical and out-of-the-blue characters that alight in your world courtesy of Jeffers. It’s like a confetti-storm of story, so like the swift, imaginative stories kids dream up. A sunny pleasure for ages 4 and up.

winner-retroRound about November everyone and his uncle starts compiling those year-end, best-of, lists. Best new album. Best new restaurant. And dozens of best book awards. Today I’ve got five of the ten books which the New York Times reviewers consider the best illustrated books of 2014. To see the whole list, click here.  A couple of titles I wanted to include today, including Haiti, My Country,  aren’t at my library. Alas. Draw, by Raul Colon, will be coming up in another blog post at some point. Happy hunting, as you search out these titles yourselves!

here is the baby cover imageHere is the Baby, by Polly Kanevsky, illustrated by Taeeun Yoo
published in 2014 by Schwartz & Wade Books

Walk through a day in the life of a dearly-loved baby. Frowsy morning cuddles with mama and breakfast toast with cherry jam. Outings with daddy to the library and the park. Then, as snowflakes here is the baby illustration taeeun yoo 001dance, home to a yummy supper, playtime with Sister, a warm bath, cozy jammies, a story, a song, and sweet slumber.

Taeeun Yoo’s award-winning illustrations incorporate linoleum block prints, pencil drawings and photoshop. Smudgy, curving line; textured, speckly swatches of color; and a warm palette of toasty pumpkin, homely olive, and hot-chocolate browns all communicate familial warmth, security, commonplace joy. Her final bedtime pages are magically tranquil in hushed blues with a wash of moonlight gleaming through the windows. A truly lovely book to read again and again with under-Twos and up. Great baby shower purchase, by the way.

time for bed fred uk cover imageTime for Bed, Fred! written and illustrated by Yasmeen Ismail
published in the U.S. in 2014 by Walker Books for Young Readers
(first published in Great Britain, 2013)

While the baby in our previous story goes to bed gently, with a soothing lullaby and a friendly pat-pat-pat, Fred, the dog in this rambunctious tale, is his polar opposite!

Fred is a fur-flying frenzy, a lunging lunatic, a muddy whorl of mayhem!

When the clock strikes the hour for bed, Fred leaps into high gear, sprinting, hiding, splooshing, fleeing, leaving behind a wake of destruction. His own bed is the last place he wants to be. Yes, he does finally get there, but only after a mind-bending blur of commotion.

time for bed fred illustration yasmeen ismail

Yasmeen Ismail’s watercolor illustrations are fabulously vigorous. They careen. They dash. They lie there wagging at you with a silly grin on their faces. Funny and endearing, loose-as-a-goose, this exhausting dog, fountain of flowers, cacaphony of mud, turmoil of water burst from the pages in a riot of colors and childlike line. The serene-at-last final page is in such contrast to the roaring speed of the others, that you can even use it for a happy, giggly, bedtime story! Super choice for under-Twos and up.

where's mommy cover imageWhere’s Mommy? by Beverly Donofrio, illustrated by Barbara McClintock
published in 2014 by Schwartz & Wade Books

Maria is a little girl with an unusual friend: a mouse. They are secret friends since, you know, if either of their mothers found out about the other, it wouldn’t be pretty.

One summer evening neither Maria or Mouse Mouse can find their mothers when it’s time for stories, kisses, and bed. So off they go, searching the house, then out into the rosy summer dusk to the potting shed, where they find…a major surprise!

This is the sequel to a story written in 2007, Mary and the Mouse, the Mouse and Mary, which (spoiler alert!) follows the two mothers’ friendship when they were little girls. Both are charming stories full of that tingle of delight that comes from imagining tiny worlds and secret friendships with tiny persons.

where's mommy interior donofrio and mcclintock

Barbara McClintock is a favorite illustrator of mine. With her fine, precise line and painstaking detail, she fleshes out both the upstairs and the under-the-floorboard worlds. Enchanting us with the clever mouse house, welcoming us with artistic loveliness above, she unites these worlds through Maria’s and Mouse Mouse’s similar personalities, tastes, and routines. There’s just so much to marvel over in these warm, congenial pages. Linger over this one with children ages 4 and up.

the promise cover image davies and carlinThe Promise, by Nicola Davies, illustrated by Laura Carlin
first U.S. edition published in 2014 by Candlewick Press

This is a story of transformation — the literal flowering of a city once trapped in flinty, cold, ugliness, and the revolution in one girl’s heart as she learns to nurture beauty rather than stay trapped in meanness.

Raised in a stark, depressing city, our protagonist’s parched soul becomes sharp and broken. One chance encounter, though, ushers her into a new purposeful life, a life of planting trees and flowers, bringing green life and smiles, lovely color and blessing, into the city. Her success leads her to travel to other “sad and sorry” places, bringing the transforming power of nature everywhere she goes.

the promise illustration laura carlin

This is Laura Carlin’s first picture book, and it is powerful.  Her mixed media illustrations begin with blasé, half-hearted tones; sprawling, anonymous cityscapes; a huddle of shapeless residents. As leaf and bud and birdsong enter the city, the brilliance of scarlet and turquoise, tangerine and eggplant, explode in heartbreaking joy onto the scene. I absolutely love the oblique references to foreign locations she presents as we travel here and there spreading color and life.

Lovely and thought-provoking for ages 4 and up.

the baby tree sophie blackall cover imageThe Baby Tree, written and illustrated by Sophie Blackall
published in 2014 by Nancy Paulsen Books

When a little boy’s mom and dad tell him that a new baby is coming to the family, his head is popping with questions. Chief among them is, “Where are we going to get the baby?” As he asks this question to people in his life — the teenager next door, his teacher, Grandpa, the mailman — he gets some very interesting, very different answers. Will his baby really come from a stork? Is there such a thing as a Baby Tree? If they indeed come from eggs, where does one get that kind of egg?

Finally, mom and dad explain to him where babies come from. Turns out each person was a tiny bit right…except that bit about storks from Grandpa.

If you have ever seen Sophie Blackall’s work, you know that the baby tree interior sophie blackallpure charm fills every page. These illustrations were created with Chinese ink and watercolor. Blackall’s line whispers, her gentle imaginations please and enliven without any raised voices, her candy-colored compositions in frosting blue and pink lemonade, lemon and lime,with a few splashes of cherry red, play upon loads of white space. All these rosy-cheeked people exude cheery niceness as well. And oh, look! Is that Brian Floca’s Locomotive book they are reading at bedtime? And Sergio Ruzzier’s Bear and Bee? Love that!

A preschool-sized explanation of where babies come from is part of the story, with additional questions and answers included to guide parents with questions ranging from how-come-there are-twins to how-can-my-friend-have-two-moms. Ages 4 or 5 and up.

Be sure to check out the other winners on the New York Times list through the link at the top of the blogpost.


I am having a deal of trouble this year reading the many enticing novels on my ever-growing To-Be-Read list. I’m teaching several history, literature, and writing classes to highschool-age homeschoolers, and schloooop! there goes my time. But here are a couple new titles I have read and enjoyed recently. Both would make excellent Book Club choices for middle-grade through high school.

the fourteenth goldfish cover imageThe Fourteenth Goldfish, by Jennifer L. Holm
published in 2014 by Random House

The Plot: Ellie, 11 years old, has a drama-teacher for a mom and an actor for a dad, but it’s her scientist grandfather that she relates to best of all. When her grandfather discovers a cure for aging and turns up in a 13-year-old body , Ellie is torn between helping him win a Nobel Prize, and her fear of his findings’ unforeseen consequences.

The Brilliance: Holm has written a thought-provoking novel which incorporates enough humor, light-heartedness, and general middle school-ness, to carry readers enthusiastically along. She elevates the sciences as a fascinating, life-changing, possibility-laden sphere of study for both girls and boys, effortlessly weaving in many top scientists and their contributions. Her characters are complex and likeable, tangled in a plot driven by the convoluted generations togethersituation of a 13-year-old grandfather, his scheming to break into his old lab, and the conflicted relationships within Ellie’s world.

Ideas to Chew On: This novel is packed with questions about the role of change in our lives. Normal life involves growth and change, yet this is simultaneously painful due to endings, and exciting due to beginnings. How do we cope with this? Should we seek to avoid the pain of change, or embrace it despite the pain? What about the huge changes inherent in aging — should we seek to avoid them, or courageously live through them? What good can come from aging? What would society look like without aged people? What are we missing by not attending to that age segment? Besides these questions, issues of ethics in science are in the spotlight, as Ellie recognizes the need to consider all the impacts of advances in science, before we unleash more trouble than we bargained for.

Ages 11 and up.

BrownGirlDreaming cover imageBrown Girl Dreaming, by Jacqueline Woodson
published in 2014 by Nancy Paulsen Books

The Plot: This is acclaimed-author Jacqueline Woodson’s autobiographical account of her childhood, from her birth in 1963 through the 5th grade, written in free verse. It traces her family history and early life growing up in Ohio,  Greenville, South Carolina, and Brooklyn, paying particular attention to her growing identity as a writer.

The Brilliance: Woodson is a master storyteller. Her honesty and courage and perception, and her uncanny ability to squeeze her own emotions and experiences into potent words, will make you feel you’ve walked alongside her through these 11 years of turbulence, discord, sweetness, dignity, pain, self-discovery, composition notebooks and lemon-chiffon ice cream. I loved that she includes photographs of these family members and a family tree which helps keep track of the many names from her past.

Ideas to Chew On: There’s plenty of grit and sadness in Woodson’s past, as well as deep wells of sweetness and strength, all of which raise issues of justice, racism, lunchcountersitin greenvillebrokenness, family, faith, and our unique callings in life. Here are the realities of life in the Jim Crow South painted vividly, as well as the pain of divorce and death, difficulties in school, stinging comparisons with siblings, uprootedness. Here too are glorious portraits of the strength we receive from people who go on loving us through thick and thin, the resonant security of family and tradition, the deep joy of realizing what we are especially made for, and the birth of dreams. Woodson’s grandmother, a devoted member of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, raised Jacqueline in that religious tradition, while her own mother was an unbeliever, and her uncle converted to Islam, all of which raises many issues about faith, a topic Woodson does not avoid.

Ages 11 and up.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 444 other followers

%d bloggers like this: