Day 66 – Laura Purdie Salas “Can Be” Books

The “Can Be” collection by Laura Purdie Salas is a trilogy of beautifully illustrated, poetic,  and wonderfully informative reality-based picture books which includes “A Leaf Can Be”, “A Rock Can Be”, and our Day 55 selection “Water Can Be”. waterIn each book, Mrs. Salas presents the reader with the ways which water, leaves, or rocks appear or are used in the world around us. Thinking metaphorically, she comes up with some delightfully creative examples – many of which will make you stop and think – and presents them in rhyming prose against the ethereal, glowing backdrop of illustrator Violeta Dabija’s artwork. Her books are an entertaining combination of poetry, beauty, and science and we love them – even more so after getting the chance to listen to (and watch) Mrs. Salas discuss her background, her books, and her creative process during the latest online Author Event at Read Aloud Revival earlier today.leaf can be

There were so many great insights packed into today’s one-hour event; I am looking at a list of notes right now which may be literally as long as my arm. Among our favorite “shares” by Mrs. Salas were her box of rejection letters (a remarkable collection of turn-downs for someone who has had over 125 books published), and her list of authors and books that have inspired her. She talked about how science-related topics really stir her up, causing a visceral reaction, and that in writing about science she tries to provide enough information to spark a sense of wonder without overwhelming the reader. We thought her description of librarians as magicians was particularly apt; in the process of researching her many books, Mrs. Salas has learned that librarians know where to find everything. And her advice to aspiring young writers? Read a ton and write all the time; no matter how bad you think your writing is, just dive in and let the process make you better and better.

rock can beI could go into greater detail, but I won’t. If you are interested in finding out more, Read Aloud Revival posts a replay of each author event for audio or video download in the members area, along with all sorts of related links to works by the authors or to subjects or materials referenced in the webcasts. As I have discussed here previously, we are really impressed with the quality of the online events hosted by Sarah Mackenzie at Read Aloud Revival. We have now attended events with Jonathan Bean, Anne Ursu, and Laura Purdie Salas – and in each case the authors have been astonishingly open and candid. They have all been thoughtful and thorough in the way they answer the many questions from children and parents alike, and they all seem genuinely appreciative of the opportunity to talk directly to so many people who love their books and are interested in hearing what they have to say. We can’t recommend these events enough.

We also suggest visiting Mrs. Salas’ site – She has a number of resources there for writers and teachers, including a page about writing your own “Can Be” books. On the webcast she introduced the idea of having your children write “Can Be” books about themselves and all the things they can be or do. It’s a great idea for developing self-regard – which is a component of emotional intelligence – and a great example of the kind of extension activity these books encourage.


Day 65 – Doctor De Soto

With National Dentist’s Day due to arrive on March 6, this evening we followed up “The Tooth Mouse” with another story involving mice and teeth: “Doctor De Soto”, a Newbery Honor book by William SteigDe Soto.

“Doctor De Soto” tells the story of a mouse dentist of the same name who manages a very successful practice along side his wife, who works as his assistant. He serves animals of all shapes and sizes, and is especially popular with larger animals, who find his methods extremely gentle. However, he staunchly refuses to care for animals he considers dangerous to mice. In fact, the sign outside his office reads: “CATS & OTHER DANGEROUS ANIMALS NOT ACCEPTED FOR TREATMENT.” It is a policy that has served Doctor and Mrs. De Soto well, but it is about to be put to the test.

One day, the De Sotos look out the window to find at their doorstep a fox in a great deal of pain from a rotten bicuspid. They initially refuse him service, but they relent when they see how pitiful he looks. “Let’s risk it” says Mrs. De Soto – and the game is afoot. The De Sotos treat the fox – who has “unusually bad breath” – and invite him back the next day to have the extracted tooth replaced. When the fox returns, he is no longer in pain and is prepared to make a meal of the good doctor and his wife after his treatment is complete. However, the De Sotos are prepared as well, and in the end they manage to do the right thing while still outfoxing the fox.

Already an accomplished illustrator by the time he began writing children’s books at the age of 61, Mr. Steig not only won a Newbery Honor for “Doctor De Soto” (a remarkable feat for a picture book), but he also won a Caldecott Medal for his third book,”Sylvester and the Magic Pebble,” and his 1990 book “Shrek” became the inspiration for the movie franchise of the same name. We found “Doctor De Soto” to be an entertaining read, and enjoyed Steig’s loosely-drawn but colorful and expressive illustrations. An excellent choice for “National Dentist’s Day” or any other day.

Day 64 – The Tooth Mouse

“Once long ago, atop an ancient cathedral in France, there lived a small mouse who would NOT go to bed.” So begins “The Tooth Mouse” by Susan Hood and illustrated by Janice Nadeau. It is an enchanting and inspiring fable about an energetic little mouse named Sophie who loves to dance and whose dreams are much bigger than her diminutive frame might indicate. Tooth

Ms. Hood’s story is inspired by the French myth of “La Petit Souris” (literally “the little mouse”) who, like the tooth fairy, arrives at night to collect lost baby teeth. Sophie herself enjoys pretending that she is the Tooth Mouse, until one evening Sophie is drawn to a gathering in the great hall of the cathedral she calls home to find that the current “Petit Souris” is ready to name a successor. The Tooth Mouse assigns a series of challenging tasks in order to determine which of the many aspirants is worthy to succeed her. These tasks require bravery (retrieving the whisker of a cat), honesty (bringing a silver coin acquired without thievery), and wisdom (explaining to the Tooth Mouse what should be done with the thousands of baby teeth that are to be collected). Do all the applicants succeed? Mais non! It is only our little heroine, Sophie, who displays each of the requisite qualities – and “the small mouse who would NOT go to bed (spends) the rest of her nights as the Tooth Mouse.”

With French words and expressions sprinkled throughout, the book is written to be read aloud – preferably with a French accent for added fun. There is a certain poetry to Ms. Hood’s prose which is augmented by the French phrases and by Ms. Nadeau’s whimsical and expressive illustrations. Her drawings reminded us of the little Maileg mice that first arrived in our house in charming little matchbox homes, and have since expanded to what might qualify as an infestation. We have a little collection of them in the dining room, and mouse play is a frequent reading time activity.

In Ms. Hood’s story we appreciated the fact that Sophie must not only be brave, but honest and wise as well to earn her station. We were caught off guard by the elegant simplicity of Sophie’s solution for all those baby teeth, which we are told will be enough to fill the entire ocean.  Her perseverance may be particularly inspiring to little listeners with big dreams, and the idea of a small mouse who would NOT go to sleep should resonate with little children while sounding familiar to their parents (we are intimately acquainted with the breed, having produced two ourselves). We were also struck, upon a little further reading, by the prevalence of the mouse-as-tooth-fairy concept in Spanish-speaking cultures where it is nearly ubiquitous and often referred to as Ratoncito Pérez or Ratón Pérez. Of course, upon announcing our discovery we were informed by our oldest that she was already aware of this fact from her immersion experience in Costa Rica.

This book was another wonderful discovery for us and further validation of our Storybook Year project. If you don’t already have a book lined up for Dentist day, which is just around the corner on 3/6, this one could be a good fit.

Day 63 – Finding Winnie

“Finding Winnie – The True Story of the World’s Most Famous Bear” by Lindsay Mattick tells the story of the orphaned Canadian black bear cub that eventually became the inspiration for A.A. Milne’s beloved Winnie the Pooh. It is a wonderful story and a beautiful book which was awarded the Caldecott Medal for 2016.Winnie

The book is set up as a bedtime story from a mother to her son, Cole. She tells him about Harry, a veterinarian from Winnipeg who was called away to serve in the Canadian army during World War I. On a train station platform in a place called White River, Harry sees what he assumes to be an orphaned black bear cub held on a leash by a trapper. Harry paces and frets over what he ought to do, but in the end his “…heart (makes) up his mind.” Harry pays the trapper $20 for the cub, whom he dubs “Winnie” for his hometown of Winnipeg.

Winnie soon proves himself to be a “remarkable” bear. He becomes a well-loved member of Harry’s regiment, and Harry even brings Winnie across the Atlantic to England. When the order finally comes for Harry’s regiment to ship out to the Continent, he decides he must finally leave Winnie behind. Harry drives Winnie to London and places him in the care of the London Zoo, telling Winnie: “There is something you must always remember…It’s the most important thing really. Even if we’re apart, I’ll always love you. You’ll always be my bear.”

At this point the narrator pauses. “Is that the end?” asks Cole. His mother reassures him that while this is the end of Harry and Winnie’s story, “Sometimes…you have to let one story end so the next can begin”. She then launches into the story of a little boy who meets Winnie at the London Zoo and immediately thinks “there is something special about this bear.” This boy becomes close friends with Winnie, visiting him at the zoo and playing with him. He names his own stuffed bear after Winnie, and takes his bear out into the woods behind his house to have adventures. That boy is Christopher Robin Milne, and his father – A.A. Milne – eventually wrote books all about Christopher Robin and his bear, who became Winnie-the-Pooh.

The final twist of this delightful story is the revelation that Cole’s mother is the author herself (Lindsay Mattick), and that Harry is her great-grandfather and her son’s namesake: “Cole” for Captain Harry Colebourn.

There are so many things to appreciate about this book. Ms. Mattick’s story sends the message to follow your heart, and it is full of love and kindness for animals. Every time Harry lets his heart decide, he makes the decision that is the best for Winnie, and Cole’s mother describes “raising” a bear as being the same as “loving” a bear. I thought it was cute how Cole reminds his mother that bears eat vegetables and was struck by how a chance encounter and an impulsive act of kindness eventually led to the creation of one of the most loved characters in children’s literature – a character who has brought happiness to countless children (and adults) around the world. Most of all, I loved the passage in the book where Cole’s mother explains to Cole that “sometimes … you have to let one story end so the next one can begin,” and furthermore that you don’t know when that next story will happen, “which is why you should always carry on.”

Then, of course, there is the captivating artwork. Ms. Blackall’s ink and watercolor illustrations are rich with detail. The subdued, earthy color scheme and Ms. Blackall’s vintage style add a feeling of warmth and charm. The illustrations also serve as a second narrator – not just illustrating what the author is saying on the page, but filling in pieces of the story that can’t be found in the text. We actually found a wonderful interview with Ms. Blackall about the book in the “Shelf Awareness” blog at Blue Willow Book Store. In the interview, Ms. Blackall provides further background regarding her work in general and on “Winnie” in particular – including the amount of research she conducted in order to get the look and feel of the book just right. She also mentions the fact that there are lots of extra details that she snuck into her illustrations. We were able to translate the message she put in the nautical flags on the ships crossing the Atlantic. However, we are still scanning the overhead picture of the zoo to see what might be hidden there.

After this lengthy review, it may be redundant to say so, but we strongly recommend this book. We liked it enough after checking it out of the library that we had to hit the bookstore last night to purchase our own permanent copy. To use words Pooh himself might choose, “Finding Winnie” is “that kind of book”- the kind you will want to have for yourself.

Day 62 – Happy Birthday Dr. Seuss

Day 62 of our Storybook Year fell on Dr. Seuss’ birthday; he would have been 112 years old yesterday. In his honor, we had a monstrous pile of Seuss books ready to go; it was actually fairly impressive how many of his books we already had on our shelves, but we supplemented with a trip to the bookstore as well. We read “Green Eggs and Ham”, “Ten Apples Up on Top”, “Too Many Daves” (from “The Sneetches”) and “The Cat in the Hat” – which we were able to find in a bilingual edition (“El Gato Ensombrerado”!).  We also read “Fox in Sox” back on day 28, and I am sure we will be seeing the good Doctor again at some point (or at several points) during our Storybook hat

Nothing I can say in one blog post is going to entirely do justice to Dr. Seuss; there were doubtless thousands upon thousands of better, more thoughtful, and more complete tributes to his impact on children’s literature published yesterday. I will simply say “Happy Birthday” to one of the most prolific and talented storybook writers and illustrators of all time, and “Thank You.”

Day 61 – Yipee-Yay!

Today we begin a brand new month in our Storybook Year. March promises to be an eventful 31 days including St. Patrick’s Day (3/17), the first day of Spring (3/20), and Easter (3/31). In our neck of the woods March also means rodeo season – three weeks of riding, roping, music, carnival, and livestock shows officially beginning today! What better time, then, to read Gail Gibbons’ “Yippee-Yay! – A Book about Cowboys and Cowgirls”.Yipee

Borrowing a few words from the author’s bio inside the book’s jacket, Ms. Gibbons excels at turning “fact into entertainment.”  True to form, in “Yippee-Yay!” Ms. Gibbons manages to pack a passel of knowledge about her subject matter into a colorful and captivating package. She takes the reader on a virtual cattle drive, introducing different aspects of cowboy life on the path from ranch to railhead. Along the way she manages to sprinkle in some history about the glory days of the Old West. We read about broncobusters and branding, lariats and longhorns, ranches and rodeos, chuck wagons and the Chisolm Trail. The book also introduces several influential characters from the Old West including Wild Bill Hickok and Annie Oakley. The pages of “Yipee-Yay!” are filled with call-outs, diagrams, and maps that provide additional color to the story – making this a great book to have in your library, lying around for little hands to pick up and peruse on their own in order to get “the rest of the story.”

Some of the information in “Yippiee-Yay!” was familiar, some of it was brand new, and all of it was fun to read aloud. Personally, I imagined a cowboy sitting around a campfire spinning a yarn, and used that accent. Like many, I am fascinated by the myth of the Old West. After reading this picture book, I was overcome by an urge to pick up a copy of Larry McMurtry’s “Lonesome Dove”, watch “Silverado” or “Tombstone” (or any number of other great Westerns), and head out to the rodeo…all at the same time.


Day 60 -My Chincoteague Pony

Wild ponies have roamed free on the island of Assateague off the coast of Maryland since the 1600s. There is some debate about how the horses arrived there originally – some believe they were marooned by a wrecked Spanish galleon, others say they were left to graze there by early colonial settlers. Either way, there are now in excess of 300 ponies on the island, a number which places some pressure on the island’s ecosystem. In order to help control the population, every July the Chincoteague Fire Department rounds up some of the ponies and brings them back to Chincoteague for auction. “My Chincoteague Pony” by Susan Jeffers is a story based upon a special event the author and her sister witnessed at one of these wild pony auctions; an event that, Ms. Jeffers discovered later, seems to repeat itself in some form each pony

Julie, the protagonist of Ms. Jeffers’ story, is a young girl living on a dairy farm surrounded by all kinds of farm animals, but no ponies – and having a pony of her own is her dearest wish. Inspired by the story of the Chincoteague ponies, and by Margurite Henry’s wonderful Newberry honor book “Misty of Chincoteague”, Julie works assiduously around the farm to earn enough money to buy her own pony at auction. When July rolls around Julie’s mother drives her to Chincoteague for Pony Penning Day. Julie finds her heart’s desire in a black-and-white pony she quietly names “Painted Dream”, but alas, Julie is consistently outbid until every pony is sold. Heartbroken, Julie is given words of encouragement by a nearby woman who hands her a $20 bill. That $20 is followed by another dollar from a little boy nearby, and suddenly money is being passed to Julie from every direction by strangers throughout the crowd. Cruel irony! Julie now has enough money to buy her own pony, but there are none left too buy. Just then a single pony is returned to be put back up for sale: Painted Dream! Julie finally buys her pony, and her happiness is complete, but she has a new mission: she must work all year to make enough money to come back to Chincoteague and give another girl enough money to buy her own pony. And, as Ms. Jeffers tells us, that is exactly what she eventually does.

“My Chincoteague Pony” is a darling story – made all the more so because it is based on real events. We appreciated the way Ms. Jeffers worked some history into her story, and enjoyed the added color she provided in her author’s note at the beginning of the book. We have been intrigued by the Assateague wild ponies ever since we first listened to “Misty of Chincoteague”, and it seems Ms. Jeffers had a similar experience as a little girl. Julie’s fascination with Ms. Henry’s novel in this book may be autobiographical; Ms. Jeffer’s father bought her an autographed copy of “Misty” for Christmas when she was seven. Ms. Jeffers mentions in her note that she actually sent two signed copies of her own books to Ms. Henry to thank her fellow author for inspiring her; a picture of the hand-written letter she received in reply is included before Ms. Jeffer’s introduction.

Day 59 – Little Owl’s Orange Scarf

If you have ever had a relative or friend knit you a sweater or scarf that was tacky inconsistent with your particular style, uncomfortable, and unfit to be worn in public, then you will understand Little Owl’s dilemma. The star of “Little Owl’s Orange Scarf” by Tatyana Feeney is saddled with a knit scarf that is too long, too scratchy, and far too ORANGE. orange scarfDespite his best attempts to rid himself of this figurative millstone literally hanging about his neck (re-gifting the scarf, mailing it to Peru), his mother always retrieves it and tells Little Owl, “You need to wear your new scarf…it will keep you nice and warm.”

Then one day, Owl wears his scarf on a field trip to the zoo. He returns home with stories of all the animals he has seen, but without his scarf. Since no one at the zoo seems to know what has happened to this bane of Little Owl’s existence, his mother says they can make a new one, and “…this time (they) will do it together.” Little Owl travels to the yarn store with his mother where he selects his own skein, and his mother knits him a blue scarf that is “soft…just long enough,” and, crucially, not orange! He closes the book by showing us how much he loves wearing his new scarf to the zoo…where, while not called out in the text, the giraffe is seen wearing a strangely familiar orange neck warmer.

Ms. Feeney has created a fun and funny little story, no less appealing for the sparseness of the text or the simplicity of the orange, blue and gray line drawings that decorate each page. Ms. Feeney succeeds in adding humor to the story with small variations in facial expressions; witness the disgusted look Little Owl gives the reader when his mother reminds him how warm his scarf will keep him (“seriously? are you seeing this?”), or the look of innocent surprise when he returns from the zoo with no scarf (“oh! my scarf? I only now noticed it was gone!”).

We really enjoy this book, enough so that we purchased a copy to have in our permanent collection. However, none of us loves this book so much as our youngest. This evening, engaged in an activity comprised of scissors(!!), mason-jar vases, and a bucket exploding with fresh cut flowers, our youngest dropped everything upon seeing this book. She gasped, asked me to read it, said “please show me the pictures”, and gave me her undivided attention. When I had finished, she announced  that mommy was going to read the book to us all again. In fact, at this very moment I am typing my review as quickly as possible so that I can finish before she discovers that I have absconded with her favorite book.

Jane Eyre – a Gratifying Denouement

This evening we finished our fourth extended read-aloud book of our storybook year: “Jane Eyre” by Charlotte Brontë. I briefly blogged several weeks back about how much we expected to like Jane based upon the brutally honest way in which she verbally filleted her aunt, Mrs. Reed. We did, indeed, end up liking Jane, who, though set upon by trying circumstances and overbearing suitors, remained true to herself throughout the novel.

We also enjoyed the many clever and profound turns of phrase Ms. Brontë worked into her story. She succeeded in speaking simple but insightful truths about human character and emotion in strikingly beautiful words. We also found the denouement quite gratifying – Jane, an independent woman of means, returns to her true love on her own terms to complete her happiness and to create his.

And the verdict on Brontë vs. Brontë? We all enjoyed “Jane Eyre” more than “Wuthering Heights”. Both books deserve their status as classics. However, while we felt there was little to root for in the deeply flawed characters of Emily’s “Wuthering Heights”, we found ourselves quickly invested in Charlotte’s Jane and her happiness, which kept us a little more on the edge of our seats throughout this book.

And now? There are soooo many great books out there we could read next. We had considered Jane Austen, but may actually go for a Brontë triple-play by reading one of Anne’s.

By Patrick Branwell Brontë (died 1848) - Digitally restored from National Portrait Gallery

Tune in here later this week, “same bat-time, same bat-channel“!

Day 58 – Ida, Always

“He listens to (the) city pulsing around him. He remembers that Ida said you don’t have to see it to feel it. The sidewalks tap and the streets hum. Gus’s heart beats…and Ida is there, always.”ida

A fictional story inspired by two real-life polar bears who once lived together at the Central Park Zoo in New York City, “Ida, Always” by Caron Levis and illustrated by Charles Santoso is a profoundly touching and beautiful book about friendship, love, loss, grief, and – ultimately – life. The two polar bears, Gus and Ida, live in the same enclosure at the zoo and spend every day together playing, splashing in the water, and flopping on the rocks to listen the “heartbeat” of the city. Every day is the same, until one day Gus is informed that Ida is dying.

Ms. Levis’ prose is poetic in its simplicity as she manages to approach the complicated feelings leading up to and following the death of a loved one in a deeply moving way, without a single wasted word. The nature of her writing was such that the power of the story she was telling snuck up on me; it built quietly through the course of the book and then washed over me suddenly as I turned the last page, at which point I choked up and had a hard time reading the last sentence aloud. I don’t know that everyone will have the same reaction I did, but when I looked around our room at the end I was not the only one with tears in my eyes.

Mr. Santoso’s illustrations add to the beauty and appeal of the story and do so much to help convey the feelings of the characters. He fills many pages with lush and occasionally gauzy panoramic views of broad skies, towering city skylines, and the polar bears’ verdant habitat. These images are punctuated with more intimate portraits of the bears snuggling, or of Gus struggling with his grief. Birds, flying overhead or sitting quietly near the two polar bears, are also a common element. He manages to convey very human emotions through Gus and Ida’s expressions, and embodies their thoughts and conversations with images in the clouds overhead.

This is an amazing book. Only recently released (February 23), “Ida, Always” is already an all-time favorite in our home. Everyone should have a copy on the shelf. A word of caution, however: do not begin reading without a box of tissues handy.

Update: I failed to mention that February 27th was International Polar Bear Day! An especially fun aspect of A Storybook Year so far has been all the national and international “holidays” and other dedicated days that we have discovered. Any additional excuse to celebrate is welcome!