Cybils Nonfiction Picture Books

This year’s Cybils Nonfiction picture books was heavy on the nature/environment theme, with a whopping five out of the six titles falling under said theme.

I read four of the Cybils finalists, three environmental/nature ones and the lone non-natural book.

Cybils nonfiction picture books

All the Water in the World by George Ella Lyon and Katherine Tillotson is a poetic celebration of the water cycle, with text that TaP dAnCeS and sprays with different fonts and sizes of fonts. The illustrations flow in semi-abstract fashion.

This is a great conversation-opener, but will require conversation about the water cycle, since it doesn’t so much explain as it eludes to how the water cycle works.

Can We Save the Tiger? written by Martin Jenkins and illustrated by Vicky White tells about animals that are extinct, animals that are endangered (like the tiger), and once endangered animals that have been preserved. The illustrations are classic nature notebook stuff–highly detailed black and white shaded drawings with the occasional colored bit.

This book did a nice job of balancing the interests of animals with the interests of humanity–and talking about the difficult decisions stewardship of the earth involves (not that it uses the term “stewardship” to describe it.)

Thunder Birds by Jim Arnosky is classic Arnosky, featuring fantastic nature drawings. This title showcases the avian predators in their fierce glory. The fold-out pages often allow for life-size drawings of bird heads, accompanied by statistics about each type of bird and a narrative piece about Jim’s (and often his wife Deanna’s) experiences with each bird.

This is the least narrative of the books so far, meant more for browsing and reading in short snippets than for reading aloud all in one setting. The fold-out pages are fascinating and it’s fun to have a glimpse of the size of the animals–but I fear the format isn’t as durable as a normal two-page spread.

I enjoyed all three of these books, but something about them rubbed me a little wrong. It took me a while to identify it, but I think I finally figured it out.

In an age where we eschew “moralistic” literature and (rightly?) consider the Victorian morality pieces to be pedantic, we seem to have no problem allowing environmentalism to be the new morality. As long as it’s environmentalism we’re championing, it’s just fine to moralize.

Thus, All the Water in the World ends with the injunction “All so precious–do not waste it. And delicious–we can taste it. Keep it clear, keep it clean…keep Earth green.”

Okay, I’m all about keeping water clean and keeping Earth green. But this feels a little bit like propaganda. I guess I’d rather children’s books (which are meant for an audience that doesn’t really have much judgment) focus more on facts and less on persuasion. Or something.

Which probably explains why my favorite of the four I read was Carlyn Beccia’s I Feel Better with a Frog in My Throat. (Although the fact that I’m all about medicine may also contribute to my attraction to this title.)

I Feel Better with a Frog in My Throat is written in quiz format, asking the reader to identify which of the proffered historical cures might actually help. The following pages walk through each cure, answering “Yes” “No” or “Maybe” to whether the cure would work and giving a brief history of the use of that specific “cure”.

This was a fascinating and imaginative book. It’s gross enough that boys should really love it and not gross enough that girls won’t read it–a perfect mix.

These books were all Cybils NonFiction Picture Book Finalists. I read them as a part of Amy’s Armchair Cybils. If asked to rank the books, I’d put I Feel Better at the top of the list, followed by Thunder Birds and Can We Save the Tiger?. All the Water in the World ranks last in my book, but basically just because of that bit I quoted above. Apart from those few lines (which interrupt a beautiful book), I’d recommend all four titles.

Cybils Fiction Pics

Do you know who Jane Goodall is?

If you’re like me, you’d answer that question in the vaguest of terms: “Isn’t she the environmentalist… likes monkeys… kind of homely?” (And now you’ve discovered my sad secret: I judge famous people by their looks–or at least classify them by their looks.)

Me...Jane by Patrick McDonnell

Me…Jane by Patrick McDonnell doesn’t give that much information about Jane, but it’s enough to get a child interested, I think.

This picture book tells of the young Jane and her stuffed chimpanzee Jubilee. Jane loves to be outdoors and wants to learn everything she can about plants and animals.

She dreams of someday going to Africa, where she’d live with and help the animals.

Each double-page spread contains only a few lines of print on one side of the page and a softly colored illustration on the opposite side–until the last page.

“At night Jane would tuck Jubilee into bed, say her prayers, and fall asleep…
to awake one day…
to her dream come true.

The final page, with that final line on it, bears a photograph of the grown-up Jane holding hands with a chimpanzee in Africa.

The second Fiction Picture Book Finalist I read couldn’t be more different than the first.

Where Me…Jane has muted colors, Press Here by Henre Tollet has bold colors. Where Me…Jane is written in past tense, with little action, Press Here is written in present imperative.

Press Here by Henre Tullet

The picture: A bright yellow dot in the center of the first page. The imperative: “Press Here and Turn the Page.”

One dot turns to two.

Press again, the next page has three yellow dots. Rub the dot on the left and it turns red.

In this high tech world where children play on iPads before they’re potty-trained, Press Here is a delightful bit of magic.

With nothing more than pages and dots, Tullet creates a world of interactive fun.

But unlike with the iPad, this book lets kids see the mechanism–and be the mechanism. This is to the iPad what a flip-book is to cartoons–and (in my semi-Neo-Luddite mind) is ten times better than any “technological marvel.”

Press Here has advantages beyond its novel concept, though. The primary-colored dots overlap to form secondary colored segments (like a Venn diagram, anyone?) The instructions help the child learn right and left (they can tell they picked the wrong side if the colored dots move in the wrong direction). At least one spread allows kids to do some trouble-shooting with pattern recognition (which dots are out of order?)

Mothers will delight in sharing this little book with their children–and will find endless ways of turning the simple text and even simpler graphics into learning opportunities for their preschoolers.

These books were both Cybils Fiction Picture Book Finalists. I read them as a part of Amy’s Armchair Cybils. For the record, I’m rooting for Press Here for the big one.

Best Books, BAR-None

I’m flying (er, floating) through the children’s picture book section of my library–and most recently I’ve been in the “BAR”s. There, I’ve found a few winners.

The Brambly Hedge Stories by Jill Barklem

Families of mice live their lives in Brambly Hedge, happily enjoying the busy work of the seasons.

Brambly Hedge Books

While preparing a recitation for the Midwinter’s celebration at Old Oak Palace, Primrose and Wilfred find a secret passage that leads to an incredible hidey-hole and marvelous costumes that they unveil during their recitation.

Dusty and Poppy get married, Poppy in the fancy dress she’s been preparing for months, Dusty in his fancy duds, unfortunately dusted with a fine (or heavy) coat of flour. As the wedding guests dance, the ropes holding the wedding raft fast break, sending the raft and wedding party floating down the stream until they gently bump into a leafy clump.

All of Brambly hedge is busy making preparations for the day’s picnic–and they don’t even seem to remember that it’s Wilfred’s birthday. Wilfred, being a polite little mouse, doesn’t want to make a big deal of himself, but he is a bit disappointed. So he’s more than a little surprised when, after carting a heavy picnic basket to the picnic, he opens it to discover a cake and presents! Turns out, the picnic was a surprise birthday party for HIM!

Primrose goes off wandering and stumbles into a dark, cold tunnel. She explores it excitedly until she’s absolutely lost–and then she starts to get scared. The menacing figures with lights coming down the hall don’t help at all. She hides in fear until she notices a limp that gives the figure away–it’s her Grandpa out looking for her!

But my favorite Brambly Hedge story is The High Hills where Wilfred dreams of being an adventurous explorer in the High Hills. He gets his big chance when Mr. Apple schedules a trip to the High Hills to deliver some blankets to the needy Voles. Wilfred packs his adventurer’s bag and starts off. When he and Mr. Apple get lost, Wilfred has his adventure. He’s called upon to save the day–and safely deliver he and Mr. Apple back to Brambly Hedge. Wilfred is scared, but his preparations pay off.

Brambly Hedge Illustrations

The Brambly Hedge stories (I read Spring Story, Summer Story, Autumn Story, The Secret Staircase, and of course The High Hills) is a delightful collection of idyllic tales somewhat reminiscent of The Hobbit (although much shorter and less menacing). Illustrated in a manner directly reminiscent of Beatrix Potter, I absolutely adore these books!

Mr. Katapat’s Incredible Adventures by Barroux

Mr. Katapat, the hero, looks like an ordinary man–but really, he’s quite extraordinary. He experiences great adventures through the pages of books he’s found at the library.

He’s a fortune hunter, a time traveler, a sheriff in the Wild West, a detective, and much more.

Mr Katapat's Incredible Adventures

He does all of his adventuring through the pages of books, which he reads as he does almost everything (including unicycling).

But one day, he stumbled onto a new adventure–an adventure he hadn’t read yet. A love story in real life.

That is how Mr. Katapat met Mrs. Katapat.

And that is a story I love to read.

Because by Mikhail Baryshnikov and Vladimir Radunsky

The narrator, who is known only as “me”, introduces us to his house, his friend, the neighbors in his apartment building, and his grandmother.

His grandmother, known as Mrs. Duncan, is an eternal embarrassment.


On Monday, she leapfrogs over Mrs. Q. On Tuesday, she rolls around on the ground. On Wednesday, she acts as if she were skating, only without the skates. On Thursday, she’s tap-dancing and doing cart-wheels. On Friday, she’s flapping her arms like a butterfly. On Saturday, she’s galloping. On Sunday, she’s leaping.

I aspire to be just like Mrs. Duncan.


Because she’s a dancer

Reading My LibraryFor more comments on children’s books, see the rest of my Reading My Library posts or check out Carrie’s blog Reading My Library, which chronicles her and her children’s trip through the children’s section of their local library.

A Country Schoolhouse

My grandparents attended a one room schoolhouse in northeastern Nebraska. My mother attended the same country school for her elementary schooling. My brother’s mother-in-law met her husband while she was teaching in a one room country schoolhouse in western Nebraska. A dear friend of the family who I’ve known for all my life sat on the school board for a country schoolhouse just outside of Lincoln–the school he’d attended as a child, the school he’d sent his own children too, the school that now served some of the children in my church congregation.

I attended one of their school programs held in one of the three rooms within the little schoolhouse. Desks, tables, shelves, and learning materials were pushed aside to make room for guests and for a makeshift stage. It was an ordinary sort of program, with each of the thirty or so students performing multiple parts.

I was reminded of this school, of these schools, as I read Lynne Barasch’s A Country Schoolhouse.

A Country Schoolhouse bookA little girl asks her Grandpa, the professor, to tell her the story of how he became so smart. The grandpa narrates the rest of the story, telling of the three room country school house he attended. He tells how their school was a working class school–how all the kids had to help their parents with the family work after they got done with school. He tells how they had spelling bees and geography bees and history bees. He tells of the games that they played in an open field. He tells of how they used an outhouse and had to be taught how to flush a toilet when the school got indoor plumbing.

And he talks about how they learned. How they memorized and recited all sorts of facts. How they learned new information from what the other grades ahead of you in the room were learning–or reviewed what you’d already learned while the younger grades were learning it for the first time.

Then he describes how his family moved to the city and he started going to a city school with only one grade in each room. The school was huge and overwhelming–“But the biggest surprise of all was what those kids didn’t know.”

The grandpa in the story was the smartest kid in the new city school. As we learned at the beginning of the story, he went on to be professor–a professor who attributed his smarts to the learning he received in a country school.

Less than a year after I’d attended the Christmas program at the country school outside of Lincoln, the state board of education removed the school boards of all the “Class I” schools in Nebraska–all the small public country schools–forcing the schools to close.

They did it because they figured it wasn’t fair. It wasn’t fair that Nebraska’s primarily-white rural students should receive an education so superior to the rest of the state’s students. It wasn’t fair that some schools could be run by boards from their immediate community–by average Joes who care about kids–when the rest of the state had to have schools run by board members most of the students and parents had never met. It wasn’t fair that some of Nebraska–the part with the country schools–was spending less money to give their children an elementary education.

It clearly had to be stopped.

Despite petitions to the contrary and the best efforts of small school advocates, the forced closure of Class I schools proceeded.

Today the empty country schoolhouses dot Nebraska’s landscape, boarded up reminders of a closed chapter in Nebraska history.

Books like Barasch’s A Country Schoolhouse remind Nebraska’s readers of just what they’ve lost.

Reading My LibraryFor more comments on children’s books, see the rest of my Reading My Library posts or check out Carrie’s blog Reading My Library, which chronicles her and her children’s trip through the children’s section of their local library.


It had been sitting on my nightstand for quite some time. I knew I’d have to read it eventually. It should be good, I told myself. It’s a Caldecott Honor book, a children’s book, an innocent story.

But my mind wasn’t innocent as I glanced at my nightstand to see the spine staring at me: “BANG THE GREY LADY AND THE STRAWBERRY SNATCHER”.

Now, I don’t think I have a dirty mind–but I’m not entirely clueless about the slang of the day–so “Bang the grey lady” was just a bit much for my mind to take.

I’d look at it and start laughing–and then sternly reprimand myself for doing so. “Get a grip, Rebekah. That’s the lady’s name. She can’t help it that her last name means something naughty nowadays. Stop laughing.”

I read Molly Bang’s other picture books: One Fall Day, Ten, Nine, Eight, The Paper Crane, When Molly Gets Angry–Really, Really Angry…, In My Heart, and My Light I liked them. I liked the colorful illustrations–some painted or drawn, others photographs of three dimensional murals. I liked the way Bang used language. I liked the gentle, everyday yet not quite everyday nature of her stories. I liked them.

So I opened Bang the gray lady

Except that’s not the title. So “Bang” and “The Grey Lady” run together on the spine. That doesn’t mean they’re both the title.

I opened The Grey Lady and the Strawberry Snatcher, still chuckling over the spine and berating myself for my sophomoric sense that just WOULDN’T give up.

And I absolutely hated it.

How did this thing win a Caldecott?

It’s a wordless book about a bright blue Strawberry Snatcher who wears a Red and Green cape and a purple hat. He chases after the gray lady, trying to snatch her strawberries. The problem is, the Gray Lady (since she IS gray) keeps disappearing into the dusk.

Then the Strawberry Snatcher is diverted by a bramble of raspberries. The Grey Lady returns home to her family and enjoys the strawberries with them. The end.

I wasn’t impressed. Not with the story, not with the illustrations, not with the way “BANG” ran together with “The Grey Lady” on the spine. This is a book I’m not picking up again.

Reading My LibraryFor more comments on children’s books, see the rest of my Reading My Library posts or check out Carrie’s blog Reading My Library, which chronicles her and her children’s trip through the children’s section of their local library.

Read-Aloud Favorites

I don’t often get a chance to read my library selections aloud to youngsters. Instead, I read most of my picture books silently, by myself.

As a result, most of my reviews of children’s picture books are based on, well, my own opinion of the books and how I think youngsters might respond.

But this last week, I had an opportunity to babysit for a couple of my favorite little ones–avid readers at age 4 and 2.

I brought along a selection of library books and we started reading them one by one. We’d gotten about halfway through my stack when they started asking for repeats (instead of continuing through.)

These three titles by Jim Aylesworth were the ones they wanted to hear again:

Children's books by Jim Aylesworth

Country Crossing tells the simple story of a railroad crossing in the nighttime country. All is quiet except for crickets chirping and an owl hooting. But the a car drives up and is stopped at the tracks. The train approaches and departs. The car starts up again and drives away. And the country returns to its quiet activity.

What makes this story unique and repeat read-aloud-able is its use of onomatopoeia and rhythmic language to give the listener a feel for the activity occurring as the car and then the train approach and recede. The illustrations by Ted Rand are old-timey and fairly realistic. I enjoyed reading this one out loud–and the children enjoyed listening and perusing its pages.

Little Bitty Mouse is an understated alphabet book that describes how a little mouse snuck into a house and explored a variety of the house’s contents. Every few pages, the story repeats the refrain

Tip-tip tippy tippy
Went her little mousie toes.
Sniff-sniff sniffy sniffy
Went her little mousie nose

The story is enjoyable, with a nice rhyme scheme and an unobtrusive alphabet element.

But the part that probably endeared it to the kids was the very end when the little bitty mousie hears a “ZZZZ” and goes to investigate. What she finds–a cat sleeping–frightens her, and she lets out a “Squeak!” (The four year old jumped every time I turned the page to see the cat and let out my own shrill pitched “Squeak!”)

Sweet Little Bitty Mousie,
Just as scared as scared can be,
Went run run run run running!
That was all she cared to see!

Jim Aylesworth’s Book of Bedtime Stories is a compilation of four stories. We started to read these a second time, but didn’t get all the way through due to the kids’ Mommy arriving home. So I’m not sure exactly what appealed; but, like the other two stories, these stories featured a pleasant rhythm and rhyme structure, fun onomatopoeia, and simple but engaging story lines.

These stories were a hit with a couple of kids–and this reader wasn’t complaining about the repeats!

Reading My LibraryFor more comments on children’s books, see the rest of my Reading My Library posts or check out Carrie’s blog Reading My Library, which chronicles her and her children’s trip through the children’s section of their local library.

Reading the Aa (Verna Aardema)

Reading My Library I’ve been working on my own quest to read every book in Eiseley Library since September 5, 2006. I’ve been doing it in a remarkably unsystematic way. But when Carrie at Reading to Know decided to read the picture books in her local library and record it at Reading My Library, I was struck by her system.

Not that I’m ready to give up my haphazard approach to the library entirely. But for the picture book section, Carrie’s approach seems incredibly sensible.

So, I went to my library and got every picture book by the first author in the alphabet–who just happened to be Verna Aardema.

Aardema’s signature is retelling folk stories from different cultures, primarily African cultures but with the occasional Latin American culture thrown in. She includes a lot of onomatopoeia, particularly for the sounds animals make.

I was not universally impressed with Aardema’s writings. While none of the books were bad, per say, few of them were really anything special. While the stories were vaguely amusing, most had little point. Silly things happened, the end. I tend to prefer stories that either have a plot or a moral. The majority of Aardema’s stories had neither.

There were two exceptions, however–and those exceptions were pretty exceptional.

Bringing the rain to Kapiti Plain book cover

Bringing the Rain to Kapiti Plain was featured on Reading Rainbow in one of its earliest episodes–and the book certainly deserves it. Bringing the Rain to Kapiti Plain tells of a plain suffering from a drought, and a smart young cow-herder who brought the rain to Kapiti Plain. The book is told in a sing-songy manner that builds an additional line with every page. So when one page starts with “This is the cloud all heavy with rain, that shadowed the ground on Kapiti Plain”, the next page builds with “This is the grass, all brown and dead, that needed the rain from the cloud overhead–The big, black cloud, all heavy with rain, that shadowed the ground on Kapiti Plain.” And so on and so forth. This is a well written, enjoyable tale that is a delight to read.

Koi and the Kola Nuts book cover

Koi and the Kola Nuts is a second jewel from Verna Aardema. Koi is the youngest son of an African chieftan. When his father dies, his brothers get all the inheritance. All that’s left for Koi is one Kola tree. So Kola harvests the nuts from his Kola tree and sets off to make his way in the world. He meets a variety of different animals in various predicaments and has compassion on them, offering them his Kola nuts to solve their problems. When Koi finds himself vying for the hand of a neighboring chieftain’s beautiful daughter, the friends he has won for himself certainly come in handy!

Koi and the Kola Nuts is a story reminiscent of Aesop’s “The Lion and the Mouse” but with fun twists of its own. The story reads like a cross between a traditional fairy tale (where a boy tries to win the hand of a princess) and a fable (where animals teach a moral) with a little Biblical spice added (Koi’s situation at the beginning of the story reminds me of Jacob and Esau receiving a blessing from their father Isaac). Add in Aardema’s characteristic onomatopoeia and you’ve got a winner of a story.

Now, between Aardema and a couple of other authors, I’m done with Aa-Ab. Next up? I don’t know. I guess I’ll just have to see!