Category Archives: Picture Books

go hug a dog: if dogs run free – illustrated by Scott Campbell

if dogsI have discovered that spending your day with many three, four, and five-year-olds results in an intense desire to read Books for Grown Ups. So my pleasure reading has consisted pretty much entirely of adult books since the beginning of September for the first time in years. I don’t know how long this is going to last, but I’m enjoying my time in Grown Up Reading Land. This will explain why – for the moment at least – you’ll be seeing a steady stream of picture book reviews here at Shelf Elf.

if dogs run free is illustrator Scott Campbell’s quirky interpretation of Bob Dylan’s song. Here’s the beginning:

If dogs run free, then why not we
Across the swooping plain?
My ears hear a symphony
Of two mules, trains,
and rain.
The best is always yet to come,
That’s what they explain to me.

It’s hard to really sum up what Dylan’s song is about; certainly a younger audience will probably experience some “huh?” moments with these lyrics, and have some trouble teasing a take home message out of the words. Probably something along the lines of, enjoy life (the best is always yet to come), be yourself (just do your thing), and love each other ([true love] can cure the soul, it can make it whole). Or maybe even, “Dogs are awesome.”

The thing is, Campbell’s illustrations are so full of energy and joy and kooky-ness that it hardly matters if Dylan’s text doesn’t come off as made for picture book interpretation. It’s the pictures that convey the spirit of the song more than anything. A little girl and her brother and their trusty pooch race all over the place together, meeting dogs wherever they go and having a blast no matter where they are and what they’re doing. The important thing when reading this book is not to over-think things, and I know that most kids are pretty good at this. I imagine they will get a kick out of the crazy canine action on every page. It’s the sort of picture book that has so much detail in the illustrations that every time you read you are going to notice something new.

A whimsical ode to childhood and dogs, if dogs run free will leave readers grinning and glad to be alive.

(Warning: sure to inspire feelings of “I want a puppy” in small people. Parents, don’t say I didn’t tell ya).

if dogs run free is published by Atheneum.


I was abducted by a not-so-tiny kindergarten army and I’ve finally made it back home

photo-7I’ve missed this place. I’ve missed having a moment to breathe and think about something other than how to be a kindergarten teacher. With September almost over, I’ve seen and heard and done things I never imagined seeing and hearing and doing on a daily basis until now. For example, last week I barely avoided getting my brand new pair of sparkly ballet flats puked on by one of my most adorable students. Being stylish in kindergarten is dangerous, I’m telling you. By the end of the year I could very well make a go of it on the road as a stand up comedian with some of the stories I have to tell.

It is as crazy as you imagine it might be to spend everyday with 28 three, four, and five-year-olds. A lot happens. There’s giggling. Sometimes there’s crying. There is making things with glue and colouring and building. There is writing and painting and listening and chatting. There are puppet shows and play-dough self-portraits and wonder walks. These are very full days.

And you know what? My kids love stories. In all honesty, stories have helped me get through the past few wild weeks without losing my marbles. Here are just a few of the books we’ve read this month – thank goodness for them:

I hope to be able to get back to proper posting here at the Elf in the weeks ahead. For now I leave you with a few more pictures of my class. Kids sure make beautiful art. Oh, and I’m thrilled to say I’m part of an amazing team of bloggers on the Cybils Fiction Picture Book Team this year – something to look forward to in the dead of winter. All those books will suit me (and my kindergarten army) perfectly.



MAKE FRIENDS: A Year with Friends, by John Seven

withfriendsWhy hello there.

I have been a very busy lady for someone who is technically “on holiday.” Holiday, schm-oliday. When I haven’t been: a) learning about teaching Kindergarten, b) reading about teaching Kindergarten, c) dreaming about teaching Kindergarten, d) hunting and gathering at garage sales so that I have stuff with which I can teach Kindergarten, I have been doing Absolutely Nothing. (Okay, there has been some cocktail-drinking and BBQ-eating and extremely lazy watching of mindless television, but that’s about it. Barely any reading at all. I can’t stay awake folks. It’s a problem). And so it has taken every tiny bit of resolve I could scrape together to get in front of this computer screen and attempt to string a few sensible words together.

A Year with Friends. Gosh this is a pretty wee book. It practically sings Kindergarten. It’s a journey through the year, a celebration of the seasons and the great outdoors starring two kids and their furry sidekick pets. The text is perfectly simple: “January is time for rolling down hills. February is time for snuggling. March is time to hold on to your hat. April is time to get messy…” Each idea is open enough to leave kids room to ponder, and the wonderfully bright, expressive artwork showcases the children taking charge of their own experiences and making their own fun. I like that most of the activities are outdoors. The kids are busy chasing things and making things and having those many small adventures that constitute the best kind of childhood. This is a cosy read, a perfect introduction to the pleasures of different times of year and friendship and simple things. A Year with Friends is understated and just right. I’ll be trying it out on the little people sometime this fall.

A Year with Friends is published by Abrams Appleseed.

(P.S. The husband and wife team have a fun website. They seem like cool folk!)

PLAY: How To, by Julie Morstad

how toSo, do you sometimes go through phases of feeling disconnected from life, like you’re observing things, but not really a part of what you see going on around you? The end of the school year often does this to me, as the summer inches closer. I’m always surprised that I don’t feel pure elation the closer the school holiday gets. Instead it’s mostly just plain exhaustion and glazed-over-ness.

The other day I was walking home in a daze in the rain after a super long day. It was really coming down and I had too many bags and a too-small umbrella and I was getting soggier and grouchier with every step. “Grumble grumble,” I thought as I squelched step by step closer to home. And then I saw her. A kid, probably six years old, wearing a pink raincoat and matching rubber boots. She was leaping around in the rainwater that was rushing down the street like a mini river in the sidewalk gutter.  She couldn’t have been more delighted – or delightful to watch.

That little moment woke me up. I may be bone tired right now, but deep down, I know I’m ready for a summer that’s full of the simple happy things life has to offer: popsicles, cool park grass, the scent of warm pine needles, dog kisses, lake sunsets, books (lots and lots), music in the kitchen, cat naps (with cat), movies, late nights hanging around with friends and family. Who knows, perhaps I’ll fit in a little puddle jumping?

In September, I’m going to be surrounded by many small puddle-jumpers as I start the process of magicking myself into a Kindergarten teacher, and I’m pretty sure that my students’ energy and curiosity and wonder will inspire me everyday. So, to get in the spirit of things, all summer long I’ll be reviewing a whole lotta picture books. These will be the books I plan to use next year during my first year in Kindergarten. In the weeks ahead, I’ll share some of the best books I can think of that explore, define, and celebrate some of the big ideas I hope will be central to daily life in my classroom. Today, I’m starting things off with the theme of PLAY, and “how to,” a simply gorgeous book by Julie Morstad. Continue reading

The Elf breaks her silence with a dramatic update…

It’s been quiet here on the Shelf for a while – too long. I get pretty antsy when I’m not keeping this little place current.

So here’s the story.

Man, am I:

photo 1

Why? It’s a long story. There have been changes brewing in my job over the past month, changes I hadn’t seen coming and probably wouldn’t have thought could lead to things I really wanted. Let’s just say that I haven’t felt so stressed for a long while. On Friday this week everything was finally resolved, and I confess that first, I was a little bit:

photo 2-2

But that passed quickly, and now I finally feel:

photo 3-1

Here’s the scoop. Next year, I won’t be a teacher librarian anymore, but I will sure be needing a lot of brilliant books close at hand, particularly this one… Continue reading

A big shout out for “!” by Amy Krouse Rosenthal


In late March, most people can use a little more ! in their lives. I know I sure do. So when I spotted Amy Krouse Rosenthal’s sunny new picture book, I had hope that a smiley happy boost was headed my way.

I was not wrong. It’d be near impossible to read Exclamation Mark and not be charmed and cheered.

Here’s the trailer:

You know when you read a book, and you can just tell the creators had a blast making it? That’s this book. In fact, I’d say that I get this feeling when I read all of Amy Krouse Rosenthal’s books. This is a woman I’d like to spend the day with. I imagine we’d do something fun and probably kooky and we’d be laughing nonstop. Our conversations would be full of clever puns and silly stuff and we’d feel smart and giddy and just plain delighted to be alive.

Not to mention, I love me a book that I could imagine using with wee folk right on up to Grade 8. (Cuz you know those Grade 8s aren’t all pros with their punctuation. Shocker). Exclamation Mark has a message that little guys can relate to, but the concept and execution are so clever that older kids will laugh on every page.

So Amy, if by small chance you ever read this tiny shout out for Exclamation Mark, I’d like to say thanks for making stories as witty as they are wise.

Exclamation Mark is published by Scholastic.

Old fashioned sweetness: The Paper Dolls by Julia Donaldson

paperdollsThis darling picture book made me hope, hope, hope that there are still kids out there playing with paper dolls. As a kid, I remember getting one of those big activity books that was filled with tear-out paper dolls with little outfits for various occasions. I loved them. (Actually, I think I still do. I wouldn’t say no to these ones…) Julia Donaldson has written the sweetest wee story about a little girl who knows how to play the old fashioned way, to make her own fun with paper and scissors and her imagination. You could pack this one up with some scissors, and some paper and pencil crayons, and you’d have the perfect birthday present, I’d say.

The little girl and her mum make five paper dolls and then she heads off with them for dancing, jumping, singing, and various adventures. But then, they meet a boy with a pair of scissors… The end of this book gave me goosebumps. It will make your heart squeeze a little, but it’s not saccharine or overdone. Rebecca Cobb’s illustrations have a homespun style that really captures the wonder of the experience as a little girl might see it. Give this to a crafty kid, or a crafty mum who has just had a baby girl (she’ll probably cry a little). Just lovely. Here’s the equally lovely trailer:

The Paper Dolls is published by Macmillan Children’s Books.


Adorably Odd: Oliver by Birgitta Sif

oliverI loved Birgitta Sif’s new picture book, Oliver, instantly. You know this kind of love. It happens when every little thing about something just feels perfectly right, like finding a new sweater that is exactly the colour you wanted – better even – and it feels super cozy and makes you look dazzling and is locally made and affordable and is machine washable. You see it, and you know it might as well have been created just for you.

Every aspect of this book makes me happy, starting (and ending) with the end pages. The end pages are drawn to look like a wallpapered family portrait gallery, full of small framed pictures, except the pictures are of funny things like a tiny sheep and a single sneaker and a pig with cat eye glasses. You look at them, and you know you are entering the realm of all things adorable and quirky.

“Oliver felt a little bit different.”

This is where the story begins. It’s really a tribute to uniqueness, as odd-but-sweet Oliver, who enjoys living in his own world and adventuring with his puppets, finds that sometimes even someone who is different longs for another person, and being alone can be difficult. In the end, he finds someone who gets him, and who is a little bit different herself. We know it’s not the end, rather the beginning of the best kind of friendship.

The artwork, oh the artwork! I want Birgitta Sif to come to my house and fill up a wall with her work. The pictures have a muted palette and Sif’s style is very fine in places – take a look at the detail in the little puppet’s faces and expressions, and looser, more free, even a little scribbly in others. There’s so much texture and warmth. Amazing.

I plan to give this one to my fella for Valentine’s Day, because we are both “a little different” and so together, we are just right.

Here is the author, being lovely and looking lovely, talking about her book:

Oliver is published by Candlewick Press.


For late nights with little insomniacs: Bedtime is Canceled

bedtimecanceeldIt’s every kid’s dream (and every parent’s nightmare): a night without bedtime. In Bedtime is Canceled, author Cece Meng imagines this reality with illustrator Aurelie Neyret striking digital visuals, creating a fun book that may, unfortunately, give the small people a few ideas.

When a brother and sister team write a note for their parents to inform them that BEDTIME IS CANCELED, it doesn’t really work, at first. The paper ends up in the trash, until the wind gets hold of it. It floats out the window, all the way across town, straight onto the desk of a reporter. This is how it becomes the front page headline the next day. The news spreads via print and TV and email and text until it seems to be official. The parents have temper tantrums and the kids have a blast, just as you would expect. The next day, everyone is so worn out that the kids make the decision to plant the seed of that evening’s top story: BEDTIME IS NOT CANCELED. This doesn’t mean they have to go to bed though, FYI. Any parent would confirm that, right?

This is a cute premise that just about every child and parent can relate to. (Except for kids like me. I was bedtime’s biggest fan. Still am). Meng’s text is peppy, with understated humour. The plot plays on the speed of digital communication in a sly way that will certainly entertain grownups. Neyret’s modern, cartoony style captures scenes from daily life that young families will recognize. Nice for little insomniacs and precocious plotters, Bedtime is Canceled is a sweet celebration of ingenuity, playfulness, and the magic of staying up past your bedtime.

Bedtime is Canceled is published by Clarion Books.

Shhh! Not a creature was stirring: The Christmas Quiet Book


Hey, look! It’s once again the time of gently falling snow at Shelf Elf. While I can’t see any snowflakes outside, I’ll take them at my blog. I’ll also happily take one in the form of my gorgeous paper snowflake lantern, pictured above. You know you want one (and if you live in Toronto, you can get one here). I’ve already spent a little time all cozy on the couch reading and snoozing by its golden glow. Here’s what I suggest to create your own little bit of Christmas magic, with or without the actual white stuff:

1) Turn on snowflake lantern.

2) Warm up the hot chocolate.

3) Add marshmallows.

3) Call the cat.

4) Wrap cat and self in your favourite woolen blanket.

5) Read him a Christmas story. He will probably fall asleep. This is fine. It does not mean he is not listening. I recommend this book, one of my new favourite Christmas offerings:


I am such a fan of Deborah Underwood and Renata Liwska‘s first two books, The Quiet Book, and The Loud Book. They define the magic that can happen when you match a simple, sweet concept that has equal kid and grown up appeal, with illustrations that are in every way perfect for the text. The Christmas Quiet Book turns Underwood and Liwska’s work into a perfect three for three. You will not be able to resist the loveliness here, because this book captures what I think almost everyone hopes Christmas can be: a peaceful, celebratory time, filled with family traditions, laughter, and days that seem to stretch on forever. The variety in Underwood’s ideas really makes the book work for everyone. There are types of quiet that kids will especially relate to: “Searching for presents quiet,” and “Trying to stay awake quiet.” And then there are the types that will get parents and grandparents grinning: “Blown fuse quiet,” and “Someone’s dad is a costume designer quiet.” Liwska’s soft, practically huggable little creatures make you wish that Christmas would just hurry up and get here already.

Here’s the lovely trailer:

Enjoy with your cat or your kid, this one is a lovely Christmas treat.

The Christmas Quiet Book is published by Houghton Mifflin.