Tag Archives: picture book

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.



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

Growing up sweet: Rosie Sprout’s Time to Shine

rosie sprout

Naturally, my thoughts have shifted in a very Kindergarten direction since I found out that’s what I’ll be teaching next year. My list of Ideas / Things to Figure Out is getting longer by the minute, not to mention my list of picture books I love and want to “do cool things with” next year.

Pretty close to the top of that list is this lovely little treasure: Rosie Sprout’s Time to Shine, by Allison Wortche. It is darling. It makes me smile and feel warm and fuzzy, and as a teacher, I can say that it’s a pretty fair representation of life in a typical classroom.

In Rosie’s class, it’s all about Violet. Violet is the fastest, the loudest, the fanciest, the Best. Everything Violet does seems to turn out perfectly, and Violet is not shy about soaking up the limelight. Sweet little Rosie is tired of hearing about it. So when Ms. Willis announces that they will each be growing their own plants in little pots, all of the kids (Rosie included) get ready to see VIolet be the best in the world at gardening. When the first pea sprouts appear, it would seem that Violet’s is off to a speedy start. But when Violet gets the chicken pox, Rosie has to make a choice. Will she sit by and let Violet’s plant wither, or will she do what’s hard but what is kind?

This one could’ve easily turned into a story that was unbelievably sweet and simplistic. I think Rosie’s reaction to Violet is really true to life. Violet drives her crazy, and Rosie quietly stews about it. When she sees Violet’s plant is growing faster than everyone else’s, Rosie dumps soil on top of it. Also, there’s a cute twist at the end that every teacher – and grown up – will smile about, because it’s not a happily ever after ending, it’s a true one. The only thing I wish was different is the fact that the teacher doesn’t really seem to do much in the way of guiding VIolet to become a little more tolerable and sensitive. The teacher comes off as quite passive in the situation. However, since the story is from Rosie’s perspective, perhaps it’s realistic that she wouldn’t necessarily observe her teacher’s response to Violet.

Patrice Barton’s illustrations are just wonderful. They are full of soft tones and have an expressive messiness to them that I just love. Each picture is packed with energy and emotion, just like a classroom full of kids this age really is.  

I am already thinking about how this book could have a place in a unit on plants, and growing things – not to mention growing good kids!

Maybe we could grow wheatgrass eggheads:


(Here’s a post that shows you how – just add googly eyes and you’re done!)

I know this for sure. I plan to pack my class full of adorable, so Rosie Sprout should fit right in.

Rosie Sprout’s Time to Shine is published by Knopf.

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.

Day 8, book 8: I Like Old Clothes by Mary Ann Hoberman

Confession: I don’t much like old clothes. I was raised by a woman who passed on to me her undying love of J. Crew catalogs and expensive things. (You’re the best Mom). And so, I was never destined to be a thrift store shopper. As pretty as they might look on etsy, vintage shoes sort of gross me out. In all honesty, sometimes when I try something on in a store and I think about the fact that at least one person has probably tried this very item on before me, I’m not so cool with the idea. It is therefore surprising that after reading I Like Old Clothes by Mary Ann Hoberman, illustrated by Patrice Barton, I feel a twinge of inspiration to go hunting for my own pre-loved treasure.

This has to be one of the loveliest little books I’ve read in a while. It has charmed me completely. I am going to stop hugging it now so that I can put it down and look at it properly and tell you all of the things I like about it. First (and foremost), the illustrations are heavenly. I had not come across Patrice Barton’s work until today, and now I plan on ordering all of the picture books that she has ever illustrated for the school library. The illustrations are soft, with a warm and smudgy, almost worn quality to them, which perfectly matches the theme of Hoberman’s poem. Barton uses a variety of textures and patterns on top of and against each other to mimic the appearance of different fabrics, all of them well-loved and a little washed out. Everything blends and goes outside the lines to create a sense of imperfection, but also liveliness and movement. I pretty much want to have one of Patrice’s pictures framed on the wall in my bedroom.

And if the illustrations alone aren’t enough to put you in a smiley kind of mood, Hoberman’s words should do the trick.

“I like old clothes.
I really do.
Clothes with a history,
Clothes with a mystery,
Sweaters and shirts
That are brother-and-sistery…”

The text doesn’t really have a narrative line, and that’s fine. It’s an exploration and pure celebration of the wonders of old stuff. In an age when everyone, including children, covets the new, I’d say there couldn’t be a better time to read this picture book and consider its message. I’ll bet you’ll fall head over heels for the whimsy and sweetness here, just like I did. Maybe there’s room in my closet for some “not-my-own-clothes” after all.

I Like Old Clothes is published by Alfred A. Knopf.

Day 6, book 6: Brownie and Pearl Make Good by Cynthia Rylant

Okay, how did I miss this series? Brownie and Pearl Make Good is number eight in the series by Cynthia Rylant, with illustrations by Brian Biggs. Sadly, it is the final book about Brownie and her kitty sidekick, Pearl. As Brian Biggs says over at his blog, “little girls all over America can go cry in their tea cups.” And I think they will. Really.

In this installment, Brownie and Pearl break the family’s radio after running too fast in the house. “Uh-oh. Someone is NOT happy.” That Someone is Mom. So Brownie and Pearl set about making good. They tidy up the house, from the kitchen to the playroom to Pearl’s kitty bed. When they’re finished, they do a little singing (since the radio is kaput, plus, singing is fun). All is well, forgiveness is granted.

This is an example of a book that gets everything right for the intended audience. Rylant writes in simple, clear sentences, using entirely kid-friendly, age-appropriate language. The font is large, and stands out against the plain white background. The pictures are big, zoomed right in on Brownie and Pearl to make them the focus on every page, and the bold colours capture your interest. Brownie and Pearl experience something real and relatable, and there’s a life lesson to be learned here but it doesn’t knock you over for being so obvious.

Brownie and Pearl Make Good is ideal for emerging readers, and I’m going out to buy all eight for the library’s kindergarten collection. (They also look super cute with all of the spines lined up in a row. See?)

Brownie and Pearl Make Good is published by Beach Lane Books.

Day 5, book 5: It’s a Tiger! by David LaRochelle

I’ve been excited about It’s a Tiger! by David LaRochelle, illustrated by Jeremy Tankard, since I had the chance to hear Jeremy read it to some lucky students when he visited the library this spring. So I’m able to confirm that this story is an absolute kid-pleaser. There was a whole lot of belly laughing going on. It is a book made for reading aloud, and I plan to do that over and over again with my primary grade classes this fall.

The concept is delightfully simple. An intrepid kid is exploring the jungle when he thinks he might see something strange swinging in the vines… “IT’S A TIGER!” So he does what comes naturally. He runs away. But then, when he decides to hide inside a cave, he thinks he might see something strange lurking in the shadows… “IT’S A TIGER!” You get the picture. On he goes, running away from and always running back into the tiger. It’s a goofy, kid focused, Indiana Jones-esque romp. Let me tell you, the tiger joke never gets old, quite the opposite in fact. Every time “A TIGER!” shows up in the text, the laughs get bigger. This makes the book a blast to read out loud.

And Jeremy Tankard’s artwork is dynamite. David LaRochelle must have done a happy dance when he was told that Jeremy would be illustrating the story. I couldn’t think of an artist whose style would be better suited to the energy and humour of this tale. I love how on every page Jeremy creates such a sense of movement, using the vines and bats and snakes and waves to make each picture full of life and interest. The kid is always in motion too, as he runs, dodges, jumps, and climbs. If you know anything about Jeremy’s artwork, you know that his colour palette is eye-popping, and that’s true here, as the colours mimic the story’s excitement. They’re loud, which works to perfection for such a raucous tale.

By the end of It’s a Tiger! I think you’ll feel a little breathless yourself, like you’ve been running away from something. It’s just that much fun to read. And I’m betting the first thing you’ll do when you’re done is take a deep breath and read it all over again.

It’s a Tiger! is published by Chronicle Books.

Day 4, book 4: The really, really, really big dinosaur by Richard Byrne

This is going to be a really, really, really short review because the first day of school has left me with a pounding headache. It can be c-razy in the library, I’m telling you.

In The really, really, really big dinosaur, Richard Byrne offers readers a cute little tale featuring Finlay, a very small dinosaur, or “tinysaur”, who stands up to a much bigger dinosaur bully who tries to take the pint-sized guy’s jellybeans. To protect his beans, Finlay gets creative, much in the way the little Mouse in The Gruffalo has to be smart to evade his predators. I admit that I thought I had figured out where Finlay was going with his plan, but there was a twist that I think will crack kids up.

The vibrancy of the illustrations really brings the goofy-looking dinosaurs to life. The style is quite childish, almost like a kid might doodle (a super artistic kid, mind you). Even though the ending is too tidy for my liking, the whole package works quite nicely and is bound to be popular with the dino-loving kiddos in your life.

The really, really, really big dinosaur is published by Oxford University Press.

Day 3, book 3: A Gold Star for Zog by Julia Donaldson

School starts for me tomorrow, which means that teachers in my neck of the woods are fully stocked on gold stars. We are ready to hand those puppies out! I would like to suggest A Gold Star for Zog as the perfect First Day of School read for dragon-loving little people and the cool teachers who seek their admiration. Imagine reading this book at the end of the First Day and then sending every kid in your class home with a gold star. You are now the Best Teacher Ever. It’s simple folks, honest.

On Day 2, each of them could write about something they’re good at, something that is “gold star worthy.” They could make a whole list of things. You could take pictures of their proud smiling faces! Can you say bulletin board for Curriculum Night? Done and done.

It is probably impossible not to feel cheery when you read a picture book created by this dream team. Julia Donaldson’s clever rhymes and Axel Sheffler’s super bright, cute-as-all-get-out illustrations are about as kid-pleasing a combo as anything you could dream up. But this is no fluffy tale, without substance. In fact, there’s quite a lot to dig into here, in terms of big ideas. Zog is a total keener. He wants to win a golden star hard, really hard. But, flying leads to crashing, roaring gives him a sore throat, and fire-breathing means setting your own wing on fire. So you can imagine how capturing a princess goes. Good thing the princess is anything but ordinary. Princess Pearl isn’t afraid of dragons; she wants to help them. In fact, it is her dream to be a traveling doctor. Enter Sir Gadabout, an unconventional knight. Everyone and everything comes together in as neat and satisfying a finish as any of Donaldson’s rhymes.

It’s about being different, finding your groove, staying true to your dreams, and discovering that friendship matters more than being the best. All of that and rainbow bright dragons too? Give this book a gold star already.

Here’s a glimpse into Axel Scheffler’s creative life, and a video with Julia Donaldson talking about going beyond the Gruffalo.

A Gold Star for Zog is published by Arthur A. Levine, an imprint of Scholastic.