Friday, March 5, 2021

ReFoReMo Day 5: Literary Advocate Susannah Richards Finds Books for Everyone

There is no secret formula to making picture books and each of the featured books in today’s post illustrate that the picture book format is a vehicle to a destination unknown for the reader and the listener (and sometimes for the creators themselves). The picture book is about potential and that potential knows no boundaries. As you write or illustrate, periodically remind yourself about the audience. Who are you writing for and why? The two questions I want answered in a picture book are: So What? What if? The following books answer these two questions in ways that interest me.


A New Green Day

In A New Green Day, Caldecott Honor winning Antoinette Portis combines poetry, a sense of place (and being), and a love of nature with the playfulness of a riddles that will engage the reader with every page turn. Both listeners and readers (young and older), may delight in the language of the poetic riddles that lead to common elements of nature and how we explore and enjoy.


Do I Have to Wear a Coat?

Moving beyond one day to a year of seasons, Caldecott Honor winning picture book creator Rachel Isadora uses a universal childhood question to frame the characteristics of seasons in Do I Have to Wear a Coat? The illustrations and text include city and county scenes, Isadora’s use of vignette illustrations and straightforward descriptive text is welcome in the large canon of picture books about the seasons. A very small added bonus is how the season is named on each page spread. 


The Camping Trip

Jennifer K. Mann combines so many different techniques to describe Ernestine’s overnight outdoor experience in The Camping Trip. While the cover suggests the trip is a success, it is not without its complications. The endpapers are perfectly pitched with camping supplies (don’t forget to look at the case cover for a night view). Ernestine can’t wait to go camping with her aunt Jackie and cousin Samantha and she is sure that she will love it. She quickly finds that camping has lots of good moments but that parts of it are hard and at times, even scary. Mann’s use of panels, full bleed art, and just the right amount of text masterfully sets the tone of this book about new experiences and risk taking. Readers and listeners will be motivated to take on the joys and realities of camping.



In a very different kind of adventure, Minh Lê and Caldecott Medalist Dan Santat pair up again (Drawn Together was their previous collaboration) to create Lift. This picture book adventure shows that the balance between text and images is not often 50/50. The story would not work without either element and together they make this graphic novel picture book lift off to adventure.


Kamala and Maya’s Big Idea

Kids can make a difference and Kamala and Maya’s Big Idea written by Vice President Harris’s niece and illustrated by Ana Ramîrez Gonzalez is based on a true story of the two sister’s ingenuity. This can-do story is well balanced in terms of problems and solutions. The focus is on community and how to navigate reaching a goal which creates a great model for contemporary young people who may be trying to find their way to make the world a better place, one community at a time. The two-page back matter provides context for how the author was inspired to write about her mom and aunt, and tell one of the stories from their childhood. While not a biography, this is an example of how a book may lead a reader to take action. 


Mabel: A Mermaid Fable

If you missed Rowboat WatkinsPete with No Pants and Most Marshmallows, find those backlist titles. There are few picture book creators who hit all the sweet spots with clever humor, human insight, and entertaining details. His latest book Mabel: A Mermaid Fable is no exception in the Watkins’ canon of hit-the-spot picture books. The text and illustrations are well balanced and together they create a story that reminds readers that they may not be missing anything at all by being themselves.


Chicken Little: The Real and Totally True Tale

While chickens have been protagonists in picture books for a long time, comic artist Sam Wedelich manages to update and refresh Chicken Little’s adventures while reminding readers that fact checking is a good habit. Chicken Little: The Real and Totally True Tale is a clever comic-delivered tale with “utter hen-demonium” in which Chicken Little has to check the facts to determine why she was bonked on the head. Taking on a classic tale is always a tall task and Wedelich proves that you can update a well-known tale with a contemporary twist. To find out how this inquisitive and thoughtful chicken approaches other famous protagonists, Chicken Little and the Big Bad Wolf just published.


Catch That Chicken

In another chicken tale, Catch That Chicken by Atinuke, illustrated by Angela Brooksbank, Lami is the best chicken catcher in her village. This is her greatest skill and a big part of her identity, But, when she hurts her ankle and can no longer run after the chickens, she has to figure out how to make the chickens come to her. Atinuke’s background as a traditional storyteller translates beautifully into the picture book storytelling format that is enhanced by the dynamic, energetic illustrations. I want more of Lami and her adventures.


Nana Akua Goes to School

Nana Akua Goes to School is the story that has stayed on my mind since it was published last year. Tricia Elam Walker and April Harrison’s universal picture book about a child’s embarrassment about a relative is poignant and sensitive. Zura loves her Nana Akua but worries that her grandmother’s tribal marks might scare other kids. When Nana goes to school she shares the West African tradition of her face markings and uses face paint to paint washable markings on everyone while explaining their meaning. This picture book is an exemplar of a sensitive and respectful book about affirming people for who they are.


Your Name Is A Song

For so many of us, our names are tied to stories. A few years ago, Juana Martinez Neal’s 2019 Caldecott Honor book Alma and How She Got Her Name added to the well-loved older picture books about kids and their names such as Name Jar (Yangsook Choi) and Chrysanthemum (Kevin Henkes). Names are personal and part of our identity and Jamilah Thompkins-Bigelow wrote a book, Your Name Is A Song, that honors the differences in names and how important it is to pronounce them correctly and respectfully. The emotional setting, poetic text, and pragmatic approach is set by both the text and the illustrations by Luisa Uribe. Even the color palette is evocative of a song and the freedom that comes when you feel seen and heard.


Evelyn Del Rey is Moving Away

Change is inevitable and it can also be hard and sad. This past year has been a lot about change for many people around the world and for so many of them books have provided stories with worlds and comforts that they needed. Newbery Medalist’s Meg Medina’s most recent picture, Evelyn Del Rey is Moving Away, illustrated by Sonia Sánchez, is a realistic picture book that is comforting and loving while being so universal in appeal.  


The Wanderer

My pre COVID-19 life used to be about wondering and wandering and while that has changed in the last year, there are still parts that wonder and wander, often falling into (or over a book). The Wanderer by Peter Van den Ende is an epic visual tale, with no words, about a paper boat and its 96-page journey (yes, there are 96-page picture books). Comfort. Fear. Fairytale. Stormy weather. Imagination. Wonder. Wander. The journey and the destination are worth the pages.


Wishing you a great month filled with piles and piles of picture book reading. As you read and explore the stories, the structures, the word choice, the pagination, and your emotional and intellectual response to each book, remember that people bring their own experiences to the picture books they create. And, no two readers will respond in the same way. Here’s to hoping this list will add to your exploration of the word of picture books and that your journey docks in a place that you may not have anticipated. 


Susannah is giving away a 15-30-minute consultation on an idea or unpublished manuscript or marketing ideas for a published picture book to one lucky U.S. winner! To be eligible for prizes throughout the challenge, you must be registered by March 1, comment on each post, consistently read mentor texts, and enter the Rafflecopter drawing at the conclusion of ReFoReMo.

Susannah Richards is an associate professor of education at Eastern Connecticut State University where she teaches courses in English Language Arts methods and Children's and Young Adult Literature. She was a member of the 2013 John Newbery Award Committee, 2017 Geisel Award Committee, the inaugural Anna Dewdney Read Together Award, the Excellence in Graphic Literature Award (Children's Fiction), and other awards committees. She is an active advocate for books for youth and those who create them. She is a frequent speaker at state, national and international conferences where she has moderated panels and conversations with Norton Juster, Sophie Blackall, Sean Qualls, Brian Floca, Kevin Henkes, Lesa Cline and James Ransome Candace Fleming, Eric Rohmann, Brian Lies, Linda Sue Park, Laura Amy Schlitz, Sharon Creech, Vera Brosgol, Chris Van Allsburg, Hervé Tullet, Angela Dominguez, Melissa Sweet, Andrea Davis Pinkney, Christina Soontornvat, Jane Yolen, Katherine Applegate, Jason Chin, Ed Emberley and others. She coordinates many literature related events including the Rhode Island Festival of Children's Books and Authors, the Silent Art Auction at BEA, and almost always says yes to bookety, bookety related projects. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram @SussingOutBooks.

Thursday, March 4, 2021

ReFoReMo Day 4: Author Heidi E.Y. Stemple Shares Great Books

Covid and quarantining has made my book purchasing habits change. Which is annoying. I love sitting on the ground at my local indie and browsing slowly through all the books that catch my eye on the shelf—the booksellers handing me their favorites so I can read those, too. I haven’t been able to do that. This has not slowed my book buying habit, but I don’t love that I was more inclined to purchase books that were getting press and I was less able to find as many hidden gems.

This year, instead of a theme like “poetry” or “backmatter,” I am going to choose books I purchased during the last 6 months (all from my local indies, a couple Black owned bookstores, and that I hope you don’t miss because of our inability to get to bookstores. No real theme. Just great books.

And, soon, I will get back into the bookstores and sit to read all the books on the shelf and I will find time to share those picks with you, too.


Your Place In the Universe by Jason Chin

This is so child friendly, beginning with a simple comparisons 1 book, 1 kid, 1 ostrich. So, that’s 5 books = 1 kid = .5 ostrich. And it grows exponentially from there into, as the title implies, the universe. What I love about this book’s text is its simplicity. It’s curiosity. It’s straight forwardness. Also, 5 pages of stelar (pun intended) backmatter.

--Read it for the straight-forward child-centered language.


Birdsong by Julie Flett

This gentle text glides so smoothly between seasons that you barely notice a whole year passing. It is lilting and lovely and is a reminder that quiet books DO sell if you do them right. And, this is so right.

--Read it for the beauty of language.


When Grandpa Gives You a Toolbox, by Jamie L.B. Deenihan, illustrated by Lorraine Rocha

This book (a follow up to When Grandma Gives You A Lemon Tree) is a fun fictional how-to for kids receiving a gift they don’t quite want. Written directly to the reader “First, be patient. Grandpa will want to show you every single tool…” this text is condensed perfectly using gentle humor to deliver a perfect lesson.

--Read it for the unique narrator’s voice.


We are Water Protectors, by Carole Lindstrom, Illustrated by Michaela Goade

This lush, stunningly illustrated book uses a lyrical voice which is, in turn, a song, a chant, and a rebellion. Told in the sparsest of text, (less than 300 words) this tale has roots in legend and soars through today and to our future. It’s a brilliantly beautiful story of empowerment with a green message for our Earth.

--Read it for the expansive yet condensed language.


The Next President, By Kate Messner, illustrated by Adam Rex

This book takes the child reader through history from George Washington to today, giving small bits of information about each of president, either as president or as a child within the context of time when one man was in the highest office. This is a completely unique way of looking at the passing of time and power. It gives every child the ability to look to the future and wonder what he/she/they could become. I do hope they will be updating the ending in future printings to add President Biden and Vice President Harris.

--Read it for its completely unique take on history.


You Matter, by Christian Robinson

This simple text is just right for this very confusing world. Though the art is the star here, it’s paired with the briefest of text that is, at times, funny but always loving.

--Read it for its simplicity.


Love Is Powerful, by Heather Dean Brewer, illustrated by LeUyen Pham

In her first protest (the Women’s March), the main character is worried her small voice won’t matter. “Will the whole world hear?” she asks her mom. Told in 3rd person, this text is a real love letter to the women AND girls (and men and boys) who marched that day. It really captures the feeling of a movement but also the very real pieces that went into that day—the creating, the getting to the actual event, the worry, the power of it all.

And, as a side note, LeUyen drew real people (including me!) into the illustrations of this book.--Read it for its narrative structure.


Your Name Is A Song, by Jamilah Thompkins-Bigelow, illustrated by Luisa Uribe

A girl with a name everyone stumbles over is encouraged by her mom to love her name and the power that comes with it. There is fire in some names, stars in others. And, all names are songs. In this way, Kora-Jalimuso teaches her teacher and classmates her name. I love everything about this book (especially as someone who has problems pronouncing some vowels—just ask Tara Lazar whose name I have been getting wrong for years). But, the most brilliant thing is that all the names, from Bob to Kora-Jalimuso are written phonetically. This is a book with a lesson that is never pedantic or prescriptive—the death of any picture book text in my opinion.  The author’s note ends with a suggestion to “Ask people how to pronounce their names and let them know that getting it right is important to you.”

--Read it for the balance of story and lesson woven together perfectly.


How to Find a Bird, by Jennifer Ward, Illustrated by Diana Sudyka

I love any book about birds. So, that, alone, would have sold me on this book. But, beyond that, it’s also fun and filled with nuggets of information any budding birdwatcher needs to know. It’s a great read aloud for even the youngest bird lovers and there are so many things to find in the art to supplement the text.

--Read it for the read-aloud-ability.



Additional book that you need for the art alone:

The Women Who Caught the Babies
by Eloise Greenfield, illustrated by Daniel Minter

I cannot stop looking at the art in this poetry book about the history of Black midwifery. It’s so stunningly beautiful. I do wish the poems were one (or two) per spread instead of running for several spreads—but that is a small organizational complaint, because the poetry is both lush and informative.


Heidi is donating a copy of her newest book, I AM THE STORM, to a U.S. winner. 
To be eligible for prizes throughout the challenge, you must be registered by March 1, comment on each post, consistently read mentor texts, and enter the Rafflecopter drawing at the conclusion of ReFoReMo.

Heidi E.Y. Stemple is the author of more than 30 books, mostly for children. Her newest book I AM THE STORM launched during the pandemic—so she feels your pain. She wrote as much as she read during the quarantine year. Look for her picture book about being alone together called ADRIFT coming this summer from Interlink Books.

Social Media:

FB: Heidi Stemple, Heidi E.Y. Stemple, Owl Count

Instagram and Twitter: @heidieys

Wednesday, March 3, 2021

ReFoReMo Day 3: Podcaster/Author Matthew C. Winner Lets First Lines Pull You In

I’ve been the host of the Children’s Book Podcast for 8 years now. With over 650 interviews behind me, I’m often asked how I determine what books will be featured on the show. Much of those selections have to do with what resonates to me, what feels like an important book for me to share with readers, and what book I find myself thinking about long after I read the story. But often that starts with the very first line of the book. If my eyes are delighted by the illustrations and that first line lands just so, I’ll be drawn to that book almost undoubtedly. 

Here are the first lines from 10 books featured recently on the podcast or ones that I simply cannot stop thinking about. Read each opening line in turn and then pause for reflection. Consider what, if anything, moves you after reading each line. I’ve included a note about what comes to my mind after reading the line.


And as you continue onward on your ReFoReMo journey, may your coming days be storied, and may the good stories keep on coming!


Shall we?



What You Don't Know: A Story of Liberated Childhood by Anastasia Higginbotham


THE PULL: Even if you have no context whatsoever for the story, that opening line implies that there’s a big problem with school as we know it, at least for how one child walks through the world. I immediately lean in!



Luci Soars by Lulu Delacre


THE PULL: I immediately ask the question, “why?”. And that’s the shortest and most compelling reason to ever read onward.



I Talk Like a River by Jordan Scott; illustrated by Sydney Smith


THE PULL: The absurd phrasing is immediately compelling. What does it mean to wake up with the sounds of words?



Ohana Means Family by Ilima Loomis; illustrated by Kenard Pak


THE PULL: We start not by introducing a character or a setting, but by presenting a dish. I am full of questions immediately.




The Boy and the Gorilla by Jackie Azúa Kramer; illustrated by Cindy Derby


THE PULL: Frank, straightforward language. We’re not holding anything back with this one and I have a strong sense of exactly what is in store ahead.



My Hair Is Magic! by M. L. Marroquin; illustrated by Tonya Engel


THE PULL: The character’s voice comes through powerfully from our very first moment of meeting her. That type of confidence is one I know will reach children immediately and I’m drawn strongly to it even more so for that reason.



From Archie to Zack by Vincent X. Kirsch


THE PULL: This book is not afraid to say what it is upfront. I like that. A whole lot.



Outside, Inside by Leuyen Pham


THE PULL: I know what that strange thing was on that unremarkable day just before the season changed. And so do you. So much so, we don’t even need to name it. We just know.




I Sang You Down from the Stars by Tasha Spillett-Sumner; illustrated by Michaela Goade


THE PULL: The speaker did not just love the child, the reader. No. The speaker beckoned that child from the stars to her. You are not just a gift. You are a hope. I find that opening irresistible.



I Am Darn Tough by Licia Morelli; illustrated by Maine Diaz


THE PULL: These lines put us, the readers, right beside the story’s protagonist. But it’s also more than that. Because of the pronouns, when we read the text it’s actually as if we are her. And so the affirmation that we, too, have that toughness within us.


Matthew Winner is the Head of Podcasts at A Kids Book About where he leads the company in creating a podcast network dedicated to helping kids and their grownups have honest conversations by making podcasts about challenging, empowering, and important topics hosted by individuals from diverse backgrounds who know the topic first-hand. Prior to this, Matthew worked in education for 15+ years, first as a classroom teacher in an elementary school and then as an elementary school librarian. Matthew is the host of The Children's Book Podcast, a weekly podcast featuring insightful and sincere interviews with authors, illustrators, and everyone involved in taking a book from drawing board to bookshelf. He also co hosts Kidlit These Days, a Book Riot podcast pairing the best of children’s literature with what’s going on in the world today. In 2013 Matthew was named a Library Journal Mover & Shaker and was invited to the White House as part of the Champions of Change program. He wishes he was still on the Obama's Christmas card mailing list. Matthew and his family reside in Ellicott City, Maryland.

Tuesday, March 2, 2021

ReFoReMo Day 2: Mentor Text Maven/Author Marcie Flinchum Atkins Hones in on Historical Fiction

Historical fiction doesn’t have to be relegated to a weighty novel. Picture books can combine the elements of the genre in a compact, read-aloud package.

What is historical fiction? Let’s start with a definition. Historical fiction has some basis in fact. It could be a historical time period, an event, or person. A writer might start with an interesting bit in history and dramatize it. They may not have enough facts to write a complete nonfiction story, so they imagine what the historical record doesn’t show.


Whatever technique the author uses, they must be transparent about what is made up and what is steeped in fact. Often this is explained in back matter.


Imagining Childhood

Fast Enough: Bessie Stringfield’s First Ride by Joel Christian Gill and Emily Writes: Emily Dickinson and Her Poetic Beginnings by Jane Yolen and Christine Davenier take us to the childhoods of the subjects. The authors imagined details where the record was silent or contradictory. Both focus on a time in their childhoods that foreshadowed what was to come.


Spare Text

At the Mountain’s Base by Traci Sorell and Weshoyot Alvitre and Lumber Jills: The Unsung Heroines of World War II by Alexandra Davis and Katie Hickey are spare and could be used to introduce historical fiction to a younger audience. While Lumber Jills has a song-like cadence with repeated phrases, At the Mountain’s Base is a poetic circular text reminiscent of a quieter song. Both use spare text, but their tones are completely different.


Fictional Families in Real Situations

The Lady with the Books: A Story Inspired by the Remarkable Work of Jella Lepman

by Kathy Stinson and Marie Lafrance and Overground Railroad by Lesa Cline-Ransome and James E. Ransome take a real event in history and imagine a fictional family during that time. Whether it’s post-World II Germany or The Great Migration in the United States, these authors make the time periods come to life using fictional characters in real historical situations.


A Story from the Past that Needs More Detail

Francesco Tirelli’s Ice Cream Shop by Tamar Meir and Yael Albert and The Oldest Student: How Mary Walker Learned to Read by Rita Hubbard and Oge Mora take real people and situations and add more details where the historical record is silent. In both books, their subjects are not well-known. Often authors find a snippet of information about a person and research doesn’t turn up enough details to tell a full story. In these cases, authors can create a story that springboards on the bits of historical information they have.

Famous People

Night Walk to the Sea: A Story About Rachel Carson, Earth’s Protector by Deborah Wiles and Daniel Miyares and Ruby’s Hope: A Story of How the Famous “Migrant Mother” Photograph Became the Face of the Great Depression by Monica Kulling and Sarah Dvojack tell about famous people—Rachel Carson and Dorothea Lange. They show the impact they made on a particular child—combining real and imagined details from one or two anecdotes.

Your Turn

What are your favorite historical fiction picture books? How does the author weave fact and fiction in their story?


Marcie is giving away a signed copy of her book Wait, Rest, Pause: Dormancy in Nature to one lucky U.S. winner! To be eligible for prizes throughout the challenge, you must be registered by March 1, comment on each post, consistently read mentor texts, and enter the Rafflecopter drawing at the conclusion of ReFoReMo.


Marcie Flinchum Atkins is a teacher-librarian by day and a children’s book writer in the wee hours of the morning. She holds an M.A. and an M.F.A. in Children’s Literature from Hollins University. Wait, Rest, Pause: Dormancy in Nature (Millbrook Press, 2019) is her most recent book. Marcie also serves as the nonfiction coordinator for the Mid-Atlantic SCBWI region. She muses about mentor texts and making time to write at She’s on Twitter and Instagram as @MarcieFAtkins.