WHY THEY WORK… A Review of Selected Recent Picture Books

June 2019

This review was originally prepared for a June 2019 Rocky Mountain Chapter of SCBWI Denver South Connect & Critique group meeting. I hope you find it helpful.

Note on page lengths: First is listed page length (including endpapers), second is the number of pages on which the story actually unfolds. Backmatter is not included in the second number.

Title:                            The Stuff of StarsScreen Shot 2019-08-16 at 2.49.02 PM

Author/Illustrator:        Marion Dane Bauer; Ekua Holmes

Publisher/Date:             Candlewick, 2018 (40/32 pages), nonfiction

Why it Works:             This book about the unfurling of the universe, and our place in it, is so incredibly well written and illustrated that it deserves to be on every child’s shelf. Unless you are a complete agnostic (there is one reference to God) this is the book to give as a new baby gift, and the book to give 1-8 year olds for birthday or holidays.

Title:                            Magic Ramen: The Story of Momofuko AndoScreen Shot 2019-08-16 at 2.50.35 PM

Author/Illustrator:        Andrea Wang (RMC-SCBWI), Kana Urbanowicz

Publisher/Date:             Little Bee Books, 2019 (40/30 pages), nonfiction

Why it Works:     This the story of a man who believed, in the aftermath of WWII in Japan, that “the world is peaceful only when everyone has enough to eat.” Momofuko Ando tried and failed and tried again. He persisted until he created instant ramen, and brought peace to hungry people.

Title:                            I Will Not Eat YouScreen Shot 2019-08-16 at 2.51.52 PM

Author/Illustrator:        Adam Lehrhaupt, Scott Magoon

Publisher/Date:             Simon & Schuster, 2016 (40/32 pages), fiction

Why it Works:   This book plays with the readers’ emotions. Theodore thinks that everything might be good to eat, and when a boy comes into his dragon’s cave and pokes him, Theodore is ready for a meal. Author Adam Lehrhaupt creates the fear of the chase, but then pivots to laughter — and “it’s hard to eat someone when you’re sharing a laugh.” But a few pages later, Lehrhaupt gets the readers again, ending the book with Theodore thinking “I could always eat him later.”

Title:                            Julián is a MermaidScreen Shot 2019-08-16 at 2.53.06 PM

Author/Illustrator:        Jessica Love

Publisher/Date:             Candlewick, 2018 (40/32 pages), fiction (86 words!)

Why it Works:   In less than a hundred words, author/illustrator Jessica Love creates a masterpiece of diversity and acceptance. While Abuela is taking a bath, Julian uses her makeup, rips up her plant to create a mermaid’s rippling hair, and takes down the curtain for his tail. When Abuela responds not by yelling but by handing him jewelry, the love is tangible.

Title:                            Bob, Not BobScreen Shot 2019-08-16 at 2.54.05 PM

Author/Illustrator:        Garton Scanlon & Audrey Vernick, Matthew Cordell

Publisher/Date:             Disney/Hyperion, 2017 (40/30 pages), fiction

Why it Works:   Cover Note: “To be read as though you have the worst cold ever.” Authors Scanlon and Vernick use the change in voice that comes from having a cold to weave a hysterically funny story of the need for a mother and the love of a dog. The voice gimmick makes this a standout for read-alouds.

Title:                            The Remember BalloonsScreen Shot 2019-08-16 at 2.55.07 PM

Author/Illustrator:        Jessie Oliveros, Dana Wulfekotte

Publisher/Date:             Simon and Shuster, 2018 (48/39 pages), fiction

Why it Works:  Author Jessie Oliveros tackles the hard subject of memory loss, using balloons as the metaphor for memories. This is the book you would read to children to help them understand what is happening to their grandparents — but far more than explaining, this book empowers. By allowing the main character first to grieve, and then become a holder of memories, it provides a way for even young children to help with the process of aging.

Title:                           Little BrownScreen Shot 2019-08-16 at 2.56.13 PM

Author/Illustrator:        Marla Frazee

Publisher/Date:             Beach Lane Books, 2018 (40/32 pages), fiction

Why it Works:  Little Brown the dog is cranky. “Probably because no one ever played with him. Or maybe no one ever played with him because he was cranky. At this point, it was hard to know.” The piece about this book that grabs you and thumps at your heart is that there is NO resolution. The book ends with the line “Maybe tomorrow they would know what to do.” It is such an incredible message for kids (and adults). Sometimes, the only that we can do is try again another day.

Title:                            The Rabbit ListenedScreen Shot 2019-08-16 at 2.57.13 PM

Author/Illustrator:        Cori Doerrfeld

Publisher/Date:             Dial Books, 2018 (40/32 pages), fiction

Why it Works:   Author Illustrator Cori Doerrfeld gives us Taylor, a main character whose gender and ethnicity are intentionally ambiguous — thus creating an everychild. And the theme of loss (creating something to have it come crashing down) is universal. But then Doerrfeld runs us through the range of emotions that Taylor could be feeling, and shows the readers that the best response is often the simplest: to just listen.

Title:                            Ida, AlwaysScreen Shot 2019-08-16 at 2.58.15 PM

Author/Illustrator:        Caron Levis, Charles Santoso

Publisher/Date:             Antheum, 2016 (40/36 pages), fiction

Why it Works:  Ida, Always is fiction but based on the true story of two polar bears at New York’s Central Park Zoo. Author Carol Levis tackles the themes of friendship, illness and death in this amazing book, and leaves the readers with the message that our loved ones are still with us after they have gone. Always.

Title:                            Guitar Genius: How Les Paul Engineered the Solid-Body Electric Guitar and Rocked the WorldScreen Shot 2019-08-16 at 2.59.26 PM

Author/Illustrator:        Kim Tomsic, Brett Helquist

Publisher/Date:             Chronicle, 2019 (56/42 pages), nonfiction

Why it Works: At 42 pages (not including backmatter) and a dense 4th-grade reading level, this book by our own RMC SCBWI Advisor Kim Tomsic stretches the boundaries of what we normally think of as picture books. Why does it work? Tomsic’s exuberant writing style is a match Les Paul’s music. This book appeals to multiple categories: STEM, biographies, musicans, and inventors. It’s the story of a kid who was told he could never play music, the story of a mother that believed in their child so much that it didn’t matter that everything in the house (including the stairs) was torn up to make music, and the story of perseverance and ingenuity.

Title:                            Bugs Don’t HugScreen Shot 2019-08-16 at 3.00.33 PM

Author/Illustrator:        Heather L. Montgmoery, Stephen Stone

Publisher/Date:             Charlesbridge, 2018 (32/26 pages), nonfiction

Why it Works:  Author Heather Montgomery uses the device of making a statement, and then countering it: “Bugs don’t bake birthday cakes. But dung beetle babies do get cake.” Then Montgomery gives a sidebar with the details, showing that bugs ARE indeed like us! I LOVE this book!


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