Jazz Baby by Lisa Wheeler and R. Gregory Christie

Cover image of Jazz Baby by Lisa Wheeler and R. Gregory ChristieWheeler, Lisa. Jazz Baby. Illustrated by R. Gregory Christie. Orlando: Harcourt, Inc., 2007.

Plot:  “Bitty-boppin’ Baby” claps, dances, and eventually snoozes to the jazzy music-making of his family and neighbors.

Setting: Urban

Point of View: 3rd person

Theme: jazz, music, singing, dancing, family, neighbors, community

Literary Quality: With boisterous rhymes and toe-tap worthy rhythms, Lisa Wheeler’s text bounces off the page and begs to be read aloud: “Mama sings high. Daddy sings low. Snazzy-jazzy Baby says, “GO, MAN, GO!” So they TOOT-TOOT-TOOT and they  SNAP-SNAP-SNAP and the bouncin’ baby bebops with a CLAP-CLAP-CLAP!” R. Gregory Christie’s gouache illustrations bring further music to the page with their depictions of a multi-generational family passing around a happy, spunky baby. Warm colors outlined in broad-stroked lines that contrast against plentiful whitespace, these paintings carry forth the playfulness and energy of the narrative. As the story winds down and the “Drowsy-dozy Baby” drifts off to sleep to the soothing arms, smiles, and voices of his family, readers will be reluctant to return from this imaginative celebration of music and love that transports and inspires.

Audience: I would recommend this book to readers ages 1-8. A perfect read-aloud for a classroom or story time, but with family at the center of it, a great book for the home, as well.

Personal reaction: Picture books that take on music and sound are my favorites, and Jazz Baby ranks among the top of that list. It is fun to read, to actually say the words which tickle your mouth and in tempos that get your body itching to move.  This story is one of my son’s favorites, as well. At 18 months, he dances (bounces) when we read it, and claps and chimes in with an enthusiastic “OH YEAH!” at the end. In other words, he has been converted to a jazz baby, himself.


My Heart Is Like a Zoo by Michael Hall

Hall, Michael. My Heart Is Like a ZooNew York: Greenwillow Books, 2010. Cover of My Heart Is Like a Zoo by Michael Hall

Plot:  A heart can hold so many feelings, so many animals.

Setting: a child’s bedroom

Point of View: 3rd person

Theme: hearts, emotions, feelings, animals, imagination, bedtime, shapes, counting

Literary Quality: “My heart is like a zoo– eager as a beaver, steady as a yak, hopeful as a hungry heron fishing for a snack.” Thus begins a fun and silly exploration of the heart and all its feelings, and the animals it resembles in each state. A mix of the expected and unexpected (my heart is…”crafty as a fox, quiet as a caterpillar wearing knitted socks”), the text will delight readers and listeners. If Hall’s writing were not enough to draw children in, the bright, bold and colors of his illustrations would do so in a jiffy. Each animal is composed of a collage of hearts, perfectly complementing and paralleling the text (and offering inspiration for a post-reading craft!). When the story ends, “tired as a zookeeper who’s had a busy day,” the illustration reveals that the animals are actually in a child’s bedroom, a child who sleeps. A lovely reflection on emotions and art, this book will help children express themselves in myriad ways. Plus, children will enjoy counting all of the hearts they can find!

Audience: I would recommend this book to readers ages 0-5. A wonderful way to help young readers think about their feelings. 

Personal reaction: I gave My Heart Is Like a Zoo to my son as a little Valentine’s Day gift this year. I love the use of the heart as the central theme of the story and as the mode of composition for the illustrations! This is the kind of book my boy would have loved from day one, when he only liked books with big blocks of color. I immediately picked up a copy to send along to a friend’s new baby, as well.

Music, Summer Camp, and Motherhood: A review of Rise Up Singing by Peter Blood & Annie Patterson

Cover of "Rise Up Singing"Blood, Peter & Annie Patterson, eds. Rise Up Singing: The Group Singing Songbook. 15th ed. Illustrated by Kore Loy McWhirter. Introduction by Pete Seeger. Bethlehem, PA: Sing Out, 2004.

Description: Rise Up Singing, first published in 1988, is a songbook that, as the cover describes, contains the lyrics, musical chords, and sources to over 1200 songs. The songs are organized into themes that the book explores alphabetically, beginning with “America” and finishing with “Work.” In between you’ll find a huge range of categories, from “Farm & Prairie” to “Mountain Voices,” from “Good Times” to “Hard Times & Blues.” Themes of travel, the sea,

Sample image of a page from "Rise Up Singing"

Here is an example of the page layout. This is from the section of “Hope” songs, and on this page is one of my favorites, “Julian of Norwich.”

lullabies, hope, love, and struggle are other examples. The songs are organized alphabetically within each theme or chapter, as well. Six indices make this songbook particularly useful, and these are: Artist Index, Cultures Index, Holidays Index, Musical Index, Subject Index, and Title Index. The Title Index helpfully includes titles that you might think songs are called by. This book will help save you from awkward moments of humming through lines of lyrics you can’t remember (or from making up your own lyrics to fill in the blanks of your memory, not that that’s always a bad thing), and its bountiful selection is sure to teach you some new tunes, too.

Personal Reaction: I’m a camp girl, myself. I went to Camp Betsey Cox in Pittsford, Vermont for thirteen years (a couple as a daycamper, which I’m not sure is an option anymore, a couple as a counselor-in-training and counselor). Why is this relevant? Because summer camp furnishes you with a lifetime supply of songs: silly songs, rounds, active movement songs, and lullabies. Indeed, Camp Betsey Cox is fondly known as “the camp with a song in its heart.” Even as a babysitter I found my musical camper background always coming in handy, but honestly, learning all those songs might have been the best preparation for motherhood that I had. And motherhood is the excuse I’ve been looking for my entire life to sing those well-loved tunes whenever I damn well please! But with the vast number of songs I know comes an equally large number of lyrics I’ve always fudged my way through or long since forgotten. This book, a gift a number of years ago (I’m on my second copy now because my first disappeared during the misadventure that was college dorm life), has come to my rescue. It’s more than just a rescuer, though. I’ve spent hours poring over the pages and singing to myself or with friends. Friends have joyfully picked out songs they love and taught them to me, because nope, even thirteen years at summer camp did not teach me ALL the songs. This songbook is truly a treasury, and I’d recommend it to anyone who loves to sing, is a parent, is a teacher or librarian, or yes, who went to summer camp.

My Abuelita by Tony Johnston and Yuyi Morales

Cover image of My Abuelita by Tony Johnston and Yuyi MoralesJohnston, Tony. My Abuelita. Illustrated by Yuyi Morales. Photographed by Tim O’Meara. Boston: Harcourt Children’s Books, 2009.

Plot: Abuelita is old, round, wrinkly, and forgets to put clothes on in the morning! She yodels and booms and says that “words should be as round as dimes and as wild as blossoms blooming” as she gets ready for work each morning.  What type of work could she possibly do?!

Setting: Modern United States

Point of View: 1st person (Abuelita’s grandson)

Theme: grandmothers, family, morning routines, singing, storytelling, imagination, nontraditional families, Mexican-Americans

Literary Quality: In this story, Johnston plays with words and sounds as much as Abuelita does. Both the text and illustrations infuse My Abuelita with a lively energy that will delight and captivate young readers and listeners. Each character — the grandson narrator, Abuelita, and the cat, Frida Kahlo — has a strong and distinct presence in the story with unique characteristics that bounce this picture book into life with humor and lightheartedness. Morales’ colorful mixed-media illustrations made from clay, wire, felting wool, paints, fabric, wood, metals, and Mexican crafts are the perfect complement to this quirky, fun celebration of family, breakfast, and storytelling.

Cultural Authenticity: Tony Johnston lived in Mexico for 15 years and has devoted many of her books to Mexican subject matter. Johnston is also a storyteller in her own right and a prolific writer. Yuyi Morales was born and raised in Mexico, moving to the United States as a young mother without a work permit or any English-speaking ability. She has testified to the assistance (and inspiration) of the picture books at her local library in overcoming these challenges. Both the author’s and illustrator’s life experiences contribute to the authenticity of this story. Other details such as the nontraditional family (grandson living with grandmother) further enhance a sense of authenticity.

Audience: Ages 3-7. This story has broad appeal and makes for a fabulous read-aloud.

Personal reaction: I originally happened upon this book because as a fan of Yuyi Morales’ work, and these illustrations are very different than other books of hers that I was more familiar with (such as Little Night and Los Gatos Black on Halloween). I found the combination of illustrations and text in this story to be just outstanding. I loved that while the story has universal themes (morning routines, storytelling, grandmothers), it easily incorporates Mexican-American ideas and characters, as well as a nontraditional family structure. The visuals and sounds make for a wonderfully spirited story.  

In the Night Kitchen by Maurice Sendak

Cover of "In the Night Kitchen" by Maurice SendakSendak, Maurice. In the Night Kitchen. New York: HarperCollins, 1970.

Plot:  When Mickey hears a racket in the night he shouts for quiet then falls down down down into the night kitchen. The night bakers try to bake him into the morning cake and Mickey realizes they need milk, not Mickey! Off he goes to find the missing ingredient…

Point of View: 3rd person

Theme: Night, adventure, baking, bakers, sleep, dreams, dreamscapes, imagination, cake, milk, cities

Literary Quality: Among boisterous bakers, a city constructed of pantry items, a starry sky and a whole lot of batter and dough, Mickey’s adventure is an unforgettable story that will have readers laughing and chanting along. The rhythms in this book are set by both the illustrations, which are built into large comic-book-like blocks and panels that create a sense of movement, and text. Indeed, this book is nearly impossible to read quietly to oneself and not boom the rhymes, songs, and chants out loud. The musicality is wonderful. For example, take a look at this spread:

two-page spread from "In the Night Kitchen"

“But right in the middle of the steaming and the making and the smelling and the baking Mickey poked through and said: “I’m not milk and the milk’s not me! I’m Mickey!”

The words and sounds of this story rise as much as Mickey’s dough-built airplane that follows. And while the illustrations are integral to the story, there’s something of the oral storytelling tradition here. The very first line: “Did you ever hear of Mickey,” suggests a story that has been told and retold. The rhymes, rhythms, and repetions are anchors for both storytellers and audiences. The final line, “And that’s why, thanks to Mickey, we have cake every morning,” also plays with the format of a folktale or explanation myth.  A perfect balance of energetic and soothing rhythms, the familiar and the whimsical, In the Night Kitchen is not your average bedtime story. But we would neither expect nor desire anything less from Sendak.

History: The publication of In the Night Kitchen in the early 1970s sparked controversy because Mickey sheds his clothing in his dream-state, and a nude little boy (with whose anatomy most people are familiar) can be seen in the cake batter, in the milk, and cock-a-doodle-dooing atop the milk bottle. Why there was such an uproar about the naked young boy is a bit of a puzzle: for one thing, the male anatomy, including that of children, is often the subject of fine art. Nevertheless, upon publication some librarians and teachers pulled the book from the shelves or added their own little diaper to the illustrations of Mickey!

Audience: Ages 3-8. The imaginatinative story and images will continue to thrill both boys and girls at any time of day (or night!).

Personal reaction: In the Night Kitchen was a personal favorite of mine growing up. I have fond memories of reading the book with parents and to myself. Like most children, I’m sure, it never struck me as odd that Mickey fell out of his clothes or skinny-dipped in the milk. His nudity seemed unremarkable and natural in the context of his dream adventure. I was therefore surprised to learn, as an adult, of the past controversy. The images, words, and sounds of the story have all been imprinted in my mind. The bakers’ song, “Milk in the batter! Milk in the batter! We bake cake! And nothing’s the matter!” is one that I still find myself singing aloud in my own day kitchen. A book to read, re-read, and read again.

When My Baby Dreams by Adele Enersen

Cover Image of When My Baby Dreams by Adele EnersenEnersen, Adele. When My Baby Dreams. New York: Balzer + Bray, 2012.

Plot:  We all know that babies are expert sleepers. But what do they dream about? A new mother gives readers a glimpse into her baby’s imaginative dreams through playful photographs.

Point of View: 1st person (mother)

Theme: Babies, mothers, sleep, dreams, dreamscapes, photography, imagination

Literary Quality: Originating in Enersen’s popular photo blog, this picture book uses the author’s photographs to illustrate the dreams of her baby, Mila. Whether dreaming of playing in a forest, of being a bee or a butterfly, or of traveling around the world, Mila’s dreamscapes are composed of soft materials such as blankets, clothes, and carpet with accents like books, stuffed animals, and balloons. The spare text narrating these whimsical scenes is brief enough to hold the attention of babies and young tots, who will most likely enjoy the variety of familiar and unfamiliar words, concepts, and animals, as well as pointing out the baby in each image. The changing pastel page colors also help maintain the soft and subtle tone of this book. Sweet and visually interesting, When My Baby Dreams shows readers yet another creative way to tell a story. Read more about Enersen’s process of making the photographs and book here.

Audience: Ages 0-8. A picture book whose content appeals to the youngest readers and their parents, but that also might inspire some older siblings to imagine (and draw pictures of!) their newest family members’ dreams during all that sleepy time.

Personal reaction: I found When My Baby Dreams to be full of charm and adorable without being overly sweet. I appreciate the way that the short text, use of color, and a simple, repeating layout keep the emphasis on the photographs, allowing the story in each scene to truly shine through. I also couldn’t help thinking that Mila seems like an especially cooperative baby!

The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick

Image of book cover for "The Invention of Hugo Cabret"Selznick, Brian. The Invention of Hugo Cabret. New York: Scholastic Press, 2007.

Plot: Hugo Cabret lives in the walls of a Paris train station. His belly is often empty, but his life is full of secrets: his father died in a fire at the museum where he worked, his drunken uncle who took him in is missing, and he winds the station clocks in his uncle’s place. Perhaps his biggest secret is that he is trying to complete his clockmaker father’s last project, fixing an automaton, a mechanical man who can write. When stealing necessary parts gets him into trouble, he loses his father’s notebook of crucial drawings and diagrams to a grumpy old toyseller. Will he ever be able to solve the mystery of the mechanical man, or will he be alone forever?

Setting: 1931; Paris, France.

Point of View: 3rd person limited (to Hugo) until the last chapter when it switches to 1st person in Hugo’s voice. The perspective is also unique because large portions of the story are told through illustrations.

Theme: Orphans, death, mystery, work, imagination, magic, film, drawings, mechanics, 1930s, France

Literary Quality: This book breaks boundaries set by most novels in its alternating storytelling modes of prose and illustrations. Mixing reality with invention, it intertwines some real history of filmmaking and particularly of the filmmaker, Georges Méliès, with a fictional story about young Hugo Cabret, hidden behind his clocks. Beautiful pencil drawings and photographs from old movies create a cinematic effect and add to the enchantment and mystery of the story. Selznick won the Caldecott Medal for this book.

Cultural Authenticity: Selznick includes detailed source notes and clarifies which aspects of the book are fiction and which are historic. His research shines through on the history of filmmaking, automatons, and the Paris train station. He explains that he invented a personality for Georges Méliès to fill in some blanks. His inclusion of stills from several films also adds to the authenticity of the novel.

Audience: I would recommend this book for ages 9 and up, for whom the ages of the characters, the storyline, and the illustrations hold attraction. The story has broad appeal across genders and generations. It is a great group (classroom or library or other book group setting) or individual read.

Personal reaction: I absolutely loved The Invention of Hugo Cabret. I found it to be wonderfully enchanting, and felt swept away by the story and illustrations into another place and time. The illustrations and photographs complement and support the text, adding a dimension of magic, creativity, and movement to the novel that uniquely captures the story’s essence. The subtle differences between varying depictions of the same scene enabled a sense of motion, which, along with the quietness of the book, was emblematic of an old motion picture. This is a book I recommend every chance I get.