A Green Place to Be: The Creation of Central Park

Although I have traveled to many areas in the contiguous United States and various countries in Europe, I have never been to New York City. After reading A Green Place to Be: The Creation of Central Park by Ashley Benham Yazdani, I would love to visit the Big Apple and see this world-famous park.

Yazdani does a wonderful job of bringing to life the historical account of Central Park’s inception and construction. She includes interesting facts without bogging down the reader with too much technical terminology or trivial information. The illustrations are full of life, making the historical scenes appear fresh and present. From the broad, lush landscapes to the complete survey of the various bridges inside the park, the detailed illustrations are a feast for the eyes, welcoming multiple readings.

I recommend A Green Place to Be for readers who are looking for a beautifully illustrated slice-of-history story. It will probably be best for ages 6-10, though I do think artists of all ages will enjoy the beautiful illustrations.

Sweep: The Story of a Girl and Her Monster

Jonathan Auxier’s Sweep: The Story of a Girl and Her Monster is my favorite book of 2018 (adult or children’s), and one of my favorite children’s novels of all time. The themes are timeless, the story is riveting, and the writing is beautiful. I believe this book will stand the test of time – a modern classic indeed.

Nan Sparrow is a chimney sweep in Victorian London. Although she is old by chimney sweep standards (not yet a teenager), she is one of the best in the business. She knows how to navigate the treacherous flues in London homes, and has managed to stay unscathed in a profession that regularly claims the lives of its young workers. Until the day she gets stuck.

When a fellow sweep uses the “Devil’s Nudge” tactic of lighting a fire in the chimney to, shall we say, encourage her to break free, Nan finds herself trapped in a chimney fire and figures death is imminent. She blacks out, and when she wakes, she is not injured … and not alone. A creature made of ash and soot, called a golem, has rescued Nan, and is, in fact, her monster.

As others have noted, Sweep has a Dickensian feel to it, highlighting the terrible and brutal conditions that children endured as chimney sweeps. I honestly had no idea that children were used in this way,  and I suspect many contemporary readers share this ignorance. I commend Auxier for not shying away from the disturbing truth, but rather mining for the glimmer of hope in a hopeless existence.

Sweep received a lot of accolades, and it deserves every one. I would have gladly bestowed all the stars and awards it could possibly earn. I highly recommend this book for ages 10 and up, though 12 and up may be more appropriate for sensitive readers.

The Book With No Pictures

This book makes kids laugh. Hysterically. Or maybe that’s just mine. Over the last week, the best part of my day has been reading this book to my kids before bedtime. I think multiple readings have only increased the giggles, since my kids laugh in anticipation of what they know is coming next. For me, this makes The Book With No Pictures by B. J. Novak a worthy addition to our home library.

I love how this book promotes the importance of words in the most jubilant, undidactic way. It’s a great read aloud for children of all ages, for the littlest will giggle uncontrollably and even teens will be hard pressed not to smile. TIP: An exuberant performance is sure to bring the most laughs, which makes it most fun for the reader!

Locomotive

Locomotive by Brian Floca is one of my family’s favorite non-fiction picture books. Dense with information, but told in a narrative style, it’s perfect both for a school reading and a bedtime read-aloud. The text is long (for a picture book), but my train-loving son requested we read this book over and over to him when he was just three.

The artwork is amazing, so it’s no surprise that Floca won the Caldecott Medal for this book. Made with ink, watercolor, acrylic, and gouache, the illustrations capture an old-world feel, while still coming across as fresh and contemporary. Details abound. From the expansive western scenery, to the jaw-dropping Dale Creek Bridge, to the careful replications of the locomotive itself, one could easily spend time poring over these pages without reading any of the text. And don’t overlook the endpapers! They are full of facts and diagrams, adding more hard-core nonfiction material to the book.

Locomotive is perfect for train enthusiasts and would be an excellent addition to any U.S. History study. Mr. Floca provides extra materials on his website to supplement the book, including a coloring page of the locomotive (a favorite in our house!) and teacher’s guide. I heartily recommend this book for all ages, particularly 4-12 years old.

The Eye That Never Sleeps

I’m a big fan of narrative nonfiction. For picture books, I particularly like historical nonfiction that highlights lesser known stories from the past. The Eye That Never Sleeps: How Detective Pinkerton Saved President Lincoln by Marissa Moss, illustrated by Jeremy Holmes tells the story of the assassination attempt on Lincoln before he was inaugurated as president in 1861. I think this story is particularly effective because it takes a well-known figure (Lincoln) and tells how a lesser known figure (Pinkerton) was important in shaping the course of history through behind-the-scenes action. Lincoln serves as the entry point for the story, drawing readers in and giving them context, but Pinkerton is the true agent of change in this book.

The book begins with a little back story on Pinkerton: how he came to the United States from Scotland with his wife, how he grew a successful barreling business, and how he eventually became involved in detective work. The story then moves quickly ahead to Pinkerton’s protection of Lincoln in the days before Lincoln’s presidential inauguration. Both text and illustrations do an excellent job of showing the tension between the northern and southern states so that readers feel Lincoln’s peril at every turn.

Holmes’ illustrations are detailed and precise, in red, orange, brown, and purple palettes. Multiple fonts are used throughout, from newspaper headlines to speech and thought bubbles, and this variation brings extra life into the illustrations. Holmes has an Artist’s Note at the end that describes how he created his work in digital scratchboard style, and this is a worthwhile read for those who are curious in artistic methods.

Even the formatting of this book is worth a mention. The pages are thick, and the book is in landscape orientation, which add to the richness of the illustrations. It’s longer than traditional picture books, coming in at 48 pages instead of the default 32, but even so, each page is utilized to the max. There are five pages of back-matter, including a timeline of Pinkerton’s life, Artist’s and Author’s Notes, bibliography, and index.

I recommend this book for ages eight and up, which differs from the publisher’s recommendation of ages 6-9. I do think that readers ages 6-7 could enjoy it as well, but due to the high word count and extra length, I think it more suitable for older elementary aged kids. The interesting story and amazing illustrations may very well tempt tweens and teens into reading it as well.

Rivers: A Visual History from River to Sea

“Geography” and “amazing” may not be two words commonly used in the same sentence when talking about books for young people, so let’s change that. River: A Visual History from River to Sea by Peter Goes is indeed an amazing book of geography for young readers. And old readers. Everything about this book, from the oversize pages and format to the detailed illustrations surrounded by interesting facts, says, “Read me! … Read me again!”

As one would deduce from the title, Goes uses the rivers of the world to relate geographical, historical, cultural and even biological information. Rivers are grouped together by continent, and then each major river has its own two-page spread. Each spread has a solid color background with Goes intricate black-and-white illustrations on top. Readers are given a wealth of information that all pertains to the river. For instance, on the spread for the Thames, we learn the river once was also called Isis, the Thames tunnel was built between 1825 and 1843, the kingfisher likes to live near running water, and the Thames Barrier protects London from high tides. And that’s just a small sample of interesting tidbits.

Rivers has a way of making non-fiction readily accessible to a younger audience, but it is so engaging and sophisticated that it in no way seems juvenile. I suspect teens would pore over these pages. I highly recommend this book for all ages, though I suspect ages eight and up will enjoy it most. Goes also authored the book Timeline, which I’ve not yet had the pleasure to read, but can’t wait to get my hands on if it’s as good as Rivers.

Louisiana’s Way Home

I am convinced that Kate DiCamillo is a writing genius. DiCamillo tackles weighty topics while using half the words that others would use, and her word choice is deceptively simple. Her characters are well formed and memorable, and they weave together in beautiful storytelling.

Louisiana’s Way Home is DiCamillo’s first novel sequel, and it follows Louisiana Elefante, who we first met in Raymie Nightingale. The book starts with Louisiana embarking on a traveling adventure with her grandmother. Not long after they drive across the Florida-Georgia border, the grandmother has a dental emergency, requiring an unexpected stop in a small Georgia town. Things quickly unravel from there, and Louisiana must confront her past and determine who she wants to be going forward.

The book deals with heavy themes of loss, abandonment, and forgiveness, but DiCamillo frames them in a hopeful light. While the reading level isn’t too advanced, the emotional content may be too intense for sensitive readers. As such, I recommend this book for ages 10 and older.

Drawn From Nature

Drawn From Nature by Helen Ahpornsiri is an exquisite picture book that will delight nature lovers, young and old. Ahpornsiri expertly uses real leaves, flowers, and other plant-derived items in collages that then create illustrations of animals and landscape. The intricate work demands a second look. And a third. And a fourth. And, well, you get the idea.

The stunning artwork alone makes this book superb, but the accompanying non-fiction text is also engaging and informative. We start by looking at the natural world during the spring season, and then follow the natural trajectory through the seasons all the way through winter. A glossary at the end is helpful for defining the more scientific terms that appear in the text, such as fungus, nocturnal, and photosynthesis. Curious artists will also appreciate Ahpornsiri’s note in the back that gives a little more information on how the art was created.

I highly recommend Drawn From Nature for all ages, but I think it would be best for ages eight and older. Although a picture book, it is in no way too juvenile for teens and adults. In particular, I suspect artistic and/or nature-loving teens will love this book and spend hours poring over its content.

Harbor Me

Start with the ’80s iconic movie The Breakfast Club. Replace the all-white teen group with a half dozen diverse pre-teens. Substitute school dilemmas for precarious real-world problems that are far bigger than the characters. Add exquisite writing. Now you’ve got Jacqueline Woodson’s Harbor Me.

At the start of a school year, a teacher takes her six students to a private room and gives them a single task: talk with each other for an hour. Every Friday. Over time, the students come to trust each other, eventually confiding in one another. Woodson does not shy away from controversial current affairs. The students share there unique perspectives on illegal immigration, racial profiling, financial status, learning disabilities, a parent in prison, treatment of ethnic minorities, and bullying.

I admire Woodson’s writing style. She has a way of getting to the heart of the matter in the most beautiful way. Many will know Woodson for her widely acclaimed novel-in-verse Brown Girl Dreaming. Although written in prose, Harbor Me uses the same rich language and poetic style.

I highly recommend Harbor Me for ages ten and up. I think younger readers (ages 8-10) would be okay to read it or listen in, but I do believe older pre-teens will be able to make a deeper connection with the content. It is a great choice for initiating meaningful conversations with young readers, helping to give new perspectives on many issues our society currently faces.

 

Blue

Stunning paintings, brilliantly placed cutouts, and the perfect thirty-two words make  Laura Vaccaro Seeger’s Blue one of my favorite pictures books of all time. Following in the style of her picture book Green, which won a Caldecott Honor, Seeger takes it one step further by adding an underlying plot of great emotional depth. I marvel at her ability to tell the life story of a boy and his dog over seventeen spreads, with minimal text. The result is profound and poignant.

I highly recommend this picture book for children and adults of all ages. Blue is a particularly good choice for anyone mourning the death of a pet. Younger children will appreciate the cleverness of the illustrations and cutouts, and at the very least, will learn to recognize various shades of blue. Older children will likely grasp the subtle plot and deeper feelings permeating through the book. I also recommend Green by the same author, though it is more about the colors and illustrations and does not have the same weight of the newer Blue.