Thursday, February 16, 2023


(Nancy Paulsen Books, 2020)


Written by Derrick D. Barnes


Illustrated by Gordon C. James


Goosebumps. A laugh. A smile, followed by repeated nodding. Several moans, the equivalent to saying, “Amen.”


That’s a summary of my visceral response to a read-through of I Am Every Good Thing. It’s truly a good thing. It’s a book every Black boy needs to experience, time and again. If it made me feel affirmed, if it reminded me of The Cup Half Full, I can only imagine the power it has on Black boys and Black men. 


I came upon this book after reading a CNN news story last week about an Alabama school district rescinding its invitation for author Derrick Barnes to visit three of its schools due to “contract issues and a parent’s ‘concern’ regarding Barnes’ social media posts.” A close read seems to indicate that the “contract issues” are a red herring, part payment already having been made for the author’s appearances. This is what a district PR machine must add on to distract from censorship and the anti-woke version of cancel culture. 


More on the controversy, below, but first let me highlight the content of this extraordinary book which exudes empowerment. The book opens with a Black boy of four or five, flying through the air in red Converse shoes and a richly colored cap, his smile bright, his eyes looking back as a child so often does in a “Watch me, Daddy” moment. It’s the first of an entire gallery of gorgeous oil-painted illustrations by Gordon C. James. The text:

I am

A nonstop ball of energy. 

Powerful and full of light.

I am a go-getter. A difference maker.

A leader.


Yes! Everything is affirming, a variation on the title, I am every good thing. This is what we want children to believe about themselves.


The book proceeds to show Black boys of various ages playing in the snow, looking through a microscope, splashing about in mask and snorkel, listening intently to something on headphones, standing in the forest. There’s a two-page spread of a Black boy skateboarding and I couldn’t help but think of Tyre Nichols. 


There’s a page of amusing, cocky bravado, the text reading:

I am a grand slam, 

bases fully loaded.

I’m a nasty two-handed dunk,

holding on to the rim,

just to remind you that

I’m still the man.

Believe that.

The illustration shows a laughing boy being raised to the basketball net by an equally gleeful father figure. 


Every page has nuggets of text that oozing pride and personality. Lines like, “I am a sponge, soaking up information, knowledge, and wisdom. I want it all, and I am alllllll ears” are destined to makes readers, young and old, grin. This is as delicious as anyone’s favorite home-cooked meal.


Barnes understands the weight on Black male shoulders and doesn’t shy away from more serious messaging as in the following text:

Although I am something like a superhero,

every now and then, 

I am afraid.


I am not what they might call me, 

and I will not answer to any name

that is not my own.

I am what I say I am.  


I could go on. This is the kind of book where I want to highlight every passage. (I ADORE the page that references paper airplanes!)


Photo on Barnes' Instagram,
November 8, 2022

So what caused a single parent’s concern, leading to the cancelation of the author visit? The vague “social media” issue is problematic. What does the writer take from this? What do students, staff and parents in the district take from it? Free speech is of great value but, given that Barnes was presumably visiting elementary schools, not all speech is suited to a setting with younger learners. It’s possible there were things to consider, but nothing specific has been raised. It feels like Barnes and his work have been tainted by an unspecified social media post or posts. That’s deeply concerning to me. 


As a former school principal, I listened to many parents express concerns over curriculum, presentations, teaching styles, disciplinary decisions, food served at events and student interactions off school grounds beyond school hours. Parents have a strong, valid interest in their child(ren)’s learning. Sometimes a discussion helps find common ground. Rarely do things end with agreeing to disagree. On a few occasions, however, I have honored a parent’s request for their child to opt out of a lesson or school event. It would take some extremely troubling social media posts to all-out cancel a speaker. What did Barnes do?


I searched Twitter, where people tend to rant, and it appears Derrick Barnes does not have an account. I found his author website and his only social media presence appears to be on Instagram (@authorderrickdbarnes) so I scrolled through his 120 posts from the past twelve months. (Is a third grader going to scroll beyond that? What would motivate a parent to search further?) Zero concerns. 


Most posts promoted his books. There were several touching posts about his love for his family and how proud he is of how his sons are growing up. His posts are written with the same positivity as Every Good Thing. There’s a post from May 12, 2022, celebrating his twenty-first anniversary. The words written about his marriage and his wife are beautiful. May we all feel this way in long-term relationships! There’s an October 24th post about his weekly practice of leaving voice messages to each of his four sons to fill them up with positivity and a genuine belief in them. Amazing! If anything, I was tempted to follow him, something I don’t do much of when it comes to people I don’t know personally.


I’m going to take a darker view of things and, yes, consider the author’s cancelation as being based in racism, however it may otherwise be cloaked. This kind of conjectur
e is what comes up when a school district fails to adequately explain its actions. Barnes’ books and characters focus on Black people. He’s Black; he’s writing what he knows. The district he was supposed to visit is in Hoover, Alabama, a rapidly growing suburb of Birmingham. According to Wikipedia and the 2020 Census, 92,000 live in Hoover—68% white, 17% Black. Birmingham, a city with declining population, has 201,000 residents—23% white, 68% Black. As in so many places in America, the races remain geographically divided due to a multitude of reasons but, for many, choice is a factor. Hoover is “comfortably” white and a scheduled visit by a Black author may have been uncomfortable, at least to one parent. 


While the CNN article stated that, according to the school superintendent, there was no concern about the content of Barnes’ books, I can’t help but wonder if his highly acclaimed graphic novel, Victory. Stand! Raising My Fist for Justice ruffled someone’s feathers as it centers on American athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos’ Black Power protest at the medal ceremony at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City. It was a controversial action from more than fifty-four years ago, a significant moment in the tumultuous civil rights consciousness of the ’60s. Maybe a single parent wants to believe civil rights issues are a thing of the past. Maybe this parent felt emboldened by some state governments wanting to censor, edit or whitewash Black history. 


Speculation, of course. Nothing else to go on. 


The truly unfortunate result is that several classes of young learners were denied the opportunity to have an author visit. They didn’t get to hear Derrick Barnes read one of his picture books like I Am Every Good Thing, The King of Kindergarten or Crown: An Ode to the Fresh Cut.


Speaking of school visits, Barnes says in the CNN article, “You see in their [Black children’s] eyes how much it means to them. When they meet me, a Black man, an author, and see I’m not an entertainer, an athlete, or a rapper. They see what else they can be besides the stereotypes that are starting to seep into their psyche.” Barnes also noted the importance of his visits and books to non-Black students: 

It’s even more important for White children to see Black, 

Brown, Asian, Muslim characters. If they don’t see those 

kids in their immediate environments, these books serve 

to counter stereotypes they’re taught. They get to learn 

about different cultures while also seeing the similarities, 

how we live, how we dream, the things we all fear, the 

things that bring us joy. But they won’t realize this if 

they only see themselves.


I can only hope the publicity from the cancelation of the school visits will lead more readers, young and old, Black and non-Black, to the books of Derrick Barnes.  





Wednesday, December 21, 2022


By The Fan Brothers


(Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, 2022)


One of first picture books I blogged about was Cloudette by Tom Lichtenheld (better known for illustrating books like Shark vs. Train and Goodnight, Goodnight, Construction Site). I loved the novelty of making a cloud a picture book character. Now The Fan Brothers have added another picture book to the cloud canon—might that include Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs?—with Lizzy and the Cloud. This time, the cloud is Milo. 


The story opens with young Lizzy heading to the park with her parents on a Saturday afternoon. The double spread showing the park looks very traditional, harkening back to an earlier time. I immediately thought of retro spinning tops I’ve seen in toy stores. While a large carousel will first draw readers’ eyes, the text calls attention to the Cloud Seller, the only person getting wet on the sunny day. He’s in a raincoat and boots because he’s holding stringed clouds which float above him much like a balloon seller in parks nowadays. 


The story goes on to explain, “Most people were in a rush to get to the new carousel or the puppet show. Clouds were a bit out of fashion these days, but not to Lizzy.” I’m with Lizzy. As the Cloud Seller and his wares get a zoom-in shot, it’s hard to conceive of why animal clouds wouldn’t be the star attraction. One boy walks off with an octopus cloud, but Lizzy wants “an ordinary cloud,” resembling nothing more than a blob but temporarily sporting a miniature rainbow below it. Way cooler than a performance with sock puppets.


Turning pages, we discover why the entire ambience feels old-fashioned. This is indeed an earlier time, the main street home to a shoe repair and a market that sells oranges for a cent. A man in a suit and top hat navigates the road on a penny-farthing while something like a Model T sedan is parked outside the radio shop. A blimp flies overhead with an “Eat at Mo’s Diner” banner trailing behind. I Googled advertising blimps, thinking this might be an anachronism but learned that the first such blimp existed in 1912, promoting Suchard, a Swiss chocolatier. Advertisers are quick to jump aboard the latest innovations.


At home, Lizzy glances at the instructions for cloud care. Rules include, “Water your cloud daily using only fresh clean water. Failure to do so may result in your cloud evaporating into thin air” and, “Clouds are sensitive, and sometimes moody. Thunderstorms are possible if a cloud is unhappy.” Lizzy and Milo coexist, even bond—at least from Lizzy’s perspective—but cloud watering makes Milo grow. He becomes too big and needs his own space in the world. The story ends with a little whimsy. 


The illustrations are exquisitely detailed, hand drawn in pencil and colored digitally. Many of them are portrayed in soft greys, with splashes of green and, more commonly, yellow drawing focus to items such as a watering can and Lizzy’s boots. This is a quiet story, enhanced by the subtlety of the art. 


Lizzy and the Cloud
 will stick with the reader just like Milo remains on Lizzy’s mind. Perhaps the next time a young reader gazes up at the clouds, they will see what looks like a parrot, a dog or, less distinctly, Milo. May ordinary clouds come to life in their imagination.





Tuesday, October 18, 2022


By Jon Klassen


(Candlewick Press, 2021)



Jon Klassen, a wry humorist and talented illustrator who sticks to a muted palette, is perhaps best known for his picture book I Want My Hat Back. In The Rock from the Sky, he sticks with what he does so well. The book consists of five quick, comical tales that build on one another with a recurring cast that includes a turtle, an armadillo, a snake, a rock and an ominous creature from the future. 


All of the text is dialogue. Only the turtle and the armadillo speak, their parts distinguished by turtle’s lines appearing in black font while armadillo’s words are in gray. Each story moves quickly, the dialogue minimal, thus allowing the reader to spend extra time finding humor in the illustrations and inferring what is about to come, often as a surprise to the particularly unaware turtle. In looking at the scenes, I can’t help but wonder if Klassen grew up watching Looney Tunes cartoons featuring the Wile E. Coyote and the Road Runner. The rock seems a stand-in for the old cartoon’s oft-present Acme anvil. 


This book doesn’t have the surprise factor that we got when I Want My Hat Back made its debut. We know what to expect of Klassen. Still, the book will satisfy readers and viewers. 

Monday, February 28, 2022


By Romana Romanyshyn and Andriy Lesiv


Translated by Oksana Lushchevska


(First published by Vydavnytstvo Staroho Leva (The Old Lion Publishing House), Ukraine, 2015)


(Published in English by Enchanted Lion Books, 2021)


Children’s picture books about war are tricky. How do you introduce such a grave topic without scaring the reader? What do you portray in the pictures? How dark? How realistic? What’s too little, what’s too much?


This book was published in Ukrainian in 2015, the year after the Russian invasion and annexation of the Crimean Peninsula and while the Russo-Ukrainian War continued, with a focus on the Donbas region. Romana Romanyshyn and Andriy Lesiv are a husband-and-wife team who live in Lviv, Ukraine and the credits at the back of the book note that, “This book was motivated by the arrival of war in Ukraine in their own lifetime.” 


It’s by chance that I have this incredibly timely book in my hands. I’d read a book review in The New York Times back in the fall and searched online for it at the Vancouver Public Library which didn’t carry the title. I contacted the library to request that they purchase it for their collection. I picked it up three weeks ago. What a difference between last fall and now, even between three weeks ago and now.


When I picked up the book, I hugged it. The cover is gorgeous in both color and design, red poppies popping against a muted teal background, the title in bold black font, two small images of conflict drawn in black ink—one a deployed missile sticking out of the ground, the other a rudimentary, cartoonish depiction of a tank firing at a house aflame. These two images, however, appear to be overwhelmed by the poppies.


The creators set the story in the fictional town of Rondo, presumably named after “Rondo alla Turca” (Turkish March), the last movement of Mozart’s Sonata No. 11, which, we are told is the town’s anthem. Rondo is an idyllic, arty place with clean air and well-tended parks and gardens. The town’s showcase is its Music Greenhouse where colorful, exotic flowers bloom and sing joyously at dawn each day and during concerts which draw attendees from near and far. (I didn’t notice until later in the book that these flowers are depicted with faces in side profile.)


Romanyshyn and Lesiv choose to tell their story based on a friendship between three characters: Danko, a human-esque figure, shaped and aglow like a lightbulb; Fabian, a red balloon dog; and Zirka, a tall, slender Origami bird made from a forest-themed, patterned paper print. 


The title makes it obvious what is going to happen to this gem of a town.


In Rondo, it was a day like any other. People were rushing about, doing their usual business. Danko was on his way to meet his friends. Zirka had just returned from a trip and had lots of new stories and drawings. The sun was shining, and the flowers and birds were singing. Everything seemed normal, until all went completely still.


And a whisper arose…


WAR is coming to Rondo.


The scenes that follow are portrayed with dark gray backgrounds. All weaponry is drawn in black and gray. Black flowers and “dry, spiked weeds” become the predominant plant life. The three friends are injured—Danko from a rock to the chest, Fabian from a thorned plant piercing his leg and Zirka from sparks which singe her wings. The singing flowers don’t fare well either. The injuries are enough to cause concern for a reader but, hopefully, not so dire as to spawn nightmares. Frankly, I don’t think there’s enough told about the three friends for a reader to become greatly attached to them. This probably wasn’t by design, but it turns out to be a good thing.


War, of course, doesn’t emerge victorious in a children’s book. Rondo rises up. In the end, the town returns to its ways while looking slightly less idyllic. Even after achieving peace, war has taken something. Rondo’s outdoor spaces are now dotted with the poppies shown on the cover. 


This is not a perfect book. It’s a tough subject. Still, it’s worth sharing, especially since it’s been created by Ukrainians in the midst of Russo-Ukrainian conflict.






Monday, January 31, 2022


By Marie Dorléans


Translated by Polly Lawson


(Floris Books, 2020)


First published as NOUS AVONS RENDEZ-VOUS

(Éditions du Seuil, 2018)




From the first page, I knew this picture book was especially special. The two-page spread is dark blue, as throughout the book. It’s dark in the children’s bedroom. Two boys sleep in separate beds, their heads peeking out from checkered bedspreads as a sliver of light slips in from a hallway. The text: Mama opened our bedroom door, interrupting the night-time darkness. “Wake up, you two,” she whispered. “Let’s go, so we get there on time.”


That’s all that’s needed to set things up and to make the reader begin to engage with the book. Why do they have to get up so early? Where are they going? What happens if they’re late?


The title and the next page offer more context. It’s a night walk in the middle of the night. Out goes the family. They walk across the yard and through the community. [T]he last house in the village was almost asleep. It had one eye open, a reference to a single light on the second floor. They continue to the outskirts and beyond, into a forest, up to a lake and then a clearing before the final leg of the trek. Each scene has a light source to pierce or dot the darkness—a streetlight, a few stars, the moon. The story is simple and enchanting.


As I turned pages, I thought, “Why don’t I ever do this? Why are all my mountain hikes in the light of day?” (I’ve recently had bouts of insomnia and I’ve enjoyed the different characterization of downtown Vancouver as I walk in the pre-dawn hours.) I can imagine many families following the example of this book. Haven’t we all taken to the outdoors more since COVID changed our lives? Here’s another suggestion for creating precious memories.


I won’t divulge where the family is going, but they do get there on time. Sometimes a night’s rest interrupted is well worth it.



Wednesday, November 17, 2021


By Heena Baek


Translated by Sophie Bowman


(Amazon Crossing Kids, 2017, 2021)


This is a curious picture book. I read it, then put it aside, unsure what to think of it. I’ve come back to it after a few weeks. I’m still somewhat uncertain. If I go page by page, I find there are hits and misses for me. I’m dazzled; I’m disappointed. Sometimes it’s best to read a picture book without overthinking things. 


In a nutshell, this is the story of a lonely young boy named Tong Tong who lives with his father and his aging dog, Marbles. As the book opens, Tong Tong tells us:


I play on my own.


It’s not all that bad, playing alone.

The other kids don’t realize how much fun playing with marbles is.

They always only play with one another, never with me.

So I decided I’ll just play by myself.


Given that the boy’s dog and pastime are both M/marbles, I figured marbles would play into Tong Tong’s finding a friend. One would roll too far or someone would draw near, wondering about an old-fashioned form of play; maybe another marble player would show up.


Engaged readers make predictions. Often, as in my case, the predictions are wrong. No matter. Who wants to read something that’s too predictable?


Instead, Tong Tong decides to spice up his play by buying NEW marbles. At the store, he finds a bag of what he thinks are marbles. “Those are hard candies,” the shopkeeper says. Um, okay. Maybe the store could be better organized with toys clearly separated from candy. Or maybe marble-minded Tong Tong got a little disoriented?


Turns out that each candy, which happens to be distinct in size and color or pattern, offers a chance for Tong Tong to hear something or someone communicate to him for as long as the candy lasts: the living room sofa, his dog, his father’s overriding thought, his deceased grandmother and autumn leaves. Each communication varies in tone from humorous to loving, from sentimental to cutesy sweet. 


For me, things begin with a groan as the talking sofa asks Tong Tong get his father to stop sitting on it and farting. Some time ago, farting in picture books almost came off as clever, good for belly laughs. For many, particularly young children (particularly boys), farting will always be a fresh source of amusement, but I just don’t feel it’s executed well here. The fart falls flat. 


Thankfully, it gets better. The boy and his dog come to an understanding and the boy gets insight into his father even if it seems there will be no end to dad’s orders, directions and grilling questions. Tong Tong gets the pleasure of reconnecting with his grandmother, this coming from tasting the pink candy which turns out to be bubble gum. (Slight quibble over pink being the color linked to the only female character. Thought we were moving past that. As this picture books originates in South Korea, perhaps the shift from color-gender stereotypes has yet to happen.) What I loved most was the message from the falling leaves but that may be a problem since it’s as light as, well, a falling leaf. It felt whimsical, but I’m not sure it should be the greatest takeaway. Pacing-wise, the leaves should follow the sofa so that messages become increasingly touching and/or profound. 


The final candy empowers Tong Tong to take on his problem of always playing alone. (Weirdly perhaps, the toy marbles never factor into the story again after the store visit.) The story continues, visually, inside the back cover and on the back cover itself.


The illustrations are outstanding. The fine print explains they are “rendered in mixed media, including handmade miniature figurines and environments.” Characters’ faces are remarkably expressive. The clothing is extremely well crafted. Most scenes have a shallow depth of field, making Tong Tong appear sharp in the foreground while the background appears blurry. This has the effect of focusing the reader’s eye on whatever Tong Tong is doing while adding a subsequent curiosity about what else is in the scene—two levels of image comprehension: first the main point, then added context. For instance, early on we see sad-eyed Tong Tong walking with his equally downcast dog who trails behind. In the blurred background, we see three boys playing soccer and unused playground equipment. There are more things to do than play marbles. If only…


Magic Candies is definitely worth a read and, even more so, worth a look.  



Friday, September 10, 2021



By Mo Willems


(Hyperion Books for Children, 2019)

No secret, I adore the works of Mo Willem…his Pigeon books, the Elephant & Piggie series, Knuffle Bunny, That Is NOT a Good Idea! and on and on. The Pigeon HAS to Go to School! is back on the picture book bestseller list because, well, a new school year has begun, but there’s likely been a sales boost due to the fact some children are re-entering school buildings after an extended period of seeing teachers and classmates solely through looking at a screen. The continuing kerfuffle over masks only adds to kids’ jitters. 


“Am I going to be okay?”


“Why is my teacher wearing a mask?”


“Why isn’t my teacher wearing a mask?”


“How come I have to wear a mask when Ava P. doesn’t have to?”


Thankfully, we have pre-COVID books that stick to the more normal concerns and playfully approach kids’ wonders and worries. 


Pigeon starts out asking what many five-year-olds ask: “Why do have to go to school? I already know EVERYTHING!” [NOTE: This contention, whether linked to academia or not, shall remain until the age of thirty.]  


It doesn’t take long until Pigeon gets real. Bring on the What ifs. “What if the teacher doesn’t like pigeons?” “WHAT IF I LEARN TOO MUCH!?!” “What if there is MATH?” Seriously, when was the last time you encountered a BEDMAS problem in real life?


You don’t have to be starting school to relate when Pigeon says, “The unknown stresses me out, dude.” Yep, totally.


That’s the beauty of the book. Children (and adults) can acknowledge their anxiety—we all experience it to some degree—and connect to the blue pigeon. It feels better knowing others, including, fictional feathered friends, have hopes and worries too…about school, about change, about things without one hundred percent clear answers. Like so much involving the pandemic. Oops, I went there again.


Back to pigeons and buses, please.


As an adult reader, it’s fun to also look at the copyright page (aka, reverse title page) to look at the sneaky bits Willems adds to the ho-hum legal/reference information. Here we learn that The Pigeon HAS to Go to School! was “(p)ublished near a very lovely bagel shop on the Upper West Side. My Uncle Herb goes there all the time.” Fascinating, if a tad incomplete. I Googled “Uncle Herb’s bagels” and got re-routed to a certain specialty “herb shop” in Alaska. Um, no. A future Big Apple bagel hunt shall have to wait. (I’m craving a cinnamon raisin with cream cheese.) There’s more, of course, but you’ll have to track down the book. 


Looks like someone HAS to go to the library now.