#IMWAYR: Picture Book Pandemonium, Part 17—#MGReadathon Edition!

I had a wonderful time this weekend participating in the 48 Hour #MGReadathon hosted by Karen Yingling at Ms. Yingling Reads! I decided to cram in as many picture books as I could manage, and here are my final stats:

Total time: 5 hours

Total books: 29 picture books

You can learn more about everything I read by visiting my main #MGReadathon post or viewing the graphic at the end of this post. Now I'd like to share a few of the books that stood out to me from my reading! I'm going to share 7 today and 7 next week, which means another 15 won't get reviewed, but many of them were wonderful too, it bears noting! Now let's look at some books:

What book is it? Our Little Kitchen by Jillian Tamaki

Who recommended it? Cheriee Weichel at Library Matters, Linda Browne, and more!

What does the publisher say? "Tie on your apron! Roll up your sleeves!
Pans are out, oven is hot, the kitchen’s all ready!
Where do we start?

In this lively, rousing picture book from Caldecott Honoree Jillian Tamaki, a crew of resourceful neighbors comes together to prepare a meal for their community. With a garden full of produce, a joyfully chaotic kitchen, and a friendly meal shared at the table, Our Little Kitchen is a celebration of full bellies and looking out for one another. Bonus materials include recipes and an author’s note about the volunteering experience that inspired the book."

What stood out to me? Wow. This astoundingly dynamic and fun picture book may be in my favorite picture books of all time.

The story is written and illustrated by Jillian Tamaki, who I recognize as illustrator of the graphic novel This One Summer and the picture book My Best Friend. The plot is already a strong one—a diverse group of members from the community coming together to cook a meal for those in need—but the snappy dialogue, energetic comic-esque style, intense colors, and sheer warmth and respect make this story exceptional.

The illustrations come in every variety you could imagine—montage, wordless, cross-section of a building—and play with scale in surprising ways, like with characters getting swept away in black beans pouring across the page out of oversize cans.

I also appreciate how the story is about more than a charitable act—it is about coming together with those in your community, befriending them and sharing a meal no matter how different your circumstances are.

I did wish the writing did not switch back and forth quite as often between rhyming and not rhyming, but it’s a small quibble in an otherwise spectacular book.

What book is it? The Barnabus Project by the Fan Brothers

Who recommended it? Linda Browne!

What does the publisher say? "Deep underground beneath Perfect Pets, where children can buy genetically engineered "perfect" creatures, there is a secret lab. Barnabus and his friends live in this lab, but none of them is perfect. They are all Failed Projects. Barnabus has never been outside his tiny bell jar, yet he dreams of one day seeing the world above ground that his pal Pip the cockroach has told him about: a world with green hills and trees, and buildings that reach all the way to the sky, lit with their own stars. But Barnabus may have to reach the outside world sooner than he thought, because the Green Rubber Suits are about to recycle all Failed Projects . . . and Barnabus doesn't want to be made into a fluffier pet with bigger eyes. He just wants to be himself. So he decides it's time for him and the others to escape. With his little trunk and a lot of cooperation and courage, Barnabus sets out to find freedom -- and a place where he and his friends can finally be accepted for who they are."

What stood out to me? When I think of picture books, I don’t generally think of stories with genuine threat of death and echoes of the eugenics movement—and yet, clearly the Fan Brothers (whose books I have never read until now) understand just how much kids can safely comprehend and consider when it is presented to them thoughtfully.

I genuinely don’t even know where to start with the things I loved in this book. Barnabus and his “Failed Projects” friends are definitely still adorable, even if they are not quite what Perfect Pets was aiming for—if I was ever going to get a pet, gecko/firefly hybrid Lite-Up Lois would be a strong contender. (Although we do get one creature who is perhaps not so adorable, but still deeply wonderful too.) The childlike viewpoint of this book is perfect too—we see the simple yet impactful explanations of the outside world, of the book’s equivalent of death, and of the importance for one group not to exert prejudice on others as soon as it has the means to.

And the illustrations are spectacular, filled with gorgeous cityscapes, ominous lab schematics, homey-looking shops flanking the overly “fun”-looking Perfect Pets, and so many different creatures to love. The ending also included some powerful elements I didn’t expect.

There are two conflicted parts of me, the smaller of which wished for a more thorough resolution for more than just our main characters, and the larger of which appreciated the Fan Brothers’ willingness to challenge even young readers with an ending that is hopeful but imperfect.

What book is it? Abuelita and Me, written by Leonarda Carranza and illustrated by Rafael Mayani

What does the publisher say? "Spending time at home with Abuelita means pancakes, puddle-jumping, and nail-painting. But venturing out into the city is not always as fun. On the bus and at the grocery store, people are impatient and suspicious—sometimes they even yell. Sad, angry, and scared, the story’s young narrator decides not to leave home again...until a moment of empowerment helps her see the strength she and Abuelita share when they face the world together. Warm, expressive illustrations by Rafael Mayani highlight the tenderness in Abuelita and the narrator’s relationship."

What stood out to me? As I write this review in a slightly emotional state, I find myself a little closer to the verge of tears writing about this book than I would expect to be! But it’s no surprise, really, when you consider that this deceptively simple book is so well-executed as to be beautiful and powerful.

We begin the story with our young protagonist and her Abuelita, and just a few quick sentences and illustrations show us how much of a warm, wonderful, compassionate woman Abuelita is, especially through our protagonist’s eyes. But as the book zooms out, it becomes clear that many other people have a different attitude about Abuelita—a racist attitude, specifically, leading to micro- and macroaggressions.

It’s heartbreaking to see how cruel people can be everyday to these two characters, and there is so much nuance in how people’s actions affect both Abuelita and our protagonist in different ways—and how the two characters then support each other in different ways.

But there is also joy in this story, made clear in so many ways through the two characters’ deeply loving relationship. And the illustrations are gorgeous, full of warm, rich colors, expressive faces, and falling autumn leaves. It’s also beautiful to see a girl who lives alone with her grandmother without any fuss made about it. This story is truly wonderful.

What book is it? My City Speaks, written by Darren Lebeuf and illustrated by Ashley Barron

What does the publisher say? "A young girl, who is visually impaired, finds much to celebrate as she explores the city she loves.

A young girl and her father spend a day in the city, her city, traveling to the places they go together: the playground, the community garden, the market, an outdoor concert. As they do, the girl describes what she senses in precise, poetic detail. Her city, she says, “rushes and stops, and waits and goes.” It “pitters and patters, and drips and drains.” It “echoes” and “trills,” and is both “smelly” and “sweet.” Her city also speaks, as it “dings and dongs, and rattles and roars.” And sometimes, maybe even some of the best times, it just listens."

What stood out to me? This story, winner of the Schneider Family Book Award for Young Children, is a short but lovely read. Our narrator, a girl with a visual impairment, walks us through the city she loves as she explores it with her father. She describes the city’s energy and the many ways it can feel (or smell, or taste, or sound).

Darren Lebeuf’s words are concise and carefully chosen, preventing the story from ever feeling didactic or bloated. Ashley Barron’s illustrations are vibrant and energetic yet never overstimulating, with a layered style reminiscent in some ways of a collage.

It’s impactful to see a story that quietly shows readers how even an individual unable to use one sense can still perceive the many wonders of a place. And the unnamed girl develops through the story’s illustrations as well, with the ending bringing a lovely last bit of characterization to her.

What book is it? The Year We Learned to Fly, written by Jacqueline Woodson and illustrated by Rafael López

What does the publisher say? "On a dreary, stuck-inside kind of day, a brother and sister heed their grandmother’s advice: “Use those beautiful and brilliant minds of yours. Lift your arms, close your eyes, take a deep breath, and believe in a thing. Somebody somewhere at some point was just as bored you are now.” And before they know it, their imaginations lift them up and out of their boredom. Then, on a day full of quarrels, it’s time for a trip outside their minds again, and they are able to leave their anger behind. This precious skill, their grandmother tells them, harkens back to the days long before they were born, when their ancestors showed the world the strength and resilience of their beautiful and brilliant minds. Jacqueline Woodson’s lyrical text and Rafael Lopez’s dazzling art celebrate the extraordinary ability to lift ourselves up and imagine a better world."

What stood out to me? Jacqueline Woodson is still one of the most brilliant authors in existence, and in this book, her second picture book with illustrator Rafael López after the wonderful The Day You Begin, she brings her trademark thoughtful verse to a story of imagination as a gift, as a way of escaping difficult circumstances and saving yourself in the process.

The book is not directly about the pandemic, but the parallels of being unable to physically leave one’s own space are there, making the message even more powerful. As is further explained in the author’s note, Woodson also draws a connection to imagination as a means of survival for Black people forced into slavery—as she puts it, “nobody can ever cuff / your beautiful and brilliant mind.” López’s brightly colored illustrations use varied layouts and floral motifs to bring to life the idea of hope, of escape, of the freedom present within one’s mind.

What book is it? Blue: A History of the Color as Deep as the Sea and as Wide as the Sky, written by Nana Ekua Brew-Hammond and illustrated by Daniel Minter

What does the publisher say? "For centuries, blue powders and dyes were some of the most sought-after materials in the world. Ancient Afghan painters ground mass quantities of sapphire rocks to use for their paints, while snails were harvested in Eurasia for the tiny amounts of blue that their bodies would release.

And then there was indigo, which was so valuable that American plantations grew it as a cash crop on the backs of African slaves. It wasn't until 1905, when Adolf von Baeyer created a chemical blue dye, that blue could be used for anything and everything--most notably that uniform of workers everywhere, blue jeans.

With stunning illustrations by Caldecott Honor Artist Daniel Minter, this vibrant and fascinating picture book follows one color's journey through time and across the world, as it becomes the blue we know today."

What stood out to me? I had a complete brain fail and originally thought this book was about depression (clearly forgetting the initial review!). But actually, it is a truly fascinating history of the color blue, which, being my favorite color (*gestures at blog*), I was excited to learn more about! This book brings to life the complex processes of creating the color blue throughout history, as well as the significance of a color so rare, so present in nature, and so influential on numerous cultures.

Nana Ekua Brew-Hammond brings numerous facts into the story without overwhelming readers, thanks to her thoughtful verse style. She draws clever connections between past events and the present-day significance of the color, such as in idioms—I’m not sure how often these events actually occurred in a sequence, but her writing still makes clear how significant the color is and how interconnected its history is. I also appreciated the connections to Black history in the story, especially considering, as the story points out, that the indigo plants later used to create the color blue became a major product of slavery.

And to seal the deal, Daniel Minter’s illustrations are unbelievably gorgeous, with rich, luminescent watercolors and bold linework that, combined, are fitting for a story of a color so essential to people and cultures throughout history.

What book is it? The Gardener of Alcatraz: A True Story, written by Emma Bland Smith and illustrated by Jenn Ely

Who recommended it? Linda Baie at TeacherDance!

What does the publisher say? "When Elliott Michener was locked away in Alcatraz for counterfeiting, he was determined to defy the odds and bust out. But when he got a job tending the prison garden, a funny thing happened. Thoughts of escape were replaced with new interests and skills--and a sense of dignity and fulfillment. Elliott transformed Alcatraz Island, and the island transformed him.

Told with empathy and a storyteller's flair, Elliott's story is funny, touching, and unexpectedly relevant. Back matter about the history of Alcatraz and the US prison system today invites meaningful discussion."

What stood out to me? This book grabbed me from the opening lines:

The boat chugged out of San Francisco and into the bay. Sound nice? It wasn’t. This was no pleasure outing, let me tell you.

I’ve noticed in this challenge how some picture books pair gorgeous illustrations with subpar writing, but luckily, this fascinating biography about the prisoner-turned-sincere-gardener of Alcatraz pairs fantastic illustrations with a distinct, snappy writing style!

Not only is it fascinating to think about beautiful plants growing near Alcatraz in the first place, but it’s also wonderful to see our main character Elliott Michener’s possibly-fictionalized-but-fulfilling gentle arc from frustrated criminal to compassionate caretaker of flowers and other plants.

I also appreciate the conversation in the back matter about the benefits of work for incarcerated people but also the iffy ethics of using incarcerated people for labor—and also the point that Michener’s own white privilege may have enabled him to obtain a position that other prisoners would not have been offered.


My favorite book of this set: Our Little Kitchen (with The Barnabus Project close behind!)

That's what I've got for this week! I'm grateful to have had the chance to read so many wonderful books for #MGReadathon, and I can't wait to share some more books from the challenge next week! And below is the graphic I promised of everything I read this weekend:


  1. Glad you enjoyed participating in the read-a-thon. I wish I had someone to read picture books with again.

    1. Thanks, Natalie! I was definitely struck by how fun it would be to read some of these aloud to someone else, but I can say from experience they are also wonderful to read solo too. Thanks so much for stopping by!

  2. Our Little Kitchen is not a book I'm familiar with, but your review definitely has me intrigued. I've just put it on hold at the library.

    1. I'm glad I could call your attention to that book—it is fantastic, and I hope you enjoy it! Thanks so much for stopping by, Lisa!

  3. What a brilliant collection of picture books Max! I am so glad you enjoyed Our Little Kitchen, The Barnabus Project, (oh I love those Fan brothers!) Abuelita and Me, My City Speaks, and The Year We Learned to Fly. I am going to make sure I read the rest of the books you shared today! I can hardly wait to read your post next week!

    1. Thank you so much, Cheriee! I really appreciate you recommending so many of these books—it was wonderful to get a chance to read so many of them, so quickly! And I'm excited to post next week—I think this post might have had my favorites overall from the challenge, but next week's post has a bigger quantity of absolutely amazing books. Thanks so much for stopping by!

  4. I really enjoyed Our Little Kitchen. I'll look for The Barnabus Project, Abuelita and My City Speaks. I also loved The Year We Learned to Fly. Woodson is so good at what she does. Blue and the Gardener also look interesting. My TBR is getting much longer.

    1. I'm glad you've enjoyed Our Little Kitchen and The Year We Learned to Fly, and I hope you enjoy some of the others from this post too if you get a chance to try them. Thanks so much for stopping by, Crystal!

  5. That is amazing, Max!
    The Barnabus Project is my favorite Fan Brothers book--it is just everything!
    And I am so glad you loved Blue--it is a special book, and exactly what I needed at the moment!

    Happy reading this week :)

    1. I definitely want to read more books by the Fan Brothers at some point, but also, I can imagine it would be hard to top The Barnabus Project! And I'm really glad you found Blue at the perfect time—it was a wonderful read. Happy reading as well, and thanks so much for stopping by, Kellee!

  6. So happy to see that you enjoyed Abuelita and me, Max. It is super emotional! Thank you for sharing your thoughts!
    The Barnabus Project sounds so wonderful as well. Thank you for sharing your reviews on these picture books - I really love picture books so much so this was perfect to read.
    - Sara and Olivia

    1. Of course—I appreciate your nudge to try Abuelita and Me, since it was very much worth the read! And The Barnabus Project is worth a read if you have the time as well. Thanks so much for stopping by, Sara (and Olivia)!


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