Category Archives: Picture 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.

Adorable Doggy Duo: Boot & Shoe by Marla Frazee

When I was about ten, my dad decided to get two kittens to live at his house, to keep him company, and so that my sister and I would have furry friends to play with when we came over to his place on the weekends. They were ginger cats, litter mates, and he named them Pork and Beans. Pork was mine, and Beans was my sister’s. It didn’t take long for everyone to realize that while Beans was a beauty, with long shiny fur and a fluffy ruff around his neck, he was dumb, “thick as a post,” my dad concluded. Pork was tough, the kind of cat that was born to roam around outside and get into scraps with the other cats in the neighbourhood. He wasn’t much to look at, a pretty ordinary short-haired cat, but while his brother had looks, he had brains. I think this was why my dad didn’t worry too much about them when he opened the back door and let the cats out. He probably figured Pork would take care of Beans, but I used to wonder how Beans managed out there in the wide world. Anyway, those two feline brothers made such a crazy pair, and I liked to imagine all the trouble and adventures they had together.

In the end, one day Beans did not come home, and after a few weeks, we figured that his lack of street smarts (or any smarts at all) had led to his untimely end. I think it was two years later when my dad discovered by chance that Beans was completely fine, living in a house a few streets away, and my dad decided to let him stay there with his new people. My dad used to say that I should write a book about Pork and Beans, and the other day, when I picked up Marla Frazee’s wonderful new book, Boot & Shoe, it got me thinking about the wacky feline brothers I used to know and love.

If you are in any way an animal person, Boot & Shoe will charm your socks off. These two tiny hounds are brothers, and they like sharing a lot of things: their house, their bowl, their peeing tree, their bed. There is just one thing that they like to do differently. Boot hangs out on the back porch, and Shoe spends his days on the front porch. Everything is “exactly perfect” until the day that a squirrel decides to start trouble. He gets both dogs going, and they chase him all over the yard. At the end of all this, the dogs have switched porches. Boot is shocked to see that Shoe is not where he should be, and Shoe is just as shocked to see that Boot is not where he should be. Both dogs wait for the other to return, but of course, that doesn’t happen. They wait all day, past dinner, in the rain, until finally they both decide at the same moment to go check the other porch. I won’t tell you how this sweetly humorous situation wraps up, because it’s just right, and utterly perfect for two comical canine characters.

Marla Frazee‘s illustrations are divine, which is no surprise given that she is a two-time Caldecott Honor medalist. I love the fact that the dogs’ faces are too hairy to see their eyes, and their little mouths are often shown as two wee lines and yet you get so much personality coming off the page. Frazee gets doggy physicality. Some of the illustrations are so understated, but you can see that every detail has been considered. There is one double-page spread, where the squirrel is running all over the yard with the dogs behind him, and Frazee has drawn about a hundred mini squirrels and dogs so that you see the chase route. It is hilarious and wonderful. You can literally follow the story of the chase around the picture. Don’t miss the way that the squirrel stops to give the pooches a wave before he saunters off. Brilliant.

A genius tale of doggy antics and friendship, Boot & Shoe is right up there in my list of new favourites.

Boot & Shoe is published by Beach Lane Books.

Don’t Steal Stuff Kids. This is Not My Hat by Jon Klassen, a cautionary tale

This week in the library, one of the Grade 3 teachers came to see me for some picture books that could tie in with a responsibility theme. I did my usual speedwalk-around-the-library-grabbing-stuff routine, and one of the books I picked up was Jon Klassen’s I Want My Hat Back. Once I had a good stack, we sat down and went through them together. When we got to Jon Klassen’s book, I just read it to her, because it is short, and because it is awesome. She laughed (proving she is awesome). When I’d finished, she said, “I like it, but I’m not sure it’s the best for responsibility.” I said, “Sure it is. The Rabbit steals the Bear’s hat and he tries to get away with it. He doesn’t take responsibility and so…” “He gets eaten?” she said. “Exactly,” I said, “So kids, don’t steal stuff, cuz when you do, you get eaten, ‘kay?”

She took the book.

Jon Klassen’s new book, a follow-up of sorts to I Want My Hat Back, is This is Not My Hat, which has pretty much the same moral as the first book: Stealing is bad. You will get eaten if you do it. Be warned. I cannot wait to read it to the small people. They will approve. I am sure of it. I’ll bet I can even get another teacher to take it, maybe someone looking for an honesty book, or a book for a Never Trust a Crab theme?

Here’s the perfect trailer:

Every complimentary thing everybody said about I Want My Hat Back is also true for This is Not My Hat: understated, genius design, super pacing, darkly funny, a hoot.

I’m thinking we will keep buying books about hat-stealing animals for as long as Mr. Klassen wishes to create them.

This is Not My Hat is published by Candlewick.

Ugly Vegetables Have Feelings Too: Little Sweet Potato by Amy Beth Bloom

Admit it. You’ve looked at a sweet potato and thought, “Man, now that is one ugly vegetable.” Don’t try and deny it, because we’ve all done it. But, while sweet potatoes are not known for their beauty, they certainly are delicious little tubers. We probably shouldn’t be talking about that fact here, since Amy Beth Bloom’s picture book, Little Sweet Potato, features a sweet potato hero so cute that he may make you feel a little bit guilty the next time you tuck into a pile o’ sweet potato fries.

This is a classic “looking for where you belong” story, set in the veggie patch. When a rumbly tractor shakes Little Sweet Potato right out of his comfy garden home, there’s nothing left for him to do but to venture out into the world, looking for somewhere to put down roots. (Sorry, couldn’t resist). After being insulted by some conceited carrots and egotistical eggplants, he concludes that the world has some pretty “mean vegetation” in it. But just when he’s about to give up, Little Sweet Potato discovers a place where all veggies are welcome, no matter how lumpy and bumpy they might be.

While the narrative is fairly predictable and in places, a touch wordy, the quirkiness of Noah Z. Jones’ bright cartoon illustrations brings Little Sweet Potato to life and makes the whole package charming. This is a keeper for classrooms and school libraries, sure to remind kids that beauty is empty without kindness.

Little Sweet Potato is published by Katherine Tegen Books.

Day 30, book 30: You Are Stardust by Elin Kelsey

When I tell you that You Are Stardust is a stunning book, you may think, “Yeah, yeah. Stunning, schmunning. People call books stunning all the time.” To which I reply, “No. I mean it. This book is stunning. Honest.” I don’t think I’ve been as blown away by the creativity and beauty of a book in quite a while. Elin Kelsey and Soyeon Kim should be getting some serious recognition for their work in this collaboration. This book will make kids think. It will make kids marvel. It will make them slow down and stare at the pages and then, hopefully, turn that wonder to the world around them.

I love it.

“You are stardust. Every tiny atom in your body came from a star that exploded long before you were born.”

This is where Elin Kelsey begins her exploration of all of the ways that we are a part of the earth and its cycles and communities. She writes with lovely directness, make each big idea clear as can be, putting them out there for kids to ponder and talk about. Indeed, the text is full of facts awesome enough to please any science geek. Did you know you sneeze with the force of a tornado, or that you’ll replace your skin 100 times by the time you turn ten? So, so cool. The best part of the words that fill this book is that they are all the more mind-blowing because they are simply describing what is. Our world, our earth, is mind-blowing, and I can’t think of another book for children that communicates this truth more effectively.

Soyeon Kim’s illustrations are tremendously creative and in a word, magical. If you take off the dust jacket and look on the reverse side, you’ll see pictures of the seven dioramas she created to be photographed for the book. I can’t think of the last time I saw something so unique and so perfectly suited to the atmosphere and feeling of the subject matter. Here’s a little look behind the scenes at Kim’s artistic process. Prepare to be amazed:

You Are Stardust is awesome, in the ideas that it offers to young readers, and the incredibly unique artwork. Jaw-dropping. Give it to everyone. Then hug a tree and whisper a few deep thoughts into the cosmos.

Bam. Done. Picture Book #30! I did it! It’s been fun gang. Thanks for reading this month.

You Are Stardust is published by OwlKid Books.