Wednesday, November 30, 2016

The Power of the Picture Book: Kurt Stroh

It’s Okay to Be Different...Really, It Is!

I have spent my entire adult life advocating for what is best for children.  I’ve worked to ensure that all children are safe, that all children are valued and that all children are respected.  While my career focuses on the lives of children, the above mentioned are also things that I value for all adults. In school, we talk about the things for which we must always be respectful, to be responsible, to be accepting and to be compassionate.  We talk about how we are all different, unique, and special, and we usually find that we are more similar than different.  We talk about our rights at school, and how they should never cause anyone else to feel disrespected, hurt or unaccepted.

On Wednesday, November 9,  as kids entered my library, I was overhearing very hurtful, disrespectful conversations.  Some students were crying--some mocking. Now, I completely understand that kids this age are often only repeating what they hear at home and in the media, but nonetheless, I was saddened. I was frightened.  

I knew I had to change my plans.  I knew we needed to come together and re-establish our school understandings and beliefs.  I knew we had to make sure that everyone felt that they were important, that they were valued, that they mattered.

I pulled Todd Parr’s It’s Okay to Be Different off the shelf and decided that we would read it together. Every grade. Every class. We did, and we talked...a lot.  Students smiled as they saw themselves in the book:  glasses, wheelchairs, short, tall, moms, dads, adopted. I heard comments like:  “That’s just like me!” (and that’s okay!), “I have two moms!” (and that’s okay!), “I’m a different color than my family! (and that’s okay!)  Students rallied around each other.  When we read “It’s okay to have wheels”, one student turned and high-fived our student in a wheelchair. She beamed!  Students relaxed, students smiled, students felt accepted.  They remembered that it’s not okay to be unkind, that it’s not okay to be disrespectful, that it’s not okay to be hurtful--IT’S NOT OKAY.

While I felt a bit better,  I was still sad. I wished that I could have the opportunity to sit with adults and have the same conversations.  I wished that I could bring a group of adults together and have them high-five each other for looking different, for having different family structures, for having different beliefs.  I wished I could hear THEM say, “It’s okay that you’re a different color," “It’s okay that you’re a different religion," “It’s okay to love who you love."  I wished that we could talk about the right to believe what you want to believe and say what you want to say...unless it is hurtful, disrespectful or unkind to someone else.

I’m frightened.  People now feel that they have an open invitation to show unkindness, disrespect, and hatred. Trust me, our kids are watching this. They are seeing everything.  This is not what we want our next generation to witness. This is not how we want them to act.  This is not how we want them to treat each other. This is NOT what we want them to become!

So, I would like to extend a different invitation, a better invitation:

I invite you to value all people.
I invite you to respect all people.  
I invite you to love all people!

Please accept my invitation...It’s okay.  Really, it is!

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

The Power of the Picture Book: Matthew Cordell


Man, I love picture books. Am I preaching to the choir? Maybe. But maybe not! Whether you are picture book choir or picture book congregation, allow me to proselytize here for a spell on the power of picture books.

I love picture books for their art. The visual and written synchronicity that lovingly and painstakingly goes into each page and page turn. Picture books inspire me daily as a parent, as a sometimes author, and as an illustrator. When I visit schools and at home with my own two children, I see first-hand how picture books inspire the young minds for which we primarily make them. It’s powerful stuff.

For the sake of brevity, (not always my strong suit) I’d like to single out one of the many powerful aspects of a successful picture book. Picture books that grab you by all the feels. Ones that make you cry. Ones that make you cry for something uplifting or cry for something sad. Picture books can and will do this. With their inimitable and masterful craft of weaving perfectly articulated words with perfectly cultivated images. Here are a few favorites that have done that for me.

A Boy and a Jaguar by Alan Rabinowitz, illustrated by Catia Chen. This is wonderful right off the bat because it tackles a struggle that I feel I don’t hear enough about: stuttering. Stuttering and the shame and alienation that are bound to come with. Despite it all, a boy who stutters finds comfort in the one big thing he loves. He loves spending time and communicating with animals. As he grows up and his love for animals grow too, he pledges to be a voice for animals who cannot speak, and defend them from harm. Simultaneously, with much hard work and therapy, the boy slowly begins to speak without completely stuttering. But he is forever changed and feels most comfortable alone or in the company of animals. Time moves on and the boy becomes an adult. He becomes a zoologist and conservationist specifically interested in the study and protection of threatened jaguars in the jungles of Portugal. He vows to protect these big, beautiful cats in every way he can. As afraid as he is of public speaking, he goes before the prime minister of Belize in defense of jaguars. And ultimately a jaguar preserve is established in part because of his testimony. The book closes with a breathtaking series of spreads where the narrator comes silently face to face with a jaguar in the wild of the jungle. The final page is only words. Words that will leave you in tears.

Someday by Alison McGhee, illustrated by Peter H. Reynolds. I can’t be absolutely sure, because I’ve only read this book as a parent, but I think this book might work its magic best on the Moms and Dads of the world. There is a very specific type of feeling we feel when we watch our children grow up and succeed in life. It is a great big pride juxtaposed with a great big sadness, almost a breaking of the heart even. How can we not be ecstatic when our child grows and does great things? Because it’s happening too fast, and time passes by without any consideration for my feelings whatsoever. It feels awfully selfish to admit to feeling this way, but there it is. And that, my friends, is the power of Someday. As the book begins, we see a Mom welcoming her baby into the world and being witness to all of the firsts. First words, first steps, etc. And on it goes with all the wonderful things the child proceeds to learn and accomplish and some of the bad things too. Like not getting into a first-choice university. Time marches on and inevitably we must let go as parents. I dread this day. Time goes by relentlessly, giving us the most wonderful things, but also changing us from hands-on parents to observers. As the end of the book approaches, we see that that one-time baby has become an adult. One who has welcomed her own child into the world. And time marches on. It is beautiful. It is heart-wrenching. You will sob.

Ivan: The Remarkable True Story of the Shopping Mall Gorilla by Katherine Applegate, illustrated by G. Brian Karas. If, by chance, you are not familiar with the story of Ivan the gorilla, it goes like this. Back in 1962, two western lowland gorilla babies were poached from the jungles of Africa. They were kidnapped from their families and shipped to the United States. The gorillas were sold to a shopping mall owner in Tacoma, Washington.  Shortly after that day, one of the babies, Burma, died. Ivan was raised and kept at the family’s home for three years until he became too big to keep safely at home. At which point he was moved into captivity at the man’s shopping mall. An oddity of sorts for people to come and watch through a glass window. Ivan lived there for much of his adult life, making the best of it, watching tv, finger painting, and playing with the few things that were inside his enclosure. Fortunately, the public began to see how unfair it was to keep Ivan at the mall, and public outcry led to his release at a zoo in Atlanta, Georgia. He was given care from scientists who understood and loved him. He was given a natural environment in which to roam. And the company of other gorillas. Ivan’s release is told and illustrated spectacularly. This final few pages of words and pictures will put a serious lump in your throat. And the final spread and back matter will do you in for sure.

Great picture books treat kids and grown-ups with respect and kindness and patience. Their page turns bring the biggest and smallest hands and eyes and ears together in one magical place. They make us think. They make us laugh. They make us cry. And that’s powerful stuff.


Matthew Cordell is the author and illustrator of many books for children. His newest written and illustrated book, Wish, has apparently made many moms and dads around the world cry. Which makes him feel a bit bad, but it’s, like, a compliment at the same time. Visit him online at And on Facebook at And Twitter: @cordellmatthew.

Monday, November 28, 2016

The Power of the Picture Book: Kathy Burnette

2016 has been a difficult year, full of disappointments and depressions. When I am discouraged my answer is to look to books. Picture books can help you get through any occasion. If they are not the full solution, they are indeed the beginning. Picture books help you cope with the loss of friends; whether through promotions, graduations, or death. Picture books help you talk to students about celebrating differences and sowing seeds of kindness. Picture books help you talk about inclusion and seizing the moment with grace and gratitude. Picture books help you understand that family is who you make it. The picture book is ready for all occasions.

On the occasion of a friend being transferred or students graduating from High School try
I Wish You More by Amy Krouse Rosenthal and Tom Lichtenheld.

On the occasion of a wonderful librarian with 20+ years of sharing the joy of reading being killed in an accident try   Always Remember by Cece Ming.

On the occasion of instilling inclusion after some bullying is noted on the playground try

and  If You Plant a Seed by Kadir Nelson.

On the occasion of taking action now instead of waiting to see try
Each Kindness by Jacqueline Woodson.

On the occasion of showing that sometimes families are chosen try Mother Bruce by Ryan T Higgins.

When we feel like the world has shifted under our feet and our spirits have been deflated but not destroyed, look to the book. The picture has the power to heal.

Kathy M Burnette knows the power of books and spreads her knowledge as a K-8 School Librarian in South Bend, Indiana. Kathy collects coffee mugs and is most proud of her World’s Okayest Mom mug which she feels proves hardly working pays off. Kathy can be found on twitter @thebrainlair and occasionally blogs at  Kathy’s passion for books has landed her on several book committee’s, most recently the 2018 Printz Committee. She looks forward to discussing books and telling people why they should love the books she does!

Sunday, November 27, 2016

The Power of the Picture Book: Andy Plemmons

When a picture book is read aloud, a certain kind of magic is created between the words and visuals floating through the air between the audience and reader. As a librarian who reads books aloud to kids everyday, I enjoy seeing picture books that I’ve enjoyed as a solo reader suddenly take on a new life when they are shared aloud with a group of readers. Sometimes I’m surprised what lines prompt a reaction or which image nudges a plot prediction.
I’m in the fortunate position to be both a librarian and a dad.  When I get a picture book advance reader copy or a new shipment of books for the library, I can read aloud these books to a 4 year old and 6 year old audience before reading it aloud to a class. I’ve read aloud picture books to both of my children since before they were even born, and I’ve watched the magic of what it means to grow from listening to the words and talking about the pictures to being the listener while my child reads to me.
My four year old has been especially worried about being a reader. Many times he has looked at a book and said I don’t know how to read.  However, the power of the picture book has proved to him that reading is not just about reading the words.  
I was fortunate to get an advance copy of Little Red by Bethan Woolvin and published by Peachtree Publishers.  Little Red is a version of little red riding hood, and its pages are filled with images that use just 3 colors: red, white, and black. Little Red is a clever girl and doesn't adhere to the rules of sometimes naive fairy tale characters.  She isn't fooled by the wolf for one minute and has her own ideas of how to handle every situation.  The wolf has a massively long snout that shows off his extra sharp teeth, and Bethan Woolvin zooms the reader into a two-page spread of the wolf that will make you feel like you are being swallowed too.  She does the same thing with Little Red to show off Red's subversive thinking in action.  
When I took Little Red home, I first read it to my 4 year old son. He immediately fell in love with the story and had to read it again the very same night. He had a love/hate relationship with the wolf and loved to shout out "EAT YOU WITH!" when I turned the page in that part of the story. Little Red also has a repeating line: "which might have scared some little girls, but not this little girl". It only took a couple of readings for him to discover this line and read it along with me every time. My son is a wiggle monster and it is sometimes hard to get him to sit still for a book or even pick out a book to read at bedtime. However, every night since taking Little Red home, he has requested to read it. There's something magical about the simplicity of the text and illustrations, the subversive nature of Red (which is a bit like him), and the element of getting "eaten" that demands his attention.

Peachtree sent a cute little paper basket filled with cupcake wrappers, a red velvet recipe, and cupcake toppers. These quickly became toys to continue the story beyond the pages of the book. He took all of them out at supper at stuck them in his bread and began telling us all a story over dinner. It made me realize as a parent that I often go beyond the book at school but I don't do it nearly enough at home. Something as simple as a paper cutout of a book character became an avenue for imaginative story-based play, and it really wouldn't take much effort for me to do that with more books.

Reading is an experience, and my son has seen that even though he might not be able to read every word on the page, the power of the picture book allows him to retell the story using the visual cues, extend the story with his own versions of the plot, and recite pieces of the story that offer repetitive or memorable text.

My 6 year old daughter also joined in on the fun of Little Red by listening along as I read.  It did not take her long to be able to read the entire book by herself, so now she wants to share it with every person she can. She reads it to me, her mom, and her brother.  We also brought it along with us to Thanksgiving at my mom's house. My daughter's great grandmother came down to visit and of course was delighted by a reading of Little Red. It was magical to watch my daughter, who I've read to since before birth, suddenly be the reader.  I think she read the book three or four times to her great grandmother, and then I watched as they started talking about what happens "between the lines" of the pages.  Her great grandmother shared the story of the woodsman from other red riding hood stories and they began to wonder if there was a woodsman anywhere in this story or why there wasn't.  I've always loved my grandmother's knack for storytelling.  When I was little, she would open up magazines, art books, or picture books and storytell beyond the edges of the page.  It was fun to see her reprise this talent with my daughter.

There's no way that I could have known all of the magic that was hiding inside this one book without opening it up, sharing it aloud, and carefully looking for the miraculous.  As a librarian, I take this experience and think about the push I see some families and educators make for students to move beyond picture books to more complex chapter books.  We all have something to learn from picture books.  To dismiss them as text only for the youngest readers is like shutting a door to imagination, possibilities, and connections.

As we leave Picture Book Month, I invite you to look at the picture books around you. What magic is hiding inside? How are you sharing them with the readers in your life? How are you encouraging readers beyond the pages of the book? I write these questions because they are what I'm considering for myself right now thanks to Bethan Woollvin, Little Red, and my own family. Happy reading!

Andy Plemmons is the school library media specialist at David C. Barrow Elementary in Athens, GA. He reads and creates with students in PreK-5th grade.  Andy’s students are often seen skyping with authors, guest speakers, and the developers of the tools that they use in class.  He also collaborates with libraries around the world.  Some of his honors include the 2016 Library Journal Movers and Shakers, Georgia Exemplary Elementary Library Media Program, finalist for School Library Journal School Librarian of the Year, and the 2015 National School Board Association 20 to Watch.  You can follow Andy’s work on Twitter @plemmonsa or on his blog Expect the Miraculous,

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

The Power of the Picture Book: Joseph Kuefler

I only spend 48 waking hours per week with my children. And I’m one of the lucky ones—I don’t need to work a second or third job to keep the lights on and fridge stuffed like so many today.

That we have constructed a system so purpose-built for productivity and undermining of the goodness of family time is one of the first world’s great ironies.

If you’re like me, you wake each morning wondering whether today will be the day you discover a loophole in the system or receive that unexpected call from your estranged and aloof great-second-aunt’s estate manager informing you of her untimely death and of your bountiful inheritance. If you’re like me, you’re looking for any chance to press pause and turn one of those 48 hours into a week’s worth of time. Because life doesn’t stop. For anyone. Ever.

While I can’t promise to locate and coerce that great-second-aunt of yours, I have found a pause button, of sorts: picture books.

Picture books are a breath amid the suffocation of life. They’re a goodnight kiss. And a let me tuck you in. Picture books are a giggle and a cry and a what does that mean, daddy? They’re every moment—be it extraordinary or everyday—the pages between their covers inspire in our children and in us as parents. Picture books are our familial communion; that is their power.

In a world awash with contention, negativity, derision, and tension, especially following recent events, I am so grateful for that power.

So the next time the race of daily life has left you and your family worn and ragged, the next time you find yourself fighting like hell to turn one of those minutes or hours into a lifetime, open a picture book and press pause. 


Joseph Kuefler is a Twin Cities-based picture book maker. He is the author and illustrator of BEYOND THE POND and the forthcoming RULERS OF THE PLAYGROUND, which hits shelves April 18, 2017, both published by Balzer + Bray.

Monday, November 21, 2016

The Power of the Picture Book: Deb Pilutti

A good picture book is an invitation to an intimate gathering, or a rowdy holiday party. It’s a space of comfort and engagement. It’s a warm cozy hug or a dance in the rain. Whatever type of shindig it is, it’s important for the author and illustrator to draw readers in and make them feel comfortable. Telling an engaging story is key to keeping your guests entertained, but readers need to feel included and safe in the environment to ensure that they will enjoy their stay. The reader is not just witness or listener, but an active participant in the narrative.

This is an aspect of creating picture books I had not really considered when I first started writing and illustrating for children. I simply wanted to tell a compelling story and make funny pictures. It’s easy to get caught up in the mechanics of making a book: word count, editing and illustration style often take center stage. Of course, these are all important elements. But this implicit agreement between the author, illustrator and reader to invite and be invited is crucial.

You are invited
I like being included in a get-together as much as the next person. There are many ways to extend an invitation. One is to make sure that the reader sees him or herself in the story by making books with diverse characters and situations. The We Need  Diverse Books campaign is more relevant than ever. I have witnessed firsthand how empowering it is when a child sees themself or their environment reflected in a story, especially when it’s an identity or issue not often represented in media. That child feels included.

Refreshments are served
What’s on the menu? A light snack or banquet? I am the person who hangs out at the snack table. Partly because I’m an introvert, but also, it is a great a vantage point to observe what is going on in the room. Plus there are usually brownies.

Wordless picture books can offer a quiet welcome for a reader to enter the pages, and provide nourishment. The reader explores surroundings and discovers elements at the same time the characters do. When the illustrations are the P.O.V. of the character, the reader becomes the character. In Sidewalk Flowers, written by Jon Arno Lawson and illustrated by Sydney Smith, we, as the reader, find beauty in unexpected places at the same time as the little girl.

 From Sidewalk Flowers, by Jon Arno Lawson and illustrated by Sydney Smith

 Of course there will be party games
When those “icebreaker” exercises are introduced at an event, I cringe and want to hide, but you know what? I usually end up having a good time. The idea is to have fun and get to know one another through connection and shared activity. So
I’m a bit embarrassed to admit that I first felt indifferent with the current genre of Meta picture books. But once I saw a group of children being read Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus, by Mo Willems, or The Book with No Pictures, by BJ Novak, and heard the squeals of delight and shouts of children interacting with the narrator, I understood the genius. The children are in collusion with the author or narrator. They are let in on a joke that a character in the story may not be aware of. Kids don’t just see themselves in the story. They become part of the story, and the story is richer for it.

The author and illustrator as party planner
As I sit down to write or illustrate, I will do my best to be the consummate host and extend my invitation warmly, make sure my guests are well fed and enjoy our time together. 

Deb Pilutti writes and illustrates for children. She is the author/illustrator of Bear and Squirrel are Friends…Yes, Really (Simon & Schuster 2015); The Ten Rules of Being a Superhero (Christy Ottaviano Books 2014); The Secrets of Ninja School (Christy Ottaviano Books 2017);  and illustrator of The Twelve Days of Christmas in Michigan, written by Sue Collins Thoms (Sterling), and Idea Jar, written by Adam Lehrhaupt (Simon & Schuster 2018).

Sunday, November 20, 2016

The Power of the Picture Book: Susan Dee

The rhythm and tones, the delight and humor, the imagery and beauty that can be found in picture books are just a few reasons why I view them as integral to the nourishment of our reading lives. They have an ageless audience, bringing generations together through the interlacing of images and words.  In approximately thirty-two pages, picture books can evoke emotions, grow ideas, reshape perspectives and expand understanding.

Picture books invite us to take a journeys to places both real and imagined. They launch us into environments and experiences that are different from our own. As we Journey through picture books we see impossible become possible. We see that in our Quest to understand ourselves and the world around us, we come to realize that our real lives are filled with stories. We uncover new worlds, and ideas, and possibilities each time we Return to our favorite picture books.   

Picture books offer readers the opportunity to step away from the hectic pace of life, and find A Quiet Place to settle our minds. They invite us to take time to slow ourselves down so that we can notice...wonder...dream.  Picture books offer us respite from the stresses and pressures of our everyday lives. As we let the words and pictures settle into our hearts and minds, we can be strengthened, renewed, and reminded that in the quiet we can just be.

Picture books can be the catalyst to helping readers see things from another perspective. They have the power to change hearts, to open closed minds. Picture books can spark conversations that can remove the lines and boundaries that try to divide us from The Other Side of an issue, or location, or person. They challenge our beliefs, helping to expand our understanding and acceptance of people that are different from us.  

Picture books can help readers honor those who have been important in our lives.  In picture books we see that we are not alone...that we can bond through our shared experiences. Picture books help us remember. They help us heal. They remind us that legacy lives inside of each us. Picture books can give us the opportunity to say “Thank you!” to the people and experiences that have shaped who we are today and who we can be in the future.


Mem Fox says the “fire of literacy is created by the emotional sparks between a child, a book, and the person reading it.  It isn’t achieved by the book alone, nor by the child alone, nor by the adult who’s reading aloud—it’s the relationship winding between all three, bringing them together in easy harmony.”   This is the power of picture books. The sparks are ignited regardless of age. And those sparks can be change agents when we fan the embers by making them integral to the nourishment of our reading lives.


Susan Dee lives on the beautiful coast of Southern Maine. She has taught pre-k through 5th grade and is currently K-5 Literacy Strategist in RSU 5: Durham, Freeport, Pownal. An avid reader and recommender, Susan is devoted to inspiring life-long literacy habits in learners of all ages. She is Chairperson of nErDcampNNE and co-host of Maine’s monthly literacy focused #MELit Twitter Chat. You can find her on Twitter and Instagram (@literacydocent).

Friday, November 18, 2016

The Power of the Picture Book: Josh Funk

Dear Readers,

Some picture books are powerful.

Some picture books are wild.

Some picture books are messy.

Some picture books are styled.

Some picture books are quiet....

Some picture books are LOUD!

Some picture books have elephants,

but in some they’re not allowed.

Some picture books are funny,

and some might make you cry.

Some are filled with facts and truth,

and some are one big lie.

Some picture books have lessons,

and some are just for fun.

Yes, picture books are powerful,

so won’t you read me one?

Your pal,
Josh Funk


Josh Funk writes silly stories and somehow tricks people into publishing them as picture books - such as the Award-Winning Lady Pancake & Sir French ToastPirasaurs!Dear Dragon, and the forthcoming The Case of the Stinky Stench (Lady Pancake #2, Sterling, 5.2.17), It’s Not Jack and the Beanstalk (Two Lions, 9.19.17), and more.

Josh grew up in New England and studied Computer Science in school. Today, he still lives in New England and when not writing Java code or Python scripts, he drinks Java coffee and writes picture book manuscripts. Josh is terrible at writing bios, so please help fill in the blanks. Josh enjoys _______ during ________ and has always loved __________. He has played ____________ since age __ and his biggest fear in life is being eaten by a __________.