Every once in a while, a picture book sings to your heart.
You don’t just like it.
You feel it in your soul.
Everyone has different books and stories that spark their fire. Our stories and what we read are a reflection of ourselves. A.A. Milne puts it well (of course)- here describing how reading “The Wind in the Willows” reflects on one’s self:
“One does not argue about The Wind in the Willows. The young man gives it to the girl with whom he is in love, and, if she does not like it, asks her to return his letters. The older man tries it on his nephew, and alters his will accordingly. The book is a test of character. We can't criticize it, because it is criticizing us. But I must give you one word of warning. When you sit down to it, don't be so ridiculous as to suppose that you are sitting in judgment on my taste, or on the art of Kenneth Grahame. You are merely sitting in judgment on yourself. You may be worthy: I don't know, But it is you who are on trial.”
This is why I like to talk about books with others. Through books, we get to know each other better. Through each other, we get to know the world. And through the world, we get to know ourselves.
This week, I was lucky enough to discover another book that sings to my heart. It’s called, “A Child of Books” by Oliver Jeffers and Sam Winston. The words of this picture book are more of a poem, and story is told more in the illustrations than in the words. After a first read through, I went through and read it again- just the words, aloud. They begged to be read aloud, to be recited, to be shared.
“…and upon my imagination, I float…”
“…we will travel mountains of make-believe…”
“…we can lose ourselves in forests of fairy tales…”
“…anyone at all can come/ For imagination is free...”
The story is simple. It’s about two children exploring the world of stories- where anything can happen, everything is possible, and there is a sense of hope & peace. Much of the illustrations are made up of text themselves, from classics stories, that readers will enjoy recognizing. Both words and illustrations are exceptional.
But for me, the true magic of this story is the timing. It’s here during a time when we’re inundated with lots of new, super cool technologies. Kids, parents, grandparents, at home, at work, at school. Our minds buzz. Our screens glow. We chat, we like, we share, we check. This book reminds us that stories last. They are there for us. The books we love, the books we share, the places we explore through the pages, the learning that happens through reading- these things we remember. They become a special part of us. Maybe reading this book is a reminder- for parents and children alike- to get lost in the pages they love, and to keep discovering new places, or maybe make up some places of their own. Or, maybe this book is a reminder to take a sip from a long lost spring- a place you haven’t been to in a while. To get to know that imagination of yours. To visit a library and check out a book. To unplug for an evening, and curl up with a book, by yourself, or with someone you love.
We are all children of books.
The amazing Candlewick Press has put together a lovely teacher's guide for A Child of Books (that includes a list of all the classics used in the illustrations!), which you can find here. I hope you enjoy this book- look for it on an upcoming Best of... list!
“Green City: How One Community Survived a Tornado and Rebuilt for A Sustainable Future” by Allan Drummond is the true story of a town in Greensburg, Kansas that was physically destroyed by a tornado, and how the community came together afterwards and decided to rebuild their town stronger, greener, and even better than it was before.
Ok- so for a second you start thinking about how this is actually starting off a lot like the Wizard of Oz. Kansas. Tornado. Story for Children. But no- this is not that story. This is a true story- one of loss, recovery, and ingenuity.
In the past several years, there’s been a surge of Non-fiction picture books being publishing that cover all sorts of cool topics, from a story about the real bear behind Winnie the Pooh, to a poetic book about the Water cycle, to a rhyming romp about President Taft in a Bathtub. With some influence coming from the passing of the Common Core Curriculum standards that have an added focus on non-fiction reading, these true-story picture books offer a wealth of learning opportunities. While some true-story picture books take more creative license than others, most are well-researched and rooted in real facts- hopefully encouraging children to want to learn more about these cool topics. And what better way to introduce big, real world ideas to children than with a format they are already familiar with and love- the Picture Book!
In “Green City,” the reader learns about a tornado that rips through the town, leveling it to the ground, taking the lives of 12 people and leaving only 3 buildings standing. This is the story of a natural disaster- a big, heavy concept for young readers- which is why it’s important to be there to talk about any questions this book brings up, like how natural disasters happen, and why. As the content of picture books continues to broaden, it’s important to remember that reviewing content is important, and offering support is essential. There is a burgeoning category of “older-kid picture books,” (which I would place this under- Kirkus recommends this book for ages 5-9, SLJ suggests Grades 1-5), which is exciting- no longer is the collective we considering picture books just for toddlers and kindergarteners. That being said, it’s important to recognize that you might be finding picture books about natural disasters on the shelf next to picture books about potty training (though- that’s arguably a natural disaster too.)
The plot of “Green City” follows a nameless boy in a red jacket who lives in Greensburg and witnesses the tornado and its aftermath. From climbing out of the shelter and describing the destruction, to the first ideas about rebuilding green during a town meeting under the big tent, we walk alongside him as the decisions are dreamed up, discussed, and collectively decided upon. And it isn’t easy- some people don’t have the money to rebuild, or don’t want to stay. There’s more than 388,000 tons of rubble to clean up. The United States government helps, and so do other people from all over the country. And slowly, thanks to a few passionate leaders, the plans to rebuild Greensburg as a truly green city are planted and start to grow. There are blueprints for a Silo Eco-Home, a wind-resistant geodesic dome, and even affordable, sustainable townhouses. Banks and Businesses jump on the green bandwagon. The School is redesigned as the pioneering center of the green-building movement: a place that not only is made for lasting sustainability and efficiency, but would also raise and educate the next generations of environmental stewards- our children.
I highly recommend this book- its blend of history, innovation, sustainability, and community can’t be ignored. It would be perfect for introducing a unit on green building design, sustainability, or local governments. But in addition to its practical classroom use, what makes this book truly stand out is its writing and illustrations. It’s simply a great picture book. It reads fluidly and keeps you turning the pages. The illustrations add pertinent information and context to the text, while also being detailed and beautiful. When an author/illustrator can manage to tell a true story, convey a powerful message, and create a fabulous piece of art, I’m profoundly impressed- as I am here. We are all living in a time where many cities around the world are facing big challenges to adjust their infrastructure to become more sustainable- let’s not sit back and wait for something bad to force us to change. Let’s get involved- as parents, as children, as families, as communities- and stand up for what we believe in. As they did so powerfully in Greensburg, our voices and opinions make a difference.
You’ll find Green City on Bear's Bookshelf, added to the “Environment” best of list, and the coming soon “Building” best of list. I hope you enjoy this book as much as I did!
While working in the bookstore at the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art in Amherst, MA, I learned to look at the pictures of picture books. I mean really look. The Carle uses an education model called “Visual Thinking Strategies (VTS)," which encourages viewers of art (in any form...illustrations, paintings, photographs, etc.) to ask these questions when looking:
1) What’s going on in this picture?
2) What do you see that makes you say that?
3) What more can you find?
These simple questions help facilitate critical thinking, observation skills, and discussion. As a word/story oriented person myself, this strategy really opened my eyes to looking deeply into the art. Ironically, this is what most children do naturally- as they are being read to, they are hearing the story while studying the picture with their eyes, not distracted by having to read the text on the page. They are able to glean information from both the story and the picture, simultaneously. Naturally, this makes perfect sense- it is the brilliance of the picture book format. But as we grow older, we are less likely to spend time on pictures, as they are removed from our primary reading materials and only used as a secondary means of communitcation. Thus, as adults reading picture books with children, and as interpreters of our larger world, it is important for us all to look closer at the cues around us, not just at the information given to us in words or what meets the eye at a moment’s glance. I find that I can call upon VTS not just in experiences with art and books, but also in engaging with the world around me each day. Look. Notice. Culitivate awareness. Gain knowledge. These are things I am consistently working to do.
When reading picture books with children, the VTS method can be helpful as a prompt to increase focus & engagement. You may be surprised at how much they notice- and the interesting discussions that these prompts lead to!
What lead to this reminiscence was a rereading of “The Night Gardener” by Terry & Eric Fan. In this book, the art begins telling the story before the words. The stage is set on the first 3 pages- A grey, dreary road called Grimloch Lane; a man with a ladder; a sad boy sitting outside of a large brick building. On the fourth page, it is night, and there is color- we see the man with the ladder, the ladder leaned against a tree, the man holding shears. On page 5, the title page, we see the man climbing the ladder and beginning to trim the tree- outside of the brick building, bearing the words, “Grimloch Orphanage.”
There is so much information we can collect from just these pages- all before the story’s text even begins! And when it does begin, it doesn’t disappoint- the story continues, and we follow the boy and the Night Gardener- as the days, the trees, the colors, and the people in the town change. It's a heartfelt tale about kindness, inspiration, and community- and how a simple act of caring can make all the difference. The story is told through the feel of the art as much as the words, creating a true beauty of a book. It's almost an intro to magical realism... in a world where the real can be magical (which is our world, right?)
This is a perfect book to try using Visual Thinking Strategies on- you may just find a deeper and enlightening way of reading and seeing! Best of all, VTS doens't feel didatic- it is truly an interactive, organic process that lets the imagination and the art take center stage, all the while harnessing real-world skills like observation, critical thinking, and using context clues. I hope you enjoy this book, and this mini introduction to VTS! Look for "The Night Gardener" on an upcoming "Best of" List.
If you want additional activities to go along with this book, you can find printable activities, provided by the publisher, here!
"Fairytales for Mr. Barker," by Jessica Ahlberg is an engaging, exciting, creatively-meta fairy tale collection that brings the reader (and the characters) along for an adventure. It all starts when Lindsay asks Mr. Barker if he'd like to listen to a story... but just when she starts he gets distracted by a butterfly and follows it out the window. Lindsay follows and.... Wow! She's no longer in her bedroom... but in the house of the 3 bears!
Complete with paper cut-outs of the window panes, the effect of turning the page and traveling through it is engaging and convincing. The text never comes out and states where they've landed- instead, the reader/viewer is encouraged to use the context clues on the page and their prior fairy tale knowledge to determine where Lindsay and Mr. Barker are now. It's this element of deduction that Jessica Ahlberg has woven into the story that sets it apart (in addition to the Ahlberg family's iconic, adorable, detailed, search-and-find illustrations). The reader is invited to engage with the story right away, by looking closely at the details and following along a fast-paced adventure that travels through multiple fairy tale settings (Three Little Pigs, Jack and the Beanstalk, Sleeping Beauty).
I love how the possibility is introduced to the youngest of readers that even in stories we think we know, things may not always be as they seem. This idea that fairy tales can be stretched, explored, played with, and reimagined was why I loved "Each Peach Pear Plum" (by Jessica's parents, Janet & Allan Ahlberg) so much as a child. Jessica has done a magnificent job of adding to the "Family Canon," in this spunky, original tale; and we are all the luckier for it!
"Fairy Tales for Mr. Barker" is sure to be enjoyed by ages 3-6, and will enthrall curious readers time and time again. You'll find this book on the forthcoming "Fairy Tale Twists" Best of... list. Let me know your thoughts, and have fun exploring Bear's Bookshelf!
Welcome! I'm so happy you've landed here. Welcome to Bear's Bookshelf, a cozy corner of the internet that is here to help you find great books to read and share with the people you love. Bear's Bookshelf is all about picture books, which I truly believe can be for all ages and are an amazing platform for art, stories, enjoyment, and inspiration. My goal is to provide recommendations of books that engage, excite, entertain, and inform, so that they are well worth your time of seeking out and reading together. Look to this Blog page for longer-form recommendations and creative ideas. Look to Best Of... Lists! for categorical lists of my favorite pictures books, both new and classic. For more information on the importance of reading and education, visit the Resources page. If you have questions or would like to get in touch, you can reach me through the Contact page (I love getting suggestions and recommendations from you, too!). I hope you visit frequently, as new books and ideas will be posted frequently. Here's to finding your next great read on Bear's Bookshelf. Enjoy!