Saturday, December 9, 2023


By Dan Yaccarino


(Harper, 2016)


This is a simple picture book with a valuable purpose: to help young readers understand the enduring love of stories. Writer and illustrator Dan Yaccarino takes us on a journey of story, through time. It begins with people from the Stone Age, cavemen gathered around a fire, a man speaking with his hands in the air, his audience captivated. There is nothing like a good story.


We access stories 
through various means.

Yaccarino takes his reader through the ages, chronicling the evolution of how stories are told and published, from pictographs to hieroglyphs, from tapestries to printing presses, from stage to hand-held tablets. The book ends in present day, a family sitting around a campfire, another man animated in the story he is telling, his family captivated. Story, Yaccarino asserts, “will live forever.” Isn’t that a lovely Happily Ever After?


Stories will endure.

I don’t love Yaccarino’s illustration style. It’s simplistic, intentionally cartoonish but, in the process, it comes off as cold despite sometimes colorful splashes of background color. The ideas are clearly conveyed, but the drawings don’t draw the viewer in. They’re seen on the surface; the reader can quickly flip to the next page. What I do love is the sweeping passage of time and the message that, despite occasional prognostications of gloom and doom for books (e.g., with the onset of the television era, ebooks and AI technology), story remains, in one form or another. It’s informative for a youngster and both reassuring and empowering for those of us striving to create new stories for people to discover (in whatever form) and enjoy.



Thursday, October 26, 2023



By Britta Teckentrup


(Prestel Publishing, 2023)


The Swing is the picture book version of a tome, straying far from the customary 32-page format and coming in at 160 pages. Still, it’s a fast read. Or it has the potential to be. I found myself lingering.


The book is an ode to a swing set perched seaside, at the end of a bushy meadow, with two swings dangling from a red bar. Occasionally, they get tangled. Sometimes they’re wrapped around the upper bar. In some images they’re empty; other times, they’re a resting or a play place for one or two people, for a cat, for birds. Swingers sit, stand, gaze upside down and jump. The illustrations remind the reader how diverse the experiences can be when coming upon such a simple apparatus, sometimes coveted, oftentimes overlooked. 


The text is usually sparse. On one of the opening pages, Britta Teckentrup writes, “It looked out to sea and invited everyone to take a seat.” In a few places, a vignette expands beyond a single sentence such as when Mia and her grandmother stop at the swings every morning on the way to school or when young Peter rests alone on a swing after a daily swim, dreaming of his future and avoiding what awaits him at home.


The book chronicles the “life” of the swing set over a generation or two as some of the briefly mentioned characters get another cameo later on. Max and Paul, for instance would meet at the swings each day after school. Flashing forward, Teckentrup tells us, “They still do.”


The Swing 
evokes our own nostalgia around times spent on a swing, pumping legs to go ever higher or dangling downward, our bellies held by the seat strap as we stare at seemingly nothing in the dirt, feeling mopey or thoroughly bored. How many times did we insist someone push us one more time—or a hundred more times? Harder. Let me go higher! How many times was a swing a thinking seat or a momentary escape from dark thinking? How many times were occupied swings a place of power as someone arriving too late begged for a turn?


Martha had an imaginary friend
who arrived whenever she needed her.

That's the beauty of this book. Despite 160 pages of experiences, most of us can still recall our own special memories. The Swing gently pushes us to think beyond the page.


The illustrations are as calming as a standard swing ride though sometimes they go higher—farther out there, becoming magical as the sun’s golden orb seems within reach or the journey transports someone to a place that’s part forest, part safari. The color choices are drawn from a generally soft, muted palette, giving the book a sense of timelessness. 


And isn’t that typical of a swing ride? Time stops. We’re in the moment. Until the next time. And the one after that. Indeed, I found myself flipping through the pages many times, sometimes reading and observing all the way through while other times find joy and serenity in a few random flips.


This lovely picture book would also serve as a great coffee table book, celebrating the child that remains in each of us, eliciting conversation and an unspoken “Whee!” from a visitor. It is a perfect go-to for paging through, side by side with someone else, like a photo album on one of those afternoons when the weather makes an actual swing ride seem less appealing. But, wouldn’t you know it, Teckentrup sees ways around that as well. 


As with its real life counterpart, The Swing is simply beautiful.  

Wednesday, July 26, 2023


Written by Mac Barnett


Art by Shawn Harris


(Candlewick Press, 2020)


I’ve reviewed a couple of Mac Barnett book, Count the Monkeys and The Wolf The Duck & The Mouse [a comma-free title, presumably, in part, to avoid that whole Oxford comma divide]. Barnett’s stories are often quite humorous and, by comparison, A Polar Bear in the Snow is subdued. I would imagine Barnett was amused by white pages described as a polar bear caught in a snowstorm and decided, Well, why not go with it? There’s a story there but, truthfully, not much of one. The appeal of this book is in the art by Shawn Harris who uses rough card stock for the snowy background and then uses cut-out pieces and minimal black ink to create the arctic’s flora and fauna.


A blank white page is the start and then blank ink shows the polar bear emerging, first just his nose, then his eyes as well. As the bear begins to stir, Barnett invites the reader to wonder where he is going. Thick, torn paper in off shades of gray and white makes for a snowy terrain. There is a Jon Klassen influence in the text—indeed, the two have collaborated in the past—when Barnett asks, “Is he going to visit the seals?” We see a cluster of cutesy, frolicking seals. The answer on the next page may startle the young reader: “No. He is not hungry.” Hello, reality check.


The destination, after briefly terrorizing a human, turns out to be the sea. This provides a striking shift in color, the whites giving way to shades of blue, as the bear gets his own opportunity to frolic, the seals wisely out of sight and the fish apparently not to the polar bear’s liking at that moment. The scant story—nothing more than a jaunt—ends back on land, the familiar image of white…a polar bear caught in a snowstorm, though this time Harris has left some abstract tracks on the page. 


It's a calming book, somewhat captivating in a low wattage sort of way. Worth a browse.



Wednesday, June 21, 2023


Written by Justin Richardson and Peter Parnell


Illustrated by Henry Cole


(Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, 2005)


Almost two decades ago, penguins were having a moment. “Trending,” we would say today. In 2005, the $8-million documentary, “March of the Penguins” grossed $127 million at the box office. “Happy Feet,” an animated feature, followed in 2006, with a risky budget of $100 million. Happy ending: it took in $384 million. 


Preceding these was a 2004 article in The New York Times, Love That Dare Not Speak Its Name,” featuring Roy and Silo, two chinstrap penguins in the Central Park Zoo, described as “completely devoted to each other.” The article noted that Roy and Silo were not a zoo penguin anomaly. “Before them, the Central Park Zoo had Georgey and Mickey, two female Gentoo penguins who tried to incubate eggs together. And Wendell and Cass, a devoted male African penguin pair, live at the New York Aquarium in Coney Island.” There were more scientific revelations, including reference to a book that noted homosexual behaviour in 450 species. 


Interesting. But let’s get back to penguins and that Central Park pair, Roy and Silo. In 2005, they starred in the nonfiction picture book, And Tango Makes Three. Book shelf lives are short and this penguin title would have gone the way of the dodo by now but for book bannings and missions to remove certain content from elementary school libraries. On the positive side, it also gets a mention every June during Pride month when publications put out lists of gay books. I finally decided to browse the book myself.


Opus adorned in a 
fruity this

My first impression was neither a sense of shock nor pride at the suggestion of gay penguins. (Note: “gay” is never used in the book.) Instead, I was aghast that Roy and Silo would be held up as gay icons of the animal world. I am no penguin aficionado—in fact, I’ve never seen either of the box office hit movies I mentioned in the first paragraph. Perhaps penguins are true “bird brains” in the sense they’re not all that bright. My favorite penguin is Opus, a clever, amusing comic strip creation of Pulitzer Prize-winner Berkeley Breathed, appearing in the classic syndicated titles “Bloom County,” “Outland” and, at long last, just “Opus.” Neither Roy nor Silo would be able to match wits with Opus. As the book explains, the pair gathered stones, as penguins do, to make a nest. With the nest in place, “[e]very night Roy and Silo slept there together, just like the other penguin couples.” In time, they realized that the mama penguins perched on the other nests had each laid an egg.


It gets embarrassing. “Roy and Silo had no egg to sit on and keep warm. They had no baby chick to feed and cuddle and love. Their nest was nice, but it was a little empty.” Hoo boy. Good thing they’re cute in their little tuxedos. Let’s not make them grand marshals at any Pride parade. 


It gets more embarrassing. “One day Roy found something that looked like what the other penguins were hatching and he brought it to their nest. It was a rock”—um, kinda like the stones that made the nest?—“but Silo carefully sat on it. And sat…” The two took turns sitting on the rock. SPOILER ALERT: “But nothing happened.”


Really, book banners, is this a story you want to keep away from impressionable young children? If you’re homophobic, it seems this book may even help your cause. Being gay makes you dumb. Maybe conservative media would run with it, appearing on Fox News with the news banner, “Homosexuality kills brain cells.” 


I don’t know. Far be it for me to offer fuel to enemy lines.


I suppose when you’re singularly focused on “gay is bad” you don’t bother with nuances or any sort of critical thinking. The book explains that Roy and Silo are “boys” (forgoing males since that term may be too sophisticated for its targeted readers) and “they did everything together.” Everything includes bowing, singing, walking and swimming. 


Again, I’m feeling neither proud nor scandalized.


At any rate, on to the smut…


Offensive necking?

Maybe all hell broke loose though when Roy and Silo “wound their necks around each other.” To be clear, neither hugging nor kissing is mentioned. Certain adults might read all sorts of lascivious behavior into that, but a kid (whose development understands “boys” but not “males”) is going to think that’s the equivalent of joshing, play-fighting or putting their arms around one another. This is what primary students do. Who’s taking this to supposedly taboo terrain? I suppose it’s the one human character in the book, Mr. Gramzay, a zookeeper, who must finally make book banners rabid, when he “thought to himself, ‘They must be in love.’” Sounds sweet to me. 


Typical young girl reaction: “Ahhhh” because any mention of love elicits that. Typical boy reaction: “Ewwww” because any reference to love is gross. This isn’t a knee-jerk homophobic response. Young boys are socialized to think lovey-dovey stuff is icky. 


I’m having a moment, wondering how many book banners might be more like Silo and Roy than they’d like to believe, someday being reincarnated as penguins who would wait for their own rocks to hatch. Naturally, they’d dismiss the absurdity and heresy of such speculation since reincarnation is not a Christian concept. But I’m still wondering.


Ain't she cute...

Eventually, Gramzay finds an egg that needs tending and sets it in Roy and Silo’s nest. They’d done such a good job of tending to a rock, after all. (Kudos, guys! It didn’t roll away!) Unlike the rock, the egg hatches. Gramzay calls the chick Tango, reasoning, “because it takes two to make a Tango.” Most primary kids won’t know that a tango is a dance so, whoever is reading to them can explain this. I suspect kids will just be happy that the baby was born. If anything, they’ll wonder why the egg came up as a spare during nesting season. The author’s note at the back of the book tells readers that the egg was one of two belonging to penguins Betty and Porkey, but that pair had never been able to care for two at once so, basically, one of the eggs would need to be tended to by other penguins to hatch. Seems like an above and beyond pro-life effort the book banners could have spun, but winding necks and loving “boy” penguins had already been duly offensive.


Whoops! I'd forgotten about the "two
daddies" reference. Really, it didn't 
register. I must have been still overcome
by baby penguin cuteness. That's the
"normal" takeaway.

I’m sorry, it seems preposterously silly to get stirred up over this book and to seek to keep it away from children. There is no doubt that banning efforts have led to more young and older readers reading this book than would ever have been imaginable. For young penguin lovers—and, relax, easily triggered conservatives, I’m speaking generally of affection, not bestiality; what makes people’s minds go to such places anyway?—I’d recommend the picture books 365 Penguinswherein a growing domesticated colony is content to be stashed in filing cabinets or stacked as pyramids, and Penguin and Pineconeabout another dopey main character who befriends, yes, a pinecone. It’s a super cute story, at least. (Where are the activists seeking smarter portrayals of penguins in children’s lit?) 


Personally, I’m not giving the Tango book another thought. I’d rather spend twenty minutes reading old “Bloom County” comics, smiling over Opus and saving any offense for the antics of Bill the Cat. In fact, that’s exactly what I’m setting out to do…




Friday, April 7, 2023


Written by Bill Richardson


Illustrations by Emilie Leduc


(Groundwood Books, 2022)



Kids don’t know how to process death. I’m not sure I ever came to terms with the possible death in Bambi. I saw the movie at the drive-in as a kid, but I don’t remember anything about that part. I’ve heard rumblings it involved Bambi’s mother. Even now, I won’t Google it. Why mess with my precious, imprecise memories of Bambi and Thumper, two blissful forest creatures? I can Disney-fy Disney.  


Adults aren’t exactly good role models in talking about death. When I was eight or nine, I asked my mother, “How come we don’t visit Great Grandmother Carmichael anymore?”


She looked at me, stunned. Eventually, she said, “Honey, she died. I told you that.”


Maybe she did and I filed my deceased relative away with Bambi’s mom. Still, I’m convinced she didn’t. Banked on the fact the woman didn’t mean much to me since she was always calling me Reggie. The mistake always made me cranky and I’d be shooed off to explore her old brick house with its secret back stairway, a musty basement and a room I thought was a jail cell. 


Huh?! I should have been more inquisitive.


Fortunately, there are books for children that help us broach the subject of death. When I did an online search, books about the death of a pet popped up the most. I’m not sure they would have helped me cope with the deaths of my goldfish, Chloes I, II and III. The wise move was to turn the fishbowl into a terrarium. 


I have high praise for Zetta Elliott’s Bird, which deals with the death of a boy’s brother, a rare title that shouldn’t be confined to a parent support shelf in a bookstore. Most books are understandably designed to be more educational than masterful works of prose, the illustrations often typical of what appears in low-budget publishing. I’m guessing death books aren’t big sellers in children’s lit.


I was intrigued when I stumbled upon mention of Last Week by Canadian author and radio personality Bill Richardson. At the time, a friend of mine was dealing with news that her husband had been diagnosed with terminal brain cancer. As a couple, they were considering Canada’s Medical Assistance in Dying (MAiD) as an option for when living became more of a struggle and the prospect of a painful death neared. As well, I’d listened to an older friend of mine speak with grief and confusion over his ninety-year-old mother’s decision to pursue MAiD as part of her end-of-life journey. 


Some people find MAiD repugnant. It has been in the news more this year as Canada was about to extend making MAiD a legally protected option for people with mental health disorders. As of now, that remains on hold. Still, assisted death is an option, under very specific circumstances, for people with terminable physical conditions. In listening to my friend whose mother chose MAiD, I realized that loved ones need various supports to understand this decision and to be a supportive presence in the final days. Last Week, a novella, serves as a tool to talk about it with children.


As the title indicates, the book chronicles the last week of a grandmother’s life from a grandchild’s point of view. Grandma is called Flippa, a nickname arising from her love of swimming in her wetsuit and fins, the name representing the distinct sound she’d make whenever she’d walk in her gear to the water for her hell-or-high-water daily swim. But the swims have stopped. Her arms are thin. She’s in bed much of the time. As Richardson succinctly tells the reader, “What’s wrong with Flippa can’t be fixed.”


Richardson makes sure to include brief but essential conversations to help the grandchild understand what is happening and to ease some of the emotional pain.


“Will it hurt?” I asked.

“No,” said Mom. “It’s very gentle.”

“Does it hurt now?” I asked.

“Yes,” said Flippa. “Now, it hurts.”


Last Week familiarizes the young reader with some of the rituals that correspond with a person’s final days. Lots of food dropped off. Visits that aren’t entirely sad. There are stories, there is laughter. With Flippa’s final day known to all, there’s a cutoff to the visits, after which it’s just close family on hand. The grandchild cuddles in bed with Flippa. 


Flippa said, “Ask me anything.”

I thought for a long time. I said, “Are you sure?”

She didn’t need to think.

“Yes,” she said. “Very sure.”


In addition to the sparse prose, the story includes black and white digital illustrations by Emilie Leduc, double page spreads of blackness to represent each night so each day of the week is more distinct, plus drawings that project a sense of pleasant quietness. Flippa smiles regardless of whatever pain she’s experiencing.


In the medical note that follows the story, Dr. Stefanie Green, co-founder and president of the Canadian Association of MAiD Assessors and Providers, offers her professional perspective to complement Richardson’s words: “When a person has an illness that will cause their body to die…they might ask the doctor or a nurse practitioner to help them to die a little sooner in order to end their suffering, or to be sure they are not alone…Because a medical professional is involved, assisted dying does not hurt.”


There is a time and place for this book. Children don’t get to make the decisions about a loved one dying but let this be a support to understand the process prior to and after death. Last Week is a story a child may need to revisit many times, hopefully with an adult on hand to answer questions and offer emotional support.   

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.