Introducing the CHARACTER of “Backhoe Joe”

Title: Backhoe Joe

Author: Lori Alexander

Illustrator: Craig Cameron

Publisher: Harper

Year: 2014

Word Count: 500 (estimate)

Last November I completed Tara Lazar’s Picture Book Idea Month challenge, and lucky me, I was the winner of a prize — a copy of Backhoe Joe by Lori Alexander! The book just arrived in the mail, and I was eager to dig right in (pun intended!)

Backhoe Joe is every little boy’s dream (and maybe some little girl’s too!) – their very own piece of heavy machinery as a pet. What I love about this book is the way that Lori turns Joe into a very lovable personality. I mean, I’m not a lover of dump trucks, backhoes and diggers (although that may change as my son grows!), but she makes the relationship between Nolan, the little boy in the story, and Joe so sweet that you can’t help but envy it!

So if you’re wondering how to bring characterization to a backhoe. Here are some examples of how Lori does it.

Nolan first sees Joe while collecting some rocks and is quite excited by his discovery.

Nolan took a step closer.

Beep! Beep! Beep!

The backhoe reversed into the bushes.

I love how the reader sees Joe’s fear with the beeping and backing up — which is perfectly fitting to a backhoe! Later we see Joe’s playful side when:

Nolan gave the backhoe a pat behind the loader, which made his bucket wiggle like crazy.

His mischievous side comes out in the following:

He (Nolan) started with a few simple commands:


Joe revved at the  mailman.


Joe treaded through Mr. Oldman’s grass.

“Leave it!”

Joe dug in the garbage.

Throughout the book, Joe’s character is brought to life in behaviors that are perfectly suited to a backhoe. The humor comes from the fact that they are also perfectly suited to the more typical pet experience of having a brand new puppy!

What is your favorite children’s book where an inanimate object is brought to life through great characterization?

Here’s a link to more reviews of story elements in Christie Wild’s 14:14 Blogging Challenge.

Have a Hoot with WORD PLAY in “Little Hoot”

Title:  Little Hoot

Author: Amy Krouse Rosenthal

Illustrator:  Jen Corace

Publisher: Chronicle Books

Year:  2007

Word Count: 364

If you’re looking for a cute bedtime book with a twist, Little Hoot is perfect. This adorable story turns the tables on traditional bedtime books where children do anything and everything in their power to buy a few more minutes of awake time. In this story, Little Hoot is expected to be a night owl, when all he really wants to do is go to sleep early like all of his friends.

This book is a great study in fun word play — including puns and onomatopoeia– that will keep you chuckling.

It all starts on the second spread where the illustrations reveal a school classroom and a teacher giving a grammar lesson. The following words appear on the chalkboard: “Who, Whom, Whose.”

At one point in the book, Papa Owl tells Little Hoot, “If you want to grow up to be a wise owl, you must stay up late. And besides, I don’t give a hoot what time your friends go to bed. In this family, we go to bed late. Rules of the roost.”

Mama Owl tells Little Hoot that he has to stay up for one more hour.

“One more hour?” he (Little Hoot) boo-whoo’d.

When Little Hoot is finally told he can go to bed he responds with: “Woo-whooooo! Woo-whooooo! Bedtime!”

The book ends with Little Hoot’s parents putting him into bed.

So they tucked in his feathers.

Gave him a peck on the cheek.

And they owl lived happily ever after. . .

I love the way that author Amy Krouse Rosenthal incorporated so much owl-related word play into this story. This is what elevates her great concept to another level.  “Owl” definitely be more than happy to read Little Hoot to my own little night owl, especially on the nights he doesn’t want to go to bed!  And since I love writing with animal characters,  I’m excited to look for all the ways that I can make use of puns and onomatopoeia to take my own stories to the next level and keep readers amused.

“Are You Awake?” Creates DIALOGUE

Title: Are You Awake?

Author/Illustrator: Sophie Blackall

Publisher: Henry Holt

Year: 2011

Word Count: 250  (estimate)

I love dialogue. (Just ask my husband — he says I always want to have a conversation!) Seriously though, having a background and training in stage acting, I’ve read (and written!) my fair share of scripts, which of course, are all dialogue-based. When I sit down to work on my  children’s books, what I often hear is the conversation between the characters.

That’s why I was delighted when I came across Are You Awake? This little book is written entirely in dialogue. In fact, there isn’t even one dialog tag (“he said” or “she said.”) Different fonts and texts colors are used to distinguish between the two characters — a mother and her young son, Edward, who wakes up in the middle of the night and will not go back to sleep.

When dialogue is done well, each character has such a unique voice that the tags really aren’t necessary. In this book, you can almost always tell the child’s voice because he’s usually the one asking all of the questions, as kids so often do.

The book starts with Edward asking if his mother is awake. She says “no,” but that doesn’t stop the onslaught of questions that come next. Here’s an excerpt with Edward’s words in bold typeface.

Why aren’t you awake?

Because I’m asleep.

Why are you asleep?

Because it’s still nighttime.

Why is it still nighttime?

Because the son hasn’t come up yet.

There is also a pattern to the book as well. Edward asks a number of “Why?” questions, and in the end, his mother’s answers almost always circle back to: “Because it’s still nighttime.”

Below is one of my favorite spreads.



Is Daddy awake?

I hope so?

Why do you hope so?

Because he’s flying a plane.

The dialogue alone without the pictures is enough to invoke the image of a wide-awake child, and the parent who desperately wants to be sleeping. By the end of the book, Mom gets wise and she starts asking Edward all of the questions.

. . . Do you like yellow?

Yes. It’s my favorite color.

Why is it your favorite color?

Because there are lots of yellow things.

What are some yellow things?

Bananas are yellow. And taxis. And I have a yellow rubber band.

What else?

If you’re looking for a study in how a book can be written entirely in dialogue, this is a great one to check out!

Click here for more reviews in the 14:14 blogging challenge!

CONFLICT in “The Midnight Library”

Title: The Midnight Library

Author/Illustrator: Kazuno Kohara

Publisher: Roaring Book Press

Year: 2014

Word Count: 405


The Midnight Library is an adorable story that teaches children about some of the great services provided by our public libraries. I have to give a shout-out to libraries here. They provide so many fantastic services to our communities; however, I think a lot of people aren’t aware of all that they offer. I know I had no idea until I started my work as a storyteller.

I began performing for children and families at libraries in my home state of Ohio and in nearby states like Michigan and New York about eight years ago. Every time I would visit a library, I’d be amazed at the wide range of programming being offered for people of all ages — and all of it free! If I’d never become a storyteller, I never would have known. Today I try to take advantage of the great programs available as much as possible, especially now that I have my son. If you’ve never checked out what’s offered at your local library, I’d encourage you to do so — you may be surprised!

Alright, now onto conflict. Conflict doesn’t always have to be deep, dark and scary. Conflict is anything that stands in the way of the protagonist getting what he/she wants. There are three incidents of conflict in this book, and I love how cute they are and how the resolution to each one is designed to highlight the services offered by the library.

The protagonist in the story is a little librarian who works alongside her three assistant owls. The author tells us that: “The library was always busy, but it was also a peaceful and quiet place. Until one night when. . . A band of squirrels began to play music!”

Enter Conflict #1 (and a very funny conflict at that!): Noise in the library — a squirrel band to be specific!

The librarian tells the squirrels to be quiet in the reading room, but they insist that they must practice for their next concert. The little librarian solves the problem by taking the squirrels to the activity room. (Did you know that most libraries have an activity room that can be used by community members for meetings, etc?) Thus, silence is restored to the reading room, the squirrels get to practice, and the little librarian is able to go back to work. Until. . .

Conflict #2: It starts to rain inside the library.

The little librarian is convinced there’s a hole in the roof, but soon discovers the “rain” is really the tears of a little wolf who is saddened by something that happened in the book she’s reading. The little librarian solves the problem by taking Miss Wolf to the storytelling corner and reading her the whole story. After all, she knows the story has a happy ending. (If you have kids, from babies to teens, be sure to take advantage of story hours and other children’s programming at your local library!)

Finally, the sun is about to come up and it’s time for the Midnight Library to close  — except there’s one problem.

Conflict #3: A slow-reading tortoise refuses to leave until he’s finished his book — and he still has 500 pages to go!

So what’s a librarian to do? She makes the tortoise a library card and explains the library policy for borrowing books. Problem solved!

The Midnight Library is a great example of how conflict doesn’t have to be super-serious in a picture book. In fact, it can be quite humorous. Every time I think about the tortoise with 500 pages left to read I can’t help but chuckle!

Can you think of any other picture books in which the conflict is presented in a humorous way?


Click here for more reviews of great books and story elements!

The Dandelion’s Tale: A Creative Approach to a Universal THEME

Title: The Dandelion’s Tale

Author: Kevin Sheehan

Illustrator: Rob Dunlavey

Publisher: Schwartz & Wade Books

Year: 2014

Word Count: 974


Wow! That’s all I can say about this breathtakingly beautiful book. I’ve read lots of children’s books in the last year, and this one really stood out to me for its timelessness. The Dandelion’s Tale gets at the heart of what it means to be human by exploring the universal themes of aging, death, remembrance, and the desire to leave a legacy in a way that is both creative and relatable to adults and children alike. I mean, who hasn’t plucked a dandelion from the ground and then blown with all their might to experience the thrill of watching its delicate seed pods float across the air?

At the core of every human being is the desire to feel that their life mattered, that even the most mundane moments of our daily lives aren’t for nothing but are meaningful and serve a greater purpose. Dandelion, in this tale, is no different. The book begins with Dandelion telling Sparrow, “A short while ago, I was so strong, and the brightest yellow you’ve ever seen. Now I’m white and fuzzy and I’ve lost my seedpods. If the wind starts to blow, I’ll lose them all and no one will know I was ever here.”

There it is — Dandelion is a shadow of her former self and doesn’t want to die without leaving her mark on the world in some way. Later she states, “Still, if I could have only one wish, I would wish to be remembered.”

Sparrow comes up with the idea of writing Dandelion’s story in the dirt, like a book, so that it will always be remembered. Dandelion loves the idea and tells Sparrow what she wants him to write. This little section of Dandelion sharing her memories is so poignant it almost brought tears to my eyes. It’s not the big things that Dandelion wants remembered, but the simple everyday moments. She tells Sparrow, “Write that I like the smell of the meadow the day after it rains. Oh, and that I love to look at clouds against a blue afternoon sky. . . and the fun I’ve had talking with squirrels as they look for food in the morning.”

After getting down all of Dandelion’s memories, Sparrow promises to return the next day so that they can read the story again. However, that night there’s a terrible storm. When Sparrow returns the next morning, he finds that the storm was too strong for his “fragile little” friend. And while the storm has washed away the words to Dandelion’s written story, Sparrow remembers and shares it in song — a song so beautiful that soon even the other birds of the meadow are joining in.

A few weeks later, while flying over the meadow, Sparrow notices a cluster of ten baby dandelions right where his friend used to be. He remembers that Dandelion had ten seedpods left, and he knows that these bright yellow flowers are Dandelion’s children. He pays them a visit and says, “Would you like to hear a special story?. . . I’m going to tell you about a great friend of mine.” And so Dandelion’s life and story are carried on in the next generation, and Sparrow knows she will never be forgotten.

The Dandelion’s Tale both inspires and challenges me with its profound theme. Firstly, it reminds me that in the grand scheme of things, it’s the little things that matter. The hundreds of thousands of mundane days that don’t seemingly amount to anything are where the stuff of life is found — if we are wise enough to see it. I need that message — especially now when most days I’m home all day caring for my ten month old son. That amounts to lots of “ordinary” days; but in the end, I know it’s those ordinary days that I’ll look back on and be most grateful for.

Secondly, as I wake up each day with aspirations for writing and publishing children’s books and telling stories, and wondering if my dreams will ever bear fruit to the extent that I imagine, I am reminded that while my dreams are worthy of great effort, the most lasting legacy I can leave will be on those who are the closest to me. If I live and love well in the little things, my legacy will carry on to the next generation. My son will remember me and share my legacy with his children not because of any book I published or other great accomplishment I had, but for the thousands of ordinary days we shared together. I think that’s a message of hope that all of us need — especially when our lives feel extra ordinary, instead of extraordinary.

What children’s book has most inspired you to reflect on the legacy you are leaving?