Thursday, March 28, 2019

A LONG WAY AWAY: A Two-Way Story

By Frank Viva

(HarperCollins, 2013)

This is an adventure book involving the travels of either an alien or an octopus. It all depends which end of the book you begin with since this book is designed to be read front-to-back OR back-to-front. The book is held lengthwise so that each page creates a double spread, with text read top-to-bottom OR bottom to top. Confused? You won’t be once you get your hands on the actual book.

Inside the front cover, the text begins:

Conversely, from the back cover, the text begins:

Thus, depending on the direction you choose, your vertical voyage either plunges downward from space to sea or rises upward from sea to space. How can this book not invite repeated readings? Readers will also want to experiment with whether the meaning is intact, altered or lost when reading pages bottom to top. They can recommend adding words or phrases to deepen or expand understanding. In doing so, they are actively making meaning, playing with order and referring to Viva’s retro illustrations all of which are cast in a limited palette of single shades of blue, yellow, red, black and beige.

The novelty of the book’s construction will also lend itself to shared readings. I can even imagine turn-taking whereby one begins at the front and the other begins at the back to determine the middle point of the adventure. (The middle spread is perfect!)

It’s a quirky, playful book,...just what you’d want when the main character is an alien/octopus.

Saturday, March 16, 2019


Written by Mac Barnett

Illustrated by Jon Klassen

(Candlewick Press, 2017)

I have to prepare for the worst when I read a picture book with Jon Klassen’s name attached to it. As an animal lover, I didn’t immediately embrace I Want My Hat Back due to the ending. (I’ve come around, loosened up a tad.) Klassen and Mac Barnett are gifted humorists who, along with Mo Willems, have shaken up the picture book industry. So I opened The Duck The Wolf & The Mouse [no comma in the title] with both anticipation and trepidation. Predictably—at least for a book by these two—the book begins with a jolt:

Early one morning, a mouse met a wolf,
and he was quickly gobbled up.

In the traditional picture book world, this would not happen. Wolf and mouse would go on an adventure or exchange curiosities but there would be no eating, except maybe a pizza or some fresh-baked bread. Of course, the wolf eats the mouse. What a tasty snack.

But then things get twisted. The hungry wolf swallowed the mouse whole. And, prior to that, he swallowed a duck whole. Now mouse and duck live in perpetual darkness in the wolf’s achy belly. As duck invites mouse to join him for breakfast, mouse asks:

Where did you get jam? And a tablecloth?”
The duck munched a crust.
You’d be surprised what you find inside a wolf.”

Of course! It’s a winking explanation for all the nonsensical picture books with animals eating at pre-set dining tables.

The poor wolf experiences all sorts of stomach pains due to his active residents. (Is the moral of the story for little boys and girls, Chew your food? My mother would approve.) I shall not reveal more but Barnett’s clever story and Klassen’s familiar dark illustrations—all browns and grays—are a delight.

This is a satisfying tale that will turn the most frowny face upside down.

Wednesday, March 13, 2019


Written by Amy Krouse Rosenthal

Illustrated by Tom Lichtenheld

(Scholastic Press, 2013)

Such a fun book! There. I did it. I went ahead a used an exclamation mark. You should know that I try to use this punctuation sparingly. Even after my fourth cup of coffee. I just feel it can be overused, especially by excitable folks who put two, three or many more together in a row. As if Hello!!! tops my Hello!


Exclamation Mark is a breezy read, a clever sentence or two on each spread. One poor exclamation mark feels very different in a community of periods. Alas, he stands out when all he (why not she?) wants to do is fit in. “It seemed like the only time he didn’t stand out was when he was asleep.” Here, Lichtenheld draws a row of sleeping periods and a reclining exclamation mark, his stick part horizontal instead of vertical.

As with so many characters in children’s books, being different doesn’t feel special to exclamation mark. It interferes with a desire to belong and to share things in common. Then one day he meets a question mark, a character who barrages exclamation mark with—What else?—a series of questions.

Do you like frogs?
What’s your favorite ice cream?
When’s your birthday?
Know any good jokes?
Do you wanna race to the corner?

On and on it goes until exclamation mark is forced to truly apply himself and utter an exclamation. And there it is. A sense of purpose. Exclamation mark is elated. He begins exclaiming more and more. By golly, there is value in being different.

The text of the book is set against pages designed to look like interlined notebook paper, a simple touch that kids will find familiar and inviting. Tom Lichtenheld, the acclaimed illustrator of such books as Shark vs. Train and Goodnight, Goodnight Construction Site, has a challenge in bringing character to periods, exclamation marks and question marks, but he pulls it off. (This is the same guy who created a book with a small cloud as a main character.) The late Amy Krouse Rosenthal’s sparing text is as witty as ever. The talents of author and illustrator mesh together beautifully.

While the book is pure enjoyment, it also can be reread as a playful way to help children understand when to use each of the three featured punctuation marks. As a teacher, I would recreate each character and magnetize them for the classroom whiteboard, writing sentences and having volunteers add the proper punctuation. I might even have kids create three flashcards with these marks. For quick practice, someone could offer a sentence and classmates could hold up the correct flashcard as end punctuation. Even if kids don’t immediately improve punctuation in their own writing, the book and a bit of follow-up can raise awareness.

It’s a good book. Find it! What are you waiting for?

Sunday, March 10, 2019


Written by Adam Lehrhaupt

Illustrated by Matthew Forsythe

(Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, 2013)

This is a favorite book of mine for reading aloud. I begin by reading the title and heeding the warning. I don’t open it. I put it aside. My audience gets confused and restless as I pretend to consider another book to read.

They beg me to go back. I say, “Fine.” I reread the title and say, “I’m so sorry, but I just can’t. The thing comes with a warning.”

They beg again. Louder. More insistent.

Okay,” I say. “You asked for it.”

The inside cover artwork is a collection of signs. It’s worth stopping and reading them.

Oh, no.

Come on...seriously?

This book is super-dangerous.

Here is the last guy who read this book. [Arrow points to a skull.]

By now, a few are a tad scared but everyone is curious. The last sign on the page says, “Don’t turn the page” and I suggest we comply. I attempt to put the book aside again. A chant begins. “Turn the page! Turn the page!”

It happens every time.

After the title page, comes a danger sign with the head of a monkey. Maybe you should put this book back. You don’t want to let the monkeys out.

Monkeys!” I say. “This could get messy.”

They chant again. “Turn the page! Turn the page!”

This goes on, of course, until the monkeys appear.

We’d been warned.

Toucans, too.

And an alligator!

Yes, yes. We were warned.

Now we have to get everything under control again before we can close the book.

It’s pure mischievous fun.

Warning: This is not a book to read if you want a calm, quiet room. This is not a sleepy-eyed bedtime read. It’ll wake everyone up. Better than coffee. (Did I really just say that?!) Yes, yes. So true.

My favorite experience with this book came a few years ago as one boy declared it the best book ever. He’d regularly come to the principal’s office at lunchtime and beg me to read the book again. Then he began reading it on his own. He was a struggling reader but his fluency and expression improved through his repeated readings. I’d suggest he read it quietly so as not to alarm my stuffed animals. Of course, he read it louder and with even more expression. Then he asked if he could invite his friends to eat lunch in my office. He provided the entertainment with a well-performed reading of the book. He oozed with pride. He was both monkey tamer and accomplished reader.

There is a follow-up, Please, Open This Book! Same author, same illustrator. It picks up right where this book left off. By waiting a few weeks to introduce it, the kids jog their memories about all the goofiness of the first book. I reread it—how could I not!—before diving into the sequel.

This book brings huge smiles to the faces in the audience. It’s pure joy, a vivid, positive memory about a loud reading experience.

Find it. Be daring. Open it!

Thursday, March 7, 2019

THE BOOK ITCH: Freedom, Truth & Harlem's Greatest Bookstore

Written by Vaunda Micheaux Nelson

Illustrated by R. Gregory Christie

(Carolrhoda Books, 2015)

I love this book! This is the true story of Harlem’s National Memorial African Bookstore, its owner, Lewis Michaux and his young son, told from the son’s point of view. In the broader sense, it’s about feeding your brain and following your dream.

For Lewis Michaux, he wanted to open a bookstore in Harlem, but a banker refused his loan application. “Black people don’t read.”

And so, while saving his money, Michaux begins with five books and a pushcart. “Don’t get took!” he’d yell. “Read a book!”

Eventually he opens the bookstore, adorning it with African flags and all sorts of signs like, “THE HOUSE OF COMMON SENSE AND HOME OF PROPER PROPAGANDA.” People come, people read. The boy is awestruck in meeting famous patrons like Muhammad Ali and Malcolm X. A platform out front allows Michaux, Malcolm X and others to speak their truth.

As I read, my mind raced, planning another trip to New York, with this bookstore at the top of my must-see list. Sadly, I learned in Lewis Michaux’s biography at the back of the book that the store closed in 1975, after relocating once and then receiving eviction papers. On the same day I read this book, I walked in my neighborhood and happened upon a newly shuttered bookstore. Alas, book browsing havens are becoming more and more scarce.

The importance of the National Memorial African Bookstore should be readily apparent. What I also love about this story is how it shows the bond between a father and son and how this man, Lewis Michaux, is such a passionate advocate for literacy and knowledge. One passage particularly resonates today:
Me and my dad talk about important things.
Things like truth and what it means to be free.
Dad says books can help you. Not every book
is true, he says, but the more you read, the easier
it is to figure out for yourself what is true.

Christie’s illustrations are gorgeous, with warm-colored backgrounds and darker tones in the foreground. There’s an endearing image of Michaux falling asleep in his bookstore and a tasteful, powerful painting foreshadowing the news of Malcolm X’s fate.

Three days after first reading this book, I still feel a sense of melancholy that the place no longer exists.

Tuesday, March 5, 2019


Written by Bao Phi

Illustrated by Thi Bui

(Capstone Young Readers, 2017)

A Different Pond is a tale of an early morning fishing adventure involving a young boy and his father. Through the main text, a particular illustration and an author’s note, we learn that the story is set in 1982 and the characters are based on the author’s own family, Vietnamese refugees who settled in Minneapolis. The story is told from the boy’s point of view. The fishing expedition is to bring food to the table rather than for sport. The family is struggling, with the boy’s father working several jobs and the mother riding a bike to work as the boys’ older siblings are entrusted to take care of him during the day.

Children will easily connect with early morning trips of their own as they hear the story. Early in the story we see the young boy yawning and trying to wipe the sleep from his eyes. There is something special about an outing that involves just father and son, especially when we learn that the boy is one of many children in the family. There are realistic touches that make fishing not as romanticized as it can be in other stories. For instance, when the boy’s father asks if the boy wants to put the minnow on the hook, the boy thinks, “I want to help, but I shake my head no. I don’t want to hurt that little fish, even if I know it’s about to be eaten by a bigger one.” Moreover, when the boy helps put a caught fish in the bucket, he makes a funny face as the fish feels “slimy and rough at the same time.”

There are some beautiful writing flourishes in the story, such as when the boy compares the nighttime stars to freckles and when he asks about his father’s brother who fought in the war and “didn’t come home”. While the father sometimes talks about his brother, this time he just looks away. Bui’s illustration beautifully captures the moment.

My only quibble with the text is when the young boy says, “A kid at my school said my dad’s English sounds like a thick, dirty river.” I cannot imagine a young peer offering such a complex simile. A more direct putdown would be more realistic and potent. (The boy himself thinks of his father’s English as “gentle rain”.)

The book is a great example for writers to learn the writing concept of “show, don’t tell”. How do we know the family is poor? The text refers to a “bare bulb” in the kitchen, mentions the boy’s father getting another job, includes his father’s lament: “Everything in America costs a lot of money” and mentions the callouses on the man’s hand and his broken teeth that flash when he smiles. The illustrator’s note mentions her intentional decision to have very few Vietnamese items displayed in the home. “[T]he empty spaces hold meaning, too.” (The comment invites another careful look at the pictures throughout the book.) Another illustration worth discussion shows the family’s parked car and the boy and his father heading to a pond in an area with a sign that reads: POSTED – NO TRESPASSING – KEEP OUT. It begs the questions, Do you think the father saw the sign? Why would he ignore it? Why would there be such a sign in the first place?

In all, this is a lovely, quiet book that can take the backdrop of a fishing trip and evolve into a rich discussion of family ties and the immigrant experience. The author’s and illustrator’s notes, as referenced already, are as important to shedding light on the story as the main text and pictures themselves.