#IMWAYR: Picture Book Pandemonium, Part 18—#MGReadathon Edition (again!), plus a review of Cat's Café by Gwen Tarpley
Hi everyone! Wow, do I have a lot of reviews for you today. First off, I have my second batch of reviews from participating in #MGReadathon—I reviewed 7 picture books last week, and I'm reviewing 7 more picture books this week (and leaving another 15 unreviewed, just because it was a lot of books to read at once!). Interestingly, quite a few of today's books (the first, third, fourth, and sixth) are nonfiction!
Also, I had some extra free time and crammed in a delightful graphic novel called Cat's Café, and because its unusual format meant I wouldn't be able to write a crazy-long review of it anyway, I figured I'd just tack it on to this post and talk about ALL THE BOOKS!
So let's dive in!
Picture Book Pandemonium!
Who recommended it? Cheriee Weichel at Library Matters, Crystal Brunelle at Reading Through Life, and Earl Dizon at The Chronicles of a Children's Book Writer!
What does the publisher say? "Stacey is a little girl who loves words more than anything. She loves reading them, sounding them out, and finding comfort in them when things are hard.
But when her teacher chooses her to compete in the local spelling bee, she isn't as excited as she thought she'd be. What if she messes up? Or worse, if she can't bring herself to speak up, like sometimes happens when facing bullies at school?
Stacey will learn that win or lose . . . her words are powerful, and sometimes perseverance is the most important word of all."
What stood out to me? I read a few different books written by politicians or celebrities for this challenge, and the risk with such books is that the author underestimates the difficulty of writing a book and comes out with something subpar that sells based on name recognition alone. This book…is not that book, for the simple reason that Stacey Abrams can write. (I actually just found out she apparently wrote romance novels under a pen name for over a decade, so it’s not like this is her first foray into literature either.)
This book starts with the beauty of words, and Stacey’s love of collecting, learning, and spelling new ones. But then the story expands, and words become a safe haven, a way of expressing oneself, or—most fittingly for Abrams’s present activism—a way of speaking out against injustice.
This story is beautifully orchestrated, with all kinds of wonderful details in the writing to adore (as one example, I love the description of the word onomatopoeia as “a funny word to describe the sounds of other words”). And seeing a quiet girl who loves words learn to speak out and eventually become the Stacey Abrams we know today is truly impactful.
Kitt Thomas’s illustrations seal the deal, with luminous, vibrant colors and rich, sometimes surreal details that immediately pull readers into the story.
Who recommended it? Alex Baugh at Randomly Reading!
What does the publisher say? "A red fox and a gray dormouse joyfully play in their forest home as the season begins to change from fall to winter. Soon, the dormouse must hibernate, and the friends will part. As the time for sleep nears, the fox tries to keep the dormouse awake. Sleep indeed must come, but not before the two friends have shared one last story, knowing they will be together again in the spring.
This gentle friendship story is the perfect allegory for the bedtime ritual. And the reassuring message is clear: 'I will be there for you when you wake.'"
What stood out to me? The very first illustration in this book, with a slightly muted rainbow of delicate leaves in a gray forest, grabbed my eyes and glued them to the page. This gentle, soothing story recounts the beautiful friendship between two animals (who, as other reviewers note, are not gendered in the story) and the frustration of one, Little Red the fox, as Hazel the dormouse prepares to enter hibernation.
The writing in this story has a slightly old-fashioned sensibility that brings to mind books from one’s own childhood. And yet, it also brings a distinctly childlike perspective to the story as well. And the illustrations remain gorgeous from start to finish—one illustration of the inside of Hazel’s burrow, constructed out of an old teapot, is worth printing out and framing.
The last spread of the book did give me pause—either it is meant to be subversive or I am completely misunderstanding it. But overall, this is a beautiful, delicately crafted story of nature and two friends within it.
Who recommended it? Linda Baie at TeacherDance!
What does the publisher say? "A gorgeous picture book biography of botanist and photographer Anna Atkins--the first person to ever publish a book of photography
After losing her mother very early in life, Anna Atkins (1799–1871) was raised by her loving father. He gave her a scientific education, which was highly unusual for women and girls in the early 19th century. Fascinated with the plant life around her, Anna became a botanist. She recorded all her findings in detailed illustrations and engravings, until the invention of cyanotype photography in 1842. Anna used this new technology in order to catalogue plant specimens—a true marriage of science and art. In 1843, Anna published the book Photographs of British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions with handwritten text and cyanotype photographs. It is considered the first book of photographs ever published. Weaving together histories of women, science, and art, The Bluest of Blues will inspire young readers to embark on their own journeys of discovery and creativity."
What stood out to me? I’m starting to realize that picture book biographies are some of the best picture books one can find, and The Bluest of Blues is a prime example. This book chronicles the life of Anna Atkins, from a slightly-fictionalized-but-beautiful childhood learning from her scientist father in an era when women otherwise learned little science, to her adult life when she became a botanist and the first person ever to publish a book of photographs—specifically, blue photographs called cyanotypes of different plants.
The writing in this story is poetic yet informative—starting with Atkins’s childhood allows us to grow to love both her and her father, before we eventually see how Atkins draws from her childhood to achieve the feats she does.
The illustrations in this story are glorious—watercolors, pencils, and real photographs and objects, all cast in a beautiful spectrum of blues to reflect the cyanotypes that Atkins took. A few red accents throughout the story draw the eye to specific objects.
This book is not to be missed.
Who recommended it? Crystal Brunelle at Reading Through Life, Linda Baie at TeacherDance, Michele Knott at Mrs. Knott's Book Nook, Sierra Dertinger at Books. Iced Lattes. Blessed, and probably others!
What does the publisher say? "Father, is all of the world a refugee camp?
Young Kalia has never known life beyond the fences of the Ban Vinai Refugee Camp. The Thai camp holds many thousands of Hmong families who fled in the aftermath of the little-known Secret War in Laos that was waged during America's Vietnam War. For Kalia and her cousins, life isn't always easy, but they still find ways to play, racing with chickens and riding a beloved pet dog.
Just four years old, Kalia is still figuring out her place in the world. When she asks what is beyond the fence, at first her father has no answers for her. But on the following day, he leads her to the tallest tree in the camp and, secure in her father's arms, Kalia sees the spread of a world beyond.
Kao Kalia Yang's sensitive prose and Rachel Wada's evocative illustrations bring to life this tender true story of the love between a father and a daughter."
What stood out to me? Kao Kalia Yang writes some of the most gorgeous picture books I’ve ever seen, like A Map into the World and The Most Beautiful Thing—and this book is personal, recounting her childhood growing up in a Hmong refugee camp in Thailand, and how she learned about the world beyond the camp’s small confines.
Young Kalia’s life is confined, but it is still beautiful, with two caring parents, and several other young friends who make the most of their situation together. Though certainly, the melancholy and stuckness are not lost on the adults in the camp, nor are the poor conditions (one rule in particular is appalling to read about).
The ending of the story is unexpected and beautiful, although I won’t give anything away—just know that it is incredible.
Beyond the absolutely gorgeous writing, Rachel Wada’s illustrations are simply stunning, with neutral yet rich, layered colors that bring the solemn beauty of the world and the characters to life. There are a few spreads in particular that I keep coming back to again and again.
Who recommended it? Alex Baugh at Randomly Reading, Myra Garces-Bacsal at Gathering Books, and probably others!
What does the publisher say? "Perfect for fans of Joyce Sidman and Julie Fogliano, Outside In reminds emerging readers of the ways nature creates and touches our lives in homes, apartments, and cars, and is the perfect homeschooling tool to reflect on the world's connectedness.
Outside is waiting, the most patient playmate of all. The most generous friend. The most miraculous inventor. This thought-provoking picture book poetically underscores our powerful and enduring connection with nature, not so easily obscured by lives spent indoors.
Rhythmic, powerful language shows us how our world is made and the many ways Outside comes in to help and heal us, and reminds us that we are all part of a much greater universe. Emotive illustrations evoke the beauty, simplicity, and wonder that await us all . . . outside."
What stood out to me? This Caldecott Honor book reminds us that, no matter how many ways we find to separate ourselves from the outside world, it still reminds us of its presence with sounds, shadows, materials, small creatures, and more. Outside always calls us back home.
Deborah Underwood is a master of word economy—you wouldn’t think any words could compete with these illustrations, but she knows just how to choose the words and phrases that still manage to evoke something new and meaningful, without being drawn-out or pretentious.
And Cindy Derby’s illustrations are some of the most gorgeous I’ve ever seen, with vibrant, expressive watercolors bringing the outside world to life, and creative layouts (of windows, kitchens, underwater pipes) that leave the reader in awe.
Who recommended it? Jeanne Walker Harvey, Kellee Moye and Ricki Ginsberg at Unleashing Readers, and Michele Knott at Mrs. Knott's Book Nook!
What does the publisher say? "When Joanne Simpson (1923-2010) was a girl, she sailed her boat beneath the puffy white clouds of Cape Cod. As a pilot, she flew her plane so high, its wings almost touched them. And when World War II began and Joanne moved to the University of Chicago, a professor asked her to teach Air Force officers about those very clouds and the weather-changing winds.
As soon as the war ended, Joanne decided to seriously study the clouds she had grown to love so much. Her professors laughed. They told her to go home. They told her she was no longer needed. They told her, "No woman ever got a doctorate in meteorology. And no woman ever will."
But Joanne was stubborn. She sold her boat. She flew her last flight. She saved her money so that she could study clouds. She worked so hard and discovered so much that—despite what the professors said—she received a doctorate in meteorology. She was the first woman in the world to do so.
Breaking Through the Clouds tells the story of a trailblazing scientist whose discoveries about clouds and how they work changed everything we know about weather today."
What stood out to me? Another fabulous picture book biography! This book brings to life the achievements of Joanne Simpson, a meteorologist who overcame sexism to study the clouds and make several important, fascinating discoveries about them. We see Simpson’s own personal love of the clouds, growing out of an otherwise frustrating childhood, we see her perseverance in the face of deeply obnoxious obstacles (men, mostly), and we get to learn what Simpson discovered in an accessible way that puts the focus on just how utterly cool it is (seriously, I did not know how cool clouds were until reading this!).
The illustrations have a retro feeling to them, both in terms of contents and color palette, that is fitting for this story of past discoveries that nevertheless still feel cutting-edge.
What book is it? She Stitched the Stars: A Story of Ellen Harding Baker's Solar System Quilt, written by Jennifer Harris and illustrated by Louise Pigott
Who recommended it? Linda Browne!
What does the publisher say? "In 1876 Ellen Harding Baker began stitching an extraordinary quilt, one that accurately depicted our solar system. Ellen, a Iowa storekeeper's wife and a mother, had a curiosity that reached far beyond the stratosphere. Today the quilt hangs in the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History. This lyrical story imagines the creation of the quilt from the perspective of Ellen's daughters, who, like their mother, lived in a time when girls and women were expected to limit their pursuit of knowledge, and who may have been inspired to dream bigger and look farther."
What stood out to me? This book, like another “biography” I read, Mae Among the Stars, is almost completely fictionalized—but this book makes the smart decisions (a) to be transparent from the start about the fictionalization and (b) not to try and fictionalize Ellen Harding Baker’s whole life, but to instead show us what it might have been like to be her children, learning from and being inspired by an immensely smart woman in a time when women were not expected to be intelligent or interested in the sciences.
I love how this story does not pit intellectual life against home life—for the girls in this story, learning is a way of bonding and becoming a family, whether through reading together, watching the stars, talking to Mama in the garden, or watching her immortalize the fabric of the universe in the fabric of a quilt. The writing is gorgeous, and the illustrations are bright and joyful.
I will say, I don’t love this book’s portrayals of math as something utterly disconnected from the real world and therefore irritating, in contrast to science. I can’t lie, I mostly felt the same way about math in my own schooling, but I think that’s more of an issue with how math is taught (I did not feel that way when I took statistics courses in college), and I wish this book didn’t perpetuate it. But it’s a small issue in an otherwise wonderful story that is worth reading.
Review of Cat's Café!
Who recommended it? Kellee Moye at Unleashing Readers!
What does the publisher say? "Welcome to Cat’s Café, a neighborhood coffee shop where all are welcome! Based on the popular webcomic, Cat’s Café introduces readers to the adorable denizens of this world. There's Penguin, who has a bit of a coffee problem; Rabbit, whose anxiety sometimes overwhelms him; Axolotl, whose confidence inspires his friends; the always-supportive Cat, who provides hot drinks made with love and a supportive ear for anyone's troubles; and many, many more. With a sensitive take on real issues and a gentle, positive outlook, Cat’s Café is about the power of acceptance, friendship, and love ... and delicious cups of coffee."
What stood out to me? (I have no idea whether to call this MG, YA, or adult—the characters seem to be adults, but the super-wholesome story is perfect for literally any age, and has quite the childlike spark too. But I am calling it “adult” just so I can put it somewhere on my blog.)
This book is literally pure dopamine and joy, and I will defend these characters with my life. Cat’s Café follows the eponymous Cat, a wise and welcoming soul who opens a café to serve the zany, sweet animals who live in their community. Because this book is based on a webcomic, each page or two is its own tiny story, which can feel disjointed until you get used to it, but then allows you to enjoy so many wonderful, varied moments with these characters.
There are so many characters I love from this book—Rabbit, the anxious new barista at the café who works hard and has Cat on their side, Penguin, noted coffee addict and Cat’s most frequent customer, Kiwi, a very small bird who says only one word (“Kiwi”), Armadillo, who is extremely nice but in the angriest-sounding ways, and so many more.
And all the characters do such wonderful and cute things, whether it’s Cat celebrating the start of winter by piling up blankets all the way to his ears, or Rabbit making a coffee for Fox, who is deaf, and transcribing all the wonderful café sounds for them to enjoy.
This book is filled to the brim with cuteness and funny dialogue, but it’s also smart and thoughtful, particularly around issues of mental health. As I mentioned before, Rabbit grapples with anxiety, but we also have characters with depression or low self-esteem, and there’s all kinds of slightly-cheesy but always-meaningful messages about appreciating yourself and doing what you can for others.
I zipped through this book in 2 hours, and now I have to decide if I’m going to obsessively read the entire webcomic or wait for the second compilation, One Cup at a Time, which comes out in September!
My rating is: Really good!
My rating for the graphic novel-averse is: 3!
That's all I've got for you this week—I hope you found something new and delightful to try out!