As another holiday season draws close, it is time to think of books to gift both to ourselves and to the people we love. We can take the opportunity to explore titles that will enhance our classroom lessons, or our time with our own children and grandchildren. Perhaps our purchases are meant to nourish the inner child in all of us. There is never really a bad excuse for buying a good book!
This winter’s RCGW Book Review features both brand new titles, some classics revisited and some excellent recently published works that we may have missed when they first came out. The common thread is excellence and inspiration. Let’s make this a season where we stock up on books that will educate, inspire and encourage young readers to make the world a better place, or to imagine it so.
Read-Aloud Books for Newborn - Age 5
Written and Illustrated by Kevin Henkes
Published by Greenwillow Books, September 2018
This book is a winner! The soft whimsical illustrations featuring pastel coloured elephants in green, pink, blue and yellow make it a perfect gift for a newborn or a new parent to be. In this newest instalment by beloved writer and Caldecott winner Kevin Henkes, five darling elephants parade around from day to night, moving up and down, in and out, over and under. The simple rhythmic language, large printed words and soft four toned colour-palette are easy on little eyes and will encourage young readers to follow along. This book encourages counting, colour recognition and basic language skills making it an excellent read aloud book for parents to share with their babies and toddlers. The gentle sleepy-time ending makes it an ideal book to read before a nap or bedtime while its elegant simplicity will make it a favourite that you will reach for again and again!
Primary Readers (Grades K-2, Ages 5-8)
Conceived by Jon Arno Lawson, Illustrated by Sydney Smith
Published by Groundwood Books, House of Anansi Press, 2015
This beautiful wordless picture book is a powerful meditation on being present, noticing things, and living in the moment. The book begins as a little girl in a red jacket walks through the streets of a city holding her father’s hand. Most of the world around her is depicted in black and white, while the items we see in colour are mostly the small sidewalk flowers that she continues to collect and give away as gifts on their journey home. The flowers and their recipients are the things the girl notices and pays attention to, thus both appear in colour. Her father, though walking with her, appears frequently distracted, as he is almost constantly on his cellphone. As the two cross through a park and enter into their own neighbourhood, the cellphone disappears and more and more of the world appears in bright vivid colour, including their home, the girl’s mother, her siblings, her backyard and its’ various creatures.
Conceived of by award winning poet Jon Arno Lawson, Sidewalk Flowers offers a powerful lesson - that who and what we see is determined in large part by what we pay attention to. The soft pen and ink illustrations with watercolour wash beautifully depict how small children have their own unique view of the world and are capable of finding beauty and meaning in small simple things and in unexpected places – things and places that adults often choose to ignore (such as weeds growing in the cracks of the sidewalk), and are capable of a kindness and generosity much larger than their years.
This heartwarming book is truly a recommended read for all ages and would be a great introduction to young writers in exploring a narrator’s point of view. In the classroom, students could be encouraged to explore point of view in their own wordless picture books, illustrating the things that a selected character (such as a pet, or a baby) might pay attention to differently from other characters in their own story.
Written and Illustrated by Yuyi Morales
Published by Neil Porter Books, Fall 2018
Yuyi Morales is a Caldecott Honor artist, and five-time winner of the Pura Belpre Award. Her latest book Dreamers was nominated by the New York Public Library as one of the best illustrated books for children in 2018. It explores her own personal immigrant experience, coming to the United States from Mexico in 1994 with her infant son, and how she found a home and refuge in the public libraries of her new city.
Children and adults alike will delight in Yuyi’s magical stylized illustrations and be enchanted by how the simply worded text evokes complex emotions and situations – the feeling of being a stranger in an unfamiliar land, the feeling of exhilaration and joy at finding a place of belonging, the thrill of learning and becoming, the feelings of hope as one dreams and builds for the future combined with the overwhelming love a parent feels for their young child.
Given current world events, this book could not be more timely. Dreamers is a gentle reminder of the power of words and of stories, and the great powers of love and hope to build a better tomorrow. Yuyi’s perspective is that all immigrants are “Dreamers” who “enter a new country carried by hopes and dreams, and carrying our own special gifts, to build a better future.”
Written and Illustrated by Marc Martin
Published by Chronicle Books, March 2017
Mixed media illustrations in rich deep blues and greens deftly showcase the powerful imagination of a child. From a seat at her own desk looking out her bedroom window a young girl is able to chart a journey to unexplored territories as she follows the meandering path of the river outside, past her own line of sight. Where the river below stretches into the distance, the young girl fills in the rest with her imagination. For any adult or child who has ever paused to wonder...”where does that road lead…where does that river end?” this book evokes a sense of adventure and mystery. Sometimes it’s even more fun to imagine than to know for sure, and we all have the power to make up our own incredible worlds if we so choose.
A River is a celebration of the imagination, an invitation to wonder and dream. Parents and teachers might use this lovely story as a guidebook and an invitation for children to create their own imaginative texts. Rivers, roads or moonbeams can be used as story starters leading budding authors to unexplored lands of their own. The simplicity and elegance of this lovely story make it a perfect mentor text for such an endeavour.
Written by Neil Gaiman and Illustrated by Charles Vess
Published by Harper Collins, 2010
This charming book reads as an instruction manual for travellers entering the world of story. Peopled with magical characters from the lands of fairytales and myths, readers will find it both mysterious and familiar, providing a sense of comfort and adventure while it dispenses essential wisdom for navigating both the world of stories as well as everyday life.
Reading like a Desiderata for fairytale aficionados, Instructions begins with a gentle command: “Touch the wooden gate in the wall you never saw before, Say “please” before you open the latch, go through, walk down the path...” And so the reader enters a magical realm following the main character - a cat who appears as Puss In Boots – through the journey.
This book would be a lovely addition to any collection. In the classroom it could be used as fodder for young writers to explore story structure, classic characters and archetypes, and the use of the present tense in narration.
Young Readers (Independent Reading for Grades 3-4, Ages 8-10)
Written by Debbie Levy and Illustrated by Elizabeth Baddeley
Published by Simon and Schuster Books for Young Readers, 2016
This informative non-fiction biography of the life of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg focuses on the importance of working hard in life through positive channels to effect change in this world. It highlights vocabulary words such as: disagree, dissent, object, protest and persist, and showcases how all of these actions are not in fact negative but positive and powerful when performed in the correct way. Young readers, girls in particular, will find Ruth’s life and career inspirational. Another interesting aspect of this book is that while it celebrates the accomplishments of feminist ideals, the text of this book highlights Ruth’s quest for gender equality in the spheres of work and home life, and for equal rights for all peoples. It also encourages positive discourse and friendship with the people one disagrees with, showcasing a long-term friendship between Bader Ginsburg and Justice Antonin Scalia, the Justice she most often disagrees with. Given that an upcoming PG rated movie, based on the life and career of Ruth Bader Ginsburg (On The Basis of Sex), is set for release in theatres this December, this is also a timely read. Plus readers will learn in advance of the movie, what’s up with Justice Ginsburg’s various collars. To find out you will have to read the book!
Middle-Grade Fiction (Chapter Books for Ages 10-14)
Written by Marsha Forchuk Skrypuch
Published by Scholastic Canada Ltd., 2018
Canadian writer Marsha Forchuk Skrypuch has crafted a moving portrait of the devastation of World War II as told through the eyes of her young narrator Krystia whose town in the Ukraine is captured first by the Russians and then by the Germans. Though the situation is terrifying young Krystia bears witness and acts bravely throughout. The material in this book may be difficult for some readers. It realistically portrays a variety of wartime atrocities such as the mass slaughter of human beings, starvation, invasion of homes and appropriation of property, in addition to the purposeful targeting of Jews by the Nazis for mass extermination. The book deftly highlights the very real and ever-present dangers to their lives and security that were faced by ordinary people during the war years. Small infractions such as keeping a chicken for your family instead of turning it over to the Nazis as they decreed could result in a family being killed or deported to a labour camp – places so harsh that death was often a possibility. The title Don’t Tell The Enemy plays into the fact that people in town were watching Krystia’s every move. Anything she did or said could be reported to the Nazis with grave results for herself and her family. The fear experienced by Krystia’s family was immense, making their bravery and acts of kindness all the more courageous.
Readers will want to know that this book is based on the true-life story of a Ukrainian girl named Kateryna Sikorska, whose family name is listed (among those of 2500 Ukrainians) at Yad Vashem in Israel with the honorary title of Righteous Among the Nations. This title of honour is reserved for those who risked their lives and the lives of their families during World War II to rescue Jews and save them from the Holocaust.
Written and Illustrated by Kevin Henkes
Published by Greenwillow Books, 2011
Alice Rice and her family are headed back to their favourite vacation spot on Sanibel Island, Florida, where all of the cottages are named after seashells, and Alice celebrates her birthday every year. This year Alice is turning ten. Her hopes are high for this special birthday holiday, as she expects to at last find the elusive junonia shell she has been seeking. Junonia shells are a rare and prized find on Sanibel Island, and Alice has been wanting one for a very long time. Not all turns out as Alice is expecting, however. When her beloved Aunt Kate brings a new boyfriend and his daughter along Alice must learn to deal with disappointment and change, and must begin to grow up a bit herself, as she is no longer the youngest person in the family gathering. Henkes is always great at depicting the emotional lives of the children in his books and Junonia is no exception. Themes of longing, learning to share the attention of beloved adults, and the relationship between rarity and desirability are explored in a simple and gentle manner.
Kevin Henkes brilliantly brings to life the everyday magic of a seaside family vacation – the simple joys of searching for shells on the beach, of family gatherings and shared moments between parents and their child who is on the cusp of her transition between childhood and adolescence. Junonia is of course a perfect read for anyone turning ten, but it would also be a great addition to the family library of those planning a trip to Florida or Sanibel Island in particular. It would also make a lovely gift for any cottage-loving family. Local readers who love the beaches of Lake Winnipeg will find much in common with this lovely seaside story.
The book is beautifully illustrated at the beginning of each chapter with a small elegant pen and ink drawing by Henkes. Lovely endpapers make the hardcover a treat, and an illustrated page depicting the seashells found throughout the book is a perfect addition for children (and adults) who enjoy collecting shells themselves.
Written by Lewis Carrol
With Original Illustrations by Sir John Tenniel in Full Color
Published by MacMillan Children’s Books, 2018
This newest addition to the roster of previously published editions of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland is a large lavishly produced volume containing the classic original illustrations of John Tenniel in full colour. As an added bonus it possesses blue gilt-edged pages. The large print and gorgeous colourful illustrations give new life to an old classic (while remaining true to the original in every way) and make for a perfect shared read aloud experience between adult and child. Buy the softcover edition – it’s a bit lighter and easier to hold.
A few notable and desirable additions at the end include several letters written by Lewis Carrol to his readers at Christmastime in 1871, and at Easter in 1876, as well as a section titled “The Story of Alice”, detailing the history of the book to date. Disney is releasing a new live action movie version of the classic in 2019, so now is a wonderful time to read this book with a child you love.
By Megan Shepherd
Published by Random House Children’s Books, Paperback released March 6, 2018
Simply exquisite! The story in this slim volume packs an emotional wallop that will stay with the reader long after the last page is turned. Emotionally rich and vibrant, The Secret Horses of Briar Hill is a mysterious and magical book exploring themes of war, illness, death and loss through the lens of a child-narrator’s experience at the Briar Hill Hospital, situated in a repurposed English mansion during World War II.
Reminiscent of classics such as the Secret Garden and Chronicles of Narnia, middle grade readers will delight as young Emmaline spies secret winged horses hiding in the mirrors lining the once grand hallways and rooms of Briar Hill. When Emmaline discovers an injured white horse hiding in the walled garden, and a secret note from the Horse Lord, she knows that she must do everything in her power to save her new friend from a dark and sinister force. Locked in a deadly race against time, will Emmaline be able to accomplish her task? Important and surprising elements of the storyline are revealed gradually, and conversations overheard between adult characters in the book reveal crucial details that lead the reader to believe that Emmaline is not a reliable narrator. The ending, though satisfying, leaves something to the imagination as well, as each reader is left to interpret for themselves what really happened.
This beautiful book would make an excellent novel study for middle grade students, or school book club selection. Allowing lots of room for discussion and individual interpretation of events young readers will benefit from seeing that other readers may have different opinions and experiences of the text than themselves. This is also a book that would make an excellent study of the re-reading experience. Much like Lois Lowry’s book The Giver, a second reading of The Secret Horses of Briar Hill will be a completely different experience from a first reading. This also makes it an excellent selection for post-secondary studies of Children’s Literature.