“A Home for Bird” Keeps Me Reading with PLOT

Title: A Home for Bird

Author/Illustrator: Philip C. Stead

Publisher: Roaring Book Press

Year: 2012

Word Count: 383



When the main reason that I keep reading a book is the desire to know WHAT is going to happen, or whether or not the main character is going to be successful at what they are attempting to DO, that’s when I know that what’s keeping me engaged is the plot. That’s how I felt about A Home for Bird. In this delightful story, Vernon, a frog, is determined to help Bird, who he finds one day while he’s out foraging. Their first meeting looks like this:

“Are you okay?” asked Vernon.

Bird said nothing.

“Are you lost?”

Bird said nothing.

Here we see Vernon doing his best to get Bird to talk so that he can help him; but Bird isn’t making it easy on him. What will Vernon do next? In this case, he introduces Bird to his friends Skunk and Porcupine thinking that might get him talking, but again nothing. So:

Vernon showed Bird the river. . .

and the forest.

He took Bird foraging. . .

and cloud watching too.

But Bird said nothing.

When Porcupine suggests that Bird’s unusual silence may be due to the fact that he misses home, Vernon readies a boat and sets out into the great unknown to help Bird find his home.

Vernon showed Bird many different places to live.

“Is this your home?” he asked Bird.

“How about here?” . . .

Vernon sighed. “Bird will speak up when we find the right home.”

But no matter how many places they tried, Bird said nothing.

And Vernon was sad.

As I read the passage above, I’m asking myself, “What’s going to happen next? Will Bird ever get home? What else can Vernon try?”  In this case, since the boat failed, Vernon decides to follow the wind, making an improvisational hot air balloon for he and Bird.

After a long journey, Vernon is tired and decides that they should stop for the night. It appears that this stop is only going to put them back further in their journey; however, it turns out to be the answer to Vernon’s long search. I don’t want to give away the ending because it really is a delightful surprise.

In addition to the plot element I have already described, there is a beautiful character relationship between Vernon and Bird. Vernon is tender and sweet and always making allowances for Bird’s strange behavior, or lack thereof. He’s the kind of friend that anyone would hope for — someone that would love you and make excuses for you on even your worst day. The world is not always a very kind place to those who are different or who don’t conform to “normal” patterns of behavior. So to me, the way Vernon treats Bird is a good model for showing kindness to someone who is different or whose behavior we might not fully understand.

Lastly, I love the illustration style used in this book. It appears to have been done using crayon and is purposely “rough” in some places squiggles depict leaves on trees and broad crayon strokes color the sky and serve as porcupine’s quills. This adds to the whimsy of the story, and I believe makes it something that children can not only connect with, but also aspire to.

“Ivan: The Remarkable True Story of the Shopping Mall Gorilla” — A Full Circle Journey

Title: Ivan: The Remarkable True Story of the Shopping Mall Gorilla

Author: Katherine Applegate

Illustrator: G. Brian Karas

Publisher: Clarion Books

Year: 2014

Word Count: 566


A few years ago I read the middle grade novel The One and Only Ivan by Katherine Applegate. I couldn’t help but fall in love with Ivan, the inspiring shopping mall gorilla, and his baby elephant friend, Ruby. So when I saw that Ivan’s story had been converted into a picture book, I had to read it.

Ivan: The Remarkable True Story of the Shopping Mall Gorilla follows Ivan from his birth in central Africa to his “rebirth” so to speak, at Zoo Atlanta. I love books that give the reader the sense of having come on a full circle journey, and that’s exactly what author Katherine Applegate gives us here with her beautiful beginning and ending. Ivan’s story begins like this:

In leafy calm,

in gentle arms,

a gorilla’s life began.

The accompanying illustration depicts baby Ivan in the arms of his Momma Gorilla. The assonance of the words flows nicely off the tongue for a read-aloud and lends itself to the calming scene described. The following pages introduce the reader to Ivan’s family, or troop, and his life as a baby gorilla, playing and learning from the older gorillas.

But quickly, the scene changes. Poachers come on the scene, kidnapping Ivan, then shipping him in a damp crate to Tacoma, Washington where he spends years in a cramped cage in the middle of a shopping mall. With the passing years, people grow angry about Ivan’s isolation. They begin writing letters, signing petitions and holding protests to secure his freedom. Their efforts are rewarded when Ivan is released and sent to live in Zoo Atlanta — a place with grass, trees, sunlight, and best of all, other gorillas. The book ends in almost the same way that it began:

In leafy calm,

in gentle arms,

a gorilla’s life began


The repetition of the opening line at the ending of the book really gives the reader the sense of completion. At the start, Ivan was in the arms of his mother. Now, the gentle arms caring for him are those of the scientists and zoo caretakers who understand the needs of a gorilla and are there to help him adjust to his new life. While clearly this isn’t the same as being in his natural habitat, it’s a beautiful ending to the story of a gorilla that endured much suffering and cruelty at the hands of unkind humans.

PATTERNING Prevails in “My Grandfather’s Coat”

Title: My Grandfather’s Coat

Author: Jim Aylesworth

Illustrator: Barbara McClintock

Publisher: Scholastic Press

Year: 2014

Word Count: 614

My Grandfather’s Coat is based on the old Yiddish folksong, “I Had a Little Overcoat.” The song was later turned into a story called  “The Tailor” which I first heard told by Judy Sima during a youth storytelling workshop at the National Storytelling Network Conference in Cincinnati a few years ago. Jim Aylesworth’s adapation accompanied by Barbara McClintock’s illustrations make for a beautiful rendition of the famous tale that follows one overcoat and one family through the generations.

The book makes great use of repetition and patterning right from the beginning, as the narrator, the title character’s grand-daughter, describes what happens after her Grandfather and Grandmother got engaged.

. . . my grandfather went right to work.

He snipped, and he clipped,

and he stitched, and he sewed,

and he made for himself a handsome coat. . .

that he wore on his wedding day.


My grandfather loved the coat, and he wore it, and he wore it.

And little bit by little bit, he frayed it, and he tore it,

until at last. . . he wore it out!


Once the coat is worn out, the pattern begins again — with grandfather getting to work to turn the remaining good fabric into a jacket. The jacket then becomes a vest, a tie, and lastly, a toy for his great grandson — with the pattern repeating each time. The beautiful part of the book is seeing how Grandfather changes over the years, how his family grows and how he wears each new item at different stages of his life and in the life of his family. The patterning used definitely serves to heighten the sentimental quality of the story and is sure to delight young readers who will be able to join in with the repetitive refrain.

What are your favorite stories with a repetitive refrain?

“Otto, The Book Bear”: A Charming CHARACTER

Title: Otto, the Book Bear

Author/Illustrator: Katie Cleminson

Publisher: Disney Hyperion

Year: 2011

Word Count: 318

If you’re looking for a great study in character, look no further than Otto, the Book Bear. In this charming story, we meet Otto, a bear who lives inside a book, but who comes to life when no one is looking! One of the first things we learn about Otto is that:

. . . he was happiest when children read his book.

Later, when not inside of his book we are told that:

Otto loved to explore the house, to read his favorite stories, and practice his writing.

(The illustrations that accompany this spread are adorable and really paint a deeper picture of Otto’s character than the words alone!)

Then one day while Otto is out exploring, the family he lives with packs up everything and moves without him. It appears that this will be the end of Otto’s adventures, but instead it’s just the beginning. Why? Because:

Otto didn’t like being all alone. So he made a plan, packed a bag, and set off on a new adventure.

I love how author Katie Cleminson tells us so much about Otto in so few words, and yet all of it moves the plot forward. In the quote above, I can feel Otto’s determination and also his adventurous spirit. If you want to find out where Otto’s adventures lead, well, I guess you’ll have to read his book. After all, that would make him the happiest of all! 🙂

“Abuelo” Shines with Bilingual Word Play

Title: Abuelo

Author: Arthur Dorros

Illustrator: Raul Colon

Publisher: Harper

Year: 2014

Word Count: 351


My husband is from Colombia. We met in Spain. And now we are raising our Colombian-American son to be bilingual in that bastion of multiculturalism, Ohio. (Don’t get me wrong — I love Ohio! It’s just not the first place that comes to most people’s minds when you think of multiculturalism!) As you can imagine, I’m always looking for bilingual books that share the Hispanic experience. Abuelo, which is set in Las Pampas of Argentina, a place that my husband and I once traversed by bus, not by horse as in the book, does just that.

I love the way that Spanish words are woven into this beautiful story about a grandfather (abuelo) and his grandson (nieto). I also appreciate how it depicts that the old lessons passed down through the generations and learned in the country can translate beautifully to a new life lived by the next generation in the city. The word play found in this book is different than the types of word plays I’ve uncovered in my other reviews (onomatopoeia and puns). Here it’s simile and vivid verbs used in unexpected ways that caused me to pause and really drink in the language.

The book begins like this:

When I was little,

Abuelo and I would ride

with the wind, “el viento,”

washing our faces.

Isn’t that a beautiful image — the wind washing your face? It definitely captures the feeling of riding a horse and paints a picture in your mind. The second spread continues this beautiful use of language:

We would ride into the clouds,

with the sky, “el cielo,”

wrapped around us.

Again, that language leaves the reader with a strong image. When Abuelo and his nieto come across a mountain lion in their path, Abuelo shows him how to be strong.

We stood as strong as any mountain trees.

That use of simile paints a powerful picture of strength. Later in the story, the young boy will use what Abuelo has taught him about being strong to stand up to a bully in his new life in the city. This brings up the use of patterning in the book. Every lesson that the young boy learns in Las Pampas with his Abuelo, he later puts to use in his new life in the city. The lessons and their applications in his new home play out in the same order.

The beautiful language, the bond between grandfather and grandson, and the simple life lessons imparted make this a memorable book.

What’s your favorite children’s book depicting the special bond between grandparents and grandchildren?