Kids Books Quick Picks

Fall always heralds the arrival of great children’s books, and this year’s crop doesn’t disappoint. Behold a few of our favorites of the season:


Stanley’s School, by William Bee, (Peachtree; $14.95, 32 pages, ages 2-5) is the latest in a series starring a charming hamster. As the title suggests, Stanley is running things at school and leads his furry charges through a typical day: from arrival to read-aloud, lunch, and dismissal, these pint-size creatures demonstrate the inner workings of pre-k and elementary school. Bee’s large, cheerful illustrations invite young readers to revel in heading to class. The padded covers invite little hands to fully explore while also signaling the transition from board books to picture books.


In another rodent-driven narrative, Martin Jenkins’s The Squirrels’ Busy Year (illustrated by Richard Jones, Candlewick; $16.99, 32 pages, ages 3-6), introduces changing seasons and weather patterns by following a year in the lives of two inquisitive squirrels. Foraging for acorns and dodging owls are a few of the daily adventures these busy critters face, depending on the season. Straightforward and uncomplicated prose is accompanied by front matter offering specifics in case adults get peppered with a few “why” questions after a read-through. An index with follow-up questions meand to encourage further inquiry roud out this smart volume, while Richard Jones’s mixed-media renderings of the natural world are textured and comforting.


National Book Award Finalist Sy Montgomery’s How to Be A Good Creature: A Memoir in Thirteen Animals (illustrated by Rebecca Green, HMH; $20.00, 208 pages, ages 7-up), examines a life spent in the company of animals and how those relationships taught her compassion, love, and forgiveness. From a family pig named Christopher Hogwood to a giant Pacific octopus named Octavia, each vignette imparts life lessons that only a non-human can provide. “Other species, when we are allowed to know and care about them, give us a chance expand our moral universe,” says the author. “We learn to embrace the Other. We have a lot in common with our fellow animals–we share about 90% of our DNA with fellow mammals, and animals from clams to elephants share our same neurotransmitters, responsible for perceptions and emotions.” Montgomery’s poetic text proves her ability to write for readers of all ages. Accompanied by author photos and Rebecca Green’s whimsical, folk-art inspired sketches, How to Be a Good Creature affirms what many of us already know: that human-animal bonds are not just real, they are powerful agents of change, acceptance, renewal. Consider reading this in tandem with your child–there’s plenty here to encourage a robust dialogue on many of life’s big questions.

Cover image: “Compulsory Education,” by Charles Burton Barber. 1890. Public Domain.

Make Monday Bright

@HMHCo @huffpostbooks @bwon1

Hooray for Hat, by Brian Won; Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $26.99, 40 pages, ages 2-6. (Available June 26, 2016)

The Huffington Post dubbed Brian Won’s picture book debut it’s overall pick for best read-aloud of 2014. Now, the story of a crabby elephant whose jaunty topper brings joy to his fellow jungle creatures is available in Big Book format. Clutches of young readers can gather around Won’s delightful illustrations of pouting giraffes, sour turtles, petulant owls, and a wonderful assortment of hats sure to brighten any gloomy day. Chapeau to this adorable update ideal for libraries and nursery-school classrooms, or anyone facing an oversize case of the grumps.

@hmhco Upward Mobility   

Flying Frogs and Walking Fish, by Steve Jenkins and Robin Page; Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $17.99, 32 pages, ages 4-8.

Tree-climbing goats, walking octopuses, flying snakes, and other creatures make an appearance in the latest scientific exploration by husband-and-wife duo Steve Jenkins and Robin Page. Over forty animals climb, jet, roll, and leap through the pages, highlighting all the ways critters move. Expressive paper collage renderings of elephants, springboks, and scallops are accompanied by precise, straightforward text that both informs and delights. A glossary offers further explanation about each creature.

An engaging concept book that nurtures scientific inquiry and artistic creation.

@thebrucemuseum Wild Reading: Animals in Children’s Book Art

From the Big Bad Wolf to the Frog Prince and Peter Rabbit, animals have long played central roles in children’s literature. Now the Bruce Museum in Greenwich, Connecticut is exploring how and why artists highlight certain animal characteristics. Wild Reading: Animals in Children’s Book Art, which opened March 26, includes over thirty illustrations and original artwork by Lynne Cherry, Wendell Minor, Wendy Rasmussen, Maurice Sendak, Eric Carle, Fred Marcellino, and Brendan Wenzel. Taxidermy specimens from the Bruce’s natural history collection are paired with illustrated counterparts to demonstrate what makes each animal unique, and why artists choose to focus on one feature or another. A surprisingly alert raccoon, for example, is mounted next to a watercolor illustration by Brendan Wenzel, which emphasizes the creature’s large, inquisitive, eyes. A gray wolf, groundhog, chipmunks, three black bears, and other stuffed creatures offer plenty of opportunities to explore a range of artistic styles–Wendell Minor’s keen observation of animals in natural habitats contrasts nicely with Scott Nash’s swashbuckling, whimsical pirate, Captain Blue Jay. No matter the method, each illustrator engages children in the story at hand. The whole ensemble delightfully combines art and science.

Wild Reading: Animals in Children’s Book Art runs from March 26 through July 3, 2016 at the Bruce Museum in Greenwich, CT. Visit the museum website for hours of operation and special activity days.

Q&A with Jim Arnosky, Part 2

In part one of my Q&A with children’s book author Jim Arnosky, we explored how he got his start in picture books as well as how he became a naturalist. Today, he shares his transition from cartooning to illustrating,
the importance of great editors, and how his books take shape.

Basbanes: What made you decide to go the children’s book route?

Arnosky: Well,on the first day of each month, Deanna and I mailed out drawings  to see if I could get some freelance work, and the first publications that responded were Ranger Rick and Jack and Jill.  These seemed to be where people responded to my work most. When I saw an advertisement for Cricket magazine I thought, ‘Whoa! that’s beautiful! I love that cover!’ It was [Caldecott Medal winner] Trina Schart Hyman who had done the cover.

It turned out she was the art director at the time, and I sent her some drawings. She didn’t like them at all. She said, ‘This is not what we want. In fact, it’s the exact opposite of what we’re looking for. It’s all too Madison Avenue.’ My drawings were indeed very ‘Madison Avenue,’ because they were advertisements, but I wrote her back and said, ‘We live in a one-room cabin, we take a bath in a small galvanized tub. I catch our food, we grow our food and I heat the house with the wood that I cut on our property. I’m as far away from Madison Avenue as you can get.’ She responded by sending me a another letter, asking me to send something that better represented me. So I sent her my journal drawings, and she responded by giving me a Farley Mowat story to illustrate. After that I became kind of a regular at Cricket.

B: How wonderful when an editor sees talent and reaches out and says this isn’t what they want, but encourages you nonetheless.

A: Well, back in that time—and I’m sure that it still happens somewhere today, but not with me because I’m so old and I’ve been at it so long—people would say they recognize raw talent and if you were willing to hear some criticism and accept guidance, they would mentor you along. They would help you. and they would help you. Trina would write and say that I couldn’t draw hands very well and that I should work on that. That was enormous for someone like me who never had a single formal art lesson. I always drew from my natural ability and for Trina to – as such a skilled artist as she was—to show that interest in me was a godsend. I loved her. It turns out we lived pretty close to one another I visited her at her home here in Lyme, all the way up until she passed away [in 2014]. I used to bring her trout, so she could have fresh fish to eat.

B: What a powerful relationship.

J: Yes. Our daughters were friends, and we ended up living fairly close here—I was in Vermont, she was in New Hampshire.

B: Your work speaks to children and to adults. While they’re realistic, they’re obviously not photographs. They show this love and appreciation of the natural world. It was wonderful that Trina saw that you had such talent.  You said writing wasn’t something you ever thought you would do, but now you do a lot of it. What is your work process now? How do you start a new book?

J: Ideas come to me in bits and pieces and over the course of many years. It took me seven years to write Pirates of Crocodile Swamp, and almost eighteen years to write Frozen Wild, which is out now making the rounds. These things are always based on true events, things I’ve seen and things that I know about. Still, they are fictionalized stories. Whereas with the nonfiction books, I normally become fascinated with something, or fall in love with a place, or an environment, like the Florida Keys, for instance, or the Everglades, and then after four to five years of visiting the place, photographing, sketching, and writing in my journal, usually I get some idea of what I might be able to do in a book. The pictures always come to me first. As the drawings take shape on my board I’m always fascinated by them being there, because, like I said, have no training in this, and I believe it’s some sort of gift that I am able to make a picture. Sometimes I’ll walk by my drawing board during the course of that day, and I just stare at it wondering where it comes from. Then the picture itself inspires me to write the words, and that’s when the words come.

B: Could you talk about Manatee Morning?

J: I tell this story in schools a lot. We went to Florida because I wanted to see manatees in a
wild environment. Deanna and I searched and searched, and we couldn’t
find any. We kept going further
south into Florida and finally we found manatees down in Chokoloskee in
the Everglades. I had seen them at Sea
World, and the state park where you can go under the river in a tunnel and see them in the wild, but you’re sort of in a zoo-like
environment.  I wanted to see them in the true wild. When
that occurred, it was very happy experience for me, and I came home and I
first wrote a song about them because I had always written songs
long before I wrote books. I wrote a song called “The Manatee Morning,” which inspired the book. This was the first time I ever left rhymes in my text for a
book. (A number of books were written first as songs, but I took
the rhyme out in order to qualify it in my mind as picture book
text.) I did the book
exactly the way the song was written—to the words of the song. And it
captures the animals beautifully because the music is very gentle, and
the wording is very careful and gentle, and it captures what I think
manatees represent when you see them in the wild.

B: Since that book
has been published, [in 2000] have you noticed the book being used to promote manatee awareness? Do you find your books being used to educate children on the
importance of these and other animals in the wild?

A: I’ve done two more
books on manatees in that regard. I did one called All About
(2008) for Scholastic which was more of a science book, which gets
into their needs and how they what they eat and how they live. Then
there was a picture book called Slow Down for Manatees (2010) about a
particular rescue effort where a manatee gets hit
by a boat. It goes to a sea park in Miami where they take the animal in and they bring it back to health. In this case, the scientists discovered the manatee was pregnant after they
had rescued this wounded manatee. I wondered whether they would keep the calf as a money maker once it was born, because
everybody wants to go to the zoo and see a baby manatee. Or would they
do the right thing, and that would be to let it go with its mother. Happily they were both released. I wrote this
little story that reflected that event.

When I
get interested in an animal, it’s never
scientific at first, it’s just a pure love, fascination,
and joy that an animal brings me. Once I get to know the animal and
see it and watch it and study it, then it becomes more of a subject of curiosity. That’s when the science and animal
welfare comes into it. That’s how the story usually builds
in my mind.

Next time, we talk about Arnosky’s favorite animals, climate change, and what’s on his drawing board now.

The Winter Train, by Susanna Isern, illustrated by Ester Garcia; Cuento de Luz, $16.95, 24 pages, ages 2-5. 

The first snowflakes send many of us for warmer climes, and the animals in The Winter Train are no exception. The Northern Forest inhabitants prepare to escape the annual freeze, packing their toothbrushes and turning out the lights. It seems everyone makes it onto the train, except they’ve forgotten their pal Squirrel. Friends stick together in Susanna Isern’s tale full of grace and solidarity, while Jon Brokenbow’s faithful translation retains the sonorous, read-aloud quality from the original Spanish version, Tren de invierno. Ester Garcia’s renderings of partriges, hedgehogs and ferrets are cozy and endearing. As these animals of the Northern Forest know, kindness and generosity are the nicest gifts of all.