We Can Do Hard Things: A Review of The Struggle Bus

The Struggle Bus
Julie Koon
Kind World Publishing
March 8, 2022
Ages 4-8

Sometimes, when life gets really hard, the Struggle Bus shows up at the door. It grumbles and rumbles and seems completely hopeless. Lost in the fog and frozen by indecision and on its way up the mountain, the Struggle Bus breaks down. It is only with the help of friends that it can be set back on its way. And even then, it’s a hard and bumpy journey, but eventually, it finds the path, and arrives at the top of the mountain.

The Struggle Bus is a gentle rhyming story acknowledging big feelings and encouraging readers to never give up. Koon’s illustrations, a mixture of simple line drawings and watercolor, are rendered in soft, soothing colors that complement the supportive message of the text. Even amidst fog and uncertainty, the struggle bus continues on, reminding readers to feel their feelings but not let those feelings stop them from moving forward. With rhythmic text and onomatopoeia sprinkled throughout, this book is ideal for young people who need a little help to understand big emotions. At the end of the book, there are reflection questions and ideas for calming behaviors to utilize when “your bus breaks down” (p. 37). A diverse cast of characters and buses of all shapes, sizes, and colors let readers know that everyone rides the Struggle Bus sometimes, and that even the tallest, foggiest mountains are not insurmountable.

When Creativity Meets Office Supplies: A Review of Off-Limits

Off-Limits
by Helen Yoon
Candlewick
Available November 9, 2021
Ages 3-7

No “OFF-LIMITS” sign can stop a curious child from exploring the shadowy world of Daddy’s office and the excitement of discovering—oh joy!—office supplies. But what starts as an “I’m just looking” visit quickly escalates to an extravaganza of scotch tape and sticky notes. With delight that dances off the page, the child gets carried away with song, dance, and crafting galore until reality sets in—uh oh—and she sneaks back to her room only to discover that mischievousness and joyful abandon must run in the family. Yoon’s mixed media illustrations and color choices move deftly from the muted organization of Daddy’s office to the vibrant personality and exuberant creativity of a child lost in her imagination. Well-paced text and dramatic page turns add depth to this light and hilarious story, making it a brilliant choice for both storytimes and on-on-one reads. The child’s self-talk, both silly and insightful, follows her on the slippery slope from curiosity to joy to regret. And a last wordless page models forgiveness as parent and child sit down to a costumed tea party while wearing each other’s imaginative finery. Off-Limits is a love letter to office supplies and a celebration of indulging our curiosity and living in the moment.

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.

A Mini Mindfulness Lesson: A Review of Too Many Bubbles

Too Many Bubbles: A Story about Mindfulness
Christine Peck and Mags DeRoma,
Illustrated by Mags DeRoma
Sourcebooks
July 6, 2021
Ages 3-6

Chased through her day by one grumpy and persistent thought, Izzy isn’t bothered by it (too much). But when one grouchy thought becomes two and three and a whole cloud of the shadowy things; something must be done. This clever mouse escapes to her happy place at the beach where a polar bear with a bubble wand inspires an idea—just blow the thoughts away. A deceptively simple and strikingly perceptive illustration of how it feels for nagging and uncomfortable thoughts to take over, and one calming way to break free. Vividly colored digital illustrations and interactive text, reminiscent of Hervé Tullet’s Press Here, engage young listeners and caregivers alike in a breathing exercise that leads directly into back matter definitions of mindfulness and additional exercises. Too Many Bubbles is the first title in the Books of Great Character SEL series by Peck and DeRoma, founders of the Silly Street games and toys. A sweet and valuable addition to social emotional learning tools for the preschool to kindergarten years.

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.

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!

Sweet (as candy) Halloween Reads

Are the little monsters in your library looking for not-so-spooky reads this season? Whether they want witches, ghosts, or some trick-or-treating fun—there’s a book for that! And check out Gustavo for a sweet Dia De Los Muertos ghost story.

Board Books:

Brooms Are for Flying
Michael Rex
Henry Holt/Godwin Books
July 2020

In this board book adaptation, follow a little witch and her trick-or-treating friends as they dance through this introduction to traditional Halloween characters and symbols. A sweet treat.

Trick-or-Treat with Tow Truck Joe
June Sobel, illustrated by Patrick Corrigan
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
July 2020

Tow Truck Joe and his buddies are all dressed up for Halloween and ready to trick-or-treat, bob for apples, and have a frightfully-fun night on the town. Surprises under each flap are more friendly than scary, showing that even pirates and dragons can help a friend in need. A sweet treat.

Picture Books:

Monsters 101
Cale Atkinson
Random House/Doubleday
August 2020

Everything you ever wanted to know about monsters and more! You’ll learn from top monster professors about monster names, habits, diet, history, and even their biggest fears—humans! A silly and spooky trick.

Gustavo the Shy Ghost
Flavia Z. Drago
Candlewick
July 2020
Available in Spanish as Gustavo el Fantasmita Timido

Gustavo is shy and has a hard time making friends. In fact, the other ghosts and monsters see right through him. But he is also brave and invites them all to a Day of the Dead party to hear him play the violin. By sharing his talent he makes friends just by being himself. A sweet treat.

Bears and Boos
Shirley Parenteau, illustrated by David Walker
Candlewick
July 2020

The bears are back and ready to create the perfect Halloween costumes. Chaos at the costume box ensues as the bears scramble for the perfect costumes. With one left out, the bears show their trademark kindness to outfit their friend just in time for the Halloween parade. A sweet treat.