New. And Kind.

new kind of wild coverA New Kind of Wild by Zara González Hoang 

Dial Books 2020. Hardcover Picture books 32 pp.

Ren lived “on the edge of el Yunque,” a tropical rainforest in Puerto Rico. It’s a truly magical place full of dirt and rocks and dragons and unicorns and faerie and coquis. And just when you think: wow, what an ideal childhood home, you turn the page. He’s moving away.

Ren and his mother move to “a brick and cement city,” that was “too loud and too fast. It made Ren’s head fill up with everything and nothing.” He’s lonely without his wild, and homesick. Fortunately, there is the girl upstairs, Ava, who “loved her building and she loved her city.” And we look over her shoulder at the street and see “an endless parade.” It’s colorful and interesting. But missing something. Still, she wants to share it.

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pages from A New Kind of Wild by Zara González Hoang

The sequence where Ava introduces Ren around is delightful. Ava is highlighting some pretty spectacular aspects of city living, but the effect is troubled by Ren’s panicked expression. He isn’t enchanted, he can’t see what Ava is trying to show him. And the crowded (6 panel), quickened-pace of the double-spread sequence delivers an empathetic response for Ren’s situation. There is a lot to take in. It is different from our relatively gentle (4 panel) experience of his introduction of his wild.

Notice how, after an understandable break, Ren’s decision to keep trying to understand Ava’s wild is self-generated. Both children’s respective mother’s are present, but peripheral. The children find a way to mediate their own misunderstandings and feelings. At Ava’s invitation, Ren tells her about his wild and “finally Ava understood what was missing.” And so, too, will we realize what was missing from the earlier scene from over Ava’s shoulder.

Notice the composition of the ‘panels’ on the next double spread. It hosts the same number of vignettes as Ava’s earlier tour, but is spaced differently. The content of each scene and Ren’s engagement are other crucial differences. The experience overall is friendly, less anxious or frenetic. The new consideration of the city from the rooftop truly is enchanting, truly wild in a way a city would be wild, “And this time he could see it.”

Notice now what was missing from Ren’s wild…someone like Ava. The move brought not only a new kind of wild to Ren, but it also brought a new and kind friend.

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pages from A New Kind of Wild by Zara González Hoang

A New Kind of Wild is a good kind of moving homes book, patient and understanding of the need to meet people where they are. It’s colorful and imaginative, inviting readers/listeners to look for the wildness of places.

Noted:  I love that Ren plays with unicorns and feasts with faeries. Ava has a band-aid on her knee. I love urban settings, so it’s always great to see positive neighborhood-like portrayals. A New Kind of Wild has the added benefit of being set in Puerto Rico; through Ren and Ava, many of us will get to see a new kind of wild through this book. It serves as a good reminder, too, that Puerto Ricans and Spanish speakers can have different skin tones and hair.   A New Kind of Wild is an easy recommendation.


Similar books I’d recommend:  Florette by Anna Walker and Zola’s Elephant by Randall de Seve & Pamela Zagarenski, and Welcome to My Neighborhood: A Barrio ABC (also an Ava) by Quiara Alegria Hudes & Shino Arihara and Islandborn by Junot Diaz.


Zara González Hoang grew up in a little bungalow in the frozen tundra of Minnesota. Surrounded by snow she spent her days dreaming, doodling and listening to the colorful stories of her Dad’s life growing up in Puerto Rico while trying to figure out where she fit in as a Puerto Rican Jew in a sea of Scandinavians. (She’s still figuring that out.)

These days, she lives outside of DC in a magical suburban forest with her Mad Man husband, human-shaped demons and curly coated corgi. She still spends her days dreaming and doodling, but now instead of listening to stories, she’s starting to tell some of her own.

Ho’onani, Hula Warrior

ho onani coverHo’onani : Hula Warrior by Heather Gale

Illustrated by Mika Song

Tundra 2019. Hardcover Picture book, 40 pp. Ages 4-9

From the very first, Ho’onani declares the way she wants to be move about in the world. “Ho’onani Kamai did not see herself as wahine, ‘girl.’ Or think she was a kāne, ‘boy.’ She preferred just Ho’onani.” And most everyone seemed happy with her being the way she is in this story.* A significant exception is her elder sister Kana.

Kana expresses concern with Ho’onani being loud and out-performing the boys (e.g. ukulele). Ho’onani’s pursuit of “boyish” things is a source of embarrassment. And it’s mystifying: “’Why do you always have to reject wahine things?’ Kana said” hyperbolically. Ho’onani’s disinterest in dedicating herself to wahine-only things reads like a rejection. But what are boys allowed to do that girls are not, and vice versa? is a question this story can inspire.*

Ho’onani suggests that at one point riding bikes was something the sisters could do that was not so socially/culturally fraught when she essentially wishes that she and her sister could go back to simpler times. It’s a classic scene of distancing that can occur between siblings. I love the small moment because while bike-riding may feel like a gender-free zone, those of us versed in history know that historically, riding bicycles was a gender-restricted activity. Women had to challenge and prove it otherwise.

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pages from Ho’onani: Hula Warrior by Heather Gale & Mika Song

That the parents and brothers are continually “proud” of Ho’onani could suggest that theirs is a home where each member can be themselves; that Kana can pursue wahine things because that is her preference—not expectation.

Ho’onani is also offered support from Kumu Hina at school, as seen when the teacher announces the return of a Hawaiian custom in the performance of a traditional hula chant. While Ho’onani is neither a boy nor in High School, she is still invited to the audition. Her desire to perform is rooted in being genuinely moved by the thought of participating in it, “Ho’onani could almost smell the smoke from the driftwood fire….” When she sees the other boys being tested for warrior strength, she knows “she should be with them.”

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pages from Ho’onani: Hula Warrior by Heather Gale & Mika Song
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pages from Ho’onani: Hula Warrior by Heather Gale & Mika Song

She passes the tests. She is “strong, sure, and steady.” She memorizes lines and movements, and practices in a truly inspiring and transformative scene. There is no doubt Ho’onani is best suited to participate, to say nothing of leading the hula chant. But would the otherwise all boy troupe follow her?

Would the community “appreciate a wahine leading their sons up on stage”? On top of familiar performance nerves, Ho’onani briefly contends with the concern of how to handle protest should that arise. The author doesn’t linger in negative spaces, and like Kumu Hina, sets the tone: acknowledging the potential of “fuss,” while using the word “fuss” to describe the outcome of a group’s discomfort. When the boy’s exclaim “Wahine!” as Ho’onani joins auditions for the troupe, Kumu Hina non-response suggests they will move past it—and they do. The fuss dies down or remains unrealized. Ho’onani takes her place.

Ho’onani faces the crowd, feels their curiosity from the darkness (a poetic thought), and holds her place. Mika Song’s skill in illustrating Ho’onani’s sheer presence is remarkable. Ho’onani will look apart from her peers in that she has long hair and will be costumed differently and wear shirts, where they are shirtless and short-haired; but she doesn’t look like she doesn’t belong. Her shoulders and chin are set, her body and arms open. She isn’t made to look smaller in any other way than being presented as younger (shorter). Her ability and belonging is only measured against culture, tradition.

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page from Ho’onani: Hula Warrior by Heather Gale & Mika Song

Spoilers, but she wins them over. And you can guess who stands first in applause. Ho’onani is fierce, stunning. She is the very picture of strong, sure, and steady. Ho’onani is riveting. And she’s riveting from the very start; a declarative, compelling figure that you are relieved to see accepted and celebrated. Ho’onani embodies a hula warrior and she is welcomed as one, an image of someone native to her culture, ancient and yet future-tense in her youth. Ho’onani is in the middle. And on that final page, as with this story, centered.

Strong. Sure. Steady.

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Ho’onani Kamai

Ho’onani: Hula Warrior is based on a true story, a story that first appeared in the documentary A Place in the Middle (2014) by filmmakers Dean Hamer and Joe Wilson, written by Kumu Hina. The author’s note at the beginning shares details about both Ho’onani and the vital figureupon whom Kumu Hina is based. There is also a note on how ancient Hawaiian culture acknowledged not only kāne and wahine, but māhū as well. “Māhū, people who embraced both feminine and masculine traits, were valued as healers and as caretakers and teachers of ancient traditions;” a person we watch Ho’onani in the story demonstrate/embody. The storytellers close the paragraph with a hope that we can “show every person the same unconditional acceptance and respect.” I love that their hope isn’t just acceptance, but respect also. Their story is one that shows both being offered to Ho’onani. The expressions of respect are numerous and powerful in the story.

Read this wonderful book. I’ll be following up on my own learning about Ho’onani, and I like that the creators Ho’onani: Hula Warrior trust their ability to create intrigue. The story, while based on a true story doesn’t overcomplicate the narrative with exposition or extraneous detail (both in text and illustration). Ho’onani will catch a listener’s attention and hold it. That said, some of the nuance will be better attended by older reader/listeners, particularly in the scenes between sisters; but then, this picture book is perfect for grade-schoolers.


* I can already hear some people wondering “why did Ho’onani’s opening gender statement even have to be a thing?” The short answer is: read the story; we make it a thing. Longer answer: that why question? It can be can also be heard saying “why can’t everyone just fall into line?” which line, and whose, friend.

Heather Gale is a former orthotist and author originally from New Zealand. Heather loves stories of all kinds, but she especially loves those that feature real people like Ho’onani. She fell in love with the art of storytelling during long car rides, making up stories to go with the scenes flashing by. Heather has two sons and now lives in Toronto with her husband and their two dogs.

Mika Song grew up in Manila, Philippines, and Honolulu, Hawaii, before moving to New York to study at Pratt Institute. She studied animation and worked as an animator before getting into children’s books. In 2015, she received the Portfolio Award at the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators Winter Conference in NYC. An author and illustrator, Mika loves stories about sweetly funny outsiders, and recently illustrated the book Harry and Clare’s Amazing Staycation and wrote and illustrated Picnic with Oliver. Mika lives in Brooklyn with her husband and daughter.


like the moon coverLike the Moon Loves the Sky by Hena Khan

Illustrated by Saffa Khan

Chronicle 2020. Hardcover Picture book, 40 pp.

[ I read a library lent e-copy]

“Inshallah you are thoughtful of plans that you make.

Inshallah you speak truth and work for its sake.”

“Inshallah you find wonder in birds as they fly.

Inshallah you are loved, like the moon loves the sky.”

Told in rhyming couplets, a double-page spread for each line, Like the Moon Loves the Sky reads like a prayer, a perfect lullaby for any morning or bedtime reading. Well, it is a prayer, each line beginning with “Inshallah.” The author leaves us a note at the front for those of who could use guidance on the word, its meaning, and application.

The phrase “inshallah” is something I say throughout my day when making any plan or wishing anything for the future—from the most basic everyday intentions to my biggest dreams. It means “if God wills it” in Arabic and is something that Muslims around the globe hear from the moment they are born and are taught to express as they learn to speak.


Every line, or wish, in the book is inspired by the Quran, the Muslim holy book, which offers guidelines on how to live a thoughtful and grounded life filled with fairness charity, justice, and most of all, love. These are universal values that transcend any particular belief system, and I hope they will resonate with all readers.

They resonate with me. The lines wash over you, through you, the rhythm is a meditation. Saffa Khan’s illustrations naturally provide interpretations, visualizations. I really love the image that accompanies “Inshallah you are thoughtful of plans that you make;” of the child poised at the edge of the pool, Mama in the water with her arms poised to catch. And the following childhood image of apologizing for something broken—not just of the child though, but their friends also. The child’s position suggests a leading role in speaking truth.  I love how well Saffa Khan translates tenderness in the child with the cat, “Inshallah you reach out to make a new friend.”

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pages from Like the Moon Loves the Sky by Hena Khan & Saffa Khan

Saffa Khan’s illustrations resonate with the warmth and tenderness of the text. As the pages turn, the baby grows and both Khans carry us through familiar childhood milestones, classrooms, imaginative play, relationships and celebrations. Images positively reinforce the value of tender relationships with nature, the elderly, and those who differ in color and ability.

Like the Moon Loves the Sky is sure to join the ranks of perfect gifts that communicate our wishes for our children. It would make an especially perfect book in the relative rarity of the voice, the richness of each line’s meaning and imagination, and the visual aesthetic. The vibrant colors set lined in blues and yellows, layering of color and shapes to create topographical nuance, depth. The illustration hosting “Inshallah you find wonder in birds as they fly” is a print for any child room. I’m really in love with the plant life in this book, and the hair, and the mother’s face. I’m really in love with text, the language… “Inshallah you are loved, like the moon loves the sky.”

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pages from Like the Moon Loves the Sky by Hena Khan & Saffa Khan

Maybe a 20 year old child isn’t too old a child for me to read this to, goodness knows this is not just a book for infants—which is one of the reasons I love the aging of the child, the continuous, endless nature of these wishes, these prayers. Like the Moon Loves the Sky is an excellent addition to any library, young or old. Allow Hena Khan to speak these words over and through you; a gift she is offering to us.


Hena Khan is the author of Golden Domes and Silver LanternsCrescent Moons and Pointed MinaretsNight of the Moon, and many other books for children. She lives in Rockville, Maryland.

Saffa Khan is an illustrator and printmaker born in Dera Ismail Khan, Pakistan, and living in Glasgow, Scotland.



it feels good to read this book

it feels good coverIt Feels Good to Be Yourself: A Book About Gender Identity

by Theresa Thorn  Illustrated by Noah Grigni

Henry Holt 2019. Hardcover Picture book, 40pp

[I read a library e-copy]

Ages 3-9

“When you were born, you couldn’t tell people who you were or how you felt. They looked at you and made a guess. Maybe they got it right, maybe they got it wrong. What a baby’s body looks like when they’re born can be a clue to what the baby’s gender will be, but not always.”**

Not for the first time do I think that children’s picture books should be read by adults. And I really hope It Feels Good to Be Yourself will be helpful to many a caregiver. Thorn writes a really accessible book, and a relatable one. In reading the part about babies and guessing, I think about my child and how much she has revealed of herself since she’s been old enough or able enough to communicate it/express herself; I look forward to learning more and more. Another relatable conversation is where Thorn talks about how we make guesses until we are corrected. We do this in a lot of social/relational situations. Of course, in Thorn’s author’s note at the close, we should be considerate in approach—she has good ideas about this.

Another good idea of Thorn’s is to frame the informational text in a narrative. She tells the story of a family and their friends and community; telescoping out, then back in. Introductions as framing is very familiar to early childhood narratives (think Sesame Street characters, Clifford, Daniel Tiger, etc.). Your 3+ child will be very comfortable with this book.

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pages from It Feels Good to Be Yourself by Theresa Thorn & Noah Grigni
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pages from It Feels Good to Be Yourself by Theresa Thorn & Noah Grigni

Thorn introduces us first to Ruthie who identifies as a transgender girl on her way home from school. Next we meet her brother Xavier who identifies as cisgender boy already home and at play. That the children belong to a multiracial family reminds us that individuals and families can be made up of multiple identities. Also: this is the real world, friends. Note: Grigni is not using animal-substitutes or a cartoonish aesthetic.

Next we’ll meet Ruthie’s friends Alex and JJ, both of whom identify as non-binary, but for different reasons. Alex feels like both a boy and girl, while JJ feels like neither boy nor girl. We learn that some gender is fluid, or that “no words they know fit them exactly right.”

“There are a never-ending number of ways to be yourself in the world,” the author writes as children engage in chalk art (imaginative, creative visual expression). Terms are explained clearly and in repetition as we transition from our new friends to our community at large. The illustrations move us from contexts of a home and portraitures into an expanding neighborhood as the text explains concepts of gender identity in a broader context; as we learn what words mean and how they might be communicated/expressed.

That the individual chooses the time and way their gender identity is communicated is emphasized and illuminated by returning us to the story of Ruthie and Xavier. Ruthie, the older child, declares her gender first. The illustrations continue to model a positive reality. The parents are actively listening, and they are embracing their child and her identity. By the time Xavier makes his declaration, there are things we can know about this family from the illustrations. Both parent engage in domestic chores. In the family portrait on the wall, Ruthie is drawn as a girl. Mom is wearing clothes that could signal work outside the home. And most significant is that it would be expected that Xavier should declare his cisgender identity, too. Cisgender is not the default assumption for this household—nor should it be anywhere.

“Your gender identity might match what people thought you were when you were born. Or, it might not.”

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pages from It Feels Good to Be Yourself by Theresa Thorn & Noah Grigni

Besides being inclusive of a variety of gender expressions, the illustrations represent different body shapes/sizes, skin and hair tones, and abilities. We see familial diversity, and a lot of active bodies interacting with the world (walking, running, riding tandem/bi/uni cycles, strolling, walking dogs, playing instruments, creating art). These are lives lived fully in their bodies, normal, comfortable, loved (note the sheer volume of affection expressed in this book). Blues, pinks, purples, greens, clothe all of them, interrogating how we gender bodies. Animals and babies abound, as does curving lines and brightly-hued color-work.

The world is vibrant, expressive, generative, welcoming in its appeal.

“You are okay exactly the way you are. And you are loved.”

“It feels good to be yourself, doesn’t it?”

Those are the lines with which Thorn and Grigni close. The imagery a childhood idyll.

I can’t recommend this book enough. To be read early and often. Imagine your child absorbing the fact that you are reading a book that confirms/affirms that they are okay as they are, and loved. Imagine what it could mean for them to love people of any gender identity. Imagine an appealing world like that of the book: vibrant, expressive, generative, welcoming.


I would categorize Thorn and Grigni’s It Feels Good to Be Yourself as an informational picture book, which means I wouldn’t relegate it only to non-fiction sections for special occasions, but include this in general circulation for story time. Place it alongside books like Martin’s All the Wonderful Things You Will Be and/or Beaumont’s I Like Myself!.

The book includes a glossary, resources, note on pronouns, author’s note, illustrator’s note. Read the notes, please.


**The accompanying illustration is of babies in white diapers; you are left guessing their gender, and also wondering why you should care: I’d take any of them home with me.


Theresa Thorn is the cohost of the parenting humor podcast One Bad Mother and the coauthor of You’re Doing a Great Job! 100 Ways You’re Winning at Parenting. She lives in Los Angeles, California, and It Feels Good to Be Yourself is her first book for children.

Noah Grigni is a non-binary transgender illustrator, writer, and organizer whose bold and playful art has appeared in The Gender Identity Workbook for Kids by Kelly Storck and We’re Still Here: An All-Trans Comics Anthology. Noah is from Decatur, Georgia, and now lives in Boston, Massachusetts. It Feels Good to Be Yourself is their first picture book.




a fundamental joy

First, I need to admit that I underestimated this book. I was thinking it would be a quaint sort of relationship book between a grandmother and her granddaughter. Kind of a “how sweet,” and soft satisfied sigh kind of book. A hallmark card, like picture books can be… I was wrong.

Second, I may have cried a little reading this picture book. If you are at risk of being as moved as I am by stories of compassion, liberation, and courage under contexts of oppression and are going to read this book aloud to an audience (because you must share this book!), you may want to be sure to get that cry in first. If this book was not an e-copy, I would be hugging it still. (Note: I’m not saying it’s bad to cry reading aloud a book, but it can create a lot of pausing your audience may not appreciate.)

Lastly, this is a long(er) review that I actually felt inadequate writing, but when has that ever stopped me. I dread excising parts for my IG post.

grandmother school cover

Grandmother School by Rina Singh

Illustrated by Ellen Rooney

Orca 2020. Hardcover Picture book 32 pp

[I read an e-copy]

The story of the Grandmother School opens with an amusing role reversal. It is the child witnessing the grown-up hurrying through morning routines in order to be on time for school. The child waits at the door so she can walk the grown-up to school—but not just any grown-up, her Aaji, her grandmother. And she isn’t the only child walking her grandmother to school.

“Aaji started school a year ago. My teacher said almost everyone in the village could read, write and count except for all the grandmothers. So he built Aajibaichi Shala—Grandmother School.”

In a composition that echoes class portraits, we see a classroom full of grandmothers in their school uniforms—bright pink saris. They learn as any beginner does, and like most beginners, our narrator’s Aaji celebrates when she learns to write her name.

Singh moves seamlessly between the delightful and the difficult. On one page, we see men of the village, including the narrator’s Ajoba (grandfather) who “shook his head and said that learning at this age was a waste of time.” The brow of the listener crinkles, but smooths because we learn that not all of the villagers felt this way. On the facing page, anyone who remembers learning to write their name smiles deeply at the grandmother dancing in celebration of accomplishing the same. And then we turn the page to a double-spread scene at the bank. Here we learn that Aaji would often been dismissed and forced to wait while those who could sign their names were given priority. We feel happy for Aaji that she would now be able to “show him,” but how many years of that did she endure?

I felt that balancing act viscerally, of enjoying a hero’s story, the overcoming, while also feeling a sadness and anger that she had been denied the privileges of a literate society.

Singh returns us to the delight of a conspiratorial granddaughter helping her grandmother learn. Their joy emanating under the artist’s hand. We celebrate Aaji’s accomplishments, and glimpse again how such learning helps. If you are looking for a clever way to reinforce why learning letters, reading, or math is useful, this is a great story for it. That said, Singh is telling a story of Grandmothers.

Singh maintains another balance, a story universal to students and one specific to more aged learners. “One day one of the grandmothers fell ill, and the others weren’t able to pay attention to the lessons.” In a beautiful moment we could all be inspired by, lessons were not (en)forced. “So the teacher let the grandmothers worry and pray together,” Singh writes The expression, the posture of that teacher looking at Aaji’s own… We’ll get to the illustrations in a moment. The acknowledgement of age smoothly transitions into a conversation of a life and its legacy. Take a deep breath.

“When I die and my Creator asks me what I did with my life on earth, I’ll say I learned to sign my name.”

“But, Aaji,” I reminded her. “You can also read words like cloud, sky, rain, tree, mango, water, bird, hill, river…

“Yes, and I’ll take those words with me into the next world.”

The accompanying page reads like a dream-memory, a blue-print. The style will be find an echo when our narrator dreams, her back-drop black like night. The implications of the story move to a different plane.

Aaji will then remind us that she hasn’t needed to read to tell stories. She recounts a heroic tale (that will be referenced in the author’s note) of courage, mercy, and wit. That she tells these stories will be part of her legacy, but that she embodies aspects of the story will also leave a valuable impression. As her life is enriched, it enriches others.

“No matter what story she is sharing. Aaji always ends with the same line. ‘One day I will read you this story from a book.’”

Teaching Aaji to read and write isn’t a wasted on her because of her age (or even her gender). How many more stories might she discover and then tell to her grandchildren before sending them off to dream “of warriors and birds, numbers and words.”

Empowering is too small a word for Singh’s Grandmother School. The story she tells is both relatable and revealing. She chooses the most basic thing we take for granted and asks us to wonder how not being able to write your name can be problematic in a literate society. And then she situates it in contexts that will mean more to the older reader than the younger—a bank, a marketplace; financial/economic institutions. Singh asks a reader, who is enjoying the pleasures of a story she’s written, who is learning and being entertained by way of this very book, what it might be like to be denied access to such a book due to illiteracy.

Singh couches the narrative in the pursuit of a grandmother’s growth and joy and liberation in the words of a child who revels in her and is inspired by her. Grandmother School is a familial project, a community project. When one is lifted and liberated, all benefit. The story ended too soon. I’d fallen in love with the grandmother, I want to see her reading from a book with her grandchildren in her lap. I was anticipating it and the narrator instead goes to bed!?! That’s how powerful Singh draws us in.

Grandmother School also finds a compelling storyteller in Illustrator Ellen Rooney. The first double-spread alone: a scene rife with positive energy and urgency. The golden light behind her, the narrator is perched on the toes of one foot leaning a hand into a flung open door, other leg and hand suspended, her body open, face tilted up and mouth open, calling. Aaji is doing multiple things at once, necklace afloat to suggest movement, and I also love that detail of a foot still finding its sandal. The textures of line, layers, brush and prints on floors and textiles continue in presence and appeal throughout, reflecting the richness of a life and a culture. But it’s worth pausing over moments like how Rooney achieves the gauzy effect of that curtain in the first scene. That Singh isn’t afraid of text means we can take in Rooney’s compositions.

I appreciate the marketplace/plaza scene populated with women and men and girls and boys; but note the foregrounding of the women and food (nourishment), the women engaged in commerce, the woman walking chin-up, the girl on the bicycle. As important, notice the liveliness in the interactions, the sense of community captured in multiple conversations. This is the page about how the teacher decided to further invest in the community by building the Aajibaichi Shala.

I love the side-eye of the naysayers and the grandmother dancing with zero subtly. Admire Aaji’s face at the bank. Note the colors and prints and how Rooney can generate sound in a space through facial expressions alone. You feel you’ve acclimated. Much like Singh’s storytelling, you find a rhythm, begin to understand the characterization, the narrative, but also like Singh, Rooney has more to offer in the thought/dream projections and in the hero’s tale Aaji tells. The effect isn’t jarring, but a natural extension and progression of the narrative.

I’m fairly ignorant about India on the whole, to say nothing of the rich cultures housed within its geographic borders and layers of history. Singh gives me plenty to research. As for the history that inspired Grandmother School, the Author offers a Note. It’s an inspiring story I’m grateful to Singh for sharing, both in the note and in her imagining.

Grandmother School is a book worth owning and revisiting. It has all the things. A must.


This book. Let’s not make the error of only believing this book is just for grandmothers and/or granddaughters or a single gender. It needn’t even require a lesson plan, but I would recommend reading the Author’s Note.


Rina Singh:  I was born in a faraway land. Really really far. Not far from civilization or anything but from where I live now which is Canada. I was born and grew up in a small town in India, which didn’t even have a public library. Imagine if someone would make you live without the Internet. Yeah, you know the feeling. However, the school I went to had a library. The Catholic nuns who ran the convent school were into books – books from England. I didn’t care as long as I had books to read. When I was all grown up, I decided to move to Canada. When I arrived in Montreal, the first thing I did was to apply to the MFA program in Creative Writing at Concordia University. And later got a teaching degree from McGill University as well. That’s where I did a course in Children’s Literature and that changed my life. I fell in love with picture books and wanted to write my own for children.

Ellen Rooney: I’m an illustrator, designer, and artist. I’m from the state of Massachusetts, but I now live in the southern Okanagan Valley in British Columbia. My first picture book as illustrator, Her Fearless Run, was published in April, 2019. I’m busy working on more! I love graphic shapes, textured colour, printmaking, drawing outdoors, painting. My hidden art powers are released when cutting up paper. […] I love what I do. I get to collaborate with nice, interesting people from all over the place to make wonderful things I couldn’t make on my own.


swashby and a fiddling sea.

swashby coverSwashby and the Sea by Beth Ferry. Illustrated by Juana Martinez-Neal

HMH 2020. Hardcover Picture book, 32pp

[I read a library-lent e-copy]

Swashby and the Sea is a sweet one. A great choice for story time. Ferry constructs a rhythmic tale and the personality of the characters were quick to take on distinct voices in my head. Martinez-Neal evokes the sounds of the sea and its coastline, and the life of that sea foam and those heads of hair alone! Whew! The girl and her granny’s hair are divine. And I had to smile when Swashby finally takes off his hat, he looked like a recent co-worker of mine; that comb-over rolling across his head like waves… The artists are magicians.

Swashby and the Sea is a tale of old friends and new. “The Sea and [Captain Swashby] had been friends for a long, long, time.” And even after he retired, the sea seemed to be the only friend Swashby cared to have (the sea and that pet crab). He was a proper recluse (note his ship’s name El Recluso).

Then one day, a girl and her granny moved into the empty house next door. They’ll introduce a lovely bit of chaos into his life, as well as a lovely sort of repetition to the story. The girl will disrupt, he’ll grump, then carve a message into the sand, “which the sea fiddle with, just a bit.” Cleverly erased letters form a new message for the girl to read and follow. Each revised message and disruption draws Swashby into her orbit more and more.

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pages from Swashby and the Sea by Beth Ferry & Juana Martinez-Neal
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pages from Swashby and the Sea by Beth Ferry & Juana Martinez-Neal

Swashby teaches the girl how to wish on a starfish properly, and construct a sandcastle that holds. But he’s stubborn. But his old friend the sea is just as determined, fiddling, interfering. And we are all swept up in the (notably unthreatening) tension, in the rhythmic charm of the lively child and the curmudgeon, until all of us are swept away.

Martinez-Neal maintains her own rhythm in the sweeping of water, wind, and bodies. The curving slump of the older character’s backs, the active curve of the girl’s back or belly or limbs and any given time. The eyeglasses round like portholes. Martinez-Neal’s color keeps to a limited palette that is alternately soft and vibrant on the page. That turquoise is especially enchanting as it glows cool against the warm tones of brown skin, black hair and golden sand. Anyone else notice Swashby’s slow unravel (unlayering): his boots, then his beanie, then, of course his sweater—those tattoos, that arm hair.

swashby interior 2
page from Swashby and the Sea by Beth Ferry & Juana Martinez-Neal

Swashby and the Sea is a fun, engaging story. You’ll be drawn into guessing what new message will arise from the old, even as we witness what new relationships will arise from old friendships. Swashby thought he knew what he wanted, but the sea knew what he needed. I think Beth Ferry and Juana Martinez-Neal knew what we needed to hear and see, too: a joy-bringer in the form of a mischievous sea and a vivacious child and her granny.

You’ll find yourself reading this book aloud again and again. Enjoy…and maybe have ice cream or s’more fixings on hand, you’ll want to join your new friends at the beach.


For fans of illustrators like David Roberts or Erin Stead. Speaking of Erin Stead, Swashby keeps good company with The Uncorker of Ocean Bottleswhich I highly recommend. And if you haven’t read Martinez Neal’s Alma? Do.


Beth Ferry loves to wander, explore and mainly laze on the shore, but only in the summer. She is the author of several picture books, including Stick and Stone. She lives with her husband and three children by the beach in New Jersey.
Juana Martinez-Neal was born in Lima, Peru, and began illustrating when she was a teenager. Her debut picture book as an author-illustrator, Alma, was awarded a Caldecott honor.


a little more mayhem


Mia Mayhem Learns to Fly (book #2)

By Kara West, Illustrated by Leeza Hernandez

Little Simon, 2018. Hardcover Early Chapter book, 128 pp.

I first met Mia Mayhem a short while back and I was charmed and curious enough to request Book 2, the volume in which she learns to fly! After that first attempt in volume 1, I was a little anxious about how her flight education might go. Of course there would be the return of mayhem, but would she succeed in learning to fly—something she really wanted to do—and, notably, not because her mother flies, but because she wants to be able to do it for her own sake.

Chapter One offers a quick introduction in case someone picks up Book 2 first; they’ll learn that Mia has only lately discovered that her parents with everyday careers are superheroes and that she has an ordinary life with extraordinary abilities, too. We’ll witness the source of her superhero name, mayhem, follow Mia into the PITS (Program for In Training Superheroes). Where else would a group of people appear so non-plussed by a furry parade of pandemonium.

The presence of Mia’s cat, aptly named Chaos, and the dogs who give chase will take their act to the next level when Mia enters the wind tunnel for her Intro to Flying Class. Yes, let’s just pause here before continuing into Chapter 3.

“So there I was. Trapped in a giant wind tunnel, rolling around with my crazy cat and a pack of adorable dogs.”

In keeping with the dramatic action of Mia’s narrative: on one page, Mia is praised for her heroic behavior; she “made a plan, acted quickly, and got everyone to safety.” On the next, her classmates deflate her balloon when she is reminded that “I may have helped solve the dog problem, but I had to admit, I was the one who brought the dogs in the first place.”

But her and Penn’s teamwork in saving the dogs from the wind tunnel isn’t over as they are given a mission to return the dogs, which—wait for it—is complicated by another Chaos escape. Enter one of the dog’s owners, Mia’s BFF. He’ll be the one with the dog tracker. As anticipated since the beginning, Edison becomes the gadget-man.

Interior pages from Mia Mayhem Learns to Fly! by Kara West & Leeza Hernandez

Any anxiety Mia had about flying was set aside when the animals were imperiled by the wind tunnel. Her fear of flying will have to return to the back seat with this new mission. Flying will allow her and Penn to keep up with the animals (and perform a quick rescue).  As the frequent necessity for flight continues, her ability and confidence grows. She is practicing and learning as she goes. Then there is the company of a confident and mostly capable Penn. Mia learns that “when a friend is right next to you, even your biggest fears can disappear.”

With the help of Penn and Edison, Chaos is finally contained, but there is still more to be done. That theme of Teamwork is a natural addition to West’s superhero narrative. Everyone does their part, however they are able. The scene of the park clean-up is a great punctuation mark to this idea: Edison carrying one chair, super-strong Penn carrying five.

Hernandez relays a lot of the action in the illustrations, breaking into panel-sequences in the tradition of the superhero comic. She draws chaos really well, which is good, considering how much chaos/mayhem West writes into the story. And for all the energy of the chase, the racing forward action, West & Hernandez find quiet moments for an emotional counterweight.  It’s in the character arch that we find the greater victories, and for not only Mia, but Penn, too.

Another action-packed installment of Mia Mayhem, with its charming and funny text and pictures. That final line is the dimple in a cheek. Yes, Mia, maybe it is time to fix that cat carrier. And if you haven’t picked up these chapter books for your early readers, it’s time.


Noted: Frequent images break up the text; font size and spacing are also friendly for beginning, early or reluctant readers. An engaging protagonist, crew, and their adventures are sure to be appealing.


Kara West would love to be a superhero, mostly so she can ask squirrels what they’re so nervous about. She lives in Chicago with her own cats, who, unlike Chaos, spend more time sleeping than causing trouble. Thank goodness.

Leeza Hernandez, an award-winning illustrator and now children’s book author, hails from the south of England, but has been living in New Jersey since 1999. She works as an art director at a local magazine and in her spare time, creatively noodles with new ideas for books in her art studio. She loves to experiment with printmaking, pen and ink, digital collage, and painting.

she will

i-will-dance-9781534430617_hrI Will Dance by Nancy Bo Flood Illus. Julianna Swaney

Atheneum, 2020. Picture book, Hardcover 48 pp.

The desire to dance has filled shelves with picture books, but Flood brings us an unusual treat. I Will Dance is a must for young dancers everywhere. Our hero, she’s the girl who lived. And one day, a girl who dances.

Our first person narrator, a ten-year-old girl, wants to dance. Not imagine dancing. Not pretending to dance. And not because she is incapable, the words and pictures demonstrate her ability to imagine and pretend.* She wants to dance, to move, to participate with other dancers on the stage. Hers is a longing that resonates.

One day, her mother (one of two) discovers an ad in the paper for “Young Dance—all abilities, all ages. All are welcome.” But will our hero find the courage? She’s beset by doubts, worried she’ll be rejected.

“I want to dance, but I can hardly move. Only my head. Only my arms and fingers.”

In a clever turn, our protagonist wonders what it feels like to have the movement of other kids; even as the reader/listener must wonder what it is like to be her, with such limited movement and a motorized chair. Flood invites curiosity.

i will interior 2
pages from I Will Dance by Nancy Bo Flood & Julianna Swaney

So our girl decides to try, she goes up the elevator and stops at the entrance of the dance studio. Inside are young dancers “with canes and crutches, walkers and wheels, bare feet, slippers, or callouses,” and prosthetics. They are a spectrum of color, boys, girls, androgynous alike. And they welcome her.

Flood welcomes the reader/listener into their lessons, the choreography, the practice, practice, practice. And then the BIG NIGHT, an ingredient to every other dance story. Our dancer performs and the night closes on a longing emphasized throughout the story, a theme that has danced alongside her desire to be a dancer.

She has come to belong to something bigger than herself. She isn’t alone. She is a dancer, one of many, her movement in relationship with other dancers. And you realize, that dancer is the only thing we know we can call her, our protagonist otherwise nameless. This realization is an important one because it signals that our protagonist as Dancer is more than a fulfillment of a dream, of imagination, but of a revelation of a deeper part of herself. Dancer is a significant part of her identity. And so from the start of lessons to book’s end we’re met with joy.

i will interior
pages from I Will Dance by Nancy Bo Flood & Julianna Swaney

Alongside the diversity in abilities, Flood greets us with a birthday party attended by a diverse community. This book is a feast for the soul in offering representation and irrepressible longing and joy. Julianna Swaney’s illustrations play no small part in enchanting the reader/listener.

The color palette is lovely, the warm hues bright against the blue-green washes; the ribbons of movement, both visualized and invisibly thread as our eyes move through the sequences. She creates visual themes to echo the narrative; the cords from her stay in NICU suggesting something was there at the very beginning. I appreciate the skill and marvel at Swaney compositions of movement, posture, in both the abstract shadow images and the realistic bodies. Paired with Flood’s sensory text, we can imagine ourselves among the dancers.

I Will Dance is a declarative. It inspires in the familiar way great dancer stories can. A longing finds a way, and the dancer finds their people, their stage, their audience, and most importantly, themselves. Obstacles are overcome, whether it’s in the form of a tutu, slippers, lessons, or nailing that audition. Flood’s dancer finds her studio, her community, and courageously shows up for that audition. She practices, and practices, and performs despite the butterflies.

I will interior 3
pages from I Will Dance by Nancy Bo Flood & Julianna Swaney

I Will Dance is a great addition to dance and child libraries because it is a great dance book. And it offers rare representation—much needed representation, because dancers do come in all the shapes and sizes and colors and abilities.

She lived “ten years of minutes” where she was only supposed to have lived one or two. If she wants to dance: she’ll dance.



*It is incredibly important to note that when she imagines herself dancing, she is still in her chair, she is still in her body. And when she does dance, she uses her body and her chair; there is zero dissonance. I took Dance Theory once and wrote a paper on a scene from the TV show Glee where Artie imagines himself like his peers, dancing without his chair. His dream projection, his idealized self—it was a dancer without a wheelchair. [a question of virility is involved as well.] This episode, paired with outside discussions about how the actor Kevin McHale was actually the most trained and talented dancer on the show was in a wheelchair casted role, elicited pity. The wheelchair was an obstacle to overcome. Fortunately, importantly, I Will Dance makes no such offensive rhetorical suggestion. Wholeness is not the issue, access is. Flood’s dancer finds it and flourishes.

Recommended for fans of Anna Walker Illustrations, and, obviously, dance books.

a plan

71SrEco+I+LA Plan for Pops  by Heather Smith , Illus Brooke Kerrigan

Orca 2020, Picture book 32 pp.

[borrowed e-copy from the local library]

This book really is a must.

Every Saturday Lou (they/them) visits Grandad and Pops and we’re immediately charmed by the three of them. Grandad and Pops are distinct personalities that have found a rhythm, and obviously a life, together. Lou, who moves between them, learns and benefits from them both.

“Lou goes back and forth between the two and learns that zippers are made from teeth and Elvis was king.”

interior pages from A Plan for Pops  by Heather Smith & Brooke Kerrigan

Smith sets up a rhythm not only for a day, but a relationship, and a story. Until one Saturday, there is an interruption. Pops falls and it means he needs not just a wheelchair for rehabilitation, but for this day onward. He becomes depressed and his absence is felt by Grandad and Lou, “neither can taste the zing.” Lou thinks about what they’ve learned from their time with Grandad and the wonderful inventions…about cause and effect, about ramps, paper cranes, boosts, about plans that led to joy. Lou comes up with a plan for Pops.


image from A Plan for Pops  by Heather Smith & Brooke Kerrigan

They persevere, persist, and try to be patient. They welcome the help of neighbors. Now to lure Pops out.


As Smith masters the charming details that describe Saturdays for Lou, Grandad and Pops, Kerrigan accompanies with details and charm of her own. The illustrations, her composition, coloring, textures, are incredibly appealing. The text can be longer than current trend, but Kerrigan makes it as easy to become absorbed in the story as Smith does. That simple sweet vignette of Lou sitting in the overstuffed chair holding a sleeping Pops. The vibrant scene of a well-tested contraption letting loose the cranes. I was clapping alongside Pops, it is indeed beautiful. The page where “Pops has a fall,” Pops literally flies off the page and exits stage right out of story. The next pages note his absence. Both narratively and technically, Kerrigan adds a dimension all her own.

image from A Plan for Pops by Heather Smith & Brooke Kerrigan

A Plan for Pops is a great aging grandparents who undergo significant life-changes story. It’s a wonderful STEM book for children who love invention and trouble-shooting. It’s also a great book for drawing the eye towards intersections, tenderness, and community; the things that draw and hold us together. Grandad’s “three Ps—perseverance, persistence, and patience” is applied in creative ways, most significant is the way they use it to demonstrate their love for Pops. There is much to love in this book. I highly recommend it.




Venture Forth | Summer Reading

2020VentureForth400Approaching Summer and reminiscing about the past, friend, and one of our favorite book bloggers Carl V. at Stainless Steel Droppings created something wonderful:

“I created my own Summer Reading program: Venture Forth. The name is a play on the idea that we are being allowed to venture forth into certain businesses and venues once again, and that reading always allows everyone to Venture Forth on an adventure.”

“This isn’t a challenge or event like I’ve hosted in the past. It is simply something that I want to do and want to share with you. If you desire to recapture a bit of that childhood summer experience, please feel free to be a part of this.”

It’s a low-key sort of Summer Reading. Here are the non-rules:

“There are no rules. No number of books to read. No prizes outside of the great pleasure of reading. As part of the fun I did make a list of prompts that I will check off if I end up doing them, but the only thing motivating factor of my reading is finishing a book, and then going and pulling the next read off the shelves that calls out to me.”

If you do decide to Venture Forth, use the #VentureForth2020. You can also find Carl V on IG @steel_droppings and remember that I am @th3lostgirl

Carl shares the prompts he will be working with. I’m going to try something a little more abstract. I like that idea behind the program’s title, so my list will focus on books that are:

adventure stories

involve a setting, language, time, body, or life experience different from my own

or it may have an aspirational component.

A more conventional list may read:

an adventure book nf or fic

into the wilds | into a mystery | into outer space | into another realm

book with a foreign setting


historical fiction or future timeline

author of a different time (maybe even long since deceased)

an author or mc of color

a non-cis het female author or mc

an author or mc of a different age group or ability or socio-economic status

an mc who group up in a different family dynamic

a memoir ; self-help


A list that could be broken down into parts.


I will return here to list the books & describe how they fit the prompt, how they help me venture forth from my humble abode into a Summer’s worth of reading. (will link reviews as I create them)

05/25:  MG; Asian MC & Author.  Stand Up, Yumi Chung! by Jessica Kim (Kokila, 2020). 

05/29: YA; Asian & Black MCs, Asian Author; LGBTQIA+; Sea-faring/Pirate Adventure. The Mermaid, The Witch, and the Sea by Maggie Tokuda-Hall (Candlewick, 2020)


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