Draw, Play, Write: Four Picture Books to Celebrate Youth Art Month

In celebration of Youth Art Month, here are four of our favorite picture books celebrating the arts! While the month seems to emphasize the visual arts, I have chosen to include additional art forms, including music and creative writing here! I hope these inspire you to explore your artistic side.

Maybe Something Beautiful: How Art Transformed a Neighborhood

by F. Isabel Campoy and Theresa Howell; illustrated by Rafael López

I’ve gotten good at recognizing what kind of book covers will appeal to my son. And even though this one is beautiful, bright and colorful, I knew it wasn’t one he would gravitate toward. Sure enough, I was right. He’d keep putting it aside in the reading pile.

But once I convinced him to open it, he was enthralled by the story of young Mira who begins to brighten her gray city with color by giving away her doodles and drawings to the people on her street.

When Mira meets a man with a pocket full of paintbrushes, she teams up with him to transform her drab city with murals. Soon the whole neighborhood joins in, creating a multicultural block party complete with music, dancing and joy.

I love how this book shows the endless possibilities for art and how it truly is an avenue for transformation and bettering the world around us. Even cooler is the fact that it’s based on a true story – the story of the book’s illustrator, muralist Rafael López and his wife Candace, a graphic designer and community leader. Their vision to bring people together to create art to better their neighborhood became a model for other community-based art projects.

Frida and Bear Play the Shape Game!

by Anthony Browne; illustrated by Hanne Bartholin

I’m all for books that promote creativity making you want to stretch your artistic wings and this book does just that. I’m familiar with the the shape game from following various illustrator blogs and Twitter feeds; however, since I don’t consider myself a visual artist, I’d never thought to try it myself. But as soon as my son and I finished reading this book, we ran straight for the paper and markers. I can see us drawing together much more as a result of having read this book!

Play with Me!

by Michelle Lee

Pip, a little pig, and Nico, a bear, both want to play. However, their ideas of what to play are very different. I love the way that this book celebrates a love for music from a young age and the focus that it takes to become a musician – even though this passion may not be understood by others. Of course, once you find your passion, it’s impossible not to want to share it with others – as Pip finds out!

Chicken Lily

by Lori Mortensen; illustrated by Nina Victor Crittenden

This character-driven picture book features a sweet little chicken, Lily, who is just as her name describes – a chicken. She won’t take the training wheels off her bike; won’t raise her hand in class; and she’s definitely not going to read a poem on-stage at the Grand-Slam Poetry Jam! However, with the encouragement of her friends, Lily tries a new artistic pursuit only to discover that she actually likes it. I love the way this book affirms shy children and let’s them know it’s okay to be themselves while also showing them that trying new things can bring new joy into their lives.

Four Friendship-Themed Picture Books for February

It’s February!! Time to celebrate love and friendship!! While February 14th is Valentine’s Day here in the United States in many of the Hispanic countries I’ve visited the day is called “El Día del Amor y Amistad” or “The Day of Love and Friendship.” I love this more inclusive take on the holiday since I’m sure we’ve all experienced the disappointment of not having a special someone on the big day.

What better way to celebrate the month of February than with picture books about love and friendship. Our four favorites for the month of February feature everything from the courage it takes to make a new friend, to the fear of losing a friend, to being too busy for friendship. We hope you’ll enjoy these as much as you would a big heart-shaped box of chocolates!

Love, Triangle

by Marcie Colleen; illustrated by Bob Shea

Circle and Square have been best friends since they were a speck and a dot. Then Triangle comes along with his bold, exciting personality, and suddenly, a wedge comes between them. Both Circle and Square try to impress cool Triangle in humorous ways — (Square cuts his sandwich into triangles and Circle wears a triangular party hat!) But will they be able to salvage their own friendship that’s already bent out of shape?

The text feels super-relatable to me as most of us at some point experience the feeling of a friendship being threatened, whether in reality or in our own minds. Children will relate to the intensity of those emotions as they explore the fact that perhaps a good friendship is strong enough to become a trio instead of a duo. Readers will love the funny geometric puns throughout the story.

Bird, Balloon, Bear

by Il Sung Na

This beautifully illustrated book is a tale of friendship. Bird is longing for a friend, but just when he gets the courage to say hello, Bear finds another unlikely friend. Bird watches from the wings, wishing he could be part of the fun until Bear’s friend gets carried away – literally. Bird tries to save the day and ends up finding the friend he longed for. This is a great reader for any child who’s ever longed for friendship or worried about being the third-wheel in a friendship.

Perfect Soup

by Lisa Moser

Perfect Soup is a cumulative or chain tale – a story whose action or dialogue repeats and builds as the story progresses. Chain tales are great for young audiences and readers because they depend on rhythm and repetition. One familiar example of a chain tale is “The Gingerbread Man.” As a storyteller, I’ve come across quite a few examples of this type of story. Two of my favorites are The Stonecutter and The Bossy Gallito.

In this tale, Murray the mouse is in a hurry to find a carrot, the only ingredient he lacks for his Perfect Soup. When he asks Farmer for the crunchy vegetable, Farmer agrees to give him one if Murray will haul some logs he needs to build his barn. Clearly too small for the task, Murray sets out to find help. He asks Horse who agrees to do it for a set of jingle bells. Murray hurries along to find the jingle bells only to find that the shopkeeper will give them to him if he does another task – and so the chain goes. Murray is so busy trying to accomplish his tasks that he fails to notice Snowman who wants to play with him. By the end of the chain, Murray learns that imperfect soup shared with a friend is better than perfect soup without one. This little winter tale is perfection in my opinion.

The Grizzly Bear Who Lost His GRRRRR!

By Rob Biddulph

Each year Fred the grizzly bear wins the annual bear competition with his superior fish catching, hula-hooping and loud GRRRRR! He’s so focused on becoming the champion that he doesn’t have time to have friends. But this year there’s a new bear in town, Boris, who could be tough to beat. On the morning of the competition, Fred awakes to find that his GRRRRR! is missing. Could Boris have taken it? More importantly, how will he win without it? Fred enlists a crew of woodland animals help him search and in the end learns that friendship is more valuable than any trophy. I love the way this story emphasizes the fact that there’s more to life than winning.

Sink or Swim? How I Started Performing Solo

Every once in awhile my Shutterfly account sends me an email to remind me what I was doing years ago. Recently I got one with the title, “Your memories from fourteen years ago.” I opened the message only to see pictures of me performing in Spain, back at the time when I lived in Madrid and worked for Interacting, an interactive theatre company that uses theatre to teach English to speakers of other languages.

I’ll never forget how when I went to audition for the company I was told that it would probably be many months before they would need someone. A few days later they called asking how soon I could start! One of their actresses was returning to the states sooner than expected and they needed someone right away.

With Interacting I hit the ground running. My first gig was a teacher training weekend near Guadix, Spain. It was memorable for two reasons: 1) We stayed at a beautiful cave hotel (Casas Cueva del Tio Tobas) and 2) We were literally rehearsing our show in the car on the drive there!

On another occasion, I traveled to the south of Spain with my boss, Patrick. I was there to perform our two-person show “Doctor DoingLittle” that we had rehearsed previously. However, Patrick would also be doing a comical one-man version of “Jack and the Beanstalk.” On our first day he told me to watch the show carefully because the following day, I would be performing it at a different school.

Having never seen the script or the show before, I hesitated. I’ll never forget Patrick’s response:“Either tomorrow you perform the show and you get paid. Or I perform the show and I get paid.” While monetary compensation was certainly a draw in my decision to perform, I also felt a real sense of living up to my boss’s expectations for me. Saying ‘no’ would mean I didn’t think I could do it, even though he believed I could. If I didn’t even try, how would that affect our working relationship in the future?

That night I spent hours looking over the story. I was a ball of nerves the next day as I stood before scores of Spanish school-children and my boss. But once I started telling the story, I felt completely at ease. The children’s energy and laughter infused me with courage to take risks and “go big” in my performance. I suppose I’m still feeding off of that audience energy today.

When I think about my career as a storyteller, that moment of choosing to perform stands out as a turning point. My boss believed in me and what I was capable of. While at the time it felt like he was throwing me overboard, I now understand that it was only because he knew I could swim. He also knew that I needed a push because I wasn’t going to jump on my own.

Every time I begin to craft a new story for performance or step in front of a crowd with a new program, the doubts start to creep in. What if this one isn’t as good as the one before? What if I can’t do it?

WHAT IF. . ?

There are always two options:
1) I could sink.
2) I could swim.
But I’ll never know what happens unless I jump out of the boat.

And so I keep jumping. . . and I hope you will too.

Thanks, Patrick!

Our Top Five Picture Books of January 2018

Here are five of our favorite books for the month of January! There’s a very wide range to explore here — everything from pasta to emotions to the alphabet to wild apes! We hope you’ll enjoy these five gems as much as we did.

The Great Pasta Escape

by Miranda Paul; illustrated by Javier Joaquin

This book will give you a whole new appreciation for pasta! I love the way each type of pasta, from macaroni to bow-tie, has been given a unique personality which is brought to life perfectly in the art. When the various types of pasta at the pasta factory discover that they’re being made to be eaten, they must work together to form an escape plan. The writer in me can’t help but love the way that writing figures prominently into the resolution of their problem. Readers of all ages will enjoy the funny pasta puns. My son’s favorite? . . . “Afraid-O-Sauce.”

Grumpy Pants

by Claire Messer

I love the way this book deals with emotions. We don’t always have an explanation for why we feel the way we do, and that’s the case with Penguin. He doesn’t know why he’s grumpy, but he can’t seem to change his attitude – even when he takes off his grumpy pants! This gentle book gives young readers ideas for how to handle their emotions and shows them that feelings do change and grumpiness can be washed away – although at times it takes a little time and many different techniques.

The Happiest Book Ever

by Bob Shea

I’ll admit – I love Bob Shea’s work. I’m sure more of his books will appear on these lists in the future, but having said that, who wouldn’t want to read The Happiest Book Ever? This book is full of goofy doodles sure to make you smile. But then there’s the frog – the unsmiling frog who seems out of place in this perfectly happy book. The book’s chipper narrator instructs readers to do many things to make the frog smile, but when frog doesn’t comply, he has a meltdown. The seemingly silly book has some great takeaways such as the idea that happiness looks different on everyone and trying to force others to fit into our program doesn’t make anyone happy.

Oops Pounce Quick Run! An Alphabet Caper

by Mike Twohy

This alphabet book takes readers on a wild romp as a misunderstanding over a ball sends an innocent mouse running from a dog. This is the only alphabet book that my 3.5 year old son has asked to have read repeatedly, and I believe it’s because it actually tells a story. After only one or two times of reading it to him, he was able to read it to me with minimal assistance. Great for letter and word recognition!

Apes A-Go-Go

by Roman Milisic; Illustrated by A. Richard Allen

In Apes A-Go-Go, a lovely little town is set to win the title of “Tidiest Town” for the third year in a row. Only one thing stands in their way – one flower has grown taller than the rest! Enter Fussy Great Ape who agrees to fix it but instead creates a bigger problem. Luckily, he’s got more ape friends to call on, but of course, they only make the situation worse, turning the town upside-down!

This book has great read-aloud potential. The fun refrain, “Bogo! Pogo! Apes-A-Go-Go!”, begs to be shouted as you pound on your chest! I love the way this story turns the idea of perfection on its head – showing us the richness that comes from letting go of what we think we want and embracing the unexpected surprises that life gives to us.

Our Top Five Picture Books of December 2017

1. Super Manny Stands Up!

By Kelly DiPucchio; illustrated by Stephanie Graegin

Manny loves to pretend he’s a superhero battling everything from armies of zombie bears to evil cloud monsters. At home he wears capes of many colors, but when he goes to school, he takes his invisible cape. Over lunch one day, he’s battling giant squid (his spaghetti and meatballs!) when he hears Tall One picking on Small One. He’s frozen and doesn’t know what to do – until he remembers his invisible cape and decides to stand up and be truly brave. His act of standing up leads his schoolmates to realize that they can be superheroes too – and soon he isn’t standing alone. I love the way that this book shows children a very simple and practical way that they can be a hero in their everyday lives and how one action leads to a ripple effect.

2. Explorers of the Wild

by Cale Atkinson

My favorite thing about this book is the clever way that it’s written. While the story is told in the first person, there are two main characters, a boy and a bear. Both are explorers, and as the illustrations suggest, it seems that both of them are narrating. While it starts out with them each on their own adventure, it quickly becomes a tale of friendship as these two very different creatures come together through a shared love of the wild. I love the way that the ideas of respect for those who are different and appreciation of nature shine through in the simple text that my son delighted in quoting after only a few readings.

3. I Love You More Than the Smell of Swamp Gas

by Kevan Atteberry

This book reminds me of one of my favorites (I Love You Stinky Face by Lisa McCourt) in the way that it features the playful banter between a parent and child over how much the child is loved. Unlike Stinky Face, this book is written in rhyme. Kids will love the monsters and quirky creatures – like blood-sucking ducks and toe-biting stones; the funny names used for the monster child (“my stinkling” is my personal favorite) and the evocative language. The title says it all with this one!

4. Charlotte the Scientist Is Squished

by Camille Andros; illustrated by Brianne Farley

I love the way that this book introduces young readers to the scientific method using a problem that many children can relate to. Charlotte, a bunny with a love for science, starts with a problem – she’s squished by all of her siblings. She needs more space to do her experiments, so she applies the scientific method to her problem. She asks a question, makes a hypothesis, and does some experiments which eventually take her to outer space. She finally has just what she wanted – plenty of space. But soon she’s lonely and even misses being squished which leads her to draw a new conclusion that gives her the best of both worlds!

5. I Have a Balloon

by Ariel Bernstein; illustrated by Scott Magoon

I love the way this book sounds like a child could have written the dialogue! That’s not a dig, bur rather a compliment to Bernstein’s voice which is spot on here. My favorite line throughout is: “The only thing I’ve ever wanted, since right now, is a shiny, big red balloon.” If you’ve ever spent time around kids (or adults for that matter!), you know how true that is – they are perfectly content with what they have until something else comes along that is just out of their reach. In this case, that something is Owl’s balloon. Monkey’s willing to trade one of his possessions for it, but Owl’s not interested until. . . I don’t want to give away the object that catches Owl’s attention, but let’s just say this book has a perfectly satisfying kid-like conclusion.