Last impressions are always better than firsts: A Review of Invasion of the Unicorns

Invasion of the Unicorns
David Biedrzycki
Charlesbridge
October 19, 2021
Ages 4-8

Just past midnight, in a video arcade, there’s a burst of bright and colorful light. From it emerges Secret Agent Bubble07! Although he looks like a stuffed unicorn toy, he is actually an alien and a spy. His mission: collect data and decide if the alien unicorn army should invade Earth and make humans their servants. To do this, Agent Bubble07 allows himself to be captured by an Earthling family by posing as a stuffed animal in the claw machine. After three long days, a father outwits the machine and scoops up Agent Bubble07 for his daughter. Now, with a family to study, Agent Bubble07 will observe their every move. Will he tell headquarters that Earth should be invaded or will he discover that our planet is worth saving?

Invasion of the Unicorns is a fun and humorous picture book that shows that all people and ways of life are equal. It illustrates the importance of taking the time to learn about something or someone, rather than making judgements based on first impressions. If Agent Bubble07 attacked Earth based on how he felt on his 20th day here when the school kids were being rough with him, he wouldn’t have gotten to experience snow day on his 50th day. Each illustration has a grainy texture. There are also a few panels and full bleed pictures, adding variety and something unique to look at on each page. Biedrzycki starts the book with pictures in grayscale, only using limited color to represent Agent Bubble07’s presence. However, after the unicorn discovers the amazing things Earth offers, the pictures are filled with color. An excellent way to show how good things make life happy and vibrant. Biedrzycki’s unique story is a timeless reminder that, although we may have different cultures and traditions, they are all valuable.

Add a pinch of belly button lint: A Review of Boo Stew

Boo Stew
Donna L. Washington
Illustrated by Jeffrey Ebbeler
Peachtree
Available September 1, 2021
Ages 3-7

Curly Locks, the most disgustingly imaginative cook in Toadsuck Swamp, just hasn’t found the right audience for her culinary creations. When a group of spooky Scares (one larger than the last) make their way out of the swamp and into the mayor’s kitchen, the townsfolk are scared silly. Only Curly Locks knows what to do—cook for them! She whips up the best batch of Boo Stew east of the Mississippi and lures the Scares right back to the swamp with promises of feasts to come and satisfaction at finally finding those that appreciate her cooking.

In this twist on the Goldilocks tale, Washington’s background as a traditional storyteller shines through in the structure, repetition, and the Southern vernacular that bring the inhabitants of Toadsuck Swamp to vivid life. Her heroine breaks the mold of the most Goldilocks’, with a bolder personality, grand self-confidence, and belief in her ability to make a difference. The text is based on an oral telling from her 2006 recording Angels’ Laughter. Jeffrey Ebbeler has created a diverse cast of hilariously terrified townsfolk that help to highlight Curly Locks’ gumption and bravery, further setting her apart from the often insipid traditional Goldilocks. His sepia toned illustrations and shadowy, bear-like Scares lend a suitably spooky setting and some Southern gothic flare to this fine addition to both folktale and Halloween collections. 

How Do You Feel?: SEL Picture Books for All Ages

Managing emotions can be hard, whether you’re 4 or 44, but successful social emotional learning can help all of us learn how to identify and express our feelings, and support others in handling theirs. Fortunately, 2021 picture book authors are here to help with this roundup of titles just waiting for their chance to shine in an SEL themed story time or a lesson for older kids.

A Cat with No Name: A Story About Sadness
What a Feeling Series
Kochka, Illustrated by Marie Leghima
Parent notes by clinical psychologist Louison Neilman
Quarto/words & pictures
Ages 3-6

Olive cares for a lost kitten that she quickly comes to love. When he doesn’t return one day, a neighborhood search proves he’s been reunited with his owners. Olive’s dad helps her realize that it’s ok to be sad about missing him and how to find peace in remembering. Originally published in France, the line drawings limited color palette have a European sensibility. End notes from a psychologist provide information and tips on recognizing and supporting a child handling sadness.

Big Feelings
Alexandra Penrose, illustrated by Suzanne Kaufman
Penguin Random House/Alfred A. Knopf
Ages 4-8

A diverse group of children have big plans for the day, but when things don’t go as planned, frustration, anger, and fights get in the way. As they work through their differences and work together on a new plan, respect, kindness, and excitement bring them together as a team. Bright mixed media illustrations and expressive little faces show a range of emotions and illustrate some great ways to express them in healthy and productive ways.

How to Apologize
David LaRochelle, illustrated by Mike Wohnoutka
Candlewick
Ages 3+

It’s not always easy to say “I’m sorry,” but this sweet instruction manual is a specific and silly how-to guide. Whether you’ve made a mistake, been mean to a friend, or had an accident, this step-by-step guide shows the do’s and don’ts of apologies. Hilarious illustrated oops-moments help soften the instructions on how, when, and why we should all learn to apologize.

It Could Be Worse
Einat Tsarfati, translated by Annette Appe
Candlewick
Ages 4-8

Albertini and George have been shipwrecked. Albertini is upset, but George keeps looking on the bright side and after each new misadventure (storms, flying fish, ghost pirates, and a hungry whale) declares “It could always be worse!” Vibrant digital illustrations and outrageous situations provide levity in this silly series of catastrophes, proving that attitude is everything and even a bad day can feel better when you face it with a friend.

The Power of Yet
Maryann Cocca-Leffler
Abrams/Appleseed
Ages 3-6

A small piglet knows the frustration that comes with being a kid. You’re not big enough, strong enough, experienced enough—yet. But trying and growing and practicing leads to learning and success. Pen and ink drawings with pastel watercolors gently follow piglet’s persistence and celebration as yet turns to now.

The Smile Shop
Satoshi Kitamura
Peachtree
Ages 3-6

The market is an exciting place when there is pocket money just waiting to be spent. When a sudden collision sends a small boy’s change down the drain, his hopes of a treat are dashed. But in the Smile Shop, the kindness of a shopkeeper proves that money can’t buy happiness, but human connection sure can. Soft-focus line and watercolor illustrations shift palettes as the boy goes from excited to despondent to hopeful and finally cheerful as he discovers all the smiling faces that surround him.

Destination India: A Review of Word Travelers: The Mystery of the Taj Mahal Treasure

Word Travelers: The Mystery of the Taj Mahal Treasure
Raj Haldar
Illustrated by Neha Rawat
Sourcebook Kids
October 5, 2021
Ages 7-12

When best friends Eddie and MJ’s Super Saturday Sleepover goes from blanket forts and movies to magic books and teleportation, they are totally up for the adventure. At mom’s suggestion, they open Eddie’s etymologist grandfather’s Awesome Enchanted Book (AEB). Whisked away to India by the AEB, they help Dev, grandson of the maharaja of Jaipur, find a hidden treasure and rebuild the local school. Using creativity, curiosity, and the AEB, they race a comically sinister mustache-twisting villain to solve the maharaja’s clues and find the treasure before the school is replaced with a department store.

This fast-paced and adventure-packed early chapter book (first in a series) is equal parts Magic Treehouse and National Treasure. Raj Haldar (No Reading Allowed: The Worst Read Aloud Book Ever) brings his signature wordplay with a twist—exploring the derivation of some common (and not so common) words. The Mystery of the Taj Mahal Treasure focuses on Indian origins (Hindi, Sanskrit, Tamil, and Marathi), while future installments will explore other places and languages. Some holes in the plot and inconsistencies between the text and art are minor enough not to detract from the fun. Neha Rawat’s delightful and architecturally detailed illustrations, coupled with a map and full glossary of highlighted words, make for a well-rounded adventure, sure to appeal to word nerds and world travelers alike.

Review based on Advanced Reader’s Copy.

Finding Kinship: A Review of I Am a Bird

I Am a Bird
Hope Lim
Illustrated by Hyewon Yum
Candlewick Press
Available February 2, 2021
Ages 3-7

A young girl joyfully embraces her morning commute, imagining herself a bird flying to school on the back of her father’s bicycle. She waves to friends and neighbors, and sings to her fellow birds as they soar by. A stern older woman is the only thing to dim her smile, when curiosity fights with anxiety about the unknown person and her unfriendly behavior. Her stranger-danger only increases until the day they discover the woman feeding and singing to the girl’s beloved birds. Maybe they’re not so different after all. Hope Lim’s gentle tale of discovering kinship in the most unlikely place is perfect for our current moment of division. The juxtaposition of the little girl’s joy and the woman’s dejected countenance help build enough tension that the revelation of their commonality feels like a celebration. Hyewon Yum’s vibrant colored pencil and gouache illustrations blend an almost architectural precision with softer, freehand coloring and embellishments (and sweet birds). Her emotive faces amplify the story’s sentiment—the girl’s joy and anxiety, the friendliness of their South Korean community, and the woman’s transformation. A sweet reminder that we can all be happier when we focus more on our similarities than our differences.

Adventure Awaits: A review of Sydney & Taylor Explore the Whole Wide World

Sydney & Taylor Explore the Whole Wide World
Jacqueline Davies
Illustrated by Deborah Hocking
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Kids
Available February 2, 2021
Ages 6-9

Sydney the skunk and Taylor the hedgehog are roommates in a cozy burrow under an enchanting backyard garden. When Taylor yearns for excitement and adventure, Sydney grudgingly agrees to explore the Whole Wide World, despite the fact that “exciting is… exhausting.”  And exciting it is as they make their first foray out of the yard and into the unknown to explore, hunt for food, and battle foes both wild and motorized. Anxiety often overwhelms Taylor, but Sydney’s gentle encouragement and stalwart friendship see the pair through their frightening encounters and safely home to the burrow and their comfy armchairs. In this first installment of the early chapter book series, Jacqueline Davies (Lemonade Wars series) brings these lovable characters to life with sweet humor and honest emotions. Their explorations gently illustrate that fear and bravery go hand-in-hand, with both characters exhibiting courage and trepidation in turn. Deborah Hocking’s gouache illustrations add delightful detail, perfectly enhancing the text and portraying the excitement and anxiety adventure can hold. A delightful escapade that proves true friendship is worth its weight in tuna fish sandwiches!

Just Try It: A Review of No Reading Allowed: The WORST Read-Aloud Book Ever

No Reading Allowed: The WORST Read-Aloud Book Ever
Raj Haldar and Chris Carpenter
Illustrated by Bryce Gladfelter
Sourcebooks Explore
Available November 10, 2020
Ages 4-7

Ptolemy the Pterodactyl (from 2018’s P Is for Pterodactyl) is back to help explain another quirk of the English language: homographs, homophones, and homonyms. As if learning to read isn’t confusing enough, we have words that are spelled the same but have different meaning or pronunciation (homographs), words that are pronounced the same but have different meaning or spelling (homophones), and words that are spelled and pronounced the same but have different meanings (homonyms). Just try reading this book aloud and the listen to the madness! Clever word-play from rapper turned children’s book author Raj Haldar (also known as Lushlife), delivers pairs of sentences with hilariously different meanings. “The new deli clerk runs a pretty sorry store” full of rats and thieving gnomes vs. “The New Delhi clerk runs a pretty sari store” full of colorful dress fabrics. The absurd situations are each accompanied by their own wacky illustration, with opposing sentences on opposing pages or stacked on a page for easy comparison. Examples illustrated to dramatically silly effect showcase Gladfelter’s hand-drawn line work accented with vibrant digital color. Great vocabulary throughout is complemented by “the Worst Glossary Ever… Again!” to help those brave enough to read aloud parse the meaning of each wacky word pair.

Butler Bookshelf

This week on the Butler Bookshelf, we’re pleased to meet Captain Swashby, a grouchy ocean lover who wants the beach to be quiet and serene. Too bad for him a cheerful, energetic young girl and her granny have come to the sea! This warmly illustrated and emotion-laden picture book is a true delight. Check out the list below for some more great reads!

Rural Voices: 15 Authors Challenge Assumptions About Small-Town America
Edited by Nora Shalaway Carpenter
Published by Candlewick
Available now!

Swashby and the Sea
Written by Beth Ferry and illustrated by Juana Martinez-Neal
Published by HMH Books for Young Readers
Available now!

Cut Off
Written by Adrianne Finlay
Published by HMH Books for Young Readers
Available now!

Julián at the Wedding
Written and illustrated by Jessica Love
Published by Candlewick
Available now!

Stink and the Hairy, Scary Spider
Written by Megan McDonald and illustrated by Peter H. Reynolds
Published by Candlewick
Available now!

Condor Comeback
Written by Sy Montgomery and photographed by Dianne Strombeck
Published by HMH Books for Young Readers
Available now!

Election Year Titles for All Ages

We’re less than two months from election day, and it’s the perfect time for civic-minded students of all ages to understand that their voice and their vote matters. Publishers have provided a plethora of options; from picture books to YA novels, fiction and nonfiction, there is something for every kid and every lesson plan.

Pre-school—Kindergarten

Curious George Votes
Deidre Langland
Illustrated by Mary O’Keefe in the style of H. A. Rey
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
September 1, 2020

As per usual, Curious George causes well-intentioned chaos with an elementary school mascot election while passing out stickers, stuffing the ballot box, helping a write-in candidate get elected—a monkey! This silly introduction to voting will be a great introduction for little ones that might be curious about all this election-talk.

V is for Voting
Kate Farrell
Illustrated by Caitlin Kuhwald
Macmillan/Henry Holt
July 21, 2020

This civic-minded ABC book is a bright and optimistic look at why we vote—for Citizens’ rights, Onward progress, and Representation. A diverse cast of engaged voters (and kids), with cameo appearances by political and social figures past and present, represent 26 reasons why your vote is important. The back matter, including notes on how to contact elected officials, organizing a voter registration drive, and a voting rights timeline, is geared toward grown-up reading buddies.

Elementary

Vote for our Future
Margaret McNamara
Illustrated by Micah Player
Penguin Random House/Schwartz & Wade
February 18, 2020

They may not be old enough to vote yet, but these elementary school students will make their voices heard because “kids have to live with adult choices.” By passing out voting guides, talking about voting options, encouraging registration, and hosting a bake sale, they build enthusiasm and turn out in their community. Includes a list of Acts of Congress that were influenced by votes for a better future.

The Next President: The Unexpected Beginnings and Unwritten Future of America’s Presidents
Kate Messner
Illustrated by Adam Rex
Chronicle Books
March 24, 2020

Everybody starts somewhere, even our presidents, who were politicians, soldiers, farmers, students, and regular kids. This timeline of U.S. presidents gives snippets of their histories and overlapping experiences to show how, even now, our future leaders are leading, learning, growing-up, and maybe even reading this book.

Middle-Grade

Act
Kayla Miller
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
July 21, 2020

Olive puts her sixth grade civics lessons to work when she runs for student council representative. Learning about protests, debates, and the issues important to her classmates will make her a great candidate, even if it means running against her friends. This bright and engaging graphic novel includes a recipe for Mint Chocolate Chip-Ins, notes on historic and modern day peaceful protests, and a suggested reading list.

The Kids’ Complete Guide to Elections
Cari Meister, Emma Carlson Berne, and Nel Yomtov
Capstone
January 1, 2020

This thorough nonfiction guide covers everything from vocabulary to in-depth, but age-appropriate explanations of democratic values, campaigns, the electoral college, political parties, and voting. Vibrant photography and relatable examples will both inform and inspire students to make a difference in their communities.

Young Adult

Running
Natalia Sylvester
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt/Clarion
July 14, 2020

When Mari Ruiz’s father runs for president; she isn’t prepared for the effects on her life—intense media scrutiny, questioning her family values, and her growing sense of political activism. As she evaluates her feelings and beliefs, Mari sets her own boundaries and finds her own voice. An intimate look at the way personal beliefs conflict with business as usual in U.S. politics.

Unrig: How to Fix Our Broken Democracy
Daniel G. Newman
Illustrated by George O’Connor
Roaring Brook/First Second
July 7, 2020

An accessible exploration of the connection between corporation, big money, and political power, and how breaking that connection is the needed to see genuine change in our country. The subtle turquoise and goldenrod color palette in this YA graphic novel puts the focus on specific examples, clearly-explained concepts, and what readers can do to affect change.

Beyond the stars: A Review of Lights on Wonder Rock

Lights on Wonder Rock
David Litchfield
Clarion/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
September 9, 2020
Ages 4-8

Heather was searching for something more—magic, friendship, adventure, and aliens! So she spends her nights at Wonder Rock, doing all she can to attract the attention of a spaceship. When she finally gets her chance to jump aboard, Heather realizes she doesn’t want to leave her family behind. She grows up, loses the wonder of childhood, and has a family of her own, but never gives up waiting for her alien friend. When at last they return, Heather once again recognizes that she might already have all she needs here on Earth.

Litchfield’s thoughtful story explores themes of longing, hope, and curiosity about what other lives may be out there for us. His use of dark and muted tones for the forest, juxtaposed with the colorful and sparkling pages where the spaceship appears, help to set off the difference between how Heather sees her life and her expectations about what might await her in outer space. Double-page spreads of wordless panels put a unique focus on the two most important relationships in the story, with her son and her alien friend, and explain the pull she feels between them. Throughout, Litchfield cleverly uses light—sun, moon, and flashlight beams—to focus on Heather’s emotions and the devotion she feels to both her family and her dreams.