The Bear and the Piano

For a picture book with an old soul that also feels fresh, look no further than David Litchfield’s The Bear and the Piano. At its core, this is a timeless story of friendship and belonging that dares to ask if one can return after leaving.

The story itself is a bit magical. A bear cub stumbles upon a piano in the middle of the woods. Captivated, he returns day after day, year after year, mastering the instrument. The other bears in the woods gather to hear him play, until one night a human family offers to take him to the big city so he can play concerts there. Though he loves his home and his friends, he also longs for adventure, and sets out for the city, where he soon achieves great success.

Though he enjoys his time in the city, he misses his home and decides to return to tell his friends all about his adventures. When he arrives in the familiar clearing in the woods, the piano is missing. The bear is certain everyone has forgotten him. That is, until he follows a fellow bear deeper into the woods to a startling discovery.

The illustrations in The Bear and the Piano are gorgeous. Using a mix of techniques, Litchfield creates expansive scenes that are both spacious and focused. The color palette is varied and lively, yet restrained, lending to the classic storybook feel.

The Bear and the Piano is a beautiful book for ages four and up. Younger children will enjoy following the bear’s adventures in the city. Older children and adults will value the story’s deeper meaning when the bear returns to the woods. All readers will appreciate the lyrical language and detailed illustrations.

Sea Prayer

There are two things you should know about this book: 1) I am generally not a crier, especially for books. 2) This book made me cry.

Sea Prayer is a poem – a father’s earnest prayer for protection over his young son, Marwan, as they prepare to make the perilous journey across the Mediterranean Sea in a lifeboat. Fleeing war-torn Syria, they are among the refugees who are hoping to find a better life in another land. But first they must face the sea.

With lyrical language evoking a sense of longing, the father recalls happier times on the farm and in the bustling city. This is soon contrasted with the world Marwan knows, a world of protests, bombs, and death. Now their family is waiting by the sea for the sun to rise so they can depart, eager for safety, but dreading the uncertainty of a perilous journey.

Author Khaled Hosseini is a bestselling author, perhaps most known for his novel The Kite Runner. In Sea Prayer, his words are paired with illustrations by Dan Williams. Williams’ art captures every mood and adds yet another layer to the already rich text. My particular favorite spreads are of Marwan and his mother walking through a field of flowers, and Marwan cradled in his father’s arms as they wait by the sea.

Because this is an illustrated book, some may consider it a children’s book. One of my local libraries catalogued it with the juvenile fiction, while another placed it in the young adult section. This is where I will offer a word of caution. While it is a devastating truth that this story is a reality for far too many children, Sea Prayer may be too graphic for the youngest readers, especially sensitive ones. Furthermore, this is the sort of book that will impact adults (particularly parents) more than children and teens. As such, I would recommend it for ages ten and up, and parents may wish to preview it first. At the very least, I encourage all parents to read this beautiful, heart-breaking book.

The Day You Begin

The Day You Begin, written by Jacqueline Woodson and illustrated by Rafael López, is an all-around beautiful book. Woodson’s lyrical text conveys the anxiety young students experience when they feel different from their peers. The overall tone is perfectly expressed in the opening line. There will be times when you walk into a room and no one there is quite like you. Children feel isolated because of their physical features, their ethnic lunches, their foreign names, their capabilities.

Three-fourths of the way through, the text shifts gradually with a subtle addition to the opening line. There will be times when you walk into a room and no one there is quite like you until the day you begin to share your stories. The children learn to be true to themselves in order to make connections with their classmates. In the end, we find that maybe we are not very different from each other after all.

The illustrations burst with color and life. López creates an inner dream world superimposed on on the real one. While the children’s facial expressions show uncertainty and loneliness, we also get a glimpse of the exuberant spirit that is just waiting to pour out.

The Day You Begin would be a wonderful read-aloud choice for building empathy. I highly recommend this book for readers of all ages, particularly ages 6-10.

Be Prepared

Yet another graphic novel nails the precarious nature of growing up. In Be Prepared, Vera Brosgol carefully balances pre-teen angst with childlike naivete as her nine-year-old main character (also named Vera) navigates summer camp among older girls.

Vera has a hard time fitting in with her more affluent friends at school. Jealous of the girls who spend their summers at camp, Vera convinces her mom to let her go to a Russian Orthodox camp that they will be able to afford with financial help from their church.

As she soon discovers, summer camp isn’t the carefree vacation Vera thought it would be. There’s no running water, which means she brushes her teeth in the river, bathes in the lake, and uses an outhouse for a bathroom. There are lots of camp rules that are hard for a first-timer, like getting her uniform just so and remembering to speak in Russian all the time. But worst of all, her tent-mates are best friends and repeat campers who are much older than Vera, and at fifteen years old, they want nothing to do with Vera.

Away from home and on her own, Vera must confront her challenges. She does make friends while becoming more comfortable in the great outdoors, and most importantly, she learns how to stand up for herself.

Be Prepared is a wonderful coming-of-age middle grade graphic novel that will appeal to fans of Real Friends by Shannon Hale and Roller Girl and All’s Faire In Middle School by Victoria Jamieson. While none of the content is overly graphic, I do think Be Prepared is more mature in content than the other graphic novels mentioned, and would recommend this for ages 10 and up, maybe 12 and up, depending on the emotional maturity of the reader. There is some content to be aware of: the older girls talk of menstruation, one of the girls has soiled underwear after her period, and there is some teenage kissing. If the reader has not encountered these life experiences, then perhaps hold off reading until older.

Little Women – The Penderwicks

Four sisters. A neighbor boy who becomes one of the family. Adventures and mishaps that strengthen sibling bonds. Which literary classic do these statements describe?

Just as an older generation might answer with Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, tweens would say this describes Jeanne Birdsall’s The Penderwicks, and both would be correct! Both classics explore coming of age within the context of a close-knit family. Readers have the impression that the March family and Penderwick family are drawn closer to each other through the adversity that results from a missing parent. (In Little Women, Mr. March is fighting in the Civil War. In The Penderwicks, the girls’ mother has died of cancer.)

The Penderwicks centers around a three-week summer vacation in which the Penderwick family rents a cottage on the grounds of the fine estate Arundel. They meet young Jeffrey, who lives at Arundel with his wealthy mother, Mrs. Tifton. Jeffrey has led a rather sheltered life, and he relishes the excitement the four Penderwick girls bring. Birdsall writes of the summer’s adventures, adeptly weaving between the sisters and their contrasting personalities.

Although published in 2005, The Penderwicks has an old-world feel to it, likely due to the episodic story structure, as one would find in Anne of Green Gables. While focused on characters more than plot, there are certainly moments of tension and hilarity that encourage readers to turn the page.

The Penderwicks will appeal to a slightly younger audience than that of Little Women. While there is nothing objectionable for younger readers by way of content, I would recommend The Penderwicks for ages 10 and older, and Little Women for ages 12 and older.

The Great Dictionary Caper

The Great Dictionary Caper, written by Judy Sierra and illustrated by Eric Comstock, is a fun romp with words. In a clever way, kids are introduced to various types of words, from the short (“I”) to “everyone’s favorite 34-letter word” (which you can maybe guess, but will have to read the book to find out if you are correct!).

Illustrations are words themselves demonstrating their meanings (we see the word “glide” ice skating). Without using any formal definitions, we learn the meanings of onomatopoeia, homophones, antonyms, palindromes, and anagrams. We find examples of proper nouns, rhyming words, contractions, interjections, and conjunctions. And oh yeah, some of Shakespeare’s created words, which are sure to draw laughs. (Do you know a kid that will laugh when you read the word “sackbut?”)

This book would be a great way to introduce types of words, and also as a review after any kind of formal unit study. There is no objectionable content in it for younger readers, but I doubt the younger set will understand it well. As such, I recommend this book for ages 8 and up, though maybe 6 and up for precocious readers.

The Boo-Boos That Changed the World

You get a cut. It bleeds. You need to carry on with your day – you don’t have time to cut and fold sterile gauze and adhesive bandaging. The good news is, you don’t have to, thanks to the Band-Aid.

The Boo-Boos That Changed the World – A True Story About An Accidental Invention (Really!) tells the story behind the often overlooked invention of the Band-Aid. Author Barry Wittenstein infuses humor in both the prose as well as the story’s structure. Just when one might think the story finished, we find out there’s more.

Commonplace as it is today, the Band-Aid was not an overnight success. Readers see how inventor Earle Dickson tweaked his prototypes to make them better and more user-friendly, yet this still wasn’t enough to entice the masses. Dickson used creative marketing tactics to help spread the word about his nifty bandages, which finally led to incredible success.

The frequent false happy endings make this a fun book to read aloud with kids. While not overt in any way, readers learn the valuable lessons of resourcefulness, ingenuity, and perseverance. Chris Hsu’s illustrations strike just the right tone, balancing the humorous with the historical. Three informational pages at the end provide the author’s context, historical timelines, and online resources. I recommend this narrative non-fiction book for ages four and up.

Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret. – Roller Girl

Growing up can be hard. Everything changes: body, relationships, emotions, and responsibilities are in transition, and it’s difficult to know what to expect next. Authors Judy Blume and Victoria Jamieson both write about this phase of life with respectful honesty.

Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret. by Judy Blume has long been considered a classic female coming-of-age novel. Unafraid to tackle religion, boys, and the mysterious first menstrual cycle, Blume dared to explore topics that were considered taboo in books for kids and teenagers. Although written in 1970, the modern ‘tween will still find this book relatable.

Similarly, Victoria Jamieson’s Roller Girl tells the story of twelve-year-old Astrid’s steps towards maturity and independence. She used to do everything with her best friend, Nicole, but as the girls are growing up, Astrid is discovering that she doesn’t have as much in common with Nicole anymore. When Astrid decides to pursue Roller Derby Camp without Nicole, she learns that it is okay to be unique and pursue our own passions.

Roller Girl is the first graphic novel I ever read. I was so pleasantly surprised by the truth and profound material that it completely corrected the unfair stigma I had placed on this genre. Victoria Jamieson is a master of dialogue–both spoken and unspoken. The female relationships presented in this book (mother-daughter, friend-friend) are among the best I have read in any book for any age.

I would recommend Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret. and Roller Girl for ages 10-14. I find the content of Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret. to be slightly more mature and philosophical, so emotionally immature readers may benefit by waiting until they are a bit older.

Wishtree

Katherine Applegate opened readers’ eyes to animal rights in her Newbery-winning The One and Only Ivan by showing us the world through Ivan’s perspective. Applegate uses a similar technique in her newest middle grade novel, Wishtree, to explore difficult themes of inclusion and acceptance. Narrated by the oak tree Red, Wishtree weaves a story of friendship that dares to cross cultural boundaries.

Samar is new to the neighborhood. She is also Muslim. The neighbors are less than welcoming, and when a hate crime bluntly tells the new family to “Leave,” Samar is afraid her family will be forced to relocate again. Unwilling to stand idly by, Red breaks his own policy of staying out of human business. He orchestrates circumstances that in turn help next-door neighbor Stephen and Samar to become friends.

Wishtree is a lovely book that can initiate important conversations about how we interact with others. The reading level is appropriate for ages 8-12, though I believe the content is best for ages 10+. It’s a fast read, with many short chapters and beautiful illustrations (both also features of The One and Only Ivan), and with its important themes of acceptance and courage, Wishtree would also be a good choice for older readers with lower reading ability.

Nothing Rhymes With Orange

This gem by Adam Rex is not your typical rhyming picture book. Instead of the rhyming couplets we’ve come to expect in children’s books, Rex fills the pages with internal rhymes while cleverly highlighting all types of fruit and even including a reference to Friedrich Nietzsche. That’s right. You’ll have to read it to find out how.

The illustrations are a fun fusion of photography (of real fruit) and overlaying illustration to bring the fruit to life. The result is bright and colorful, perfect for the comical text.

And though this book is pure fun, it manages to have some educational purposes as well. On a surface level, many types of fruit are introduced, including some that stray from the typical lineup found in lunch boxes. On a deeper level, the underlying theme promotes friendship and personal worth.

I recommend Nothing Rhymes With Orange for ages 4 and up. This one really isn’t just for little kids – older kids, teens, and adults will get a laugh out of this book too.