Armchair Cybils: Fiction Picture Books


I was able to read all the books shortlisted in the Cybils fiction picture book category except one. (The exception is Journey by Aaron Becker which has something like 27 holds on it at my library so it might be awhile on that one.) First up is Count the Monkeys by Mac Barnett. Apparently we had read this one earlier in the year but I had forgotten it. All three kids clearly remembered it and were very excited to see it in the book basket again so I’d say it meets the kid appeal criteria. It’s a counting book with a twist. We’re supposed to be counting monkeys but a different animal or creature has intruded on every page. Kids love the interactive text and sheer silliness. Ruth at 4 years old was the perfect age for this one as she excitedly followed the directions one each page (move your hand in a zig-zag, yell “Scram”) to get rid of the intruders. The boys (ages 7 and 10) liked it also which makes this the unusual counting book with wider age appeal.

We read If You Want to See a Whale by Julie Fogliano sometime last year also. At the time I didn’t like it very much, which was disappointing given that I am a fan of Fogliano and illustrator Erin Stead. This one improved for me on second reading. There isn’t much plot per se: the text relates all the things that you should and shouldn’t do if you want to see a whale while the illustrations show a young boy and his dog engaging in those actions. The first time through passages like this perplexed me:

if you want to see a whale
you’ll just have to ignore the roses
and all their pink
and all their sweet
and all their wild and waving
because roses don’t want you watching whales

It seemed like the point was that if you wanted to “see a whale” (achieve a goal) you had to ignore all the other distractions around you. This time through it read more nuanced to me, like the the author was saying that you might have to ignore those things, but maybe you shouldn’t and maybe you shouldn’t worry so much about seeing a whale. The illustrations don’t always match the text, which makes the intention more unclear. I think that’s a good thing here and could lead to interesting discussion. Maybe I’m overthinking it, but I think in fact this is just a much more complex book than typically seen in a picture book format.

Mr. Tiger Goes Wild by Peter Brown was on my own personal shortlist back in December so I was excited to see it on the official shortlist also. Mr. Tiger lives in a proper urban environment but is getting tired of it. One day he finds himself going a little wild. He gets wilder and wilder until he ends up living on his own in the wilderness. He finds it lonely there and makes his way back to the city to his friends. The theme of celebrating differences and being yourself is obvious but not too heavy-handed. And I enjoy the clean, strong, illustrations. The difference between city and wilderness can be seen as much in the colors and patterns of the drawings as it is told in the text.

Open This Little Book by Jesse Klausmeier is another deceptively simple book. A series of characters (ladybug, frog, rabbit, bear and giant) read books. As each character reads a book they are reading about one of the other characters. The format of the book is unusual and very appealing to little ones: each book that the character is reading is a successively smaller book that can be opened by the reader. The pattern repeats as the books get successively larger. There is a lot of preschool learning that can happen here: sizes, patterns, colors. But mostly it’s just a fun and unique celebration of the love of reading and books.

Sophie’s Squash by Pat Zietlow Miller is probably the most traditional of the nominees in that it just tells a story. The story it tells feels fresh and new and refreshingly familiar at the same time. Based on the author’s daughter, the book tells of a little girl named Sophie who falls in love with a squash one day at the farmer’s market. She names the squash Bernice and takes it everywhere with her. Her Mom tries to warn her about the fate of vegetables but Sophie ignores her, even when Bernice becomes troublesomely spotty. One day, on the advice of a farmer, Sophie puts Bernice to sleep in the nice soft dirt (to help her get better). Sophie misses Bernice but is thrilled in the spring to meet Bernice’s children who appear on a big beautiful squash plant.

I can’t think of any other book that celebrates a girl’s love for a vegetable but I could completely see this actually happening. In fact, Ruth asked me after we finished if  “we could do that”. Meaning that she wants a pet squash to plant and grow into baby squash. The illustrations by Anne Wilsdorf add to the charm and humor of this sweet story.

 The Bear’s Song by Benjamin Chaud follows a Papa Bear as he chases his Baby Bear through the forest and then through the city. It is time to hibernate but Baby Bear has run away, chasing after a bee. The mad chase ends in an opera house where Papa Bear decides to sing the Bear’s Lullaby for the patrons, a beautiful song that all bears love. What is a lullaby for bears is apparently just a bit frightening for humans, and the  opera house is left empty except for a finally reunited Baby and Papa.

The illustrations are what make this large format book really special. Each page is incredibly detailed and deserves to be looked at again and again. On first reading, we enjoyed trying to find Baby Bear and bee on each page. On the next reading we noticed more of the other, often humorous things happening in the background. And on the next reading we started to notice details like more bees and honey and bears or intricately hidden animal sketches in the opera house walls.

If I had to pick a winner among these books, it would be hard. I think I’d pick Sophie’s Squash, mostly because I’m kind of old-fashioned and would like to reward a book that is mostly about story and has more of a classic feel but that is still excellent. And it had a lot of kid appeal in our house. I think the two enjoyed the most by everyone here were Count the Monkeys and The Bear’s Song. But really, I could see any of these winning, it’s a great group of books.

The only other shortlisted books that I’ve read that I hadn’t already read was A Big Guy Took My Ball! (Elephant and Piggie) by Mo Willems in the Easy Reader category. Not much to say about that one except that it’s just as good as all other Elephant and Piggie books. Which is to say it’s great. I did get a bunch of the Middle Grade Speculative Fiction shortlisted books out of the library for John to read (and possibly me to read) but he’s been working his way through the Eragon series (again) and I don’t think he’s read any of them yet. I haven’t been reading anything quite as all-consuming as Eragon but I haven’t quite gotten to them yet either.

And don’t forget to stop by Hope is the Word for more Armchair Cybils.



Sweet and Not-So Sweet


I think the current favorite book at our house is Little Mouse by Alison Murray. At least if you count current favorite as book read most often. Ruth has fallen in love with this sweet story of a little girl, about her age (4). The girl’s Mommy likes to call her “little mouse” which the girl points out is kind of silly. Because the girl is also not little, but tall. And strong. And brave. Each page shows the girl with a different animal representing the way she feels inside. So she is a giraffe or a lion or a whale or a bear. The illustrations have a clean graphic feel and manage to convey a lot of emotion with fairly simple pictures. Each page includes a tiny mouse to find. There is a lot for a four year old to like in this book. I think Ruth does see herself as big and brave and strong. But I think what she likes best is also my favorite page: the last one. The little girl is ready for bed and all snuggled up with Mommy and admits that at the end of the day it isn’t so bad being “quiet and cozy, cuddly and dozy, Mommy’s little mouse”.

Ruth has enjoyed another recent library find almost as much. If Little Mouse appeals to her sweet side, this one appeals to a different darker side. That Is Not a Good Idea is typically Mo Willems. Funny and slightly twisted but with an underlying kid appeal. A fox and chicken meet in a town and the fox invites the chicken to go for a walk. The chicken accepts. Each page with  words has a black background and white words giving it a silent movie aesthetic. After each fox-chicken interaction the chicken is getting closer and closer to its doom there is a page showing a chorus of chicks shouting “That is NOT a good idea!” Similar to the classic There Is a Monster at the End of this Book, this one is great fun to read aloud and interact with. I heard Ruth reading it to herself several times. And like “Monster” there is a twist at the end of this book that kids will find hilarious.

Non-Fiction Monday: The Boy Who Loved Math


It’s likely that you’ve seen this book reviewed elsewhere. There has been a lot of buzz about it in the kid-lit world. And for good reason. The Boy Who Loved Math: The Improbable LIfe of Paul Erdos is a wonderful biography of a fascinating man. In case you’re ignorant like me, Paul Erdos was a Hungarian mathematician known for his work in number theory and for his eccentric personality.

Deborah Heligman strikes a perfect balance  in this book between the story of Erdos’ life and an explanation of the mathematical problems that so intrigued and consumed him.The main focus of the text is on the life of Erdos: from a childhood where he was kicked out of school for not following the rules; to his ability at the age of four to quickly tell a person how old they were in seconds once he knew their birthdate and time; to his love of prime numbers and to his mostly itinerant life as an adult as he traveled the world collaborating with other mathematicians.

When it fits with the story Heligman goes into more detail on the math itself (for example a terrific explanation of prime numbers). However, numbers and math are primarily incorporated into the book through the illustrations by LeUyen Pham. The endpages include an extensive explanation of the math she worked into the drawings. One example is that of equations and diagrams from problems Erdos puzzled over drawn into the architecture of buildings in Budapest on one page. And that’s just one example of many.

Mathematicians have coined a term “Erdos number” that describes how close someone was to Erdos. If a person met him or worked with him directly, their number is 1. If they worked with someone who worked with Erdos, their number is a 2. One of my favorite illustrations is a detailed double page graphic that shows this web of influence that Erdos had in the world of mathematics.

Erdos was also known for being eccentric. Heligman doesn’t ignore this. She describes how he never learned to butter his own toast, even as an adult. Or that his friends around the world essentially took care of him: doing his laundry, paying his bills, cooking his food. I think many adults who read this book will not be able to help but wonder if Erdos was autistic or had Asperger’s (and in fact a quick Google search found that many Asperger sites claim him as a famous person with the syndrome). Kids probably won’t pick up on this, unless they themselves have a diagnosis of Asperger’s or HFA. In that case, they will likely find Erdos’ success despite his quirks inspiring.

Heligman refers in the author’s note to a biography by Paul Hoffman on Erdos: The Man Who Loved Only Numbers. I was intrigued enough by this story that I looked up Hoffman’s biography and did some quick reading on the Internet about Erdos. As with most picture book biographies, his life is more complicated than it appears here. I think Heligman’s biggest achievement with this book is that she has taken a figure that might seem weird or geeky or unapproachable and humanized him in a way that should make kids who don’t like math think it’s a little more cool than they thought before. And at the same time kids that are a little bit weird or geeky or who just love math will read this book and be inspired.

This book is a nominee for a Cybils Award in the Elementary and Middle Grade Non-Fiction category for which I am a Round 1 panelist.  I received a review copy from the publisher specifically for the Cybils. My opinions are my own and don’t necessarily reflect those of the other panelists.


Three Picture Book Biographies


I feel somewhat embarrassed that I had never heard of Dr. Mary Edwards Walker before now. I’m glad that gap in my knowledge has been filled by this new book by Cheryl Harness. Mary Walker Wears the Pants: The True Story of The Doctor, Reformer, and Civil War Hero tells the tale of this pioneer, the first female recipient of the Congressional Medal of Honor for her work as a surgeon during the Civil War. She was also a feminist, advocate for women’s rights, prisoner of war and dress reformer. One small issue I had was that the story begins after the Civil War and then jumps back to tell how Mary Walker became a physician. The timeline however is a a little unclear as the only real clue to this “flashback” is in the illustrations. I think most kids will figure it out and it’s certainly worth overlooking to read about this remarkable woman.

For those kids interested in finding out more about women physicians, the National Library of Medicine has a very nice interactive site where you can search by speciality, name, ethnicity, or location.

If I know very little about hip-hop, I know even less about Mambo or Latin jazz, other than that one song and dance from West Side Story. I know a little bit more now thanks to Tito Puente: Mambo King by Monica Brown. It’s difficult to write a book about music that gives the reader an idea of what the music is like. Brown employs the frequent use of onomatopoeia in an attempt to help the reader to hear the sounds of the drums. I really liked that this is a bilingual book with all the text on each page completely in English and Spanish. And I loved the bold, bright, whimsical illustrations by Rafael Lopez. The book is all about how Puente’s music made people happy and the colors and graphics give off a happy cheerful vibe that seems to fit with the subject perfectly.

For those ignorant of Latin jazz, like me, you can see Tito Puente’s last live performance here. Warning, it will make your feet want to dance.

I had heard of the subject of this third biography. However, I hadn’t heard of his dog, Rufus. War Dogs by Kathryn Selbert tells the story of Winston Churchill’s time as prime minister during World War II from the perspective of his beloved poodle Rufus. Seeing a well-known leader from this kind of perspective often makes him seem more human. Selbert includes quotes from Churchill on each page. Exceptionally complete end-pages provide a WWII timeline, more information on Churchill and on his dogs and a very extensive bibliography.

These books are nominees for a Cybils Award in the Elementary and Middle Grade Non-Fiction category for which I am a Round 1 panelist. I obtained copies of the books from my library. My opinions are my own and don’t necessarily reflect those of the other panelists.

Volcano Rising


One of my kids has always been fascinated with volcanoes. I’m pretty sure that he just thinks that the potential for explosion is  cool. And that’s pretty much the picture I have of volcanoes, big powerful disastrous eruptions of lava and ash. What I loved about Volcano Rising by Elizabeth Rusch is that it focuses on the creative nature of volcanoes and not the destructive side that we stereotypically think of.

Rusch shows how volcanoes make new mountains, both on land and below the sea. She uses examples around the world to show how volcanoes are currently involved in changing the landscape around them. I appreciated that each page had two levels of text, one in bolder print that is fairly simple yet still gives a solid understanding of volcanoes and creative eruptions. The second smaller text block gives more in-depth information for those kids who want to learn more. This is a great way to write a book that can appeal to multiple ages. You could easily skip the smaller text while reading this book out loud to young elementary students, yet an older student could read all the text as research for a project on volcanoes (or just for fun).

The beautiful mixed-media illustrations by Susan Swan complement the text. The photo of the cover shown above doesn’t really do justice to the intensity of the colors and textures in the book itself. Suffice to say that as good as the writing is, this one would almost be worth picking up just to look at.

This book is a nominee for a Cybils Award in the Elementary and Middle Grade Non-Fiction category for which I am a Round 1 panelist. I obtained a copy of the book from my library. My opinions are my own and don’t necessarily reflect those of the other panelists.

That’s a Possiblity!


A math picture book about statistics that is engaging and fun to read? Impossible, right? As you’d know if you had read That’s a Possiblity! Bruce Goldstone shows that it is in fact only highly improbable (and not impossible) but that he’s somehow defied the odds and delivered a book that meets that description.

Goldstone covers the basics of probability in a way that even the youngest of kids can understand. My 4 year old answered many of the interactive style questions in the text as we read this one out loud. Although the text is accessible to the even the very young he doesn’t shy away from using real math words (probable, improbable, certain, possible, likes, odds) and my 5th grader learned new concepts along with is siblings.

Goldstone gives multiple examples (dice rolling, coin tossing, playing cards) that illustrate the concepts in a simple, yet thorough way. In addition to the typical examples he uses some not-so-typical ones to expand the concept: a gumball machine, a race between a rabbit, frog and robot and a teddy-bear’s wardrobe. The illustrations are vivid photographs that pop off the page.

More Math Picture Books:
Math puzzle poems by J. Patrick Lewis
More math poems by Betsy Franco
Three more math read-alouds

This book is a nominee for a Cybils Award in the Elementary and Middle Grade Non-Fiction category for which I am a Round 1 panelist. I obtained a copy of the book from my library.

Who Says Women Can’t Be Doctors?


Picture book biographies are a fantastic way for kids to learn. The best ones are fun to read and introduce readers to someone new or expand their knowledge of someone well-known. We read a lot of picture book biographies as part of our homeschool. Who Says Women Can’t Be Doctors?, a new biography of Elizabeth Blackwell, by Tanya Lee Stone is a worthy addition to this genre.

Elizabeth Blackwell, the first women doctor in the U.S., is one of my personal heroes so much of the history told here was familiar to me. Still, even I learned some new things, including that Elizabeth’s sister Emily also became a doctor. The text mostly serves as an simple introduction to Blackwell’s story and would be best for younger elementary ages. Stone does include several end pages with more, including Blackwell’s later life and a photograph of Blackwell herself. I loved the whimsical illustrations by Marjorie Priceman, one of my favorite illustrators.

This book is a nominee for a Cybils Award in the Elementary and Middle Grade Non-Fiction category for which I am a Round 1 panelist. I obtained a copy of the book from my library.

Read Aloud Thursday: Georgia O’Keefe (with some art)


Art is one of those things that I always want to do more of in our homeschool but somehow it seems to get pushed to the back burner. I think one reason is my perfectionist tendencies. Ideally I’d love to follow some kind of plan, studying artists by time period or by style or in some kind of logical way. But what that means is we never do it because I never seem to get it planned out. In reality what works for us is to find good books, read them and talk about the artist and their work. It’s kind of haphazard but it works ok for now.

I’m not sure where I heard about Georgia in Hawaii: When Georgia O’Keefe Painted What She Pleased, a newish book by Amy Novesby but it tells about an interesting episode in the life of Georgia O’Keefe when she was invited to Hawaii by The Hawaiian Pineapple Company to paint two paintings for them. O’Keefe was already a well-known artist at this point and the company (which would later become Dole) wanted her to paint a pineapple and provided her with a pineapple picked from the tree. They refused to allow her to go to the pineapple fields to paint in a more natural setting and she became angry. Instead of painting what they wanted she toured the Hawaiian artists, creating beautiful paintings of everything but pineapples.

The story is quirky, and a fun addition to a study on O’Keefe. It’s also a good way to see that she painted more than desert scenes. It definitely gives a particular impression of her personality: strong, independent and slightly stubborn. However, for more of a complete study of the artist you would want to include other books as this one doesn’t really talk much about O’Keefe’s life or show much of the paintings most typical of her style.

We enjoyed several other books to flesh out her life a bit more:

Georgia Rises: A Day in the Life of Georgia O’Keefe by Kathyrn Lasky
My Name is Georgia by Jeanette Winter
Through Georgia’s Eyes by Rachel Victoria Rodriguez
Georgia O’Keefe: Getting to Know the World’s Greatest Artists by Mike Venezia

We also did an art project to go along with the books. Because O’Keefe is so well known for her flower paintings I chose to have the kids try their hands at something similar. I gave them each a piece of posterboard and instructed them to draw a flower taking up most of the space. We then painted the flowers using liquid watercolors.


Our flower model.


Ruth’s flower painting.


My flower painting.

I don’t have a painting from John because as usual he ended up more interested in “experimenting” with mixing colors. For some reason he was really really determined to figure out a way to get the watercolors to make a dark black. He used a lot of paint and a lot of water and ended up tearing through his posterboard. But he was happy, he sees art as more of a science experiment anyway.


David’s flower painting, which I think turned out really well. The thing I was most impressed with was that he kept doing things that weren’t what he wanted to do but then he’d quickly adapt and figure out how to change it. He thought he was using a red color that ended up being orange, then when he went to wipe it off with a paper towel he smeared it across the page. He decided then that he’d use the paper towel to “paint” the entire background orange and said it was the desert. He then used a brush and different orange and red paint to do the petals.

As we did this project it struck me that in some ways art projects are like science experiments. One of the things I hear homeschoolers say all the time about science experiments is that they don’t like doing them “because they don’t work”. It drives me batty because not working is part of the experiment. If you don’t get the “right” results (meaning the results you expect) part of science is figuring out why. That’s the interesting part for me. I realized though that often I shy away from art projects because “they don’t work”. Meaning that I don’t get the results I expect, or the results that I imagine in my head.

David is our most artistic child and it was interesting to see him do this painting. I think he didn’t mind it not turning out “right” because for him that was when it got fun.

Stop by Hope is the Word for more Read Aloud Thursday.

Armchair Cybils Wrap-Up


As you know, I’ve been playing along with Amy and the Armchair Cybils challenge. It’s been really fun for me, even if I didn’t do such a great job of predicting the finalists. Below are links to my reviews on the finalists and some brief thoughts.

Fiction Picture Book Finalists

Black Dog by Levi Pinfold
I was finally able to read this charmingly quirky book and I really liked it. An enormous black dog is seen outside the Hope family house. (It’s the size of a tiger. Or maybe an elephant. Or is that a T. Rex?) One by one the family runs and hides but it takes the smallest Hope to figure out what to do. 

Chloe and the Lion by Mac Barnett
I found this one clever but a little lacking in heart. However, I will admit that when I brought it home again this time David saw it, remembered it, said how much he loved it and fought with his sister over it. I asked him why he liked it so much and he said it was really funny and he liked it when the “author guy and the other guy fought”. 

Creepy Carrots by Aaron Reynolds

Extra Yarn by Mac Barnett

A Home for Bird by Phillip Stead

Infinity and Me by Kate Hosford
This is the one on the list I was unable to get my hands on, it looks intriguing though so I’m hoping our library gets a copy soon.

One Special Day by Lola Schaefer

My Pick:
My top three are A Home for Bird, One Special Day or Black Dog. I’d be happy if any of those won. If I had to choose just one I think I’d go with One Special Day, because it manages to be excellent and feel fresh but at the same time be somewhat old-fashioned and sweet. I feel like those are qualities lacking in a lot of picture books today.

Non-Fiction Picture Book Finalists:

Balloons Over Broadway: The True Story of the Puppeteer of Macy’s Parade by Melissa Sweet
I never reviewed this one, I think because by the time we read it I’d seen it reviewed many places already. If you haven’t read it, go out and get a copy. It’s one of those great non-fiction books that takes a subject that is familiar and makes you wonder “why didn’t I know that”. I love the story of Tony Sarg, puppeteer and parade mastermind and I love Melissa Sweet’s illustrations. 

Dolphin Baby by Nicola Davies

Eggs 1, 2, 3: Who Will the Babies Be? by Janet Halfmann
This is the one book in this category I haven’t been able to get my hands on yet. It looks really good though so I’m still planning to read it. 

Island: A Story of the Galapagos by Jason Chin

Looking at Lincoln by Maira Kalman

Mrs. Harkness and the Panda by Alicia Potter

Nic Bishop Snakes by Nic Bishop

My Pick:
Balloons Over Broadway by Melissa Sweet, mostly because I love that it’s about such a unique topic. It’s also an exceptionally well done book from a fantastic author-illustrator. A close second for me would be Island: The Story of the Galapagos by Jason Chin.

Those are my picks, how about you? Have you read any of the Cybils finalists? What were your favorites?

Non-Fiction Monday: A Few Cybils Finalists


I’m continuing to read through the lists of Cybils picture book finalists. This first book by author Jason Chin does a really remarkable job of taking a very complex topic and making it easy to understand. Island: A Story of the Galapagos looks at the geological and biological processes that led over millions of years to the Galapagos Islands of today. Chin’s simple but lyrical text is as beautiful as his illustrations. I liked that he shows Darwin arriving in the Epilogue but more chooses to focus on the islands themselves than on the scientist. It’s an interesting and unique perspective to the story. If you aren’t someone who believes in evolution, this may not be the book for you. I happen to be a Christian who does believe in evolution and I would find this book a wonderful addition to an elementary science curriculum.

We read Dolphin Baby by Nicola Davies sometime last year but I never got around to reviewing it. In all honesty, I liked it but it wasn’t a book that struck me as particularly special so it just slipped back into the library return pile. I decided to take a second look when the Cybils finalists list came out. It is a good book but I still think it’s not as good as many of the other nonfiction picture books we read last year. I do like that the text reads very much like a story, this makes it appealing to kids who aren’t huge non-fiction fans and to younger kids. The story follows a newly-born dolphin calf as he takes his first breath of air to when he learns his very own particular whistle (his “name” in Dolphin). It’s a sweet book and Davies does do a nice job of weaving in many fascinating facts about dolphins to the story of this one mother-baby dolphin pair.

If this book was nothing else but photographs it would be amazing but Nic Bishop Snakes is packed full of information on every sort of snake imaginable. I’ve always been scared of snakes but have had to get over that a bit as John has always loved them. His favorite house at the zoo for many years was the reptile house and we have gone many times to gaze on the pythons and boas and vipers. The more venomous and deadly the more fascinating in John’s eyes. I have found that over time I’ve become less creeped out by snakes (although I do think a healthy respect for an animal that can be deadly is just common sense) and more convinced that they are indeed fascinating creatures. Nic Bishop’s book will delight future herpetologists and perhaps win a few over some of the snake haters.

Nonfiction Monday is hosted this week at 100 Scope Notes.


And come back again tomorrow for an Armchair Cybils wrap-up. I hope to have read all the finalists in both the fiction and non-fiction picture book categories by then and share my predictions for the winners.