Thursday, December 8, 2016

All I Want for Christmas

Warm Up Your Holidays with Picture Books
We're in December now and the holiday spirit surrounds us. From 24-hour Christmas radio to Griswold family light shows to menorahs, advent wreaths and Christmas trees decorating town centers – the holidays are here. During this season my family pulls out all of our old Christmas picture books and read at least one a night. I wonder if any new books will make the yearly list? Here are three that we will consider.

Harriet MuncasterThe Biggest Smallest Christmas Present
By Harriet Muncaster
Best For: Ages 3 – 5 
Move over Thumbelina there’s a new tiny girl in town. Her name is Clementine. She and her family are quite ordinary in all aspects except for Clementine’s diminutive size. She baths in a tea cup and sleeps in a matchbox. She loves everything about being tiny except that her toys are always too big. Even Santa doesn’t seem to realize how small Clementine’s actually is. Clementine tries to leave Santa notes, photos and other hints to help him leave the right gift for Clementine. Does Santa get it right in the end? Maybe this time the biggest gift is also the best gift for the smallest little girl. Muncater's illustrations drag you in and hold your attention as you long to see what such a tiny little girl will do next. The Biggest Smallest Christmas Present is fun for the holidays.
What’s good: Engaging illustrations that add zest to story time.
What’s bad: Short text that depends on the illustrations to tell the tale.

John Duvall and Rebecca GibbonThe Great Spruce
By John Duvall
Illustrated by Rebecca Gibbon 
Best For: Ages 5 – 8     
It seems that every year there is a new story about the Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree. The Great Spruce tells this tale with a slightly different approach. This is Alec’s story of a grand tree that his grandfather planted many years ago. It also happens to be his favorite climbing tree. One day men from the big city come and get permission to take the tree to the city for Christmas. Alec takes it upon himself to stop the big city men from cutting the tree down. In doing so, he offers a compromise. They can dig it up and borrow the tree for the holidays, so long as they return it. The big city men use shovels, a crane, a barge and a horse drawn sleigh and "the Great Spruce" eventually ends up in the big city’s main plaza. 

The illustrations are brightly colored and offer numerous perspectives to highlight the grandeur of the tree. The end notes also offer a glimpse into the Rockefeller Center tree tradition mentioning a time when live trees were actually used. This is a lovely, thoughtful book that will make a nice addition to your holiday collection.
What’s good: Environmental focus without over-the-top, pushy messaging.
What’s bad: It seems unlikely you could dig up a tree quite as big as the one in the book, but I'm no arborist. 

Julia Donaldson and Axel SchefflerStick Man
By Julia Donaldson & Axel Scheffler
Best For: Ages 4 - 8
Stick Man is exactly what his name implies. He is a stick that is a man. He lives in his family  tree with his stick family. One day when Stick Man goes for an early morning jog he is chased and eventually caught by a dog. This unfortunate event leads to numerous misadventures that take Stick Man far from home until he ends up in a kindling pile beside a fireplace. Luck for Stick Man Santa comes down the chimney. Stick Man is being pitched as a Christmas book. However, except for the winter setting and the eventual arrival of Santa, this book has very little to do with Christmas. 

On a positive note, the illustrations are fun and engaging with saturated colors. The star of this tale is the lyrical and perfectly metered rhymes that bounce the reader along. This one is perfect for a read aloud story time during the cold winter months.
What’s good: Wonderful rhyming text for reading out loud.
What’s bad: A little surreal for a Christmas tale.

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Gifts that Keep on Giving

Christmas books highlight the joy of giving.
It is the week of Thanksgiving and I have a great deal to be thankful for. Being able to read, review and share wonderful books is certainly something to be thankful for. This week I am sticking with holiday themes. I received two books for review from Random House  a little late to include in my printed column  but perfectly timed for Black Friday shopping. Keep your eyes out in the coming weeks for more holiday themed books.

The Lost Gift
By Kallie George
Illustrated by Stephanie Graegen
Best for: Ages 4 - 8
Staying up late to catch a glimpse of Santa Claus is an age old tradition for children allover the world. It's evidently a tradition for woodland creatures as well. When Rabbit, Squirrel, Deer and bird climb to the top of Merry Woods Hill to wait for Santa they get more than they bargained for. When Santa flies by a present falls from his sleigh. As the woodland friends investigate they find a wrapped package meant for "the new baby at the farm." Bird, Rabbit, Deer and Squirrel proceed to take the present to the farm. The overcome a few obstacles along the way and are rewarded with joy when they baby unwraps her present.
George uses an economy of words to develop each character, giving them both childlike wonder and adult personality traits. Traveling through the simple story line gives George the ability to focus on the message of giving and the true warmth joy can be. Kindness can be the greatest present. It's a message we could all use right now. Graegen brings the animals' personalities to the forefront with sweet expressions and engaging, Christmas card-esque vignettes. The illustrations' play with shadows and light using blue hues to offer a pleasing pallet for quiet time reading. 

The Twelve Days of Christmas: A Peek-Through Picture Book
Illustrated By Britta Teckentrup
Best for: Ages 3 - 7
It has been around a long time, so there is little publishers can do to make The Twelve days of Christmas new and vibrant. That doesn't mean illustrators won't try. In this new edition Britta Teckentrup puts her spin on the classic Carol. Teckentrup has written and illustrated over 70 books including a peek-through picture book released last February titled, Tree. A simple hole in the cover of the book reveals a central figure in the story. In the case of this Christmas book, the hole reveals a partridge in a pear tree. Each new page playfully reveals images from the next line of the carol  three French hens, five gold rings, ten lords a-leaping and so on. By the end, Teckentrup uses a her retro block-print style with bright, engaging colors and touches of gold foil to reveal all twelve days of Christmas, and deftly turns this classic Carol into an engaging counting book for the holidays.

Tuesday, November 8, 2016

Christmas Is Coming

Fun holiday titles fill the shelves this Fall.
Is it too early to talk about holiday books? Nah. This week I'm highlighting a few books I reviewed for my print column last November. In the next couple of weeks I'll highlight some books coming out this year as well.

The Christmas Tugboat: How the Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree Came to New York
By George Matteson and Adele Ursone
Illustrated by James E. Ransome
Best For: Ages 4 - 8
What is your favorite holiday memory? For one family it’s a special trip to deliver a special package. This story begins in the wee hours of a November morning before the Sun comes up. It follows a young girl as she and her mother join her father on an adventure – a work adventure. He’s a tugboat captain and this morning he is tasked with retrieving the Rockefeller Christmas tree from up the Hudson River and delivering it to Manhattan. 

This book has a nostalgic feel that is enhanced by Ransome’s rich, acrylic paintings. A mixture of panoramic vistas and intimate close up imagery combine with the lilting prose to portray the life of a tugboat captain as much as the journey of the Rockefeller Christmas Tree. 

The Christmas Tugboat is an enjoyable book to introduce a discussion of holiday traditions and unique occupations. 

What’s Good: Warm and inviting illustrations.
What’s bad: More about tugboats, than the Rockefeller Christmas tree. 

Clementine for Christmas
By Daphne Benedis-Grab
Best For, Girls: Ages 8 – 12
This is kind of like a Hallmark movie for kids. Only instead of a couple falling in love, three kids become friends. This story is really about three different individuals, how everything is falling apart around them, and their attempt to save the holidays. At the center of events are Josie and her dog Clementine 

Josie usually keeps to herself, but when it’s time to put on the Christmas Festival she really lights up – singing carols and wearing costumes. This year, however, she has to partner with two kids with whom she has nothing in common. Oscar is always in trouble and Gabby is nothing short of perfect. It doesn’t take long to figure out that things are not always as they appear and strong friendships are formed. When chaos breaks out, Josie, Oscar and Gabby are the ones who come together to set everything right for the holidays.

What’s good: Nice character development and good pacing for middle-grade readers.
What’s bad: A little syrupy, but most middle-grade readers won’t mind.

Revenge of the Angels
By Jennifer Ziegler
Best For, Girls: Ages 8 - 12
Fans of The Best Christmas Pageant Ever will enjoy this screwball comedy. Like its predecessor, Revenge of the Flower Girls, this story rotates narration between the triplets – Dawn, Delaney and Darby. The girls want the roles of the wise men in the upcoming Christmas pageant, but alas, they’re cast as angels. The triplets are not allowed to be the wise men because they’re girls. That revelation sets the triplets to scheming, plotting and planning. They are determined to set everything right. The antics are fun, daring and keep the pages turning. 

What’s good: Children will relate to the triplets and laugh through almost every chapter.
What’s bad: Some of the antics are over the top, but that just makes the more fun.

Monday, October 24, 2016

Take Another Look

New picture books help young readers look at the world around them in different ways.

The Lost House
By B. B. Cronin
Seek and find books are not difficult to find – ironic isn’t it? However I recently read what I can only describe as a diamond among the cubic zirconia. The Lost House is much more than a seek and find book. It’s an illustrative tour de force.

Grandad has promised to take his two grandchildren (all anthropomorphic bulldogs) to the park. Before they can leave Grandad needs to find a few things – socks, glasses, pocket watch, umbrella, and even his teeth. Do you think they’ll find everything? You should probably help. Be aware, each room and everything in it appears in one bold color. The rooms are packed full of whimsy, eccentricity and household items. The Lost House is beautifully crafted and so visually engaging even older children will want to help find the lost items.

What’s good: Incredibly detailed illustrations that appeal to both young and old.
What’s bad: The palette of room colors can be a little jarring at times.

The Alphabet from the Sky
By Benedikt Groß & Joey Lee
Ever look out of the window of a plane to see the landscape below? Ever play the alphabet game? Now you can do both in this single book. Using satellite imagery the geographer and designer duo of Benedikt Groß & Joey Lee found “accidental letters” in the landscapes across the United States. From holding ponds to highways, from suburbs to fields, children will find the locations and formations very interesting and wonder what letter their neighborhood might hide. Each image spread includes an inset with the town’s location pinpointed on a map and map coordinates. The Alphabet from the Sky began as an MIT project and Kickstarter campaign. Now it’s a picture book that is perfect for the classroom.

What’s good: It encourages children to look at things from new angles.
What’s bad: Probably more intriguing to adults.

Monday, October 17, 2016

5 Mistakes to Avoid when Self-Publishing

[Originally published 3/3/09 as 3 Deadly Mistakes of Self-Publishing Picture Books. Revisited and revised 10/13/16.]

There are five basic mistakes writers who self-publish children’s books make more often than not. These five mistakes can kill a good idea and lead a writer to publish something that should never have been allowed in print. The truly amazing thing is the author never sees the literary atrocity they have committed. Like a new parent, their child is the most beautiful baby in the world. 

When I originally wrote this article in 2009 I cut to the point, only referenced 3 Mistakes, and focused on picture books. At that time I neglected to inform you that, as a writer and editor, I have been on both sides of this issue. Avoiding these mistakes will make any children’s book better. This article is not intended to be an insult to aspiring writers, editors or publishing houses. It is intended to be a wake-up call. As writers and editors we need to open our eyes to simplicity.  

The last seven years have seen a proliferation of tools, online publishers and distribution channels designed to feed into our vanity and make it easy for anyone to publish a book. There is absolutely nothing wrong with that – we should all be storytellers. But let’s avoid the worst and most common mistakes by knowing the problems before we pick up a pen or open a laptop.
  1. Illustrations — Great illustrations can make bad books readable and turn good books into family favorites. Although it has gotten better in the last seven years, self-published books still tend to have timid and amateurish illustrations. This automatically gives the impression that your book isn’t on the same level as the major publishers’ books. Poor illustration quality will effectively doom your story no matter how good the writing is.
  2. Overindulgence — I call this one verbal gluttony because we writers say too much. We are usually too close to our own work to see the flaws and make necessary edits. Some online publishers will provide editors, but generally speaking, the writer is king when it comes to self-publishing. What a writer wants on the page stays on the page. Verbal gluttony tends to lead to See and Say books that never involve or engage readers. It’s a big killer for picture books. Great picture books include the reader in a conversation. Ideally the writer offers enough
    information to entice readers, the illustrator adds new information to bring ideas into focus, and the reader completes the conversation with their own thoughts and interpretations. Overindulgence only leads to a bloated, slothful story that is a chore to read. 
  3. Illustrations — Did I say illustrations earlier? Well there’s more. Stop playing See and Say! Visuals should add to and accentuate the text, not repeat it. And if you can create the setting in an illustration, don’t do it in the text. The See and Say approach slows the pacing of your story and bores the reader. Engaging illustrations that enhance your writing and an economical use of words will encourage children to keep reading and make connections with the story.
  4. Design and Layout — Font selection and art direction make a big difference in a book’s readability. The flow of a story through its pages is highly important for reader engagement. Does the layout encourage a natural page turn? Does a reader know where the next line of text is located? If the illustrations, the font and the layout are competing, the answers will be resounding nos. Readers will get confused and the story’s flow and pacing will be interrupted. As a book reviewer I see this problem – in all levels of publishing. So test the layout many times, if possible.
  5. Illiteracy  Read. Read often. And read some more. Everyone has a story to tell, but far too many would-be children’s book authors never actually read children’s books. There are many different styles and genres – reading current books will help you understand what current readers expect from those styles and genres. I can’t tell you how many books I have read that appear to have been written by someone who has never read a children’s book. You may know your story better than anyone else, but understanding how children will read it is the key to telling it in a way they will accept.

Read. Write. Edit. Illustrate. Most self-publishing authors can do one or two of these well. It’s unlikely you can do all of them as well as you need to in order to put together a great book. If you are reading this you are probably writing a book. You’re a writer, so focus on reading and writing in your chosen genre. Hire a good editor and a good illustrator to handle the rest. 

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Books You May Have Missed that Are Worth Reading

12 Recently Published Books that Deserve a Second Look

I was recently told that parents don't read book reviews for their children's books. They want to know about new gadgets and gizmos that make their parenting lives easier. Well... I'm here to say books are the original gadget. A good book can calm a crying baby, entertain a bored toddler, teach a reluctant youth, safely give preteens and teens the adventures they crave, and offer a bonding experience for parents and kids off all ages. With all of that in mind I have picked a dozen books you and your children may have overlooked throughout the past year – but they definitely are worth reading.

Best for Ages 3 - 7 

The Little Snowplow
By Lora Koehler | Illustrated by Jake Parker 
 If you crossed Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel with Katy and the Big Snow, you’d come pretty close to this fun tale from debut author Lora Koehler. The Little Snowplow follows a small blue snowplow as he joins the big trucks of the Mighty Mountain Road Crew. The seasoned crew questions the little guy’s abilities, which just motivates him to train more.

This wonderful tale of hard work and perseverance also covers humility and forgiveness.  The Little Snowplow will make a good addition to story time collections containing Little Toot and The Little Engine that Could.
What’s good: Children will love the action and friendly illustrations.                       

            Grumpy Bird
            By Jeremy Tankard
            This adorable board book is all about finding the fun in every day life. Bird discovers that waking up on the wrong side of the bed doesn’t have to dictate how the rest of your day proceeds. When Bird wakes up grumpy he’s in no mood to eat, play or even fly. Instead, he starts walking. Before long Bird meets Sheep who decides to join him on the walk. Why? Because Sheep thinks walks are nice. This goes on and on – Rabbit, Fox and others join Bird. Pretty soon walking turns into playing with friends and Bird realizes he’s not grumpy anymore. That’s the power of friendship.
            What's good: Illustrations that will engage and entertain toddlers.

Please Say Please!
By Kyle T. Webster
            What’s the magic word? In this lively new picture book
from Kyle T. Webster the word is “Please.” When you want
something how do you get it? Do you shout and say I want?
Or, do you show some manners and ask nicely? On the first
page of this book a young girl begins by shouting “I want a
fish.” When an older gentleman says “Please say please and
I’ll grant any wish,” she changes her tune. This happens over
and over again – parents will relate to that – until the girl
finally gets the hang of using her manners and nicely asks
for a giant.|
The text is short and flows nicely. The illustrations are highly engaging –the characters are a retro black and white, but the background scenes are bright
and lively. 
            What's good: Focused on one word, the lesson is easy and entertaining.

            The Lost House
            By B. B. Cronin
            Seek and find books are easy to find – ironic isn’t it? I recently read a lost and found book I can only describe as a hidden treasure. The Lost House is an illustrative tour de force. Grandad has promised to take his two grandchildren (all anthropomorphic bulldogs) to the park. Before they can leave Grandad needs to find a few things – socks, glasses, pocket watch, umbrella, and even his teeth. They may never find everything, so you need to help. Be aware, each room and everything in it appears in one bold color. The rooms are packed full of whimsy, eccentricity and household items. The Lost House is beautifully crafted and so visually engaging even older children will want to help find the lost items.
            What's good: Detailed illustrations that will appeal to curious people everywhere.

Best for Ages 8 - 12

Fortune Falls
By Jenny Goebel
            What would you do if you were born into a town where everything was decided by luck? Those of you who are lucky might find easy success. But what happens if you are unlucky? Sadie was born in Fortune Falls. She is smart, loyal to family and friends and very brave. But as her luck test approaches nothing seems to go her way. And, if she fails the test they’ll send her away so she won’t endanger those around her. Fortune Falls explores both good and bad luck while digging into friendships, ghost stories and family dynamics. Can a girl change or create her own luck? You decide after you read this humorous adventure in superstition.
            What's good: Intriguing plot with a well-developed, likable hero.

Click Here to Start                                                                     
By Denis Markell          

Have you ever played an “escape the room” game? For those of you who haven't, think brain teaser and scavenger hunt rolled into one mysterious game. This is the engine that propels the narrative development of Click Here to Start.

Ted Gerson, is a half Jewish, half Japanese-American boy living in La Purisma, 
California. He loves “escape the room” games and holds all the records for solving them. When his great uncle dies, this 12-year-old is joined by two friends in a real life escape the room mystery that could lead to a treasure lost since the end of WWII. Propelled by puzzles, character development, WWII historical intrigue, and a mysterious bad guy, Click Here to Start is a real page turner. Humor suspense and puzzles highlight this story.What's good: Adventure and mysteries that keep you guessing until the end.

             Mister Max (Series)
By Cynthia Voigt
This three book series follows young Max, a preteen left alone when his famous are kidnapped by and take overseas. Max shows his independence, maturity and intelligence by thriving on his own as the Solutioneer. He is essentially a private detective that focuses on solutions to issues rather than solving a crime. These books are chock full of setting descriptions, plot twists, character development and suspense. Each book stands on it's own but they definitely work best as a series. Even with the mysteries, suspense and adventure these stories remain light and airy – at least until you arrive at the second half of the last book. Then the story turns a bit dark in an exploration of totalitarianism and slavery. all three books will hold a young reader's attention and make them eager to read the next installment.
What's good: Interesting, characters, settings and a clear storytelling voice.

By Gordon Korman
            Korman brings his signature sense of humor to this
story about a 
true slacker, Cameron Boxer. He only
cares about one thing
 – gaming. Cameron is so
involved in gaming that he nearly burns his house
down while he's in it. It’s this pivotal event that
leads to the creation of a fictional school club –
Positive Action Group (PAG). Unfortunately for
Cameron the club soon becomes very real and
very popular.
            Told from multiple points of view, Korman
explores preteen and teen social structures,
motivations, friendships and more in this humor filled novel about life in a small town. 
Korman and Clements fans will not be disappointed.What's good: Humorous characters and fast-paced events.

Best for Ages 12 and Up

Lawless (Series)
By Jeffrey Salane
           The Lawless series follow teen M. Freeman as she heads to a
boarding school for spies  – evil spies  – then joins with a ragtag group of spies and misfits to save the world. And through it all M is trying to find out how her mother and father who passed away fit into everything that is unfolding around them. Suspend all sense of reality and enjoy. LawlessJustice and Mayhem are each fun reads on their own but, to emotionally invest in the characters you'll need to start your reading with book one. Mystery, action, danger and suspense keep the pages turning. Hold on tight and see of you can keep up with the plot twists.
            What's good: Fast-paced, unpredictable action with a touch of humor.

Your Presidential Fantasy Dream Team
By Daniel O’Brien | Illustrated by Winston Rowntree
            Who would you pick if you were assembling a dream team of
presidents to stave off a zombie apocalypse? That essentially
is the underlying theme to this original take on presidential
history. Daniel O’Brien hits a home run with this imaginative
book and keeps teens reading – and laughing – while they
learn about every president from George Washington to
Ronald Reagan. Sorry, no living presidents were included
in this edition so you will have to wait for another edition
to include Carter or any of the presidents after Reagan.
            What's good: Factual history wrapped in humor, sarcasm
and graphic novel-styled illustrations.

The Darkest Hour
By Caroline Tung Richmond
            It’s 1943 in Nazi-occupied France and a group of girls might be the best weapon the allies have. Covert Ops is a highly, top-secret organization of teen girls who were recruited to be spies for the allies. Based in Paris they infiltrate the enemy, gain valuable knowledge and remove threats if necessary. When the group gets wind of a Nazi plan that could change the course of the war, they jump into action. It's fast paced and fraught with danger. Double agents could be in play and when things begin going awry our 16-year-old heroine has to find a way to save the day – even after being captured.
            The Darkest Hour is a page turner with little downtime for breathing. The only drawback is a slightly rushed ending. If you like historical fiction and spy thrillers, this one is for you.
            What's good: Never a dull moment in this spy thriller.

            Running Girl
            By Simon Mason
            Garvie Smith is a highly-underachieving genius – crazy high IQ,
crazy low grades. Garvie doesn’t
see any point in attending
classes or doing pretty much anything else. But when his former
Chloe Dow, is found dead at a local pond he put's his
IQ to work solving the mystery. Seemingly a step ahead of the
police, Garvie is Sherlockian in 
his approach. Everything is a
puzzle that can be solved with logic and deduction.
peripheral characters such as the ultra-reserved
Sikh police detective and the hulking, Chloe-obsessed 
add depth, dimension and humor to this dark mystery. Grounded
in reality, the plot is suspenseful 
and full of twists that keep even the savviest readers guessing.Whats good: Smart, dry-witted dialogue wrapped around an engaging mystery.