Little Red

Little Red text and art copyright Bethan Woollvin. Reproduced with permission from Peachtree Publishers


Little Red, by Bethan Woollvin; Peachtree Publishers, $16.95, 32 pages, ages 3-6.

Wolves remain popular subjects in picture books this year–check out our October write-up on the topic–and in this sly retelling of Little Red Riding Hood, the wolf cuts a mean figure. In debut picture-book creator Bethan Woollvin’s hands, however, the menacing wolf meets his match. Swathed in scarlet red from head to toe, Little Red is nobody’s fool, and when she crosses the wolf en route to her grandmother’s house, our plucky heroine knows right away what he’s planning to do, and won’t let him get away unpunished for it, either. A chance wolf encounter might scare some little girls away, “but not this little girl,” says the narrator. (This refrain is repeated throughout, highlighting Little Red’s steely composure.) Little Red follows the traditional storyline, but, as with any retelling, there’s a twist–take a wild guess who wields the axe in this version and comes home with a brand-new fur coat. (Grandma, sadly, never comes back.)

Bold graphic gouache illustrations rendered in black, white, red, and gray have a strong, slightly retro feel, and Little Red, with her unsmiling, unfazed demeanor would fit right into any Jon Klassen book.

An edgy re-examination of an already twisted fairy tale, Little Red shows that smart girls can take care of themselves.

Election Day Quick Picks

So many wonderful titles appear in the fall and winter months that it’s hard to keep up with all of them. To wit, here are four fantastic titles sure to brighten your day, no matter who wins at the ballot box:


Madeline Finn and the Library Dog, by Lisa Papp; Peachtree Publishers, $16.95, 32 pages, ages 4-7 (October 2016).

Reluctant readers, rejoice: Madeline Finn hates to read, too. That is, until she meets Bonnie, a docile, patient library dog whose calm, quiet presence encourages the young girl to keep on trying, despite making mistakes. After all, practice makes progress. Award-winning author-illustrator Lisa Papp makes a warm and furry case for canine companions as literary sidekicks in this fun and uplifting tale.


(Copyright 2016 Lisa Papp. Image courtesy of Peachtree publishers.)

Sweaterweather and Other Short Stories, by Sara Varon; First Second Books, $19.99, 128 pages, ages 8-12 (February 2016).


Sara Varon is something of a cult figure for the pre-teen set: her offbeat cartoons and graphic novels are deceptively clever and engaging. Fans will find much to enjoy in this re-issue from 2003 of seventeen illustrated essays exploring the creative process, short stories, and, of course, comics, in which cats, ducks, and elephants share real estate in Brooklyn alongside their human friends. Updated with Varon’s notes for a new generation.

Dinosaurs in Disguise, by Stephen Krensky, illustrated by Lynn Munsinger; HMH Books for Young Readers, $17.99, 32 pages, ages 2-5 (October 2016).


Veteran author-illustrator duo Stephen Krensky and Lynn Munsinger have teamed up to explore a tantalizing hypothesis: What if the dinosaurs never actually went instinct? A little boy imagines where the giant lizards may have hidden throughout human history, from ancient Egypt to modern times. Expect much laughter with this lovable read-aloud.


(Text copyright 2016 Stephen Krensky, art copyright 2016 Lynn Munsinger. Reproduced with permission from HMH Books for Young Readers.) 

We Found a Hat, by Jon Klassen; Candlewick Press, $17.99, 56 pages, ages 3-7 (October 2016).


Two desert-dwelling turtles come upon a hat in the sand that bears a strange resemblance to the one worn by The Man in the Curious George series. Both creatures take turns wearing the topper, and decide the best thing to do is leave it for its owner. But will they? This is a Klassen book, so the resolution to the great moral conundrum plays out with delightful poker-faced quirkiness. In this finale to the Hat series, don’t be discouraged by the length–fifty-six pages seems long, but the pacing is just right for indecisive turtles.


(We Found a Hat. Copyright © 2016 by Jon Klassen. Reproduced by permission of the publisher, Candlewick Press, Somerville, MA.)

Jon Klassen is having something of a moment now–the WSJ ran a Q&A with the Caldecott winner today: I had the pleasure of speaking with him this summer for my story in this month’s issue of Fine Books & Collections (print only, alas). You can, however, check out my profile on Klassen from way back in 2014, when “Sam and Dave Dig a Hole” was just released. This guy’s going places–

The Witch’s Boy


Kelly Barnhill spoke with me on a chilly, snow-covered day in November about her  latest book, The Witch’s Boy. She talked about magic and danger in middle-grade literature, how children tackle parental substance abuse, and how those kids can beat the odds. Even though Barnhill was battling a fearsome cough during our conversation, her spirit and enthusiasm was warm and inspiring.

The Witch’s Boy feels like a recently unearthed tale by the Grimm brothers. It takes place in a faraway Celtic universe, where a Bandit King searches for magic protected by a witch. The witch has a son, Ned, the surviving twin of a tragic rafting accident which left him melancholic and with a debilitating stutter. In order to prevent war and save the magic from the Bandit King, Ned must find his courage and inner strength. At first glance, he does not possess typical heroic traits. He is small and uninspiring, with a stutter to boot. Nevertheless, Ned takes up the mantle, and his sidekicks include a wolf and a young girl named Àine, (pronounced Anya) whose father, the Bandit King, becomes more obsessed with obtaining the magic as he nears it.  Danger faces the children at every turn as they rely on each other to survive and bring peace to their world.  It’s not clear the pair will succeed, and they suffer throughout their journey – in a pivotal early moment, Ned saves the magic from the Bandit King by commanding it to reside within him, causing his skin to burn and turn blue. Àine is torn between her distant father and Ned, and fears she may have to kill her traveling companion if forced to choose between the two. The jacket art shows the travelers in silhouette, with the girl aiming an arrow at the back of unsuspecting Ned’s head.

Barnhill was a teacher before becoming a full-time writer, and the experience provided much literary grist. She taught middle school, then worked in the basement classroom of a drop-in center for homeless youth in Minneapolis. Students often came from fragmented families, were victims of abuse and neglect, and others were unable to read at their grade level. Barnhill told me that addiction was a recurring theme in many children’s lives. “When I taught in highly stressed out communities, parental addiction was a big issue. A lot of kids were in foster care, and their parents could not get their lives together, partly because they were enslaved by their own addictions.”

While adults may recognize a foster home as providing a safer environment, children often cannot let go of their parents, and Barnhill found that many would have preferred to stay and endure alongside them. Children have an amazing ability to pick up on the smallest things, then internalize and misinterpret their meanings; blaming themselves for their parents’ addictions, for example.  In The Witch’s Boy, Barnhill illustrates how addiction is dangerous not just to those powerless to overcome it, but to loved ones relegated to the sidelines. “People love their addiction and they do love their child. But they love their addiction more, which creates an interesting dynamic,” she said. The Bandit King loves his child, and he loved Àine’s mother too – so much that, for a time, he was able to leave magic behind.  But with the death of his beloved wife, he reverts. “This happens with grief in real life,” said Barnhill. “People resume that addictive behavior, and all of the bad choices and disruption comes swooping back.”

Despite the overwhelming disadvantages that homeless children face, Barnhill found the experience thoroughly rewarding and that the children in her program were motivated to succeed. “It was an amazing job because the stats for homeless youth are so terrible,” she said. “I was the drop in teacher at this center where kids could come and be safe. Homeless kids can be skittish. It was a safe place with food and doctors, social workers and then there I was, filling in the gaps of their education.” Some of those children really big gaps, but because they were choosing to come to the center, they were more likely to beat the statistics stacked against them. Many of Barnhill’s students got their GEDS, and she helped others with their college applications and FAFSA requirements.

There’s no lack of violence in Barnhill’s book, and the children bear the consequences of their parents’ choices. Within all the cruelty and harm that befalls Ned and Àine, those are authentic, teachable moments. Barnhill considers her work and the work of other children’s book authors as crucial in shaping young minds. “Children’s book authors have a bit of the evangelist in them. We are all profound believers in children’s literacy and in the power of books for children.”

Developing empathy and an understanding of one’s place in the world requires reading powerful, moving stories.  Barnhill’s book is not escapist literature, nor is it an exercise in descriptive horror. Rather, its allow critical examination of societies where danger is ever-present. Children may take some comfort in reading them, but the story is frightening – the fate of an entire community rests on the shoulders of youth. Still, the experience of childhood is full of anxiety, and this book offers children the tools to navigate the complexities of the world.

So many middle middle grade books are all violence and no plot, or are overly saccarine and dull, but in The Witch’s Boy, no one is perfect the characters’ personalities change. “Human beings are complicated,” Barnhill said. “I never wanted to write a good against evil story because it’s not true. Look at human history – you don’t see good triumphing over evil, it’s  people making conscious choices to make good decisions. Just because a good side wins, it’s not the end of the story. The victors have to make good decisions after the war is over.”

While it seemed the book was written in such as way that a sequel isn’t out of the question, Barnhill wasn’t too sure it needed one. “I like stand-alones. The sequel is written on the heart of the reader. I have no intention to write a sequel right now because I’ve left my characters in a good place.”  Barnhill’s working another fantasy called The Girl Who Drank the Moon, and she’s also writing a libretto – Minnesota opera adapted her work as an opera for children, and will be sung by children.

The Witch’s Boy, by Kelly Barnhill; Algonquin Books for Young Readers, $16.95, 384 pages, ages 11-14.

Jon Klassen on Making Art for Kids

In July I spoke with Caldecott and Greenaway Medal winner Jon Klassen (This is Not My Hat) about his most recent project, a collaboration with writer and longtime friend Mac Barnett called Sam and Dave Dig a Hole. (Candlewick, $17.99) We talked about teamwork, tone, and teaching life’s lessons through thoughtful and deliberate illustration.

Klassen first worked with Barnett on the Caldecott Honor winner Extra Yarn, and was excited to reunite professionally for Sam and Dave Dig a Hole.  “When Mac wrote Extra Yarn, he wrote with my artwork in mind. For example, ‘The town was covered in soot,’ was just for me, because he knew how much I like to make splattery, dusty art. There were many little favors like that in the book.” There’s more dirt here, where Klassen’s restrained, quirkily stiff characters dig for buried treasure alongside Barnett’s spare text, creating a superb interplay of text and art.  Still, Klassen was nervous about drawing humans. “I don’t draw people very often – I usually avoid them because people are supposed to be cute.“ (Think of his larcenous critters in This is Not My Hat and I Want my Hat Back.) Here, the boys dig in search of treasure, but miss hidden gems at every turn, and often by mere inches.  Their faithful dog frequently sports a pained look on his face, sharing the readers’ understanding that the boys are just barely digging past something extraordinary. 

Both Barnett and Klassen have similar ideas about the tone they want to set for any given project, and that may explain why their books have a seamless quality about them.  “Mac understands why I like things to be a certain way, and he backs that up with text. As an illustrator, it’s nice to work with someone who meets you in the middle.”  

While Barnett wrote Sam and Dave Dig a Hole, Klassen was already sketching. He created an image where the boys separated, digging tunnels at either end of a page, while a massive jewel remains hidden between them. Barnett hadn’t written that scene yet. When Klassen showed him the drawing, the story changed to accommodate the art.  “We designed the book so that wherever the boys were digging on the left spread, the text would line up with them in space on the right spread. I thought about what would happen if the boys split up, and if the text followed suit.” Initially, Barnett hesitated because he felt it might be traumatic for the readers if the boys separated, then realized that this could become the pivotal moment in the tale. “This became a big deal. I like when you come at an idea with a neat design, and then you ask what the emotional implications of this idea will be.”  The separation brings an actual dilemma, yet the boys push on with surprising strength and resolve. (Spoiler: they miss the gem again, but it’s a great sight gag. A nap, hidden bones, more dirt and a plunge through space follow.)

Klassen’s art is deceptively simple – his colored pencil drawings give the gems, the boys, even the dog, a scratchy, zig-zaggy, dusty quality. Children might be tempted to recreate those characters, much like Mo Willems’ Pigeon is so often imitated by little artists. “These are very simple drawings. Kids appreciate simplicity, something that looks attainable,” said Klassen. And while many illustrators are capable of creating sophisticated, complex works of art, Klassen argues that isn’t the goal for children’s picture books. “I don’t think it’s the job of an illustrator to show off. The point is to tell a story to kids. If you look at anything by P.D. Eastman, for example, the art isn’t showy, but it’s so well staged. Eastman was solving so many problems on the back end before he even started drawing. Some of his books are strange and complicated, but they work.” The challenge lies in tackling big problems with clear text and artistry. Done well, an author can tackle difficult emotional topics through accessible storytelling and illustration.

Despite earning numerous laurels from the publishing industry, the media, and fellow illustrators, Klassen remains what he calls ‘a nervous artist.’ Having grown up on classic picture books like those by P.D. Eastman and Arnold Lobel, Klassen says the bar is set pretty high. “I can’t get away from being nervous about it. These can become revered treasures for children.  It’s hard to completely understand the things these books are supposed to do, and the importance they can have in kids’ lives. So there’s a massive amount of anxiety for me, because I know how special these books can be. When I see books that got it right, it’s wonderful.”