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Author: Andrea Wang

Illustrator: Jason Chen

Genre: Picture Book

Target Ages: 4-8

Prime Audiences: Children of Immigrants; Children Living in a New Place

Publisher: Neal Porter Books

Publication Year: 2021


For many if not most of us, food is more than food— food is memory, and certain dishes, their smells and their tastes and their very appearances evoke within our hearts and minds the journey of our lives.  And food is family, the sweet and bitter links to one another, and this is the focus of Andrea Wang and Jason Chin's touching picture book Watercress.


Based on her own experiences as a first-gernaration immigrant, Wang describes her story as "an apology and a love letter" to her parents, as her adolescent-aged protagonist reflects Wang's own feelings about having to pick wild watercress by the roadside.  Wang's narrative is skillfully seasoned with figurative language and imagery, and Chen's watercolor illustrations capture the tone of both the families present actions and their memories.  And though it's a picture book, it's a story than will resonate with older sibling and with parents, a story that will stir their memories and remind them of family recipes, not just the foods but the recipe of how their family came to their present circumstances.  Watercress is a literary dish well worth savoring. 



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The Prince's Poison Cup


Author: Dr. R.C. Sproul

Illustrator: Justin Gerard

Genre: Picture Book

Recommended Ages: 8 and Older

Prime Audiences: Children Beginning to Come into a Greater Understanding of the God of the Bible and Jesus Christ; Children Inquiring about God and Jesus Christ

Publisher: Reformation Trust

Publication Year: 2008


"Daddy, why does medicine taste so bad if it's going to make us well?"  That's the question Ella Ruth has for her father, a question Grandpa answers with a story when he comes to visit later that afternoon.  It's a story about the King of Life. It's about his subjects who disobey him and drink from a fountain that turns their hearts to stone.  And it's about the King's son, the Prince, who drinks from a different fountain, a fountain of poison, so that the subjects whom the King of Life so loves can love him again in return.


Written by the late Dr. R.C. Sproul, pastor and founder of Ligonier Ministries, and illustrated by Justin Gerard, The Prince's Poison Cup is an allegory of man's fall in the garden of Eden, God's love for fallen man whom He created, and our salvation through Jesus Christ.  Pastor Sproul's story within-a-story is beautifully captured through Gerard's soft and glowing, serious and tender illustrations, as if the reader is opening and viewing a treasure.  The "For Parents" section after the narrative is a helpful resource that walks through the allegorical points of the story in the form of questions answered by Scripture.  This is an excellent primer for discussions about God and Jesus Christ and the Bible, one that families will treasure because it points towards the true treasure— reconciliation with God through salvation in Christ!



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William Still and His Freedom Stories: The Father of the Underground Railroad


Author/Illustrator: Don Tate

Genre: Picture Book Biography

Target Ages: 6-10

Prime Audiences: Children, Parents, and Teachers Interested in Black History

Publisher: Peachtree Publishing Company

Publication Year: 2020



When you hear the term "Underground Railroad," the name Harriet Tubman comes to mind.  But what about that of William Still, born free, the son of former slaves, the man who became the manager of the Pennsylvania Anti-Slavery Society, whose home became a "station" on the Underground Railroad, whose empathetic ear and pen recorded the stories of freedom-seekers whom he and others helped, records that "helped reunite families, torn apart by slavery, to find each other once they'd found freedom"?  If not, then you'll learn all about him in William Still and His Freedom Stories: The Father of the Underground Railroad, written and illustrated by Don Tate.


Tate's biography of William Still is informative and inspirational, adding to the canon of Black History literature for both children and adults.  It is an applause for the life of a man who used his resources as a balm for others when "living ached like an open sore," the sore from slavery's separating lashes, and it is fitting that the man who so valued the stories of others has his own story told in such an excellent way!   


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A Christmas Carol


Author: Charles Dickens

Illustrator: Michael Cole

Genre: Fiction Picture Book

Target Ages: 9 and Older

Prime Audiences: Fans of Christmas and of Christmas Stories; Fans of Charles Dickens

Publisher: Pagoda Books

Publication Year: 1985 (* The story A Christmas Carol was first published in 1843)


In the fall of 2019, at the Half Price Books in Austin on North Lamar, I came across what is now a gem in my personal book collection— Michael Cole's fully illustrated picture book of A Christmas Carol.  It' an amazing work of art as a book!


Cole's "adaptation" of Dickens' classic tale is essentially a graphic novel, with gorgeously detailed illustrations on nearly every page.  From the muted, foggy overview of London as the opening end-pages, to the joys and pains on the faces of Dickens's characters as Dickens's Ghosts visit Ebenezer Scrooge, to the clear, crisp overview of London after Scrooge's transformation that are the closing end-pages, Cole brings the tale alive to the reader in a way that matches a live performance.  But what really sets this book apart, in combination with the illustrations, is that the book uses Dickens's original and complete text!  The only adaptation of the text is when Cole uses comic book style speech bubbles for the dialogue, leaving out the tags.  Did I already say this book is amazing?  I'll say it again then— It's amazing!


If you find a copy of this book, get it!  It's a masterful artistic interpretation of Dickens' masterpiece of storytelling!



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Through the Wardrobe: How C.S. Lewis Created Narnia


Author/Illustrator: Lina Maslo

Genre: Biographical Picture Book

Target Ages: 4-8 and Older

Prime Audience: Fans of the Narnia Series; Readers of Fantasy; Aspiring Writers

Publisher: Balzer & Bray

Publication Year: 2020


When you open Lina Maslo's Through the Wardrobe: How C.S. Lewis Created Narnia, the front endpapers, letters to Lewis from readers, snatches your attention.  And before you even get to Maslo's narrative, you immediately flip to the end of the book to see those endpapers, which are Lewis's responses to each of the letters.  This is fantastic way to begin and end a book about a writer, and these endpapers alone will inspire readers and writers alike— but the endpapers are not alone in their power of inspiration.  Maslo's chronicling of Lewis's (referring to him as "Jack," as C.S. renamed himself in his childhood) journey as a reader and a writer takes the reader on a quiet adventure, one that encourages storytellers and writers and artists to put their ideas on the page and give them life, as Lewis did Narnia.  Maslo includes "More About Jack…" and "…And Other Interesting Facts" sections after her narrative, which add to the delight of reading about Lewis's life.  And Maslo's charming illustrations will cause the reader to pause and observe them, visual treats to complement the words.


Through the Wardrobe is a delightful picture book, and for readers who are fans of C.S. Lewis and of Narnia, they'll enjoy the story of Lewis's life and be reminded of the times they spent in Narnia themselves as readers.  And for those who are unfamiliar with his work, I'm sure they'll be heading to the bookstore and stepping into the wardrobe, soon!



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96 Miles


Author: J.L. Esplin

Genre: Realistic Fiction; Adventure

Target Ages: 8-14

Prime Audiences: Survivalists; Close Siblings; Diabetics

Publisher: Starscape

Publication Year: 2020


What does it mean to be "Battle Born"?  For John Lockwood and his brother Stew, it means surviving a blackout in Nevada while Dad is hundreds of miles away and without any contact with him.  It means getting to the Brighton Ranch, 96 miles away, as soon as possible.  It means helping strangers you meet along the journey.  And it means doing it all with limited supplies after being robbed of almost everything Dad had stored up for such a moment of need.


J.L. Esplin's debut novel 96 Miles is a survival story about family and friendship and going the distance (literally and metaphorically) in the midst of a crisis.  John, the elder Lockwood brother and the narrator, must prove himself responsible and capable in leading and taking care of his brother (and others, for that matter), and his struggle is his coming-of-age experience.  Told partially in flashback, John and Stew's journey is full of hardships and surprises, and the events that test them truly make the Lockwood brothers and another pair of siblings with them "Battle Born," the motto on the Nevada state flag that hangs in John's bedroom.  For readers who like survival stories and for those who like stories about siblings— their close ties, their conflicts with each other, and their triumphs together— 96 Miles is a 272-page adventure that will leave its mark on their own reading journey!



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Southwest Sunrise


Author: Nikki Grimes

Illustrator: Wendell Minor

Genre: Picture Book

Target Ages: 3-6

Prime Audience: Children Who Like Nature and the Outdoors; Children Moving to a New Place; Fans of New Mexico and the American Southwest

Publisher: Bloomsbury

Publication Year: 2020


Moving from the home you've always known is difficult, much more so when you're moving across the country, and much more than that when you're moving away from the bright lights and tall buildings of New York City to the wide, natural expanse of New Mexico.  But once Jayden gets to know his new home a little better, he realizes the move isn't so bad in Nikki Grimes and Wendell Minor's Southwest Sunrise. 


If you've traveled the American Southwest and if you've been to New Mexico, you'll smile as Grimes by her poetic lines and Minor by his colorful palette display the beauty of the land and of its creatures and of its cultural aesthetic.  Grimes's descriptive narrative contrasts Jayden's familiar yet busy (and not always safe) former home with his new and unfamiliar yet peaceful home.  And while not much happens action-wise, a lot happens in Jayden's attitude and outlook, encouraging those experiencing the new by a choice not of their own to look around them— they might find themselves smiling when and where they didn't think they would!



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Read! Read! Read!


Author: Amy Ludwig Vanderwater

Illustrator: Ryan O'Rourke

Genre: Picture Book Poetry Collection

Target Ages: 5-9

Prime Audience: Kids Who Love to Read and Who Enjoy Poetry

Publisher: Wordsong

Publication Year: 2017


Read! Read! Read! is a poetic celebration of all the things we read— novels, cereal boxes, newspapers, maps, greeting cards, and more.  While most of Vanderwater's poems aren't technically formal and don't follow set rhyme schemes, there are rhymes to find in each, which give them a curious unpredictability.  O'Rourke's colorful and imaginative illustrations pair well with Vanderwater's words.  Add in a few references to classic children's literature, and Read! Read! Read! is a pleasant contemplation about the words we read and their power.


Readers who read, read, read this book will appreciate again those combinations of words that take them to other worlds, keep them informed, and teach them about life.  Now I need to read their 2020 follow-up book, Write! Write! Write!


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Thank You, Mr. Falker


Author/Illustrator: Patricia Polacco

Genre: Autobiographical Picture Book

Target Ages: 5-8

Prime Audience: Struggling Readers; Anyone Who's Been Positively Impacted by a Great Teacher

Publisher: Philomel Books

Publication Year: 1998


With it being Teacher Appreciation week, I wanted to share a book that honors teachers— Patricia Polacco's autobiographical Thank You, Mr. Falker is an A+ choice! 


Polacco shares with readers her journey to literacy, from a family ceremony involving honey and a book, to struggling to keep up with peers, to being teased and bullied, and to finally being able to take part in the adventure of knowledge, thanks to the efforts of her fifth grade teacher Mr. Falker.  And as an ultimate honor and show of gratitude, Polacco has written and illustrated a story about the very person who opened up the world of words to her!


Pollaco's struggles and ultimate triumph will touch reader's hearts.  And then those readers will think about the those teachers and family members that have helped them in their own journeys of learning and of life— and thank them.


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Saturdays and Teacakes


Author: Lester L. Laminack

Illustrator: Chris Soentpiet

Genre: Picture Book

Target Ages: 4-8

Publisher: Peachtree Publishers

Publication Year: 2004


Every Saturday morning a young boy gets on his bike and pedals, his dog close behind him.  He pedals past familiar places in his little town until he arrives at a most special place— Mammaw's house!  As usual, she's on the porch waiting for him, and they greet each other with waving hands.  And after he spends a day with Mammaw helping her with outdoor chores, teacakes are his treat!


Lester L. Laminack and Chris Soentpiet's Saturdays and Teacakes is a narrative that will take readers' hearts and minds down paths of memory back to their own grandmothers' homes— the road that led to her house; her porch on which she sat waiting for loved ones; her kitchen in which she made and shared her delicious wares; and her garden in which she grew her amazing vegetables.  Soentpiet's marvelous paintings will make you slow down and take in their details— I especially enjoy the painting of the boy and Mammaw sitting at her table after he first arrives— and Laminack's narrative will remind you of the little things children enjoy about their grandparents and their homes.  This is a book that will help readers remember and one that readers will not forget!  


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